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Like all soon-to-be-married couples, Jen and I were sweating over last-minute details the day before our wedding. We scanned the list one more time. Pepper spray? Check. Backpack for my future mother-in-law? Check. Extra fleece? Check. Three days of food and wine for 25 people? Check. We didn’t need a wedding planner. We needed a Sherpa.
At this point you might ask (my mother certainly did): What sort of bride and groom show up with an expedition-size mound of packs and supplies to divvy up among their guests? The answer is simple…if you’re a backpacker who’d rather walk up a trail than down an aisle.
Alternative weddings have caught on in recent years. Couples exchange vows while skydiving, scuba diving, skiing, and impersonating Elvis. Specialty wedding planners coordinate marriage ceremonies with themes ranging from Disney to the Renaissance. Couples routinely say “I do” at spectacular, easily accessible places like Yosemite National Park’s Glacier Point and Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
Large or small, formal or untucked, religious or county clerk-whatever flavor wedding you opt for, the big day figures to be one of the most memorable events in any couple’s life. For those of us who live and play in the outdoors, what better way to celebrate than gathering friends and family for a hike?
After weighing wedding politics (we’d have to trim the guest list to a good-size hiking party) against what we really wanted to do (get married in the wilderness), Jen and I had decided to tie the knot in Montana’s Glacier National Park. To that end, we booked beds at an historic, hiker-only shelter in the park’s backcountry; sent out invitations with a packing list, a map of the Highline Trail, and tips on avoiding grizzly bear encounters; and spent considerable time humoring my mom, who was convinced that my 4-year-old niece wouldn’t make it (she did, with only one Barbie bribe) and my dad’s bad back would flare up (it didn’t, thanks to a handful of painkillers).
Now we were at the Logan Pass trailhead on a blue-sky summer morning. The wedding dress was packed, the guests assembled, the last bottle of champagne squeezed into the maid of honor’s overloaded Kelty. The time had come to jettison our checklist and start hiking.
Sprays of late-summer wildflowers clung to the hillside like bouquets. Marmots and mountain goats materialized in the thick mountain grass. Sunshine glinted off distant glaciers. We felt like we were already walking down the aisle. Only this aisle was nearly 8 miles long, following one of the most spectacular trails in North America.
The next day started with an icy swim to wash off the trail dust. After that, everything else went just like any other wedding. Rain threatened. Mothers worried. The best man arrived late (with a heavy pack). The sun came out. The pepper spray didn’t. And our mountaintop marriage unfolded like any good wedding: better than an anxious couple could hope for.
Need a rabbi or minister with trail experience?
“People would come to me and say they wanted to do a backcountry ceremony, but I couldn’t because I had a congregation to lead,” says Rabbi Jamie Korngold, explaining what prompted her to leave her synagogue job last year and hang out a shingle as the country’s first Adventure Rabbi. “People who come to me are those whose spirituality is awakened in the outdoors,” says Korngold, a former wilderness guide. Some folks need help with logistics. “Others,” she says, “are experienced mountaineers who just need an officiant who can keep up.” Korngold performs Jewish and non-Jewish weddings. Contact: (303) 443-2642; www.adventurerabbi.com.
Pastor Steve Hughes, of Yosemite’s CrossWay Church, is happy to perform backpacker weddings. “I did one ceremony on top of Half Dome,” Hughes recalls. “I had to leave the trailhead at 4 a.m. to make it. I just hiked in shorts and put on my robe when I got there.” Hughes offers a few tips. “If you’re in the mountains, morning is better than afternoon because the weather tends to be better,” he said. “Do everything you’d do on a normal backpacking trip. Then go behind a tree and change into your wedding clothes.” Contact: Steve Hughes, Yosemite’s CrossWay Church, (209) 379-2428. For general help with Yosemite-area weddings, contact Yosemite Weddings, (209) 966-3231; www.yosemiteweddings.com.
The Backcountry Wedding Planner
Considering you own wilderness nuptials? Here are some field-tested tips.
Choose a trail that’s too difficult, and some cherished friends or relatives might not be up to it. Make a list of who must attend, then pick a destination that fits their abilities. Be conservative about the total mileage, too, leaving plenty of down time to socialize and deal with last-minute problems. Consider hiring local guides to help with load-hauling and hike logistics; the money you’ll save on other aspects of the wedding will offset a splurge on hired help.
Pastor Hughes hs seen people bring boom boxes into the backcountry. If that offends your sense of wilderness, pack a few lightweight instruments (and invite people who can play them). We managed two guitars for our wedding. Other possibilities include mandolins, flutes, harmonicas, and small drums.
Camp vs. shelter
Like your decision about how far you hike, whether or not you choose to camp depends largely on your guests. Will Grandma Mary sleep on the ground? Other options include dayhiking to the ceremony and using backcountry shelters. Many national parks, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains, have wilderness accommodations that allow you to have your wild wedding and granny, too. Reserve well in advance (up to a year) for shelters in the national parks (see Contact below). Need a minister who will join you in the backcountry? See “Camping Clergy” on previous page.
Fresh-picked wildflowers are nice, but not always available (or Leave No Trace-sanctioned). Check the regulations where you’re going, or bring dried flowers.
Sure, you can get married in fleece and sandals, but consider packing formal wedding outfits. The added weight isn’t great, and you’ll be amazed how good you look with a granite backdrop.
- Glacier National Park has it all-superlative mountain scenery, grizzlies and bighorn sheep to round out the guest list, and two historic backcountry shelters. All wedding permits must be approved by the chief ranger’s office. Contact: (406) 888-7820; www.nps.gov/glac.
- Stunning waterfalls and countless granite altars make Yosemite National Park a perennial wedding favorite. Primitive backcountry shelter is available at five High Sierra Camps, but reservations are in high demand. Contact: (209) 372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose. Wedding permits required.
- Sunrise ceremonies at Myrtle Point have been a wedding tradition at Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the 1930s. Backcountry beds are available at historic Leconte Lodge. Contact: (865) 436-1200; www.nps.gov/grsm. Reservations required.
- Pick any point in Grand Canyon National Park and your guests will thank you. Mules will pack in your champagne if you stay at canyon-bottom Phantom Ranch. Contact: (928) 638-7888; www.nps.gov/grca. Wedding permits required.