My wife, Luthien, and I had set aside the last weekend in October for a 2-day backpack in the Sierra, hoping the then mild fall weather would hold. It did, up to three days before our trip, when a quick moving storm wetted down the northern Sierra with an inch of rain. Per a call to a ranger the next day, the snow level in Yosemite was down to 9500'. Not wanting to climb on new snow, it appeared we would be limited to a low elevation hike.
Black Hawk Mtn. (10,341') seemed a likely choice, being the lowest SPS peak which I had yet to climb in the Sierra north of Yosemite. The usual approach is from the north, but a trail around the east side of the peak remained below 9500', and it seemed likely that the clear weather after the storm would have melted the snow where the east ridge took in the sun. Having read Steve Eckert's and Mark Adrian's descriptions of this climb describing a 20-mile round trip over less terrain, we prudently chose to make it an overnight trip.
After a leisurely drive to the Trailhead on Saturday morning, I dropped Luthien and the packs off at the locked gate just past Kennedy Meadows Resort, then drove back a half mile to the USFS Trailhead. It was 1:30 p.m. before we hoisted the packs on our backs and were on the way, leaving behind the cabins at the resort.
We followed a dirt road a mile or two past the true Kennedy Meadows, which eventually diminished into a trail leading into the Emigrant Wilderness. The trail winds along side the Stanislaus River, which flows out of Relief Reservoir, a bit higher and a couple miles further. The river was but a trickle amid the rocks, since the reservoir was simply passing through inflow from Summit Creek. Still, the few "tourist hikers" we passed seemed to be enjoying their walk.
Not all were "tourists," however, as we discovered further up the trail. From across the reservoir came the glint of a vehicle, then the sound of automatic weapons fire. It was probably target practice. Then again, with this incentive, we hurried past the reservoir. The only other person we later saw on the trail didn't see the irony when he said to us: "I thought I was the only crazy one out here."
A bit further on, the real scenery came out. Decked in bright oranges and yellows, Aspen groves dotted the landscape from the inlet to Relief Reservoir and on up Summit Creek. Their leaves shimmered and chattered in the mild breeze. The trail eventually drew away from Summit Creek, passing through woodland and meadow, and time passed quickly. With the sun setting, evening began drawing away the warmth of the day. When we again heard the sound of Summit Creek ahead, we were about eight miles in and our thoughts turned to a warm dinner and camp. Several good spots near the creek were posted, "no camping," but we found a flat area and fire pit behind some rocks and settled in.
The Forest Service allows campfires at this elevation, and we had one fired up before the dark drew in around us. By its warmth, we enjoyed dinner then some light reading before retiring. Somehow the tent poles had become separated from the tent in the packing-up process, a memory glitch in my thought process, so our bed was covered by no more than a lean-to fashioned from the tent rain-fly. I had given Luthien a quart of creek water I had boiled for the hike the next day. Rather than leave it outside for tomorrow, Luthien found another use for it --- into her sleeping bag it went, and while I had a boulder on one side, she had a bottle which remained warm through most of this cold night. I didn't mind, however, since I had on all my clothes and remained warm while watching for satellites in a clear sky full of stars.
The next morning was clear and crisp. In the twilight of the dawn, I fired up the stove cozily from inside my sleeping bag. Warmed with breakfast, we packed up and began our hike up the trail and around to the east side of Black Hawk as planned. We left the trail a couple hours later, finding it an easy walk through a grassy valley up to the east ridge. There, we could clearly see a wide band of snow just below the ridge leading to the top. Luthien's one fear is steep, slippery slopes, whether composed of loose rock or snow. Hence, she was relieved when we found a side ridge where the snow was soft from the sun. Braver while climbing the ridge, we ventured out on the snow again to avoid a small volcanic outcrop. In its shadow, the snow was hard, and when one of Luthien's feet slid out from under her, she panicked. When she relaxed enough to hop along several small rocks sticking through the snow, we easily made it back up to the ridge. However, there were no more detours as we pushed ourselves up in the soft ground on the ridge all the way to the top.
Views of snow-covered summits dotted the horizon. To the south in Yosemite, I recognized Tower Peak. To the north were the volcanic Dardanelles and Leavitt Peak. In the warm sun, there was plenty of time to read the register. I counted only sixteen people who had signed the register this year. The last entry was that of Mark Adrian who noted a 4-1/2 hour travel time to the summit. Other entries indicated a short, windy and cold stay on top. The only reason for us to leave was our desire to make it back to the car by nightfall. Reluctantly, we retraced our route all the way back to Kennedy Meadows Resort, arriving at 6:30 p.m. in the last light of the day. After getting the car, we drove on home, warm and happy.
Black Hawk Mtn. +38.2063889 -119.7080556
DRIVING INFORMATION: (coordinates are in degrees) Drive in on Highway 108 toward Sonora Pass. If you're coming in from the west, Mark Twain's Cabin makes a nice rest stop near the town of Sonora. The ranger station at Pine Crest, a half-hour along Highway 108 past Sonora, distributes wilderness permits. A sign for Kennedy Meadows Resort takes you south off Highway 108 a couple hundred yards to a marked side road leading to the Trailhead. The resort is a half-mile further, but there's a gate across the dirt road which leads to the true Kennedy Meadows and the entry point to the Emigrant Wilderness.
MTCABN +37.9991395 -120.4772225 Mark Twain's Cabin PERMIT +38.1880798 -120.0081898 Ranger Station to pick up permit 0TURNL +38.3250000 -119.7538889 Turn off Hwy 108 1PARK +38.3167828 -119.7468300 Trailhead
DIRECTIONS FOR THOSE WHO WISH TO AVOID NAVIGATION (coordinates are in degrees) - Follow the trail along Summit Creek south about 10 miles to Lunch Meadow. From here, it's possible to take a cross-country route up the peak, but one can also continue on the trail a mile or so east, still following Summit Creek, to a branch which leads south and up toward Mosquito Pass. Leave this trail before Mosquito Pass to enter a drainage coming in from the west, which offers a relatively easy Class 2 route up to the ridge which continues to the top of Black Hawk. This route is about 25 miles round trip and 4800' total elevation gain.
1BRIDG +38.2977778 -119.7338892 Foot Bridge 2CREEK +38.2866667 -119.7311112 Cross Creek below Relief Res. 3LEFT +38.2533333 -119.7305556 Fork Left 4SAUCE +38.2452778 -119.7233334 Saucer Meadow 5CAMP +38.2348197 -119.7197667 Camping Spot 6CAMP +38.2221009 -119.6991834 Camping Spot 7TCROS +38.2174820 -119.6812876 Trail Crossing 8OFFT1 +38.2130556 -119.6833333 Leave trail 8OFFT2 +38.2132869 -119.6843078 Leave trail (real time) 9-SADL +38.2105556 -119.6877778 Saddle east of Black Hawk 10 +38.2083894 -119.6930250 11 +38.2063456 -119.6962867 12SADL +38.2052778 -119.6966667 Saddle east of Black Hawk 13 +38.2049078 -119.7018012 14RIDG +38.2047222 -119.7025001 East ridge up Black Hawk 15BHM1 +38.2063889 -119.7080556 Black Hawk Mtn 15BHM2 +38.2059539 -119.7090487 Black Hawk Mtn (real time)