Tuesday, April 13, 2021

2020 Emigrant Escape Day 1: From Kennedy Meadows to Lower Relief Meadow

Relief Reservoir
Date: August 3, 2020
Place: Emigrant Wilderness
Coordinates: 38.316951, -119.746853
Length: 10 miles
Level: strenuous 
Since the time my chikas started going to the week long 4-H camp I've been taking that offspring-free time to go backpacking in the mountains. And when I say mountains - I mean the Sierra Nevada. 
Last year everything had changed when COVID-19 closed down most parks and wilderness areas, and of course, the 4-H camp. When the shelter in place regulations eased enough for me to seriously consider leaving the chikas with Pappa Quail and going backpacking anyway, Most places I wanted to go to were either closed still to hikers, or that their window for permit reservations I had already missed. In fact, the first destination I had in mind was the Trinity Alps, where there was no requirement for permit. Triple-digit temperatures forecast however, had changed my mind. Eventually I decided on the Emigrant Wilderness north of Yosemite, where there was no quota and I could simply fill out an online permit form, print it and take it with me. 

And so, on August 2, my friend and I drove off to the Sierra Nevada. We found a camp site for the night east of the Sonora Pass, and in the morning of August 3 we parked at the long term parking area of Kennedy Meadows, where our trailhead was. 

The hike of our first day as captured by my GPS

 At Kennedy Meadows there is a resort and a large stable from which mule and horse groups go on the trail. The resort was full, and other than mask-wearing inside the buildings, there seemed to be no concern whatsoever about Covid-19. 
The trailhead is at the south end of the resort and the first part of it is a wide dirt road.  
Kennedy Meadows Trailhead

The dirt road follows the path of the Stanislaus River, its middle fork. The water level was fairly low, but that didn't raise any alarm in me. I was just happy to be outdoors, walking in the lovely day with my friend into the wilderness. 
Stanislaus River, Middle Fork

A short distance into the trail we reached the meadows of the Kennedy Meadows. This part of the trail I've hiked before with my family, when the chikas were very young. We had reached the meadows and stayed there for some time, letting the chikas play in the lazy river and enjoy summer time. Now were were passing other families doing just the same and it was fun to see. 
Kennedy Meadow

We moved on, walking east of the meadow that now separated us from the river. 
Western Mountain Aster, Symphyotrichum spathulatum

A slow caravan of guided horse riders passed us on their way to the wilderness. This is a way for people who want to get beyond their hiking distance, to see the deeper part of the Sierra Nevada. 
What we got to see when every time such a caravan passed us were horses' butts disappearing in a cloud of dust. Then we had to watch our step not to step inside their droppings. The smell followed us pretty much the entire day. 
Horse/Mule Caravan

After the dust settled it was easier to see other things, such as the little lizards sunbathing on the rocks by the trailside. 
Western Fence Lizard

It was nearly a mile before we crossed into the wilderness area and the trail started sloping up hill, still following the Stanislaus River. For the first part the ascend wasn't too steep. We kept a good pace going up along the eastern side of the river, getting high above the water below. 

We reached a bridge high above the river, from which I had a nice view of the whitewater below. We were already very hot and the water looked cool and refreshing, but it was too far down with no easy way to get there.  

There were a number of hikers on or near the bridge and most of them were wearing masks. We all made room for one another to cross the bridge without getting too close to each other. A bit higher up the trail I had a chance to take a no-human photo of that bridge. 

Past the bridge the trail got much steeper and our progress slower. It gave me ample time to look at the wildflowers. There was less bloom than I was hoping to see and in that area most of it looked already past the peak. 
Naked Buckwheat, Eriogonum nudum

We passed the turn to Kennedy Lake and begun ascending a deep valley that was getting narrower and narrower the higher we climbed. Upon Coming up a long flight of human-carved rock stairs we came upon an old, rusty piece of machinery. I thought it might have been left there from an old mine or some water transport facility. 

There were some more bits of rusted machinery strewn around, most of them already buried deep in vegetation. 
We made slow progress uphill. The day was getting hotter and hotter and we stopped frequently to drink. I was looking forward to get to the Relief Reservoir to put my feet in the water and to fill up on water. 

Higher up along the trail I saw more wildflowers. Summer wasn't going downhill just yet. 
Bridge's Penstemon, Penstemon rostriflorus 

Little cushions of sulphur buckwheat shrubs lit the slopes with yellow, bright in the direct sunlight. 
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp.

