Beginner Backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13142A, Backpacking


  • Backcountry trail hike to beautiful lakes, peaks, and meadows
  • Enjoy a unique perspective of Emigrant Wilderness where fewer people travel
  • Relax or explore on two planned layover days


  • All meals starting from the first day to our afternoon exit
  • Permits, campground costs, stoves, bear canisters
  • Instruction and demonstrations on backcountry travel


DatesAug 17–24, 2013
Difficulty2 (out of 5)
StaffTed Lenzie

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Entering the Emigrant Wilderness, near Sonora Pass at Kennedy Meadows, we will be hiking past many beautiful lakes and peaks within the Central California Sierra Nevada. This backpack trip will travel through Emigrant Wilderness and just north of the Yosemite National Park boundary. While this is a beginner backpack trip, it is not easy -- backpacking by its very nature is physically challenging. We will be hiking most days with full packs over roughed terrain. The vast majority of the hike will be on trail with one short cross-country section. With visits to a spectacular chain of lakes and meadows, we will hike around some of the less visited peaks of the Sierra. We will cover basic instruction on organizing gear, ensuring wilderness safety, reading topographic maps, using a compass, route finding, cooking backpacking cuisine with portable stoves, using tarps, and following Leave No Trace principles. Most days should provide enough time around camp to explore, swim, fish, relax, or take photographs. However, we will have two full layover days to explore the area or just hangout. We will make a full loop back to Kennedy Meadows and our exit, which is the conclusion of our adventure.


Day 1: This is the official start of the trip. We will meet at 7:00 a.m. in the campground for breakfast, trailhead talk, and logistics. After breakfast we will begin our trek south on the popular Kennedy Meadows Trail toward the Emigrant Wilderness. This day will cover about 4 miles and 1,100 feet of gain. This will be the 2nd highest amount of gain for the trip, and tops out at just above 7,700 feet. Once we arrive at our destination and the largest lake during the trip (Relief Reservoir), we will camp at this lake.  Here we will demonstrate how to choose a low-impact campsite and kitchen area.

Day 2: This day we start in a southwesterly direction toward our goal of Upper Relief Valley.  After leaving Relief Reservoir we enter a canyon, passing beneath East Flange Rock. We will travel again --  about 6 miles and gain 1,900 feet. This will be the most challenging day for the rest of the trip --  it only gets easier. Upper Relief Valley sits at 8,800 feet. Once at our camp, there will be time available to practice setting up a kitchen tarp.

Day 3: We will be heading in a southern direction, on rolling terrain toward Long Lake. We will be passing many smaller lakes and meadows along the way. Traveling a little more than five miles with ascents and descents that are only a few hundred feet, our hardest days are behind us.  Arriving at our destination at 8,700 feet, Long Lake is especially enjoyable with the granite terrain, surrounding peaks, and islands. 

Day 4: Today is the first of our two layover days. The Long Lake area offers some excellent exploring opportunities with its spectacular granite slabs and peaks.  Those who wish can practice cross-country navigation and route finding.

Day 5: Today we travel 6.6 miles on-trail to Emigrant Lake, which is our trip’s second largest lake and sits at 8,800 feet.  First we will head south for a short bit of cross-country then we return to the trail. As we travel we again will pass meadows, lakes, and peaks. We will cross a pass with about 900 feet of gain along with shorter rises adding a few hundred feet more. This area has limited campsite opportunities and we can learn how to find campsites while we maintain our Leave No Trace principles. Emigrant Lake is a long glacier-carved landscape with high ridges on each side. On the short cross-country section we can try out those new navigation skills.

Day 6: Today is the second of our two layover days. The Emigrant Lake area offers some excellent exploring opportunities with its spectacular granite slabs and peaks. This is your free day to explore or relax on the beach.

Day 7: This day, we will begin our 6.3-mile hike to our last night’s stay. On trail, we will climb 600 feet to Mosquito Pass then on to Sheep Camp. After Mosquito Pass we will drop to our camp along Summit Creek, at 8,400 feet, inside Saucer Meadow.  Under Black Hawk Mountain and Relief Peak, there are some beautiful side hikes out of Saucer Meadow for those wishing to get in one more opportunity for exploration.

Day 8: This day we begin our descent along Summit Creek. We travel about 5.3 miles, almost all downhill with some short uphills. We can lunch along Relief Reservoir and begin our final descent and the trip home.



Getting There

From San Francisco Airport:  Take the US-101 south to CA-92 west, north on I-880, east on I-238 to east I-580, continue to I-205 east, north on I-5 to east on CA-120, continue on CA-120 to the east CA-108 split. Continue to Kennedy Meadows trailhead.  Approximately 3.5 hours driving time at 182 miles.

From Oakland Airport: Take I-880 south, east on I-238 to east I-580, continue to I-205 east, north on I-5 to east on CA-120, continue on CA-120 to the east CA-108 split. Continue to Kennedy Meadows trailhead. Approximately 3 hours driving time at 158 miles.

From Sacramento Airport: Take I-5 south to US-50 east, the CA-99 south.  East on CA-120, continue on CA-120 to the east CA-108 split. Continue to Kennedy Meadows trailhead.  Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes driving time at 142 miles. 

