Looking back on my outings of 2014, backpacking into the Ansel Adams Wilderness topped the list for the most amazing scenery of the year. The wilderness is named in honor of Ansel Adams, well-known environmentalist and nature photographer who is famous for his black and white landscape photographs of the Sierra Nevada. This wilderness includes the ruggedly beautiful Ritter Range with mountains reaching 13,157 feet high. It covers 231,533 acres, and is located in between Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. Due to it’s beauty and developed access points, this area is highly visited. The area includes approximately 350 miles of trails, including portions of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. For people looking to avoid the crowds, starting your hike at Silver Lake is a good option. Not only is the Silver Lake trailhead easy to reach compared to Yosemite or Mammoth, this loop allows access to Thousand Island Lake via lesser used trails. We did this 21 mile loop over 3 days, and the only trail we hiked twice was the first 2 mile segment from Silver Lake to Agnew Lake.
Before arriving at the trailhead, we stopped at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center just north of Lee Vining to pick up the wilderness permits that are required for an overnight stay in this area. It’s a fun place with a lot to look at, so you have to remind yourself to keep your visit short so you can get to hiking. There is usually a good supply of books and maps here.
To get the trailhead, we drove south out of Lee Vining to the June Lakes cutoff. We followed the June Lakes loop to Silver Lake and parked at the Rush Creek Trailhead, located at 7,250 feet elevation. Even though the parking area accommodates several cars, we got one of the last parking spots. Agnew Lake at 8,500 feet elevation is just two miles up the trail, and is a popular destination for fisherman and other day hikers leaving from the resort/recreation area near the trailhead. We got our packs on and hit the trail, heading south above the RV Park and road below. Soon we entered the Ansel Adams Wilderness, leaving civilization behind.
Before arriving at Agnew Lake, we came to the tramway near Rush Creek. At first glance, the old tracks look like a relic from the past. I’ve read numerous trip reports of this area, and a few have chosen to climb the tracks as a stairway shortcut to Agnew Lake. It certainly does look tempting, but don’t do it. We kept on the trail as the signs advised, and we had only made it to the next switchback when a small cable car full of personnel was being lowered down the tracks! Had we climbed the tracks, it may not have ended well. Watching the guys get lowered down that cliff did not make me envy their job at all.
Two miles into the hike we arrived at Agnew Lake, where the tramway ends at the dam. There are a series of dams and lakes along Rush Creek: Agnew Lake, Gem Lake, and Waugh Lake. It’s all part of a system originally constructed between 1916 and 1925 to enlarge these natural lakes, and use the runoff to generate electricity at the power plant at Silver Lake below. Rush Creek is also noteworthy as the largest stream in the Mono Basin, carrying 41% of the total runoff along its 27 mile stretch. There was a construction project in progress at the dam when we arrived, the tramway being used to transport personnel, equipment, and tools to the work site.
West of Agnew Lake, the Gem Lake dam is visible high above. Agnew Lake is fairly small, so the trail must climb steeply to get to the nearby Gem Lake. The Rush Creek trail climbs some very rugged terrain along its route into the backcountry. There’s always climbing and descending to do as you make your way around the rocky shorelines. There are very few sections where you can just stroll along easily. Keep this in mind when planning your mileage for the day.
On our way up to Gem Lake, we were treated to great views of Agnew Lake below. We could also see the trail we’d be returning on across the lake to the south. The trail to Clark Lakes climbs up the steep talus mountainside of Carson Peak, then disappears from view where the drainage narrows. It looked a bit scary from our vantage point, and I wondered how it was going to go when we’d reach that side in a couple days.
Before reaching Gem Lake we met horses coming down the trail. We climbed to the downhill side to let the guide, a mule, and a family on horseback pass us. The family didn’t appear to be very experienced riders, and were relying on the guide and well behaved horses to keep everything in check. Up on that cliff, it didn’t look at all fun to me. I heard the slide of the metal horseshoes on the granite, and tried to imagine myself high up on the saddle on all those exposed switchbacks. The very thought made me woozy, and I was glad to have my own two feet on the ground.
I thought the scenery has been incredible so far, but when we reached the much larger Gem Lake at 9,058 feet elevation, the views were taken up to the next level. Not confined between steep mountains anymore, we could see deep into the wilderness and see the jagged peaks of the Ritter Range we’d reach the next day. We followed the trail around Gem Lake’s rugged north side, and headed to the far west side to look for possible places to camp. Along the way we met a family that was on their way out. They said the previous night was pretty rough, with thunder and wind-driven precipitation. They seemed pretty rattled and exhausted from lack of sleep, and were looking forward to getting out of the mountains. As luck would have it, the weather was clearing, and we were probably looking at a peaceful night.
