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Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness, Big Lake, Golden Staircase

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Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness, Big Lake, Golden Staircase

Postby Pietro257 » Fri Jul 18, 2014 9:57 am

Dates: July 9–13, 2014 (four nights, five days)
7/9: On trails, Crabtree trailhead to Louse Canyon/No. Fork Cherry Creek
7/10: Cross-country to Rosasco Lake, south around Peak 8352, to Big Lake
7/11: Remained at Big Lake, day hike to Camp Yellowhammer
7/12: Cross-country up Golden Staircase to Pingree Lake, north through canyon to Buck Meadow Creek; on trails to Grouse Lake
7/13: Return to Crabtree trailhead

The big reward of this trip was visiting Big Lake, a gorgeous granite-encased lake like the kind you find in the eastern Sierra. You can enter the Emigrant Wilderness without reserving a permit and there is no limit to the permits given, which means you can go anytime. Permits can be obtained at the Summit District Ranger Station, located at the junction of Highway 108 and the Pinecrest turnoff (call 209/ 965-3434).

Be sure to call the rangers in advance to find out about water availability, stream crossings, and the like. This year, 2014, was a very dry one in California. There wasn’t any reliable water between Grouse Lake and Cherry Creek. I imagine many of the creeks in this area go dry during the season. I have also been told, however, that in a normal or wet year the creeks in this area can be hard to cross and the mosquitoes are rife.

We (seven of us, three who hadn’t been backpacking before) spent a night at Crabtree Trailhead before starting. You can camp there one night. Warning: The place has toilets but no faucet for getting water. You can get water from the creek provided it isn’t dry.

The trail drops into Pine Valley and climbs gradually to Groundhog Meadow, after which it drops into Cherry Creek. The trail is dusty on account of the many pack animals who walk it. It was a tough first day (but all first days are tough). Shortly before the trail drops into Cherry Creek, ducks on either side of the trail mark the beginning of the use trail that goes into Louse Canyon. We followed the trail about 100 yards to a nice campsite on Cherry Creek. This creek is fed by Buck Creek. By the looks of it, it will be dry by August.

The Cooper Peak topo map shows a pack trail to Rosasco Lake and other pack trails in the area south of Buck Creek. These trails are there but can be hard to follow. They haven’t been maintained in years. Trees have fallen across them and they sometimes disappear on the granite slabs, of which there are many in the area. The use trail in Louse Canyon is easy to follow. After following it .5 miles, you can tell where the trial to Rosasco Lake is because it’s the only conceivable route up the steep rock. This trail actually had switchbacks! Once upon a time it must have been a genuine, maintained trail.

After Rosasco Lake the trail gets hard to follow as it drops into the canyon to the southeast. Some beautiful tarns are down there. We contoured around Peak 8352 on the largest single piece of granite I ever walked over. Big Lake, like I said, is a classic high sierra granite-bound lake. The good campsites are on the west side. The boggy mosquito-infested northside is to be avoided!

On our first night at Big Lake we were treated to the greatest display of alpenglow I have ever seen. My son has been teasing me about alpenglow for years, claiming that I am the only one who sees it, but even he had to admit it exists on this day. I think the clouds had something to do with making it appear, as the next day, when there were no clouds, the alpenglow wasn’t as good.

We took a day hike to Yellowhammer Lake and Yellowhammer Camp the next day. The camp — it’s abandoned — is at the northern tip of the lake. There is a faint trail between Big Lake and the camp, but it doesn’t really matter if you lose it because the cross-country hiking is easy in this area. Yellowhammer Camp is an old-time Sierra camp with a barn, bunkhouse, kitchen and other old buildings, all built with mortise and tenon joints and handmade shingles. It’s worth seeing.

Next day we broke camp and hiked up the golden staircase, the water-stained granite slabs between Big Lake and Pingree Lake. This area is beautiful. A trail goes around the east side of Pingree Lake. You can follow it down the canyon to the west. We picked up the use trail to Buck Meadows after wandering a while. I liked the forested area south of Buck Meadows. It was still and mysterious, a bit haunted, with fallen trees often blocking the trail.

After Buck Meadows, we headed west to Cherry Creek and retraced our steps to the trailhead. We camped at Grouse Lake on the last night. It’s a good swimming lake. One of my companions, an expert in these matters, told me that the lily pads in Grouse Lake are very likely not indigenous.

This was my first trip the Emigrant Wilderness. The main trails were too dusty for my taste. It seems like water is a problem there. However, we only saw one other party in the two days we were cross-country hiking. I like the fact that you don’t have to reserve a permit and it’s a relatively short drive from the Bay Area, where I live. I’ll probably go back.



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Re: Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness, Big Lake, Golden Staircase

Postby JWreno » Fri Jul 18, 2014 3:42 pm

Sounds like you had a good trip. The trail out of Crabtree has some of the most talc like dust I have ever encountered. Fortunately the rest of the trails were better. We did much of granite area south of Rosasco Lake that you did. We wanted to go over to Hyatt Lake but gave up do to lack of visibility do to the big fire last August. I loved walking on all the open granite slabs. Some of the best cross country travel in the Sierras. We also did a neglected use trail that lead up to the dam at Emigrant lake. It's kind of fun losing and finding routes over and over.

I want to go back sometime again when the skies are clear and spent more time near YellowHammer, Hyatt and other parts in the south of the wilderness. I think I will go later, carry more water and avoid the bugs.
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Re: Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness, Big Lake, Golden Staircase

Postby justm » Tue Jul 22, 2014 6:51 pm

Thanks for that TR. I'm glad you enjoyed that area, it's one of my favorites ! Where are your photos ?
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Re: Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness, Big Lake, Golden Staircase

Postby Pietro257 » Tue Jul 22, 2014 10:26 pm

justm wrote:Thanks for that TR. I'm glad you enjoyed that area, it's one of my favorites ! Where are your photos ?


I can't upload photos for some reason. The Upload Attachment tab doesn't work for me.
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