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TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Sun Jun 26, 2016 8:52 pm
by kpeter
Day One: Getting to Rosaco Lake

Purpose of the Trip

Emigrant has some important advantages as a backpacking destination that are sometimes overlooked by those who relish the higher elevation eastside destinations. Most of its destination lakes are in the vicinity of 8000 feet, making them accessible far earlier than favorites further south. Most Emigrant permits are free and unrestricted, meaning that you can easily plan a last minute trip. And for those of us in the Bay Area and northern California, the driving time is half of what it takes to get to the east side. For all these reasons I have used Emigrant and NW Yosemite as early season destinations.

Getting to the Trailhead

Drive to Pinecrest where the Forest Service station is right next to Highway 108. They open at 8am, are helpful and efficient and will give you a map to Crabtree trailhead. The drive is paved most of the way--until you get to the Aspen Meadow Pack Station. There the road goes over the biggest speed bumps you will ever see--enough to belly out a passenger car if you go a scintilla above the posted speed of 5 mph. After the pack station the road become paved again with a handful of giant potholes, then it become dirt with enough washboard and potholes to periodically force you below 15mph. Just drive it slowly and you won't wreck your car. The trailhead is paved, has pit toilets, and is adjacent to a creek with running water.

Entrance and Hiking into the area South of Buck Meadow Creek

Following the good advice I received here, I decided to approach this lonely region via Rosaco Lake, described below. However, there are two other standard ways "in" to this region of the Southern Emigrant besides the Rosaco entry. Another use trail (which I did not take) departs from the trail to Woods lake a little after it fords Buck Meadow Creek as you make your way east from Cherry Creek. I did not explore this, but it brings you down into the granite valley between Rosaco and Pingree. I did note that it had an elaborate but delicate looking cairn marking the route from the main trail (the one to Woods lake)--that could depend upon someone setting it up each year. The other route "in" is a use trail from the southern side of Wood Lake. That can take you either to Karls lake or by another route to Red Can Lake.

My guess is that all these routes were once engineered trails used by Leighton when he built his backcountry camp at Yellowhammer and used it to construct the many check dams in the area in the 20s, 30, 40s, and 50s when horsecamping was king. My guess is that the pack trains must have come in via the use trail departing the Woods Lake trail as the easiest and most level access to his camp. All these trails south of Buck Meadow Creek have been allowed to deteriorate since--probably since wilderness designation in the 70s. Trails that have not been maintained for nearly 50 years have their quirks, but also a bit of charm. It turns the hiker into a kind of archaeologist looking for the remains of a lost time. Where the trails are relatively open, or where they cut deep through turf, they are easier to pick up. Where they go through deep duff or brush they are easier to lose. You can't count on finding them, but when you do they are nice reminders that you are on track. Most of them are accurately marked on my Garmin gps maps, so I had the advantages of knowing where they were supposed to be, which often help me see where they actually were.

Day One--getting to Rosaco Lake

For a first day, this was ambitious and I was indeed suitably tired by the time I made it to my first day destination. The Crabtree trailhead is not particularly interesting and the trail is fairly inefficient as it gains and loses elevation as it snakes around a hill. In 1.2 miles it comes to the key intersection. Left and hikers head up the Crabtree trail along a high route that takes them up and down to Camp, Piute, Gem, Jewelry, Deer, and eventually Buck Meadow lakes. I've written a different report about that trail. Right and hikers plunge down into Pine Valley and a lower trail that goes by Grouse, Louse Canyon, and Wood Lakes. Since I was interested in exploring the area South of the Pine Valley trail, I took it. However, since the two trails are frequently interconnected, there is a degree of personal preference.

