Ansel Adams Wilderness

Originally known as the Minarets Wilderness, the 230,000 acre area that lies south-southwest of Yosemite National Park and north of the John Muir Wilderness, was renamed Ansel Adams Wilderness in honor of Ansel Adams, renowned nature photographer, after his death in 1984. The Sierra Crest passes through the wilderness. Highlights of the area include the Devil's Postpile National Monument, the John Muir Trail (211 miles from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2650 miles from the Mexico border to the Canada border). 

This story is about a backpacking trip undertaken by a group (of six) through a small section of the JMT (with an adventurous off-trail detour) covering approximately 40 miles over 6 days (Aug. 31 to Sept. 5, 2008).


Trip plan

Planning for the trip started way back in April and required obtaining the requisite permits (since we had two alternate routes planned, we had to get multiple permits) for camping in the Ansel Adams Wilderness from the Inyo National Forest. The planning was also influenced by the availability of shuttle services (From Yosemite National Park to Mammoth Lakes and from Mammoth Inn to the JMT trailhead in Devil's Postpile). We had an extraordinary planner in the form of Pat, who started moving the chess pieces months in advance.

Trip Route From Mammoth Lake to Yosemite (Tuolumne Meadows), approximately 40 miles.
Highlights Several pristine high altitude lakes (Minaret, Cecile, Iceberg, Ediza, Garnet, Ruby, Emerald, Thousand Islands, Marie)
Passes Island Pass, Donahue Pass (highest point on the route at 11050 feet)
Duration 6 days with a day off on Day 4
Total Elevation Gain/Loss +/- 4000 feet.
Level Moderate Strenuous, lots of elevation, and possible off trail / steep /pass areas
Logistics Drive/Park to Tuolumne Meadows, take YARTS Shuttle around 5-6pm to arrive/overnight Mammoth, hike northbound from Mammoth back to Tuolumne Meadows
Permits Required, based on quotas
Dates Aug 31 to Sept. 6
Bear country Bear Canister required by law. Whatever we did not own, we planned to rent from the Yosemite National Park visitor centers. There are 2 brands. The familiar Garcia canister (which is what is rented out by most suppliers) and the newly designed Bear Vault. The Vault is bigger and is transparent which are advantages, and it can be opened without the aid of coins, however it could prove difficult to open on cold mornings when your fingers are wary of getting hurt. The week prior to the trek was spent by checking if the food we had could be loaded in the containers.
Weather Early fall, warm days, cold nights (but not freezing), high elevation (10000 feet), windy conditions likely. 
Food Whatever fits in one bear canister per person. This proved to be the most challenging planning exercise for everyone. What we took was mostly constrained by this one factor.


Daily summary

August 30, 2008 : (To Mammoth Lakes, CA)

No hiking was required to get to Mammoth Lakes, but a complex set of maneuvers were required to reduce chances of anything going against plan. Since the daily shuttle from Yosemite to Mammoth Lakes did not allow reservations, there was the chance that it may be full at Toulumne Meadows where we planned to board it. So we split up and some of us prepared to board the bus at Crane Flat while the others drove the 2 cars to the parking lot at Toulumne Meadows. 

We need not have worried as the bus was far from full. But the driver proved to be very unhelpful and officious. He chose to ignore the designated bus stop at Crane Flat and simply stopped on the road itself thereby blocking traffic in 2 of the 3 directions. And then howled with impatience while we scampered to make sure we did not leave anything behind. "This is not a good situation!" he mumbled. Damn right and would not have been, had you done the right thing by turning the bus away from the road and into the stop area. He also altered the route to arrive at Mammoth's Inn through a short cut from Hwy 395 rather than driving through the town. We still had to stop at the Inyo Forest Office in the town to pick up our permits. Fortunately, we got an offer for a ride from one of the other passengers.

Day 1 : (Devil's Postpile Monument to Minaret Lake)

Date : Sunday, August 31, 2008

Begin : 8 am at John Muir Trail Head at Devil's Postpile (7675 feet)

End : 3 pm at Minaret Lake (9783 feet)

Distance: 6.2 miles

An early morning start at the Mammoth Inn to catch the very first Reds Meadow shuttle bus  to Devil's Postpile. The shuttle service to Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile began in 1979. The shuttle was determined necessary to reduce the impact on the environment from vehicle traffic. The narrow road into the Reds Meadow area serves as the only access to the San Joaquin River Valley , the Devils Postpile National Monument , Rainbow Falls and 5 trailheads leading into the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness Areas, including the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail. 

A healthy wind was blowing and winds were forecast at the higher elevations for the whole of Sunday and into the night. The driver of the bus was quite eager to dispense information about the area and stopped at the magnificent vista of the Ritter Range that included the distant Minarets, Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak.

