Emigrant Wilderness Backpacking: Crabtree to Gem Lake, Deer Lake, and More

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 02 May 2014

Backpacking Emigrant Wilderness

A fantastic  4 day Backpacking Trip into the Emigrant Wilderness from trailhead East of Pinecrest Lake near Highway 108.

Peter describes food resources there and back, roads, fishing, trail culture and terrain descriptions that make this a fantastic description of a fantastic backpacking trip.

Trail into Emigrant Wilderness from Crabtree Trailhead.
 Backpacking Trail into Emigrant Wilderness through Crabtree Trailhead

Thanks to Peter and Jason for sharing this!

Emigrant Wilderness NF PDF

All Tahoe to Whitney MAPS
Emigrant Wilderness Backpacking Maps


Emigrant Wilderness Trailheads NF PDF

TW Emigrant-N Yosemite TRAILS
Highway 108 to Highway 120 Trail Guide


Stanislaus National Forest


Hi Alex,

Here's the overview of our hike

Hikers:  Jason Mathis, Peter Skaff & Coal Porter (my black lab)

Sept 29
We left El Dorado Hills around 9 am, heading south on Hwy 49 towards Sonora. Along the way, we stopped for lunch and to pick up crickets at a gas & bait shop near Angels Camp. The hot, pulled pork sandwiches were delicious.

From Sonora, we turned east up Hwy 108, through Twain Harte and up to Pinecrest. From there, we took the mostly well paved Crabtree road towards the Trail Head of the same name. The last mile or two is unpaved.
This trail head had a large, paved parking lot where we divvied up some of the supplies and food to balance our packs, which each came out to 50 pounds. My black lab, Coal, also had a pack (which I did not weigh), in which he carried his food, a quart of water, a white fuel canister and our water filter.

We hit the trail head right around 2 pm heading south along the well-maintained trail, climbing moderately as we turned eastward.
At the top of this ascent, near the fork with the Pine Valley trail, we came across 4 rangers who were returning to the trailhead after replacing a trail post. They asked us for our wilderness permit. Jason had obtained a campfire permit before we left, but we had neglected to get a wilderness permit.
Fortunately, the lead Ranger produced a blank permit, which we filled out, and after some pleasant conversation, we continued our trek eastward.

The weather was cool and partly cloudy, perfect for hiking, as even on the ascents, I was only lightly perspiring. The first lake we came to was Camp Lake, which is not well-named as there is essentially no camping there.

Camp Lake in Emigrant Wilderness.
Camp Lake in Emigrant Wilderness.

From Camp Lake (at 7590 feet elevation), there is a short, steep descent down to Lilly Creek (~7300 ft), then a longer ascent to a saddle (~7900 ft), then slight descent to our first night's campsite at Lillipad Lake (~ 7850 ft).

Backpacking to Lilypad Lake in Emigrant Wilderness.

Lillypad Lake is well-named, as it is covered in lilly pads and is surrounded by granite, cotton woods and pines.

Miles and Gear Issues
Distance for the first day was 5.5 miles. We made camp which included improving the fire ring and seating, then started dinner.
Jason brought his MSR stove and I had the Jet Boil. We have found that pre-heating water in the Jet Boil is more efficient when cooking meals on the stove, but unfortunately, the pump for the stove was not generating any pressure.
 We decided to make repairs the next day, when it would be light, boil water, make instant potatoes and eat some of our other provisions: jerky, nuts and dried fruit. 

Day 2
Sept 30: I awoke to find that my cricket cage, which I had laid next to my pack on a large granite boulder, was covered in large black ants. I had never experienced this before, and after shaking off all the ants, I found that they had annihilated my live bait, leaving only a few cricket parts behind. This didn't bode well for the angling I had planned for the streams around Deer Lake, our intended destination. 
We repaired Jason's stove (which consisted only of lubricating the pump's piston leather), and after a 20 minute yoga session, directed by Jason, we set off on the trail. Most of the trail from here out was granite, granite gravel and sand. It was clear that this was a popular horse trail, but we didn't see any bear scat along the way.

From Lillypad, there was another descent past Paiute Meadow, down to Paiute Creek (~7550 ft), then an ascent to Paiute Lake at ~ 7850 feet.
This is a small, but pretty lake and there is a forested peninsula that juts down from the trail south, into the lake body which made a nice rest stop. We caught up with a senior couple we had seen as they passed our campsite that morning, about an hour before we hit the trail that day.
They were about to leave the lake, and we conversed with them about the wilderness area and compared notes on gear selection. They had packed very light, which they attributed largely to dehydrating all of their food.
From Paiute Lake, another descent to Cherry Creek, then the final ascent of the day to Gem Lake at ~ 8200 feet. Another well-named lake, it was truly beautiful, with a high granite wall to the north, lightly forested areas on the west end and granite every where else.

