Emigrant Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest: Profile and Environmental Value

Mountain Lake Reflection
Emigrant Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest. tntemerson / Getty Images

The Emigrant Wilderness is part of Stanislaus National Forest, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It is located in California, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, adjacent to Yosemite National Park.

The Wilderness is about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide. At around 113,000 acres, it's not as big as some other parks in California, but it contains quite a lot of visual and ecological diversity. Volcanic peaks to the northeast (snowcapped in the winter), as well as granite fields, ridges, and canyons, strewn with lakes, fronted by meadows and surrounded by lodgepole pines, give the area its characteristic beauty.

The Emigrant Wilderness is also the preferred habitat of several endangered and sensitive species, and an important part of the state's history.

What Is a Wilderness Area? 

In the United States, a wilderness area is designated as such under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Initially, the law protected 9.1 million acres, but more land has been added since and now includes more than 111 million acres.

As defined by the law, "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Unlike other types of protected public lands, a wilderness must have had minimal human impact, be over 5,000 acres, and have educational or scientific value. Wilderness designations can overlay parts of national forests, national parks, wildlife refuges, or other land, but importantly, human influence must be restrained. For example, motorized boats and vehicles, permanent roads, airplane landings, and commercial structures are not allowed.

So, while a park might allow motorized recreation in some areas, that wouldn't be allowed in wilderness areas, even if they are part of the park. The whole idea is to preserve the "wilderness character" of natural spaces. However, if certain uses existed before a place was declared a wilderness — like mining, cattle grazing, or certain water rights — and they don't impact the wilderness area significantly, they are allowed to remain.

Emigrant was designated a wilderness in 1975, but it had been protected since 1931 by the U.S. Forest Service, which still manages it today. Due to the uses that were grandfathered in, some cattle grazing is still allowed today.

The Jewel of Stanislaus National Forest 

Scenic view of pine trees against sky
Stanislaus National Forest. Zack Frank / 500px / Getty Images

The Emigrant Wilderness is part of the larger Stanislaus National Forest, which also includes parts of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, the Dardanelles Cone, and the Mokelumne Wilderness.

Located between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, Stanislaus Forest includes almost a million acres of land, campgrounds for over 7,000 people, and more human development than is allowed in a wilderness area. Since the Emigrant Wilderness is entirely contained within Stanislaus, it serves as an ecologically important balance to the busier areas within the forest.

Among its many attributes, the Emigrant Wilderness contains over 100 named lakes and 500 unnamed ones, making it a haven for amphibians and wildlife in general. The Pacific Crest Trail, which runs north-to-south from Washington state to the Mexican border, runs along the eastern edge of the Emigrant Wilderness.


Indigenous peoples, including the Sierra Miwok and Paiute, have at least a 10,000-year history in the Emigrant Wilderness and surrounding areas. There is evidence of some permanent villages as well as temporary locations used to hunt and to meet with other groups from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains for trade.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, thousands of miners and settlers came into the area looking for the precious metal — or to make money from gold prospectors in related or supportive businesses.

In 1852-1853, the Clark Skidmore party of 75 settlers and 13 mule-pulled wagons started west from Ohio and Indiana. They crossed Emigrant Pass into what is now the Emigrant Wilderness, which is named after this route.

Following exposure to novel diseases and being pushed off their land by miners and settlers, the Indigenous peoples who survived the invasion were forced to leave.

Today, the Emigrant Wilderness is a hiking and camping destination. There aren't any developed campsites and it's wilderness camping only. If you want to camp overnight, you will need a free wilderness permit (available April 1-November 30). The area is quiet enough that there are no camping quotas, so you can just show up and get a free permit.

Environmental Value 

The Emigrant Wilderness is an important habitat for endangered and threatened species.

Red-legged Frog
Red-legged frog. randimal / Getty Images

Endangered Species

The Emigrant Wilderness is home to the valley elderberry longhorn beetle and the California red-legged frog, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The foothill yellow-legged frog, a sensitive species that is up for ESA listing, can also be found in this habitat.

Several families of bald eagles live on Cherry Lake, and 17 species of bats live in the region, three of which are sensitive species. Mule deer, turtles, song birds, and many other animals also live in the forests and lakes in the National Forest and wilderness areas.

Bald eagle landing close to the nest , seen in the wild in North California
rancho_runner / Getty Images


There has been some controversy over 18 small dams in the Emigrant Wilderness over the last 50 years. Most were originally built in the 1920s and 1930s (some as late as the '50s) by hand out of nearby stone. They were placed there by anglers who wanted to increase fish habitat areas. The streams were then stocked with fish (fish didn't live in those areas before then).

Many anglers wanted to keep the dams maintained, while others, arguing on the side of the area's wilderness designation (and the ongoing costs to the Forest Service to maintain the dams), said they should be allowed to naturally fall apart. A compromise was found to keep some dams going while allowing others to deteriorate, but that was challenged in court. The dams have since been allowed to slowly disintegrate over time.

View Article Sources
  1. "Emigrant Wilderness." United States Forest Service.

  2. "The Beginnings of the National Wilderness Preservation System." Wilderness Connect.

  3. "11 USC §1131—National Wilderness Preservation System." United States Code.

  4. "Stanislaus National Forest." United States Forest Service.

  5. "Emigrant Wilderness: A Profile." United States Forest Service.

  6. "Wildlife Species and Habitat Affected by the Rim Fire." United States Forest Service.