3-day spectacular Emigrant Wilderness backpacking loop

3-day spectacular Emigrant Wilderness backpacking loop

Emigrant Wilderness is in Stanislaus National Forest, North of Yosemite. Like Yosemite, it has towering granite mountains and spectacular alpine lakes. But it’s much less crowded than its neighbor to the South, offering more solitude for backpacking.

I had time for one last weekend trip to the Sierra before winter. It was the last few weeks of trout season, so I also wanted to bring my fly fishing gear. 

I planned a 3-night trip to Emigrant Wilderness to fish Emigrant Lake and some smaller lakes. I also planned to do some off-trail exploration in the high country.

5-star camping at Upper Buck Lake

I picked up my Emigrant Wilderness permit at the Summit Ranger Station right after it opened at 8:30 am. From there, I had another 15 minutes to the Crabtree Trailhead. The last 2 miles of the road was unpaved, but passable with a car.

It was still near freezing when I started my backpacking trip. Wearing both a fleece and gloves, I started climbing. 

The trail passed through a pleasant pine forest. Gaps in the trees offered occasional glimpses of granite cliffs and the views ahead. 

Rounded granite boulder surrounded by low brush.
A granite wall reminiscent of Half Dome
Not Half Dome, but not half bad either.

I stopped at Camp Lake to fill up on water and layer down. The temperature had gone from freezing to summer in the hour I had been on the trail. 

I planned for a short first day, stopping either at Jewelry Lake or Deer Lake. I didn’t see any signs of fish, so I continued hiking to Buck Lakes. 

A lake that is reflecting the surrounding mountains.
The lake surface was mirror-smooth.

Towering granite peaks surrounded Upper Buck Lake. I found a campsite on the cliffs overlooking the lake a little ways off the trail. The night was wind-still, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I decided to sleep under the stars without the tarp. 

A sleeping bag on a pad laying on a small flat spot on a big cliff.
My private planetarium

I ate dinner, watching the sunset reflect off the calm lake. The evening was chilly, but I stayed warm by my campfire.

The sunset is coloring the tops of mountains red. Emigrant Wilderness offers some top notch backpacking opportunities.
The view from my campsite

Trout fishing in Emigrant Lake

I woke up as the sun began to illuminate the mountains. My water bottle had frozen overnight, but I slept warm. 

A frozen water bottle
Late-season camping problems

After a warm breakfast and a large cup of coffee, I headed toward Emigrant Lake. The trail followed the edge of a large meadow on the Northside of Upper Buck Lake. A small stream that flowed through the field had frozen overnight. 

A frozen creek next to a large boulder.
The creek had frozen over night

By the time I got to the top of the ridge separating Buck Lakes and Emigrant Lake, it was once again warm enough that I could ditch my fleece. 

Emigrant Lake was much larger than any of the lakes I visited the day before. A ranger that I met on the trail the day before said that he’d heard anglers catch 25-inch trouts there. 

The rocky shore dropped deep into the lake and offered trout places to hide. I stood and watched the lake for a few minutes. Suddenly, I saw a big trout come up for a bite. Just as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished into the dark. 

I rigged my Tenkara rod and picked a size 16 bead head nymph with a pink hotspot. The fly dropped outside the cliff and sank. I gave it a few quick jigs and boom–the trout slammed the fly.

A rainbow trout that is the same color as the bottom of the lake.
A well camouflaged trout

My 12-foot rod bent as the line whizzed through the water. The trout leaped into the air several times before accepting its fate. It was way too big for me to eat, especially right after breakfast. I pulled out the barbless hook, snapped a quick picture, and released it.

Foot failure

I packed away my rod and continued along the lakeshore. Immediately I noticed that something wasn’t right. Every step I took on my left foot resulted in a stabbing pain near my heel. 

A rocky lakeshore
Emigrant Lake

It felt like plantar fasciitis but had appeared suddenly. Inflammations should take longer than that to develop, I thought. 

Only later did I remember that I had hit the outside of my foot against a sharp rock. At the time, I didn’t think much of it as the pain subsided in minutes. But the impact was forceful enough to cause a big bruise and my foot to swell up. 

