Kennedy Lake reflects Kennedy Peak in the Emigrant Wilderness. Credit Matt Johanson
You could hike to the summit of the nearly 11,500-foot Sonora Peak, a half-day outing with a spectacular mountain view. You could take an equestrian tour of the Emigrant Wilderness, or, simply camp out of your car in the Stanislaus National Forest – no reservations needed and free in many places.
This is the Sonora Pass area, and it offers something for everyone.
Closed to automobiles in winter, Highway 108 usually opens in May, and early visitors enjoy great cross-country skiing before summer melts away the snow. Free downhill skiing is also possible: some intrepid skiers shuttle a vehicle to the pass and ski several miles down its steep slopes to a second vehicle left below.
But as summer heat begins to blanket the region, a broader range of activities become available when most visitors enjoy the area.
Camping is extremely popular, and developed campgrounds can be found from Kennedy Meadows to Pinecrest Lake. Pinecrest is the closest to the restaurants and shops of Strawberry, and tends to be the most crowded.
Higher on the road, camping is less expensive and more private. Brightman Flat Campground, about 15 miles east of Strawberry on Highway 108, offers 33 sites beside the Stanislaus River on a first-come, first-served basis. Visitors to Pigeon Flat campground can pitch their tents in the shadow of the Columns of the Giants, an interesting formation of stone columns formed by ancient volcanic activity. At 7,000 feet, Pigeon Flat is also a good place to acclimate for a high-elevation hike.
However, campers need not pay to use developed campgrounds. Forest Service regulations allow camping anywhere in the Stanislaus or other national forests unless posted otherwise. There are plenty of forest roads leading to scenic and private areas. This is a great way to go as long as you bring your own water and can live without hot showers temporarily. Try Herring Creek Road just north of Strawberry. It’s a dirt road, but you shouldn’t need a truck to drive it.
If lounging along the river isn’t your thing, Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station offers guided equestrian tours and unguided horse rentals. Kennedy Meadows also has cabins, a restaurant and a general store.
Many hikers ascend Sonora Peak because only two miles and 2,000 vertical feet separate its summit from the Saint Mary’s Pass trailhead, marked by a road sign about a mile west of the highway’s more than 9,600-foot summit. A well-marked trail covers most of the route, and those who reach the summit enjoy a terrific view of the Sierra range, including peaks of Yosemite and beyond.
For a tougher challenge, try Leavitt Peak in the Emigrant Wilderness. At eight miles round-trip with some off-trail scrambling required, this is a bigger grunt than Sonora Peak, but well worth the effort. Pick up the Pacific Crest Trail heading south at the highway summit. Both the pass and the trailhead are marked by road signs, and there’s plenty of parking available.
Both Sonora and Leavitt peaks have summit registers, giving climbers a chance to document their achievements. Reaching the summits not only entitles climbers to sign their name, but allows them the privilege of reading the interesting thoughts and observations of visitors from decades past.
Many hikers pick up the Pacific Crest Trail at Sonora Pass, either heading north towards Lake Tahoe or south towards Yosemite National Park. These point-to-point hikes can take a week or more, but many shorter loops or out-and-backs are possible. Hike even a short distance, and you may meet a hardy trekker bound for Canada or Mexico.
Additionally, great technical rock climbing abounds within short distances from the road. Most of the climbing is fairly stiff, but gym climbers and beginners will find a few opportunities. Check the excellent guidebook, “A Climber’s Guide to the Sonora Pass Highway,” available locally.
Sonora Pass also offers great fishing, swimming and mountain biking. In short, anyone who likes the outdoors will find something to do there, and it isn’t nearly as crowded as Lake Tahoe or Yosemite.
If you go:
Camping: Pinecrest and Pioneer Trail campgrounds accept reservations. Visit recreation.gov for Pinecrest and reserveamerica.com for Pioneer Trail. Other campgrounds are walk-ins. Check the Stanislaus National Forest website for a list and prices.
Equestrian: Call Kennedy Meadows at (209) 965-3900 or visit the resort’s web site at kennedymeadows.com.
Hiking: The Summit Ranger District office of the Stanislaus National Forest, on the east side of Highway 108 at Pinecrest, has information, maps, advice and free wilderness permits for overnight wilderness visits.
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