National Park Adventures

A backpacker hiking the John Muir Trail above Helen Lake in Kings Canyon N.P., High Sierra.

High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail

By Michael Lanza

All day, clouds the color of a bruise pile up across the sky, conceding the sun only brief, teasing appearances before blocking it out again. Carrying packs bursting with nine days of food, we hike past lakes, each one higher and prettier than the last. More than seven miles from where we began our walk, we stroll into the basin of a sprawling lake whose image captured in historic Ansel Adams photographs has in many ways come to define the public’s mental picture of what is arguably America’s finest mountain range, the High Sierra: Speckled by scores of rocky islets below the distinctive profile of aptly named Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake today bares whitecapped teeth pushed up by strong gusts of wind.

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A backpacker on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

5 Reasons You Must Backpack in the Grand Canyon

By Michael Lanza

The Grand Canyon’s appeal to backpackers may seem elusive. It’s hard, it’s dry, it’s often quite hot with little respite from the blazing sun. But while those aspects of hiking there are rarely out of mind, when I recall backpacking in the canyon, I conjure mental images of waterfalls, creeks, and intimate side canyons sheltering perennial streams that nurture lush oases in the desert. I think of wildflowers carpeting the ground for as far as the eye can see. I recall campsites on beaches by the Colorado River and on promontories overlooking a wide expanse of the canyon.

And, of course, I picture the endless vistas stretching for miles in every direction, where impossibly immense stone towers loom thousands of feet above an unfathomably vertiginous and complex landscape.

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A rock climber atop Eichorn Pinnacle in Yosemite National Park.

When Your Kid Gets Better Than You

By Michael Lanza

Some 200 feet above the shore of Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park, on the face of a granite cliff with a name that sets high expectations—Stately Pleasure Dome—I crouch and contort my torso and limbs to squeeze into a slender passageway barely wider than my body. Inside this claustrophobic “chimney,” as this type of formation is known in rock-climbing parlance, I start grunting and panting loudly enough for the sounds of suffering to reach my 17-year-old son, Nate, who’s belaying me at the other end of our rope, below the chimney.

“How’s it look in there?” he calls to me from the relative comfort of his spacious ledge in the warm sunshine.

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A "bison jam" in Yellowstone National Park.

Video: A Yellowstone National Park ‘Bison Jam’

By Michael Lanza

It’s the coolest, most awe-inspiring traffic jam you’ll ever get stuck in—if a little unnerving, too—and something of an iconic experience in the world’s first national park. On a visit to Yellowstone, after a couple of days of hiking, I was driving south between Mammoth and Norris when I got stuck in a line of vehicles stopped by a large herd of bison walking up the road. Yes, we were in a bison jam, and I captured it on this video (scroll down to watch it).

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Sunrise reflection in a tarn above Helen Lake, John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park, High Sierra, California.

Mountain Lakes of the High Sierra—A Photo Gallery

By Michael Lanza

It seems a fool’s wager to guess how many mountain lakes exist in the High Sierra, the range that reaches heights over 14,000 feet and spans some 200 miles through eastern California from Lake Tahoe to south of Sequoia National Park, including Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks and several national forest wilderness areas. Some estimates place the number of named glacial lakes at around a thousand—but that omits the constellation of lakes and tarns identified by their elevation only or that remain completely anonymous. It’s a safe bet the total reaches into the thousands.

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