Kennedy Meadows in Emigrant Wilderness

Kennedy Meadows in the early season is lush and green and surrounded by snow capped mountains and ridges. The wide meandering creek flows out of Kennedy Lake, which is pretty, but muddy this time of year.

My first trip to the Sierras this year was on July 4th for an overnight stay in Emigrant Wilderness. It was a big snow year after a series of late storms swept through the mountains dropping as late as May, so the high elevations were still covered, but the lower parts of Emigrant had just melted out.

I had my eye on Emigrant Lake which I knew was still frozen over, which would have been a long overnight, but I changed my plans last minute and instead planned a trip with a few colleagues and picked out a shorter route that everyone would enjoy. I had been through the bottom of Kennedy Meadow before when I came down Soda Canyon two years ago, but I didn’t get all the way up to the lake.

The trailhead parking lot is a half mile before the end of the road at the Kennedy Meadows Resort, both of which were humming on 4th July. From there we follow a dirt road which takes us to the wilderness boundary. The trail climbs up the granite alongside Middle Fork Stanislaus River, crossing over a footbridge, and continuing its ascent. A little further up Kennedy Creek tumbles down a steep ravine to join Summit Creek. Another footbridge crosses the swiftly flowing stream, and we shortly arrive at the trail junction.

A bridge crosses over Kennedy Creek at the base of the valley.

The Kennedy Meadows trail forks to the left, climbing up a dusty trail, before flattening out after a crossing a bridge at the entrance to the valley. From here the trail ambles through forest and chaparral, crossing over seasonal streams, and providing occasional glimpses of meadows and mountainsides. It’s not until you get deeper into the valley that the wide open meadows start to appear, and at this time of year, framed by snow capped mountains, they are lush and green.

Looking up Soda Canyon from Kennedy Meadow Trail, there’s still a lot of snow on the mountains after a big snow year.

Kennedy Meadows is used for grazing cattle and horses and there’s some large fenced corrals in the meadow, which the creek meanders through. The best campsites are on the far side of the creek on the west bank, and the only way to get there is to wade through the river. It’s wide and relatively slow flowing but this time of year is still deep; thigh high and cool.

Now on the far side we scout out a campsite, there’s a far number of occupied sites already, but we find a nice site among the trees beside the river and set up camp. We have a little time before the evening so we decide to try and get up and see the lake. I had been warned at the ranger station that there had been reports that the trails to lake were muddy, but so far we’d had dry trails the whole way, but just below the lake we quickly realised these reports were accurate as we started to sink in. After everyone got their feet a little wet, not finding a way through, we decided to call it a day and head back to camp to dry our shoes by the fire.

Cabin in Kennedy Meadow, just below the lake.

The next morning I got up early and decided to try again to get to the lake by taking a higher route, we were only camped a little over half a mile from the outlet. This time I got all the way the lakeshore in time to see the dawn light reflecting off the still surface. I headed back to camp and had a cup of tea while I waited for my hiking companions to stir.

On the way back we tried the other side of the lake again, after crossing back across the creek, but the meadow again got just as muddy. At this time of year there’s no way to get to the top of the lake without getting your feet a little wet. But nothing was lost, we took in the snow covered ridges surrounding the wide open meadows as we headed back down to the trailhead.

Granite Dome in Emigrant Wilderness

The views from the top of Granite Dome look out across the entire Emigrant Wilderness and there are many pristine mountain lakes nestled in the expansive and gently sloping granite slopes, polished smooth by glaciers.

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.

The dam at Relief Reservoir. You can walk down to the dam and across the back side.

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.

The meadow in Lower Relief Valley looking up towards Granite Dome. I skirted around the meadow and followed the drainage up and around to Ridge Lake.

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.

Looking over Ridge Lake and the cliffs to Granite Dome behind.

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.

Looking south from Granite Dome peak, Long Lake is visible in the distance

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.

Looking north from Granite Dome peak, Lower Relief Valley meadow, Iceland Lake, and, below it, Relief Reservoir are visible.

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.

The sun just cresting the horizon over Lewis Lake in the morning.

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.

The aspens in the valleys are turning yellow with fall colors

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.

Grouse Creek to Soda Canyon in Emigrant Wilderness

An overnight backpacking trip over a 10,000 foot pass just below Relief Peak in Stanislaus National Forest, the first snow of the season had blanketed the high elevations with around half a foot of snow and the mountains were just gorgeous.

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.

The frost covered floor glistens in the rising sun as I set off down the trail after a frigid motorcycle ride to the trailhead.

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.

Old rusting cast iron equipment alongside the trail towards Relief Reservoir.

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.

The snow blanketed the floor and trees in alongside Grouse Creek

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.

Looking across Relief Valley, the meadows at Upper and Lower Relief Valley are visible in the distance.

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.

As the sun sets and the tip of Leavitt Peak is illuminated the temperature drops to 25 °F (-4 °C)

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.