Highway 108 and Sonora Pass
For the cyclists among us, Sonora Pass is famous for that nice stretch of climbing above Kennedy Meadows that goes up to over 9000 feet at a 26% grade. If you can ride that, you can ride just about anything!
This area is one of the largest and easiest to access Wilderness areas from the Bay Area, and the information station at the Summit Ranger Station at Pinecrest Lake is a great place to start. They have maps, they give advice, and they require neither fees nor reservations. Trails go off in every direction, and all of them lead to beautiful places. The one in the photos at right is the stairway to heaven, past Grouse Lake to Groundhog Meadow.
Camp Lake and Bear Lake: From the trail head at Crabtree Cabin, behind Dodge Ridge, this is a nice five mile hike that is easy to get to, easy to hike, and has both fine fishing and lovely scenery! The downside? Yeah, you will probably be joined by more than a few people, especially on the weekends. But you can always keep going--there are campsites along the creek above Bear Lake (No camping allowed at Camp Lake...go figure!) or go cross country following the cairns and plastic ribbons up the ridge to Granite Lake. Or follow the creek up to Y Meadow Dam Lake. Or...this is a great place to explore! Whatever you do, don't miss the view on this trail. When you get to the top of the first ridge, walk 100 yards or so down the trail to Grouse Lake...and the whole Emigrant Basin opens up in front of you. under 10 miles. rt. Photo Log
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. Photo Log
The first two miles were a simple climb up and down the ridge, and then we had 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 you're there, the lakes offer 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. And did we mention that nobody else was there? Try that in the middle of summer! 8 miles rt, depending on the trailhead used. Here's the blog entry: Spring Trails
A variation of this hike leaves from the same trailhead (Wheat's Meadow) and instead of taking the fork to Sword Lake, continues on to Wheat's Meadow--or in our case, takes the poorly marked route to Burgson Lake. We never got to Burgson Lake--see why here:
https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/our-blog/awalkinthewoods ---but we did love this hike and would do it again. And now that we know where the lake it, we'd find it!
Kennedy Meadows to Summit Creek and the Granite Dome Lakes: This is not for those who want a nice hike along a well-marked trail. In fact, the lakes in question are well off the trail, and take quite a bit of navigation. But they are lovely lakes, and we promise you that you won't see many people up in this area. Begin by following the horsemanure up the trail to Relief Reservoir. On our hike out, we passed seven (!) pack trains of horses on this trail. Go up to Summit Creek, and then chart a path across Summit Creek and over the rolling slopes of granite underneath Granite Dome. When you get over the first ridge, you can see where the lakes should be. And once you get over the second ridge, you can see the lakes themselve.
Fabulous stuff, if you are willing to strike out on your own. And the fishing can be wonderful around here, if you can take the time to do so.About 12 miles or so, each way. Photo Log
Crabtree Cabin to Lower Bucks Lake: This is one of our favorite all time hikes---starting out at the same trailhead as Bear Lake and heading deep into the heart of the Emigrant Wilderness. But instead of heading north, this trail veers east at the junction, and then plunges down into Piute Creek. And then climbs up again to Piute Lake. And it does this a couple of times as it works across Gem (photo at left), Jewelry and Deer Lakes. There is good fishing in Deer Lake, and the trail never gets too steep.
Every time you think you might need water, another lake comes into view. And the scenery is really great--a kind of mini-Yosemite, with the same kinds of granite features you'll further south in the national park, but on a smaller scale. Bucks Lakes sit in a stunning valley walled with white granite--and have lots of nice fish to catch. That's Lower Bucks Lake in the photo at right. About 25 miles rt. Photo Log
Crabtree Cabin to Wood Lake and Beyond: If you like to explore beyond the established trails, then this hike is for you. You start at the same trailhead as Bear Lake, but this time you go right down the dusty volcanic slopes to Grouse Lake. This isn't a great lake for camping, as it is choked with lily pads in most places--but as the photo at left shows, it can be beautiful at sunset. The best spots are on the southern shore. Beyond Grouse Lake is heaven--a series of amazing climbs and trails that lead first to Cherry Creek, then to Woods Lake.
