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Published: November 8th 2006
November is always a great time to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. Conditions are ripe for solitude: the children are all in school, the days are short and the weather is cold. Rain always arrives in California by Halloween, but mostly the storms have only just started to come, if at all. Because of this, only the most determined hikers and backpackers can be found in the wilderness- Fortunately for me and some friends, we were some of them!
Relief Reservoir is near Sonora Pass, a 9643 ft (2919 meter) Mountain Pass that was first crossed in 1853 by only the most determined of settlers. In history, the settling of California is told from an East Coast perspective. Thus, the mass migration of these people is termed Emigration- "To leave on region and settle in another". So, when this region between Sonora Pass and Yosemite National Park was established as a preserve in 1931 and later a Wilderness Area in 1975, it was appropriately called the "Emigrant Wilderness" due to the large number of settlers seeking fame and fortune in the California Gold Rush.
Highway 108 that goes from the city of Sonora over the Sierra Nevada to
the Eastside is a very good road. You can consistently maintain the 55 mph speed limit with minimal interruption from mountain turns, as the grade was well mapped. In fact, the 55 miles between Sonora and Kenndey Meadows Trailhead is about 50 miles, and it takes about and hour to get there. It's hard to understand why the area isn't enjoyed more often by the masses of outdoor enthusiasts from the 5 million metropolis known as the San Francisco Bay Area, as Sonora is just 2 hours from most cities in The Bay.
We arrived at 9am Saturday morning at Kennedy Meadows. With no permits required after November 1, and nobody at the trailhead, solitude was guaranteed. The only two people we saw were the Kennedy Meadows Resort caretakers, who were more than happy to let us park at the resort to shorten the hike by 1.5 miles. In fact, the even offered to watch our cars if we parked close to their cabin. Really nice people, who obviously love what they do and where they do it at- one of the most dramatic and overlooked parts of the Sierra's.
What makes the Sonora Pass region so unique
is the intermingling of Volcanic Rock and Granite. The great Sierra Nevada, the "range of light" as popularized by the great Naturlaist John Muir, is so known because of its Granite. This grey, granulated rock covers hundreds of miles. Bare sculpted granite: shimmering grey, poished and studded with contorted specimens of endemic Junipers and Pines- this is what the Sierra Nevada is all about. North of Sonora Pass however, the rocks take a different turn. Instead of speckled granite, you get deep red volcanic rock, evidence of the Sierra Nevada's recent past. This intersection of red Volcanic Rock and grey Granite makes the area a crossroads- North of Sonora Pass the granite character of the Sierra Nevda is sporadic, and South of the Pass the unmistakable majesty of the High Sierra's sculpted granite peaks goes on for hundreds of miles.
We hiked 5 miles and found a campsite. The Reservoir had receded significantly, as we have only had 2 small storms this season in California. During the day the highs are in the 60's, while at night the temps plunge into the 20's. Even though we camped at a relatively high 7200 feet, we were surrounded by forest of
all types. Jeffrey Pine, White Fir, Western Juniper and Quaking Aspen grew thick along the north shore of the now receded Reservoir. The Wilderness Boundry surrounded the Reservoir, Relief Res. is owned by PG&E and water level is regulated for irrigation control 150 miles away in the San Joaquin Valley.
Hiking to the lakeshore that was 100 feet below normal, we found incredible things- dead stump forests, mud flats and animal bones. Seeing the incredible effect of these mud flats, I quickly got my camera and set off to take pictures for sunset. Some mud flats had pools surrounded by tree stumps. This remnant forest was chopped down to help build the dam, for soon the forest would be underwater. It was eerie- black mud dried into brown, the light brown chips of equal size. In some places the mud had settled on granite stones, drying more quickly than the dark brown mud on which it sat. This is where I took the cover shot for this entry.
I went on a day hike up to Relief Valley. Sitting above the Reservior, the steep ridges and peaks really opened up and allowed for some great views. The Junipers
not only became more contorted but also larger, they seem to thrive in the sun, wind and exposed granite.
We spent a total of 31 hours in the wilderness. This more than exceeded my expectation for just a weekend trip! I have found 24 hours in the wilderness is enough to reset my spiritual and emotional clock, so spending nearly a day and a half in this place really did the trick. After the quick 1 hour drive to Sonora for a big meal of Mexican Food, it only took 2 hours to get home. Certainly this area deserves more of my attention, and certainly I will return!
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