Where: Emigrant Wilderness, California When: May 26-28th, 2018 Who: Sarah and Ben Permits: Free at the Summit Ranger Station in Pinecrest, Ca.
Day 1: Crabtree TH to Piute Meadow, 6.2 miles: Sarah and I woke up early to drive from Oakland, Ca to the Summit Ranger Station in Pinecrest. We arrived when it opened, with a few other folks, and stood in a short line before a quick chat with the ranger. Our permit was soon in our hands and we drove the last few miles to the trailhead. The parking lot was about a quarter full and a few people were packing up who had stayed the night in the campground at the trailhead. We were a bit worried that there would be a lot of people out since it was Memorial Day weekend and the first weekend the trailhead was open. We hoped the predicted cold and wet (possibly snowy) weather on Saturday would deter some folks. The morning is cool and cloud covered, so fingers crossed we don’t run into a ton of backpackers out on the trail.
As soon as we crossed the bridge from the parking lot we started to climb. I remembered from our previous trip that up, up, up would be the theme for most of the day and we are glad to have the cloud cover. We passed a few groups of people headed to Bear Lake but otherwise the trail is empty and quiet. We continued East and soon hit Camp Lake. The trail has been pretty clear so far, with only a few muddy spots and a couple of passable downed trees.
We stopped at Camp Lake and enjoyed a break for about 30 minutes, wasting more time than we usually do, since we knew that we had the Lily Creek crossing coming up and that it may be challenging with the snow melt. Too soon we were dropping into the gorge and watching lots of water speed down the rocks from above and down into Lily Creek, hmmm…
The creek was indeed running quickly but did not look too deep any where, so we took our shoes off and waded in before we could think about it too long. HOLY CRAP it was SO COLD and painful, my feet felt like they were being stabbed and set on fire, the crossing felt like it took forever. It was very uncomfortable, to say the least, and I was actually a little nauseous at the end from the pain of the cold water, not fun but we got across! We quickly dried and warmed up our feet on the other side, then continued our hike to our planned campsite at Piute Meadows. The rest of the hike was chill and we got to the meadow just as it really started to rain around 1:30pm. We found a wonderful spot near the edge of the meadow, under some lovely trees, and I was glad that I brought my light tarp to put up for us to relax and cook under.
We spent the rest of the day lounging around, napping, snacking, and exploring a little in between rain spurts. A cheeky Marmot ran through our camp and disappeared into the meadow, which made me very happy, I love those fuzzy little turds. After dinner, we laid in our warm sleeping bags and I watched the clouds roll in and out over the mountains until the light faded and I fell asleep. A day well lived.
Day 2, Piute Meadow to Gem Lake, 3.2 miles We slept in a bit past 7am (that’s late for us early birds!) as the tent and meadow were covered with frost when we woke up. I am not looking forward to our first creek crossing of the day over Piute Creek, after yesterday’s stabby, pain fest it is not on my list of enjoyable morning encounters. We also know that Piute Creek is deeper than yesterdays crossing, since we scouted it yesterday, but it’s a shorter crossing so that’s maybe something…? It’s hard to worry about it too much though, as the morning has dawned gorgeous with clear skies and I am looking forward to camping at Gem Lake tonight.
We get on the trail at 9am in our camp/water shoes and quickly wade across the freezing water. It’s up a little above our knees but not too bad compared to yesterdays crossing, so that’s a relief. One more wading event is in store for us later in the day, at Cherry Creek, and that one will be a bit more daunting as I recall from a trip here few years ago. It’s a lot wider than the other crossings and can have a few deeper spots too. Luckily the trail does cross it in a nice wider spot so it should be doable and not running too swiftly if we get there early. But that’s to worry about later, for now we have a bright blue sky and perfect hiking weather.
The day is freaking lovely and we can see far off in the distance all the snow covered peaks and warm granite, it’s such a difference compared to the mist covered mystery land of yesterday. It’s a wonderful contrast and I enjoy them both equally. We huff and puff upwards and then take a nice break a little ways off trail on a sweet granite rise, overlooking the distant mountains and valleys below us, it’s a perfect spot. The granite is warm beneath us and we lay back in between snacking and drinking electrolytes to soak in the warmth.
