The Lonely Backcountry Lakes of the Emigrant Wilderness

posted Sep 6, 2010, 11:45 AM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Sep 6, 2010, 11:59 AM ]

OK!  Just back from a wonderful trip this last weekend, leaving from Crabtree Cabin for a series of lakes in the backcountry of Emigrant Wilderness:  four days, 34 miles, great views, and some fun adventures.

We started at Crabtree, down into Pine Valley, past Grouse Lake and up over the Groundhog Meadow “pass” into Louse Canyon.  All of this is one of the regular routes into the Emigrant Wilderness, and we had hiked it in reverse a few years ago. 

But at Louse Canyon we turned right to follow a good use trail with a few ducks down to the route up over the ridge to Resasco Lake.  We had a little trouble finding where the route crossed the creek (What’s new?  I think 90% of the time that I lose a trail; it’s at a stream crossing!) but we finally found the route on the far side.  And then we started up over the ridge.

This was a very tough climb—about 750 feet in less than a mile, and there was really no easy trail, just a series of cairns over broken rock. See photo at left--that's M and the ducks...and the trees far below!   After eight miles on the trail, it was a hard way to end the day.  But Resasco was lovely—although we were a bit surprised to see another group camping on the far side of the lake.  They were the only people we would see in the next three days. 

The next day we followed a rough route down into the next canyon, where we saw ducks marking three trails.  One went back up towards the main trail near Wood Lake, but we followed the next one, which headed east to Pingree Lake.  A mile up sloping granite ramps and we were there.  It’s a lovely spot, but it was too early to make camp—and besides, we didn’t see any fish! 

So we enjoyed the view and had a snack…and then headed back down the granite to the bottom of the canyon, where we turned left and followed another route out to Big Lake, two miles away. We followed the creek until we cleared the granite dome on our left, and then turned left across a massive expanse of smooth granite for more than a mile.  As long as we didn’t go up or down much, we would hit the notch on the far side to take us to Big Lake.

This is unbelievable country--solid sheets of bare granite in all directions.  The photos don’t do it justice.  At times it felt like a sea of white rock, or a solid Sahara.  M described it as like seeing the bones of the world.  As we hiked, we would stop and just revel in the experience. 

The notch was right where it was supposed to be, and from there we dropped down into Big Lake.  Another really lovely lake, but it was only lunchtime…and the fishing was lousy.  So we packed up and headed to Yellowhammer Lake to camp.

Not the best decision we made on this trip.  Yellowhammer is an old ranching site, even has a few old buildings that take away from its charm in our opinion, and the lake is not great—the upper end, where we were, is pretty stagnant and even boggy.  And the lower lake seemed to be solid granite cliffs dropping into the water.  The solution?

We checked our maps and figured that we just might be able to find a route up over the ridge to our north and get to Leighton Lake.  We gave it a shot, following a wonderful sloping ramp up to a bench, and then exploring for about 45 minutes how to get off that bench over the last 150 feet of elevation we needed to get up to Leighton. 

And we failed.  Yeah, there were a couple of places that might have worked, but it was definitely class 3+…and we don’t like to do that with full packs on.  But as we sat down to admire the view and decide what to do next, we noticed Five Acre Lake below us.
That's M, above, staring at the end of the line.

Perfect.  We slipped, scrambled, and followed deer trails down to a perfect little lake with ideal campsite and tons of rising fish.  After a long (and at times frustrating) day on the trail, it was heaven.  By the time we were done, we figured we hiked another 8 or 9 miles on day two…and had adventures we would remember for a lifetime.  We hadn’t seen anyone at all since breakfast at Resasco Lake.

That evening we got out our topos, and figured we could probably get to Leighton from Five Acre, if we followed a different ramp…and then turned hard left back along the bench that runs between Leighton and Red Can Lakes.  And if we couldn’t do that by about 11 a.m.; then it was time to go back the other way, and backtrack to Big Lake and out.

But by 9:30 we had found an easy route up the ramp, climbed a short but very steep notch up over the last granite wall, and found a series of ducks leading us forward.  Within a couple of minutes we were at Red Can Lake (not Red Canyon, which is what it is called on the National Geographic topo Map!) and from there it was an easy walk over to Leighton. 

We spent the rest of the morning enjoying the view from the southern edge of Leighton Lake (which overlooks all that territory we had just clambered around on…as well as a clear shot to the Sierra crest) and then walking up the west side of nearby Karl’s Lake.  Camped there and took the afternoon to hike out about a mile past the west end of Leighton Lake to Kole Lake—and from there saw a clear route back to Pingree Lake, where we had been two days before.  That's Leighton Lake, on the right, as seen from our hike back from Kole Lake.
So with packs we only did about 3.5 miles this day…but added another 3 miles of day hikes around the lakes.  And we had spent another day in this magnificent area without seeing another soul. 
That evening we climbed the little knob west of the lake, to take the familiy portrait you see at left...

The last day was pretty straightforward---a hike out from Karl’s Lake to the main trail at Wood Lake… less than a mile…and then straight back to the trailhead for ten miles.

By 3:45 we were back at the car, and by 5:45 we were eating dinner and enjoying a cold beer.  And our conversation over dinner was about how crazy people are. 

This was Labor Day Weekend, but we were amazed that we only saw that one group of campers at Resasco Lake…and didn’t run into anyone else until we got to within about two miles of the trailhead.  Then all hell broke loose---it was like Grand Central Station.  Pack trains, dads with little kids, single men with dogs, large groups of hikers, young couples…all going in or coming out…but all staying within four miles of the trailhead.  Parking at the trailhead was more than full…but we didn’t see a soul for three days.

This was a great hike—the route finding was not really hard, and with a few exceptions, the routes were pretty darn comfortable.  The off-trail just added a bit of fun and adventure…and the time together was priceless.