As interest in the wilderness increases, so do the rules and regulations. Although it could be argued that the Sierra Nevada is much more lenient than many places, where a hiker must get every campsite approved prior to entering the wilderness, there are still opportunities to get yourself in trouble. Here are some simple ways to keep your interaction with Rangers pleasant and friction-free:
- Don’t build a fire where you shouldn’t, or in a way that is improper. With all the news about wildfires, does this even need to be said? Sure does. The last time I was at Purple Lake, at the same time that the Rim Fire was raging in the north, I saw a large group build a huge bonfire during a time when no fires were allowed at all. The rules vary based on the conditions, so ask about them when you pick up your permit. There are few rules you can break in the wilderness that might result in you spending the next several Christmases eating Nutraloaf and waiting for your turn to use the weight bench next to the guard tower, but this is one of them.
- Don’t camp where you are not supposed to. For most of the trail that means no closer than 100 feet from water and the trail. When you pick up your wilderness permit you will be informed of areas where camping is not allowed under any circumstances, like near the Thousand Island or Garnet Lakes’ outlet streams. You will also encounter areas that are closed so that they can recover. Staying on the right side of the law on this might sound easy, but it takes a little planning. Be sure to pick some primary and alternate spots before you start your hike. You don’t want to reach the end of the day, exhausted, with no good choices except for an illegal site.
- Keep your permit handy and be prepared to show it. I’m not sure why – perhaps because I am older; or carry relatively expensive gear; or because I’m 6′ 3″, weigh in around 200 pounds, and am industrial-strength ugly – but Rangers seem to be reluctant to ask me for my permit. In fact, in all my years in the Sierra Nevada, I think I’ve only been asked once. (I have volunteered my permit many times, and always get the feeling that the Ranger in question is relieved that I did so.) Don’t assume you will be so lucky. Have your permit handy. If you are traveling in a group, consider asking the Wilderness Center to split the permit into individual ones, so that everyone can carry their magic ticket, especially if you hike at different paces during the day.
- Beware of “day-hiking” the Happy Isles to Tuolumne section. For fast hikers, one alternative to solve the permit problem is to hike the first twenty-something miles as a day hike. Unfortunately, in order to do this you have to do something you probably shouldn’t. Your first choice is to do the hike with the full complement of your gear. The problem with taking your gear is that you may have trouble convincing a Ranger that you are really on a day hike. There are documented cased of hikers getting tickets in just this situation. The second alternative is to hike that stretch without your gear, which, in my view, violates the common sense notion that you should not be a dozen miles from any road or civilization without a shelter, warm clothes, extra food, etc.
- Bring a legal bear canister and use it. They may be a pain, but the evidence that they work is overwhelming.
There a lots of other rules, mostly revolving around Leave-No-Trace principles that will get you a ticket as well, but these five are the ones that will land you in trouble quicker than anything.
Good hiking, Ray