Lost in love in Emigrant Wilderness

August 21, 2012 

I finished this summer with a 45-mile backpacking trip that I'd been eying for a long time. A buddy and I hiked from Kennedy Meadows through the Emigrant Wilderness and the western edge of Yosemite to Cherry Lake. As Yosemite's lesser-known northwestern neighbor, the Emigrant Wilderness has similarly breath-taking scenery. The only major difference is the addition of picturesque volcanic ridges, especially in the eastern section.

Over the course of our four days, we saw very few people. Part of the reason why this area is so unknown is that many of the premier destinations are 10-15 miles from a parking lot. It takes time and determination to make it to the big lakes in the heart of the wilderness. On our first day we hiked nearly 10 miles from Kennedy Meadows to Lunch Meadow, ascending 2,700 feet. It was pretty country, but the most impressive sights yet to come.

On the second morning we headed southwards over Mosquito Pass to Emigrant, Blackbird, and Maxwell Lakes. The pass ascends through a series of marshy meadows -- "mosquito farms" -- so the name makes perfect sense in early summer. Despite the forbidding name, the views are memorable. The trail from the pass descends to the eastern end of large, granite-rimmed Emigrant Lake. We caught 14- to 16-inch rainbow trout on our first casts. With a shallow shoreline, wading or fishing from a float tube is highly recommended. Even at 8,800 feet, the water is surprisingly warm by late summer and perfect for a refreshing swim.

We finished the day at Maxwell Lake. Only one short side of its long, irregularly-shaped lake is adjacent to the trail and there is more than a mile of shoreline to explore and fish. The lake has a healthy population of brook trout.

On the morning of the third day we saw a pack train returning from Huckleberry Lake and two other horseback riders who stopped at Maxwell to fish. From that point onwards, we didn't see anyone for more than 36 hours. The trail from Maxwell down to Huckleberry Lake follows the East Fork of Cherry Creek much of the way. Even in the late summer of a dry year there were many pools with hungry fish.

Two miles longer than Emigrant Lake, Huckleberry has many small islands and peninsulas. It's a fisherman's paradise surrounded by granite ridges and pines. We caught several large rainbow trout as the sun went down.

The last day was the most challenging. As the trail followed the East Fork below the lake, it became fainter and fainter, disappearing completely in places and overgrown with thick brush where it could be located. Six miles below the lake it climbs Styx Pass into Yosemite National Park. After some frustrating bushwhacking, lots of boulder-scrambling, and losing the trail repeatedly, we decided to climb the ridge for what we thought was the pass.

It turned out to be the saddle above Boundary Lake. Just inside the park boundary, it's a beautiful spot. We consulted the map and found our way to Many Island Lake, another remote Yosemite gem, before climbing to the pass.

From the pass to the end of the trail at Cherry Lake, the route is well-maintained. It climbs to the top of Kibbie Ridge, then begins a long descent through a forest that still shows signs of a major fire. A little over 9 miles below the pass it reaches the Shingle Springs Trailhead. It's a long and challenging route -- with all the detours we hiked about 20 miles on the final day. When we arrived at the parking area to meet our ride home, we were sore and tired. Of all the various kinds of tired, however, this is the best. It's the kind of tired that comes at the end of a challenging and rewarding trip, after seeing 45 miles of remote and beautiful country with good company. I plan on going back again -- there are dozens of lakes I haven't seen and many miles of trail to explore. I enjoyed the entire route, but I probably won't hike the Huckleberry to Cherry stretch again. It's easier to get to Huckleberry from the north.

Adam Blauert can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

If You Go

Because of the distance between parking and destinations, one of the most popular ways to experience this wilderness is on the back of a horse. Three pack stations serve the area:

KENNEDY MEADOWS: kennedymeadows.com; (209) 965-3911

ASPEN MEADOW: aspenmeadowpackstation.com; (209) 965-3402

LEAVITT MEADOWS: leavittmeadows.com; (530) 495-2196

Easy Routes into Emigrant

Powell Lake: 2.3 miles

Camp and Bear Lakes: 3.6 miles

Chain Lakes: 2.4 miles

Permit Please

A free wilderness permit is required for overnight trips and may be obtained from Stanislaus National Forest. For more information, call (209) 532-3671 or go to fs.usda.gov/stanislaus/.

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