Across the High Emigrant Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13126A, Backpacking


  • Enjoy abundant July wildflowers and super diversity of geology
  • Spend a layover day at the lovely “Lady Lakes”  with lake-bagging and peak-bagging possibilities
  • Experience the splendor and solitude of the High Sierra


  • Highly experienced leaders with extensive training and interest in natural history, Wilderness First Response, Leave No Trace and lightweight backpacking
  • Diverse, delicious and easily prepared meals
  • Carefully and thoughtfully designed route; all permits, including trailhead campground


DatesJul 18–25, 2013
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffDavid Reneau

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Given that this moderately paced trip never much exceeds an elevation of 10,800’, it might seem odd to tout spectacular and classic panoramas as among the first of its highlights, but from our far northern promontory amid the last high ridges of the High Sierra, we see the shining topography of Yosemite’s north boundary country spread at our feet, from Tower Peak to the Matterhorn. Although our peaks and passes may lack the craggy awe of the southern Sierra, they do not fail of interest, beauty, solitude or grandeur.

The more northerly days of our journey, through the Emigrant Wilderness off Sonora Pass, cross a lunar wonderland of ash, pumice, and obsidian.  Proceeding south into Yosemite National Park, we reach the contact where this colorful volcanic overlay has been glaciated away, revealing mirror slabs of polished granite.  Both rocks have their attractions. Volcanic soils yield superior wildflowers, dearly beloved by your leaders, while granite makes for comfy camping and easy cross-country slab walking. 

Although the name Emigrant Wilderness would seem to imply service as a major thoroughfare for American pioneers, it was actually a slightly later generation of miners, shepherds and stockmen who honed the Sonora Pass route and built the first road in 1864. Their legacy is still with us, but mostly below our high-cirque and lake-basin-hopping route, through what a USGS map of the 1880s called the “rough and barren granite mountains.” Little did they know,  this is the gentle wilderness.


Day 1: The trip officially starts the evening of July 18th at one of the Forest Service campgrounds near Sonora Pass off Highway 108.  Pack weighing and equipment checking will merge into happy hour, followed by a simple dinner. Try to be on time (5:30 p.m.) as we also need to shuttle some cars a few miles down to our entry/exit trailhead.

Day 2: Goodbye cars and pavement, hello backpacking. Our hoped-for first hiking day route is straight south off Sonora Pass (9,643’) on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), a short four to five miles to Latopie Lake. The trail winds through an open “moonscape” of pumice summits more reminiscent of Lassen than the Sierra. It is so high and open that if we have a winter with heavy snow, the day may call for an alternative, more sedate first day route up Kennedy Creek.

Day 3: We continue south on the PCT past the Leavitt Lake and Kennedy Canyon junctions and then along a high traverse to “Big Sam Peak” (10,800’), before dropping into camp at High Emigrant Lake (9,700’).

Day 4: Into the wild -- the cross-country, that is. After first making our way down to Emigrant Pass (9,650’), we leave the trail and traverse the granite to Grizzly Lake and, staying high, across some further ridgelets to our layover camp at Bonnie Lake (9,390’).

Day 5: Layover! A packless day to lake-bag the subalpine harem of Bonnie, Harriet, Cora, Helen, Ruth, Stella and Dorothy lakes, affectionately dubbed the “Lady Lakes.” Forsyth Peak is right next door and a temptingly easy walk-up. 

Day 6: Two passes today—Dorothy Lake (9,520’) and Bond (9,730’)—both pretty wimpy by Sierra standards, and both back on the trail.  We cross into Yosemite Natioanal Park at Dorothy Lake Pass on the PCT,  then head north back into the Emigrant Wilderness at Bond Pass on the Tahoe Yosemite Trail before turning aside and heading for camp somewhere just short of spectacular Brown Bear Pass.

Day 7: We go over Brown Bear Pass (9,750’), renowned for its contorted white bark pines and stellar view of the Emigrant Lake Basin, and drop into Summit Creek, looking for a camp somewhere beneath the ramparts of Relief Peak.

Day 8: We head down and out past Saucer Meadow and Relief Reservoir to our exit trailhead at Kennedy Meadows (6,330’).   



Getting There

We will meet at a campground near our starting trailhead on the Sonora Pass Road, State Route 108. The most convenient airports to fly into and rent a car from are Reno, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. Plan on five hours to drive to Sonora Pass from San Francisco, four hours from Sacramento, and three hours from Reno.  Participants sometimes like to come up early and visit nearby Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows. A roster of trip members with accompanying travel plans will be sent ahead of time to arrange ride-sharing.  Please have your ride to and from the trailhead arranged prior to leaving home. A departure bulletin will be sent out in June with meeting place/time and detailed driving instructions.

Accommodations and Food

The first trip meal is dinner on Thursday, July 18 at a Forest Service campground on the Sonora Pass Road near our trailhead. The last meal is lunch on the final day, Thursday, July 25.

