Hike: Emigrant Wilderness

Trail Report

Much like in 2014 when we hiked Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan, my coworkers and good friends John and Michael made plans to explore the wilderness away from our normal haunts by tacking a vacation onto a work-related trip. This time we chose a lesser known wilderness area within the Stanislaus National Forest called the Emigrant Wilderness. The Emigrant Wilderness is noted for its granite and volcanic terrain and beautiful alpine lakes. It became our target because it was only a 3 hour drive from San Francisco, relatively low in the Sierra Nevadas (it was April after all), it was easy to obtain a backcountry camping permit, it was below the 9000′ restriction on campfires and bear cans were not required.

As the date of our trip approached the forecast made it clear that we would not be experiencing the typical Californian climate. Though the weeks before and after our trip were sunny and in the 70s, the forecast for our week was in the 40s with threatening thunderstorms. On the day that our conferences ended the forecast still wasn’t great but it looked like the precipitation was going to be low even if the thunderstorms did manage to roll in. At the worst, the highest elevation forecast that was available predicted less than an inch of snow with temperatures in the mid to high 30s.

As we drove to REI and Whole Foods in Berkeley to get supplies we were still discussing whether to ditch the mountain plans and spend four days exploring Point Reyes, on the Pacific coast where the forecast was favorable. In the end it came down to the fact that we had planned our trip for months and flown from Maine to California in order to experience the Sierra Nevadas. The worst possible forecast would be a mild New England spring storm. So we headed to the mountains.

We rolled east from San Francisco slowly gaining elevation as we approached the Sierra Nevadas. As we crossed the last of the farmlands between the Pacific Coastal Range and the Sierra Nevadas and pulled on to Sonora Pass, John put on Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack and the mood was instantly set for the trip. We listened to the album on repeat until we reached Summit Ranger Station in Pinecrest and picked up our permits that Mike had called ahead for and headed to the winter camping site.

We pulled into Pioneer trail Campground at 11:45 pm, set up our tents and built a campfire despite rain showers having dampened all available firewood. We enjoyed the warm campfire and a few local beers before settling down for the night under the towering presence of the local evergreens.


We rose at around 6:30am, each crawling from our tents to take in the impressive sight of the sentinel pines guarding us. We had coffee and settled into the familiar routine of breaking camp and packing our gear.

Tent at foot of giant tree

Campsite at Pioneer Trail Campground

As we were wrapping up packing and  dousing our fire a pickup truck pulled up next to our rental. The man who made his way to us turned out to be the caretaker from Dodge Ridge Ski Area. He nonchalantly proclaimed that the Forest Service had phoned him to say he had trespassers that needed to be ticketed. He was really chill and needed no convincing to not write a ticket. We informed him that the USDA:FS web site said all normal campgrounds were closed until May and that Pioneer Trail Campground was open during the winter months, first-come-first-serve, no cost.

We talked for a while (our last human interaction for several days) and he told us that bears typically stayed south in Yosemite Valley but to watch out for mountains lions at dusk and dawn as there had already been several dogs and livestock attacks this year. Forest fires had driven them to lower elevations. We asked about the forecast and he said that it looked pretty good but that there would be thunderstorms on Saturday so it would be best to hunker down and prepare to take a zero day if the weather was bad.

We drove to Crabtree trailhead and arrived by 8:45 am. The sky was clear and the temperature was just about perfect. Things were starting off in a good way.

National forest sign in woods

Crabtree Trailhead

We followed Crabtree Trail as it slowly climbed to higher elevation. We were struck by the massive size of all the trees and their porcupined cones. We stopped often to take photos of the giants standing tall or resting beside the trail scorched by fires long past.

Me on a massive fallen tree

On a massive fallen tree

Occasionally, when we could see blue sky above the trees, we would drop our packs and climb up the volcanic scree and check out the view. We had four days ahead of us and a vast wilderness to experience. We were on no strict schedule.

Valley of trees with bright blue sky

Vista overlooking Pine Valley

We dropped down into Pine Valley and ironically it was the most barren land we had seen so far. There were wide swaths of forest laid flat and other peculiar areas where all the trees were dead or broken halfway up their trunks. Among the dead trees I picked up a good sized walking stick which I kept for the entire hike.

Many trees broken halfway up their trunks

Busted trees in Pine Valley

We soon came upon the nice new sign proclaiming that we were in the Emigrant Wilderness. The wilderness was named for the Emigrant Gap, a low pass in American River drainage where pioneers emigrated from the United States to California when it was still part of Mexico.

