Emigrant Wilderness and Kennedy Meadows
Photos above courtesy of Thad Waterbury
Congress designated the 113,000-acre Emigrant Wilderness in 1975, a glaciated landscape of great scenic beauty in the Stanislaus National Forest. A third of the Wilderness is dominated by volcanic ridges and peaks; the remaining areas consist of numerous lakes and meadows. Elevations range from 4,700 feet at Cherry Valley Reservoir to over 11,500 feet at Leavitt Peak. Some of the Emigrant Wilderness still includes cattle grazing allotments.
Kennedy Meadows is considered the “Gateway to the Emigrant Wilderness” and principle trailhead. It has been a popular recreation area since 1917 providing horseback riding, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, and backpacking. The 244-acre property contains pine forests, meadows, and a mile of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Visitors can plan a simple day trip to view this rugged landscape on foot or by horseback, or take various day trips into the secluded wilderness with guides, packers, and cooks.
History and Background
Prior to the Gold Rush, Native Americans traveled, traded, hunted, and fished the area now known as Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station. In 1886, two brothers, Andrew and J. F. Kennedy of Knights Ferry, claimed Kennedy Lake, the meadow, and about 3,000 acres of nearby grazing pasture in the high country. Ownership of Kennedy Meadows property transferred to the Tuolumne County Water and Electrical Power Company when the Union Construction Company began construction of the Relief Dam on the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River in 1906.
From 1907 to 1963, California mountain lions were listed as bountied predator by state and federally sponsored programs. Charles Ledshaw established a hunting camp in the western meadow and was paid to eradicate mountain lions. In 1917, a gas station, store and packing business was established by Ledshaw and Edwards, which was sold twelve years later to Frank and Lurene Kurzi. The original single-story lodge was built in the 1930s by Kurzi and burned to the ground in the winter of 1940-1941. The new lodge was completed in July 1941, three months before the filming of For Whom the Bell Tolls with Gary Cooper. Kurzi sold the resort in 1945 to Cliff and Rose Mitchell.
Reno and Geraldine Sardella purchased Kennedy Meadows in 1961. In 1970, Willie Ritts partnered with Jay Gilbert to buy the resort. Ritts bought out Gilbert in 1977, partnering with Matt Bloom in 1998. Bloom eventually took over sole ownership of the resort and pack station, leasing the property from Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).
In October 2007, much of Kennedy Meadows Resort was destroyed by fire. The new lodge (which includes a store, restaurant, lobby, and office) and cabins were rebuilt in June 2008. Currently, Kennedy Meadows planning unit ownership is being transferred from PG&E to Tuolumne County. Tuolumne County and the Mother Lode Land Trust will enter into a conservation easement.
Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station offers camping, hunting trips for deer and bear, guided horseback riding, and fishing pack trips ranging from one to ten days in some of the most pristine areas of the high country—Emigrant, Carson Iceberg, and Yosemite Wilderness designations. Kennedy Meadows Resort opens the last Friday in April and closes Columbus Day Weekend in October. Small cabins with kitchenettes or completely furnished cabins sleeping up to twelve persons can be rented at the resort, which also boasts a restaurant, saloon, and store.
To take a somewhat steep but invigorating six-mile hike into the Emigrant Wilderness, park at Kennedy Meadows Resort, then walk the jeep road through the meadow to the Huckleberry Trailhead. Along the trail, you will cross two picturesque footbridges, one crossing the confluence of Kennedy and Summit Creeks. You will then gradually climb to the overlook of Relief Reservoir, where you will be rewarded with magnificent views into the Emigrant Wilderness towards Granite Dome.
How to Get There—GPS Coordinates: N36° 3.30' W118° 7.80'
Take Highway 108 east about sixty miles from Sonora and twenty-eight miles east of Pinecrest. Turn right at the Kennedy Meadows sign and proceed one mile to the lodge and meadow.
If you are not inclined to hike into the Emigrant Wilderness but would like a pleasurable perch to view it, consider driving about two miles past the Kennedy Meadows exit to Que de Porka vista point (just past a narrow cut through large rocks). Pull off on the right side of the road, where you will have dramatic views into Relief Canyon towards Granite Dome.