We got off at the stop leading to the John Muir Trailhead and geared up quickly and after a few minutes of timed group photos, we hit the trail at 8 am. The first day was not expected to have any spectacular scenery nor any steep sections. It was still a 2000+ feet steady climb spread over 6 miles. We had weighed our bags the previous day and we ranged from around 40 pounds (19 kg) for most with a couple of us carrying 46 pounds. 

After an hour of walking through forest cover, we passed the turnoff to Beck's Cabin at 8100 feet without feeling the effect of the pack. A little later, we turned left at the Minaret Lakes Trail junction. We will not rejoin the JMT until the afternoon of the next day. At 10:45,  we stopped for a short break by the first scenic viewpoint of the day - water flowing over a rocky wall. The elevation was 8600 feet. The trail climbed steadily up and at 9500 feet, we cross the creek for lunch and a brief snooze. 

Minaret Creek from the Minaret Trail

A half hour later, the Minarets loomed large on the horizon looking impossibly close. A turn around a corner brought us to scenic Minarets Lake. The trail curves around the lake and disappears in the surrounding mountains. Figuring out the best route over the rocks to Cecile Lake and beyond can wait till tomorrow. The wind was really howling and the water was too cold even for the dedicated water lovers in our group. With a minaret on the western horizon getting ready to block out the sun, an early dinner was called for.

Elevation profile for Day 1

Day 2 (Minaret Lake to Garnet Lake)

Date : Monday, September 1, 2008

Begin : 9:30 am at Minaret Lake (9783 feet)

End : 5:30 pm at Garnet Lake (9680 feet)

Elevation Gain/Loss: +600/-1000/+1000/-300 feet

Distance: 7.4 miles

Total Distance: 13.6 miles

This was going to be a lot more demanding technically due to the difficult terrain that needed to be negotiated between Minaret Lake and Iceberg Lake which first required an ascent of 500 feet to get to Cecile Lake and then a steep and difficult descent to Iceberg Lake. We would have had time to attempt this on Day 1 itself, but had wisely decided to not do this at the end of the day. Within 15 minutes of heading in the general direction of Cecile Lake, which we could not yet see, the trail disappeared and all that was left was loose rock. After an hour of scrambling up with much use of hands, we eventually reached the high point that overlooked Minaret Lake and soon were able to sight Cecile Lake. 

Minaret Lake with Mammoth Mountain in the background

The circle around Cecile Lake was relatively easier but still involved stepping carefully over the occasional loose boulder especially when one was distracted by the magnificent scenery. First the beautiful views of Minaret Lake as we scrambled up the cliffs and then looking back at Mammoth mountain and then the spectacle of the Minarets overlooking all the lakes.

Soon we came to the Cecile Lake outlet out of which water poured down into the deep blue Iceberg Lake. It did not have as much ice as we had seen in photographs. But we were not thinking about that when we saw the steep path that we needed to walk down to reach Iceberg Lake. The so called path had a steep initial section that had impossible looking loose and slippery gravel. One of us decided to slide down the steep slope which seemed a safer option than walking down. The heavy pack on the back made things difficult as it would tend to drag us down this way or the other when we were trying to hold on to a projecting rock on the slope to maintain control.

Iceberg Lake

Eventually the drama ended and by 1:30 pm we had reached the lake level and stopped for a well earned lunch break.

Google Earth view of the 4 lakes in the Ritter Range area. Bottom left is the twin bodies of Minaret Lake. The blue path scrambles up the rocky mountain side to reach Cecile Lake (center-left). It skirts around Cecile Lake before descending to Iceberg Lake (center with all the ice). Finally, the route takes one past Ediza Lake (center-right) and right towards the junction with JMT
 A different viewpoint with Cecile Lake on top and Iceberg lake below.
Zooming back out to see all the lakes from the other side. 

 Resuming at 2:30 pm, we relaxed in the walk-in-the-park that was the trail that would lead us back to the JMT via Ediza Lake. Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak were visible for most of the way but with a slightly different angular perspective. The trail bottoms out at the junction with the JMT. We were tested by the 1000 feet ascent that followed this, after the hard yards of the morning. Especially when we saw we had to lose half of it in the subsequent descent to scenic Garnet Lake. We had a later end to the day than expected, but were grateful that it was over and time for dinner and a night's rest. 

Summing up all of Day 2, with Garnet Lake in the center and the morning lakes in the distant horizon. Ritter and Banner loom large near top-right. 


Elevation profile for Day 2

Day 3 (Garnet Lake to Marie Lakes)

Date : Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Begin : 9:30 am at Garnet Lake (9680 feet)

End : 5 pm at Marie Lakes (10218 feet)

Distance: 6.7 miles

Total Distance: 20.3 miles

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak reflected in Garnet Lake

The morning began with much excitement over last night's bear visit. No on saw it, but most heard it and the canisters were found scratched and disturbed. Due to the high cliff overlooking the lake on the east side this morning, the sun did not warm up the campsite till after 8:30, making for a later start. Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak formed a picturesque view over the lake.

