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Camping and a Hike to Sardine Falls on Sonora Pass

Updated: Mar 23

Because of all the snow we got this past record-breaking winter, Sonora Pass was not opened until Friday, June 9. So, on June 10, we drove down Hwy 395 and turned onto State Route 108 and headed up over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Leavitt Falls was flowing hard.

The creeks were gushing and cascades were everywhere along the road, some even flowing across the roadway where orange signs were posted, warning of flooding.

The valleys were lush and green.

And we found plenty of snow remaining near the Sonora Pass summit. (And, by the way, it was also currently raining/snowing.)

4th of July Overnight Camping Trip

Fast-forward to 4th of July weekend. The morning of July 3, my husband asks me what I thought about returning to Sonora Pass, finding a dispersed camping spot, and hiking to Sardine Falls.

So, we quickly packed up some tent-camping gear and our hiking stuff and hit the road.

After exploring our potential dispersed camping options along the road, we finally settled on a small area near a rushing creek with a beautiful view at 9,200 ft. and set up camp.

You know, directly next to piles of snow.

At this point, it was getting a little late in the day to start the hike to Sardine Falls – even though it was a short hike of less than 3 miles round trip – so we decided to drive along the pass a bit more before it got dark, then head back to our campsite for a simple tailgate dinner, and then to bed, planning to pack up and hike in the morning.

Here's another gushing roadside cascade along Sonora Pass.

Despite having a campfire permit, the constant risk of wildfires in the Sierra and the breezy conditions that evening made us uncomfortable enough with making a fire to cook food, so we used our propane camp stove on the tailgate instead.

Following our dinner, we sat along the creek for a little while, relaxing, and then turned in for bed.

Since we were camping at 9,200 feet, we knew that the overnight temperatures could get down into the 30s, so I packed my wool base layer to wear while tucked inside a down winter sleeping bag – the ones that resemble a cocoon or mummy. It's actually surprising how warm these sleeping bags are considering their lightweight, thin composition. (It actually saved me from freezing to death on our oceanside shanty adventure a few years ago.) It turns out that combination of wool base layer, plus down sleeping bag, was perfect for me.

We woke up the next morning and my husband made a scrambled egg breakfast on the tailgate, we packed up our site, and headed over to the trailhead for Sardine Falls – not to be confused with Sardine Lake.

Hike to Sardine Falls

With only one other vehicle in the small, roadside parking lot, the trailhead for Sardine Falls was not busy. That might have something to do with the fact that recent online reviewers of the trail warned that early on in this hike, they had to turn around due to a creek crossing.

One thing we've learned over the years of hiking (and Jeeping) is that what one hiker claims as difficult or impassable, another hiker is not deterred by one bit – it's all relative. So, you really never quite know what to expect until you, yourself, are on the trail, looking at what's in front of you.

Well, it turns out it was a wide, at times nearly knee-deep, fast-moving water crossing.

And, by the way, the water was freezing cold.

Before we attempted this crossing, we walked up and down the shore, trying to find the best place to cross: Shortest distance, least deep, and least sketchy approach in and out of the water. We wandered around for several minutes. Nothing seemed too ideal. Eventually, we landed on this spot to cross, resigning to the fact we were going to get soaked, but at least we were fortunate to find a tall, sturdy walking stick nearby.

So, we rolled up our hiking pants and took turns crossing. Now normally, I wouldn't be too excited about continuing a hike with soggy socks and shoes, but knowing the total distance of this hike was less than 3 miles, I wasn't too concerned about it and figured the dry Sierra air would dry them in no time.

By the time I reached the opposite shore, my legs from my calves down felt the same way your head feels when you get "brain freeze" from eating too much of something cold too quickly. It was absolutely stunning.

After I cried a little from the pain, we moved on and did our best to stay on trail. I would not say it was a well-established or highly traveled trail. Part of the challenge was that some sections were still snow-covered. The other challenge was just that the trail in some places was not immediately evident or was overgrown with trees and other vegetation.

Then, just as my shoes were feeling relatively dry, we came across another water crossing. It was just wide enough that I couldn't safely jump from one side to the other, and I preferred not to get soaked again. My husband chose to cross at a narrow enough space that he got minimally wet. But it was just a bit too wide for my short stride.

So, I backtracked a little ways and decided this downed tree was going to be my bridge.

So, I climbed through the ball of roots and hoisted myself up on top of the trunk and carefully walked across.

And then we made it to the falls.

Still a wee bit of snow.

After determining there wasn't a safe route to get up to view the falls from a higher perspective, at least none worth the risk, we started to make our way back down, and I located my trusty downed tree once again and crossed the creek to the other side of the trail. This time, I did get my feet a bit wet trying to navigate through the ball of roots at the end.

On the route back, we decided to explore a bit more and check out some of the other cascades a short distance from the trail. And it was worth the slight deviation.

After we'd had our fill of exploring waterfalls, we rejoined the trail and moved on. We only ran into one other 20-something hiking couple on our way back to the trailhead. We greeted them, chuckled, and asked them how they fared the big creek crossing. Oddly, they seemed confused that we'd spoken to them, but then they finally, casually, shrugged and said the crossing was no big deal; they'd just removed their socks and shoes before going across.

We'd done that same thing once before, too, but in the end, I think it's often more uncomfortable than dealing with wet shoes. Since we'd crossed the same creek no less than an hour prior, I can tell you that removing your shoes and socks and walking through that creek barefoot would have been extremely uncomfortable. Not only would you have far less traction across the rocky, wet, slippery creek bed, but without the protection of your shoes, your feet bear the brunt of the hard, uneven, rocky surface. Yikes.

Even though it's not fun hiking in soggy footwear, I think I prefer that over walking barefoot across a rocky creek bed and risking injuring my foot or even falling down for lack of traction. Perhaps their feet are tougher than mine, but I felt bad for them that they made the decision to walk across barefoot because that couldn't have been fun.

At any rate, we attempted to find the same point at which we crossed the creek the first time, since we'd mostly know what to expect. But we didn't know where this other couple had crossed the creek, and so I was also hoping the walking stick we left behind was still there and accessible.

Lucky for us, we found the same crossing spot and the walking stick was where we'd left it. We crossed the wide creek one final time, getting our shoes good and soaked again before jumping back in our vehicle to head back up Hwy 395 and returning to Tahoe.

Overall, this was a fun, short, easy hike with abundantly beautiful scenery. Though we've encountered numerous water crossings throughout our hikes, this one was definitely the deepest and most notable of them all. And it made for a very memorable hike!

​Sardine Falls

Total Distance

2.7 mi

Total Time


Total Ascent

390 ft

Max Elevation

9,108 ft


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Mary Jo Schrader
Mary Jo Schrader
Aug 18, 2023

What a great and beautiful adventure. Camping with snow still on the ground gives me goosebumps just thinking of it. You two are so brave to cross that creek. The cold alone would’ve sent me in the opposite direction

Brianna Sheck
Brianna Sheck
Aug 18, 2023
Replying to

The creek water was unbelievably cold. I'm glad it wasn't any deeper. But what a fun experience, overall. And I stayed toasty warm overnight, despite the nearby snow!


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