• Ankit Jain

Sonora Pass & Trail of the Gargoyles: Camping in Stanislaus National Forest

Dispersed Camping, Offroading and Hiking in Stanislaus National Forest, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Eastern California



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Granite rock formations, lush evergreens, and blue skies overhead personify the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Eastern California.

View from Sonora Pass: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


 

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Trip Info:


Trip Type: Dispersed Camping, Offroading and Hiking (Solo Road Trip)


Season: July 2021 (Summer)


Trip Highlights:

Duration: 2 days / 1 night


Driving Distance: 233 miles


Trip Route: https://goo.gl/maps/f6GBqTWEfpaiUfqFA

 

Granite rock formations, lush evergreens, and blue skies overhead personify the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Eastern California.

View from Sonora Pass: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



About Stanislaus National Forest:


Stanislaus National Forest is a National Forest in California that offers many outdoor recreational activities for all walks of life: hiking, camping, offroading, overlanding, vanlife, backcountry activities, water and snow activities, bird watching, stargazing, rock climbing, scenic driving and much more! The forest encompasses 898,000 acres and multiple counties: Alpine, Calaveras, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Stanislaus County.


The National Forest shares its southern boundary with Yosemite National Park, its northern boundary with Eldorado National Forest, and its eastern boundary with Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Its proximity to Yosemite makes it especially attractive for those looking to escape the busy crowds of the popular National Park, while still being one of the most accessible national forests from the San Francisco Bay Area.


Stanislaus National Forest has three primary corridors: Highway 4, Hwy 108 and Hwy 120. The three corridors envelope and provide access to 811 miles of rivers and streams, 78 lakes and 86 named mountains, which offer an escape and solitude from the hustle and bustle of urban life. The forest is popular for its varying natural beauty and picturesque landscape, from foothills to raging rivers to the high Sierras, ranging in elevations from 1,500 feet to the highest point in the forest, Sonora Peak, at 11,453 feet. Other notable peaks include Dardanelles Cone at 9,527 feet, The Three Chimneys at 9,882 feet, and Night Cap Peak at 10,641 feet. These all lie within the Hwy 108 and Hwy 120 corridors, while Highland Peak at 10,936 feet is accessible via Hwy 4. Notable mountain passes include Sonora Pass at 9,643 feet, Ebbetts Pass at 8,730, feet and Monitor Pass at 8,314 feet.


A mighty tree within the Stanislaus National Forest, near Sonora Pass off Highway 108 in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Stanislaus National Forest: Highway 108, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



The lakes, rivers, and wilderness areas of Stanislaus are popular for their diversity in landscape, as well as their flora and fauna. The 3 wilderness areas, Emigrant Wilderness, Mokelumne Wilderness and Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, are designated as “Special Places” by the US Forest Service, and require permits for overnight stays. The forest's notable rivers and streams include the Stanislaus River, Tuolumne River and Cherry Creek. Noteworthy lakes include Cherry Lake, Utica Reservoir, Alpine Lake, Mosquito Lake, Pinecrest Lake, Spicer Reservoir, Leavitt Lake, and the Highland Lakes.


For outdoor recreational purposes, the forest offers 62 developed campgrounds for both National Forest RV camping and tent camping. It also has many National Forest dispersed camping areas for those who prefer primitive camping in California. The forest represents a great option for camping in the Sierras, and for camping near Yosemite as well. There are over 3,000 miles of National Forest roads and trails for various uses: hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, offroading/OHV, etc.

 

The bizarre rock formations of the Trail of the Gargoyles are in full display alongside the mountain ridge, under clear skies and evergreens everywhere

Trail of the Gargoyles: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Trip Overview:


The Highway 108 corridor provides access to some of my favorite areas in Stanislaus National Forest, offering amazing opportunities for free camping in Northern California, hiking in the Sierras and off roading as well. Opportunities for camping for free in California can be few and far between, hence regions like Stanislaus National Forest are great for a weekend escape - which is exactly what this trip was! If you are looking for other options near Yosemite, camping in Sierra National Forest is another great alternative, providing access to the National Park from the southern boundary.


On a Saturday afternoon in July, I set out from the San Francisco Bay Area for an overnight solo road trip to Stanislaus National Forest. I decided to do the Hwy 108 corridor to avoid the smoke from raging wildfires to both the north and the south. I ended up in the Sonora Pass area, opting for high-altitude dispersed camping after a bit of offroading to get there. It took quite a bit of time - traversing various trails and encountering many other dispersed campsites occupied by other campers, but I eventually stumbled upon a truly epic campsite.. It offered views of a vibrant sunset and solitude, which were just what I had been striving to find all along!


