Img3506Fall 2006a

By Dave Boyer

State: California

County: Mono County

Season: Summer, Fall

Elevation: 9560 ft (Lake Level)

Facilities: None

Located on the eastern crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range off highway 108, Leavitt Lake is a beautiful high altitude body of water surrounded by high peaks that tower well above the tree line. Referred to as the Leavitt bowl, the lake is a good trailhead into the Emigrant Wilderness and has nearby access to the Pacific Crest trail. Fishing is excellent and half of the visitors come up to Trout fish for the day. But the lakes real shinning factor is the access road that leads into the lake keeps the majority of campers and automobiles out of the region due to its rough nature. Things have changed a bit with the advent of the SUV, but a trip to Leavitt Lake is still a nice getaway from the masses that occupy the lower regions. It’s rare to find vehicle access to high altitude alpine lakes like Leavitt making this a gem of the Sierra Nevada Range.

How to get there:

Leavitt Lake is located in Mono County close to the Pickel Meadow Marine Corps Mountain Training Center five miles west of highway 396 on California highway 108.

Pickle Meadow

Pickel Meadow from Highway 108

Img3548Fall 2006

 

Also called the Sonora Pass, this highway through the Sierra’s is one of the most scenic drives in California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CA-108 is also accessible from highway 99 in the Modesto region. Generally Sonora Pass opens after the Memorial Day holiday or as soon as the seasonal snows are cleared and the road is made ready for travel. The vistas along Sonora Pass are quite unique and worth a visit in itself. When driving over 108 from west to east, the highway passes through a more forested region west of the crest of the Sierra’s. This is typical along most of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Larger rivers and and more numerous streams meander down the west slope as compared to the opposite side as a rule.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

As the highway gains altitude, the tree line thins and the baron hills begin to show themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SONY DSC

During late springtime, snow is common at the higher altitudes and may linger throughout much of the summer season.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC SONY DSC

In fact, the highest mountain tops can hold snow all year. Just after the Pass opens, it’s not uncommon for Cal-Trans to cut a path through the snow banks leaving the roads shoulder towering sometimes well over six foot above the road base. It makes you feel kind of like you’re driving in a tunnel.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

At this time of year forget about camping in a vehicle at this altitude. Cal-Trans does cut out parking areas for those who wish to participate in winter activities including snowmobiling. But even after the snow melts, Sonora Pass is a fantastic drive and this is when the forest service begins to open the trails that run throughout the region including the trail into Leavitt.

SONY DSC 

(click on any smaller image to enlarge)

Summertime is when the wildflowers emerge making the highway reveal its colors.

SP-14  SP-16

SP-15

 P1000577 P1000580

P1000579 P1000574

DSCN4788 DSCN4789

 P1000584

As you might expect, the Leavitt Lake Trail customarily opens later than the highway due to its high altitude setting and grade. It’s not unusual to see patches of snow at the lake year round. The trail into the lake is not marked at the turnoff but is situated on one of the extreme switchbacks along the highway. At times, cars will be parked in a small unpaved clearing just off the road, but the trailhead is easy to pass up and GPS or a map will usually help to identify the turnoff.

Food and fuel:

Sonora Pass is a fairly remote highway, and there are a few spots to pick up small store items but none are close to the Leavitt Lake turnoff. On the east side of the Sierras, Bridgeport is the largest community that has all the amenities to stock up for a trip.

Img3521Fall 2006

There are several restaurants, a nice tackle shop, and a grocery store for those really important items as shown here.

 

 

 

 

But Bridgeport was also reported to have the highest fuel prices in California at one point in time. Fuel is much cheaper around Topaz Lake N/O 108 on 395.

Coming in from the west, highway 108 passes through Sonora which has everything most any large city can offer. Further up the hill from Sonora is the community of Mi-Wuk Village which is the last reasonably cheap spot to fuel up at. Zaks mini mart has all fuel grades including diesel. Fuel is available further up the pass but at a higher cost. The Dardanelle store and restaurant has been an icon of highway 108 for many years and is a major stopping point along the route

 

Looking at the gas pumps proves its been serving the public for several years. At this point in time they carry both gasoline and diesel as well as propane.

