The Gem Lake Loop is located in Emigrant Wilderness, which borders Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, and offers incredible views, smaller crowds, and diverse terrain. You’ll need a permit for this loop so make sure to stop by the Summit District Ranger Station in Pinecrest to pick yours up. If you’re not going to make it to the station by the time it closes, give them a call and they can leave it in a box for you to pick up.
This loop starts at Crabtree trailhead, which has bathrooms, lots of parking, and campsites for one night. You can find the trailhead in the NW corner of the parking lot. Look for the small, wooden bridge if you’re having trouble. From here, you’ll climb for 1.2 miles gaining about 500 feet in elevation. At the first junction, continue slightly right toward Camp Lake. In another mile you will reach the wilderness line and shortly after that Camp Lake. If you start late on a Friday night like we did, this might be a good place to camp. You can’t camp around the lake but if you scramble up to the right of the trail there are large granite boulders that are flat enough for camping.
The next 3.6 miles is a steady mix of moderate inclines and declines. After you cross Plute Creek you’ll see a small trail to lead you to Groundhog Meadow but continue on the main trail toward Plute Lake. The incline is moderate for the next 2 miles but the lake lends itself to having a nice break. Alternatively, you can power on for another mile to reach Gem Lake and take a break there. This is the largest and most scenic lake on the loop. Enjoy your time there but know that you may not want to camp here as it can get crowded in the high season. We opted to continue on and camp further along the trail.
From Gem Lake, follow the smaller, less maintained trail down the rock formations for about .5 mile. It can be difficult to follow so make sure you’re paying attention. From the next junction, continue right for 2.7 miles toward Groundhog meadow. There are opportunities for camping along this stretch of the trail, but be prepared for it to be more exposed. From the meadow, Grouse Lake is about 2 miles. We chose not to get water here as the lake was full of algae and instead got it from Lily Creek less than 1 mile further down the trail. From Grouse Lake, its another mile to your next junction and from here, you’ll climb another mile before hiking down your final mile toward the trailhead.
Overall, this trail lends itself to great backpacking. There are lots of incredible spots to stop and camp along the way. We did this as a two night trip, but if you were tight on time you could do it in one night, with two longer days. The landscape is varied, which keeps things interesting. There are desolate, alpine stretches with towering granite walls that give way to thick, lush forests and meadows filled with wild flowers. The trail doesn’t have a distinct up or down but rather various points of ascending and descending, which kept it challenging but not too hard. There was ample opportunity to filter water, both from the lakes and steams. The weather varies greatly between the day and night so make sure you are prepared for the cold and wind, even in the summer.
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
- Bear canister
- Warm clothes (hat, gloves, thick pants, wind breaker, etc.)
- Water filter
- Water bottles
- Hiking boots