Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Camping in Yosemite with a Baby

We recently spent two nights tent camping in Yosemite with our eleven-month-old daughter. This trip was largely about managing logistics and I hope this description is useful to anyone planning a similar trip.

Going into the experience we had three main concerns:
1) Is our daughter going to be eaten by a cougar or a bear?
2) Is anyone (mom, dad, kid, other campers) going to get any sleep?
3) Is our daughter going to be able to crawl around anywhere?

Day One:
We woke up in a hotel room in Bishop and drove over Tioga Pass. We parked at the Gaylor Lake trailhead just past the entrance station. The plan was to take this short hike while we were at the road’s summit so we could access the Yosemite High Country without having to take a long hike. Lila has been on hikes before, but never at this altitude. We packed our lunch, layered on the sunscreen, put Lila in the hiking backpack and set off. I used to be in good shape. In fact, four years earlier my wife and I hiked the Muir trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Things change with a kid though, obviously. The hike was steep and beautiful, with incredible views to the southern peaks and passes leading out of the park. The trail flattens out after a mile or so. We spent a few moments on the saddle taking pictures. We found a sandy area and put Lila down so she could crawl around. She likes to pile things up and then unpile them and then repile them and then unpile them, so the small rocks scattered about kept her busy. But the ground was uncomfortable for her to crawl around on. Then we continued down a short steep slope to the lake. We found a patch of  grass to sit and eat lunch. Lila was able to crawl around a bit, but she kept putting her hands and feet in ground squirrel holes which made her topple over, which was cute and funny. The view was spectacular and the weather was perfect. I highly recommend this hike. It’s short and intense. On the way back we saw a marmot, which made Lila very happy. She slept in the backpack for the last bit of the hike. When we got to the car we were worried about just strapping her into the car seat without giving her a chance to move around. With the car seat, the stroller, the backpack, and the highchair, it seemed like we might end up moving Lila from one restricted environment to the next. Eventually she would get annoyed by this and unleash her wrath. There was some grass at the trailhead so we let her crawl around. Then we loaded her back into the car and drove for an hour to our campsite at Crane Flat.

I stopped at the Crane Flat market to get a box of firewood and a bag of ice ($21.00. Yikes!)

I had reserved the campsite online. I spent a good deal of time studying pictures of the sites trying to make sure I picked a good one. I failed. Our site was on a steep slope (Crane Flat?) with a small level area for the tent cut into the ground. Having seen the other sites now, I would recommend sites 302, 304, 306, 308, and 310, as they are flat and back up on a pretty meadow. Fortunately, Lila was asleep in the car so we were able to unload, unpack, setup (and drink ice cold beer) without having to find a place to put her. The ground at the campsite was mostly dusty dirt and pine needles. It quickly became obvious that the only place she could crawl around freely would be in the tent. Fortunately, we just bought a big new tent.

At dinner time we put her in her high chair and all ate together. Bringing the high chair was a great decision. Then we pushed her around the campground in her stroller. At some point my wife started a campfire, but Lila was too restless to sit and enjoy it—though she was fascinated by the flames. We then all went into the tent and spent far too long trying to get Lila to sleep. There would be no campfire time for Mom and Dad, apparently, while Lila slept peacefully in the tent. As far as sleeping arrangements for Lila, we had a snug little sleep sack for her – an attachment for the stroller – but she wasn’t interested. In the end we just piled on blankets and sandwiched her between us. She tossed and turned all night, but didn’t cry.

In the morning I put her back in her high chair and she ate breakfast while I made coffee. At this point it had been about 24 hours since she’d had a chance to really move around freely like she is used to doing at home. Our priority for the day was to find a place where she could stretch her legs and tire herself out. We drove down to Yosemite Valley and parked next to the river across a meadow from Yosemite Falls. I’ve been to Yosemite a million times and it never fails to amaze me. The beauty is astounding.

We kicked around two ideas for the day, either hike the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls (the greatest short hike in the world, especially on a really hot day) or push Lila around the valley in the stroller, following the looping bike path. We decided to push her around because there would be no place for her to crawl around on the Mist Trail. We went to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, then to Yosemite Village. The scenery was amazing, but Lila was getting very restless. There was no place to put her down! Eventually, we made our way to a riverbank across from Curry Housekeeping where a portion of the beach was in the shade. Perfect! Lila was finally able to move around freely. She watched ducks, dug in the sand, and even waded in the cold water (with my help). There was a steady stream of people floating down the river, some in tubes, some in rafts. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a hot day in Yosemite. Next year!

We then continued on to Curry Village to have lunch. We sat out on the porch and ate hamburgers. It was great for us, but not so great for the baby. Again, there was no place to let her move around. We then went into the cafeteria, which was closed for lunch (but physically open), and let her crawl around on the carpet in a corner. Not exactly the best environment Yosemite has to offer, but it served a purpose, and was shady and cool. Then we pushed her around the valley and she fell asleep. We loaded her up and drove back to the campsite.

Again, we let her stay asleep in the car while we had a few moments of baby-free camping. When she woke up we spread our tablecloth on the ground to give her an outdoor place to move around. But, predictably, she crawled right to the edge and wanted to play in the dirt. At this point we figured what the hell, let her get dirty. It’s all part of the experience. She immediately filled her mouth with dirt and started crying. We fed her and all got back in the tent and endured another long night.

In the morning we left the park and drove to the Bay Area to visit family.

So, should you take a baby camping in Yosemite? Should we have done some things differently? What did we get right? Would I do it again?

Well, I’m glad we went. But I realize now that Lila is the worst age possible for camping. Tons of energy and curiosity, but she can’t walk. If you want to take a crawler camping in a park and campground with no grass, you have to be okay with the kid getting very dirty. Very dirty. With no immediate opportunity to clean her up properly. And if it’s dry and hot and dusty and your kid slobbers or puts her hands in her mouth a lot, well, it gets nasty in a hurry. Yosemite is a beautiful place, but Lila couldn’t appreciate that aspect. To her, the trip was a bummer – getting strapped into one thing after another, rarely getting a chance to explore when there was so much new stuff around worth exploring. Next time (in two weeks) I’ll bring a little inflatable bed with bumpers, but I doubt that will change anything in the sleeping department (Lila isn’t a great sleeper under the best circumstances, and it’s hard to say what role the altitude played in this situation.). Good decisions included bring the high chair, buying a big tent, bringing both a stroller and hiking backpack. The campfire was a bad decision, especially when the wind blew the smoke into our tent.

I also kept thinking how nice it would have been to have a dog in the campsite. I’m a bit paranoid about bears and cougars (based on past experiences I’ve had in Yosemite). I know you can’t take pets on the trails, so I don’t know what I would have done about that. But if your camping in bear country outside a national park, a dog is a great security system, especially if it’s the middle of the night and you hear a lot of funny noises outside the tent.

If anyone has any suggestions or insight into camping with a baby please let me know.