For the above, you may wish to stop for food and fuel in Sonora, which would likely provide the best variety. 

From Reno Airport:  South on I-395, west on CA-108.  Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes driving time at 126 miles. From Reno you may wish to stop in Gardenerville for food and fuel. Note: This route to the trailhead is rather curvy and steep, which requires caution when driving during the nighttime hours.

Specific meeting place will be sent via email along with other trip information.

Accommodations and Food

All meals are included from breakfast on the first day of the outing through lunch the last day of the outing. Responsibility for commissary, cooking, and cleanup will be shared by trip participants. Meals include simple, hearty, healthy, and varying breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The leaders will work hard to make the weight of the food as light as possible to lessen the loads in our packs as well as simplify the cooking procedures. A goodie bag will be provided, however participants may bring a few of their favorite snacks to supplement between meals, although it's worth noting that bear canister space is limited. We can easily accommodate vegetarians.

Drinks such as caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, various teas (caffeinated and decaffeinated, green, herbal), hot chocolate, and powdered sports drinks and juice will be available. Chlorine and/or iodine based chemicals for treating drinking water will be provided.

Each night will be spent in the backcountry, thus the accommodations are your own tent and sleeping bag. However, for those who wish to arrive the day before the official trip start, campground fees will be covered. There is a local restaurant available for anyone wishing to go out for dinner.

Trip Difficulty

While this is a beginner trip, this trip is rated a 2 out of 5, with 1 being the easiest, and 5 the most difficult.  Mileage on our six hiking days ranges from 4-7 miles, with a total of nearly 33.2 miles for the entire trip. Our first and second hiking days will be challenging as we hike with full packs, all while we are still acclimating to the high elevation. Our greatest elevation gains will be on days 1, 2, and 5, and our campsites will all be between 6,300 and 9,000 feet. All of the hiking will be on trail, except one short 1.5-mile section.

Participation in this outing suggests that you have at least day hiking experience with a pack; however, you need to be in good physical condition, and have good aerobic conditioning and realistic expectations for the trip. Hiking on rough terrain does require good balance and a patient and flexible attitude, both of which are requirements for the trip. Our objectives are to enjoy some spectacular country, learn some new things about backpacking, and complete the trip safely as a group. Known for its temperate summer weather, the Sierra Nevada can also experience sudden, unexpected rains, hail, snow, heat, and cold. Daytime temperatures can climb into the upper 80s, while nighttime temperatures can drop below the 30s. It is essential that you be prepared for extremes in weather conditions, and also be flexible so that we can adapt our route to accommodate unexpected conditions or events.

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club provides cooking gear, food, fuel, water purification, sanitation supplies, and a first-aid kit to be used for emergencies. You will be responsible for everything else that you need. The gear and food provided by the Club generally equates to approximately 12-13 pounds each at the start of the trip and will be distributed among the group. Please keep the total weight for your personal gear below 25 pounds and make sure your backpack has enough capacity for the extra gear, which will be the size of approximately two one-gallon milk cartons.

The leader will provide an extensive list of gear to each of the participants well in advance of the outing. The list will include those items that are essential such as backpack, shelter, sleeping pad, sleeping bag rated to 20-30 degrees F, boots, rain gear, and your personal medications. The list will also include optional items such a camera and reading material. In addition, there will be a pre-trip letter covering just this subject to help you make an informed choice when purchasing backpacking equipment.



  • The USGS 7.5-minute maps that cover our route are Sonora Pass and Emigrant Lake quadrangle.
  • Tom Harrison-Emigrant Wilderness at or REI


  • Schifrin, Ben, Emigrant Wilderness and Northwestern Yosemite (Paperback). Out of print, but available at



We will venture on-trail into alpine lakes, mountainous terrain, and other geologic features. Here we will try to find what we can of human presence both modern and historical. Some of evening we can discuss what we have found and its impact on the Emigrant Wilderness and ourselves. We can cover other topics such as global warming, technology in the wilderness, and issues regarding the parks and wilderness in general. As a group, we will observe Leave No Trace principles and invite discussion of current issues regarding our wilderness, water, and air.Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Stanislaus National Forest.



Ted Lenzie has been leading Sierra Club Outings for 9 years. Ted has been backpacking for over 25 years and has completed routes such as the Tahoe Rim Trail and the John Muir Trail. He has been a resident of Northern California his whole life. He has been camping since his childhood, and loves sharing his favorite places with others. Besides being an avid backpacker, Ted is also an accomplished mountaineer with climbs on mountains such as Denali, Orizaba, The Eiger, and all the 14,000-foot peaks in California. When not backpacking or mountaineering, Ted enjoys cycling, kayaking, skiing, and traveling with his spouse.

Assistant Leader:

Michael Cadigan's first backpack trips were in the beautiful Lakes Basin of the northern Sierra with an adventurous scouting troop -- many seasons ago. He has been a volunteer and trip leader with the San Francisco Sierra Club Inner City Outings Chapter for over twenty years. He has been participating in Knapsack outings and SF Bay Chapter Outings off and on for the last ten years. Recently retired from high school teaching, Michael is looking forward to more outside adventures -- especially in the Sierra, the Cascades, and the scenic Southwest.

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