It was overcast and in the 60s when I left Sonora early Friday. That was a good sign. It would be cool up in the mountains above Kennedy Meadows Resort & Packstation.
My aim was to head up the trail to Relief Reservoir on the edge of the Emigrant Wilderness. It would be my first time. A guidebook said it was about 3.5 miles one way walking to the dam. I found trailhead parking and started walking at 8:30 a.m.
The first mile or so is through the resort-packstation and on dirt road skirting Kennedy Meadow and more dirt road above the meadow for a ways until you come to some wilderness signs. Once you cross the first footbridge you are past all the resort campsites.
Historians say the Clark-Skidmore Party were the first American pioneers to climb the Walker River Trail to Sonora Pass in 1852. They had a hard time on the high west side of the pass, ran low on supplies and sent a group further west for help. They set up at a place they called Relief Camp and eventually made it to Sonora and the Mother Lode.
Relief Camp is where workers completed Relief Dam in 1910. There’s a lot of old gear on the trail left behind by the dam workers. Today Relief Reservoir is part of the Spring Gap-Stanislaus Hydroelectric Project, and it’s owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric.
On the trail Friday it was all uphill. The clouds blocked the sun and it was still cool in the 60s. I saw two other people seeking the trail at the start, then one fisherman at the trail junction for Kennedy Lake. I met a group of five backpackers from Modesto and Oakdale, and they posed for a photo next to an abandoned boiler left over from dam-building days.
I found one camper next to the reservoir when I got there about 10:20 a.m. I said hi and walked on down toward the water and the dam. I looked south down the length of the man-made lake and saw snow still clinging to ridges and summits, including one named Relief Peak, 10,808 feet above sea level.
Relief Dam impounds Summit Creek before it flows into the Middle Fork Stanislaus River and the resulting reservoir is 1.5 to 2 miles long from the dam south to the far end. The surface level of the reservoir is around 7,220 feet above sea level, depending on how much water is held back behind the dam.
The bathtub ring around the reservoir looked about 15 feet below capacity and a gauge marker at the dam showed the same. The water in the reservoir looked clean and transparent except close to the dam, where yellow pollen floated in patterns on the water’s surface.
I found a steep stone staircase protected by railings and cable descending the downstream side of the dam. I followed this to a path that eventually petered out but I knew where the main trail was and bushwhacked a bit to get there.
Lower down I met a fly fisherman, Peter Vander Meulen, originally from Eindhoven, Netherlands, now in computer chip sales in Boston, Mass. Vander Meulen showed me hand-strung flies he made to float on the water’s surface and tempt hungry trout to bite. He said he learned to fly fish in and near the Emigrant Wilderness and he’d been coming back to fish in the Central Sierra over the past 10 years. He was heading up trail to Relief Reservoir or Kennedy Lake.
I went on down the trail and came to one of the footbridges and decided to stop and eat. The bridge crosses over a point where Summit Creek and Kennedy Creek come together to make the upper Middle Fork Stanislaus River. There’s a lot of steep rock and both creeks put on some waterfall action. It’s a noisy place with all the water coming down and I didn’t notice people coming until I heard someone laugh.
A crew of six people with five mules and a horse were coming down. One man was in front, walking and leading his mule by a rope. Next came a woman on a horse and two more women walking their mules. Last came another woman on a mule and a guide on a mule.
The big animals clopped over the wood footbridge. I caught up to the group and passed them a bit further down the trail, where the path is carved out of stoney cliffs above the rushing river.
I soon made it back to Kennedy Meadows Resort & Packstation and I was at my car in the trailhead parking lot by 1 p.m. The walk up to Relief Reservoir was decent on this weekday morning. If you start early you’ll beat most of the hikers, backpackers and equestrians coming out of Kennedy Meadows.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.