The last big camping trip I took with my buddies was in 2005, an outing into Desolation Wilderness that we dubbed Cold Camp (given that we froze our butts off due to unseasonably cold temperatures). After an 8-year hiatus, a backcountry adventure had been long overdue, so when my friend Bill approached me with the idea of heading into the wilderness again, I jumped at the opportunity. What follows is an extended travelogue of our five-day, 44-mile Sierra journey from Leavitt Meadows to Kennedy Meadows in June. For those with an appetite for photos, the full trek is captured in my Flickr photo set for the trip.
Day 1: Leavitt Meadows to Fremont Lake
The first day of any backcountry trek is invariably the hardest, and it proved no different on this trip. We left the Bay Area around 7am, our gear packed into two separate Toyota Land Cruisers. Our first stop was breakfast at the Sportsman Coffee Shop in Twain Harte, a quintessential local diner. With bellies full of carbs and coffee, we gassed up, then headed to the Pine Crest ranger station to check out the situation. We had two different possible trips in mind, and planned to choose which to pursue based on snow and mosquito conditions. Temperatures in the area had been fluctuating in the two weeks prior to our trip, and it looked like the snow had melted to the point where high-elevation passes could be crossed. We’d seen some anecdotal evidence from other hikers that the skeeter situation was potentially grim on the East side in Emigrant Wilderness, so we wanted to check things out.
Sadly, the rangers at Pine Crest proved to be less than helpful. The first guy we talked to (Ranger Barney) basically had no idea about the conditions, and called over the greybeard senior Ranger Andy to give us the lowdown. Ranger Andy thought that mosquitoes would probably be bad on the West side (from Gianelli Cabin up along Burst Rock), and opined that our proposed through trek from East to West sounded like a good plan, though he hadn’t spoken directly with any of the rangers in Bridgeport (who would actually know the conditions on the East side). Based on his shaky-yet-challenging recommendation, we got a backcountry permit for Emigrant Wilderness and headed out on our trek from Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows. In the future, we decided it’s best to call the ranger station at Bridgeport to get accurate information about the Eastern Sierra; the guys on the West side have no clue, and don’t appear to make an effort to stay in touch with their Eastern counterparts.
We dropped Eric’s car at Kennedy Meadows, transferred all his gear to Bill’s car, and headed out for Leavitt Meadows. The drive over Sonora Pass was spectacular as always, and after the ascent and descent, we reached the trailhead at about 12:30pm. What followed at the Leavitt Meadows trailhead parking lot was typical for backcountry adventures: the last-minute gear shuffle.
Camping in the Sierra is always tricky business, especially at the cusp of seasons. Weather conditions can change rapidly, which means if you don’t have the right gear, you can get into a world of hurt (e.g., hypothermia) pretty quickly. It had been warm the two weeks prior to our arrival, but the temperature was dropping quickly, and snow was still in evidence at higher elevations. As if fickle weather weren’t enough, none of us had been on a backcountry trip in awhile, which meant we just weren’t sure about what we’d really need. Living in the comfort of modern convenience, one tends to forget what the absolute essentials are in the backcountry, at altitude, 10-20 miles from the nearest sign of civilization. A camping gear calculus takes hold as you try to balance a few things:
- The need for warmth and dryness
- How much you can handle carrying (i.e., pack weight)
- How much food it will take to survive
- Non-essential creature comforts (nice to have, but maybe not necessary)
Eventually we converged on what we felt like was the minimal set of gear, then headed out onto the trail. I chose to leave behind a fleece pullover, my hard-sided Nalgene water container (in favor of collapsible canteen), my book, and a bit of food. As it turned out, I didn’t miss any of these things, so I guess I chose well. I could have used the fleece one night when temperatures dipped near freezing, but jumping into my sleeping bag got me through that one cold spot.
The trek on Day 1 began at the Leavitt Meadows campground, where we then followed the trail through Leavitt Meadows towards Roosevelt and Lane Lakes. Bill and I had hiked this trail last year, and knew it to be relatively flat and manageable. The only problem on the day we hiked this time was heat…Given that we didn’t get on the trail until 1pm, that meant we were trudging along in roughly 80-degree heat, completely exposed to the sun. While the sun might slow down some hikers, it has the opposite effect on Bill, who usually leads the way. His dislike of heat is only matched by my hatred of rapid elevation gain, which meant he set a breakneck speed in an effort to get out of the sun as quickly as possible. While I appreciate that desire, the fact that we had just gained over 7000′ in elevation (sea level in the Bay Area to 7200′ at Leavitt Meadows) meant that I was huffing and puffing by the time we reached our first pit stop at Lane Lake. We hid from the sun for about half an hour, then continued on our journey. From Lane Lake, the trail bends slightly to the East side of the Walker River and heads up. We passed through several beautiful Aspen groves, continued rising, and then were presented with a gorgeous overlook of the West Walker River as it heads towards Leavitt Meadows.
