Wilderness Backpacking in California

After starting the new year off right in Big Sur, Shane and I wanted to continue exploring California’s backcountry, but at a more intense level. I certainly recommend Big Sur as a stop-off on your trip down the California 1, though it may be a tad overrated as a destination in and of itself. While beautiful, Big Sur is touristy and too easily accessible, with too many amenities nearby.

When Memorial Day weekend rolled around, Shane and I checked out Emigrant Wilderness in Stanislaus National Forest, northwest of Yosemite. Our summer goal was to avoid the crowds at Yosemite, and we succeeded.

Frequent stream crossings (5 - 7 per day) are standard fare in Emigrant Wilderness early in the season. Bring your Keens!

Frequent stream crossings (5 – 7 per day) are standard fare in Emigrant Wilderness early in the season. Bring your Keens!

The jewels of Emigrant Wilderness are Buck Lake and Emigrant Lake, if you are able to get that far. We didn’t make it there on our 3-day trek so early in the season— we grappled with lots of snow and high stream crossings, that, while exciting, irrevocably slowed our progress.


We camped next to our car in the parking lot at Crabtree trailhead, a nice campground right alongside a stream. There were a fair amount of people on the trail at the beginning, so Shane and I were able to get a rare photo together.

Our private beach.

Our private beach.

As the crowd thinned out over the course of the weekend and Shane and I hiked deeper into the wilderness, we were lucky to find one of the best campsites we have ever had the pleasure to inhabit. We had this amazing area of boulders and swimming holes all to ourselves. It was a serene location to try out our new style of healthy camping foods. We brought along lentils, quinoa, tortillas, cheese, onion, broccoli, squash, zucchini and hot sauce. We found this to be a desirable alternative to the usual camper’s menu of pasta with sauce, the classic camping meal- depressing, and completely devoid of nutrition!

Not a flattering photo, but you can see the ingenious setup!

Not a flattering photo, but you can see the ingenious setup!

It is worth repeating that despite all the obvious beauty, a backcountry weekend in Emigrant Wilderness should be approached with respect and caution, especially during the early part of the season where everything is still flooded. Healthy food choices and plenty of sleep are necessary to give you the energy you need to get through this wild terrain.

At the end of July, Shane and I went with his dad on a 3-night backcountry trip in Ansel Adams Wilderness in Inyo National Forest, southeast of Yosemite.

Photo by Eric Young

Photo by Eric Young

Shane and I agreed that we unabashedly prefer Ansel Adams Wilderness to Emigrant Wilderness. The views are far more spectacular; they are reminiscent of our trip to Patagonia in Argentina. We also enjoyed far more wildlife sightings, such as bears, marmots and even this rare rubber boa. A wilderness ranger later told us in the parking lot that Ansel Adams Wilderness constitutes the very edge of the natural range of the rubber boa, so it is a rare treat to see one. In the middle of the trail, it appeared to be a transparent giant slug; closer inspection reveals a decent-sized snake with blunt head and tail.

Ediza Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Ediza Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Picturesque lakes abound. We passed Ediza Lake early on the first day and then set up a spectacular camp at Iceberg Lake.

Iceberg Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, photo by Eric Young

Iceberg Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, photo by Eric Young

The second day’s hike led us to the jewel of Ansel Adams Wilderness- Thousand Island Lake. I didn’t expect to see a beach popping up in the middle of the wilderness!

Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Leave a comment with any questions. Happy backpacking!

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9 Comments on “Wilderness Backpacking in California”

  1. Bill August 4, 2014 at 08:47 #

    Great Pictures. Ansel Adams – Can’t get any better than that. Karen and I visited Stanislaus Park last visit. The Sequoias there are awesome. We had a great time walking around the two family rated trails in the park. About the food – less likely for a Bear to smell something cooking like lentils and stuff and come running.

    • Marisa LaValette August 4, 2014 at 09:36 #

      Thanks for reading, Bill! You’ll show me your pictures from Stanislaus sometime.

  2. Eric Young August 6, 2014 at 18:56 #

    Thanks for dragging me over the mountains in Ansel Adams Wilderness. You and Shane are great wilderness campers. You leave no trace, you carry everything out that you brought in with you. I thought the Ansel Adams Wilderness was some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. Iceberg Lake was at 10,000′. We had a few hikers pass through and one other tent in sight. I was constantly seeing campsites where I would like to have stopped and slept next to a small private lake or next to a roaring waterfall or swimming hole. We did between 24-28 miles over 4 days and 3 nights. Wonderful stuff. Thanks again. Eric

    • Marisa LaValette August 7, 2014 at 10:51 #

      Thanks for reading the blog Eric! You are a great hiker. We’ll plan another backpacking trip next summer!

  3. Bulldog Travels January 19, 2015 at 09:14 #

    Great article. Highway one is definitely prettier the farther north you get. Happy travels.

    • Marisa LaValette January 19, 2015 at 09:42 #

      I can’t wait to head north and check out Mendocino! It’s been on my list, but the daily grind keeps me in SF. I’ll make time for it.

      • Bulldog Travels January 19, 2015 at 09:47 #

        I hear you. So i have a blog post or two listed about mendocino…particularly MacKerricher state park which is my favorite place to camp anywhere. So when you do go, and since it looks like you enjoy camping, you really should check it out! Otherwise i could recomend some wonderful hotels if you want to splurge. But to be honest camping on the ocean in Mendo is better than any five star hotel! I also recently pisted about the mushroom festival up there with some fun photos. Check it out. Keep in touch. Perhaps we could share an adventure together. We are so close!

        • Marisa LaValette January 19, 2015 at 09:54 #

          This is so helpful! I will definitely check out MacKerricher. Maybe drop me a name of one of your favorite hotels- for when I’ve had enough of MacKerricher and want a shower! I’ll look at your posts, too.

          • Bulldog Travels January 19, 2015 at 10:05 #

            They have showers at Mackericher!!! Brewery Gulch Inn is my favorite Mendocino hotel but to be honest it is very expensive. Totally worth it but $$$$. Little River Inn is also nice and has golf and a salon if you are into that. Stanford inn is a fun place too which is veggie and vegan for a fun twist. Hill house inn is a lovely alternative that is affordable. The treat there is it is IN the village so you can walk everywhere and undulge in a little wine. In other news check out Cafe Beaujolais and 925 Ukiah Street Restaurant. (My favorite restaurants anywhere believe it or not!) and they are right next door to one another.

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