And from Wood Lake you can really go cross-country! It's an easy hike to Karl's Lake (there is a use trail, but we found our way without needing it at all--photo is at right) and then you can just lake hop for days, through Leighton Lake and beyond. Wood Lake has excellent fishing, and the whole region just begs to be explored more...You can even extend this trip by heading north out of Wood Lake, and connecting up to the trail at Bucks Lake...and return via the route above. 20 miles rt to Wood Lake...and then explore!
Crabtree Cabin to Pingree, Yellowhammer, and points beyond: If you really want an adventure in this region, follow the trail up past Grouse Lake into Louse Canyon, and then follow a series of "ducked" routes to some of the most remote and beautiful lakes in the Sierra. Our route went up out of Louse Canyon to Resasco Lake the first night. Then Pingree, Big Lake, and Yellowhammer the next day, ending up at tiny but wonderful Five Acre Lake. The stretch of "trail" between Pingree and Big Lake traverses the single biggest expanse of granite we've ever hiked, and we'd do it again in a heartbeat.
And from Five Acre Lake there is a nice cross country route will take you up to Red Can Lake and then Leighton and Karl's Lakes, where you will run right into the trail above---from Wood Lake back out to the trail head. Next time, we'll spend more time at Red Can Lake, and less time trying to find a nice campsite at Yellowhammer, where the rustic farm buildings may be old, but they are also out of place in the wilderness. 30+ miles. Photo Log
Here's a blog entry The Lonely Backcountry Lakes of the Emigrant Wilderness
Gianelli Trailhead to Y Meadow Lake, Leopold Lake: if you don't want to use the Crabtree Cabin entry point, this one is actually a bit easier, in that the trails are not as steep. The lakes here are not along the trail---they are off to the side---so it's not quite as rewarding as the Crabtree to Deer Lake route, but it is easier to cover a lot of ground along here. We hiked to Leopold Lake the first day, passing by the turn-offs to Powell, Chewing Gum, and Y Meadow Lakes, all of which seemed pretty crowded on a July weekend. Even Toejam Lake had about twenty people camped in different places around the lake. Photos of Powell Lake
All of these trails were clearly marked...but that's not true of the cross-country route to Leopold. There is a significant series of granite ledges between Toejam and Leopold, and it takes a bit of route-finding to get through them. But once there, it is worth it--a stunning lake high on a ridge, with views in all directions if you just walk a few yards up the slopes. No people, probably because there are no fish. But well worth the hike. (There are fish at Toejam, which may explain why there are more people.)
On the way back we stopped at Y Meadow Lake. We had heard it was very crowded on Saturday night, but by Sunday afternoon we were alone there. No fish, but a shallow, warm lake that had some in our group swimming like Naiads. We camped on the ledges to the West of the lake, with lovely views. But dusk came early there, as we were in the shadows of the cliffs. No worries, the sunrise got us up before 6:30...
This area gets a lot of traffic, both from hikers and horse packers, but you can find your spots to get peace and quiet if you are willing to go a step further than most people. This was 23 mile total, including the sightseeing day-hikes. Photo Log
Gianelli to Emigrant and Huckleberry Lakes: This is a long hike. We did it as a five-day, forty six mile trek. But the attractions are huge. There is great fishing in Bucks Lakes, Emigrant Lake, and Huckleberry. The scenery climbing out of Huckleberry and past Letora Lake is as good as it gets. And by the time you get to the far side of this hike, you'll find few people there to share the experience with you.
Some of these trails are a bit rough---the one from Horse Meadow to Huckleberry is no cakewalk--but the only place we lost the trail was at the huge campsite at Huckleberry Lake. There were so many use trails for the local campers that it took a while for us to see the cairn that marks the trail. You'll see plenty of people the first day, but by day three this will be sweet solitude.
And if you get there, send us some photos. P fell into the lake and got our camera wet at Huckleberry---so we don't have any photos of that lovely climb to Letora Lake and beyond... Photos--at least some of them!
