41 Miles, 5 Blisters & 2 Angry Knees in the Emigrant Wilderness
DAY 1: Kennedy Meadows to Wire Lake / 16 miles / Elevation 6210 – 8700 feet
My 16 year old daughter, Ava and I left Santa Cruz at 5am. We were very excited because this would be our 1st trip without the kids. This means, we can walk at a normal adult pace, not talk about horses and fish for hours, and not talk at all if we want. We knew this would be a challenging hike as neither of us have hiked this distance before, but we were up for the challenge. We already had to cancel our last trip due to this being the summer full of wildfires and National Forests and Parks have been closed. As we drove over Hwy 108 there was a lot of smoke from a new fire in northern Yosemite. Luckily it dissipated quite a bit as we approached the trailhead.
The 1st day was all uphill and we were ready for the climb. The trail had such big views, granite everywhere and followed the river which snaked up the valley. There was a plethora of waterfalls dumping into crystal clear pools. Our spirits were high and the climb was not as hard as I was expecting.
My calculations estimated the 1st day’s hike to be about 14 miles. As the morning turned into afternoon, we noticed that we were still quite far from our planned destination, Deer Lake. Our feet held little protests as we passed mile 14, and then 15. We picked up the pace, but it seemed as though we were racing the sun and the sun was winning. I pulled out my map which was a terrible photo copy with no helpful details at all so I ditched it and embraced my AllTrails app on my phone. We found a little lake about a ½ mile detour from the trail. We decided to take the detour toward Wire Lake. At this point we were beyond exhausted and could pitch a tent just about anywhere.
The sun was about to set as we made it to this little lake which wasn’t very little and happened to be stunning, with a soft sandy beach, a plethora of islands and not a single soul to be seen. As the sun set it cast mirror reflections of the sky & trees on the water. We made camp, cooked messy bean bur0ritos that dripped all over our fingers, and called it a night. We were snuggled in out sleeping bags by 7:45 and the temperature was dropping quick. We were up quite a bit throughout the night as it was just so cold and our feet never really got warm...
DAY 2: Wire Lake to Cool River Spot before Sheep Camp / 15 miles / Elevation 8,700 – about 9,700 feet
We were only going to hike 10 miles today, so we slept in and had a lazy morning planning to hit the trail by 10am. It was cold, I mean really cold. It was tough to pull myself out of my warm cocoon but I knew it was inevitable.
We kept to schedule and were hiking out at 10. Todays hike had a bit of elevation but for the most part we were past the majority of the climb. We hiked the day away and like the day before, everything seemed longer than my original calculations. By 3 pm we still had many miles to go and picked up the pace. It was déjà vu of the previous day.
We made it to the infamous 2-mile-long Emigrant Lake, which is a sight to behold. By the time we got there, our feet were sad and Ava’s knees were quite angry. We realized this was not a simple 10 mile day but looking to be a bit longer. We pressed on, once again racing the sun. We were so close to our destination for that night, Sheeps Camp, but not close enough. The sun was once again winning the race so we decide to stop about ¾ miles from our planned destination and pitched our tent at this cool little spot along a bubbling river with cute little fish.
Ava’s feet had 5 blisters and it was at this point I realized her shoes were way too small. She was hobbling around camp because her knees were refusing to cooperate. That night we shoveled down some delicious chili0, cheese, and flatbread then snuggled tight in our sleeping bags. Ava had the brilliant idea to wrap her feet in her shirt and then put them in a stuff sack and it worked great! Our feet were toasty all night and we stayed warm even though it got cold enough to freeze our water.
DAY 3: Cool River Spot to Trailhead / 10 miles / Elevation About 9,700 - 6,200 feet (knee killer)
We got an early start as we wanted to get back home by dinner. I knew it was going to be a rough one when I saw the extent of Ava’s knees and how walking downhill caused her 0serious pain. Unfortunately, today was mostly ALL downhill, all 3,500 feet of it.
Thankfully, we borrowed a pair of trekking poles which we had not used once, and they saved her. We took our time heading back along some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. There was granite everywhere and we were literally walking along this huge valley on the top of a mountain range. I saw how this hike got its name, Granite Dome Loop. The rocks were huge and it remined me of the book The BFG by Roald Dahl. We were walking through a giant’s playground and it was stunning. Picture this, we’re literally on the top of this range, practically touching the clouds surrounded by immense granite boulders, slowly descending into the valley with breathtaking views on all sides.
We made it to the trailhead a couple hours later than planned but that seemed to be the pattern on this trip. Once we got back to the trailhead, there was another mile of dirt road to the car. We dropped the packs and I jogged down to the parking area, so Ava did not have to hobble another mile on her angry knees. When I made it to the parking lot, I notice that there was a closed, locked gate and 2 days before it was open! Seriously?! I was so fricken tired from my 10-mile trek and then my 1 mile jog and now was thinking I would have to jog back again to get Ava. Kennedy Meadows pack station just closed for the season so they must have closed the fence after we started our hike. I walked around searching for a way to get my car in and saw a small horse corral with wire ropes. I found one small area where I could get my car through and the horses were gone so loaded up to get Ava. As I drove through the makeshift gate, I thanked my lucky stars. There was a sign that said 'Emergency Vehicles Only', so I justified it as Ava could barely walk at this point. I drove on up and tried not to dust all the hikers on my way up, many of whom were giving me stink eye.
I snatched up Ava and we were off before someone could tell us we were not supposed to have our car there. We did it, all 41 miles of it. Ava was a champ, never complained one bit even though her feet looked pretty blistery and her knees would take some time to get back to normal.
What I learned from this trip was to be more careful in calculating distance and to always take an actual topo map. Oh, and never hike with shoes that are too small. All in all, it was the most challenging hike I’ve done and I am grateful I was able to do this with my oldest daughter, Ava.
PS: One month later her knees are still getting better but not 100% hoping they heal up before all the other adventures I have planned for us!