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Piute Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness.

The Emigrant Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forestmarker is a wilderness area in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Californiamarker, USAmarker. It is bordered by Yosemite National Parkmarker on the south, the Toiyabe National Forest on the east, and State Route 108 on the north. It is an elongated area that trends northeast about 25 miles (40 km) in length and up to 15 miles (24 km) in width. Watersheds drain to the Stanislausmarker and Tuolumne Rivers. This area is entirely within Tuolumne County, Californiamarker and is approximately 140 miles (225 km) east of San Francisco, Californiamarker and 50 miles (80 km) south of Lake Tahoemarker.

The Emigrant Wilderness is a glaciated landscape of great scenic beauty. The northeastern third of the Wilderness is dominated by volcanic ridges and peaks; the remaining areas consist of many sparsely vegetated, granitic ridges interspersed with numerous lakes and meadows. Elevations range from below 5,000 feet (1,500 m) near Cherry Reservoir to 11,570 feet (3,526 m) at Leavitt Peakmarker, but the elevation range of most of the popular areas is 7,500 to 9,000 feet (2,300 to 2,900 m). Precipitation averages 50 inches (1,300 mm) annually, 80 % of it in the form of snow. Snowpacks typically linger into June, sometimes later following very wet winters. Summers are generally dry and mild, but afternoon thundershowers occur periodically and nighttime temperatures could dip below freezing anytime.


Various native peoples occupied this area for 10,000 years, spending the summer and early autumn hunting in the high country and trading with groups from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The most recent groups were the Sierra Miwok of the western slope and Piute of the Great Basin. Following the discovery of gold in 1848, large numbers of miners and settlers came to the Sierra and the native cultures quickly declined. In September-October 1852, the Clark-Skidmore party became the first emigrant group to travel the West Walker route over Emigrant Pass, continuing through a portion of the present-day Emigrant Wilderness. Several more emigrant parties were enticed by officials from Sonoramarker to use this route in 1853, but it was a very difficult passage with many hardships and was soon abandoned. Relief Valley was so named because of the assistance some emigrants received there from residents of the Sonora area.

In 1931, the United States Forest Service designated this area for primitive management as the Emigrant Basin Primitive Area. On January 4, 1975, the Emigrant Basin Primitive Area was designated as the Emigrant Wilderness.

Dam Controversy

Since 1975, 18 small dams in the Emigrant Wilderness have been the source of an unresolved political debate. Some support proposals to maintain the dams while others feel the dams should be allowed to decay in keeping with the Wilderness Act. A decision by the Stanislaus National Forest to compromise and leave some dams to naturally deteriorate while allowing maintenance of others was overturned in court in 2006, reigniting some of the controversy. The Forest Service chose not to appeal and the dams will gradually disappear.

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