About 2½ hours from home, Sonora Pass is a gateway to another world. From Sonora to Kennedy Meadows, Highway 108 climbs through pines and meadows, sometimes following the channel of the Stanislaus River through steep granite.
Beyond Kennedy Meadows it gets windy and steep, rising into a subalpine zone where thick forests give way to wider views and small pines whose growth is stunted by short growing seasons.
The landscape at the top of the pass is dominated by dramatic remnants of ancient volcanism. A strong rain shadow effect created by the Sierra Nevada causes weather systems to drop most of their precipitation on the western slope.
The forest you enter as you descend the eastern slope is nowhere near as thick as the one you left behind on the western slope. It has a totally different feel -- something like the land of Rohan in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. Six miles and many sharp curves below the pass, a wide vista of Leavitt Meadows opens up. This two-mile sagebrush and grass meadow is ringed by jagged mountains and cut by the West Walker River. It's a great place to camp and a popular backpacker gateway into the Hoover Wilderness and northern Yosemite.
Like the destinations I featured two weeks ago, Leavitt Meadows is another option for camping and hiking with your dog.
Located on the river, the USFS Leavitt Meadows Campground has 16 riverside sites among pines and aspens. Amenities include vault toilets, shade, picnic tables and fire rings. Water is not currently available. The elevation is 7,100 feet and sites are available from April through October for $17 a night. It's a perfect base camp hiking and for fishing the West Walker. Additional campsites are offered a few miles east at the Sonora Bridge Campground.
Last weekend I set out on my first Sierra backpacking trip of this year, starting at Leavitt Meadow and bound for Secret, Poore, Roosevelt and Lane Lakes. All four lakes are within 2.5-3.5 miles of the campground. It is an easy backpacking trip or convenient day hike. Tom Harrison's Hoover Wilderness map is a helpful guide to the trail and surrounding areas.
The trail starts in the campground at a bridge over the river. If you plan to backpack, a parking area is located just outside the campground. Plan on leaving early -- the first mile and a half of the trail is exposed and it can be hot during the middle of the day. For a backpacking trip, you can also leave late in the afternoon.
Reaching the closest lakes -- Secret and Roosevelt -- takes about two hours. Secret, Roosevelt and Lane lakes are the prettiest. Poore is exposed and only partially full this year because of the dry winter, but the fishing is good. Secret and Poore are outside of the Hoover Wilderness and only a California Campfire Permit is necessary for backpacking trips. If you plan to camp at Roosevelt or Lane Lakes, call the Humboldt-Toyabie National Forest for a wilderness permit: (760) 932-7070.
Just above the campground stop your car at Leavitt Falls Vista to see one of the least-known but prettiest waterfalls in Central California. The West Walker is a popular fly fishing destination, with many access points from the campground westward along Highway 108. Bodie State Historic Park, the state's best-preserved campground, is 50 miles further. You may see Marines from the nearby Mountain Warfare Training Center doing training exercises in areas along the highway. Leavitt Meadows Pack Station offers pack trips throughout the area. The closest supplies and services can be found in Bridgeport, 30 miles southeast on U.S. 395. On your way over the mountains to Leavitt Meadows you'll pass many other inviting destinations, including Pinecrest Lake, Kennedy Meadows, the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus, the Columns of the Giants Trail and a high-clearance dirt road to Leavitt Lake at 9,500 feet.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at AdamBlauert@yahoo.com