Sign for Emigrant Wilderness

Entering the Emigrant WIlderness

We continued on through the desolation of dead trees for a while, stopping once to stare at the weathered hillside where we thought we had spotted a black bear. It was probably just a scorched stump.

Dead fallen tree

Desolation, photo by John Ellingsworth

Soon after noon the trees became green again and we stumbled upon Grouse Lake. It was the first of our many planned alpine lake visits. I had hoped that the weather would be warm enough to allow me to jump in every one that we visited, but alas it it was quite chilly. We took a break to eat lunch and take in the magnificent scenery.

Lake with granite mountains

Grouse Lake

Once lunch was done we continued down Pine Valley passing old cow patties and through a gate in an old herd fence. We climbed up through the steep, granite-walled valley and came out near the Piute Creek and an area called Hedgehog Meadow.

Granite canyon

Climbing out of the granite canyon at the end of Pine Valley

The Piute Creek was wide and shallow and had a nice little waterfall. We surveyed the area and determined that crossing the creek would be easiest via some fallen tree trunks.

Person crossing creek by way of fallen tree

Crossing Piute Creek

Man jumping from dead tree over creek

Hopping across Piute Creek, photo by John Ellingsworth

Shortly after Piute Creek the trail became waterlogged and we stood before the flooded Hedgehog Meadow. Hopping over wet areas we climbed a small ledge and found a tree trunk we could use to traverse a narrow section of the meadow.

People crossing swamp by way of fallen tree

Crossing the flooded Hedgehog Meadows

On the far side of Hedgehog Meadow we stopped to climb a jutting mound of granite and survey the area. Though there was nothing unique about the area, the views were still phenomenal; a far cry from the scenery in New England.

The path continued to lead us to higher ground and we eventually broke out of the pass we had been following. The sky was darkening and we could hear distant thunder.

Granite mountains with dark gray skies

Thunderstorms Threatening, photo by Michael Donnelly

We came out of the pass on the northern lip of Louse Canyon at a location where Cherry Creek, Buck Meadow Creek and a stream from Piute Lake converged. We were awestruck by the incredible view.

Granite mountains and blue sky

Vista overlooking Cherry Creek

We could hear the roaring of the creeks below and pick out cascades down the steep faces of granite. All around the granite was speckled by tall pines and some of the higher bulges showed signs of snow and ice. Though a storm was approaching us from the west, the sky was still showing some brilliant blue to the east. We sat in silence for a while taking it all in. Though I tried to create a permanent memory of the view, one I could return to whenever I pleased, the human conscience is just not able to process and retain such beauty.

Granite mountains and blue sky

Panorama of vista overlooking Cherry Creek, photo by John Ellingsworth

The approaching thunderstorm awakened us from our distant daydreaming. We had a task ahead of us: get to a suitable campsite and build shelter and fire before being waylaid by rain.

The plan was to drop down into Louse Canyon and follow a herd path south along the Cherry Creek. Once we found suitable crossing of the creek we would climb the far side of the canyon to Roscasco Lake where we would camp for the night. This was our first time leaving the main trail. For the next 48 hours we would be following herd paths and bushwhacking, if everything went as planned.

What we didn’t want was to get caught on the open face of Louse Canyon’s wall in a thunderstorm or be forced to camp on the canyon floor where we might be at risk of the creek flash flooding.

Once we switch-backed down the western face of the canyon we approached Cherry Creek and began looking for a way to cross. The waterway was quite wide and running hard for a “creek.” Also, I couldn’t remember if the herd path followed the near or far side of the creek, so I was concerned that we would pass the most suitable crossing.

Granite canyon with dark clouds in the sky

Thunderheads building from the floor of Louse Canyon

Try as we might we could not find any place that looked safe to cross Cherry Creek. We passed through a forested area of the canyon floor and noted a fire ring that signaled a safe place to camp. We continued on but it soon became apparent that we would not be able cross the creek and make it to Roscasco Lake before the storm was upon us.

We returned to the fire ring we saw earlier and hurried to set up camp. Each one of us had picked up 6×8 blue tarps from REI in Berkeley. We strung a line between two trees and tied the tarps to the line, two on one side and one on the other. We then staked the tarps into the ground and set up our tents underneath.