On the debate between the Crabtee trail vs the Pine Valley trail, I definitely saw all the pros and cons. Pine Valley does go through some territory that was burned, but the undergrowth and vigorous young pines have long since softened that. It tends to be wetter with more green meadows, and I think the trail is somewhat better engineered with less wasted elevation gain. The trail has some high moments of scenery--the dramatic views of West Fork Cherry Creek, the water falls on Buck Meadow Creek, elaborate staircases snaking up canyon walls. I am glad I tried it out. However, all that greenery is also great habitat for mosquitoes. And when the trail gets past Cherry Creek and follows the Buck Meadow Creek canyon it is in a deep shady gorge on a north facing slope--so snow hangs in there much longer. My advice would be to take the higher Crabtree trail in early season and the lower Pine Valley trail in later season, if you have a choice.
After enjoying the hike through Pine Valley, where I met only two people, I got to the West Fork Cherry Creek crossing. A use trail, marked by a small stone duck, departed south, and snaked south along the river through a series of campsites. There were numerous possible fords, including the official one on the main trail, and even a great tree across the stream pointed out on this board, but if you follow the use trail to its conclusion it takes you to an easy ford, which was no more than knee deep and not all that swift. I kept wanting to cross earlier, but since I wanted to find what used to be an engineered trail up the Louse Canyon wall to Rosaco Lake, crossing at the standard place set me up to find the trail.
At first I could not find it as there were a few hundred yards of river stone debris. Was this canyon placer mined in the 19th C? But after crossing the stone I found that the trail was marked on my GPS map. When I maneuvered to the trail I discovered what proved to be true repeatedly on this trip--the old use trails were very helpful in route finding, even when they had deteriorated. In this case, it had reasonable switchbacks and led to a notch that dropped me into Rosaco Lake.
Rosaco Lake looked very good to me after that exhausting day. It is a smallish, woodsy lake--not my favorite kind of lake but it was pretty in its way. I found a very nice campsite on the Louse Canyon side of the lake. The highlight of the lake was the easy stroll up granite to the top of Louse Canyon, where I could look at Rosaco one way and into the depths of the canyon, and W. Fork Cherry Creek, in the other.

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Sun Jun 26, 2016 8:53 pm
by kpeter
Day Two: From Rosaco via Pingree and big slabs to Big Lake

The use trail from Rosaco to Pingree was easily discernible in some places--and it was fun looking for the old sawed off logs, scuffed roots, and rockwork. But there were also sections where the heavy duff had obliterated it. And of course looking for the old trail was not always the most efficient way to travel. It did find its way through the correct SE notch that led me to my first taste of big granite. Even though many of the ridges in the broken granite country were not high, it certainly helps to have a trail pointing you to the best way through!

Once on the granite plain there were occasional ducks--but too few of them to make constant contact from one to the next. But they were not necessary for anyone with a decent map. It was a pretty walk across the granite that gradually ascended to Pingree. Picking my way up the granite slope to Pingree was fun--I stayed mostly to the north of the little outlet stream.
Pingree Lake was pretty enough, with lots of woods and a sprinkling of islands. There were some lush green meadows along its borders. The use trail was pretty clear as I followed around the north and east sides of the lake.
The trail led me out to the most impressive sheet of granite I have ever seen. As others have said, the granite between Pingree and Big Lake is worth the whole trip. A stunning, vast expanse, but dotted with flowers and exhibiting that unique striated "stairstep" formations that make for such great benches and backcountry tables if they happen to be in camp.

The view down to Big Lake was also spectacular. Big Lake is not only my favorite lake in the Emigrant--I would rank it highly on my personal list for all lakes anywhere. The setting below the slab, perched above a precipice, but not unremittingly harsh--there are some trees. It is also a natural lake--at least I found no check dam.
The only problem was that the hike from Rosaco only took me 3 hours--and probably half of that time was spent admiring the granite and snapping photographs. For the rest of the day I swam, read, and simply admired the views.

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Sun Jun 26, 2016 8:54 pm
by kpeter
Day 3 (morning) Yellowhammer, Leighton Camp, 5 Acre Lake

This day proved to be overly ambitious. As I got a taste of wandering off trail completely alone, cross country, I realized that my comfort level for leaving a basecamp behind as I explored had shrunk. It was more reassuring to have my whole house on my back, plus I had already encountered enough unexpected route changes that I wanted the flexibility to alter my route and stopping point at will. So I packed up my Big Lake camp and headed out.

I wrote off Hyatt Lake. It is apparently quite lovely, but it was simply in the opposite direction to my plans. I intended to see Yellowhammer Lake, the Leighton camp, 5 Acre, Red Can, and then camp at either Leighton or Karl's, putting me near an exit onto the Wood Lake trail when I was finished. Well, I did all those things--and more.

