When winter approaches and the High Sierra becomes less hospitable, we often do a little daydreaming about next year. And that brings up the subject of perfect campsites. What's a perfect campsite?
The obvious things that people want are a source of water and a flat space on the ground to sleep. In a pinch, you can always hike a bit for water, so let's say that goal number one is FLAT GROUND. You don't need a lot of this--just enough for your tent. It doesn't need to be soft--that's what your sleeping pads are for. But it does have to be pretty flat, if you want to be able to walk again the next morning.
Next in line is some source of WATER; the cleaner the better. We avoid muddy or algae filled sources, simply because they can clog up your filter in minutes. And we generally prefer lakes to steams only because the views are often better. Lakes, especially the top six inches, may also benefit from some UV radiation from the sun, so the water is even healthier.
When you find a spot with those two elements, you have all you need to camp (remember to camp 100 feet from the water, to meet most regional regulations.) But there are many other "optional" conditions that can really make the difference between a workable campsite and a memorable one.
VIEWS are the reason that we hike in the SIerra to begin with, so a campsite with a view is always a positive. We often take a little stroll after dinner to explore the area around our campsite...and most of the time, that stroll is aimed at climbing the nearest point of elevation to improve the view. But eating dinner with a view is part of great campsite. Luckily, these are a dime a dozen in the Sierra!
FURNITURE: No, we are not fond of those backwoods craftsmen who create elaborate and contrived campsites out of stone or wood. It's all a little too "developed" for us, and we'd rather they just left things as they were. But that doesn't mean we don't appreciate a campsite that has a sheltered nook for our kitchen, or a log or nice flat rock to sit on. And for real luxury, P is a big believer in a waist high rock that serves as a kitchen counter when he makes our lunches. Add one large flat rock in the sun for drying out the groundcover in the morning, and this is a well-furnished apartment.
(That's M at left, enjoying the comfy chair at Rutherford Lake. Note the slim sheet of closed cell foam that serves as a cushion!)
FACILITIES: We don't mind hiking a ways to do our business in the backcountry, but sometimes that can be harder than you think. With popular sites, there are just too many people around, and that makes things more complicated. And some of the more austere sites have so much rock that you have to work to find a spot. That's OK. But it's better if it's easier.
PASSIVE SOLAR: The best campsites always have a nice exposure to the East, so that the early morning sun warms you up the minute you climb out of your bag. That's luxury. But equally important is some afternoon shade, so that when you lie down to take a siesta, the tent is cool and comfortable. Sure, you can always take a sleeping pad over to a shady spot for snoozing, but in mosquito season this isn't a great solution. The best is morning sun and afternoon shade.
FISHING: Well of course we have to mention this, because for P, fishing is the closest way to touch nature. It does't have to be magnificent fishing--just a few native trout over 8 inches will keep him happy, particularly if they are brightly colored and lively. But the more the merrier.
SOLITUDE: To be fair, most of what we have outlined above can be found in any number of State Park campgrounds (well, maybe not the great views of the High Sierra). But we're backpacking, for goodness sake, so we do want to feel a little bit isolated from the madding crowds. And on a really good trip, we'll be so far away from everyone else that it seems like it's our own private mountain range. (P did a recent poll on a series of backpacking website about this topic. Between 60-80% of the respondents all mentioned solitude as being the most important part of a great campsite. But many also mentioned that views and fishing were easy to find, so solitude got their vote. We know what they mean.)
There's another element to solitude that matters. These isolated areas not only don't have neighbors, they don't get heavy usage. And heavily used sites end up looking like hell: lots of ugly tamped down earth, lots of refuse from previous campers and horses, scarred trees, massive fire rings, fish bones, "tame" wildlife, awful "rustic furniture" and worst of all, plenty of toilet paper to discover. It's a bit like camping in the local dump. When you add all that up, Solitude becomes pretty darn important.
BEST CAMPSITE EVER? I don't think we could choose any single place. Lower Ottaway Lake in Yosemite certainly is on the list, as is Devil's Punchbowl in the John Muir Wilderness. Lake 10005 below Isberg Pass, Laurel Creek in the Mono Basin, Altha Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Five Acre Lake in Emigrant Wilderness were all truly memorable. And there is one campsite, above Lyons Lake in Desolation Wilderness, that meets just about all the criteria---and included some big flat slabs of granite that baked each day in the sun. After dinner, we discovered that we could lie on these radiant heated couches and watch the stars come out, one by one.