Saturday, July 31, 2021

Emigrant Escape, Day 5: Upper Emigrant Lake to Kennedy Lake

View from the summit of Big Sam, down on Kennedy Lake, more than 3000' drop.

Date: August 7, 2020
Place: Emigrant Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest, California
Coordinates: 38.210467, -119.630324   
Length: 7.2 miles
Level: strenuous

It was an early rise for me on the morning of our fifth day in the Emigrant Wilderness. I got out of the tent in time to see the sunrise and enjoy the crisp morning air.
Sunrise at the High Emigrant Lake

The strong wind of last evening had died sometime during the night, and the morning was calm and beautiful. My friend and I had a quiet breakfast while watching the little birds that stood on the exposed rocks, absorbing the morning sun rays. 
Mountain Bluebird, Juvenile

All of our previous days' dilemmas were gone now. Refreshed and cheerful, we were both ready to get over the Big Sam and down to Kennedy Lake that day. 
I wanted to get an early start. The main reason was that I still didn't know how did the drop to Kennedy Valley looked like. My Navigator had a trail marked there that did not exist on the official paper topo map I had. According to the ranger we had encountered on Day 3 of our trip, there used to be an old mule trail there once, but it was no longer maintained and he did not know if it existed any longer. I wanted to have enough slack time in case we could not find that trail or that it would not be passable in order to find an alternative route, or backtrack should that fail.
Our hike from the High Emigrant Lake to Kennedy Lake as captured by my GPS

The other reason for my wanting an early start is that I wanted to beat the other backpackers that camped on the west side of the lake to the trail. Having seen them arrive from the south, I was sure that they would also go up the Big Sam. As it turned out, they didn't, and we didn't see them again. 

Grayswamp Whiteheads, Angelica capitellata

Big Sam is just short of 11,000 feet, but from our location at the High Emigrant Lake (8,600 feet) that didn't look ominous at all.
The Big Sam

It did look barren from where we stood. The trail there however, was just ablaze with wonderful bloom. Surpassing even the splendor of yesterday's hike.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata

We did get an early start but once we hit the trail our progress was slowed down by me insisting to check out each and every flowering plant in person. (And also by some adjustments that we needed to do to our backpacks).
Little Elephantshead, Pedicularis attolens ssp. attolens

No one was treading the trail behind us. I assumed the other backpackers had either not yet broke camp or were simply headed to a different direction. I was perfectly happy that we were the only people on the trail heading up the Big Sam that morning. 
Fleabane, Erigeron sp.

We were still below 10,000 feet but already above the tree line in that area. The land there is volcanic rocks, very minimally weathered, and seemed to hold very little moisture. It didn't seem like the kind of earth that could support anything larger than small shrubs. 
Dwarf Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja nana

But there sure were plenty of small shrubs. And many annual pants as well - those whose entire life span from seed to seed is shorter than two months. 
Mountain Agoseris, Agoseris monticola

The trail ascended mildly and soon we crossed a shallow little trickle of a creek. A few shrub-sized willows grew in a small cluster not far from the trail. These willows represented trees for me. 
Willow, Salix sp. 

Little birds hopped about, chirping and scratching at the ground. Other than that, it was fairly quiet and I found the silence soothing to my soul. 
Golden-crowned Sparrow
 As we neared the mountain the trail started sloping up at a steeper grade. Curving along the side of the Big Sam there weren't many switchbacks. As I paused here and there to snap a photo, my friend passed me and was going uphill at a steady, relentless pace. 

Another little brook crossed our path. There wet area was flatter and wider, and little plants covered more of the ground along its mild sloped banks. 

Tiny flowers like little stars dotted the gravel above the Brook. From afar they looked more like a different type of rock, like granite. 
Mats of Sierra Spring Beauty, Claytonia nevadensis

The brooke itself was flowing with many wildflowers, a golden belt of life hugging the bare gravel mountain. The bright yellow inner stripe were the monkeyflowers and skirting them were the sky-blue lupine. 

On a closer look I saw many pussypaws among the lupine plants. Their light pink blended well with the light-colored volcanic gravel.

Between all these little beauties I spotted a mariposa lily. The only one I'd see that entire day. 
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii 

Almost without noticing we gained more altitude. When I turned to look back I gasped at the sight of the four beautiful lakes below, the nearest one being High Emigrant Lake where we had stayed last night, the third and the forth ones down being the Emigrant Meadow Lake and Middle Emigrant Lake which we had passed by the day before. The second one down was a pond we had not gone by, as our path was distant from it. 

My friend pointed at the high peaks on the east. There were snow patches on them still and I used maximal zoom to bring them into closer sight. 

