• Michael O'Keeffe

Backpacking in the Range of Light: A 3-Day Loop in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA

For this week's post I have decided to reach into the archives for one of my all time favorite backpacking trips to the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Sierras of California. Back in July 2018, I embarked on a 2 night/3 day loop through a highlight reel of the best the Ansel Adams Wilderness has to offer. The wilderness, named after the famed photographer, is located just outside of Mammoth Lakes, California in the eastern Sierra and protects the dark metavolcanic peaks of the Ritter Range. Among them is the famed Minarets, a series of intimidatingly craggy peaks which are a distinctly recognizable from Mammoth. Interspersed between the peaks are dozens of lakes of varying size that make for a backpacking paradise. For this reason both the PCT and JMT cross through the wilderness!

Day 1: Ediza Lake

My first day started in Mammoth Lakes with a breakfast burrito from Stellar Brew and a pour over from Black Velvet Coffee. If you are ever in Mammoth I urge you to check out both of these spots, they are awesome! From there I picked up my backpacking permit and drove to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort where you must park and then take a shuttle to the official trailhead. Something I appreciate about California is the permit system in place across the Sierra Nevada for all overnight trips into the backcountry. This can make trip planning a bit more difficult, but it keeps trails from becoming over crowded (overcrowding on trails has gotten ridiculous here in Washington) to allow for a better wilderness experience for visitors.

Once on the trail my destination for the first night was Ediza Lake. A good sized lake that sits in a deep bowl under the guise of mighty Banner and Ritter Peaks. The trail was a moderate 7 miles that went by fairly quickly only passing a few groups along the way. Once at Ediza Lake, I stopped to eat lunch and go for a swim before finding a spot to set up camp. Something I noticed eating lunch was big puffy cumulus clouds developing above the high peaks of the Minarets. There was a pretty good chance for afternoon thunderstorms every day during my 3 day trip which wasn't enough to stop me, but certainly had me keeping an eye to the sky.

After a nice swim to cool off under the hot afternoon sun, I made my way around the lake to look for camp. I found a nice spot near the inlet stream with a good view of Ritter and Banner Peaks. After a quick nap, I made an early dinner and set off to explore. I made my way up a steep trail to the aptly named Iceberg Lake, a stunning alpine lake that sits right at the foot of the Minarets where actual icebergs float around the surface. From there, I came back down to camp as some towering cumulonimbus clouds (thunderheads) were looking to move in. Thunder rumbled in the distance as I hurried back to my tent. After about 30 minutes it seemed clear the storms were not moving towards me, so I set back out this time exploring another part of the basin. I followed a cascading stream up a steep slope that opened into a huge grassy meadow. The meadow was filled with red Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) as well as blood sucking mosquitoes, but that was a minor distraction compared to the incredible view of the huge peaks above the meadows. Waterfalls tumbled off the side of the dark banded cliff faces, the tops of Banner and Ritter were scraping the clouds, as thunder rumbled in the distance. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen and to this day have ever seen! I don't say that lightly.

I could've spent forever in that meadow exploring every stream, flower, and rock. My plan was to wait for sunset, but it appeared the clouds were not going to go away anytime soon. The mosquitoes were getting to be too much to handle so I decided to call it and make my way back to camp. I got back to camp and settled in for the night, stoked on the incredible place I found myself in. I couldn't wait for what was to come the next day!

Taking a dip in Ediza Lake.
Mount Ritter and Banner Peak command the Ediza Lake Basin.
Ediza Lake from the trail to Iceberg Lake.
The Minarets on the trail to Iceberg Lake.
Iceberg Lake
The crystal clear water of Iceberg Lake.
Wildflower filled alpine meadows beneath Ritter and Banner.
Close up of Ritter and Banner.
The incredible alpine basin above my camp. Big mountains, wildflower meadows, and cascading streams. Perfection!
Ritter and Banner above a small stream.
Indian paintbrush
The wildflowers were stunning in this basin.
A meandering stream in the idyllic alpine meadows above camp.

Day 2: Thousand Island Lake

After a quiet night, I was up and ready early to capture sunrise on Ediza Lake. I decided instead of exploring the lake coming back and packing up that I'd eat, pack up, and just continue to Thousand Island Lake, my destination for night two. I only had 6 miles to cover, but I thought I'd rather get to the lake earlier than later to spend the afternoon relaxing and swimming. This would prove to be a wise move (more on that later). The sunrise was pleasant with no clouds, no wind, and a weird mist hanging in the air above the lake that wreaked havoc on many of my photos. I first thought it was an issue with my camera, that moisture penetrated the lens, but I later realized that the air was humid and stagnant. It was unusual to feel such conditions in California at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. It reminded me of Colorado in summer, which also made me nervous that there could be some big thunderstorms later in the day.