The thunderstorm hit us at 5:00 pm and it began to rain and hail fiercely. We collected as much dry firewood as possible and piled it next to the fire pit. We protected the firewood and pit by laying long sections of rotting tree trunks over everything. Mike was able to start a fire using a knot of pitch I had collected earlier and we were able to cook dinner quite comfortably, despite the storm.

Startled man eating next to tent under a tarp

Taking cover from Thunderstorms and Hail, photo by John Ellingsworth

By nightfall the storm had passed and we all went to bed by 9:00 pm, quite exhausted and pleased.


Map of Hike – Thursday


I woke up Friday morning at 7:15 am, it was cool outside but I was inflicted with a mild headache. John was already up and said there was a great view from high up the canyon wall, just beside our campsite.

After we broke camp and made breakfast we left our packs near the fire ring and bushwhacked up to the vista. Clouds were laying over the granite peaks like blankets, but there was a clear view to everything below. Again we were awestruck by the majesty of the Sierra Nevadas.

Canyon with trees in the center and clouds covering mountain peaks

Louse Canyon, photo by John Ellingsworth

After we climbed down and doused our campfire coals, we started down the Cherry Creek again at 9:15 am. We continued our search for a safe crossing of the creek, but our efforts were not made easier by the rainfall overnight. The Cherry Creek was running harder and higher than the day before.

Man next to rushing river

Looking for a way to cross Cherry Creek

We eventually found a narrow but deep crossing of the creek. We spent the better part of an hour lugging logs from the nearby forest in order to create an impromptu bridge. We took turns precariously crossing the river with our heavy packs.

Man crossing river on logs

Log bridge we built to cross Cherry Creek

Once finally across the creek we were able to pick up the herd path and begin the climb up the eastern wall of Louse Canyon. I’d be lying if I said mountain lions weren’t on my mind every time I climbed over a boulder. But, we never confronted anything more dangerous than slick spots of black ice.

People climbing over granite boulders

Climbing out of Louse Canyon

We completed our ascent out of Louse Canyon and found Roscasco Lake around 11:30 am. We stopped for an early lunch and I discovered that the cardboard container of wine I had opened last night had leaked all over my food. Luckily, my food was individually sealed and stored inside of a dry sack, so the only damage was that I had to wash out the dry sack.

As we stood on the lake’s shore snow flurries began to fall. Mike had brought along some line and a hook and spent a while fishing with his trekking pole. He got a bite, but caught nothing.

Alpine lake with trees reflected on its surface

Roscasco Lake

John and I looked over the map and decided to change our plans for the day. In our original plan we would have started out at Roscasco Lake and followed herd paths past Big Lake and Yellowhammer Lake to check out Yellowhammer Camp. After that we would have bushwacked up to 5 Acre Lake (my personal goal for the trip), Red Can Lake and camped next to Leighton Lake.

Unfortunately, with the thunderstorm the previous day and the amount of time we spent fording Cherry Creak we were half a day behind schedule. Best estimate put us at Yellowhammer at the end of the day and that would leave us less than halfway through our trip with only a day and a half left to hike.

Conversing with Mike we decided to cut out the bushwhacking section of our hike which meant no 5 Acre Lake and no vista near Kole Lake. I was looking forward to the vista as it was the highest point in the southeastern part of the Emigrant Wilderness and was supposed to have a fantastic view into Yosemite National Park. Instead we decided to hike northeast through Buck Meadow and then up to Gem Lake. We would have been passing by Gem Lake on Saturday with our original plans and it was supposed to be a great spot to camp. Our new plan would put us ahead of schedule, which would be good because there were still thunderstorms in the forecast for Saturday.

We followed the herd trail around Roscasco Lake and down to a landscape of bare granite of different shades of gray, pink and gold. I would have enjoyed the scenery a lot more but my headache had turned into a migraine.

Granite domes above a bald granite landscape

Heading toward Pingree Lake

The trail was a scattering of cairns among the boulders and we missed the trail north to Buck Meadow. We decided that it didn’t matter much because the landscape was wide open and we continued on our current trail toward Pingree Lake.

Alpine lake with dead trees floating in the water

Pingree Lake

We got to the lake around 1:45 pm and rested on its western shore for a bit.

Taking a break at Pingree Lake, photo by Michael Donnelly

Taking a break at Pingree Lake, photo by Michael Donnelly

We bushwhacked from Pingree Lake toward Buck Meadow. There was a granite peak between us and Buck Meadow, so we followed its contour to the northwest until we could drop back down into the valley that lead northeast to Buck Meadow.

