Early Season Hikes
NOTE: Sad to say, many of these trips have been affected by the Rim Fire in 2013, the King Fire of 2014, the Ferguson Fire, etc. These fires seems to be most prevalent in the lower elevations where forests are denser...and maybe there are more people. Some of the areas around Hetch-hetchy are still closed to hiking, although the trail to Rancheria Falls is open, and more areas open each year.
Please be careful out there. And think twice before you decide that you really need a campfire...
Rancheria Falls—leaving from Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite, this is a 6.5 mile hike along the edge of the reservoir, and it never gets above about 6,000 feet. So when the snow level starts
to rise, this is a popular hike early in the season. We’ve done it in mid-April, when the peaks across the canyon were covered in snow, and the canyon walls were alive with cascades of every size and description. Later in the summer the falls are also a fun waterpark—as you can slide down slick granite slabs, and sit in foamy pools. From the campground here, you can also make a nice day hike to the top of LeConte Point, which gives superb views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and the peaks of the Sierra crest. 6.5 miles each way.
Preston Falls--downriver from Hetch-hetchy, this trail leads from the Cherry Lake Road up along the Tuolumne River for three and a half miles to a small but charming waterfall. In this
case, the destination is not nearly so important as the trail you travel, through the deep canyon of the river. In spring, you'll see wildflowers galore, and even more poison oak. Expect some continuing issues with fallen trees, as this area was burned by the Rim Fire, and many dead trees stand along the route. Still, it's great to get our and hit the trail at a time when many hikes would be under many feet of snow. The river here is open to restricted fishing from November through April. And this hike doesn't get above 3,000 feet.
Lost Lake, Sword Lake, and Spicer Reservoir: We took this trip in June of 2010, a snowy year that meant many other trails would be covered with snow or under water. So was this one. But the hike is still great. In fact, it's probably better when the conditions are a little difficult. The trail is easy enough from the County Line trailhead that it can get overrun in the middle of summe r. But with the late snows, we had to break our trail from the Wheat's Meadow trailhead, and we had the place to ourselves. The first two miles were a simple climb up and down, and then two miles of wandering up the Dardanelles Creek watershed in the snow. The trail was either under snow or under water, but we managed to navigate with map, compass, and a lot of stopping and looking around. Once at the lakes, we were offered amazing views--we camped on the western rim of Lost Lake, and admired the views of Spicer, the Dardanelles, and the rest of this part of the Sierra. Definitely one to keep in the back of your mind. 10 miles rt.
Clark Fork, Carson-Iceberg Wilderness: This hike leaves from the Clark Fork trailhead off Highway 108 east of Pinecrest. You hike through some lovely forest, clamber across a stream, and then face a short but steep climb to the top of a stunning waterfall. Head upstream for a series of nice campsites on the Clark Fork of the river. This was our first pack trip together, so it has some fond memories for us. There are some nice brookies in the river, and you can day hike further up the river—all the way to St. Mary’s Pass, if you want to work long and hard. We were the only people in the valley here for two days: just us and the local cows on the range. Five miles each way.
Bear Lake, Emigrant Wilderness: Once the road is open to Crabtree Cabin, this trail should be open for backpackers. It’s about four miles to the lake, and you pass lovely Camp Lake on the way. There’s a bit of climbing on the trail, but just when you are ready to take a nice rest, you find yourself at the top. Bear Lake is lovely, and you can extend the trip for another day by doing some cross country hiking to Granite Lake. In late May of 2009, Bear Lake had just a bit of snow on the banks, while Granite Lake, 500 feet higher, was completely frozen over.
Don’t miss the excellent view near the junction at the top of the ridge. Follow the trail to Grouse Lake for 100 yards, and the ridge opens up on a volcanic slope that overlooks the huge Cherry Creek drainage to the southeast. It’s a great place to stop for a drink and a snack. Less than five miles each way.
Lake Eleanor/Cherry Lake and beyond: It's always hard to pick the perfect destination for a spring hike---especially considering the weather can change pretty quickly. But this hike works well, because it's at a lower elevation, and later in the summer is too crowded to be much fun. That's because during the summer, this is a very short hike, (the road across the Cherry Lake dam is open), and you can drive to within about a mile of Lake Eleanor--or even within 200 yards of the Lake Eleanor dam. But before Memorial Day, you have to hike from the near end of the Cherry Lake Dam, and so the hike is closer to six or seven miles, round trip.
Lake Eleanor is a great destination early in the year---because there AREN'T that many people willing to make the hike. If you want to add more miles, you can continue up to Laurel Lake and Lake Vernon---but be prepared to play it by ear, and by the snow levels. Remember that to get to Laurel Lake, you have to cross Frog Creek at some point---and it is usually roaring in the spring. And to get to Lake Vernon, you have to get through the meadow and snow fields at the Beehive...also an issue in spring.
Loon Lake to Spider Lake and Rockbound Lake: In 2011, when the snowpack seemed as if it would stay on the mountains forever, we headed up this way in late June. And while we had to tramp through soggy trails, ford creeks that were well outside their channels, and search for the trail from time to time under a few feet of snow, we made it. And we think you could make it, too.
The first few miles are along the southern side of Loon Lake, and offer lovely views of the lake itself. You can even hear the OHV trail on the far side of the lake, as the testosterone gets running and the motors start roaring. But once you get past the trail to Pleasant Camp, the trail becomes an old road, which is both easy to follow and pretty darn nice after all that slogging. And in the end, it takes you to a series of nice lakes. The only concern you should have early in the season is crossing Rubicon Creek beyond the lake....it can be really roaring. Still this is a nice alternative to higher elevation hikes, as it never gets above 7,000.
Hite Cove, Sierra National Forest: This one is good just about any time of the year when the weather is nice, because the elevation is only about 1800 feet. You leave from the trailhead at Savage's Trading Post off Highway 140, between Mariposa and Yosemite, and then follow the South Fork of the Merced River about 4.5 miles into an old mining camp on the river. There are some nice views up and down the river, and during fishing season this must be more fun.
But the real spectacle comes during the wildflower season, when some of the early slopes of the hike are simply covered with poppies and other flowers. This trail will get a lot of traffic on the wildflower weekends, but we hiked it on a Friday in March, and saw about ten people as we hiked in--and they were all on their way out. We had the campsite and old mining equipment to ourselves for the evening. And on the way out, we saw crowds heading up the trail...but by that time we were on our way home...and into Yosemite for a little sight-seeing in the spring. If you absolutely have to get into the Sierra during the winter, this might be your best bet! And this is less than 10 miles total, rt.
National Forest Roads: Early in the season, a number of the backcountry roads in the Stanislaus National Forest (and other National Forests) are closed due to rough conditions nd snow still on the ground. Those roads are open for hikers, however. If you are desperate for a night on the trail, these roads might just be the ticker. In 2017 we hiked into the Stanislaus National Forest via the Eagle Meadows Road. We only had a few hours to hike in, so we stopped at Niagara Creek and set up camp. It was lovely, and we didn't see a soul. We did the same thing a year or two later on Herring Creek Road. Photos
Not a bad plan for those early season hikes. Instead of waiting impatiently for the snow to melt higher up, we can tackle some of these roads early in the year, and still get quality time in the mountains. In 2017 we got to hike with our daughter. Photos here