Finding my way from Big Lake to Yellowhammer was not difficult. The use trail, however, bypasses Yellowhammer lake and goes straight to the Leighton Camp a ways north of the lake. The path of least resistance was to stay out of the broken granite and scrub directly between Big and Yellowhammer Lake and curve North on the firmer granite--which of course is what the use trail does. Fearing I would miss Yellowhammer, I climbed a small ridge and peered down on it--another of Leighton's long narrow lakes. But rather than climb down to it, I continued on to the Leighton Camp thinking it might be easier to come back to the lake from there.
As I arrived in the Leighton Camp (called the Yellowhammer Camp sometimes) I saw lush green meadows and 17,462 mosquitoes zooming toward me. I know, I counted them as I whipped out the picaradin. Since the meadow was between me and Yellowhammer Lake, I didn't go back to the lake and thus never properly saw it. The camp, however, was one of the strangest things I have seen in the wilderness. It really is like visiting a ghost town. A barn, bunkhouse, cookhouse, outbuildings, anvil and giant vise--and the remains of fencing that encircles a broad area. This was the camp of the man who created or expanded many of the lakes and gave his name to one. The meadows must have been used for his livestock--there was a wheeled piece of farm machinery there. It helps to remember that when he made this village in the wilderness, backpacking was very rare and horsepacking was common. The hip belt had not been invented and backpacks had wooden frames--it took a certain physique and a great deal of tolerance of pain to backpack in that era. But even soft city slickers could go fishing in the backcountry if they rode in on livestock. Priorities were different--and avoidance of insects did not seem to be one of them.

The camp, as with Leighton's check dams, is controversial. The Forest Service wanted to maintain some of the dams, and a number of historical preservationists would like to preserve the Leighton Camp. Some wildernesses do permit such things--I worked on wilderness legislation in Idaho that did just that. But the act creating the wilderness has to specify an exception to traditional wilderness rules for historical preservation to occur, or else (courts have ruled) that man-made structures must be allowed to deteriorate, or be removed. The act creating Emigrant inexplicably did not mention any of the historical structures. So it would take an act of Congress to preserve them.
Leaving the Leighton Camp, my next destination was Five Acre Lake. I may not have found the best way in, but it was a pretty route. Continuing NNE from the Leighton Camp, hugging the granite on the left (west) brought me into a lovely glacial u-shaped slab that ascended gradually to a pass.
As I neared the top I had a choice to go left or right around a knob. I went left which brought me in to Five Acre too high on its west side--taking me considerable time to find a way down to the lake that didn't cliff out. I suspect that right would have led me to its outlet end. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip up the valley that was almost as impressive and every bit as pretty as the granite about Big Lake.

Five Acre Lake itself, however, was something of a disappointment to me. A green, brushy, small lake down in a hole. And the mosquitoes were following me--perhaps I was just in a bad mood when I saw it.

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Sun Jun 26, 2016 8:55 pm
by kpeter
Day 3 (afternoon) Red Can Lake, Leighton Lake, Karls Lake

From Five Acre Lake I traveled to Red Can Lake. Here there really was no use trail--a few scattered ducks along the way. There is an intermittent stream than flows into the pond south of Five Acre. The route to Red Can follows this stream almost the entire way. From time to time it takes some negotiating to find ways around granite ledges. But this is fun work--going back and forth looking for the easiest way up. More a puzzle to be solved than the tedium of talus hopping, for example.
As I approached Red Can I ran into route finding problems. I went right around a knob and found myself exploring an interesting area and looking down into the North Fork canyon. I had to backtrack. Going left I picked up some ducks that seemed to dead end in a marsh that lay on the outlet stream SW of Red Can. How could this be? There was a twenty foot cliff on the other side of the marsh and my GPS, set to point to the center of Red Can, pointed straight at it. Well, the use trail and my GPS were both right, of course. Crossing to the other side of the marsh I found a 6" diagonal crack in the cliff that served as an easy ramp, using a hand for balance against the non-vertical wall, that led 15' to to an easy scramble up the outlet stream--which was barely flowing. It was much easier than it looked. Once on top, however, it opened up and was nearly flat for a couple of hundred yards. Then there were other issues with marsh and granite making me detour to the NW tip of the lake.

The lake I thought was lovely. I was not there at the right time of day, but it had a pleasing mix of granite, timber, and meadow surrounding it. It was the nicest small lake I saw on this trip. There are three approaches to it. In addition to the way I came and the way I left (see below) it appears that one can come to it from the North from the SE corner of Woods Lake. It looked to me as if there was a nice campsite over there. I didn't go, though, because on both its north and south sides there are cliffs coming into the lake. It would have required some work to get around.
After replenishing my water and eating lunch, it was time to move on to what I hoped would be my final destination for the day--either Leighton or Karl's Lakes. From the NE tip of Red Can, I simply went due west. It was nearly level and a use trail was evident in spots. Compared with complexity of the way I came up from Five Acre, this route was very simple and dropped me down to Leighton in 20 minutes. The contrast with my entrace to Red Can was extreme.

