We hike across granite ridges, volcanic summits towering overhead and verdant meadows littered with crystalline lakes below. It looks just like Yosemite, with one difference: This Sierra backpacking trip doesn't require a reservation.
After hastily scheming a backpacking trip, my group departed from the Bay Area on the morning of July 13, heading three hours east to the Emigrant Wilderness. This slice of Sierra backcountry sits in the Stanislaus National Forest between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. But unlike Yosemite, last-minute planners aren't foiled by a reservation system: There are no permit quotas or reservation requirements for Emigrant. Overnight visitors simply pick up a free wilderness permit from Stanislaus ranger stations.
We stop for last minute supplies at Sonora's Junction Shopping Center just off 108, then pop into the Pinecrest Ranger Station to grab our permit and consult a ranger about our route. Emigrant offers easy access to 113,000 acres. Enter by Yosemite's Cherry Lake from the south, at Kennedy Meadows off Highway 108 from the north, or from the west at Pinecrest Lake. A north or east entry delivers lava-capped summits and far-reaching views; marshes, pine groves, lakes, and more granite splendor define the western areas. Emigrant rangers regulate a one-night-only rule for camping along popular lakes. So don't worry about setting up camp near masses of beginners or a Boy Scout troop. Map and wilderness permit in hand, we enter Emigrant at its western border through the Crabtree Trailhead.
A 2.8-mile hike up side-winding dirt singletrack beneath Sierra pines brings us to Camp Lake, where we break for lunch. Another mile atop granite slabs and through pockets of wildflowers lands us at Bear Lake for the night. The next day we spend jumping off rock cliffs into the chilled waters and traipsing along the granite shoreline. We even snag a rainbow trout on the first cast. —Maren Kasselik
If you go: Find a map of the Emigrant Wilderness here. For a longer trip, head to Gem Lake and return via the Grouse Lake Loop Trail. Dubbed the "Land-o-Lakes" trail by locals, the loop overlooks 15 lakes and runs across the shores of seven. After your trip, hit Mia's off Highway 108 in Cold Springs for brick-oven pizza and microbrews.