Emigrant Wilderness: Crabtree Trailhead to Bear Lake (2 days / 8 miles)

Beautiful view of Emigrant Wilderness Bear Lake

Crabtree Trailhead to Bear Lake is an excellent beginner backpacking route in Emigrant Wilderness. The route is only 4 miles each way and there is very little elevation gain (less than 1000 ft total). Plus, it’s easy to plan a trip here because there are no quotas or reservations – you just need to call in advance to get a permit.

I hiked this trail with two other women and three dogs. We did the trail in May, so it was cold at night and there were some patches of snow. Even on the weekend, we only saw a few other hikers. Bear Lake is absolutely beautiful. This trip overdelivers on views relative to effort required!

Trip Completed: May 2022

Amazing Greenery besides Bear Lake
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Attractive view of Emigrant Wilderness Bear Lake

Trip Summary:

Starting Point: Crabtree Trailhead

Ending Point: Crabtree Trailhead

Distance: 8.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 967 ft

Length: 1 nights / 2 days

Difficulty: Beginner

Location

This route occurs in Emigrant Wilderness, which is part of Stanislaus National Forest.

Traditional Territory: This route occurs in the traditional territory of the Miwok, Me-Wuk (Central Sierra Miwok) and Nüümü (Northern Paiute) (source).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: No guidebook was used for the route.

Map: We used the AllTrails map for Crabtree Trailhead to Bear Lake. We found it to be accurate throughout the hike.

Camping Permits: There is no quota or reservation system for camping in Emigrant Wilderness. You do need a permit, which can be booked by phone or self-issued at the ranger station upon arrival. If booking by phone, you can only book your permit within three days of your departure.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitters: There are no outfitters in this area. We had our own gear, however, if you don’t have gear, you can rent from REI or Sports Basement prior to leaving.

Shuttles: A shuttle is not needed, as this route starts and ends at the same trailhead.

Know Before You Go

Season: This route is best hiked between late June and September. Depending on snow levels, it is sometimes possible to hike this trail in May. The route can also be done in October if snow fall holds off, but expect it to be cold during this time, especially at night.

Cell Reception: There was no cell service anywhere on this route. I didn’t have cell service at the trailhead either.

Water: There are two lakes to get water – Camp Lake and Bear Lake. In both cases, you need to purify the water before drinking it.

Wildlife: This is bear territory, so we brought bear spray and bear vaults for our food. We didn’t see any wildlife on this trip.

Pets: Dogs are allowed in Stanislaus National Forest and Emigrant Wilderness.

Waste: There are no garbage cans or outhouses in Emigrant Wilderness. You need to pack all of your garbage out with you. For pooping, the best option would be to bring a WA bag so you can pack out your poop. Alternatively, you can bring a trowel to bury your poop, however you have to go quite far from camp to get soil deep enough for a cat hole.

Drones: There are no drones allowed in or around Emigrant Wilderness.

Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness – Crabtree Trailhead to Bear Lake

Day 1: Crabtree Trailhead to Bear Lake (4 miles)

I met up with one member of my hiking party in East Bay around 9:30 am. From there, we drove east toward Sonora where we were stopping for lunch and meeting the third person in our group. Sonora Brewing Co. was a great place to fuel up before continuing the drive to Emigrant Wilderness.

We arrived at Stanislaus National Forest around 1:00 pm. We first stopped at the Ranger Station, which was empty. The permits issued over the phone were hung on a bulletin board. You can also self-issue a free permit at the station. My understanding is that the permits are meant to inform the rangers about how many people are on the trail but not to limit the number.

We then drove from the ranger station to the trailhead. Download the Google Maps directions to your phone! Once we entered the forest, I lost cell service so I was thankful I’d downloaded the map.

There were a lot of cars at the trailhead, but there’s also a ton of parking so that wasn’t a problem.

We started the trail around 1:45 pm. A lot of the elevation gain occurs within the first 1.4 miles of the trail – during this time you climb from 7159 ft to 7533 ft. The trail is quite rocky, but it wasn’t difficult to hike on. The rocks almost form a staircase in some parts.

The next mile was relatively flat and had views of granite mountains in the distance. The area was quite forested, and there was a marshy area around mile 2.0 (it wasn’t difficult to avoid the wet parts, but I also had waterproof hiking boots so this area was easy). Around mile 2.4 we entered Emigrant Wilderness. There was a short climb up to Camp Lake, which is a beautiful alpine lake with some options for camping.

The 1-mile section after Camp Lake was less forested and more exposed, with some tall pines trees and lots of granite outcrops. There was very little elevation gain (also a total change of 70 m), with a few small ups and downs.

There was a small lake right before Bear Lake, but this was due to high water levels flowing out of Bear Lake and flooding a flat area (there was a lot of meltwater since it was May). Once at Bear Lake, we hiked around the left side of lake (northwest side) to find a flat area to camp. There aren’t any defined campsites, but there were a few flat areas that were obviously used by other campers.

We arrived at camp a little before 5:00 pm. I was hiking with one brand new backpacker, one moderate-level backpacker and three dogs – don’t expect the 4 miles to also take you 3 hours!

After setting up camp, we brought our camp chairs to the edge of the water to drink a beer and eat some dinner. I went for a swim (yes, it was incredibly cold). After a couple of hours of chilling, we watched the stars fill the sky and then went to bed.

Day 2: Bear Lake to Crabtree Trailhead (4 miles)

I was up early, around 6 am, and made myself a coffee. Someone had left a hammock set up by the lake, so I sipped by coffee while swinging in the hammock. My hiking buddies were up an hour or so later and we make breakfast, broke camp and were on the trail by 8:30 am.

The trail back was straightforward and went by much faster than the previous day. The only place to be extra mindful is the exposed section around (miles 2.8 to 3.3 from the previous day) – we lost the trail for a moment here when we weren’t sure which way to go around a big rock face.

We were back at the trailhead by 11:00 am.

Reflections

Overall this was a great trip. Emigrant Wilderness is beautiful and I hope to be back next season to do the full Emigrant Wilderness Loop. If you’re new to backpacking, this is an excellent route to do. The trail is pretty easy to follow, there’s minimal elevation gain and you don’t need reservations. You do need to be comfortable without facilities (i.e., no bear boxes, outhouses or tent platforms).

I wouldn’t recommend this route to experienced backpackers unless they’re specifically looking for a chill trip. Had I been alone, I think the route would have taken less than two hours each way, leaving a lot of time to hang out at camp.


About the Author

Mikaela Ferguson grew up running on the rocks of the Canadian Shield and swimming in the waters of Georgian Bay. She worked as a wilderness guide, leading canoeing and hiking trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. She now works in business by day and crafts outdoor education resources by night.

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