We have lots of time to get to Gem Lake and so we decide to take it easy, no need to rush today. The trail has been clear of obstacles, just a few small patches of easily crossed snow and mud. It is so peaceful today, we only saw a few people packing up when we left camp at Piute Meadows this morning and have the morning bird chorus singing us along. After a bit more climbing we drop again and come to our Cherry creek crossing, about halfway through the hike for today, and it is definitely deep in some spots but not moving very quickly. I am not looking forward to a long, cold crossing though…oh well whatcha gonna do?
I take my shoes off, roll my pant legs up, and move across the stabbing cold water to the other side. About halfway across there is all of a sudden a much deeper part and when I step down it goes up to the top of my butt cheeks, No thank you! Sarah’s a bit behind me and there’s a string of expliatives issuing from my mouth which makes her laugh until it’s her turn to wade through, justice. It’s cold AF and my body is numb/on fire at the same time (how is that possible?!?) It seems like the crossing takes forever but it’s really only a few minutes. On the other side there is a flatish sunny bolder and we both hobble over to it and take some time drying off and trying to warm our lower bodies up again. My feet are aching something fierce and I dry them with my bandana quickly to get my socks on ASAP. My pants are now pretty soaked due to the sneaky low spot but luckily they dry fast. We chill for a bit longer to let our bodies readjust and eat another snack before heading toward our last challenge of the day, the long switch backs up to Gem Lake. When we hit the bottom of the climb, we can see several long snow drifts, but there is a clear foot path to follow and small breaks of clear trail in between, so we feel comfortable continuing on and start our ascent.
The snow is luckily still firm for the most part and there is nothing too sketchy to cross with any scary death drop offs, so the climb up is going well. It’s still a long climb and slow going, even if it was a little fun to walk over the snow banks. I just hoped that there would be clear spots at the lake for us to camp at.
The views are real pretty as we continued to climb and finally I spot some blue between the trees on the last rise, hooray Gem Lake!
We hit the lake around 12pm and there are a few patches of snow left to navigate. We head over to our favorite spot camp spot around the East side of the lake and just as we get there a couple is packing up and leaving it, score! We chat for a bit and it sounds like they had a very cold night and got some hail! I’m glad we were not up this high last night, it’s about a 1,000ft higher than Piute Meadow, and we just got some light rain yesterday. Luckily we are not supposed to have any more rain for the next few days but it will still be in the low 30’s at nighttime. We are both pretty wiped from the long snowy climb up here so we take our time settling in and then plan to day hike up to Deer Lake for lunch. It’s about a mile and half away from here and another 500 ft elevation gain. We set up the tent, grab lunch supplies, and then start to hike up to Deer Lake. Unfortunately we hit deep snow right away and decide it’s best to turn around and hike back down since there is no clear path to follow and the snow is now more slushy and dangerous. There’s a nice waterfall lower down in the other direction from camp and we decide to hike there for lunch instead. The way there is snow free and over a long granite shelf, with lots of pretty to look at.
The long sheaf of granite is really cool and there’s a couple of cairns to help you continue in the right direction. It’s also pretty fun to work your way down in whatever manner you choose, since it’s Leave No Trace friendly to walk over this giant rock slab.
We have a pleasant walk down to the river to see the waterfall and then walk back up a ways to a nice spot in the shade with a view of the valley below to eat our lunches of refried beans, avocado, and frito’s in tortillas (YUM!)
It’s dang pretty here and we lounge for a long while before heading back up to Gem Lake. Its around 4pm when we get back to our camp spot and there are a few other groups that have arrived. A few groups of two and one large group of maybe 15, that looks likely to be Outward Bound teenagers and they are taking break here to swim in the lake, oh you brave souls!