Resuming our uphill hike I returned my attention to the little beauties that bloomed below my feet. 
Sanddune Wallflower, Erysimum perenne

The Big Sam is 10,825 ft high but from where we stood it looked like a small hill. It was just the numbers on the map that had intimidated us on the previous days. The trail itself, although a constant ascend, was not steep at all. 
The Big Sam

Still with the morning's vigor we climbed the trail with cheer and what would have been speed, if not for all the nice bloom by the trail side. 
Monkeyflower, Erythranthe sp.

In fact, my friend got somewhat frustrated with my constant stopping so she passed me and continued steaming on up the trail, leaving me to do my little botanic explorations on my own.  

There sure was much to explore and I wasn't about to pass on such a great opportunity to experience the High Sierra summer splendor. At each place I've backpacked I got to see different flora. This trip had it specials as well.
South Sierra Pincushion, Chaenactis alpigena

All too often I end up editing out photos of more common flora, especially on photo-heavy posts. Especially if they are yellow-flowering composites, which are harder to identify and many of them look similar to one another. I chose to leave this one in though. It's a nice representative of the little shrubs that bloomed on the Big Sam at the time.
Rayless Goldenbush, Ericameria discoidea

At one point I raised my eyes and saw my friend just as she was disappearing over the skyline and around the curve. I picked up my pace and hurried after her.

Soon I was slowing down again. Not because of any exertion, the trail was certainly mild, all things considered. The higher we ascended though, more and more of the view opened up in a panoramic breadth of mountain tops, deep valleys and gulches, and clear, blue lakes. I wanted to take all of this in and inhale all this beauty into me for all of my years to come.

The trail side flora also became more captivating as I recognized more wildflower species that were completely new to me.
Whitney's Milkvetch, Astragalus whitneyii, var. whitneyii

According to experts of the California Native Plants Society the High Mountain Hulsea grows at much higher altitudes. Where I saw it bloom was apparently at least 2000 ft lower than where it is usually seen growing.
High Mountain Hulsea, Hulsea agida

I also don't usually post grasses here. They are not as showy as other flowering plants, and on most trails I hike they are also mostly non-native species. But native California grasses in unique locations are the perfect accompaniment to all the other wildflowers in the area, lie decorative greens in a floral arrangement. 

There was also plenty of wildlife along the trail. All of it in insect form. Surprisingly, despite the bloom butterflies were the minority among them. 

The fluorescent-green flies I get to see on almost every trip in the High Sierra. This time I got a decent photo too. 

Further up the mountain I met yet another interesting plant, one that I was actually familiar with from a hike at Bodie Hills a couple of years back. It was cool to run into it up the Big Sam. 
Dinnerplate Thistle, Cirsium scariosum

I've seen so many aster species on that trip and so many of them look alike that I pretty much gave up on identifying them at the species level. This one however, is a fleabane. There were many of those blooming up the Big Sam that day. 
Fleabane, Erigeron sp.

Nearing the summit the trail eased into a very mild slope. At the fifth day in the Emigrant Wilderness the altitude was n longer affecting our progress. We were breathing high mountain air and expanding our souls from horizon to horizon. 
Nearing the Big Sam's summit

When I reached the highest point of the trail, a short distance from the summit itself I saw that my friend had already settled down, sitting on a rock by the trail side and spreading out our food for lunch. I took off my backpack but remained standing for a while longer, enjoying the sudden lightening of the load. 
To the west of us erected the double peaks of what looked like another volcano. Below the peaks in a small depression nestled a small pond, for sure made of melted snow. Below that lake was a sheer drop into a deep valley below - a valley that connects with the Kennedy Valley to which we were going. Earlier on our trip, peering over the maps I speculated about the possibility of going down there, but suspected that the drop would be too steep. Seeing it for real I knew it would have been completely crazy to go there. The steep slope wasn't even hard rock but loose volcanic scree, which is a very unstable ground. 

A bit more to the north there was a dark green valley curved deep between the mountains. That was Kennedy Valley to which we were headed. The magnitude of the height difference had thoroughly impressed me. I pointed it to my friend and she was duly impressed as well. 
Kennedy Valley

One thing that was very noticeable at the summit was the high activity of beetles. There were many f them, long and bright black/green beetles, nearly all of them couples attached at their rear ends, one of them being dragged by the other. It was mesmerizing to look at them while we sat and ate our lunch.

After lunch my friend laid down for a quick nap and I walked around the summit a bit to look at the views and see what was blooming all the way up there. 
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp.

Most of these high altitude plants are small because of the tough conditions, which include strong winds. Many of them are also succulent and hairy, in adaptation for the dry soil and intense radiation.  

The wind was blowing when we were there. Not strong enough to make us feel uncomfortable, but definitely very present. White clouds were racing fast across the sky above us, and I could see some thunderheads far in the distance. At that point I wasn't concerned about rain. 