From our Walker River vista, we descended rapidly down to the river, then followed its course for several miles. We passed the junction for Hidden Lake, rose in elevation a bit, then ultimately found the junction to head towards Fremont Lake (which actually required a bit of backtracking). At this point, we met our first water crossing of the trip. We had come prepared, knowing that the runoff from the snowmelt would swell various rivers and streams that we might have to cross. The Walker was slow-moving at the point we chose to cross, relatively shallow, and maybe 20′ wide. The biggest challenge of the crossing was swapping out footwear in the midst of a swarm of hungry mosquitoes (the first of many such hordes we would encounter this trip). I was trying out my new Keen Clearwater sandals given that I never do well in bare feet with a pack, and they worked like a charm. Once across, we swapped back to our hiking boots and headed up towards Fremont Lake.
The short ascent to Fremont took every last drop of gas I had. I’m not sure if it was the elevation change, the length of the hike, me being out of shape, or all of the above, but I had to stop about every 100 feet to get my breath before I could continue. Bill just plowed along and Eric held back with me to make sure I didn’t die on the trail. Eventually, we made it to Fremont Lake, and it was a sight for my sore eyes (and legs). The East side of the lake proved to be swarming with mosquitoes, so we headed around towards the South side. We found a few different spots, and eventually settled on one large open area right near the lake. We set up camp, found a good kitchen spot, then settled in around sunset for our first meal on the trail (Backpacker’s Pantry Kathmandu Curry and Chana Masala, split three ways).
Given that we were below 9000′, we were able to build a campfire, which we did in earnest. The mosquitoes decided to pack it in around 8:30pm, which meant we were able to finish the night by the campfire without the biting hordes. We called it a night around 10pm, happy to be in the wilderness again, and at least for me, even happier that we’d made it through the first exhausting day successfully. All in all the day’s stats were pretty impressive:
- Time on trail: 5.5 hours
- Elevation change: +1000′
- Distance: ~10 miles (including scouting for sites at the lake)
Day 2: Fremont Lake to Cinko Lake
After a fitful night’s sleep, I got up around 6:30am, boiled water, and fixed breakfast before Bill and Eric were out of their tents. The morning’s fare was a Backpacker’s Pantry Spicy Omelette, which while good, was kind of a hassle to cook and clean (boil water, add to bag, hydrate, then pan fry with provided olive oil to remove excess liquid and finish cooking). The mosquitoes didn’t wait long in the morning, which meant we packed up and headed out as quickly as we could. Even so we didn’t get on the trail until about 9am.
From Fremont lake, the trail dropped quickly to the junction we needed to pursue, and then followed a quick ascent. The trail was rocky and exposed to the morning sun, and things heated up fast. After a lot of ups and downs, we passed through Chain of Lakes and Long Lakes, at which point we crossed the PCT trail and continued along the Walker River. From the river junction, mosquitoes dogged us along an uphill trudge to the Cinko Lake trailhead. Shortly after we branched onto this trail, we had our second water crossing of the trip, after which it was a fairly rapid 100′ ascent to the breathtakingly beautiful Cinko Lake.
After a little exploration, we decided the site on the North side of the lake near the trail was actually the best, so we dropped our gear and set up camp. Even though the site was dry, partially exposed, and windy, the mosquitoes were as fierce as ever. After lunch, we retreated to our tents for a short siesta and escape from the mozzies. None of us had ever experienced mosquitoes like this before, and I for one hope I never do again. Basically, we had to wear mosquito nets continuously, cover every inch of skin (i.e., long pants, long sleeves, hats and gloves), and then douse ourselves with spray repellant. Even then, I managed to get bites along my forehead (where my hat pushed down my net) and my fingertips (because I was wearing fingerless gloves). A few pro tips I learned on this trip, just in case you’re headed into the thick of mosquito territory:
- Keep moving…A stationary target is a bitten target
- High and dry is usually good, but not always
- Sometimes your tent is the only escape
- Spray mosquito repellant is your friend, and your buddies will probably want some too…Bring extra
- Think mosquito head nets are for sissies? Wrong…They’re for smart campers
The one upside to being in the thick of the first mosquito hatch was that the fish in Cinko Lake were going crazy. After a long winter, the trout were jumping completely out of the water trying to scarf down as many mosquitoes as possible. Bill did a little bit of fishing, but after hooking a fish every cast for about 10 minutes, he just gave up; it was too easy.