 

The trail:

Once off the pavement, an access gate and message board is visible within a hundred feet or so. The path is marked as a Jeep route and posted closed to automobiles. Although the trail condition varies year to year, overall, the drive is a fairly rough three mile uphill climb to reach the lake.

Img3482Fall 2006 Img3486Fall 2006

Img3487Fall 2006 Img3488Fall 2006

Img3490Fall 2006

Good off road tires are suggested but standard tires on a 4×4 are sufficient during dry conditions.

 

 

 

 

In total there are three stream crossings to deal with that generally will not pose a problem for most off road vehicles.

Img0761Fall 2006 Img0762Fall 2006

Img0763Fall 2006 The first crossing is more forgiving to lifted vehicles due to the entrance and departure angles, but it’s still common to drag the tail of a lifted EB Sportsmobile. In 2008 the forest service graded the path and for a time the trail was fairly easy going, but winter and the spring runoff usually reshapes the drive every year.

Img3544Fall 2006

Here is the same crossing after it was graded. What a difference.

The major concern is when leaving out under adverse weather conditions. Being high centered in ruts or driven off the trail due to sloppy conditions could complicate things. Always prepare for the worst and have the necessary recovery equipment on hand to get you out of a jam.

Weather:

The biggest weather factor at Leavitt Lake has got to be the wind which is frequently switching direction and speed. As a rule it’s usually heaviest during daylight hours, but there are times where it howls all night.

New SMB 2006 174

Windbreaks are very useful at night and early morning to cut the wind chill factor down. Make sure all tent and pop up canopies are staked out and secured well because it’s common to see a few tumbling away from their campsites. It’s a good idea to roll up any wind breaks before a leaving camp on an excursion or you might come back to a tattered mess. Definitely re-think using any type of vehicle awning. Freak winds can rip them off your vehicle causing body damage.

But sometimes a light cooling breeze is welcome. Even when California’s Central Valley is baking in temperatures that exceed 100 degrees, Leavitt’s daytime temperatures often hover in the 70’s or low 80’s making it a great place to beat the dog days of summer. Night time is a different story. Depending on the time of year, evenings get quite cool so be prepared.

Img3537Fall 2006

In summer when the fire restrictions go into effect, a portable propane fire is often permitted. Pitching a small windbreak and cranking up the gas fire makes sipping on few brews a nice way to round out the evening when wood fires aren’t allowed.

Storms are another customary weather phenomenon of the upper Sierra’s. Lightning can be an issue and thunderstorms frequently run through the region during summer. Rains higher up the mountains can cause the small streams to swell even when it’s not raining heavily at the lake, so care needs to be taken while fording. A light snow shower is common in early fall, but a light dusting of snow generally doesn’t pose too much of a problem for vehicles with the correct tires. Erratic weather, especially lightning can be somewhat unnerving but a good summer storm at Leavitt is spectacular to witness.

Img0756Fall 2006

Img0760Fall 2006

When a heavy storm ran through one particular year, as it cleared, the colors were quite unique. It was a fantastic sunset.

Sonora Pass Weather Conditions

Camping:

Sonora Pass has many typical forest service campgrounds along the highway but most are the RV friendly types that accommodate 2WD vehicles. These campgrounds are buzzing with activity during the summer but there are a few spots along the highway to boon dock (especially on the west slope) as well as several 4×4 trails that comb the region that help to get away from the crowds if desired. A good forest service map can probably point you to a more private nights stay for those that don’t have the time to make it to the lake before dark.

The drive into Leavitt is quite scenic but doesn’t offer too many spots to camp at along the trail.

 

Img3491Fall 2006

Img3538Fall 2006

There is a premium spot at the second stream crossing that is somewhat isolated but I still prefer the lake area itself.

Img3503Fall 2006

The third stream crossing is at the lake itself. There aren’t any standard campsites and because it’s considered dispersed camping, there are no fees are required to camp.

Img0844Fall 2006

Img0845Fall 2006

Driving off trail is discouraged and like any high altitude alpine zone, fragile environments like Leavitt deserve the “tread lightly” badge. With no facilities available for trash, you must adhere to the “pack it in and pack it out” rule.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When looking for a spot to stay at, there are several vehicle trails that wander throughout the lake area and the camps are obvious when seen. Some have wooden parking bollards.

