Backpacking Hyatt Lake in Emigrant Wilderness
Like much of the Sierra Nevada, the Emigrant Wilderness is a land of endless granite landscapes carved out by glaciers and water over millions of years. It is a place where the pines, cedars, and firs of the Stanislaus National Forest gradually thin as granite cliffs, mountain tops, and monoliths take over. For Bay Area residents like ourselves, the Emigrant is also one of the closest and most easily accessible wilderness areas to explore. Backcountry permits are easy to obtain without much advanced notice, and trailhead access is straightforward. For these reasons, we’ve explored the Emigrant Wilderness every summer and fall since we started backpacking in 2018.
Casey and I have a penchant for off-trail exploring and navigation, and the Emigrant is a granite wonderland perfectly suited to this endeavor. For this trip, we decided to explore several lakes in the southwestern portion of Emigrant. We planned our 32 mile “lollipop” route using AllTrails Pro, obtained our backcountry permit online, and headed out early Friday morning at the beginning of October. Smoke from nearby wildfires didn’t deter us, as the air quality wasn’t terrible and we needed a good dose of adventure before the winter storms arrived.
The drive from San Jose to Pinecrest Lake is an easy 3 1/2 hours, with minimal traffic to contend with. My favorite part of any drive into the Sierra Nevada is the transition between oak woodland to incense cedar and pine. I always roll down the windows, crank up the classic rock, and breathe in the delicious scent of the forest. On Hwy 108, this transition occurs between the small towns of Twain Harte and Mi-Wuk Village. On this day, the air was crisp and we were excited to start our trek into the unknown.
Our route started at the Crabtree Trailhead, which is just east of Dodge Ridge Ski Area near Pinecrest Lake (and our son’s favorite fishing spot!). Once the pavement ended on Crabtree Road, we followed a nicely graded fire road past the horses of Aspen Meadow Pack Station to the trailhead parking area.
The Crabtree Trail climbs gradually up a forested ridge for 2.5 miles to the easily accessible Camp Lake. This is a popular spot for picnicking day hikers and swimmers alike.
From there, the trail descends into canyons and climbs ridges undulating in this familiar fashion for miles. As we hiked further into the Emigrant, more rock formations began to appear and the crowds thinned. In order to access the off-trail lakes for this trip, we headed south at Piute Meadow on a small connector trail to join up with the Bell Meadow trail near Groundhog Meadow (lots of meadows, I know!). We peeled off our layers as the temperatures started to rise. The Bell Meadow Trail parallels the Crabtree Trail, and can create a variety of nice loops to explore. We chose to start our trip on the Crabtree Trail and return via Bell Meadow Trail for a change of scenery. Crabtree has more ups and downs and expansive views, while Bell follows a canyon, passes sheer cliffs and crosses through Pine Valley full of remnants of past wildfires. Both result in similar elevation changes.
Heading east on the Bell Meadow Trail we climbed through a cool forest and descended into another canyon. We left the official “trail” at West Fork Cherry Creek, venturing down Louse Canyon. In the late spring and early summer, the rushing water along the creek creates gorgeous cascades for miles along this canyon. However at this time of year, only a few stagnant pools remained. We crossed the dry creek bed and climbed a steep, rocky slope up to beautiful Rosasco Lake. Here the colors of autumn were starting to show in the foliage framing the lake. We followed our route over another rise and eventually made our way down the granite terrain to Hyatt Lake for the night. On the way, I lost count of the many mounds of berry-filled bear scat we passed. This was alarming but not surprising, and we were prepared with our bear canister full to the brim.
We set up our tent on the beach and met two other backpackers, who were heading back to their camp on the opposite side of the lake with some freshly caught trout. The smoky skies made for an amazing sunset and sunrise the next morning.
After a restful night, we hiked up the rocks to perhaps our favorite part of the trip. Referred to as the granite superhighway, there is this giant, smooth granite bowl between Hyatt and Big Lakes that empties into Cherry Creek Canyon. We stood in awe of the immensity of the “bowl”. After taking a ton of photos that wouldn’t do it any justice, we skirted around the upper flanks to a notch where our route would take us over to Big Lake. Climbing up the boulders, we were amazed to see horse poop, a sign that they too ventured along this steep path.
We were treated to more bear scat while passing Big Lake, eventually making our way over to the highlight of our trip: the historic Yellowhammer Camp.
Located 15 miles into the Emigrant Wilderness near Yellowhammer Lake, the existing Yellowhammer Camp was constructed in 1922 by Fred Leighton at the site of an old cow camp cabin from the 1890s. Most of the buildings were made with local sugar pine logs and seemed to be in pretty good shape. They included a few small cabins, a barn, a hitching post, an outhouse, and various dilapidated items. There were remnants of recent visitors (Aspen Meadows Pack Station leads multi-day horse packing trips out here), but on this day we had the entire place to ourselves. It was fun exploring the camp in such a remote area and it felt like a mini ghost town!
After spending over an hour at the camp enjoying our snack lunch, we decided to do a little cross-country navigation over to Pingree Lake. This required some steep climbing in the heat of the day, but proved to be a fun adventure.
With our GPS and good sense of direction, we made our way up to Pingree Lake and enjoyed its cool water as the smoke from nearby wildfires closed in. As the smoke gradually began to thicken, we decided to make our way down towards Rosasco Lake for the night. Donning neck gaiters over our faces, we followed a horse trail down to what we thought was our trail intersection, but we were wrong! We inadvertently found an unmarked “trail” that would ultimately lead back to the Bell Meadow trail, but that wasn’t in our plan so we backtracked. Luckily we found our original route and headed over to Rosasco Lake, only to find a large group of campers with some aggressively barking dogs at the only viable site. Wanting more privacy, we ventured along to a small tarn just below the lake and found a great spot for our tent. We soaked our tired feet in the cold water and happily ate our dinner.
Because of the fire ban that summer, we couldn’t use any fuel sources to cook our meals. This was a perfect opportunity to experiment with cold soaked meals! For this evening, we had soaked brown “minute rice” with dehydrated black beans and a little taco seasoning for about an hour. We then added crushed bean chips and turkey jerky. It was surprisingly delicious!
The next morning, the smoke had cleared and we headed out early for our climb back down to Louse Canyon. We enjoyed the different scenery along the Bell Meadows trail, and found a few groves of yellowing aspen along the way. Trail engineers had carved stairs into the granite in a few sections, and we marveled at the high cliffs along the way. We crossed through the charred tree trunks of Pine Valley, which showed hopeful signs of regrowth after a devastating wildfire ripped through there in 2003. At the trail junction, we turned north and climbed 500ft up a ridge to the intersection with Crabtree Trail, ultimately making our way back to the trailhead. Along the way we met a friendly older gentleman who was going out for 2-3 weeks with his fishing gear. Much respect!
Once back at the car, we changed our clothes, put our sore and tired feet in our trusty Crocs, and headed down the mountain. Having climbed nearly 5000′ over three days, we were proud of ourselves for adding yet another amazing trip to our memories.