Backpacking to Gem Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness.

It was about 5 o'clock when we arrived, so we scouted the south side of the lake and found a number of very good campsites. We debated pushing on to Deer Lake, another 2 miles or so, but given the awesome beauty around us, decided to set up a base camp while we still had ample light. Distance that day was an easy 4.5 miles.

As usual, we improved the fire ring, upgrading to what has become our standard high backed, crescent shaped, heat radiator. With improved seating and a couple flat slabs for our "kitchen," we were ready for the night.
This area is essentially all granite, so foraging for felled wood took some time. We had some good luck along the outlet creek (which was dry) that courses south from the lake.

The weather again that day was cool and partly cloudy, which made for an incredible sunset. After dinner, we mixed hot drinks of cider with spiced rum for Jason, whiskey for me.
We strummed our Martin Backpacker guitars in the firelight and enjoyed the ample star-scape above. It was getting cooler at altitude, with a forecast low in the high 30's for the night. 

Dusk at Gem Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness.

Day 3
Oct 1: This was an easy day. I started with a hike around the lake perimeter, Coal was following me or was running ahead, occasionally jumping into the water and splashing with his forepaws (one of his favorite past times).
Jason found a nice spot on the lake's edge where he could sit with his guitar for a while and I snapped shots of the morning glory. After a light lunch, we headed out on a day-hike to Deer Lake.
We started out on the trail which, after a short ascent, took us to Jewelry Lake (~ 8400 feet). Again, this is another small, but beautiful lake with sapphire blue water. We both had our Martin Backpackers with us, so Jason set his camera on a compact tripod and we made a little music video with the lake in the background.
From here, we departed from the trail, which follows the north edge of the lake, and instead went along the south side which brought us first to the outlet creek. This was a visual treat as it courses south and seems to head off into infinity as it drops off into a steep descent to eventually join Buck Meadow Creek below.

Jewlery Lake outlet in Emigrant Wilderness.

We crossed the creek, continued along the south side of the lake, then came to the inlet creek which originates at Buck Lake. We continued along the creek, rock hopping where we could or above the bank when necessary. Intermittent pools were filled with pan-sized trout. Though I didn't have my crickets, I did bring my pole and some salmon eggs, so I thought I'd try my luck.
With the first flip of the line, the trout headed in and the largest of them took the baited hook. I let him swim with it a bit, then gave a quick snap to the pole. Fish On! I was above the water about 10 feet, and as I reeled the ~ 10" rainbow out of the water, he gave a few quick flips and was off the hook and back into the creek.
I was disappointed, but encouraged that they were going for the salmon eggs. I re-baited the hook and flipped the line back into the water. The fish swam in more slowly this time, circled the hook a bit, then they all swam off! I tried a few more times in other areas of the creek, but could not get any more bites. Next time, I'll be hanging my cricket cage from a tree, not leaving it on the ground for the ants!

Trout creek between Gem Lake and Deer Lake.
 Creek for fishing between Gem Lake and Deer Lake.

It was really a small defeat as the day's hike up the creek to Deer Lake was beautiful. It was a bright, sunny and pleasantly temperate day with only a few wisps of cloud and the occasional con-trail in the sky, which Jason remarked was unmistakably more blue than what we were used to seeing in the valley.
Upon reaching the origin of the creek at Deer Lake (~ 8500 feet), we again continued off trail, following the south edge of the lake (the trail is on the north side). This was by far, the largest of the lakes we encountered on this trek. It was long (west to east) and contained a couple of granite islands supporting small stands of pine trees.
We circled the lake and stopped at the north-east corner for a snack and to take in the sights. Coal ran free, exploring the inlet stream that comes down from Long Lake to the north-east.

Cole the backpacking dog running around at Deer Lake.
Cole the backpacking dog running around at Deer Lake in Emigrant Wilderness.

From there, we headed back along the trail, pausing at Jewelry Lake again to admire its beauty, and then returned to our camp at Gem Lake for another night by the fireside. The round trip was about 5 miles.
Upon arriving, we found we had neighbors, two gentlemen who had come up the steep trail from Buck Meadow to the south. They were Bay Area professionals who, like us, were looking to get off the grid for a few days to refocus their bodies and souls.

Gem Lake sunset two, Emigrant Wilderness backpacking trip.


Day 4
Oct 2: This was a controversial day. We were heading back toward the trailhead, but at odds over whether we should stop for another night at Lillypad, or head all the way to the trail head.
We both had the next day off, but I was pushing for the latter, as I wanted to head further down Hwy 49, to Oakhurst and Bass Lake, where Jason's family has a cabin, and where my boat was still in the water.
I needed to get the boat out of the water and ready for the coming winter, and this seemed to be my best opportunity to take care of this unwelcome task. Jason reluctantly conceded, and pushed the pace hard as we retraced our steps for the 10 mile hike.

