Doug's Backpacking and Hiking Pages
Wow, look at the grass stains on my skin. I say, if your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. -- Calvin

 

Emigrant Wilderness 1998/08/31

Summary:
My son & me. Four days, 8/28 - 8/31/1998. Emigrant Wilderness, in about the middle of California's Sierra Nevada. The weather was perfect.

Kennedy Meadows (6400' or so; on CA-108, west of Sonora Pass), Huckleberry Trail (lots of horse-pounded sand trail), still some snow visible, over Brown Bear Pass (fair amount of snow next to trail), Emigrant Meadows (HORDES of mosquitoes), Grizzly Peak Lakes (nicer), Over "Big Sam" (10,824', and a gnarly snowfield to cross on the descent) Then down the cow-infested canyon of Kennedy Creek (nasty talus descent on a horribly-designed trail, followed by a muddy and cowpie-full meadow), Nice last day out the rest of that canyon.

Hikers:
I'm 45, my son Nik is 22. Neither of us had been backpacking in quite a long time. Nik just got a job, and our prep time for this trip was short.

Preparation:
Last summer, I read through a number of routes in Ben Schifrin's Emigrant Wilderness guidebook, but never got the chance to take any trips there. The trip described in this trip report was kind of a last-minute thing -- I had planned (got the permit, even!) on a 40-something mile backpack from Tuolomne Meadows down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolomne, 8/31 through 9/3 or so. I was planning to meet some friends at the Strawberry Music Festival, at Camp Mather just outside Yosemite National Park's boundary. My son found out on Wednesday that he got a job, and we made a quick decision to forget about the Tuolomne Meadows trip, and to go for this other, completely different trip a bit earlier than the other trip would have been.

I've been reading Ray Jardine's book this summer. This trip had such short notice that we didn't do much of the ultra-lightweight stuff that he recommends, but the "walk a ways after dinner" idea worked very well for us.

Details:
Wednesday 8/26. (Decided to go on this trip).

The actual plan was to hike from Kennedy Meadows up into the Emigrant Wilderness, either to Emigrant Lake or Emigrant Meadows Lake, then up over Big Sam, and out along the Pacific Crest Trail and/or Horse Meadow Road, to Sonora Pass. The fallback plan included a cross-country section, down past Blue Canyon Lake, that would cut off about five miles of highway hiking.

The reality ended up with us cutting down Kennedy Creek Canyon to return to our starting point with no highway hiking required.

Called to arrange wilderness permit. The E.W. has no quotas. They leave the permit for you to pick up at Pinecrest. A world of difference between here & Yosemite.

Thursday 8/27 (Ben Lomond to Pinecrest).

After work, finished packing. Nik & I went out for dinner with my wife Deborah. Some last-minute shopping at the Scotts Valley Safeway, then we hit the road by about 11:30pm. That CA-108 highway is a dream to drive, one of the best/fastest roads that go into the Sierra. Got to Pinecrest late, got the wilderness permit, found a nice campsite in the Meadowview campground (about 5900') with the loudest & weirdest sounding snorer nearby, set up the tent, and were in sleeping bags by about 3:40am.

Friday 8/28 (Pinecrest to Saucer Meadow):

Up and about by 9am, hit the road by 10:40am, for the last 25 miles of driving to Kennedy Meadows (~6400'). Dusty little horse-packing resort, with a store. Bought ice creams. Started walking by one pm, intending to be somewhere near Lunch Meadow that night. The trail heads primarily south from Kennedy Meadows, turning roughly southeast at Lunch Meadow, just before the Brown Bear Pass trail junction. Given our inexperience, it was somewhat slow going, through the beautiful little gorge where Kennedy Creek joins Summit Creek to form the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Saw a couple of interesting birds -- one had a head and neck that was all red (could've been a Red-Breasted Sapsucker); the other had an all-yellow body (maybe some kind of finch or warbler).

The Huckleberry Trail is the main route that equestrians and horse-packing trains use to get up into the central part of the Emigrant Wilderness, so the trail is fairly chewed-up and dusty. Still, there were outstanding views of Relief Reservoir and the volcanic rocks (East Flange Rock, and Turtle Rock) beyond the reservoir.

Ran into some folks who said they hoped we had a lot of bug juice, that the mosquitoes would be bad.

