Lessons from backpacking the Sierras

It’s been a summer of work hard, play hard.

Well, definitely more work than play, but still there was SOME play.

The work hard part has been crazy. It’s a busy time of year when you’re in the tourism industry in San Francisco. They’ve started calling me “Piles” at work since I am literally dealing with piles and piles and piles of receipts and invoices. I am disappearing into Piles. But it is supposed to calm down in another month or so. For me, I’m working towards a little dream so I just gotta keep plugging away no matter how hard it gets.

But now for the fun stuff, I got to play in the mountains!

Three backpacking trips into three different Wilderness areas within three months.

Each trip was into new unexplored territory for me (yay!), and each brought its own challenges, beauty, and rawness. The mountains, they teach us things. As much as these trips were an escape from my City life, it was also a summer-long lesson, a series of teaching moments taking place amongst the peaks and valleys of the great Sierra Nevada.


Fish Creek Valley

My first trip into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness was with a group of women I had never met before. I learned that a little flexibility goes a long way in setting up a successful group dynamic. I was open to anything on this trip, and I even went into the weekend with quite low expectations after my many hit or miss group trips of the past. Before we even hoisted our packs, a suggestion was made for an alternate route. I was just so freakin’ happy to be out there, that it didn’t matter to me. We, as a group, were all in harmonious agreement and I think we even surprised ourselves that changes to the original plan were embraced by all without hesitation.

We had a lovely trip together, with an ideal balance between chatting and socializing and enjoying the quiet of the wilderness.

I’ll admit that I may not be the most flexible at times (boy, do I resist change sometimes!), but going into a group trip like this, being fully open to the flow and not having high expectations revealed itself as being THE essential headspace to be in.

Plus, I got to camp here!


Lost Lake

And swim here!


Spicer Lake

And hike here!


And look at pretty flowers!


The second trip was with one of my best friends to Kennedy Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness.

I learned that I’ve missed the sound of thunder and that not all Sierra lakes are created equal.

Thunderstorms are rare in San Francisco, but frequent in the mountains. We were lucky to miss the downpour, and hearing those claps of thunder both excited me and terrified me. I grew up with thunderstorms in Arkansas where the accompanying tornado threats are very real and very scary. Never thought I’d miss the sound of thunder after that, but it was pretty awesome to experience this clearing of the air as we started our trek. It was absolutely refreshing.

Heading right into the storm! On the way to the trailhead.


Kennedy Lake is not like the others! I had this vision of going for a swim amongst crystal clear waters admiring the towering peaks above and then drying off in the sun on a granite rock. Right?!? Only to find out (after dragging my friend and I a few extra miles) that Kennedy Lake is a fisherman’s destination, marshy, and full of algae. Not exactly meeting my vision. But we did find an excellent swimming hole downstream in the creek, and it wasn’t freezing!


On the way to Kennedy Lake


Kennedy Lake


Best swim hole ever!

The third trip was into the John Muir Wilderness in the Eastern Sierras, near Mammoth Lakes. I was accompanied by the same friend as the second trip, plus two of our mutual friends. This was THE most physically challenging trip for me. We originally wanted to hike a 36 mile loop incorporating the famed John Muir Trail, but we had to shorten our trip due to my work obligations. We shortened it to a 22 mile total out-and-back hike on Fish Creek trail with Iva Bell hot springs as our furthest destination. We backpacked in 8 miles, and day hiked to the springs from there. And I’m sure glad we did.

Because I learned that my backpacking sweet spot is about 6 miles a day. After about 6 miles, I get tired, cranky, and everything hurts, especially my feet. They aren’t used to the extra weight and going downhill is the worst. That last big descent to the river on our first day was a beast!

A very flat 6 miles would likely be a different story, but this is the Sierras I’m talking about! There is no such thing as a flat 6 miles.


It ain’t flat around these parts!

I’m a little embarrassed to say that a 50-something year old burly man with a full pack totally flew by me on our last day (the 8 miles back out), but I just laughed, because that doesn’t really bother me anymore. Not when my time in the mountains is limited, not when I’m clinging on to the awe of nature and the joy of walking on dirt and Sierra granite, despite my hurting feet. And certainly not when I’m soaking in hot springs overlooking the valley below. Gone is that illusion that I should be farther faster.

It doesn’t matter how far or how fast or how long or how high, just simply BEING in the Wilderness is really truly enough.


Iva Bell Hot Springs



  1. These pictures make me SO EXCITED for our trip to the US and we get to meet you!

    1. Yay! I’m so excited for you! And can’t wait to meet you!

  2. Amazing post, Sam. They are some great lessons and some amazing photos! I love reading about your connection to nature – it’s very inspiring! I have a feeling you will be spending more time in it soon, and until then, it’s wonderful that you get to be out in it when you can.

    1. Thanks Sarah! And nature inspires me! Getting into the woods is just as much a part of self-care for me as is brushing my teeth or getting a good night’s sleep. I hope you guys are able to take advantage of some of the great hiking trails that we have here in the States when you’re up here!

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