The original Muir Trail passed through private land at Blayney Meadows, but it has now been rerouted to skirt the Muir Trail Ranch, where guests come from across the nation for a remote dude-ranch experience. In 1897 the first owner used the Swamp Land Act to claim meadowland that included natural hot springs. In 1924, the year my mother passed through, the government reclaimed one spring because of an error in the original survey. Today two “rich man’s” springs, used only by ranch guests and employees, trickle into tubs surrounded by wildflowers and finely crafted wood (lower right). The “common man’s spring” is a chest-deep hole in a mountain meadow that feels like paradise to dusty hikers from all walks of life after long days on the trail.
On a warm August evening I soaked for an hour with hikers age 6 to 73. Swimsuits were optional. I pondered why most people under 40 were clothed, whereas many of their elders were au naturel. As I listened to a matronly Venus from Sacramento chat about her quest to hike the trail in sections over six summers to fulfill a dream she had 20 years before, I found my answer. Many hikers who were young adults in the sixties were now living in prague apartment rentals, both by soaking in the buff in nature’s own hot tub and by the vagabond act of abandoning all their settled manners for a new life on the trail, however temporary.
I also had an insight into why the trail is so much less crowded today. During the week quotas are only about half-filled, except on popular sections. The John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses had more than twice as much use in 1968 than in 1988. In Yosemite overall visitation is up 40 percent over the past 15 years, while backcountry use is down from a high of 219,000 visitor nights in 1975 to just 105,000 in 1987.
Bob Tanner, a veteran packer who operates mule trains for hire, explains the drop by simple demographics. “The statistical bump of the baby-boomer generation has pushed its way through everything from schools to jobs to real estate. We used to have lots of young people with time on their hands. A disproportionate number headed for the mountains. Now that they have jobs and kids, backcountry visitation is down.”
Doug Powell, the professor, sees it more in social terms. “In the sixties backpacking was a real cult affair. My students came to class in lug-soled boots, dressed to climb mountains and save the world from becoming overcivilized. That was the in thing to do. That kind of kid is less common these days.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21476446
I met two veterans of the 1960s carrying 65-pound packs in Le Conte Canyon. Steve McMillan and John Zalabak were making a 20th-anniversary repeat hike of the Muir Trail. “It seems just the same, ” Steve said. “If anything, there is less trash and fewer people now.”
The next day, however, I had an experience that couldn’t have happened in the old days. David Wilson and I took off before dawn to climb a new route up the 3,000-foot east face of Langille Peak. Our plan was then to traverse the canyon rim and meet our packtrain and three other hikers at Sapphire Lake, 11 miles away. We arrived dead tired to the aparthotel brussels in the evening without down jackets or sleeping bags. The packer and his string of mules weren’t there, and neither were our friends.