Schifrin's book suggests tanking up on water at the last little creeklet before a 400-foot climb. This past El Nino winter made it hard to tell which creeklet he meant, but at any rate, I would advise getting water at Grouse Creek instead, or at one of the next two creeklets just a ways past Grouse Creek. (The water in the third & last creeklet didn't taste that great.) The years since that book was written, and this past winter's weather have probably made things look a bit different than they did. We were using iodine tablets to purify the water. Must've worked, because we both came through with no ill effects from the water.

After that climb up some rocky switchbacks in the late afternoon sun, we leveled off and found small Saucer Meadow (~8400'). I was feeling low on energy, it was 7pm, and sunset was approaching, so we decided to set up camp here. There are a couple of fairly large, flattish rocky outcrops just past the meadow, so we prepared dinner (gnocchi with pesto sauce), on the upper one, and set up the tent at the lone site on the edge of the lower one. Just west of the meadow are some very steep, volcanic cliffs, which made for some pretty alpenglow on the already red and pink rocks. At some point going back and forth between the dinner spot and the tent spot, Nik twisted his ankle a little. We set the packs out on the rock, and the bear canister 20 or 30 yards farther away.

Saturday 8/29 (Saucer Meadow to West Grizzly Peak Lake):

The volcanic cliffs just west of us kept us in shadow until quite late morning, so we slept in, making up for the very late bedtime the previous night. This site still had pretty decent views of the aforementioned volcanic formations (East Flange Rock and Turtle Rock). I got up and wandered around, exploring. Turns out that there is a nice, large campsite we hadn't seen last night, a ways below the meadow. There's a small use trail along the south side of the meadow, which leads a couple hundred yards down, crosses the small creek that flows out from Saucer Meadow, and goes over to a flat, wooded area. There is also a spot to get water from the creek, on the way down to that lower campsite.

We made breakfast (Lipton chicken noodle soup, yum!), packed up and were on the trail by about 10:40. Nik's ankle still being a bit tender, he took the ski pole that I had brought, and kept it for the rest of the trip. Full of energy at the start of the day, Nik refreshed my memory about the how electrons fit into s-shells and p-shells in the Periodic Table of the Elements, and gave me a detailed synopsis of the historic time lines of the Star Wars universe -- Anakin Skywalker's youth, Obi-Wan Kenobi's prime time, the Dark Lords of the Sith, the Clone Wars, etc.

We climbed a bit, then lost track of the trail because we followed rock-pile cairns apparently set up by the CCC, who have a large camp set up right at the near edge of the flattish trail sections preceding Lunch Meadow. (Our guidebook mentioned a "Sheep Camp" sign, but we never saw it. Someone else asked us where "Sheep Crossing" was.) Regaining the trail, we entered a section that was mostly wooded, and stayed near Summit Creek. It widened out, we saw more sun, and we got to Lunch Meadow. There were still quite a few horse trains going by.

We had been seeing a nice variety of wildflowers, but it was here at Lunch Meadow that we saw fields of such vibrant colors that we tried taking pictures of them. We were seeing more snow patches up on the granite walls at the south end of the basin. It was interesting to compare the red, orange, and pink rocks of the colorful volcanic east side of the meadow, versus the gray granite west side. Some of the granite had scores of visible parallel joints in it, as if it had been sliced by a bread slicer.

The trail then climbs up over a granite nose and turns more eastward, to the uppermost section of Lunch Meadow. Shortly beyond that, the trail splits as the main horse trail heads south toward Emigrant Lake, while our trail heads more towards the southeast, to climb gradually up next to a pretty little rockbound creek, and then more steeply toward Brown Bear Pass. This trail is in much better shape than the Huckleberry Trail, but it's also steeper. Nik's ankle was a bit bothersome along this climb, and we took a long break while I located and modified a dry juniper branch to use as a hiking stick.

We saw a deer nearby as we climbed up and over Brown Bear Pass (9765'); there were creeks on both sides, within 50 or 60 feet of the pass, that came from snowfields right next to the trail. Views southeast from the pass, over Emigrant Meadows and Emigrant Meadows Lake, are exceptional. We have been seeing a fair number of buzzing grasshoppers, who look like yellow butterflies when they jump. Nik had one bounce off his forehead.

As we descended into large, flat Emigrant Meadows, we ran into hordes of mosquitoes, and decided quickly that we would "just" motor across the meadow and do dinner somewhere up the far side. Nik got out both his bandanas, wore one on the head and one over nose and mouth, and looked kinda like a bandido from the old west. Along the way, we encountered a guy with a fishing pole, the first person we had seen since leaving the Huckleberry Trail. He had set up camp on the foothills northeast of Emigrant Meadows Lake, but said that the mosquitoes weren't a whole lot better there.

