Arguably the best scenery — and fishing — in the eastern Sierra requires long hikes and a significant gain in elevation.
If your thing is to stay a couple of days in the wilderness and you’re not prone to taking everything you need in and out strapped to your back, there’s a way of doing it. All you need is to book a multi-day horse packing trip.
There are even all-day trips that get you to places you may not be able to reach under your own power for incredible trout fishing experiences or to soak in scenery that gives heaven a run for its money.
Pack trips as well as day rides and shorter jaunts are now in season through September throughout the Sierra.
Yosemite pack trips
are tough to book
& expensive to boot
While the bulk of horse and mule options are in the Eastern Sierra, in fairness there are pack stations on the western slope of the Sierra most notably operating in Yosemite National Park. And while there are tent cabins provided at six pre-arranged campsites you reach riding mules plus the usual support, the only way you can take the trip is if you are first awarded a reservation at the High Sierra camps through the lottery.
The cost reflects the fact you have three meals provided. The four-day trip is $1,322 per adult and $1,069 per child. The six-day odyssey is $2,060 per adult and $1,644 per child. The only day trips — and even hour-long rides — offered in Yosemite are out of the Wawona Stables at the lower elevations.
Pack stations from
Bridgeport to Bishop
And while I’m the last person to talk trash about the beauty of the Yosemite high country, you can do much better by heading to the Eastern Sierra. There from Bridgeport to Bishop you’ll find pack stations offering horses as well as pack mules for equipment.
The offerings vary. Some other trips that are an hour or two long, half day trips, day trips, multiple day adventures including into Yosemite from the Ansel Adams Wilderness to options where only your equipment — and perhaps a member or two of your party — arrive to a wilderness spot while everyone else hikes in and are then retrieved a few days later.
There are options for camping overnight, fishing, and deer hunting.
If you really want to see the Yosemite high country where only backpackers trek and don’t have to have all the trappings of tent cabins and such, there are options out of June Lake via the John Muir Trail through the Ansel Adams Wilderness that takes you into Yosemite via lofty Donahue Pass and ultimately Tuolumne Meadows for $1,150 per person for a five-day excursion offered by Frontier Pack Train.
For a tantalizing — and more affordable — taste of seeing the majestic peaks of northern Yosemite, a safe bet would be Virginia Lakes Pack Outfit based out of Bridgeport. The cost is $150 for a six-hour trip. It takes you to Burro Pass at 11,100 feet where you have lunch in a grassy meadow overlooking Summit Lake. I’ve never reached Burro Pass on the back of a horse but I have on foot and the view is well worth it.
Going further south to Bishop there are several pack outfits that take advantage of the multitude of lakes and meadows below Bishop Pass. The same is true of Glacier Lodge above Big Pine where you will find some of the best fishing in the Sierra along Big Pine Creek and at the lakes that feed it.
June Lake pack &
ride options are
three hours away
But if you want varied options from an hour or two rides soaking up the high Sierra to half day or day long rides that are closer to home, then head to June Lake. The turnoff to June Lake, aptly called the American Switzerland due to its glaciers carved the terrain, is off of Highway 395 just a couple miles north of Highway 120.
It’s a little over a three-hour drive there through Yosemite. The fact you now need a reservation to enter Yosemite due to the social distancing imposed by the pandemic means you will have to take Sonora Pass via Highway 108 to get there. It adds maybe 15 minutes to the drive simply because of reduced speeds, traffic, and lines at the park entrance stations in Yosemite.
Frontier Pack Train operates out of June Lake.
Having hiked a number of times in the June Lake area I’m familiar with the routes they take.
First you need to have an understanding of June Lake. It offers four lakes, village area with motels and room rentals, a world-class spa resort, campgrounds, and RV camping under dusting aspens all in what is a horse-shoe carved expanse of relative flatness below towering mountains.
There are hour long rides along Rush Creek at $50 per horse. There are half day horseback rides to the top of Parker Bench with great views of Mono Lake and Mono Craters for four hours at $90 per person.
Frontier Pack Train also offers a full day, 9½ hour trip past Agnew Lake and to Gem Lake for fishing, picnicking, or relaxing for $175.
I’ve had pack trains going to and from both Parker Bench and Gem Lake Pass by while I’ve hiked those trails.
Pack trip to Thousand
Island Lake is tempting
Then there is the only multi-day trail ride I’m tempted to take one day. It’s not because every ride is lame in the Sierra. They’re not. It’s just that the destination is a place that is high on my list to visit via day hikes and three times I’ve tried it and twice I didn’t make it.
The third try was a success but not pleasant. That’s because the temperature part of the way was pushing 80 degrees and I was still recovering from a 16-mile hike. It didn’t add to my enjoyment that I went through 2.5 liters of water finishing the last three miles without a drop.
The destination is Thousand Island. It’s less than 15 miles round trip with 3,888 feet in elevation gain.