Once on the west side of the lake, we found a great campsite near the inlet of Crest Creek (and turnoff to Alger Lakes). It was already occupied though, so we kept going towards Waugh Lake. The trail goes over a hill, and then descends back to Rush Creek. Here the trail is wide and flat, almost like it is in a community park. Along the creek we passed what looked to be a commercial camp area with dozens of the same blue tents. There didn’t seem to be anyone around though. We didn’t encounter a lot of people on the trail after Agnew Lake, but it seemed that every good camping spot along the trail had somebody in it. It was a big contrast to all our other hikes in 2014 where we had almost complete solitude.
The easy hiking was short lived, and then we were climbing again through a field of large granite boulders. The trail looks so natural that it’s easy to forget the trail building marvel that it is. Without the hard work of the trail builders, this route would a long, hard, and possibly dangerous scramble through the rocks and boulders.
After climbing up through rocks, the terrain levels out along Rush Creek. Again we could see tents in the good camping spots as we walked along. Once I explored an area a ways off the trail some, and found what looked to be a good spot. I was just about to report my findings to my Dad, when I looked up and saw another camp directly in view of the site I had selected. A little frustrated, we continued up the trail a bit more and found a large flat spot in the trees signed, “Designated Stock Camp”. It was empty, had access to Rush Creek, and had some good spots off the trail. Sold!
Since this trip was later in the season and the bugs weren’t a problem, I decided to bring only part of my 3 man tent. My tent has the option to set it up with just the rain fly, poles, and footprint, bringing the weight down to 3.4 lbs. This saved on room and a couple pounds of weight in my pack, which was much appreciated on this trip. Luckily there were no bugs to speak of, and this arrangement gave us the full protection feel of a tent, with the open space feeling of a tarp. Placing our backpacks at the head of the tent further helped block the wind for a good nights sleep.
We awoke to a sunny morning on Rush Creek. Far off to the west, though, some serious clouds were building above the jagged peaks. It caused me enough worry that I deferred taking down the tent until after breakfast. After some time, though, the clouds had not proceeded further east and were drifting north along the ridge line. My hope for a sunny day and good photos at Island Pass was restored.
After breaking camp and on the trail we almost immediately came to the dam at Waugh Lake at 9,442 feet elevation. I knew we were close, but didn’t realize it was just around the corner. The breeze hit us as soon as we were lakeside, and I was glad we had camped where we did in the shelter of the rocks and trees. Had we continued on the day before, there were a couple good campsites along the north shore, though. I was also pleased to see the lake nice and full. The Google satellite imagery that I looked at before the hike showed the lake almost completely drained for dam maintenance.
The hike around Waugh Lake was a good way to start the day. It wasn’t as steep and rugged as the terrain the day before, and was a good way to warm up. Now that we were out in the open again, there was great scenery in all directions. Waugh Lake, granite domes, jagged peaks, and the occasional creek crossing.
We eventually came to an intersection where we joined the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail (PCT/JMT). We’d be hiking a section of this trail to the south over Island Pass and down to Thousand Island Lakes. We actually saw the people on the trail before the trail itself. This is a busy trail for being so far in the backcountry. We talked to quite a few hikers along the way, hikers from all around the world, and everyone wanted to know where we started and where we were headed. I always enjoy talking to people, but after a while I got concerned that we weren’t making good time with all the stopping and chatting. One lady told me she liked this area, because it wasn’t crowded like Yosemite. She seemed surprised when I told her I’d seen more people out on the trail today than I had seen on all my other hiking trips that year combined!
The scenery up to this point had just been fantastic, but when we reached Island Pass, I wasn’t fully prepared for what we saw. It was jaw dropping. We were already at 10,205 feet, but the massive 12,936 ft Banner Peak and chain of mountains behind it towered above us. And with the tiny alpine lakes in the foreground, you just couldn’t ask for a better scene. May Dad said he would stay the rest of the season right there if I airlifted supplies in for him.
After spending some time at Island Pass taking in the view, we headed down the south side of the pass towards Thousand Island Lake. It wasn’t long before the lake was visible in the basin below Banner Peak. It’s quite large for an alpine lake, and amazing to see with all its islands. We had planned to camp at Thousand Island Lake this day, so I was eager to get down to the lake for some exploring. As we got closer to the lake, though, we could see a lot of tents dotting the shoreline. And once we were down to the lake we saw a lot of people coming in from Reds Meadow from the south, including day-hikers, backpackers, and photographer groups being dropped off by horses. It was so busy that you probably couldn’t have camped anywhere on the lake and not been able to see several other people due to the few trees at this elevation. Because of privacy issues and not wanting to pile on additional environmental strain to this already overused location, we made the decision to find somewhere else to camp off the JMT. As much as I had wanted to spend more time at this beautiful place, we’d have to cut the visit down to a lunch hour and press on.
We found a good break spot along the shore where the trail meets the lake at 9,883 ft elevation. It was pretty breezy, so we ducked in behind some bushes to eat lunch and plan our new destination. It was still early in the day, and we had a lot of energy left. Clark Lakes were on our route, and they are off the main trail of the PCT. We hoped we’d have more solitude and shelter from the wind when we got up there.