We climbed a little ways, east of Emigrant Meadows Lake, until the trail passed near a small snowfield, where we found a bare dirt slope on which to lie down and rest. I got some water and put in iodine, rested some more, and finally started making dinner around 6 pm. (Noodle-Roni & a vegetable thing that turned out to be peas, which I hate. Nik ate 'em. But the noodles were good.)

Now that we had some energy, we packed up and walked a bit further out of the mosquito hell, stopped to wash the dishes, and then over a saddle where the trail crosses a quite small meadow. That stretch of trail was inch-deep in water. The basin that contains the Grizzly Peak Lakes lies just beyond this point. We camped at around 9680', just below the saddle, at the spot where West Grizzly Peak Lake was visible. I realized that I had left my stick over the other side of the saddle, where we had done the dishes. While setting up the tent, we saw another deer, and got a visit from a hummingbird.

The two Grizzly Peak Lakes are in a very pretty little basin, all greens and blues and granite and volcanic rocks. The basin seems more "up there" than what we've seen so far. After climbing up the relatively enclosed valley of Summit Creek, and then across the flat Emigrant Meadows, this little basin really looks like there's no "rest of the world" beyond the low ridges at its west end.

Sunday 8/30 (West Grizzly Peak Lake to below Kennedy Lake):

This was our longest and hardest day, for several reasons. We were hoping to make it to Leavitt Lake or Latopie Lake, both just east of the Sierra crest, by tonight. I was up early enough to walk back over the saddle and retrieve my stick. I saw a marmot running away across the trail as I headed down towards Emigrant Meadows Lake.

It's odd how different people's body chemistries can be: we counted, and found that Nik had about 30 mosquito bites on his shoulders, and several more on his forehead. I found only one anywhere on me. We'd been using the same bug juice, about the same amounts, been eating the same foods, wearing roughly the same amount of coverage. Go figure.

We headed out, saw the other (East) Grizzly Peak Lake, and came to the junction with Horse Meadow Road. Our route does a switchback of almost 180 degrees, to climb along the old wagon road over Emigrant Pass. We saw a pika and later saw a few raised pika-burrows. (These are weird, rounded ridges, sand-trails that the animals make while there is still snow on the ground, and then the sand hardens in that shape for the rest of the season.)

We crossed Emigrant Pass without recognizing it, and saw the expansive view over Emigrant Meadows Lake (including the mile-long stretch of straight trail that we had been on yesterday) without even recognizing that! But today's trail did another hairpin turn and led us to the small rock dam at the outlet of High Emigrant Lake. Plenty of water rushing out from there, so we stopped and purified some.

Then we started the big climb up Big Sam. Past Red Bug Lake, with its snowfield right above it. We could see why the Pacific Crest Trail avoids this bit of Crest, looping east into Warner Canyon and Kennedy Canyon.

Nik is designing a role-playing game in the "Alternity" system, and wants it to be set around 2010 and to be relatively realistic instead of a swords-fantasy game or a hi-tech-sci-fi theme. So we spent some of this climb discussing our analyses and impressions about current geopolitical situations, hot spots, likely resolutions and escalations, etc.

It's amazing to see plants working on colonizing such hostile environments. Big Sam is a volcanic lump, and the trail seemed to be just a somewhat flattened section of rocks. Not really any dirt to speak of. Yet there were wildflowers, off and on, all the way up it. Little ones, big yellow ones, and pink and purple and red. One kind was like an industrial-strength alyssum, a ground-hugging flowering thing about four inches in diameter, closely shrounded with bunches of small white flowers. Another one was like a small bunch of half-inch-diameter greyish cabbages, with 3-inch stems coming out of it, and cherry-sized red poofball flowers at the end of the stems. Then there was one that looked kinda alien, with hollow, dried out seedpods that were translucent, but with red streaks. We would *hear* these plants rattling in the wind, before we saw them.

The views south during this climb were phenomenal. We could see the north sides of the northern Yosemite peaks and ridges, and there was a *lot* of snow still visible, including some impressive cornices. We recognized most of the lakes we had walked past, plus Middle Emigrant Lake. Still, this wasn't quite enough to get our minds off of the fact that it was a difficult, tiring climb, at a pretty high altitude for us. Finally, around 1:00pm, we got to the top, at 10824', and presently (while on top!) saw the first people we had seen since Emigrant Meadows Lake, climbing up from the other side. We stopped to chat a bit (Hans warned us about a snowfield we would have to cross), then we started down to the north, and saw another hiker just as we took off. This amazing road switchbacks down the north side of Big Sam, which is basically just a steep talus slope, with a few snowfields still covering enough of it to make for some pretty healthy streams of water flowing out from the bottom.

