Saddleback trip to High Sierra Camps

Arriving at Tuolumne Meadows Stables on Sunday morning, the first thing that I witnessed was a wrangler leading five or more fully packed mules, tied together, around the stable yard. He, on his horse, seemed to be leading them around with no particular destination, maybe just getting them "organized". In just an instant, a couple of the mules became unruly, and it looked like pandemonium was about to prevail. After a very short period of yelling and shouting, he had control of them once again. 


"Hummmm", I wondered, "is this any indication of what I'm to expect over the next 4 days"?  

Watching the scene, however, it appeared that one or two mules took offense with another and they had a little spat, which set off a chain reaction amongst the others all tied together. That must be like children in the back seat of a car -

 "MA, he touched me! 

Did not!

Did too!

(Kids. What ya gonna do?)

With the rodeo now in check, the wrangler had set off to wherever his destination might be. I expect, from seeing how many fully loaded mules he had under his command, that he was taking supplies up to the High Sierra Camps. There are no roads up there, after all, so the mules are the means to transport food and necessities to the camps. 


Soon thereafter more people began arriving, who turned out to be members of what would be our saddleback riding posse. Everyone brought in the belongings they planned to use and need for our 4 day ride. Those things were then packed on four mules. All that each rider needed for the day was packed in the two saddlebags upon each mule. Those immediate necessities were our water and sack lunches. Other small items could also be taken on the mules but duffle bags, backpacks and larger items were carried on the pack mules. Having learned a few things from the previous week's hike, I brought my much smaller day pack, stuffed with a few clothes, meds, sandals and toiletries and my sleeping bag. I carried my Canon camera in a case strapped to my waist. The water bottle and my daily lunch were stuffed into the saddlebags. This go around, I knew that simply the basics would be all I'd need. 

Others in this group, to my surprise, were bringing large duffle bags, and quite a bit of baggage for each person. This, of course, all had to be packed on the mules (poor mules) every morning and unpacked each afternoon upon reaching camps. Everyone was responsible for delivering our possessions to Kendall, our wrangler/packer and for retrieving them once we arrived in camp. I, at least, was very happy to have kept my baggage to a two handed, light load which was easy to pick up and carry to the tent and then back to the mules every morning. 

The riders in this group numbered about 12, I believe, plus K-Bar, the leader and Kendall the wrangler/mule handler/packer. They fit the spitting image of "cowboys" (but without the guns - not allowed in National Parks). There were several families, one a mother and son from the Netherlands, a mother and two adult children, a younger couple, Drew and Julian, another family of father, mother, teenage son, a single woman and myself. During this week together, I hung out mostly with Drew and Julian.

The view from atop Steve-O.

As the mules were being packed, we received more instructions and watched a video concerning our riding the mules and safety practices. This video was a bit intimidating, citing that accidents or injuries could occur, control of our mules, and assorted warnings and precautions. Any medical conditions, of concern, were to be brought to the attention to the stable staff. 

Now, feeling some trepidation, and having the obligatory safety helmet in hand, we proceeded to "introductions" to our mules.  I really started to wonder if this mule ride was a good choice for me. I've had experience riding a few horses, most recently last year near Zion National Park, but never a mule. Handling mules is similar to horses, but with some differences, as we learned. Early on, I could see that Drew and her husband Julian, were most likely the most accomplished riders in our group as Julian came prepared complete with chaps. Drew told me she had had horses, I believe, and ridden enough to have a very good idea of what she was doing. As it happened, she was helpful, or tried to be helpful to others in our group who had little or no riding experience. 

Steve-O was my steed. As instructed, we approached the mules, talking to them, patting or touching them and loading the saddlebags with what we planned to carry throughout the day. Once upon Steve-O, I began my "test ride". 

Yup, he turns right on command. 

Yup, he turns left on command.

Ah, yup, he stops when the reins are pulled back.

A little kick start, and he moves forward. 

Hey, I got this. Seems all systems are a go. 

Let's ride!

Hold on there Don (or as they say, "hold your horses partner" - OK - mule... not horse).      


Walter, showing how to hold the reins.