Luckily the big group of teens moves on eventually and only a few people end up setting up camp on the other side of the lake. We don’t hear or see them the rest of the day, unless we pop out of our sheltered campsites to explore a bit or dig cat holes. As soon as the sun starts to drop behind the mountains it gets super cold. The couple who had our spot yesterday had gathered a small wood pile and since we are allowed to have fires in this area, we decide why not enjoy one ourselves. We never have campfires unless we are car camping with fire pits and this was a wonderful and warm luxury!
I keep our fire small and we cook dinner next to it, enjoying the warmth and solitude. As the sun continues its nightly descent, the frogs start to serenade us too. All too soon it’s time to get into our bags to warm up and settle in for the evening. I douse the fire throughly with our water bucket and stir the coals to make sure it’s completely out, before climbing in to our little tent, safety first y’all. And then I read for a very short while before my eyelids are just to dang heavy and I’m off to the dream land of singing frogs in the moonlight.
Day 3, Gem Lake to Crabtree TH, 9.4 miles The night is definitely colder up here then in the meadow and when we wake early, the tent doors are stiff with frost. I crawl out after some pep talk and make us hot drinks with the last of the canister fuel. My hands are so cold, even with gloves on, and after some struggling I get the frosty tent down and move it over to the sun for a bit. Although though it’s so cold still it doesn’t appear to be drying it much, whomp whomp.
We have a good hike out today and both of us have to work tomorrow, so we need to be off early this morning. Everything feels so hard in the cold though and we both hem and haw as we gather things. I have to pack up the tent before it’s even remotely dry and I’m glad I have a nice mesh pocket on the outside of my bag that I can shove it in. We do eventually finish packing up, do a last check to make sure we have everything, and hit the trail around 7:00am. Down and around, back across the snowy switch backs in the morning light.
It’s our last bit of solitude today and we don’t see another soul all morning. We walk quickly and when we come to Cherry Creek, even though it is earlier in the day than when we got here yesterday, I swear it seems like it looks deeper…? WTF.
Its taking me a few minutes to talk myself into going in today, ouchy pain time noooooo. There’s no way out but through so I have to do it, sighhhhhh. I decide to take my pants off this time to keep them dry and stand in my underwear for a few minutes, giving myself the real talk. You have to do it, you just have to… so here goes nothing! I step in and after the second step the water is right below my belly button, it is deeper! Son of A…! I am so glad I took my pants off. I am freezing my bits off by the time I get to the other side. I’m trembling super hard as I pull our ground tarp out of my pack and we both throw ourselves on to it and rub our feet dry until we could sort of feel them again. I change my underwear into a dry pair and cover my goose pimple legs up with my thankfully dry pants and feel a little better. Woo that was unpleasant! Only 2 more creeks to go today! BOOOOOO.
My body warms back up fairly quickly in the sunshine and we cruise down the trail. We get to Piute Creek around 9am, it’s running higher too! I walk down the creek a bit towards the meadow and luckily find a more shallow and actually pleasant crossing, hooray! It’s another quick break to get our shoes back on and then we edge along the meadow back to the trail. We talk about how the creek crossings have been tough but are both so relieved the mosquitos have not arrived yet, thank you frosty nights! I tease Sarah about the mosquito situation because she was so worried about the mosquitos (they were horrendous the last time we came here during a warmer year) that she brought 3 kinds of bug spray on this trip! Seriously 3 large bottles, she was not trying to play this time.
The day continues to be beautiful and we feel like we have the wilderness all to ourselves. We finally start to see other people about the last mile or so from the trailhead. Lots of people are day hiking up here for the holiday and just a handful of folks are backpacking in. I feel bad for the backpackers just hiking in because the day is really warm now. The last mile feels like it takes forever, as they usually do, but do finally hit the parking lot, which is now completely full and overflowing onto the road. At the car I clean up a little bit in a bucket bath and change into the clean clothes I left in the car. Then we are flying down the road and back to civilization. We stop in a small town on the way home for giant plates of Mexican food and finish the drive home with full stomachs and hearts.