In the more shaded areas it was the tall groundsel that painted the forest undergrowth with its bright yellow. Seeing the groundsel, I looked for surface water near it, but there was none. 
Groundsel, Senecio triangularis

The map showed the reservoir to be nearby but the trail up to it seemed endless. Moreover, it had occurred to me that we were getting considerably higher than the lake itself and that the trail marked on the map was not going down to the waterfront. I hoped there would be a way down.  

We emerged from the trees and were walking in the open, under the now merciless sun. Somehow we were diverted from the main trail and were ascending a narrow, unofficial footpath, leading directly to the Relief Reservoir. 

At the top of the trail was a large rock and as we approached I thought I could see a square opening in it, like a door. When we got near it we saw that it indeed was an opening, so naturally I had to look inside. The opening was made square by cementing, suggestion that there used to be a door there. The chamber itself was a bit disappointing though. It was very small and without any indication what it was used for. It didn't look like and sort of sleeping shelter. It might have been used for storage of something. 

Past the rock with the squared-door chamber we came to a rock ledge and below us stretched Relief Reservoir, all blue and beautiful, and very far below where we were. There was an unofficial trail down to the water level and it looked like there were some people there already. Checking out water supply I decided against going down however. I thought that going down and up would take too much time. My friend didn't offer any opinion on the matter, she completely trusted my decision. 
Relief Reservoir

We had to climb even higher up to reconnect with the main trail again. On the way there we came upon a sole, mask-wearing backpacker who stopped us, and fro a good distance asked if there's a way down to the lake. I pointed the way to him and he nodded to me and darted down the slope toward the reservoir. I didn't think much of it at the time. We continued on the trail, which was now level. 

Right there on that trail I saw the first interesting wild animal - a very nice looking moth. The moth turned out to be dead, but was so perfectly intact that I believe it had died there on that spot, and not long ago. Later as I worked on identifying the moth I saw that that species was not on the list of butterflies and moths for Tuolumne County 
Hera Buckmoth

The granite peaks around me were impressive, but completely devoid of snow. There were two creeks marked on the map coming from the eastern peak down to the reservoir. The first one we crossed was bone dry and it was then that I begun to worry about water availability. 

There was no point regretting not going down to the reservoir because we have already made a good distance from the view point where we faced that choice. I hoped that the next creek would be flowing, otherwise we'd have to leave the trail and find access to the lake. 

The Relief Reservoir is long and beautiful, like a blue gem nestled between the gray granite peaks. Its shores are very steep and, although I could see possible ways down here and there, it would cost us much time to do so. 
A sole backpacker came from behind us. He took a wide, evasive arc to pass us, and I recognized him as the fellow who went down to the lake from the north view point. He didn't say anything and we didn't either. 
Relief Reservoir 

The trail sloped downward and once again we entered a forested area. Refreshed by the shade we quickened our pace. It wasn't ling after that we came upon the second creek that was marked on our map. 

Yipee! The creek was flowing. Not strongly, but more than enough. We stopped for a good, long break there. My friend even took a short nap, resting herself on her backpack. I filled all of our bottles, then sat down to gaze at the insects that came to suck the moisture from the wet rocks by the water flow. 

After our long break, during which a number of hikers and backpackers had passed us by in both directions, we got up on our feet and continued our descent into the valley below. 

I find that it is harder for me to start at a good pace after a long break, especially if it included food. When I hike on my own I tend to take fewer breaks and to limit food consumption so to not feel too weighed down when I resume walking. 
Horse Mint, Agastache urticifolia

There were more wildflowers deeper into the wilderness, so I didn't mind the pst-break slower pace we were walking at. I took the time appreciating the colors and the scents and enjoying the overall Sierra summer feeling. 
Grayswamp Whiteheads, Angelica capitellata

Afternoon was well in progress and I started thinking about how far should we get that day. When we started out I had in mind to get to the Upper Relief Meadow but our progress wasn't sufficiently fast so I settled in my mind to stop at the Lower Relief Meadow. 

