Following the Stanislaus River: The Sonora Pass

We we’re two weeks into our journey when I got the news my great grandfather had passed. It happened to be on a day we had reception, for once. He had been sick for a year; it wasn’t a surprise, but my heart jumped in pain, and I felt smaller than normal in the vast presence of the infinite woods we we’re living in. But my great grandpa was very supportive of our journey and told me so when I spent time with him in February. He said I would make memories to last a life time, that we could take the same trip 1,000 times and still not see it all, and in his adventurous footsteps, I still intended to stay the course, take in what I could with open eyes. His celebration of life was going to take place in a couple weeks, in Vancouver, WA so we re routed a bit to make sure we could get up through the most northern part of Oregon by then. 

Most people think of the Sonora pass as an efficient corridor to the eastern sierras, with Yosemite, and Mammoth as the destination. But, we decided to flip that assumption around and spend some time exploring off the 108 in the Stanislaus National Forest. Van life is an existence of continuous motion - it allows us freedom to change our minds at any minute, go somewhere new, keep exploring. But it also can be tiring living moment to moment, with no permanence. As we experienced that internal tension, we drove off from the sheltered pines and rushing rivers of the Humboldt - Toyiabe forest to the exposed, granite, watery wild landscape of the Stanislaus National Forest.

The first night we spent dispersion camping next to the roaring Stanislaus River, juniper pines, and granite boulders. The wind howled through the night, but we awoke to clear blue skies and cold sun. Our aim in leaving the Mojave was to find some cold bodies of water to dip in, but more than that, we got the last burst of crisp spring, chill in the eastern sierra. Our surroundings were reminiscent of Yosemite, only about 30 miles south of the pass, complete with a mini waterfall just a couple minutes walk from the van. 

Magmatic dike cutting across granite.

Just driving the pass itself was awe-strikingly beautiful.

The raw, rugged season of early spring snowmelt was in full effect on the eastern side. On the drive we saw a waterfall bursting through snow on the side of a hill. The contrast between the eastern side of the pass, and the western side of the pass was staggering. Once we got closer to Kennedy Meadows, spring had taken hold, the weather was bright and sunny, bare granite peaks abounded with no snow to be seen. We took a beautiful, short hike through the meadows, and laid in the grass by the Stanislaus River.


We spent a couple nights dispersion camping down the road from Kennedy Meadows next to a babbling brook and some interesting vegetation. We discovered we had set up next to snow plants - which feed off of other trees and plants near by that photosynthesize. Snow plants are essentially a parasitic plant, that still need sugar to thrive, so they siphon it from those who produce it. They're sneaky fungus eating free-loaders, and are pretty dang cute too. By now, they probably have white flowers that have bloomed.

A can't miss stop on the Sonora Pass is Donnell Vista. It's right off the road, and breathtakingly beautiful. Before Donnel Vista is a little place called Dardanelle - there is a quirky, cute cabin resort, with a restaurant and general store. We stopped in and had a burger, it was delicious and the people were very friendly and gave us some great tips for the drive ahead. Check it out.

Beautiful View of Donnell Reservoir.

Rugged and beautiful granite carved landscape of Stanislaus National Forest

After spending three days working our way through, we heard about a hike close to the most western end of the pass called Cleo's Bath. The hike begins at Pinecrest Lake, just south of a little town called Strawberry. When you first walk to the lake, you may be overwhelmed by the multitude of families swimming, boating, barbecuing, as the lake is a popular place for tourists, but as you begin to trek around the lake, crowds disappear and gorgeous scenery surrounds you.

Smoothed granite slabs and boulders mark the trail, as Jeffrey and Lodgepole Pine swayed in the sweet breeze. The trail is a loop, so you can see the east or west side of the lake on the way up, and the opposite rim on the way down. There is some light climbing, but nothing too strenuous. The reward is the halfway point; the trail leads you to where the south fork of the Stanislaus runs into the lake. Beautiful turquoise water mixes with the deep blue of Pinecrest lake.

Last light on Stanislaus River cascading into Pinecrest Lake.
Past the rapids, if you are feeling adventurous, or sweaty from the hike, there are beautiful swimming pools for which the trail is named after. There is some fun climbing to be done over beautiful golden granite boulders to get to the pools. The baths are secluded within the shelter of the pines, and granite slabs that beg to be tanned on. The water is very refreshing, but we went in the heat of mid afternoon, so it felt amazing. In the distance a towering granite rock formation can be admired, and the views no doubt rival Yosemite.

The light began falling and it was time to head out. The views from the southeast side of the lake  on the way back were stunning. We walked along granite islands the jutted out into the lake, and newly sprouted wildflowers; yellow and purple wild orchids, Lupine, and Indian Paintbrush. 

No doubt, the first three weeks of van life were equally challenging and wondrous. Living in a house, or an apartment, with a set every day routine creates some sort of safety net, or illusion of protection, and stability. Living in a van, and the wilderness, feels raw, vulnerable, like you can't hide from yourself, or the world that surrounds you. It pushes me, my confidence and hardiness, to wake up every day in a new place, with open eyes and an open heart. But every day that Ryan and I keep on the journey, I learn something new about myself, our relationship, nature, people, and this country. Growth isn't comfortable; it's when you're shaken up, in new surroundings, without familiarity that the greatest lessons and the sweetest memories come. 


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