Two weeks after my last trip to Emigrant Wilderness I went back for another overnight backpacking trip, this time with Granite Dome in my sights. My last trip there was a blanket of snow over the mountains but in the time since almost all of it had melted, only remaining in shady or north facing slopes at high elevations.
I started out from Kennedy Meadows Trailhead, bright and early, after a cool motorcycle ride in. This time I had heated socks, and, other than that my right sock came unplugged when I threw my leg over the bike at the last fill-up, they worked a treat. I made breakfast and a cup of coffee at the trailhead, and set out.
On the way past Relief Reservoir I took a small detour to venture down to the dam itself. There’s even more rusted out machinery scattered all over as you get nearer to the dam, and what looks like the entrance to a mine as a concrete doorway leads into the granite. I couldn’t tell whether there was an official trail to the dam but it wasn’t too hard to get to. There’s a walkway all along the backside of the dam and you can get to the other side, but I only went to the middle. From the dam you can see right across the reservoir and to Granite Dome behind it.
From the dam the trail follows around the reservoir, first dropping down to cross the Grouse Creek drainage, and then climbing up to a fork, one way leading up Relief Valley and the other towards Lunch Meadow. From here there’s probably many different options for climbing up to the lakes below Granite Dome, but I chose to follow the trail up to Lower Relief Valley and follow the drainage up from there.
Lower Relief Valley is a large meadow, encircled by granite. After grabbing lunch I left the trail and skirted around to the creek on the opposite side. The creek cuts down layers of gently sloping granite, draining from Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake 1,200 feet above. The walk up is easy to navigate but it’s a straight walk up and the elevation gain was starting to take its toll on my energy level. When I finally crested the drainage and gazed over Ridge Lake I was ready for a break, and I couldn’t have asked for a prettier place to take one.
Nestled in the folded granite on the north side of Granite Dome there’s a number of pristine mountain lakes and views down to the valleys below. I walked from subpeak to subpeak, taking in Ridge Lake, Iceland Lake, Sardella Lake, Lewis Lakes, and smaller unnamed bodies of water. The huge granite ridge climbs up behind, the north slope still blanketed in a layer of snow. For the most part the granite is huge, smooth, and gently sloping, with a few boulder fields near to the cliffs below the ridge.
The walk up to the top of the ridge is pretty easy, I walked around to Lewis Lakes and curved up through a permanent snow field to the top of the ridge, which is large and flat. The wind was much stronger on top, and freezing cold. The peak isn’t very prominent on the ridge and the views are fantastic all along, although as it’s so flat you don’t get to take in the entirety of both sides at once.
To the south you can see far into the distance, across Emigrant Wilderness and towards the peaks in Yosemite, Long Lake with its little islands is prominent in the valley below. To the north you can see the lakes directly below the ridge and further down to Relief Reservoir. I had been considering camping on the ridge but the wind was too strong so I instead headed back down to camp below the north ridge.
I had the entire set of lakes all to myself. Overnight the wind died down and by morning the air was completely still. The moon was a couple of days off full and I got up pre-drawn to watch the light change and sun rise over the lakes. Morning is my favorite time backpacking, the smell of coffee brewing and the warm cup heating cold hands, the darkness of night fading through deep blue, then orange and yellow, the heat of the first rays of sun as it crests the surrounding mountains, and the anticipation of the day ahead.
After eating breakfast, watching the sun rise, and breaking down camp, I spent a little time walking around the lakes, seeing them again in morning light, before following the drainage of Ridge Lake back down to the valley below. I decided to just retrace my steps back down to the trailhead instead of seeking out a different route.
On the hike out I stopped at Relief Reservoir for lunch and there was a helicopter landed down near the reservoir. I couldn’t see any people and it didn’t look like a SAR helicopter. I also saw multiple groups of horses and pack animals. Right now is hunting season and it seems like the hunters like to use pack animals to come into the wilderness, but I’m guessing that there are horses coming out Kennedy Meadows Resort throughout the peak season.
Granite Dome was an amazing weekend destination, but it was pretty enough that I could easily have spent a few days in the vicinity. It would also be amazing to see in the early season with frozen lakes.