Despite the mosquitoes, we built the last fire we’d have for a few days and settled in for dinner. As luck would have it, it turned out to be our best meal of the trip (Backpacker’s Pantry Shepherd’s Stew and Chicken Vindaloo, again split three ways). We ate around the campfire, then just sat and watched the light fade over Cinko Lake. As the last rays of the sun disappeared, we saw and heard bats skimming across the lake, having their fill of mosquitoes, and once darkness had fully descended, we were finally left in peace. Simple, quiet moments like this one, spent with friends in a breathtaking place, make all the exhaustion worthwhile.
Stats for Day 2 were similar to those from Day 1, although the elevation gain occurred over a shorter distance:
- Time on trail: 3.25 hours
- Elevation change: +1000′
- Distance: ~6.5 miles
Day 3: Cinko Lake to Middle Emigrant Lake
We rose early on Day 3 of our journey (6:30am). Maybe we were less tired, maybe eager to cross the pass. Sleep is never really prolonged or sound at elevation, at least not for me. Sunrise on Cinko Lake was picture perfect, and improved by the fact that we had a brief respite from the mosquitoes (until about 7am, that is). It was a cool, still morning, and the lake was like glass, reflecting both the morning light and the snow from the mountains that formed its shoulders.
Given the rapidly escalating mosquito activity, we had a quick breakfast (Mountain House Scrambled Eggs, ham and peppers – not bad), packed our gear, and bolted as quickly as we could. We were on the trail by 7:50am…A quick descent dropped us to the stream, and a rapid search revealed where we had crossed before. Once we’d found our crossing, we went through the same ritual we’d done twice before (drop packs, remove shoes, don water shoes, cross, remove water shoes, dry feet, don socks and boots, hoist pack). With the ritual complete, we hit the trail on our way towards the chain of Emigrant lakes.
The trail out of Cinko Lake is what the map referred to as "unimproved," which meant that no rangers maintained the trail actively. As we ascended away from the lake we discovered pretty quickly what that meant — downed trees, washouts, and a trail that was occasionally hard to follow. Despite these setbacks, we made our way up the trail to a gorgeous saddle that passed over into the meadow below Emigrant Pass.
It was a relatively quick climb up to 9500′, where we encountered our first snow of the trip. Even so, it was still quite warm as we passed into the mushy meadow below Grizzly Peak. As we wove our way across the grassy flat (with no trail to be seen), we noticed that the ground was criss-crossed with small dirt mounds, almost like above-ground burrows. After a little thought, it occurred to us (actually Bill) that not too long ago, this meadow had been covered with snow, which meant they were effectively underground. In all likelihood, we were looking at a complex network of runways used by local Voles to move around in the meadow.
After we crossed the meadow, we made a gentle ascent up to the broad saddle near Emigrant Pass and below Grizzly Peak. Once we reached the saddle, we were offered a gorgeous vista encompassing the meadow we’d just crossed, Grizzly Meadows to the West, and Grizzly Peak to the South. After a brief photo pit stop at the junction of the trail to Emigrant Pass and Upper Emigrant Lake, we made our way through Grizzly Meadows (a bit swampy after the recent snow melt). Two small, unnamed lakes rest in Grizzly Meadow, and we stopped for a snack at the second one along the trail. The air was crisp here, and the wind coming up from the valley below these lakes was cold; even though it was a potential camping spot, we chose to keep moving. A short hike up from these lakes led us to another small pass, one that offered a grand view to the West (towards Brown Bear Pass).
Through a mix of snow, mud and rocky trail, we made our way down to Emigrant Meadow, which proved to be just as swampy as Grizzly Meadow (i.e., no decent camping in sight). At this point, we faced a tough decision. If we continued on the trail directly West, we would cross Brown Bear Pass, heading in the direction of our ultimate destination (Relief Reservoir and Kennedy Meadow). The problem with that route was a distinct lack of lakes, which meant camping might be poor; we’d have to go 10 miles to Relief Reservoir for decent camping. If we instead chose to head Southwest along the Blackbird Lake trail, we’d hit Middle Emigrant Lake, which might offer better camping nearby. The problem with this route was that it led us off course, which meant we’d either have to double back, or take a longer loop across Mosquito Pass.
Even though it was still relatively early (around 11am), we’d already been hiking for about three hours, and I wasn’t really in a mood to push through Brown Bear Pass and the 10 miles it would take to reach Relief Reservoir. We were also curious about what Middle Emigrant Lake would have to offer (and possibly Emigrant Lake itself a little further on). And so after a little debate, the die was cast: we would head for Middle Emigrant Lake…
The journey’s not over yet…The next installment (Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows Part II) covers the rest of the trip, including our night at Tyrol Vista, water crossings galore, a walk through majestic Mosquito Pass, and the pseudo-death march to Relief Reservoir.