Diana Helmuth: Sierra Backpacking

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It's unfortunate, but now may not be the best time to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. Diana Helmuth has this Perspective.

September is traditionally one of the best months to hike the Sierra Nevada, but when I watched the Creek Fire break out last week across the trail head I was scheduled to hike from, I am certain this will no longer be the case.

When I tried to rearrange my vacation to hike the glittering lakes of the Shasta-Trinity wilderness, or the granite slopes near Tahoe, my hopes were further dashed as the Forest Service did something it has never done before: close access to California’s back country. But still, I felt lucky to be thinking about recreating at all.

As a backpacker and hiker, my love for California goes beyond culture and politics. I love her backbone mountains, her meadows of furry grass, her smiling blue skies, her flowery breath, her cloudy hair.

For this love, I am happy to forego campfires, abandon my soda can alcohol stove, donate to firefighting efforts, and, yes, change my plans. You could feel every hiker in California cringe at the news that a “pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party” ignited the Creek Fire. But this is a healthy reminder to all who go into California’s natural wonders our state looks immortal, but she is not. She is at our mercy.


The trunks of high elevation conifers and coastal redwoods are hardy, and their stems can survive firestorms, a further testament of their magnificence. But hiking through the charred landscape of a former fire is brutal. There is no shade, no grass, no birds. Mosquitoes are at their peak terrors, with no one to feed on them, and nothing else to feed on but you. It is a boneyard.

Of course, nature will grow back. In the wake of the 2017 complex fires across Sonoma and Napa, “fire follower” flowers carpeted the hills, an ecstatic display of hope rising from ashes; a reminder that this is all a cycle. But forests take years, sometimes decades to renew after the devastation of a fire. And we are only on Earth for a short time.

Please consider the fragility of our forests as you hike California for the years to come what sections of her you are lucky enough to still see.

With a Perspective, I’m Diana Helmuth.

Diana Helmuth is an author and hiker living in Oakland.