3 min read

Overnight to Emigrant Lake, El Dorado National Forest

A very pretty back-up plan


  • Bay Area Workers’ rating: 6/10. While Emigrant Lake boasts stellar views, there are better backpacking possibilities with the same drive time from San Francisco. When we made the journey, we actually intended to backpack nearby Fourth of July Lake, but there were no more permits when we arrived. So, if you find yourself out of other options like we did, or you happen to be in the area, Emigrant Lake is a terrific choice.
  • Type of trip: Weekender (depart Saturday morning, return Sunday midday).
  • Drive time to trailhead from San Francisco: ~5 hours if you leave around 10am from San Francisco like we did (directions to the trailhead at Caples Lake). Traffic was really bad, so we’d advise leaving before 7am. The drive time should be more like ~3 hours.
  • Difficulty and total mileage: ~8 miles out-and back (easy). Here is the trail map. We recorded about 900 feet of elevation gain on the way up.
  • Crowds: Light.
  • Temperatures: We went mid-August. At this time, temps hover around 70 degrees in the day and drop 15–20 degrees at night. Go here for a current forecast.
  • Permits: To obtain an overnight permit, head to the Carson Pass Information Station.
  • Fire restrictions: No fires.
  • Bears/threatening wildlife: Though rare, there are bears here. You’ll also want to bring deet for the mosquitoes — they were worse than we expected at this time of year.
  • Water situation: No shortage of water. The hike takes you past two lakes with a stream in between. The water itself is easygoing on your filter. Quite clear and few particulates.


Gear: Check out my temperate climate backpacking checklist for a recommended set of stuff to bring for this trip.

Food: We recommend bringing non-freeze-dried food, as always. This time, we opted for burritos from Little Chihuahua.

Camping conditions: There is no hard cap on the number of camping permits the National Forest gives out for Emigrant Lake, but we easily found a spot well-away from other campers. We’d advising making a right when you arrive at the lake. Follow the path around the edge and explore up the hill for an existing site.

Trip Details


We departed San Francisco at 10:30am and hit bad traffic on the Bay Bridge. This persisted until we hit Sutter Creek and added a bunch of time. We entertained ourselves by listening to back-to-back episodes of The Clearing — would definitely recommend.

By the time we made it to the Carson Pass Information Station, all of the permits for the trails we’d wanted to do had been given out. So, we took a National Forest volunteer’s recommendation for Emigrant Lake.

The trail starts out by Caples Lake. We parked at the little lot next to the dam on the farthest West side (directions from SF again linked here).

The trail on the way past Caples Lake.

From here, it’s a super mellow 4 miles in. When we arrived, we set up at a spot overlooking the lake, at dinner and watched the sunset.


If you’re up early enough, the sunrise in the granite bowl around the lake is terrific.

We lazily packed up and departed around 10am. We were back at the car at 11:30am.

On your way back toward San Francisco, we’d really recommend stopping off in the old part of Sutter Creek for lunch — we went to the Sutter Creek Hotel. It’s a super charming old-West-looking town!