New SMB 2006 170 By Myself At Leavitt Lake New SMB 2006 171

Img0880Fall 2006

Each site has its own merit. Some people prefer to be close to the lake, while some may look for a spot to get out of the wind. There are several sites to choose from, but most visitors will be looking for a secluded spot.

 

 

 

New SMB 2006 170 By Myself At Leavitt Lake fire

Many sites have rock fire pits and in the past, Leavitt Lake has been one spot that fires were allowed around the 9600 foot level. Although this may still be the case, it’s not uncommon for the Forest Service to restrict fires. The fine is hefty if violated, so contact the Bridgeport Ranger District regarding restrictions before you burn or collect any wood around the lake area.

Img0842Fall 2006 

My guess is that the forest service will have a dim view of individuals who cut downed wood. Much of the wood is very old and doesn’t seem to decay like that of lower altitudes.

 

 

 

Img0841Fall 2006

Because there are no bathroom facilities, it’s suggested that you bring the necessary means to take care of your waste. Being the lake is at the tree line level, there is limited cover plus the ground is very difficult to dig in due to the rocky shale type conditions.

Recreation:

There are no OHV trails or any other vehicle trails for that matter on the way into the lake except the main road itself. But the drive from 108 isn’t so far in that it keeps you stuck there. Sooner or later you might have to make a beer run and you might as well do some exploring around the Sonora Pass vicinity.

Several good 4×4 trails run throughout the region. Use this link to forest service quads to find the correct maps close to Leavitt Lake that have 4×4 friendly trails. The most useful maps are:

1. Pickel Meadow (Note, the spelling “Pickel” is correct but some sites spell as “Pickle”)

2. Sonora Pass.

3.  Dardanelle.

4.  Donnell Lake.

5.  Strawberry.

One route close by the Leavitt turnoff is a trail that winds it way around the higher elevations and ends up coming out right in the middle of the Marine Base. It’s very strange driving into the base and then out through the manned kiosk. At times the base can be closed off making it necessary to find another path back out of the area. Also, once on the base you’re subject to being searched by Marine personal. But because of the rough road in and out of Leavitt, most people keep themselves busy by hanging around the lake and taking advantage of what it has to offer.

The lake itself is a fantastic body of water to fish and there are a few different species of trout to taken.

Img0749Fall 2006

A good portion of the traffic is made up of daily visitors and Marines from the base coming up to get in some angling. Prepare for windy conditions and use the wind to your advantage whenever possible. At times the fish are deep making it necessary to cast far off shore and a good back wind might help to get into the zone. But most of the time the wind constantly shifts. The best bet is to prepare for fishing in adverse conditions by having the necessary equipment to deal with it. I carry both light and ultra light action poles plus the appropriate equipment. If the wind doesn’t want to cooperate, heavier weighted lures are needed. A boat can help and I’ve been envious of the boat people in the past. Having small non-motorized water craft on the lake can help capitalize on the fishing, but wind can also pose a problem for boaters. Being wind bound or overcome by rough water is possible on this lake so take care.

Hiking is a popular with many, and views from the upper ridge areas are spectacular. The lake is a good jumping off point to pack the Pacific Crest Trail that skirts by the lake. Both Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness areas are close by as well. The route into and through Yosemite is said to be the most scenic portion of the PCT. Permits are needed to stay in the Wilderness areas overnight.

Img0881Fall 2006

I’ve seen some mountain bikers tooling around the lakes vehicle routes for some easy riding. Check with the local ranger district about biking on non-vehicle trails.

 

Summary:

Leavitt Lake is a beautiful high altitude alpine lake that’s worth visiting for a single day or as a destination to camp at for an extended stay. Generally the road is opened and cleared by early July but it’s always best to check with the Bridgeport ranger district before driving up. Because the road into the lake is basically a four wheel drive route and off limits to automobiles, it’s usually possible to find a camp site even at the busiest time of year. The sites are reasonably spaced between each other and supply a tolerable degree of privacy but still are far enough apart to make the stay a pleasant camping experience for most people. Summertime temperatures are nice but the nights are usually on the colder side plus wind can be an issue. The fishing is above average and the hikes are fantastic.

Img3535Fall 2006

Even though Leavitt Lake is not quite like remote boon docking, the scenery makes up for any of Leavitt’s shortcomings and waking up to a view like this out of your window or tent is priceless.

Thanks for following Sportsmobile 4×4 adventures.