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Why National Parks Are the Ultimate Family Vacation

If you want a predictable family trip, go to Disneyland. Who knows what'll happen on a National Park adventure?

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The bear was going to step on me.

It was a full-grown black bear, driven in my direction by a pot-banging crowd of campers. The noise clearly bothered the bruin, but not so much as to speed its exit. This was a Yosemite bear, after all. It wasn’t easily spooked. It moved slowly, methodically, a hulking shadow lumbering across the night-dark campsite, closing the 40-foot gap between me and my cookware-clanging family.

As a kid, I liked to take my sleeping bag and scout a private spot to bed down. Not too far away from camp, of course, but enough to get some separation. I was 12 years old, and took any sliver of independence I could find.

On this night I found it near Yosemite’s Vogelsang Lake, where my family—mom, dad, and 13-year-old sister—and I were camping with some friends. Together we’d embarked on our first backpacking trip in a national park, hiking 7 miles up Rafferty Creek to a backcountry site near one of Yosemite’s famed High Sierra Camps.

There, a ranger warned us that bears had been frequenting the camp at night. Hence my parents slept with (clean) pots and pans at the ready.

Clang clang clang clang.

The noise woke me and I saw the bear coming straight at my carefully chosen nook, where I was slightly concealed by boulders. Did it see me? Did I have time to move?I was laying in my sleeping bag, arms inside the sack. I felt pinned like a butterfly in a display case. The bear was less than 10 feet away.

This would have been an ideal moment to yell “Hey, bear,” but I didn’t. At this point my parents might have realized I was in the bear’s path, because the clanging got a little faster, a little louder. More urgent. Clangclangclangclang.

The change had no effect on the bear’s pace. It continued sauntering toward me, apparently unaware of my presence. Another yard and it was definitely going to step on me.

Then it abruptly veered away, altering its course at the last minute and missing my head by a few feet. I got up and moved my bag a lot closer to the others. Independence could wait, at least in Yosemite.

DESPITE GROWING UP A FOUR-HOUR DRIVE FROM the park, in a family that hiked and camped, I’d never been to Yosemite before. We went backpacking most years, but in a Northern California wilderness where the bears were skittish (I’d never seen one) and rangers apparently the same (ditto).

In fact, if I’d been to a national park before, I don’t recall. Kids don’t pay attention to which government agency—if any—manages the land they’re camping on. But something tipped me off that our Yosemite trip was different than any we’d done before. Maybe I noticed the crowded trailhead parking lot in Tuolumne Meadows, but I doubt it. Maybe we stopped at the visitor center and perused a display about the park’s glacial history. Even if we did, it didn’t make a lasting impression. Maybe it was an accumulation of little clues, like passing through the entrance station (you had to pay to get in, like going to a movie?) and the granite vistas that even a kid could tell were several shades more stunning than any he’d seen before.

In any case, I do recall the moment that it all came together and I thought, Wow, this place is great. It was when my sister tripped on an exposed root and fell face forward on the trail.

Her fall occurred on the first day, on the hike in, a few miles up the trail. The path ascended gradually along Rafferty Creek. I was hiking with my family and our friends, a family of five. Us kids, all between the ages of 8 and 13, carried external frame packs, as most backpackers did in the late ’70s. The packs were first-day heavy, naturally, so when my sister, Karin, turtled in the middle of the trail, righting herself proved difficult.

Actually, it proved impossible. The classic Kelty frame, with a sleeping bag awkwardly strapped on top, had trapped her in the prone position. When she tried to raise her head it clunked against the metal frame. Likewise, the pack prevented her from rolling over onto her back. She was truly stuck—face in the dirt and rocks. And as she has repeatedly reminded us over the years since, no one immediately went to her rescue. We were too busy laughing.

The amount of time that elapsed between when Karin fell and when my dad helped her up remains a touchy point in family history. But regardless of how you judged the delay—not enough, too much, just right—the incident distinguished this hike from all others. Of course, she could have fallen on any trail, in any wilderness. But she didn’t. She fell in Yosemite.

ON DAY THREE—AFTER the bear waltzed through camp—the four parents decided to go on a dayhike to a higher lake. The kids, naturally, wanted to stay at the lower lake and play. The adults deemed it safe enough, with plenty of other hikers coming and going at the High Sierra Camp. (This was free-range parenting before anyone coined the term.) Prior to leaving, however, they did rule out one potential hazard: “Don’t slide down that snowfield across the lake,” my dad warned. And off they went.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t immediately bolt for the snowfield. Memory is fuzzy on this point. But I do recall it was a perfect Sierra summer day: blue sky, no wind, warm sunshine. The kind of day made for a lingering patch of winter.

Sooner or later, like Yogi to a picnic basket, the five of us started rock-hopping along shore, making our way around the lake to reach the snowfield.

And it was even better up close. The patch of snow was nearly as big as a football field and blanketed a rocky slope that swept down to the lake’s grass-rimmed edge. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect slide. It was steep as a ski run at the top, perfectly smooth down the middle, and gradually leveled out at the bottom, so you could easily slow down before running out of snow.

We went up and down it, climbing straight up the center of the snowfield and schussing down on our butts. The snow was just right for sliding—a tad sun-soft so it didn’t cause ice burns, but still firm enough so we could really get going. We whizzed down and climbed back up. Whizzed down and climbed back up. For kids, backpacking is about the destination, not the journey. We had arrived.

After an hour, the increasingly sun-softened snow took its toll on our legs. Slogging up the slope was getting harder and harder, but sliding down was getting no less fun. We looked up from the bottom and saw a potential workaround: The snowfield started out wide at the top and narrowed on the way down, tapering to the flat run- out we’d been using. If we hiked up the rocks on the edge of the snowfield and then traversed across to the middle, we could avoid the energy-sapping snow climb. I’d like to take credit for this brilliant idea, but I think it was a collective epiphany.

Ascending the rocks felt like riding an escalator compared to trudging up the snow. We hiked up the side, traversed to the middle, and zipped down the toboggan-like groove we’d established. What could go wrong?

On the umpteenth ascent, about halfway across the snowy traverse, 12-year-old Lisa slipped. She quickly picked up speed, rocketing down the perfect snow just as we’d done all morning. But this time she wasn’t headed for the runout in the center of the snowfield. She was headed for the boulders that encroached along the side.

I waited for her to slow down or steer away, but the snow was too steep, too slick. As she gained momentum, I experienced the same feeling I’d had the night before, when the bear plodded inexorably toward me. It was a mixture of fear and awe, a paralyzing feeling: I was mesmerized by what I saw and afraid of what might come next.

What came next was all too predictable. Lisa slammed into the rocks. Fortunately, she’d managed to keep her feet downhill, so the damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been. One broken foot.

A few hours later—after getting help from the staff at the High Sierra Camp and enduring a lecture from our returned parents—we were back in camp, talking about the trip’s next adventure. Lisa, unable to walk, would ride out on a rescue horse. How cool was that?

Looking back, I realize that I probably didn’t absorb the right lesson—or at least the expected one—from that Yosemite backpacking trip. But youth reduces cause and effect to very simple terms. What I learned was simply this: Stuff happens in national parks. And I wanted to visit more of them. Who knows what you might see—or do, or break, or remember for years to come?

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