Where: Emigrant Wilderness, CA When: May 26-28th, 2018 Permits: Free at Summit Ranger Station
Day 1: Crabtree TH to Piute Meadow, 6.2 miles: Me and Sarah headed into Emigrant Wilderness via the Crabtree Trailhead during Memorial day weekend, crazy? Maybe. We hoped the predicted cold and wet (possibly snowy) weather on Saturday would deter a few people and we had been looking forward to this trip for months. We arrived at the trailhead around 9am after grabbing a permit in a short line at the ranger station and quickly started out in the cool, cloud covered morning. 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. Otherwise it seemed better than I expected but we were also out early so likely we would see more people as the day wore on.
We started to climb pretty quickly and knew that would be the theme for most of the day and were glad to have the cloud cover. We passed a few groups of people headed to Bear Lake but otherwise the trail was empty and quiet. We took a nice break at Camp Lake and had enjoyed a pretty clear trail so far, with only a few muddy spots and a couple of passable downed trees.
We enjoyed the break for a good while as we knew we had the Lily Creek crossing coming up soon and that it may be challenging with the snow melt. Soon enough we were dropping into the gorge and watching lots of water speed down the rocks above 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 the crossing was a long one. 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 our feet on the other side and 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 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 as well, which made me very happy, I love those turds. After dinner we laid in our warm sleeping bags and I watched the clouds roll in and out over the mountains around the meadow 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 (for us, haha) as the tent and meadow were covered with frost when we got up and we knew we had to cross Piute creek first thing this morning, burr! Not my favorite way to start the day but the morning is gorgeous and I am looking forward to camping at Gem Lake. I knew this crossing had deeper water since we scouted it yesterday but it is also a much shorter distance across, so that’s something…
We got on the trail at 9am in our camp shoes and quickly waded across the freezing water. Not too bad really, compared to yesterdays crossing. 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 remember it from a few years ago. It’s wider and can have a few deeper spots, luckily the trail does cross it in a nice wide area so it should be doable and not running too swiftly. But that’s to worry about later, for now we have a bright blue sky and perfect hiking weather.
The day is absolutely gorgeous. We can see far in the distance and enjoy the snow covered peaks and warm granite, as compared to the mist covered land of yesterday. It’s a wonderful contrast and I enjoy them both equally. We took a nice break a little off trail on a granite rise overlooking distant mountains and valleys below us, so perfect.
We had lots of time to get to Gem Lake and so we took it easy. The trail was again clear, besides a few muddy spots, and so peaceful, we only saw a few people when we left camp at Piute Meadows this morning. We came to our Cherry creek crossing about halfway through the hike and it was definitely deep in some spots but not moving very quickly. I was however not looking forward to a long cold crossing…oh well gotta do it. I stripped my shoes off, rolled my pant legs up, and moved across the stabbing cold water to the other side. About halfway in I hit a deep part that went up to my butt cheeks and practically froze them off! No thank you! It was another painful experience and thankfully short lived. We hopped on a flatish sunny bolder and took some time to warm up again. My pants were pretty soaked but luckily dry fast so we chilled for a bit longer to let them do their thing and ate a 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 could see several long snow drifts but there was clearly a foot path to follow and small breaks of clear trail in between so we started our ascent.
The snow was luckily still firm for the most part and there was nothing too sketchy to cross with any scary drop offs. It was 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 to camp at…
The views were pretty as we continued to climb and finally I spotted blue between the trees on the last rise, hooray Gem Lake!
We hit the lake around 12pm and there was a few patches of snow left around the lake but we got our favorite spot from last time just as a couple was leaving it, score! They said 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 here. Luckily we are not supposed to have any more rain for the next few days but it will still be in the 30’s at night. We were both pretty wiped from the long snowy climb up so took our time settling in and then planned to day hike up to Deer Lake if possible about mile and a half away. We set up the tent and then started to hike up to Deer Lake. Unfortunately we hit deep snow pretty quickly and decided it was best to turn around and hike down to the waterfall that is in the other direction instead. That way is snow free over a long granite shelf and also very pretty.
The granite shelf is really cool and there’s a couple 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 rock. We took lunch supplies with us and had a pleasant hike down to the river to see the waterfall and then ate bean, avocado, and fritos tortillas (YUM!) on a shaded granite spot overlooking the valley.
Such a pretty area and we lounged for a while before heading back up to Gem Lake. It was around 4pm when we got back to our spot and there were a few other groups arrived taking breaks to swim in the lake (oh you brave souls!) or finding a spot for the night. Luckily only a few people set up camp on the other side of the lake and we didn’t hear or see them the rest of the day unless they or us popped out of our shelter campsites to explore a bit or poop. As soon as the sun started dropping behind the mountains it got very 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 decided why not enjoy one ourselves. We never have campfires unless we are car camping some where with fire pits and this was a wonderful and warm luxury!
I kept our fire small and we cooked dinner enjoying the warmth and solitude. As the sun dipped lower we got colder and the frogs started to serenade us too. Soon it was time to get into our bags to warm up and settle in for the evening. I doused the fire throughly with our water bucket, safety first y’all. And then I read for a very short while before my eyelids were too heavy and I was off to the dream land of singing frogs in the moonlight.
Day 3, Gem Lake to Crabtree TH, 9.4 miles
The night was definitely colder up here then in the meadow the evening before and when we woke early the tent doors were stiff with frost. We made hot drinks with the last of the canister fuel and I set the tent in the sun for a bit, although it didn’t appear to be drying much, whomp whomp.
We have a longer hike out and both have to work tomorrow so we had to be off before the tent was even remotely dry, oh well I’m glad I have a nice mesh pocket on my bag I can shove it in. We packed up and hit the trail around 7:00am. Back across the snowy switch backs in the morning light.
Again we didn’t see a soul all morning. And when we came to Cherry Creek, even though it was earlier in the day, I swear it seemed like it looked deeper…? WTF. It definitely took me a few minutes to talk myself into going in and I decided to take my pants off this time and go in my underwear so that they would be dry for afterwards this time. Here goes nothing and 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 because I was freezing my bits off by the time I got to the other side. I pulled our ground tarp out and we both threw ourselves on to it and rubbed our feet with dry bandanas until we could sort of feel them again. I changed my underwear into a dry pair and covered my goose pimple legs up ASAP. Woo that was unpleasant! Only 2 more creeks to go today! BOOOOOO.
My body warmed back up quickly in the sunshine and we cruised down the trail. We crossed Piute Creek around 9am and luckily found a more shallow and actually pleasant crossing a little upstream from the trail, hooray! We also super lucked out on this trip and got ZERO mosquito bites, miracle of miracles! Thank you frosty nights! I still make fun of Sarah about this trip because she was so worried about the mosquitos (they were fairly horrendous the last time we came here) that she brought 3 kinds of bug spray! Seriously 3 large bottles, HA!
The day continued to be beautiful and we felt like we had the wilderness all to ourselves We only started to see people about the last mile or two from the trailhead. Lots of people were day hiking up here for the holiday and just a handful of folks were backpacking in. I felt bad for them because the day was really warm by the time we hit the parking lot, which was now completely full and overflowing onto the road. We cleaned up a little bit and changed into clothes we left in the car so as not to offend other people back in civilization. We stopped in a small town on the way home for tasty Mexican food and both felt so privileged to have gotten this special weekend away!