MERCED — If you're a regular reader of this column, you probably live within easy driving distance of the Emigrant Wilderness.
Unlike its southern neighbor Yosemite, it's not as obvious where to start in the Emigrant Wilderness if you aren't already familiar with it.
Although the heart of the wilderness is best enjoyed on multi-night backpacking or horse pack trips, there are some relatively easy destinations for day hikes and short overnight backpacking trips.
Some of the easiest destinations include:
Camp and Bear Lakes: Camp Lake is a pretty, granite-ringed lake only 2.7 miles from the Crabtree Trailhead.
Bear Lake is only a mile further. Total elevation gain is less than 1,000 feet and it is relatively gradual. There were a lot of wildflowers to enjoy on our recent trip.
Burst Rock and Powell Lake: Powell Lake is a small but pretty lake only 2.3 miles from the Gianelli Trailhead. Burst Rock is the volcanic formation visible along the way.
Chain Lakes: Two larger lakes and one small lake are located about 2.4 miles from the Box Spring Trailhead.
Although these lakes are less spectacular than the others, they also see fewer people. The Emigrant Wilderness is one of my favorite places not just because I've enjoyed a lot of unforgettable backpacking trips within its boundaries, but also because it's a place where four generations of my family have hiked, fished, hunted, and grazed cattle. Two weekends ago I asked my fiancée Andrea to marry me during a horseback ride to Bear Lake.
You can easily explore the area on horseback through Aspen Meadows and Kennedy Meadows Pack Stations. If the Emigrant Wilderness is new to you or if you aren't up for a long hike, this can be an easy and enjoyable alternative.
You don't have to have a lot of experience with horses many people have their first horseback wilderness experience on a day ride or overnight trip with a pack station. Our engagement ride two weekends ago was with Aspen Meadows Pack Station.
It was as simple as calling the pack station to make a reservation and showing up at 8 a.m. with lunch, water bottles, hats, a camera, sunglasses, sunscreen, and jackets. (And the engagement ring, of course.) For more information, go to www.aspenmeadowpackstation.com/" target="_blank"__gt__http:// or call (209) 965-3402. For Kennedy Meadows Pack Station go to www.kennedymeadows.com/" target="_blank"__gt__http:// or call (209) 965-3911.
Although short trails tend to be the most popular ones, you'll generally see far fewer people on a trip in the Emigrant Wilderness than in Yosemite. In Stanislaus National Forest, just outside the boundaries of the wilderness you can find shorter trails perfect for small children or for a hike that doesn't require a lot of physical exertion or stamina.
Columns of the Giants: Volcanically-formed basaltic columns have broken free of a vertical cliff to form huge piles. Similar to Devils Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes, but closer to home, the trail starts along Highway 108, 24 miles east of the turnoff for Pinecrest Lake. The trail accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. The distance to the columns is only a quarter mile.
Pinecrest National Recreation Trail: The entire loop around the lake is about 4 miles, but you don't have to hike the whole route. Although popular, it's a great family hike and it's adjacent to the campground, lodging, and restaurant at the lake. The trail has no significant elevation gain or loss.
Bell Meadow: The trailhead at the end of forest road 4N02Y can be a bit challenging to find, but this nearly level trail through lush green meadows, wildflowers, conifers, and aspens is a great place to hike and find solitude in the early summer. In the fall, the aspens turn brilliant colors. You can hike up to 1.5 miles through the meadow before turning around.
Trail of the Gargoyles: This trail skirts the edge of a cliff with volcanic formations that hang over the edges like the gargoyles on the roof of a medieval cathedral. From the parking area on Herring Creek Road, two short trails follow the edge of the cliff. The total mileage for both is about 1.5 miles. The hike is almost completely level, and it's a great place to see wildflowers in the early summer. Due to the steep drop-offs, this is not a good trail for small children.
Although all trailheads (except Columns of the Giants) require driving dirt roads for access, most are usually in good condition during the summer to be accessed by carefully-driven passenger vehicles, though high-clearance SUVs and trucks are preferable. You can always check current conditions by calling Stanislaus National Forest.
If you plan a trail ride with Aspen Meadows, paved Crabtree Road will get you to the pack station. For current conditions and overnight wilderness permits, call Stanislaus National Forest at (209) 586-3234. The Emigrant Wilderness Map produced by Tom Harrison Maps covers all of the trails and roads I have described.
Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.