I shared my thoughts with my friend who just shrugged and said she'll go with whatever I decide. We were going downhill now and our pace picked up some, so I got more optimistic about covering more distance before stopping for the night. 
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa

It was reassuring to see more water on our path, and at the wetter places also wet habitat flora. 
Larger Mountain Monkeyflower, Erythranthe tilingii

Among the wet habitat flora I was thrilled to see the bog orchid. There were several of them along a short stretch of the trail that was still very moist. 
Scentbottle, Platanthera dilatata

A bit further down the trail we came upon that backpacker again. He was standing there, chatting with one other backpacker who was going in the opposite direction. He had his mask on and kept on the other side of the trail from the other one. We passed them on the trail, saying hi, but he gave us an annoyed look and said nothing. I wondered if it bothered him that we passed close but then again, where else could we have passed? 
I forgot about it the moment I saw the next wildflower. 
Swamp Onion, Allium validum

At the bottom of the trail we had to ford a shallow creek. It was also a good opportunity to fill up on some ore water. After crossing the creek we came upon a trail intersection - we could have turned east toward Emigrant Lake right there, but that would have been too far to go that day. Sticking with the original plan we continued southwest toward Lower Relief Meadow. 

We continued walking on the west side of the creek we had crossed. On the east there was this beautiful basin crowned with some really gorgeous peaks. They looked very inviting but I could not see any clear way to get there. There was no trail on the map either. 

Then we heard footsteps from behind and there he was - that sole backpacker, masked still, gaining up on us. We pulled to the side of the trail to et him pass but he stopped and asked if we knew of a way to get to that mountain ridge we were admiring. We told him we didn't but then he continued to chat, telling us that he was a rock climber, that he used to go backpacking 6-7 times a year but was too scared now because of the pandemic and this was the first time he allowed himself to get out into the wilderness. I thought that with everything eased closed, the wilderness was probably the safest place to be, away from the rest of humanity. 
We chatted some more about potential backpacking destinations that are isolated enough from the beaten track. Eventually he took off down to the creek. We saw him hopping across over a narrow ravine, then continuing off trail toward that pretty basin we were all admiring. 
I admire the tree rock settlers - those that sprout in a tiny crack in the rock and expand the gaps with their selling roots as they grow. 

Moving on along the creek my friend and I were caching up talking about everything from families to business to politics. I don't usually discuss politics with anyone - it stresses me out, but my friend enjoyed airing out her thoughts. She doesn't get much chance to do that in her immediate home and work environments. 
Wavy-leaf Paintbrush, Castilleja applegetei

 The trail continued descending until we were again down at the creek level. We came upon a truly lovely spot that if we had come upon it on mid-day I would have gladly stopped there for a dip. As it was getting late and we had some distance to cover still, we continued on without stopping.
Then the trail distanced from the creek again for a good long mile. The light of day was fading and now it was becoming a bit more challenging to photograph wildflowers, especially in the shade of the woods. 
Larkspur, Delphinium sp.
 It was hard to resist so I kept on clicking my camera at the flowers I've seen. Most photos from this trail stretch came out too dark or blurry to be included here. Those taken in the sun patches were ok though.
Pine Drops, Pterospora andromedea
 I kept pushing fast forward. My friend was getting fatigued, but we were not a a good camping place yet. We needed to get to the Lower Relief Meadow where the trail would meet the creek again. It was no time for even slowing down because the sun was setting.
Sunset in the forest
 We arrived at the Lower Relief meadow with very little daylight left and had to cross it quickly to reach the place were the trail neared the creek. There were many wildflowers blooming along the trail but this time I didn't stop an nearly any of them, only at the very end as I was waiting for my friend to catch up.
Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata
I was very dismayed to find out that the creek was bone dry ... I tried looking around a bit, following up the creek bed to see if there was any water upstream but there was none.

We had enough water for the night and my friend was too tired to do anymore that day so we decided to camp there. We pitched our tent, had a quick dinner, and crawled inside our sleeping bags. There was an eerie silence outside and I was very troubled by the dry creek, especially because I knew we would have to walk along it some more distance on the morrow and now I wasn't sure at all where we would encounter water next. 
 My last thought before drifting off to sleep was that I should wake up early and go back by myself that last mile to fill up on water before we should break camp and move on. Once I had an action plan it was easier to sleep.

Link to Day 2 of this trip


  1. The hike is beautiful but the water shortage is a problem... The bog orchid is lovely.

    1. Yes, it was much drier than I expected, but other than that first camping spot it wasn't a problem during the rest of the trip. Yes, I too got the orchid bug, I think I got it from Anenet :-)