The reason I go there is two-fold. It’s been described accurately by many backpackers and hikers as either the most beautiful lake — or close to it — with the Sierra background to match it. It is also the source of the middle fork of the San Joaquin River. Since I’ve hiked to the headwaters of the Stanislaus River it is only fitting that I did the same for the San Joaquin.
The route isn’t a killer in terms of length or elevation gain to tackle as a round-trip day hike.
The shortest route — 14.3 miles — out of June Lake is taking a narrow trail above the southeastern side of Agnew Lake. Figuring it was do-able for me, I put it on my list after a 16-mile hike the day before I knocked off fairly easily. Being a tad full of myself, I started later than I should have and paid no heed to the weather report. It wasn’t rain or snow that did me in but the heat. I ended up feeling the effects of the previous days’ hike and found myself taking on water like the Titanic. Given I wasn’t packing a waste purifying device and still had two more days of hiking I wanted to do, I decided to stop two miles short of my goal and turn back. It was a smart move as I had less than a half liter of water left and was feeling as if I hadn’t been drinking water when I got back to the trailhead. The following year I had the opposite problem. Late snow made the route southeast of Agnew Lake treacherous, forcing me to take a longer route something; I had not planned to do. When I got to Waugh Lake near Gem Lake there was more snow that slowed me down. At that point I decided to turn around for two reasons. First, I was not going the route I told people I was going. The second was that I wanted to make sure I was fresh for the hike to Palisades Glacier — my main objective for the week — the next day.
I’ve since finally convinced myself when I’m stringing six days of day hikes of going up and down with significant elevation gains not to do two back-to-back 14 plus mile endeavors of the 3,800 to 4,000 feet elevation gains. It’s not that I’m not getting any younger but there’s pushing it and then there’s pushing it.
Frontier Pack offers one Thousand Island Lake trip a year. It’s a four-day leisurely affair for $1,050. This year it’s offered July 6-9.
I’d much rather hike it as a day trip but I’m tempted to spend several days meandering the shores of Thousand Island Lake. If for no other reason I can take a shot at getting my own world-class photos of sunrise and sunsets over the lake and surrounding peaks.
As for trail rides, they are not really my thing.
Nothing against them. Every handler and guide that’s passed me by — horses have the right of way on trails — have been nothing but pleasant folks. That said as a hiker I’m not a big fan of horses and mules managing to leave their mark at the most inopportune places on steep climbs. There are also times — such as the popular trail for horsemen from Kennedy Meadows to Kennedy Lake where you could literally close your eyes and smell your way along the trail.
That said I know a lot of people who aren’t into hiking who have told me being able to see parts of the rugged Sierra backcountry was among the best money they ever spent.
Kennedy Meadows pack
station a close, solid option
I’d be remiss not to mention a lower elevation option that you can reach from our area in one day and back that will give you a good taste of high Sierra terrain on a horseback.
Kennedy Meadows at 6,300 feet is just a couple of hours away via Highway 108.
Kennedy Meadows is popular for pack trips as well as horseback rides.
The horseback rides range from an hour and 15-minute scenic loop that crosses the river into the upper meadow at a cost of $35 per rider to an all-day ride to Kennedy Lake where you can take in trout fishing, a hike or a picnic before you head back at a cost of $150 per person for one or two riders with each of the additional riders at $125 per person. There are also other all-day rides. The most popular option is one that’s in between — a half day ride to a vista overlooking Relief Reservoir that takes about three and a half hours and costs $65 per person.
Pack trips with saddle horses for a minimum of four people are $300 per person to day with the rate dropping down for multiple people.
There is more information on the Kennedy Meadows website.
Kennedy Meadows is less than a mile off Highway 108 nestled under pines backing up to granite outcropping while sitting on the edge of the Stanislaus River.
Depending upon the cabin you get, the river is a few feet away or a short walk across the road.
Kennedy Meadows also has a general store, restaurant, a saloon plus the pack station.
There are 22 cabins including sleeper cabins (beds, small refrigerator, small microwave, and bathrooms) for $135 per night sleeping four and $115 for one sleeping three.
The cabins with bedrooms and bathroom with shower as well as a kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, basic dishes and cooking utensils, and a fire ring outside run from $135 to $260 a night. There is a 10 percent discount if you stay seven nights.
The United States Forest Service has two first-come, first serve campgrounds on the short road to Kennedy Meadows that are along the Stanislaus River. There are 42 sites at Baker Campground (10 tent only and 33 tent or RV) and 17 at Deadman Campground (4 tent only and 13 tent or RV). Campsites are $25 a night and have running water and vault toilets.
Staying at Kennedy Meadows means you are a short drive from Sonora Pass at 9,623 feet where you can day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail either north or south. A few miles heading south on the PCT you will come across what some refer to as 100-mile view looking west.
The pass area is known for its early summer wildflowers.
You can also access St. Mary’s Pass and the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness trails from near Sonora Pass as well as hike to Sonora Peak at 11,460 feet.
Kennedy Meadows is 57 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108.