People looking over scenery from bald granite lookout

Heading toward Buck Meadow

Once we got down off the granite bulge the trail was very flat. We followed horse trails through small copses of trees and around the occasional pond and swamp. A few times we lost the trail and we spread out until one of us found it and we converged back on the trail. As we approached Buck Meadow the snow flurries started again in earnest but it was too warm for any accumulation.

At Buck Meadow we met up with the main trail and we followed it west toward Cherry Creek and Louse Canyon. What we didn’t know was that the trail followed a gorge that Buck Meadow Creek had cut out of the granite eons before. We soon lost the trail as it lead us in to an old crust of snow that made the canyon wall seem perilous.

Snow, pine trees and granite mountains

Above Buck Meadow Creek

Fortunately, we were able to climb down into the gorge by post-holing through the hard snow and pick up the trail below. Unfortunately, it lead us to a small stone scree on the bank of Buck Meadow Creek. The creek was running fast and wide, though only about knee deep. There was no possible crossing without getting wet as up-creek there were rapids and down-creek there were falls.

Man about to wade across river

Fording Buck Meadow Creek, photo by Michael Donnelly

We proceeded by zipping off the legs of our pants and changing out of our shoes and socks. I didn’t have any shoes for the water so I made the crossing barefoot.  I side-stepped across the creek facing up-river and using my walking stick as a third point of contact. I may have screamed a few times due to the temperature of the water.

Once we safely made it across the creek I used the microfiber towel to dry off my legs and put my shoes and socks back on. Right after the creek crossing we bushwacked a little off the path and found a nice vista overlooking a series of waterfalls in the gorge below. I tried not to think too hard about what it would have been like to be swept down them.

Waterfalls and granite boulders

Waterfalls just below Buck Meadow Creek crossing

Once on the northern side of Buck Meadow Creek we found the post that marked the trail to Gem Lake. Again the trail was sparsely placed cairns over open granite so it was hard to follow the exact route. At 5:00 pm we found ourselves on the southern shore of Gem Lake and knowing that the trail looped around the lake to the east we headed that way.

Lake with trees and mountain reflected off surface

Gem Lake

While heading in the direction of the trail we found a woman’s swimming suit and a torn backpack with its contents strewn about. Gem Lake was a relatively popular destination and we could only assume that the pack was stolen by a large animal looking for food the previous summer.

Once on it again, we followed the trail through a swampy areas to the east of the lake and discovered a great campsite a little north of the lake. We quickly set to work setting up camp, and collecting firewood. Due to the popularity of the lake we had to search far and wide to get a good collection of wood for our fire.

Campfire and tents in the woods

Our campsite at Gem Lake, photo by John Ellingsworth

I was climbing over some ledges collecting firewood when a sound froze me in my spot. I had noticed it as it was ending, so I stood frozen to see if it would repeat. “Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm,” the sound came from a short distance off into the woods, away from Gem Lake. I instantly imagined a bear rooting around in bushes looking for something tasty. I took a breath and continued looking for firewood, making sure to make plenty of noise so I would not mistakenly surprise the mysterious beast grunting in the forest.

Mike and John had heard the noise as well and none of us were sure what it was, but it was quite eerie. Due to its repetitive nature and that it was always 6 grunt, I later convinced myself that it was some sort of alpine bullfrog.

Mike again tried his luck at fishing in Gem Lake. The snow continued to fall and the temperature had dropped enough that there was a fine coat of white covering the ground. John and I discussed what we’d do if there was enough accumulation to hide the trail. We studied the contours of the trailmap and walked back to the lake and tracked down where the trail continued to the west of the lake. We’d at least know where to start off in the morning and which direction the trail headed in if there was an inch of snow on the ground. It seemed possible that there might be a little accumulation in the morning.

We enjoyed dinner around a roaring fire, this time without thunderstorms and hail, but with snowflakes.

Man standing by campfire

Enjoying the great fire pit at Gem Lake

I went to bed at 10:00 pm and it was still snowing outside.


Map of Hike – Friday


I woke up at 2:00 am to use the bathroom. When I stepped out of my tent the world was dimly shimmering white in the dark. We had gotten the snow we were worried about, about a half an inch. After relieving myself I turned around and realized that every direction looked exactly the same in the dark and there wasn’t enough snow to see my footprints. I had to bend over to catch a glimpse of my prints with my headlamp. I slowly followed them back through the woods to my tent. I crawled into my sleeping bag and went back to sleep.