Scouting the summit area revealed quite a few lovely wildflowers. Although I've seen many of these on our way up, I loved the way they decorated the otherwise barren broken rock earth. 
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp.

The summit was also the only point where I had a clear view to the east.  It looked just as pretty and majestic as the area near the Big Sam. Perhaps I'll get to backpack that region of the Emigrant Wilderness as well some time. 
View East from the Big Sam

The feeling of sitting on top of the world is very uplifting. Even so, eventually we had to start our way down. And there was a lot of that down to get down to that day. Being able to see our day's destination from the summit (header photo) was enough to make me dizzy. 

Almost as soon as we begun walking downhill a big cloud decided to camp right over our heads, darkening the sky and significantly cooling the air. It also affected the photos I took, as it dimmed the light. Although bright colored plants such as the mountain sorrel, actually stood out better in the gloomier illumination. 
Alpine mountain Sorrel, Oxyria digyna 

The northwestern slopes of the big Sam looked very different than the south slope we had climbed on. For one, the terrain was of smaller scree bits with only an occasional large boulder poking through like an ancient castle. 
Trail on the Northwest side of the Big Sam

There was much less vegetation on the northwestern slope. I assume that's because the period of time when this area is free of snow is much shorter. There was only little snow left when we were there but a few snow patches still decorated the slopes. 
Nuttall's Sandwort, Minuartia nuttallii

The melting snow fed little brooks that supported some wildflowers. Much fewer than on the southern slope but present nonetheless. 

We came down at a fairly quick pace. As long as the trail's grade was mild enough and clear of the slippery little gravel we could go at a gallop. Almost.

Soon we were down to the tree line. The trees being very low, bush-size whitebark pines, lonely and weathered, growing where no other tree would.
Whitebark Pine, Pinus albicaulis

Kennedy Lake came into view once again, looking somewhat closer but still a long way down. Most of the valley looked overcast with only a few sunny spots on the south-facing slopes. To the north more clouds were gathering and I could hear far away thunder, still sporadic.
Kennedy Lake

There would likely be rain sometime today, I knew. So far however, the only water we saw was the trickling of the narrow snow-melt brooks cutting through the arid volcanic scree slope.

It was time to deviate from the official hiking trail we were walking on. That trail would lead us northward, to a different exit from the wilderness. I was looking for the old, unmaintained mule trail that would lead us down to Kennedy Lake. 
The trail wasn't hard to find. Walking it however, proved to be a challenge because the narrow, unmaintained etch in the scree slope was very unstable. Any wrong step could send us sliding down a steep landslide. My friend looked at me with complete trust as I made my first hesitant steps town the worn path. She waited until I was a few yards ahead, then followed me down.
The Old Mule Trail

After a very slow and shaky descent we reached a more stable segment of the trail. Meanwhile the clouds gathered more overhead and large rain drops started tapping on our hats. I pulled the windbreaker and covered myself, trying to shield my camera.

The wind picked up as well and I was glad that we were no longer up near the exposed summit. The trees were larger here, with other species of pines joining the small whitebark. The higher canopies whipped in the wind but one very determined Clark's Nutcracker held on to it's perch near the tree top despite the violent shakedown.

I could here the voices of other people - the first we encountered that entire day (seeing that those who camped by High Emigrant Lake didn't come up the Big Sam as we did). A bit further down we saw them too - one sole backpacker and three young day hikers that came all the way up from Kennedy Lake where there campsite was. All of them had planned to go up the Big Sam but were having second thoughts because of the gathering storm.Since the rain had stopped they continued on while we crossed the upper Kennedy Creek and continued down the trail on the other side.
Kennedy Creek

The trail was much better here. No longer scree but stable ground, and clearly used regularly by hikers. We moved on forward walking under heavy clouds but only very light and intermittent rain.  The temperature was ambient, not cold at all.

The illumination was definitely unfavorable for wildflowers photography. I had better success with bright-colored flowers and even those required numerous takes.
Bridge's Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata ssp. bridgesii

The main cloud mass had moved away and small holes in the cloud cover formed, letting some sunlight through. the sunny spots were few and far between, but I enjoyed them very much when they happened.
Pale Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima ssp. pallida

I looked back. The sun spotlight was on the summit of Molo Mountain, the peak northeast of the Big Sam, Shining bright against the darkened surrounding.

For a while it seemed that the clouds would move on and the sky would clear up. The blue patch of sky did grow bigger. Looking up at the northeast-facing slope I noticed how much we had descended. That big snow patch we saw from above was now well above us and looking much smaller.

A nutcracker called from a nearby tree. I readied my camera but it flew away upon clicking.
Clark's Nutcracker

Below my feet, right on the trail, a broom rape was blooming. I almost stepped on it. It is a parasitic plant, rising above ground only to bloom.

Moving between sun and shade we kept on descending. Although the trail was much easier to walk, it did seem endless. Since the clouds above remained persistent, it seemed like the rain might return too.
Anderson's Thistle, Cirsium andersonii

Thinking similarly, all the hikers we'd seen earlier near the Kennedy Creek crossing were now heading back downhill, overtaking us while we sat down for a short snack break. 
The patches of blue sky winked out one by one, and the sound of thunder returned, although still far away. 

After walking for a long while high above Kennedy Creek the trail finally got near the water.This was a very brief encounter because soon after the creek dropped down in a series of cascading falls while the trail remained high and separate from the flowing water.

Also, after a long while that Kennedy Lake was obscured by the trees we got to an opening where we could see it , like a pretty jewel below. It seemed that there, just a little while more, and we would be right there by the lake shore.
Glimpse of Kennedy Lake

Once clear of the trees though, we realized that the lake was much more distant than it seemed. Moreover, it was still very far below us. More than a thousand feet.

We sat down for one final break before starting down the last lag of today's hike. A small squirrel darted from the trail side, paused a bit to evaluate the danger that we might have posed to him, then disappeared behind a log.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Looking back again I got to appreciate once more the steepness of the side creek I had briefly though might be a possible descent route, and be relieved again that I decided against going down there. I was also thinking however, that given the time an opportunity that would be a great  place to explore coming from below.

A damp area near the trail had some wild onions blooming. It was the last bit of floral color I paid attention to that day because the trail segment that followed would take all of my attention and energy to get through in one piece.
Swamp Onion, Allium validum

I took one last look behind at the Big Sam, appreciating how far down we'd come already. Then we got up to our feet, hoisted our backpacks and started down the last thousand feet of descent.
The Big Sam

The trail from the view point we sat on all the way down to Kennedy Lake had proved to be one of the hardest trail segments I've ever hiked, topped only by descending down Mount Shasta a year later. 
In short - hiking down scree is a most exerting and painful task. The terrain is anything but stable. Maintaining balance, even with the help of hiking poles, and doing so at each and every step for a long stretch of a steep downhill trail is exhausting very straining to the body and spirit.

Naturally, I didn't take many photos while going down that path because I was too focused on staying upright and resisting the gravitational pull to slide down while leaving my ankles behind. I did like the nice boughs of a sierra juniper, one of many that dotted the slope along the trail.

Sierra Juniper, Juniperus grande

I also had a better view of a colorful patch of granite that shone through the overall mountain grayness.It would have been nice to have brighter illumination but the color contrast was still very striking.

Most of all, I was very relieved when we finally were down at the valley floor, not far from the lake. Now it was a race against the rain, which was now imminent. Visible from above I could tell that the prime camping spots along the lake shores were already occupied. Moreover, I didn't think we could make it all the way to the other side of the lake (which was my original plan) before the downpour begun. In agreement with my friend we diverted from the trail toward Kennedy Creek above the lake and started searching for a suitable camping spot.

After crossing a couple of small channels and pushing through willow thickets we found a nice flat meadow adjacent to the main channel of the creek. Immediately we pitched our tent and crawled inside and not a moment too soon. The sky opened up and for a good half an hour the rain came down hard, playing its music on our tent.

And just like that, the rain was over and the sun returned. We got out of the tent and made dinner, crouching on the wet grass. Now that we had some more time to look around we could tell that this area was grazing ground - there were cow pies all around us. I was somewhat concerned that cows might show up and decide to sit next to or on our tent but I wasn't about to pick up and leave.

Across the creek was a cascading waterfall of fresh water, much fresher than the water in the creek which was really murky and unappealing. I folded my pants and waded barefoot across the creek to fetch the water from the bottom of the waterfall. On the way there I saw something that made me very very happy - a Spiranthes orchid! I regretted not having taken my camera with me and told my friend that I'd go there again in the morning to photograph this special wildflower in the morning light.

Soon after dinner my friend went into the tent. I remained outside, shivering slightly in the sudden chill that accompanied the sunset, and waited until the last sun rays disappeared.
tSunset at Kennedy Lake

It was a very long day and a very exhausting hike. Definitely the hardest day we had that trip. In many ways it was also the most rewarding one. There was so much change of elevation, in the nature of the terrain, and in the vegetation between the south and the north sides of the Big Sam. I was very tired yet I didn't feel drained at all. My legs were somewhat sore but I wasn't not in pain, despite the strain of getting down a hard scree path. This was the last night of a very good trip. All that was left for tomorrow was to continue down Kennedy Creek out of the wilderness. 
Night had fallen. It was time to get inside the tent and go to sleep.