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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.