Hyatt Lake: NOTICE: THIS IS A CROSS-COUNTRY ROUTE, WITH NO TRAIL. DON'T TRY THIS IF YOU
AREN'T PRETTY DARN CONFIDENT ABOUT YOUR NAVIGATION SKILLS. There is a trail that starts at the Bourland Creek trailhead. It takes you along the ridge, then up and over and down into The West Fork of Cherry Canyon. So far, so good. Then you follow a large granite chute up over the next ridge and from there, you can try to follow the cairns along the east side of that ridge over to Hyatt Lake. The key point might be right where these cairns his the outlet stream from the tiny lake below Hyatt. You need to cross the outlet stream and immediately climb up a steep 30-foot bluff to find the trail again. We'd heard lovely things about this lake, and were expecting to see few people. But on the way out we met at least four groups heading into the lake. hmmm. Still, it was a nice adventure, and on a weekday, we had it to ourselves. seven miles each way. Photo Log
Clark Fork and beyond: Tlhe Clark Fork Trailhead off Highway 108 does a great job of getting you into the mountains quickly--and the trails here are not so popular. The very nice people at the Summit Ranger station are helpful, and it's easy to get the free permits they issue. In short--this is a great fallback destionation for lots of reasons!
The trail up the Clark Fork itself is another good hike for early in the season, or early in your hiking career. It's just about four or five miles to the waterfall, and only one of those miles is steep. At the top, you get the view of the waterfall, and then you can have the rest of the canyon to yourselves. There is decent fishing in the creek, and enough use trails to wander around for a day up to Clark Fork Meadow. The only real downside to this hike is that there are range cows here, with cowbells on their necks. So your peaceful evening can seem a bit like a downhill ski race in Switzerland....clang, clang, clang! The waterfall at right is the highlight of the hike...unless you count the isolation. We do. 10 miles r/t, depending on where you stop to sleep. Photo Log
Beyond...to Boulder Lake: As noted above, the trails in this area connect beyond these initial destinations. If you hike to the junction with Clark Fork, and turn left instead of crossing the creek, you can hike up to Boulder Lake. Eventually that will take you all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail. In the middle of the summer this is a busy place, because Boulder Lake is only four miles from the trailhead. Some Photos Here
Don't be misled. The first 2.3 miles are a gentle stroll along the Clark Fork. The last 1.7 miles are a very steep climb up to 8,000 feet. And this is on a south facing slope, so you can expect it to get hot on a warm day. (There is water in the creek, though.) And while the lake itself is quite small, and the camping sites are very well-used, it's still a nice place to stay. Particularly if you are going to spend the next couple of days working your way around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness high country.
Beyond...Arnot Creek: This one starts out as an easy stroll along on old logging road, the fords Woods Creek and
starts to climb up the Arnot Creek Canyon. Lots of easy campsites along the way, and after a few fords of Arnot Creek itself the trail leads to Gardner Meadow...and eventually Highland Lakes. Some lovely scenery in here, especially early in the season when the creeks are full, and as you get higher in the canyon, you will find solitude as well. 10-12 miles, r/t. Photos.
Beyond...Disaster Creek and the Carson River: From the end of Clark Fork Road, this trail climbs steeply up Disaster Creek. A few miles later you come to a junction. Photos. One trail continues up Disaster Creek to Gardner Meadow, while our route took us up into Paradise Valley (quite lovely, but hardly a valley) and over the ridge, crossing the Pacific Crest Trail and heading down Golden Canyon into the Carson River Canyon. Beautiful, isolated area. From here we turned left (we looked for the trail going south along the Carson River, but could not find it. Turns out it hasn't been maintained for forty years!) and then took the Murray Canyon trail back up to the PCT...and home again. We saw two people on this entire trip...and they had hiked in from the other side. They hadn't seen anyone but us! 20 miles. Photo Log
Lake Eleanor/Cherry Lake: 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, because the road across the dam is open, and you can drive to within about a mile of Lake Eleanor. But before Memorial Day, you have to hike from the near end of the Dam at Cherry Lake, 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. Those are each higher than Eleanor, and thus snowier. 7 miles, unless the road is open. Then it is no miles at all!
Chain Lakes: The road into the trailhead was really quite rough--absolutely not recommended for passenger cars, And the trail itself is in fairly poor condition, with lots of downed trees, quite a few trail re-routes around the biggest ones, and some swampy areas. But it is also chock full of the most amazing displays of wildflowers. Like walking through a botanical garden. And it is only two and half miles in total. It took us longer to drive to the trailhead than to hike the hike!