I had to abandon my plan to keep hiking up North Fork Cherry Creek toward the upper Emigrant Lakes. Instead, I headed South, toward Huckleberry Lake, passing Blackbird and Maxwell Lakes. 

Low grass and fall-colored brush covering a flat meadow
A high-alpine meadow

The descent to Huckleberry Lake was painful. Until then, the trail had been well-maintained. But the path that paralleled East Fork Cherry seemed to double as a riverbed during spring. The trail consisted of loose rocks ranging from the size of a grape to a football. 

Browned tall grass along a lakeshore
Fall colors at Huckleberry Lake

Going where few have gone before

At Huckleberry Lake, I left the main trail and headed up towards Letora Lake. It looked like the trail didn’t get much traffic. In fact, I hadn’t seen a single fresh human track on the trail since Emigrant Lake.

Even so, the trail had well-constructed steps that ascended the granite. The views over Huckleberry Lake were some of the most impressive of the trip so far. 

Granite mountains surrounding a lake
Huckleberry Lake from above

I was getting to the limit of how far I could walk on my foot. Even so, I wanted to push a bit further so I could walk back to my car the following day. 

I planned to camp at Wood Lake. When I got to the West side of the lake, I was disappointed to notice that it was a shallow, swampy lake. Camping, there would be a wet and cold ordeal. I kept going. 

A cliff 30 feet above a lake
Campsite above Wood Lake

Fortunately, the other end of the lake was much more suitable for camping. I found a cliff overlooking the lake with a fire ring and a sheltered spot for my sleeping pad. 

Hello, human!

In the morning, my foot was feeling worse. I still had almost 11 miles to the car, so I conjured an ibuprofen and acetaminophen cocktail to get me going. 

Most of the 11 miles were downhill. I passed through some of the most impressive granite landscapes of the whole trip. 

A glacial granite peak, smooth on one side and dropping sharply on the other side.
A trail without footprints
Nobody had used the trail for days or even weeks

At this point, it had been over two full days since I’d seen another person, and over a day since I’d even seen a footprint. 

Five miles from the trailhead, I ran into a group of hikers. They greeted me with a surprised “hello, human!” Clearly, they hadn’t seen others in a while either.

Standing dead trees with blackened trunks.
An old brun area

The last miles of the trail passed through an old burn area. There were a lot of fallen trees that had thankfully been cleared off the trail. 

The last climb up to the trailhead offered a new landscape of volcanic rock and bright-yellow aspen. 

Large boulders of lavarock that has smaller rocks embedded in it.
Lava rocks

Gear for a late fall Sierra Nevada trip

The weather forecast for the trip showed clear skies. Daytime temperatures were in the low 60s and nighttime lows int the 20s. The weather station was at 7,200 ft, so I needed to prepare for 4-8 degrees colder at the elevation I would be at. 

My main concern was to stay warm at night. Because of that, I brought 2 sleeping pads and my 10-degree sleeping bag. In addition, I brought down pants and wool socks to stay warm in camp. 

Some of the extra weight could be offset by not bringing a tent as there wouldn’t be any mosquitoes this late, and there was no rain forecast either. 

Emigrant Wilderness loop map and stats

Start at Crabtree Trailhead.
Day 1: Camp Lake, Piute Lake, Gem Lake, Jewelry Lake, Deer Lake, Buck Lakes.
Day 2: Emigrant Lake, Maxwell Lake, Huckleberry Lake, Letora Lake, Cow Meadow Lake, Wood Lake.
Day 3: Buck Meadow, Grouse Lake, Pine Valley, Crabtree Trailhead.

DayDistanceAscentDescent
112.52,9501,780
216.82,5602,560
310.31,2302,390

2 comments

  1. Hi, just talked to a friend who says trying to reach Buck Lake on day one is really ambitious. What was your experience? Any nice spots to camp prior (Camp Lake or other?)?

    1. Mileage is very individual. How much do you usually like to hike in a day, in terms of miles or elevation? The chart above will give you some idea on what to expect. I normally hike long days, 15-25 miles, so I thought the first day was fairly easy.

      I think Gem and Jewelry lakes would also have made good campsites. Deer Lake was a bit more shallow/marshy at least in one end.

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