I awoke again at 4:00 am to the realization that my one-person tent was smaller than it should’ve been. I unzipped my sleeping bag and pushed on the walls. Something cold and heavy was leaning against my tent and weighing down the roof.

Snow. Lots of it.

I banged my tent’s ceiling to knock off the snow and pushed the snow away from the walls of my tent to reclaim its territory. Curiousity got the best of me and I got out of my tent to see how much snow we had gained overnight. There was at least 6 inches of snow on the ground and it was still falling, and heavily. John heard me moving about and asked if I was okay, I told him in a shaky voice (shivering from the cold and the first tendrils of fear) that there was a lot of snow on the ground. “Go back to bed, we can’t do anything about it in the dark,” he said in his infinite wisdom. It was the first of two times that day that I let doubt and fear creep in and John set me straight with his confidence and bluntness.

I crawled back into my tent again, but the cold and nerves had already settled into my bones. I shook in my sleeping bag until 5:30 am mulling over the idea that we would be stuck in the wilderness.

At some point Mike had come to the same realizations and had started to pack up his gear and tent. By the time it started to get light and I emerged to pack up my gear, he was ready to go. I stopped by Gem Lake to fill a liter of water for the morning and then prepared to go.

Snow falling on lake

Gem Lake, with snow

There was a foot of snow on the ground and did not look to be letting up any time soon. We decided that our best bet was to ditch the plans for the rest of the hike and head back down to Buck Meadow Creek and follow it back to the crossing with Cherry Creek and return the way we had entered the Emigrant Wilderness. It would be familiar trail, the elevation would be lower (so possibly the snow would be melting faster) and the creek and Pine Valley would make it a straight shot east back to the trailhead.

People standing in snowy forest

Gem Lake campsite, with snow, photo by John Ellingsworth

Mike took over the role of pathfinder and lead the way for most of the day. We headed around Gem Lake and followed the runoff of the lake toward Buck Meadow Creek. The sporadic cairns marking the trail were hard to follow without snow, so we didn’t even attempt to follow them. The going was slow through the snow and of course we all left our microspikes in the rental vehicle at the trailhead. We eventually found the post that marked the trail intersection.

We attempted to follow the main trail toward Cherry Creek but it was hard to determine whether the trail dropped into the gorge next to the creek, followed its lip or went uphill to get around the rugged terrain. There were no blazes to be seen in the Emigrant Wilderness. The only sure way of following the trail was to see the bowl of the trail, which we couldn’t through a foot of snow.

We generally headed west, trying to stay away from steep terrain.  For about an hour we got stuck in an area where every time we tried to progess forward we’d come to a point surrounded by crevices. We didn’t want to climb down into a crevice and get stuck between its headwall and the creek’s gorge, so we had to backtrack and try different routes. This was probably when there was the most tension between the three of us as we couldn’t decide what to do. Eventually we headed far enough uphill to get around the crevices.

It was a slow slog downhill toward Cherry Creek. The terrain under the snow was extremely bouldery so we were lucky to avoid twisting a knee or breaking an ankle. When we got to Cherry Creek at 11:00 am we were already worn out.

The previous day we had crossed Cherry Creek about a mile south where it was narrower and stronger. Though snow melt was certainly contributing to a rise in the creek’s level (luckily it was above freezing) the creek was more spread out where we were and theoretically easier to cross. We slowly made our way across the creek, swiping the heavy snow off rocks and tree trunks before carefully stepping over to them.

We soon realized that there wasn’t one crossing but several as the creek branched into may individual runs. This was probably for the best as if it was one run the level would have been too high to cross.

People across river standing in snowy bank

Crossing Cherry Creek, photo by Michael Donnelly

When we all got across the creek, none of us had made it without stepping into the frigid water at least once. We stamped the snow flat in a spot near a downed tree and stopped to change out our wet socks.

We were near the northern end of Louse Canyon and needed to climb up out of the canyon and into the forested valley to the west. The problem was that the trail had hugged cliffs coming out of the valley and onto the ridge we were planning to climb. We were not sure of the elevation where the trail came out of the valley, so we would have to keep an eye out for safe passage from the exposed ridge into the valley.