During the descent, we figured out that Big Sam was not, after all, the only big climb we'd have to do that day -- we hadn't read the topo as carefully as we should have. The road/trail we were on descends 1200 feet to ~9600', to a saddle between the confusingly named Kennedy Canyon (east of the crest) and the canyon that contains Kennedy Creek and Kennedy Lake (west of the crest). After that saddle, the trail we were planning to take then climbs up around 10600', to cross Leavitt Pass. The altitude wasn't bothering us so much, but the amount of climbing was. We pretty quickly decided to head down past Kennedy Lake, to make a semi-loop out of our trip, an easy afternoon (NOT!), and an even easier day Monday.

Just before leaving the main bowl of volcanic rubble and snowfields that is the north face of Big Sam, we stopped to get some more water. Here, I realized that I had not counted my remaining iodine tablets very well, and we really didn't have enough for the remaining day and a half of the trip. We had the 3 liters of water we had just purified, and only one remaining iodine pill (good for another half-liter). Not thinking too clearly, it took us a while to recall that we'd probably be ok, and we could just boil some of the water we would need.

So, invigorated by the thought of an easy afternoon, all downhill, we headed on down. Just below where we got water, the road leaves this main bowl as the volcanic rock gets very steep and the small snowmelt creek beside us becomes a waterfall that falls down into the canyon. The road bears right and traverses another steep talus slope, but this one had a long, steep snowfield across the trail. The narrowest crossing of the snow was well below the actual road, but that was where we were now headed anyway, so that was ok. We crossed it without incident, but we did have to cross some 50 or 100 feet of un-trailed talus before hitting a use trail that gradually improved into more of a "real" trail. This led us down steeply toward a crossing of Kennedy Creek.

We stopped for a break on this part, and upon restarting, I heard a hissing (thought it was more of those grasshoppers) and started smelling some methane. Just a whiff, it took a minute or two more before I realized it was real, and figured out that it was my ("gaz") stove. Took off and dug into my pack, pulled out the stove and turned it off. I ended up carrying it in my hands for much of the rest of the day. Somewhat worrisome, since the stove represented safe water as well as food.

The steep descent into the top of our canyon was relatively uneventful, then it leveled off and I decided we were done with the hard part, and tossed away the stick. I had been carrying it since before Brown Bear pass, to help ease the pressure on my knees. Tossing it was a big mistake -- this level spot was just the uppermost one of two or three benches in the canyon, and the drop from the last one to Kennedy Lake was a very nasty trail, on a mixture of talus and slippery sand, with switchbacks that didn't actually switch, just alternated between sorta-steep and straight- down-the-fall-line. And, we were walking west, directly into the sun, and it was getting pretty hot as we lost altitude (from Big Sam at 10800+, to the saddle between the two Kennedy Canyons at 9600, to Kennedy Lake, at under 7900). On our way down, we could see a fisherman in the far end of Kennedy Lake, in one of those chest-high waders, worn like an inner tube around the waist.

When this very difficult descent was done, we started to walk around the north side of Kennedy Lake, and found the next leg of the trail to be little better -- quite sketchy, with very muddy spots and infested with cowpies. Just past the lake is Kennedy Cow Camp, and what a disgusting mess that place is! Still having trouble finding the real trail, we started having trouble keeping our feet dry and out of the mud and cow shit. We saw some campers over next to Kennedy Creek, and then stopped for a bit by one of the old cabins.

We had been wanting to get some more, clean water since the hot and difficult descent had led us to drink most of what we got from the upper slopes of Big Sam. But we sure didn't want to get any from anywhere near these cow fields. So we kept on going, on down the canyon, later than we had planned, looking for a clean stream of cow-free water.

There was too much water in Kennedy Creek to cross easily, so the relatively uncowed streams on that side weren't an option. After a while, we crossed through a gate, and things started looking a little better. Not completely cowless, but we did end up finally finding a somewhat clean-looking side stream flowing in from the north side of the canyon, got water there, and walked on until we found a reasonable stand of trees to stop and make dinner. Here, around dusk, the one good thing we noticed about this canyon was that it was pretty mosquito-free. Perhaps the cows got the mosquitoes' full attention. Dinner (beef stroganoff hamburger helper, with a can of tuna -- should have kept them separate) boiled over onto the stove. After some cleanup, we boiled the liter and a half of water we had gotten from the latest stream. Poured it into our cheapo water bottle, and it partly melted the glue that held on the labels. I solved that by wrapping it in a towel and carrying it like a baby. I put the stove into the outside pack pocket.

