The Rim Fire raging to the west of Yosemite has brought thick choking smoke to northern Nevada. The Carson City health department has issued warnings that the air quality is fluctuating between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy”. Desperate for some clean air and outdoor time, we decided to try our luck at the higher elevations, hoping that we could get above the smoke. A first attempt was made at Carson Pass up at 8,575 feet elevation, but we never broke through the haze. We drove back through Tahoe, but it was every bit as smokey there. We returned home to regroup and come up with a new plan.
Looking at the current satellite imagery, we could see that the best bet was to head further south in the direction of the fire. The smoke plume was fairly narrow at the source, and didn’t fan out until it drifted north. Just to the east of Yosemite by Mono Lake looked reasonably clear. At just over 4 miles round trip, Agnew Lake above the June Lakes Loop has been on my to-do-list, and looked like it’d be perfect for a Sunday afternoon. We quickly loaded up the car, threw some leftover pizza in my pack, and got out of town. The smoke didn’t clear until we were nearly at Bridgeport, CA. What a treat it was to see blue skies! We rolled our windows down and breathed deeply.
South of Lee Vining and the Tioga Pass cutoff, we took the June Lakes Loop. Just as we reached Silver Lake, we parked at the Rush Creek Trailhead near the pack station at around 7,200 feet elevation. It’s a busy area with the nearby campground, pack station, and other resort activities, but there was still plenty of parking left.
The trail borders a parking area for a short distance, cuts behind the campground, crosses Alger Creek, and then begins its ascent to the south towards Rush Creek and Agnew Lake. Although the trail gains elevation pretty rapidly, it’s never too steep.
Soon we crossed the border into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Just seeing the name on the sign got me a little excited to be hiking this trail. Here is some info about this wilderness from the Forest Service site:
Ansel Adams Wilderness encompasses 232,000 spectacular acres of granite peaks, steep-walled gorges and rock outcroppings. Several small glaciers cling to north and northeast facing slopes of the highest peaks. There are also a number of fairly large lakes on the eastern slope of the precipitous Ritter Range. Elevations range from 3,500 feet to 13,157 feet. The area includes approximately 350 miles of trails, including portions of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. 79,000 acres of the Ansel Adams Wilderness are managed by the Inyo National Forest, while the remainder is managed by the Sierra National Forest and Devil’s Postpile National Monument.
The trail is well constructed, and is wide enough to accommodate the pack horses that frequently use it. Set into the mountainside, the landscape drops off steeply to the east of the trail. It played with my fear of heights at times. The immediate visual would cause a brief panic impulse, but then a scan of the terrain would relieve me that I wasn’t going to fall. I never felt in any real danger while on the trail, but this is certainly a trail where you want your dog leashed and your small children kept close.
We soon came into view of Rush Creek and the falls. There didn’t appear to be much water cascading this time of year, but it was still interesting to see the water taking such a treacherous course down the granite cliff. I bet it’s spectacular in the Spring.
Near Rush Creek we encountered the tramway, a super steep rail system. One site, The Sheet, says the tramline, which runs to Agnew Lake and Gem Lake, serving the SCE hydroelectric power plants at each, was built in 1915. Another site says, “this tramway was used in the construction of the hydroelectric facilities above. Its rails, lifts, and cars were purchased from a defunct mine at Bodie. This first section of tramway, 4,800 feet long, runs from Silver Lake up to Agnew Lake, with a rise in elevation of 1,250 feet.” That’s a lot of cable!
I’ve seen many photos of people hiking up the tramway tracks, and it looks like a quick way up to Agnew Lake. With all the construction signs and equipment on the tracks though, I didn’t feel it was the best idea. And besides, I wanted to hike the upcoming section of trail.
After crossing the tracks, the trail gets into a section where it’s cut into the very steep granite cliff side. This section pushed my fear of heights, but was actually fun. I kept my eyes on the trail instead of the drop-off, and this kept me moving forward. It also helped knowing from experience that I could trust the abilities of my family as well. I knew they’d be OK, and I could relax somewhat.
After returning home, I talked with a friend that used to live in this area. He said that years ago, several pack horses died on this section of trail. They were all tied together, and one fell off the side taking the rest of them with it. All but one died, and the surviving horse had to be tied to a tree for several weeks with its front end elevated to let its legs heal. There’s no way I would’ve ridden a horse through this section, and especially not now after hearing the story!
A few switchbacks later, and we were at Agnew Lake at 8,508 feet elevation according to the sign. At least what was left of the lake. We hiked past all the dam equipment including little buildings, tram tracks, spillways, pipes, and the dam itself. We descended some stairs that looked like they probably enter the water at high water mark. Now though, they just took us down to a long descending beach.
We followed the beach around to the south and found a windbreak behind a big rock. The wind was blowing pretty hard, a chilling reminder that summer is nearing an end. We rested, enjoyed some pizza and water, took a few photos, and surveyed the area. The Gem Lake dam was just above to the west, and the trail was pretty short to get there. We would’ve loved to explore more, but it was 4PM already. If we wanted to get dinner in Lee Vining, and get home at a reasonable hour, we’d have to get going.
We left the lake the same way we came, climbing back up to the trail. The trail on the eastern slope was now mostly in the shadows. I was curious to see how I’d do coming back down the switchbacks with a different perspective.
The trail turned out to be not too bad for me, possibly even easier having already walked it once. I started thinking though, that this was definitely a time when the trail was more fun than the destination. With the high wind, the really low water level, and the industrial feel of the dam equipment at Agnew Lake, the trail turned out to be the best part of the day.
Heading north now, we were treated to all new views on the descent. Silver Lake and a meadow below, and Mono Lake over the mountains to the northwest. The landscape in this area is rugged and beautiful, and we definitely want to come back for further exploration into the wilderness.
Near the bottom, I pulled over with my dog to let a couple hikers pass. They’d apparently been out for a couple days, and had attempted 13,149 foot tall Mount Ritter. They didn’t make it, and were too tired to hike back to Tuolumne Meadows where they started. They asked us if we were headed back to Lee Vining and if they could hitch a ride. We had just enough room for the two, and agreed to shuttle them north. It was fun to hear the story of their hike as we drove away from June Lakes.
We dropped the two hikers from San Jose off at the entrance to Tioga Pass so they could hitch another ride up to Yosemite to rejoin their group, then proceeded to Lee Vining for dinner on the deck at Bodie Mike’s. They agreed to let us bring our dogs to dinner, the same as on our visit here last year. We enjoyed burgers and beer and thought about the drive home. The thought of returning into the smoke after a day of fresh air wasn’t appealing at all. We were just starting to feel better! North of Bridgeport at Devils Gate, we entered the thick smoke again and tried to enjoy the eerie red sunset. There’s no real hope on the horizon at this time for fire containment. It’ll be another long week of enduring smoke, but also good incentive. Plans are already in the works for another trip to find fresh air next weekend!
More photos from this hike can be found on Flickr here.
Note: Permits are required for overnight trips into Ansel Adams Wilderness from this trailhead, but currently not for day hikes.