Chain Lakes themselves are really just one large lake (fishless, with no inlet or outlet stream) and three smaller and swampier ones. But boy is it peaceful. Photo Log
Sonora Peak and St. Mary's Pass: we would normally list this in our dayhike section, except that it's a great trailhead for the Pacific Crest trail as well. You can follow the PCT up to Ebbetts Pass, or use some of the lesser trails to connect to Clark Fork or Boulder Lake (see above.) And the climb up to Sonora Peak is not hard--it's just long and steep. While it may look forbidding, just take your time and slowly work your way up. You will be rewarded with some of the best views between Tahoe and Yosemite! From here the PCT will take you hundreds of miles in either direction!
Further East, best reached by Highway 395, which has its own page:
Leavitt Meadows and the West Walker River: This is one great area--now part of the Hoover Wilderness as of 2010 and just amazing scenery. It's about 30+ miles.
Long Canyon is a very tough, steep climb for the first mile or so...but there are both views and waterfalls...Here's the blog entry: West Walker River Trip Report
Twin Lakes to Benson Lake and Matterhorn Canyon is a longer hike--we took seven days to finish the 50 miles.
Here's the blog trip log: Matterhorn Canyon and Benson Lake loop--a trip report
Pinecrest Lake and Cleo's Baths: The hike around Pinecrest lake is a pleasant stroll, and in the summer time the temperatures might just get warm enough to encourage you to take a dip in the lake. You'll pass cute cabins, warm rocks, and inviting water all along the hike. And if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you can take the use trail (marked with a sign and painted arrows these days) to Cleo's Bath--a series of deep pools in the creek that feeds the lake. This is a tough climb up the rocks of a moraine, so be prepared to scramble and maybe even scrape a knee. When you get there, you can relax in the cool waters of the creek--unless you go too late in the year. By August Cleo sometimes has to take dust baths, as the water dries up. 6 miles.
Catfish Lake: We did this as a loop from behind the store at Strawberry, but you can also do it from Pinecrest Lake, or from the back side over the top of Pinecrest Peak. Any way you do it, it's a nice hike. Photo Log
Pacific Crest Trail South: From Sonora Pass you can spend a lovely day exploring this route along the very top of the Sierra Crest.
The trail goes on for many miles, so just pick a spot to turn around. The views here are stunning, and there are quite a few peaks in the neighborhood that are worth climbing. The photo here is from the top of Peak 11845, which is only about a 1/2 mile off the trail, on the east side about three miles in. The photo doesn't really capture how much you can see from up here---it really is most of the Sierra crest for fifty miles or more. Photos Here
Not a lot of trees up here, but there were wildflowers galore, and more butterflies than we have even seen when we did this hike in late June of 2013.
You can also get to the PCT via the Leavitt Lake Trailhead--a very rough road, or an easy two mile hike: Photos
Blue Lake Canyon: a lovely hike that explores a tiny but beautiful canyon just off Highway 108 below Sonora Pass. Great views, great hiking, and a deep blue lake at the end of the trail, just to make it seem even more rewarding. About 5 miles rt. via a use trail that is relatively easy to follow. Here is the full trip report: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/our-blog/bluelakecanyon
The Gargoyles: This is an ideal hike for a half-day, and the trailhead is just about ten miles from Pinecrest Lake on the Herring Creek Road. A few miles past Strawberry, take Herring Creek Road to the right and follow it for six miles to the trailhead. Yes, it is a dirt road for the last mile or two, but completely reasonable for any sedan. And then the fun starts--you park overlooking a huge bowl above the Stanislaus River, and the trail takes you either North or South along the rim. We did the south side first, then the north. North has better "gargoyles, but the south side had better wildflowers.
And while this is NOT recommended, we climbed up out of the end of the North Rim trail to scramble and struggle up to Bull Run Rock at the top, which has wonderful views of the Sierra. But is it very steep, with lots of loose rock, and no marked trail at all. Proceed at your own risk. Without that little adventure, the whole thing is only about 3-4 miles total. Photo Log
Sardine Falls: Just about 2.5 miles east of Sonora Pass, this is a fun hike. There is no real trail, nor is there a marked trailhead. But if you are paying attention, all will work out. As you come down the pass, keep your eyes open to the canyon on your right. Soon you will see the falls...and if you stop your car and open the windows, you will hear them roar! Drive down to the meadow, park, and follow the use trails and double track (you'll likely have to wade a couple of times) and you can walk up to the falls. Lovely and fun. Photo here is from July 0f 2010 (a very snowy year) taken from the highway just above the meadow. 4 miles
More Hikes around the Dardanelles: Photos