Leighton was a disappointment to me. It could have been the time of day or the mosquitoes, but the first sight had the stumps of dead trees and the jackstraw of the forest that was flooded when Leighton build his dam. The lake had interesting islands, but it seemed desolate, dusty, without much understory. I followed its northern shoreline which rapidly squeezed down to a small isthmus separating Leighton from Karls. Getting across that isthmus involved a little scrambling over what used to be a real trail, but it was interesting to be between the two lakes. I continued until I got to the fat end of the lake, which did seem nicer to me--but not nice enough to camp at.

At this point I cut from the northern shoreline of Leighton past a pond to the western shoreline of Karl's. Karl's I thought was a nicer lake--not as many islands, true, but it simply seemed more picturesque.

I explored its central northern peninsula and got ready to set up camp. The mosquitoes, however, were getting very bad. Since they were not so bad at lower elevations, I wondered if heading out to the Wood Lake trail and taking it back to camp at the W Fork Cherry Creek might not be a good idea. It was only 2 in the afternoon and there was plenty of time for hiking. In retrospect, I should have stayed at Karl's.
There is use trail to Karls that comes from the Western end of Wood Lake. I decided not to take it for several reasons--the two men I saw leaving on my first day in had mentioned all the fords below Woods lake and the snow they had to cross. I had been to Woods Lake before and not found it particularly worth repeating. So I studied the maps and set the GPS to cut NNW from Karl's to join up with the Wood Lake trail after it had come to the southern side of Buck Meadow Creek. I did successfully make it, and without any danger, but it was not easy getting down from the ridge into the canyon to join the trail. I had to go further west to get down through all the broken granite without cliffing out.

Having finished this successfully, I had a surprisingly long hike ahead of me down the trail to get back to Cherry Creek. I was quite tired, and had to force myself to drink water and eat food to try to keep my energy up. By the time I got to camp I was trembling with exertion after a very tough day.

The trail had its superb moments, however. I reached West Fork Cherry Creek exhausted, forded it, and set up camp.

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Sun Jun 26, 2016 8:55 pm
by kpeter
Day 4 West Fork Cherry Creek Out and Final Reflections
I camped north of the trail on the western side of the West Fork of Cherry Creek. Most campers seem to go south. But this gave me easy proximity to visit the gorgeous cascades coming down the granite. I had not seen anything quite like this since I visited Fall Creek above Lake Vernon a few years ago, also in June.
But the next morning, I packed up, and started what was (for me) a five hour hike out.
Since I came in only 4 days earlier the mosquitoes had worsened to the point that I had to wear my bug hat for sanity while hiking--I've never been reduced to that before. I did manage a parting wildflower shot.
Final Reflections
I came out a day earlier than I had to, simply because the mosquitoes were worsening and the scenery at the last lakes did not beckon me as much as I would have liked. That said, I would still classify this trip as a resounding success. Big lake and its slabs, the valley above Leighton camp, Red Can lake, the profusion of wildflowers everywhere, the roaring water--all this made the pain of some mosquitoes worth it. I would classify this trip as my best June trip ever. And I know that if I returned at a time when it was mosquito free, I would have missed most of the glorious waterworks and the flowers. I would certainly do this trip again--and I may have to if I am going to see Hyatt!

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Mon Jun 27, 2016 7:58 pm
by old and slow
What a great report, its a really fun read with some excellent photos. Well, actually they are all excellent photos but I especially like the shots of all that granite and the magnificent view of Big Lake. I can see why you rank it so highly on your personal list of favorite lakes.

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Mon Jun 27, 2016 10:47 pm
by seanr
Kpeter, for all the reasons listed in the introduction of your report, I suspect I will find my way to Emigrant several more times, possibly with kids along on some trips. Your details and accompanying photos have strengthened my sense of where to focus my attention there. It looks like flows reduced by the time of your trip to the point that creeks were scenic without being major obstacles.

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Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Tue Jun 28, 2016 6:47 am
by rhyang
I loved the photos and descriptions. Had planned to visit some of these places on a solo trip to Hyatt last September out of Bourland Meadow but the brush etc on the way kind of kicked my butt and I ended up spending two nights at Hyatt (smoke from the fires may have played a part as well).

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Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Tue Jun 28, 2016 8:34 am
by 62bird
Great trip report! I'm planning to head to that area in august

Re: TR: Exploring Southern Emigrant June 23-26

Posted: Tue Jun 28, 2016 9:45 am
by maverick
Hi 62bird,

Welcome to HST!


Thanks for the TR and wonderful pictures! Wildflowers look great. :nod: