After completing my climb of Mt Conness
, I still had a day to burn before embarking on my return journey back to Canada from California. I decided to go for something quiet, easy and scenic - a section of the Pacific Crest trail through the Emigrant Wilderness north of Yosemite.
The Pacific Crest Trail is perhaps the most interesting and most scenic long distance hiking trail in North America, stretching from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the many mountain ranges that parallel North America's western edge. I chose a quiet section that runs along the crest of the Sierra Nevada between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, in the Emigrant Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest.
I positioned myself the night before at one of the many free roadside camping areas along highway 108 near Sonora Pass (Sonora Pass being the start point for the hike). It was surprisingly full of campers (most in big pickup trucks and wearing camo) and it took a while to find an empty spot. I wondered - had I misjudged my choice of a 'quiet' area?
Wanting to finish my hike early, I got up in the pre-dawn dark and quickly packed, then drove five minutes uphill to park at Sonora Pass. At 9624 feet, it is the second-highest highway crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains (and so minimized the elevation gain of the hike).
My plan was to hike south along the Pacific Crest Trail (which crosses highway 108 at Sonora Pass), continuing for a suitable distance until either I reached an interesting point or simply decided it was time to turn around. I had a general idea that I'd visit some alpine lakes east of Leavitt Peak, but other than that, no specific plans.
A Toyota pickup truck pulled up next to my car as I was preparing to head off in the pre-dawn darkness. The driver said hello, and we had a short conversation where I learned why there had been so many other pickup trucks parked and camped in the various pullouts along the road: today was the start of deer hunting season, and this guy was waiting around for a fellow hunter. I was glad to be wearing my red hiking hat today (although to be fair, I was heading up into the Emigrant Wilderness, where presumably no hunting was allowed).
Starting off by headlamp, I headed south. I couldn't see too much at the moment - just the tread of the trail scrolling by under the white light of my LED headlamp.
Ever so slowly, a line of orange brightened along the eastern horizon, and gradually I began to make out nearby features. Starting at nearly 10,000 feet, I was already entering open subalpine meadows, mostly devoid of trees. The trail itself was very smooth and well-graded, winding and generally contouring around the small ridges and gullies of the headwaters of Sardine Creek - a north-facing basin near the crest of the Sierra.
The glowing eyes of a small herd of deer swivelled in my direction as I crossed Sardine Creek itself and I continued through some bushes towards higher ground. I cleared my throat and made noises just in case there might be some ursine life about (especially since I was alone). Soon the trail switchbacked up and out of the trees for good, starting a long rising traverse around the head of the basin. It was a lot lighter now, and the headlamp could be permanently extinguished. No sign of other hikers (or of hunters) so far.
The views continued to expand as I climbed on a rising traverse around the head of the Sardine Creek Basin. Below me to the right were the gentle slopes of Sonora Pass, with highway 108 clearly visible.
After the long, rising traverse that curved to the north, the trail made an abrupt 180-degree turn as it reached the main Sierra Crest, turning back south and climbing a final few hundred feet to a point near a local highpoint. Full views to the east and west were now afforded - east to the morning sun and backlit ranges, and west to the still-shadow filled terrain that dropped gradually towards California's Central Valley. Conditions were completely clear and nearly calm - only a slight, cool breeze from the east stirred the air.
At about 10,800 feet (approximately 1100 up from the start of the trail at Sonora Pass), the trail flattened out. Here a sign marked the boundary of the Emigrant Wilderness.
The Pacific Crest Trail heads pretty much straight south from here, almost completely on the level as it traverses just west of the Sierra Crest, at an elevation of roughly 10,750 feet. The trail itself continued to be extremely smooth and easy to walk on. Still no sign of other hikers - and no hunters. My misgivings about solitude were - happily - unfounded. For a nicely-trailed hike on a weekend day, this was turning out to be perfect.
Crossing the Crest
After about a mile of easy flat walking, the PCT turned west and crossed over a broad saddle to the eastern side of the Sierra Crest. New vistas to the east opened up here, down into a wide valley drained by a watercourse known as McKay Creek. The PCT traversed the head of this basin, across gentle, gravelly slopes. A small blue tent was perched on a small knoll through here, and a solitary backpacker was reclining in the morning sun, reading a book. He wasn't alone, however - nearby were several animals. Grazing llamas, in fact, complete with harnesses. Turns out, this guy was llama-packing along this stretch of the PCT. I didn't know that was a thing.
We waved at each other as I hiked by.
The PCT lazily wound its way around the head of the Mckay Creek Basin, then angled upward to a more jagged bit of terrain - a sharp, craggy ridgeline heading east down from nearby Leavitt Peak. There was a convenient break in the ridge, however, and the PCT angled up right for it, then through it. A pretty new scene then opened out to the south - the snowpatches and alpine lakes of the upper Leavitt Basin.
There are several alpine lakes strung out along the Upper Leavitt Basin, and I had originally given some thought to hiking a loop along the Sierra Crest and then down and next to the lakes. It looked, however, like that would push my hike up into the mid 20km (15mi) range, and I felt that was a bit too long to achieve an early return time. Instead, I decided to visit the nearest of the lakes, nestled attractively below me only a few hundred yards away.
Soon after the notch, I left the PCT and followed a fairly distinct side path down to the clear and nearly smooth waters of the lake - Latopie Lake, to be precise. I decided to air out my sweaty feet on the cool lakeshore, take a nice long break, and maybe filter a litre of fresh, clean mountain water.
After a relaxing, secluded (still had seen no one other than that single camper) 40-minute break, I put my socks back on, but not my hiking shoes. I had packed along my sneakers, in the hopes of using them if the trail turned out to be easy and smooth. It most certainly had, and I figured to make the walk back more comfortable by putting them on instead of my clunkier mountaineering boots.
Climbing back up from Latopie lake to the PCT, I began my return journey back north. Soon I crossed back over the jagged ridgecrest and into the McKay Creek Basin, re-passing the llama-packer's camp (it appeared he was finally making to break camp and move on - a lazy timetable he had!). Then, back up easy slopes to the saddle leading back over to the western side of the Sierra Crest, where I stopped and spent some time watching a hawk or eagle hover motionless in an updraft, scanning the terrain below for rodents. Occasionally a quick plunge to capture prey, but - at least as I was watching - unsuccessfully.
Pack Llamas, McKay Creek Basin