Other delays that morning prevented us from hitting the trail until more than an hour after the planned time. But, once we had all saddled up and felt comfortable upon our mules, the pack mules loaded, K-Bar mounted his horse, and led us out of the stable yard onto the trail.

Previously I had thought we were going to the first three camps that were visited the prior week. But that was not so. Saddleback trips that leave on Sundays take the southern camps, Sunrise, Merced and Vogelsang. This was just fine with me. It is not, after all, about the destinations, it's about the journey to get there. 


Noticeable from the start was the dust that was kicked up by the mules. Having had previous riding experience, and from the hike, I already had my bandana tied around my neck which was soon pulled up over my mouth and nose. This was most useful and helpful preventing breathing in all that dust (and you thought cowboys only wore bandanas when they robbed banks, didn't you?).

Second most noticeable was the ride. Oh yes, as you might imagine, a bit rough on the posterior. (But, I had a little "assistance". I wore some padded underwear, similar to the riding shorts worn by bicyclists. They did help 'soften' the ride).

Soon after crossing Tuolumne Meadows, then across Tioga Road, we were headed uphill. I can assure you this was much easier (on me) than by hiking on my own two feet. Proper technique was to lean forward when going uphill and to lean back when going downhill. Those two tips did help lessen strain on my body, and I sure hope it was less stressful on the mules too. Also, the balls of our feet were supposed to rest ON the stirrup, with toes up and heels down. We were reminded, often "TOES UP, HEELS DOWN". K-Bar told us that our knees would take most of the punishment and added, "if your knees aren't hurtin', you're doin' it wrong". 



Well, heck, I'm not going to intentionally hurt myself, and made darn sure my knees were not hurting. Every once in awhile, I'd get a twinge in a knee, but I'd stand up a bit to stretch my legs while riding and that was usually enough to take off some pressure. The balls of my feet, however, already having taken a beating the prior week, were now steadily pressed upon which was not so very comfortable. 

And then there was that toe blister that developed the last day of hiking. For whatever reason that became troublesome while riding and I finally realized the extent of it. But, by then it had ruptured and the constant pressure peeled back the loose skin, which then led to the tender flesh beneath to bleed. THAT was very uncomfortable! The injury, unfortunately, also curtailed my hiking expectations over the next week and a half. Short distances were tolerable - barely. Ow!


Lunch stop, my mule Steve-O tied to a tree.

Prior to mounting the mules and beginning the ride, I had thought I'd be able to take a bunch more photos. But that didn't work out so well for me. With all the jostling on top of Steve-O, photo ops were lost before I could even TRY to focus my camera. Eventually, I just pointed and shot, in hopes that something decent would develop from shooting on the go. 

Later in the afternoon we rode into Sunrise Camp, this time from the opposite direction as when we hiked in the week before. Of course, not much had changed, except the new visitors. 

I'll leave you with tid-bit of information (in case you did not already know it). Mules are primarily beasts of burden. They are more sure footed and better built to negotiate rough terrain, such as on the High Sierra Trails.  Some are trained as pack animals, others are for riding. As K-Bar pointed out, you DO NOT want to try to ride a pack mule, or you will be in the midst of your own wild rodeo. That's good to know, for the next time I try to mount up on a mule. Mules are the offspring of male donkeys and female horses (that I knew, but may have had the sexes mixed up). Mules are sterile (usually) and don't produce offspring (again, usually). Now THIS information intrigued me - mules will always follow a horse. They follow horses because horses were their mamas (makes no difference to the mule whether its male or female). Thus, that is why whomever leads mules will be riding a horse, not a mule. 

That public service announcement brought to you by…ME. 

File it in you grab bag of trivia. 

Staying tonight in Twenty Nine Palms, CA and will try to write more yet tonight. Now I need to find some dinner.



One more thing, I did not know about the current Yosemite fire until after I left Sequoia National Park a couple of days ago. I've been asked about it in concerns for my well being. To reassure everyone, I was long gone from Yosemite when the fire started and was not near the flames at any time. Tuolumne City, which apparently is threatened by the fire, is further north, northwest of Tuolumne Meadows where my hike and ride began. To the best of my knowledge they only share part of their names, but not locality.

So, rest assured, I'm a long ways away from any forest fire danger. © Donald E. Kline 2012                                         Disqus Comments