We of course could not find this safe passage and continued to climb up, hoping that above the next ledge was where the path would be found. Likely the snow had piled up in the trail and against the cliff, making it look like a perilous slope rather than a shelf. We continued to switchback up the steep snow slope, stomping holes for safer footing.

The weather was breaking up and the sun shone between clouds. This was a turn for the better, but I didn’t have sunglasses and the combination of sun and snow was brutal. I pulled by black wool hat halfway over my eyes which helped with a lot of the glare coming from above, but it was still too bright just looking at my feet (of which I did a lot).

People hiking in snow with mountains and snowstorm in background

Cherry Creek vista, photo by John Ellingsworth

Near the peak of the ridge we were climbing up a steep slope and I looked a short distance below where the were a single dwarf pine tree and a massive drop off. If any one of us had slipped it would likely have been the end.

I caught John’s eye and said: “We shouldn’t be here.”

“Don’t talk about that right now,” he said and abruptly turned around and continued up. Always the voice of reason, I interpreted it as: let’s not waste time talking, let’s focus on getting back to the car where we can talk about how shitty it was.

We crested the peak of the ridge, which was amazing, but we still had to find a way into the valley below. We searched around different crevices and drop-offs until we found a passable route and slid/climbed down.

Things got markedly easier once we got into the valley that lead to Hedgehog Meadow. The sun began melting the snow and since the ground temperature was above freezing, water was starting to accumulate below the snow and flow downhill. The easiest way for it to flow was down the trail, which caused more melt in the trail and we were finally able to see a divot marking the trail.

By the time we got to Hedgehog Meadow (which was flooded two days previously) we had lost the trail due to significant melt everywhere and we found ourselves in unfamiliar terrain. It seemed like we were walking through a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm in a bog, definitely something we hadn’t seen on the way in. The question was whether we had wandered north or south from the trail and which way we should go to get back on the trail in order to find the entrance to Pine Valley.

We tried heading south and came to an impasse at a particularly large and deep bog. We backtracked through the Christmas trees and tried north but nothing seemed familiar. Finally we spotted some high ground and climbed it in order to figure out our location based on the mountains and contours on our map. Over a snack of Clif bars, the only thing I ate all day, we determined that we were north of the trail and that we could barely hear the Piute Creek if we strained our ears.

We headed west and we found Piute Creek at 1:45 pm. We crossed via the same fallen trees, except for Mike who slipped off and just waded across. Luckily he landed on his feet and the creek was less than knee deep.

As we headed down into Pine Valley we were hit by another wave of the blizzard.

People hiking in snow toward a valley

Heading toward Pine Valley, photo by John Ellingsworth

We were pretty much beat at this point, both physically and mentally, but it was a straight shot to the end of the Emigrant Wilderness. We wouldn’t have to worry as much about navigating until we neared the trail that would bring us back to Crabtree Trail.

Perturbed man in snow

One of my “What the fuck!” moments

At 3:30 pm we made our way past Grouse Lake, the first lake we had visited on the hike, and shortly afterwards exited the Emigrant Wilderness.

Emigrant Wilderness sign in the snow

Exiting the Emigrant Wilderness, photo by Michael Donnelly

The sun was back out, blinding me and making quick work of the deep snow. The melt water turned the trail into a stream. Eventually we tired of trying to navigate along the side of the trail and over fallen trees and started walking through the water.

We decided that we would push on until the post for the side trail that led us to Crabtree Trail. At one point we had to climb over a massive dead tree blocking the trail and Mike slipped on the top and fell onto another dead tree. He hit pretty hard and just missed the short spear of a broken branch. We were all glad he wasn’t skewered.

We made it to the marker for Carbtree Trail at 5:30 pm and set up camp on a flat spot just off the trail among coyote prints in the snow. We had hiked 12 hours straight through snow and water including three stressful ordeals: the gorges near Gem Lake, climbing the ridge near Cherry Creak, and getting lost in Hedgehog Meadow. We were thoroughly exhausted.

I realized that I hadn’t had any water all day and forced myself to drink all of my water and sanitize more for the night. We didn’t bother trying to make a fire and silently retreated to our tents. I cooked and forced myself to eat a double serving of vegan chili and then retired to bed.

The temperature was dropping and my wet feet were beginning to complain even after changing into dry clothes. Luckily I had some chemical hand warmers which helped a little. Before dropping off to sleep I put the hand warmers in my shoes, hoping they would keep them from freezing over night.