After turning in shortly after sunset in an effort to get an early start the next day, I woke up to clear blue skies in the morning. I ate some breakfast, packed up camp, and departed for some daytime adventures. I off-roaded towards Leavitt Lake, but found the road a bit too bumpy and rocky for my vehicle, forcing me to turn back. I instead made my way to the Trail of the Gargoyles for a short hike around the area, before eventually making my way back home in the evening. After spending the past several months in Colorado, this short trip was an ideal re-introduction to camping in the high Sierras, rejuvenating some nostalgic memories. There’s just a unique feeling I get when I am in the Sierras, I feel more at-home there than anywhere else I have traveled to.

 

dispersed camping options are everywhere off Highway 108 near the Sonora Pass in Stanislaus National Forest. Free camping in California for everyone! This site has a fire ring, a camping chair, and an SUV with liftgate raised - all you need for camping near Yosemite!

Dispersed Campsite: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Trip Planning:


Permits:


Permits are required for campfires. Depending on where you’re hiking or spending the night, permits may also be required for Wilderness Areas. Due to the widespread wildfire activity during the summer season, most areas do not allow campfires in the summer season. Be sure to check wildfire activity and fire danger levels before embarking on any trip to this area, especially in the summer and fall months.


Camping:


There are many developed and dispersed camping options throughout the forest, spanning from rivers and creeks to high-elevation areas. Some of my favorite developed campgrounds in the forest are Clark Fork and Pinecrest Lake. It is important to pay attention to regulations for dispersed camping. There are many scattered areas of private property throughout the forest as well where camping or outdoor recreation of any kind is prohibited. Also, keep in mind that cell phone service is limited throughout the forest, especially in the more remote areas.

 

The gathering clouds over Stanislaus National Forest are tinged purple by the setting sun. Closer to the source, the clouds blaze with a vibrant pink

Sunset over Sonora Pass: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Itinerary:


Day 1: Bay Area to Sonora Pass


On a Saturday afternoon, I embarked on a spontaneous overnight solo Stanislaus National Forest camping trip. I’ve been to Stanislaus many times for camping in the high Sierras - at least twice a year for the past 6 years - so I’m very familiar with the forest and its various areas. I opted to do some Hwy 108 camping near Sonora Pass, as it offered a narrow window to avoid smoke from wildfires in the surrounding regions. I could have opted for a campsite near Yosemite National Park or within the Park itself, but decided to avoid the crowds and do some National Forest camping instead. Camping in a National Forest vs National Park varies in the camping experience itself: National Forests are great for free camping options, but are generally more remote and primitive - whereas National Parks tend to be more expensive but offer more amenities and often a more developed camping experience overall. Plus, Sonora Pass is overall one of the best regions for Sierras camping, offering high elevation and respite from the summer heat - so it was a no brainer for me.


I arrived in the Sonora Pass area around late afternoon and decided to scope out some of my previously visited known campsites for potential availability. Since I was arriving on a Saturday afternoon, at the peak of the summer season, I doubted I’d have too much luck at some of the more accessible and known sites, so I instead ventured onto some unpaved trails. After finding several of my favorite dispersed campsites occupied, I trekked further down the road and eventually lucked out on a campsite that was available - with amazing views of the surrounding high peaks and valley below! It can often be hard to find quality campsite opportunities in California during the peak summer season, but based on both my experience and my tolerance for exploration I knew I’d be able to find something regardless of the crowds.


The sky is ablaze with reds, pinks, and oranges as the sun sets over Stanislaus National Forest, at a dispersed campsite off of Highway 108 near the Sonora Pass

Sunset over Sonora Pass: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



I quickly set up camp and started to soak in the high peaks all around me - it never gets old! The sunset hour was magical - there were clouds pouring in above the high peaks not too far from where I was, and the sunlight refracted and reflected from those clouds to create a vibrant display of colors in the evening sky. It went through phases from intensely golden to deeply purple, eventually fading into a light pink before the grays finally set in. I didn’t stay up too long past the sunset as I had ambitious plans for the morning - although I made sure to catch some stars before calling it a night.


Campsite Elevation: 9,000 feet

Campsite Location: Off Hwy 108 near Sonora Pass, CA

Campsite Type: Dispersed

Campsite Natural Features: Mountain Pass, High Peaks, Forest


In the forest, the mighty forest, the gargoyle sleeps tonight.

