Trip Type: Out and Back, Overnighter
Total Trip Mileage Caltopo says 9.3 miles my Garmin clocked in at just over 10 miles.
Altitude Gain: 2233' gross
Trail Difficulty: Easy/Moderate, well marked and maintained. Early season stream crossings can be challenging (you will get wet), and often you'll experience downed trees early in the season.
Season: Early/Mid Season
Trail Traffic: This is a high traffic area up to the Bear Lakes trail junction. Once past that turnoff the traffic becomes more moderately busy.
WSH Trip Rating: 4 out of 5 stars: This is a beautiful area and Gem Lakes is truly a Gem. For those that wish to put in a few extra miles Deer and Buck Lakes are also stunning with excellent camping. The only downside is these areas do get quite a bit of traffic, there are no permit quota's. Mid and late season can be dry.
Day 1: Crabtree Trailhead to Gem Lake: 10 miles
This is a very tame hike although there are quite a few ups and downs. For some (like me) gaining elevation only to lose it then to regain it is the hardest hiking. Still the climbs are all relatively easy with none more than 400 or 500 feet. The first couple of miles takes you through a beautiful conifer forest which again, is well traveled. Just as you pass by Camp Lake (mile 2.7) you'll find a trail junction on the opposite end of the lake. Take this towards Bell Meadows (south) dropping 300' over a half mile. The stream (Lily Creek) tends to flow heavy early season but there are a couple of substantial logs just West of where the trail crosses. Once past the creek the trail climbs 600' to a small lake affectionately called "Lilypad Lake" (it has no name on the map but there are abundant lilypads, thus the name). Once past this lake you once again lose elevation, dropping 400' to the Piute Creek Crossing. Early season this is a ford or, if you're adventurous there are some rocks you can try you luck on about 100' down stream from the trail. Later in the season (mid August) this creek runs completely dry. Once across the creek the hiker climbs again, another 500' in just over a mile after which there's a slight drop to Piute Lake, a beautiful small lake that tends to be a mosquito hang out early season (like most places in the Sierra). Finally the trail takes you to Cherry Creek. This crossing is waist deep early season but like many of the smaller Sierra streams runs nearly dry by late August. Once across Cherry Creek you have one last 400' mostly shaded climb to Gem Lake. Note once again that snow on this hill is late to melt given it's northward facing slope.
Day 2 - Reverse Day 1
- As mentioned, early season streams can be "interesting"
- As mentioned, late season don't count on water in the streams - fill up at lakes
- Great camping on the East Side of Gem Lake. Rumor is there are also good sites on the West side of the lake but I didn't get time to scope that out.
- The trail across Lily creek is a bit messy/hard to find, particularly early season but it's there. If you cross on the logs keep veering left and you'll find it. Don't give up... like I said, it's there. You'll know it when you find it.