The weather couldn't have been better for this undertaking. Although we were making a net descent to the trailhead, there were still a lot of ups and downs as we repeatedly passed over and through saddles and into creek valleys.
It had become partly to mostly cloudy again, and I think the temperature was in the high 50's to low 60's. It felt great to be able to push hard without suffering in heat, and as we reached the trail head, I still felt energetic, enjoying the "high" of hard, physical exertion.

Back on the road, we stopped in Twain Harte at the Pizza Factory for a large pepperoni, which we devoured, then headed back down 108 the further south on 49 towards Oakhurst and finally, Wishon Cove at Bass Lake.

Overall, I would say that this was one of the most beautiful of the wilderness areas in which I've had the pleasure to hike.
The trail is rough with granite for most of the way and is moderately challenging, but it rewards the hiker at frequent intervals with endless panoramas, crystal clear streams and breathtakingly beautiful lakes.
I could see that with the right bait and tackle, the angler would do very well in the streams around Deer Lake, and my only regret was the loss of my crickets the first night at Lillypad.

I don't know when I'll return to this trail, or to another in the Emigrant Wilderness, as I make only one extended backpack each season and have many other areas in mind to explore, but I know that when I do, I'll be just as awestruck.


Happy Hiking,



Also See

Peter and Jason South of Echo Summit

Peter shoots some great pictures...


Emigrant Wilderness NF PDF

All Tahoe to Whitney MAPS
Emigrant Wilderness Backpacking Maps

Emigrant Wilderness Trailheads NF PDF

TW Emigrant-N Yosemite TRAILS
Highway 108 to Highway 120 Trail Guide

Stanislaus National Forest


Backpacking Western Emigrant Wilderness Forum

For "improving" a fire ring, not having a wilderness permit, and allowing a dog to run free around the lake when dogs are required to be on leash at all times in this area.

This is irresponsible backpacking and definitely not "leave no trace," which should be practiced at all times in the heavily-used Emigrant Wilderness.

Alex Wierbinski's picture

Though I appreciate the spirit of your criticism, the target you are aiming at cannot be hit, because it does not exist.

Improving an existing fire ring is quite OK. Not against any rules at all. In fact, I have problems with the policy of "dis-establishing" established sites in busy areas. This tends to spread people out, rather than centering the damage in one area. But hey, that's debatable. The underlaying fact is that we have way too many people here in California to sustain basic social living conditions, let alone preserve what's left of Nature...

As you can read above, the dudes met a ranger who happily issued them a permit, while encountering them with their dog, which indicates the simple facts that dogs are not prohibited from Emigrant, and that they did have a permit.

My personal policy on dogs is simple: You've got to bury their shit too! If you do that, your dog is cool with me. Oh, and don't let it chase shit around, bug the bears, or do stupid shit. Full responsibility!

In other words, they never violated the stricture, "Out-of-control dogs are not permitted." That's the rule.

But since at least 1/3rd folks in California will not even obey our most basic laws, seeing these guys actually being responsible for their own dog's behavior must count for something!

Here's the Emigrant Wilderness Rules, which you can see they did not break in either spirit nor letter.


I have watched the irresponsible growth of our vast domestic population while moving our manufacturing to China driving the rapid changes in our weather that have brought vast changes to our ecosystems in the Sierra and across California for the last 45 years, and I can honestly say that these guys are not any part of that fundamental problem at its core, being the rapid expansion of the Corporate Growth Machine of Death.

That irresponsible growth has damaged our whole planet, and Emigrant Wilderness!

The problems our climate, ecosystems, and the Sierra are experiencing are driven by Greed of our Corporate Elite and the millions and millions of greedy consumers seeking gratification, not two good dudes and their dog.

I'd say that's the real target, the forces of irresponsible growth, if you want to save, or at least slow the destruction of the Sierra's Traditional Environment.

But, you'd better hurry, because it's almost gone.

Alex Wierbinski
ptskaff's picture
The images from this trip were shot using the Pro HDR app on an iPhone 4S.
Alex Wierbinski's picture

Hey Peter,

I edited up the section of the guide to Showers Lake from Echo Summit that has a few more of your pictures.

View of Tahoe from near Showers Lake, Meiss Country:


Views of Showers Lake and Surroundings:


Thanks for sharing your unique perspective. I once hiked down to Pinecrest Lake from Grizzly Peak via a self-selected route. Your images and descriptions urge me to get out there again for a fresh look.

That is beautiful country. George and Sue really like it in there too. Lots of complex terrain full of unique spots.

All of this makes me want to hike... and very pleased that ortho moved up my next x-ray to this thurs, rather than three weeks from now...

The mountains are rapidly shedding their thin snows, the trails will soon be exposed, and the most dangerous phase of the Spring Surge of the rivers will be short.


Alex Wierbinski

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