We felt somewhat re-energized by the food and the rest, and we walked on into the darkness (a half-moon helped) for another half hour or hour, to find a usable spot to camp. Bed and sleep by 9:30 or so.

Monday 8/31 (Below Kennedy Lake, home to Ben Lomond):

I got up about 7:30, headed down to the creek (100 yards or so) to get some water to boil. Nice lawn along the creek here, might've been a nicer/cleaner place for dinner and for camp, but it was a bit wet in the morning dew (and too close to the creek, anyway). Made some coffee and hot chocolate. We had both gotten blisters during our unpleasant descent from the top of the canyon; mine were minor, Nik's a little worse. I dug the mole-foam out of the first aid kit, and he made a patch.

Chicken soup for breakfast again, yum. Last night's boiled water was nice and cool now. Boiled some more water to drink on our way out. Did the towel-wrap again. Didn't think of getting the towel wet (so it'd evaporate and help cool the bottle) until later. We saw the three folks who had been camping up near the Cow Camp Cabin pass by, over at the trail. We got a very leisurely start onto the trail, about 10:40. I wore my Teva sandals today, instead of the heavy hiking boots.

We were pretty far down the canyon, and the hiking was a gentle, mostly-shaded descent, so it didn't take long before we got to the bridge over Kennedy Creek. Nik marveled that they would call something with this much water in it a "creek". We saw one other hiker on his way up, and later a pair of people on horses with an extra, pack horse.

After crossing the little bridge, and climbing a little ways up the south side of the canyon, we came to a side creek. Took a 15-minute break while soaking the still-hot boiled water in the stream. It was nice and cool by the time we restarted. Went on down the set of *well*-designed switchbacks, to return to the Huckleberry Trail, just below the PG&E "Relief Cabin", at 7000'. The whole time that we had been off of the Huckleberry Trail, we had seen a total of 11 people. Not exceptionally remote backcountry, but not bad for a perfect-weather August weekend in the accessible Sierra!

We found a couple by the trail as it goes through the Summit Creek gorge, so we asked them to take our picture with one of the nice waterfalls in the background. At the point where the trail turns back into wide dirt road, we found a family of backpackers about to set off -- a couple apparently in their 40s, their older daughter (~18?) and her boyfriend, and the younger daughter (~12 or 13), whom we shall call "Rebecca". We stopped to chat a bit about where we'd been and where they were about to go, and each time we mentioned a camp or a spot, Rebecca would ask "Was there snow?" and "How many miles is it before you get to the snow?" After the parents gently teased Rebecca about her obsession, it came out that she was carrying some Kool-aid, and was eagerly looking forward to making snow-cones with it, with the help of some real snow. So we decided to name her "Rebecca Snowcone".

We walked that last mile or so along the mostly-flat, wide, dusty, hot road by the actual Kennedy Meadows, and got to the store about 1:10. After plenty of drinks and some more rest, I walked pack-free the other half-mile to retrieve the car from the official trailhead parking out near the highway (why hadn't we thought of doing it this way when we started?), came back to get Nik and the packs, and we were headed home by 2pm. Very hot (104 F in Sonora); home by 7:30pm.

Mishaps:

  • Nik twisted ankle
  • my blue shorts ripped totally
  • didn't check number of iodine pills
  • stove turned itself on in my pack
  • I threw away my stick too soon
  • one dinner boiled over

Stuff we brought & didn't use:

  • down jackets
  • too many different items of clothing

Stuff we didn't bring, but wanted:

  • water filter
  • handy-wipes
  • 4-foot square groundcloth in addition to the tent's groundcloth
  • more chicken soup

Inventions:

  • Radio-controlled, solar-powered helium balloons, to carry the backpacks. If they're silent and they never touch the ground, would there still be a rationale for prohibiting these babies from Wilderness Areas?
  • Combination sunscreen + bug juice.

Insights

  • Nik: "The purpose of backpacking is to remind us why we go backpacking -- and why we don't."

  • Me: "Don't mix beef stroganoff hamburger helper with tuna."

  • Bring the bug juice if you're headed into the Sierra after an El Nino winter!


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