A look into designing menus that fuel the hikers at Yosemite’s High Sierra camps.

Your layers of moisture-wicking fabric can’t keep pace on this 13-mile hike. As you approach the first of the five High Sierra camps at Yosemite National Park, it’s often still a humid, sunny 78° degrees well into evening.

The High Sierra camps at Yosemite offer more ambitious visitors the chance to backpack deep into seldom-seen wilderness. The highest camp, Vogelsang, reaches 10,000 feet above sea level.

Hikers have to endure miles of challenging inclines and rocky terrain to catch a glimpse of the High Sierra’s majestic vistas, which makes what goes behind the experience—the food, the lodging—all the more important.

Yosemite hiker

When we were entrusted with guest services for Yosemite in March of 2016, we made it our mission to make the experience at these camps even more memorable for our visitors. Aside from creating guided tours, the first since the camp’s foundation in 1916, we’ve been able to make an impact by addressing one seemingly simple area - food.

Every day, the hikers who are brave enough to tackle these trails depend on us for fuel; so we carefully design our menus to fit their needs. On the face of it, preparing meals sounds like an easy task, but let’s consider some of the unique challenges to getting food up to the High Sierra camps:

  1. No cars. Up here, there are no easy ways to transport food, so we employ trains of 5-7 mules—that’s right, mules—that journey down closer to sea level and back up twice a week. With each trip they drop off fresh supplies and pick up food waste, cutting our carbon foot one hoof at a time.

  2. No (easy) communication. At elevations up to 10,000 feet, these camps are as remote as it gets, so cell phone towers and landlines aren’t exactly available. That’s why all campsites are equipped with satellite phones to call in food and supply orders for the following week. They are then gathered at a central warehouse and bundled for each location.

  3. See green, be green. When surrounded by the beauty of the High Sierra camps people want to be stewards of the park. That means offering environmentally friendly menu choices and cutting our carbon footprint through transportation methods are a must.

Each menu is designed taking these factors into account. And each recipe is crafted with intention to provide great-tasting nourishment to help Yosemite’s most active, adventuresome visitors reach their goals. In other words, helping fuel visitors during an active day of hiking, rock climbing and thrill seeking. It’s all about finding the line between what people want and what people need. For example, if visitors want hamburgers, we make sure they’re grass-fed, organic hamburgers, and give the option of a side salad, or fruit cup instead of fries.

Yosemite kitchen

For those who adhere to stricter diets, fruits, vegetables and nuts are incorporated into our meals to provide much-needed boosts of energy, and vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options are readily available.

Also, key in our menu design is a process called the “5-Cycle Menu.” As most visitors take five days to finish their journey, reaching one campsite per day, we rotate the primary protein within each meal on a daily basis. For example, on one night, all five High Sierra camps will serve chicken, but the next night they’ll all serve fish, and so on. This process is an innovative way to vary the tastes that accompany the awe-inspiring surroundings, while being efficient with supplies.

Whether it’s bacon, quinoa, vegetarian or vegan choices, every ingredient and recipe served at the camps goes through this level of intricate thinking. We look at food trends, while meeting dietary needs and restrictions, and adhere to the National Park Services Core menu requirements, which outline proper portion sizes, nutritional standards and fair price. 

For the people we serve, we’re able to provide quality great-tasting food that will help them achieve their goals. For our partners, we’re adhering to the highest standards of quality and health, while creating a more meaningful connection between the visitors and the park. And it’s how we’ll continue to create experiences that the people of this park will remember forever.

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