After spending a while taking photos and enjoying the sunrise at Ediza I continued onward heading north on the John Muir Trail (JMT). The trail climbed to a pass with a nice view of the Minarets and where I had come. The trail then descended steeply down to Garnet Lake. Garnet Lake was incredible. A long lake in a glacier carved U-shaped valley with the mighty face of Banner Peak rising from the opposite shore. The meadows around the lake were full of colorful wildflowers as I made my way around the lakeshore. After a quick snack break and filtering some water, I made my way up to the next pass with big views of Garnet Lake the entire way. I passed two more lakes before I finally arrived at Thousand Island Lake.

Thousand Island Lake is beyond words beautiful. The gigantic alpine lake sits at 10,000 feet above sea level and seems to go on forever as it sits below the north face of mighty Banner Peak. The surrounding granite creates a soft sandy bottom which makes for Caribbean clear blue water. The name Thousand Island Lake comes from the dozens of little islands that rise out of the water, most of which are only a few feet across. It was lunchtime by now and the skies continued to be clear though the air was still hot and humid. I stopped for lunch while I scoped camp spots finally settling on one just off of the PCT with a view of the entire lake.

After setting up camp I took a swim in the surprisingly warm waters, but trouble was brewing. Big cumulonimbus clouds billowed in every direction and it started to look like I wasn't going to be so lucky this time around. A rumble of thunder broke through the thin mountain air and sent myself along with several other swimmers back to our tents. I decided to make an early dinner (like 3pm early) and hunker down for what I was expecting to be a typical afternoon thunderstorm in the mountains, nothing major. Well, the storm had other plans as it unleashed a torrent of hailstones the size of quarters. To make matters worse the wind was blowing the hail sideways. The sound of the wind driven hail was so loud I was certain it was going to tear my tent to shreds. A barrage of lightning was striking all around me with thunder so startlingly loud it would shake the ground. The whole ordeal felt like an eternity but in reality was only about 5 minutes. The hail then transitioned to a heavy downpour and eventually a light rain. The lightning and thunder however continued on which was unnerving as I was fairly exposed near treeline. Finally, after 3 hours I heard cheers outside my tent. Curious I opened my tent door to see clear skies. The cheers were from other backpackers who rode out the storm as well, happy to see the sun again.

The light was absolutely incredible as the sun was beginning to set. I quickly grabbed my camera and started shooting. My original plan had been to summit a peak nearby to get a better perspective. I wouldn't make it all the way to the top in time, but I decided to hike as high as I could. The views from the slopes of the peak were unbelievable! Thousand Island Lake, Banner Peak, the Minarets all laid out before me. I could see the high peaks of Yosemite and even Mammoth Mountain. It was another amazing moment one that made riding out the storm worth it!

After the sun fell behind the peaks I worked my way back to my tent, made some tea, and watched the stars come out. I then drifted to sleep, exhausted but happy.

My view from my tent at first light.
Looking towards Ediza Lake from camp.
The Minarets in sunrise light above Ediza Lake.
A calm humid morning at Ediza Lake.
Perfect conditions at Ediza Lake.
Wildflowers sit along the outlet stream to Ediza Lake.
Looking up at Volcanic Ridge along the Shadow Creek Trail.
A massive Sierra juniper overlooks Volcanic Ridge.
The Minarets as seen from the JMT.
Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake as seen from the climb to the second pass on the JMT.
A close up of mighty Banner Peak.
The crystal clear waters of Thousand Island Lake.
Looking at the outlet stream from Thousand Island.
Going for swim before the storms roll in.
Cumulonimbus clouds build above Banner Peak.
My camp with a nice view.
A quick snapshot during the storm. Notice the hail accumulated on the ground.
The incredible light after the storm cleared.
Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake
Hiking up to a nearby peak.
Had to get a shot of myself with this view!
Interesting layering to the rock along the shores of Thousand Island Lake.
Thousand Island Lake is a huge body of water.
Looking south towards the distant peaks of the John Muir Wilderness.
A closer look of the rock layering.
Banner Peak dominates the view.
A panorama of Thousand Island Lake.
Looking towards the high peaks of the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park.

Day 3: Back to Mammoth

The final day was rather uneventful. I had 8 miles along the PCT to get me back to the trailhead. After some sunrise photos and some breakfast I was off and a few hours later I had made it back to Mammoth. I ended the trip with a beer at June Lake Brewing and some Kahuna chips from Ohanas. A perfect way to end a perfect trip!

First light over Thousand Island Lake.
Wildflowers along a stream.
A small tarn reflects Banner Peak at sunrise.

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