KENNEDY MEADOWS — It was supposed to be a late spring conditioning hike to prep me for a 14.3-mile hike to Palisades Glacier that would involve a bit of rock scrambling.
So when I hit the trail out of Kennedy Meadows for Kennedy Lake five years ago, I was just looking to get in a day hike of a bit over 15 miles round trip from my starting point.
What I didn’t expect after I cleared trees was to be standing with my mouth wide open scanning the most drop dead gorgeous meadow I’ve ever seen.
Before me was the greenest green grass you can ever hope to see ringed by snow-capped mountains against blue skies filled with fluffy clouds while the sound of rushing water in the nearby Kennedy Creek making its way toward the Stanislaus River combined with chirping birds to create a perfect high Sierra symphonic melody.
Over the years I have passed the turn-off for Kennedy Meadows on Highway 108 perhaps three dozen times believing it to be an area spoiled by too many visitors. I’ve also glanced down at Kennedy Lake from a point at 10,800 feet along the Pacific Crest Trail some 3,000 feet above and perhaps four miles away thinking it wasn’t anything special.
I was wrong on both counts.
I also understand now when people tell me Kennedy Meadows — nature’s offering and the resort — are the quintessential Sierra experience.
It is why planning to book some time at one of the Kennedy Meadow cabins — there are nearby RV and campsites as well — and use it to explore the greater Sonora Pass country is a solid 209 staycation.
Given the abundance of fishing and other activities that are easy to access, it would be an ideal getaway or vacation for anyone even if their idea of fun isn’t hiking 14 or so miles every day.
Kennedy Meadows at 6,300 feet is an ideal place to base to explore the Sonora Pass country.
It’s 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, and a saloon. There is also a pack station.
More important than what man built is what awaits you in nature.
Anglers I came across said the trout fishing is among the best in the Sierra.
Some opt to stay in Kennedy Meadows while others hike to spots in the backcountry along the streams that feed the Stanislaus.
The river itself is stocked regularly with rainbow trout. The backcountry streams and lakes offer rainbow as well as brook and German brown trout.
If you are in need of a fishing license, they are available at the general store. The trout season is now underway, it closes in November.
The area is also popular with hunters seeking deer and/or bear. The archery season starts in mid-August and mid-September for rifle hunters.
Hunters have indicated enjoying a 40 to 50 percent success rate during the past 10 seasons.
The area south out of Kennedy Meadows around Kennedy Lake, at Relief Reservoir, and near other smaller lakes are popular with wilderness campers.
On my first trip, there was a group of perhaps a dozen Amish teens and their escorts that overnighted at Kennedy Lake with just sleeping bags where they caught their meals and gazed at the star-studded heavenly skies after nightfall. (You haven’t star gazed until you do it on a clear night in the high Sierra with twinkles of light above snow-capped mountains reflecting the moonlight.)
One of the teens in the group passed where I was standing along the trail taking video of the scenery that had stunned me.
He stopped for a second, turned around and scanned the lush meadow surrounded by snow-laden peaks, and then greeted me.
“It’s God’s country,” he said with a big grin on his face. “It’s beautiful.”
He got no argument from me.
While I’m one of those hikers who think I’m not happy unless I cover at least 10 miles round trip and work in between 1,500 and 3,000 feet of net elevation gain during that distance, there are plenty of shorter hikes. Even the hike to Kennedy Lake — from the actual trailhead southeast of the resort’s stables that is seven miles or so one way going from 6,300 feet near the resort to 7,800 feet at the lake — is doable for most novices if you take it slow.
If you are into scenery and nature photography beyond just your smartphone Kennedy Meadows as well as the first two miles or so of the wilderness trail to the split where a trail climbs to the southeast toward Kennedy Lake or keeps heading south to Relief Reservoir that’s four miles one way have endless photo possibilities.
Before that split you come across two photogenic foot bridge crossings of the Stanislaus River, vantage points that keep rising as you hike up granite steps.
There is even a stunning waterfall where Kennedy Creek comes crashing down to join the Stanislaus River.
The area is just starting to bloom with wildflowers and offers plenty of peak climbing opportunities.
Kennedy Meadows is also popular for pack trips as well as horseback rides.
The horseback rides range from an hour-plus 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 three or more riders, the per person rate drops to $125.
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 $75 per person.
There is more information on the Kennedy Meadows website.
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 $210 to $260 a night.
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 32 tent or RV) and 17 at Deadman Campground (four 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. Just 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 Resort is 57 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108.