Trail of the Gargoyles: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Day 2: Sonora Pass to Bay Area via Trail of the Gargoyles


I woke up to pristinely clear blue skies - compared to the cloudy scenery I had experienced the evening before. It was a refreshing feeling after such a peaceful night’s rest; camping in the Eastern Sierras has become an annual ritual for me now. After a light breakfast, I soaked in some views and started to pack up camp. By 11 am, I was all packed up and ready for some exploring.


I started driving towards Leavitt Lake, a place I’d hiked to before, but had never driven to. The dirt trail started off fairly smooth, but as I got closer to the lake it got bumpier and bumpier; eventually to a point that I started to question if my vehicle could handle the terrain. From previous hikes to the lake, I remember the last mile being especially precarious, with some challenging obstacles that would certainly give my vehicle some trouble.


beautiful spiky pink flowers grow out of the lush soil of Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra NEvada mountains of Eastern California

Sonora Pass: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



It’s imperative to take caution when doing more adventurous things, like I was doing in this case: you don’t want to end up getting stuck or hurt miles away from civilization. I was about a mile away from the lake at this point, and things were really starting to get bumpy. I could definitely hear some “clangs” and “tings” coming from scraping the bottom of my vehicle against rocks. The way some of the rocks were angled, it almost seemed like an obstacle course for my undercarriage. I decided to exercise caution and stop before a particularly daunting rock formation in the road - I just knew something would break if I pushed further.


Making the decision to stop is the easy part - finding safe ways to turn around on a narrow, single-lane, dirt road can be a daunting process on its own. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience in these kinds of situations that I could rely on to help me turn around safely. It took what felt like a 30-point turn, but eventually I got the job done, and Ifound myself safely pointing back the way I came without any more bruises on my vehicle. I eventually managed to navigate my way back to Highway 108, and set off towards the Trail of the Gargoyles.


The Trail of the Gargoyles, rocky and treacherous, wraps around the ridgeline of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, within Stanislaus National FOrest

Trail of the Gargoyles: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



As I arrived at the trailhead for the Trail of the Gargoyles, I saw many cars in the parking lot, as well as some mountain bikers just getting back to their vehicles after what seemed like a fulfilling ride - judging by the exhilaration on their faces. I grabbed some water, a book and a hat, and started the short hike to explore the various rock formations and amazing scenery all around.


The Trail features stunning volcanic rock outcroppings of all shapes and sizes, jutting up in spires all across the cliff sides. The stunning array of colors radiating from the vibrant green forest below only serve to make the scenery that much more dramatic. Standing near the edge of a cliff, questioning how these formations amassed such a peculiar shape, makes for quite the curious and contemplative environment.


Don't know how rocks do the hoodoo that they do so well swell haven't fell make me want to hike hike hike

Trail of the Gargoyles: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



After a mile stroll down a clearly marked path, dodging fallen branches strewn across narrow cliffsides - made all the more difficult as I was still in flip-flops - I turned a corner and suddenly the eponymous Gargoyles loomed before me. Once you see these monstrosities, you can understand where the formations get their name - it really feels like you’ve been transported to some medieval movie setting.


After enjoying the scenery, I found some shade under a tree and caught a few good pages in my book. It was tranquil and extremely relaxing, to just blend in with everything in the vicinity. It was the perfect place to just lie down on the ground and pretend you don’t exist - sometimes that’s all that’s needed to ground your perspective and find your own personal moment of reflection. Camping - dispersed or developed - is my favorite mode of outdoor recreation, and this quick weekend escape was just the rejuvenation I needed after what had already been quite a busy summer.

 

Thousands of evergreens sprawl for thousands of acres across mountain and valley in the Stanislaus National Forest

Trail of the Gargoyles: Stanislaus National Forest, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Gear List


When car camping, I typically bring a lot of gear that I don’t end up using, but it gives me a peace of mind to have redundancies for safety while I’m in the backcountry. Hence, the list below covers all the primary gear that I use in my car camping trips.


Hiking:


Shelter:


Sleep System:


Camp Kitchen:


Food & Hydration:


Clothing:


Tools, Electronics and Miscellaneous:


Hygiene:


Safety/First Aid:


 

Find a dispersed campsite near National Park land. Learn a new camping recipe, or get tips to enhance your thruhiking. Be among the first to get exclusive stories, trail reports and more from our growing team of experienced campers, backpackers, thru hikers, and fellow adventure lovers.



 

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