Emigrant Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest, California

The Quick and Dirty:
Location – Stanislaus National Forest
Distance – Varies, 10 miles to Gem Lake
Terrain Type – Flat terrain, Switchbacks, Stairs.
Difficulty – Intermediate to Strenuous
Best Time – Summer through Fall
Special Conditions – High water in creeks, mosquitoes in early summer, popular

Emigrant Wilderness

Stanislaus National Forest

Emigrant Wilderness is located between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevadas.  Like many Sierra Nevada locations, there are plenty of lakes, established primitive camp sites and sweeping views after every climb.     The trails well maintained and each destination has great camp spots.  With the recent fires, there are still areas of forest that are completely blackened.  There is no quota, but permits are required – and like most of the Ranger districts, we were given false information for this trip as well.

Chris texted us asking if we wanted to do a trip to the Emigrant Wilderness in Stanislaus National Forest.  We called our friend Michelle and Owen met up for a weekend trip.  Our original plan was the start at the Crab Tree trail head hike to Gem Lake (10 miles) down to Pine Valley towards Grouse Lake (8 miles), and out back to the trail head (4 miles). There are many water crossings, and Lily Creek, Piute Creek, and Cherry Creek Fork become shoulder deep during snow melt.

At the Crab Tree trail head, we were blown away to find that the parking lot had very nice camp sites for backpackers to camp overnight.  Each camp site had one fire ring, a hook to hang food, and benches.  Water is plentiful as Bell Creek runs through the campsite.

We woke up at 6 AM the next morning and made a small breakfast before heading out, which would be the start of a somewhat miserable trip.  It was mosquito season – they were everywhere.

Emigrant Wilderness

We cross Bell Creek (first crossing right at the trail head) and started hiking the trail.  The train climbs for five miles or so up switch backs.  The climbs were light and not difficult for a well seasoned backpacker.

Emigrant Wilderness

Emigrant WildernessThere are many pocket ponds throughout the trail that will dry up by summer.  Many are not suitable for drinking.

Emigrant Wilderness

In five miles, we reached Camp Lake.  Camp sites are very limited and the mosquito population was high.  The lake is one of the larger lakes we encountered on this trip.


Bubo running after cooling off in the lake.  He loves his water!

P1040342Mosquitoes were so bad that Chris (who had it the worse) went with full dress in the 75 degree weather.  Every time we took a break, the mosquitoes would swarm within 30 seconds.

P1040338Dakota excited to be back out on the trails.  She loves it out here!

P1040344We followed the trail marker towards Piute Lake.  Forking to the left would lead to Bear Lake (would probably make a good over nighter).

P1040347Leading Bubo and Dakota in front of the pack.  These two were very energetic, but well behaved.  Bubo is a natural way finder.  I did not pull out my map very often because he would be able to locate the trail for us.

P1040353After descending through the switch backs from Camp Lake, we arrived at our first crossing – Lily Creek.  We were fortunate enough to cross the creek when it was slow and low.  The crossing was easy but we opted to remove our shoes and cross the creek in order to keep our equipment dry.


We had to dry off quick and put our shoes back on before the mosquitoes got to us.

P1040359We continued on the trail towards Piute Meadow/Lake.  We kept running into meadows and small ponds that resembled a lake.


With the snow melted, the plants and flowers are really blooming this time of the year.


We eventually reached a rocky area with no trail makers.  We pulled out our compass and made sure to head east pass the a small creek crossing.  We found two trees with a staircase between it and were back on track.  Walking through the staircase we were delighted to find a “unnamed lake.”  The lake is marked on the map with no name.   The lake was beautiful with lily pads and a small rock face backing it, a great place to rest and eat lunch.  Directly south of the lake, there are clearings with excellent camp sites.

P1040366There was some residual snow throughout the trail, surprising since the weather was warm.  Bubo in his never ending quest to cool off found every opportunity to shove his face in snow.


We found the best view immediately after we left the unnamed lake.




There are excellent camping opportunities here and because there was a constant breeze, we found a short but much needed break from the mosquitoes.


From the top of the unnamed lake, trail builders built a staircase, making climbing and descending the switch backs very easy.  Feel the burn!

P1040400Pass the switchbacks and we arrived at the beginning of Piute Meadow.  We didn’t stick around long – the mosquitoes were very active in the area.  Assuming the mosquito situation was not so bad, Piute Lake would make a great camp site.


We continued and reached Cherry Creek, one of the deepest crossings.  The crossing this time of the year is typically shoulder deep, but because of the little rain we received in California, the crossing was just below the waist.  Bubo and Dakota had a hard time finding the courage to cross the creek.  Michelle used a rawhide to bribe Bubo into swimming acrossing.



P1040413Classic Sierra Nevada views.  As we passed Cherry Creek, a set of switch backs heading towards Gem Lake is the only thing stopping us from setting up camp and eating a warm meal.

P1040419We arrived at Gem Lake at 6 PM.  Gem Lake is larger than the other lakes and because it was higher in elevation, we assumed the mosquito situation would be better – we were wrong.  While the mosquito situation was terrible, we were glad we had the lake to ourselves (probably because everyone knew the mosquitoes were out).  Gem Lake is known to be very busy during the summer months and it may be difficult to find a camp site.

We quickly started a fire, hung our Ursack, and pitched our tent.  The fire helped control the mosquitoes.  Every time a swarm would follow us, we would head towards the fire and “smoke them out.”


Each established camp had a built in fire ring.  There is ample flat spots to pitch tents.  Because we opted not to bring our bear canister, we had to double hang our Ursack in order to keep our food away from hungry critters.  Honestly, I was less worried about bears and raccoons and more worried about the billion blood suckers. We spent most of the night in our tents and ended up sleeping around 8 PM.

P1040422The next morning we woke up after 10 hours of sleep!  Our whole group was winded from the night before.  Chris, Owen, and I got up and grabbed all the bottles and water sacks to fetch water.  Because of the mosquitoes, filtering water became a two man job:  one swatter, one pumper.

During breakfast, we discussed whether or not to continue onto Grouse Lake and suffer another night with mosquitoes or head out back to the Crab Tree Trailhead.


P1040473We made the decision to leave.  Good thing too since these two pups were exhausted.

P1040483Last photo from the trip – as we headed back to Crab Tree Trailhead.  This was a great trip, but I don’t know if the six hour drive was worth getting chewed up by the mosquitoes.  My bites still itch, and I did not have one comfortable pooping session there.  I was constantly in fear that the buggers would bite my butt.

The trail could be made into a long distance multi-day – multi-week backpacking trip.  We will probably visit this area again to complete our original plan, or spend more time doing a week long trip.  The great thing about Emigrant Wilderness?  The summit ranger district offers the map for free.  Find it below.



3 thoughts on “Emigrant Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest, California

  1. Nice trip report.
    I’ve been to Gem lake twice but perhaps later in the season because there were no noticeable mosquitoes.
    You can take a different trail going back. It goes parallel to the trail you took to get get to Gem lake, just a bit South. For some reason it was always easier going back (except for the serious climb at the end).

    • Thanks for the tip! It looks like the mosquito season is relatively short in that area, usually right after the snow melt when the ground is still moist. They generally die off once the area dries up, lucky for us, we backpacked the week when the forest was still damp!

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