I’ve spent several weeks this summer volunteering in the Sierra National Forest wildernesses maintaining trails, so the first weekend of fall was the first chance I got to do a regular backpacking trip since July. The week before I was due to go a low pressure system sat over the Sierra, and on Thursday it snowed up to 6–8 inches at the high elevations, with the cold temperatures lingering into the weekend.
I planned to start out at Kennedy Meadows Trailhead in Stanislaus National Forest and hike into the Emigrant Wilderness. The early morning motorcycle ride into the forest was frigid, my heated jacket and gloves kept me toasty but my toes felt like they were about to drop off by the time I reached the parking lot.
The trail starts out passing through Kennedy Meadows Resort and follows the river, crossing once and then twice, the section in between looks blasted out of the granite in a steep-sided canyon. Past the second bridge there are a couple of pieces of old equipment lying by the trail, probably used for the construction of Relief Dam, a cast iron winch and boiler, rusted from age, dated from the late 1800s.
Past here the trail follows around Relief Reservoir, at first hidden from view, but then as the trail starts to drop down, reveals the length, from the source down to the dam. As I get nearer to the source I branch off from the main trail towards Grouse Creek. There’s no trail here, at first it’s a relatively steep incline but after the climb it opens up into a large flat valley. On the climb up I crossed through the snow line from the early season storm, the snow was still powder as it had only fallen two days earlier, but it carpeted the entire basin.
From here I had originally set my eyes on Relief Peak, but I wasn’t expecting the snow, which made travelling much slower, so I just headed up towards a pass that would take me over to Soda Canyon, topping out just below 10,200 feet. The climb up took a lot of energy but the views more than made up for it. Relief Peak wasn’t visible from my route up, but I could see right across to Upper and Lower Relief Valley.
At the pass I took in the view, Soda Canyon stretched out before me and Kennedy Lake peaked out beyond the ridge. The gleaming white mountains bright in the afternoon sun. From here I dropped down a short distance to set up camp above a small lake at around 9,500 feet.
When the sun dipped below the mountain tops the air temperature dropped below freezing to 25 °F (−4 °C), although it was completely still with no wind, not even a breeze. After dinner, as the stars started to come out, I climbed inside my bag and the temperature continued to drop, eventually reaching 15 °F (−9 °C) for most of the night. This was much colder than I expected, my bag is rated for comfort at 32 °F (0 °C), and I was wearing all of my layers (including my wonderful down socks). Despite the layer of frost on top of my bag I was mostly comfortable.
Eventually the stars started to disappear one by one, and the sky started to brighten, the sun at first lit the mountain tops, and then creeped down their slopes, until it crested the horizon and the morning rays hit me, and boy did it feel good. The frost covering my gear started to melt to water droplets, and the snow around me glistened. With my morning coffee mug heating up my gloved hands, and the entire mountain basin all to myself, it doesn’t get better than this.
After packing up my stuff and following the stream down to Soda Canyon floor, the snow started to fade away. As I reached the bottom I saw the first signs of hunters, who had packed in. September is the start of hunting season in the Sierra national forests. I wandered into a series of trails in the canyon floor, which aren’t marked on the maps. There is cattle grazing in the valley to Kennedy Lake and there is wire fencing up to gate in the cattle, the trails led me through primitive gates in the fences, and eventually to the river.
Joining up to the Kennedy Lake Trail the rest of the hike out was mostly long and flat and dusty as it’s clearly heavily used by packers. After a few miles following the river downstream it connects back up to the inbound trail, and eventually back to the trailhead.
I haven’t done a lot of off trail hiking but on this trip the off trail traverse was 10 times better than the on trail section. It’s not entirely a fair comparison because a chunk of the trail miles were just getting to the trailhead, but the combination of the fresh snow, amazing views, and mountain solitude was hard to beat.