Over lunch recently my good friend John Flinn and I were comparing notes about backpacking trails in California’s Sierra Nevada because we both wanted to get back to the mountains. I was planning my first mountain backpacking trip with my two daughters aged 10 and 8 and intended to take them up a trail my wife and I used to love—before the children arrived, of course. John knew the trail, starting at the Lyons Creek Trailhead off Highway 50 just past Kyburz.

“It’s flat all the way to Lake Sylvia,” he recalled.

“That’s what I remember, too,” I said, “but I found my old topo map last night and it shows a 1500-foot climb over five miles to Sylvia.”


I nodded. I couldn’t believe it either. My memory was that the trail to Lake Sylvia was essentially flat, but if you wanted to go up to Lyons Lake, which Paula and I always used to do, it was a torturous climb straight up for a half mile at the end.

John refused to accept it. “I remember that trail being a stroll through meadows until the end when you climb to Lyons Lake. I can’t believe you gain so much altitude.”

We discussed it further and talked about other options in the area, but I knew that our memories were probably more faulty than the U.S. Geological Survey map I’d used countless times in the past. So a few weeks later my wife and I packed the girls and gear and headed out.

* * *

“I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” wailed Érne my 8-year-old somewhere in the first couple of miles of our hike.

“You’re doing great,” I encouraged. “You’re doing just great.” Soothing as my words and tone were, what I heard in my head was “forced march.” Was I going to ruin the wilderness for my daughter by pushing her too hard on our first trip on foot into the mountains? A moment later some chickadees came to my rescue. They flitted into view in the pines ahead, and Érne brightened.

“They’re so cute,” she said in that endearing, affectionate voice she has when touched by the wonders of nature. For a while she forgot that she “couldn’t do it.”

And luckily for me that’s the way it went. Every time either girl complained about the trail—which really did climb gradually all the way in, with a few spots of relatively steep climbs—something in the landscape took their minds off their pain. Sometimes it was the wildflowers, sometimes the squawking of a jay, sometimes the mysterious appearance of juncos or chickadees just when we were reaching our limits. Once it was the crossing of Lyons Creek with cool deep pools we could reach by scrambling down rocks to soak our heads. For my 10-year-old Alanna, the map was a salvation. She saw that we had to cross the creek three times in the last half mile and she used those mileposts to chart her progress. When we glimpsed Lake Sylvia through the forest, Érne ran ahead, pack and all, shrieking with joy.

Our reward was an ideal campsite in the trees, a refreshing swim in the cool lake (the girls’ first mountain “skinny-dipping”), and the satisfaction that we’d made it. We tried to catch fish but had little success until the next day when a neighbor came over to say hello, got one on his line and handed the rod to Alanna to reel it in. She landed her first trout.

We spent our day fishing, swimming, hiking around the lake and up that “tortuous” climb to Lyons Lake, a hike that wasn’t bad at all without backpacks. On our last morning at Lake Sylvia Érne spotted a mouse perched on a tree root at the water’s edge.

When it was time to head back out after two nights, the girls were ready for the hike. They made steady progress, needing to stop less often, only complaining when their packs began to rough up their hips.

Walking down the Lyons Creek Trail on the way out of the Desolation Wilderness Érne said, “I prefer this trail to the other one.” (In June we had done a warm-up trip in Point Reyes National Seashore, backpacking a mile and a half to Sky Camp.)

“Really? Why?” I asked.

“Because it has a lake, and it has a mouse. The other trail had quail and rabbits, but I like the lake.”

That was good enough for me. I knew I hadn’t ruined her, and I knew she’d make it back to the car without problems. As for my memory and my friend John’s, I can now tell him that we felt every one of those 1500 feet we had to climb to Lake Sylvia on a trail we thought was flat, and we were saved by tiny birds.

Filed Under California, Camping, Family Travel, Feature, Hike/Backpack, Northern California, United States


12 Responses to “Family Backpacking in California’s Sierra Nevada”

  1. Jennica Peterson on August 12th, 2008 10:11 pm

    Seeing the wilderness through your children’s eyes made it fresh again for me, too. I especially loved the last line! Thanks for sharing, Larry.

  2. Larry Habegger on August 12th, 2008 11:01 pm

    My pleasure. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Marilyn Terrell on August 18th, 2008 3:46 am

    Lovely story, and a much more memorable experience than a trip to Disneyworld or a new Nintendo game. It reminded me of when I used to take our little ones on long walks with friends after school, and how one time when the 4-year-olds complained that they were too tired to walk, I suggested that they run. Oddly enough, this appealed to them, and they took off running down the path with renewed energy!

  4. Lucy on August 24th, 2008 12:45 pm

    Great story… And good to know what I’ll be in for on the trail once my 5 year old is ready. No forced marches—at least not without great views!

  5. Flo on August 25th, 2008 4:20 pm

    Nice stiry, Larry. Thanks for alerting your family to it. Give us more!

  6. Jim Benning on August 27th, 2008 1:59 pm

    Great piece, Larry. Love the chickadees coming to your rescue. Go chickadees.

    It’ll be years before I take my 2-year-old daughter backpacking, but I’m really looking forward to that.

  7. Elisabeth Levy on August 31st, 2008 9:10 pm

    Larry, I read every single word of your essay in the chronicle today and just loved it. To read it on the computer with the pictures was even more enjoyable. It is written the way I would like to be able to write, although my writing has considerably improved since I attended your course at the Book Passage (with only five people present) last year.
    I am sorry I could not attend the conference I had to bow out at the last minute.
    Sincerely, Elisabeth Levy

  8. Cheryl McLaughlin on September 11th, 2008 3:48 am

    Larry, I chuckled and smiled while reading this story. I could just see you and John swapping your tales of the trails! And, thank you for allowing us to be a part of your father’s journey in turning your kids onto the wonders of nature and seeing how She, in her wondrous ways, cooperated just in the nick of time!

  9. Marisa Pereira on September 24th, 2008 6:48 pm

    Larry, I loved your story - it made me miss the great hiking trails of California. The pictures were also great, taking me right there with Erne. So nice to explore nature with such fresh eyes of a child.

    I hope all is well with you. I am off to India in a few days.

    take care,

  10. Laura Read on October 14th, 2008 11:49 pm

    Finally found this again in my email pile and had a chance to read. It’s wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing it. It really warmed my heart. The mouse on the tree — that’s where they belong, instead of in my house!

  11. Julia on July 20th, 2010 10:22 am

    I loved this story. I’ve yet to experience traveling with children but if I ever do… I hope it to be something like this.

    Chickadees to the rescueee!

    If you ever have time, please check out my blog: http://www.traveljunkiejulia.com

  12. trailers on November 5th, 2010 6:35 pm

    california sierra nevada is one of my top picks all over the time for camping. I was there a long time ago and what i remember is exactly the same i see through your pictures. thank you for refreshing my mind.

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