One of the more delightful backpacking trips I’ve been on in quite some time, was a trip I made with a friend of mine. We had a three day weekend ahead of us. We wanted that High Sierra feeling, but there was still more snow than we wanted to deal with at the higher elevations. So we asked some knowledgeable friends for suggestions on somewhere that was (A) close to the Bay Area (B) remote and without a lot of crowds and (C) had some of that Alpine feel, without having a lot of snow.
The answer was the South Fork of the Stanislaus River, located (where else?) in the Stanislaus National Forest. Granite, granite everywhere. Fantastic. Twisted, ancient appearing junipers, massive tumbled boulders, glacial polish, waterfalls, refreshing river (almost a little too refreshing,) open sky, and no sounds of the modern world.
All of the granite does call for caution however. The granite surfaces are so vast and smooth, if you go for a tumble, there won’t be anything to grab on to, nothing to arrest your fall, and granite makes for a very hard landing. Don’t be afraid to retrace your steps and find a safer path.
The rock is beautiful. Glacial polish creating a nice shine that has lasted for thousands of years. A sign of the ages gone by, a promise of what was and what could one day be again. In some places it is worn and chipped away, in others there is not the slightest change from when the many tons of ice and ground rock slowly moved en masse.
If you time it right you can see the wildflowers in their delicate glory, impressing the viewer that they can make a go of it with so little soil to be seen. They almost seem to be sprouting out of rock itself or hair thin cracks almost too small to see. Their tenacity humbles the visitor to their stony heights.
Getting there- Take I-5 to Highway 120/108. At Strawberry follow the signs for Pinecrest Lake. Park in the camp ground parking lot, and find the trail that passes along the south side of the lake. At times it will feel like you are walking through people’s yards, if you’re on the edge of the lake though, it’s okay. Once you reach the Stanislaus, or you see signs for Cleo’s Bath, head east, away from the lake. After the water falls the trail gets a little trickier to follow, mostly scattered arrows painted in various places as you scramble up a steep hillside. After you reach Cleo’s, there is no more trail. Just follow the valley. Don’t worry about always keeping the river in sight, the valley will guide you. Again, don’t be afraid to back track to find a safer route. Most of all, have fun and enjoy the solitude.
It’s necessary to pick up a camping permit (it will also double as your campfire permit.) You can do this at the Summit Ranger Station, a mile or two before Pinecrest. Call ahead, and they will have it waiting outside in a wooden box if you’re passing by outside of normal park hours.
It’s been a few years since I’ve visited the South Fork of the Stanislaus, but the memories are still cherished in a place close to my heart. I hop to return one day soon, but the snows are close to nipping at our heels. My return may have to wait until a new spring arrives.