I can honestly say that it was the most terrifying day of hiking I’ve endured.


Map of Hike – Saturday


It dropped below freezing over night and although I had my airpad and 20 degree bag, my pad had a slow leak and everything was slightly damp from previous day and not living up to its insulation value. I woke up many times through the night to re-inflate my pad and briefly considered getting out my emergency bivy to add its emergency blanket effect to my insulation.

At 7:45 am I started to get up and had the sense that my face was swollen. I used a selfie as a mirror to confirm.

Man with swollen face

My swollen face

My guess was that the combination of dehydration and sun reflecting off the snow gave me a sunburn. My eyes were definitely very light-sensitive for the rest of the day, so I was lucky that there hadn’t been more sun the day before.

My shoes were frozen bricks despite the hand warmers, so that didn’t work. Some better options would have been to put boiling water in bottles and put those in my shoes, or put my shoes in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Outside it was a beautiful sunny morning, a great day for a hike in the Stanislaus National Forest. If you weren’t caught in the blizzard the previous day.

Sunny and snowy forest

Sunday morning in the forest, photo by John Ellingsworth

After packing up I headed to the nearby brook to refill my water and spent some quiet time just taking in the sun and listening to the sounds of the forest. Enjoying life in general.

Man standing in snowy forest

Enjoying life, sun and wilderness

We left our camp at 9:00 am and started the short hike back to the car, less than 2.5 miles. The snow had melted down to just a few inches and the weather was beautiful. We slowed our pace to try to take in the last few miles of our hike in the Sierra Nevadas.

Man standing in snow, trees and mountains

Last vista, photo by John Ellingsworth

When we got to Crabtree Trail we found that it was broken by other hikers. Our first sign of humans in three days. That relinquished our final fear, that Crabtree Road would be closed due to the snow. We had a mini-celebration and continued on to the trailhead.

Two men standing by trail marker

Crabtree Trail with signs of other humans

We got back to the Crabtree parking lot at 11:00 am. I leaned my trusted walking stick against the trail sign for a future hiker to use. It had been through a lot with me, so I knew it would be good support for someone else.

Walking stick leaning against sign

My faithful walking stick

We cleared snow from our rental car and changed in the campground bathrooms. There were a few other people milling about. It was clear that our adventure was over and it was time to reintroduce ourselves into society.

Car covered with a foot of snow

Rental covered in snow, photo by John Ellingsworh

Crabtree Road was snow covered but drivable, but we soon got caught behind two horse trailers. There was a Subaru ahead of them backing down the long, mountainous, windy road rather than pulling aside to let the horse trailers pass. To our bafflement, this continued for the next half an hour until the Subaru driver must have realized that he had four-wheel drive and could handle the three inches of snow on the side of the road. We soon hit the Sonora Pass Highway and began the drive back to San Francisco.

State park sign next to highway

Not much snow on Sonora Pass

At the time I was pretty disappointed how our trip had made a turn for the worse. In retrospect we were never really at risk except for the chances of slipping and falling or twisting an ankle. Those were part of hiking and acceptable risks with or without snow. We had suitable layers, plenty of food, shelter, the ability to make fire and we were constantly surrounded by water. But, had we been a little more prepared (snowshoes, and sunglasses for me) the snow would not have phased us and we would have enjoyed the epic trip that much more.

John The Navigator, Michael the Pathfinder: I could not wish for better friends and hiking companions. Thanks for loving the wilderness as much as I do and for joining me on our adventures.


Map of Hike – Sunday

Gonna rise up, find my direction magnetically. Gonna rise up, throw down my ace in the hole.
—Eddie Vedder, “Rise”


Video of Emigrant Wilderness hikeVideo of Emigrant Wilderness hike
Music from Free Music Archive: “Coda” by The IMG, “Only A Mountain” by Pleasant Groove, “Eclosion” by Salmo

The Numbers

Map of hike

Map of Hike (interactive map)

Dates Hiked: 23-26 April 2015
Temperature: mid 50°s to low 30°s
Trail Conditions: dry to snow-covered to waterlogged
Weather: from mostly sunny to hail and thunderstorms to freak blizzards
Wind: 5-10mph

Highest Elevation: 8244′
Elevation Gain: 4960′
Distance: 23.7 miles
Book Time: 14:20
Actual Time: 29:00

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8 thoughts on “Hike: Emigrant Wilderness

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