It was hard to leave Thousand Island Lake, but it was definitely the right choice. I also knew that I’d appreciate the extra miles and elevation I was about to hike when I woke up the next day to hike out. As we continued south on the PCT along the head waters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, we continued to meet more hikers and horses on the trail. Many were planning to spend several days up at Thousand Island Lake. In the interest of time I tried to keep my greetings to a smile, but many people wanted to stop and talk. I was getting worried, because I knew my extra energy wasn’t going to last forever. Especially since the trail was now descending down into the canyon, and we had to eventually gain all that elevation back. Finally we reached the turnoff to Clark Lakes, and got off the main trail. It was a relief to get back to solitude again.
As we climbed towards Clark Lakes, we got some great views towards Mammoth Mountain and the San Joaquin River canyon to the south. My legs were getting a bit tired, so I was thankful when we hiked over a rise to find the first of several Clark Lakes at around 9,800 ft elevation. We passed the first lake by, and found a nice spot to camp near the second lake. The lake level was low, and it appeared there wasn’t much water flowing in or out of the lakes this time of year. Little macroscopic lifeforms swam about the lake, so I was happy to have a water filter with me, and not just merely purification tablets. After getting camp setup and dinner started, I realized just how tired I was. Instant hot apple cider and freeze-dried beef stroganoff were on the menu, and they were absolutely delicious. It might as well have been a five star restaurant sitting there in the dirt eating food out of a bag. After dinner I was ready to turn in for the night. Looking at the time, though, it wasn’t even 7:00 PM yet! I tried to read the book I had lugged along, but that just made me even more tired. And soon I was out…
The next morning we were awakened early by my Dad’s dog. He’d been quiet up until this time, but now he was growling at something off in the distance. My Dad told me to look off in the direction of our bear vaults. With still blurry eyes and no glasses I squinted across the meadow and saw an animal standing and watching us. Out of the three possibilities it could be, I was really hoping it wasn’t a wolf or mountain lion. After focusing on it with the zoomed-in camera and waking up a little, I was relieved to see it, and the other pack member that showed up, were just coyotes. They scared away easily, but I was definitely awake now. We dubbed my Dad’s dog, “Cowboy the Brave” for his heroics and protecting us in camp.
Eager to get on the trail, we broke camp and had breakfast. On the plus side of being woken up early, we got some great photos of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter reflecting on the water. We’d continue to see these big mountains with changing foregrounds throughout the morning as we continued our way up the trail. There were some really good campsites at the biggest of the Clark Lakes, but we also saw a few people around the lake as well. We definitely had more seclusion where we camped.
After passing the last of the Clark Lakes, we went over the top of the pass and began our descent to Spooky Meadow. I’m not sure why it’s called that, as it looked pleasant enough. Perhaps it’s the steep trail leading down to Agnew Lake from the meadow. It was a bit spooky at times.
After leaving Spooky Meadow, the trail heads down the steep chute leading to Agnew Lake. It was now time to see up close the trail we were looking at two days ago. I was glad to have my trekking poles on this steep descent, both for balance and to help take the load off my knees. There are short switchbacks when the terrain allows, and other times the trail just heads straight down. There a few spots with some exposure where it would not be good to fall. As someone who doesn’t care for drop-offs, I was still able to manage this trail. I was definitely on the edge of my comfort level, but it was quite thrilling as we descended with Agnew, Gem, Silver, and Mono Lakes far below us. It’s hard to imagine someone building such a trail in today’s world.
It felt good to get back down to Agnew Lake and on flat ground. We rested up a bit for the final two mile hike back to the trailhead. The last section would feel pretty easy after what we’d just did. As soon as we left the breezy Agnew Lake basin, the temperature climbed rapidly as we descended towards the valley floor. I even heard a few hikers we passed complain about the heat. I assured them their discomfort would be short lived. With our early start, we were back to the trailhead around noon. Finally getting the pack off, I was glad we had done some extra hiking the day before!
Even though this area was fairly crowded at times, I still highly recommend it for the scenery and fun terrain. I also think doing the loop in the counter-clockwise direction was the right choice, as I think an ascent up to Spooky Meadow would be less fun than coming down it (especially since the ascent would be in the 3rd mile after driving all day). Additionally, approaching Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake from the north seemed to be more dramatic. The trails are all well defined and there are signs at most of the intersections that make following your progress on the map a breeze. If you’re nervous about staying out in the wilderness by yourself, this is a good place, since you know other people are never too far away. I’ll definitely be back again to do the same loop, or with all the other side trails available, a variation of some sort.
- More photos of this hike on Flickr.
- Recommended Map: Ansel Adams Wilderness Trail Map (Tom Harrison Maps)
- Guide Book: Sierra South
- Permits for overnight stay may be obtained at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center.
- Mileage: 21 miles