The Sierra Club will provide all meals and snacks. Vegetarians are welcome, but please let us know well in advance. Cooking and clean-up duties will be shared by all members of the group on a rotating basis. All of our food will be carried in bear-proof canisters. Please do not bring any extra food, such as snacks, as it will not fit in the stuffed-to-capacity canisters.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 3 (Moderate) and is intended for backpackers with a modicom of experience. You must have the ability to hike up to 12 miles a day at high altitude, with a backpack weighing as much as 45 pounds. We may have to cross snowfields that linger far into the summer and there will be stream crossings. We will backpack a total of 44 miles for the trip, including 5 miles of cross-country travel plus optional day hikes on the layover day. Daily mileages will usually range from four to eight miles, but we have one hard day that will be 12 miles on trail with a 1,600-foot climb and a 2,200-foot descent. Most days will be more moderate hiking, with 5-6 hours on the trail, including breaks, but some days could run longer if unforeseen difficulties arise. Our campsites will be between 8,400 and 10,400 feet elevation. The highest point of the trip will be at 10,870 feet, where we first enter the Emigrant Wilderness two and a half miles past Sonora Pass.

Participants must be in good physical condition and have previous backpacking experience. Hiking, running, and cycling are good training activities. Lack of adequate preparation not only affects your enjoyment of the trip, but reduces the enjoyment of other trip members as well. At least one previous overnight backpack is a must before participating in this outing. We are hoping for a diverse group of age and experience.

Leader approval is required. Please complete and return the questionnaire included in your confirmation packet to the trip leader.

The High Sierra is renowned for its excellent summer weather, however, extended storms can occur at any time of the year. Afternoon thunderstorms, with sudden cloudbursts of wind, rain, hail, and even snow are not uncommon. Be prepared for extremes: high temperatures during the day can exceed 80 degrees and fall into the low 20s at night.

Note that depending on snow pack in July, we could encounter high water at stream crossings and snowfields on passes. Be prepared to be flexible as the itinerary may change due to unforeseen conditions and circumstances.

Equipment and Clothing

A basic equipment list will be sent when you are accepted for the trip. Trip participants will need to furnish their own backpack and personal gear including eating utensils. The club will provide food and commissary equipment including pots, cooking utensils, and stoves and fuel. Each person should keep the weight of personal gear under 25 pounds so that, with the addition of approximately 14 to 18 pounds of commissary equipment and food, total pack weight will be less than 40 to 45 pounds at the start of the trip.

Your pack should have room for commissary equipment, as well as your personal gear. Each participant’s commissary load will likely include one food canister, plus an additional non-food item such as a stove, fuel bottle, tarp, rope, pot set, etc. This is roughly equal to the size of a full grocery sack.

In July weather is usually mild, but storms are possible, so bring cold-weather clothing, raingear (rain jacket and rain pants), and a tent. Boots must be broken in before the trip, be waterproof, and have good Vibram soles. Your personal first-aid kit should include a roll of cloth-bound, two-inch athletic adhesive tape. When preparing your backpack, you might want to consider Thoreau's words: "A man is rich in proportion to what he can do without."

A comprehensive listing of equipment and our philosophy can be found at



  • Please plan on carrying either the three USGS topo maps or one of the larger area maps such as the Tom Harrison or U.S. Forest Service map. The Tom Harrison is the lightest.
  • U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute topographic maps: The “Sonora Pass,” “Emigrant Lake,” and “Tower Peak” quads cover most of the trip, with the “Pickel Meadows” quad covering a  short segment.
  • “Emigrant Wilderness Trail Map”  Tom Harrison Maps ( covers all of the trip. At REI & Amazon.
  • “A Guide to the Emigrant Wilderness” U.S. Forest Service ( covers all of the trip.


  • Laws, John M, The Laws Field Guide To The Sierra Nevada. An excellent field guide to plants, animals, and more.
  • Schifrin, Ben, Emigrant Wilderness. Wilderness Press. It is no longer in print but is still available at used book stores and online book sellers.
  • Storer, Tracy I., and Robert L. Usinger, The Sierra Nevada Natural History. Gives more details on specific plants and animals.
  • Whitney, Stephen, A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to the Sierra Nevada. An excellent trip and/or pre-trip read to understand Sierra ecology.


The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy and participation in the goals of the Club.

We will be visiting the Emigrant, Hoover, & Yosemite National Park Wilderness areas on the 49th anniversary of the enactment of the Wilderness Act. Though this area is preserved, adjacent areas not in designated wilderness are still threatened by development, logging, and overgrazing. All of the Sierra Nevada is threatened by air pollution from the San Joaquin Valley below. The declining frog population of the Sierra Nevada will also be discussed by the leaders. For info go to

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Yosemite National Park, Stanislaus National Forest, and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.



David Reneau has been backpacking in the coast ranges and the Sierra for 44 years, and has been leading backpack and camping trips for the Sierra Club for 32 years. His training and major interests are in botany and geology. He will be glad to discuss the area's natural history.


Frances Reneau has been backpacking for 38 years, and leading trips for the Sierra Club for 28 years.

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