We had to circle around the lake shore before eventually crossing a footbridge to the other side before ascending steeply over the cliff overlooking the lake. Before crossing the bridge, we were passed by a trail runner in full gear. We made way for him, but some people resting by the shore spoke to him and he stopped briefly to identify himself as Michael Popoff and that he was running for the JMT record which was set last year by Sue Johnston. (We learnt later that he had to abandon his quest at Toulumne Meadows due to blisters on his feet. We also learnt that he is still the record holder for the unsupported speed record for the JMT. What he was going for was the supported speed record that was set by Sue Johnston. For more details on these ultra endurance pursuits click here.)

We encountered a park ranger on the way and shared our bear visit story of the previous night with her. Her advice was to discourage the bears by making a lot of noise. Everybody get out of your tents and scare the bear. Also, she advised us not to camp at Thousand Island Lake (we'd already heard that it was overrun with bears) as there were reports of a large aggressive cinnamon colored male, as well as a mother with cub.

After ascending to 10000 feet, we dropped back down to cross a pair of smaller lakes, Ruby and Emerald. A flat stretch followed before the emergence of the dotted Thousand Island Lake. The PCT coming from the east, merged with the JMT and the trail immediately started ascending in a series of switchbacks towards Island Pass. It was difficult to keep a forward motion going due to the temptation to just stop and take pictures.

Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak 

The high point of the pass is not marked on the trail and is barely perceptible. Two small water bodies by the trail offered refueling opportunities. Fueled by this and the impending rest day tomorrow, we carried on downwards and the final stretch of climbing on the spur trail to Marie Lakes. A lovely flat meadow with flowing water from the lakes above and views of surrounding mountains made for a wonderful site to spend the rest day in.

The water was not as cold as at Minaret and Garnet, so even the most cold water averse of us indulged in a splash about.

Google Earth view of Day 3 (First Half): Garnet Lake is at left edge. The blue trail goes post Ruby and Emerald lakes before passing through Thousand Island Lake (center). 
Day 3(second half) : The trail winds through Island Pass (center) and then past the fork (top-center). The left fork leads to Marie Lakes. Donahue Pass is in the distance (top-center)


Elevation profile for Day 3

Day 4 (Rest Day)

Early morning sights near the Marie Lakes campsite

Nothing to do on yet another cloudless day. Just climb up one of the surrounding hillsides and take in the views. Some of us went exploring the area in the morning. Leisurely lunch. Siesta. Dinner. Stargazing at night. It was not too cold.

Day 5 (Marie Lakes to Lyell Canyon)

Date : Thursday, September 4, 2008

Begin : 9:30 am at Marie Lakes (10218 feet)

End : 5 pm at Lyell Canyon (8969 feet)

Distance: 8.1 miles

Total Distance: 28.4 miles

Energized by the break, we retraced our way back to the JMT and soon came to the wide open bowl that would be the last landscape that we would encounter before cresting at Donahue Pass. We would then completely lose all the views of the area we had walked the past few days and take in new views of the other side, which would, of course, be Yosemite National Park. Donahue Pass forms the boundary between Inyo National forest (Ansel Adams Wilderness) and Yosemite National Park (Yosemite Wilderness). We had experienced a similar break in views during our July 2004 trip to the top of Mount Whitney

We reached the top of the pass at around noon. After enjoying the spectacular view of the landscape on the eastern side, we continued on to the other side and were not disappointed with the new views. What lay in front was the Lyell Fork Canyon with the goosenecking Lyell creek and the steep walls of Amelia Earhart Peak on the left and Mammoth Peak (not to be confused with Mammoth Mountain which we left far behind). The tree line on the mountain walls could clearly be seen.

We exchanged notes with backpackers heading in the other direction. We relayed the story about the bears at Thousand Island Lake. They confirmed that they had heard that one too. Perhaps they had talked to the another ranger or somehow heard it being talked about on the JMT News Channel

Views from Donahue Pass (looking South-East)

The trail down into Yosemite was much more irregular compared to the other side. After descending 500 feet, the trail bends around a body of water and we stopped for lunch by the water. More rugged terrain followed as we descended steeply toward the canyon. For the first time, we started seeing large numbers of people on the trail, a sign that we were inside a national park. The terrain was much harder on the ascent as reflected in the strain on the faces of the climbers. Except for the stretch between Minaret and Iceberg, all our ascents were on relatively easier terrain with gradual slopes or switchbacks or well formed steps. 

Lyell Canyon with Mammoth Peak and tree line

By 3:45 pm, we had reached the flat land of the canyon. From now on it would be the flat terrain all the way till Toulumne Meadows. There was no firm destination for this day, we just had to pick a spot that would leave enough daylight for a quick wash and dinner without leaving too much distance to cover on the last day. We walked 2 more miles before deciding to stop by a spot by the water, leaving another 7.5 miles to go for the last day.

Day 4(First Half) : The valley where we spent the rest day is at center left. The trail returns to the fork before skirting around the elevations before climbing upto Donahue Pass (flag seen top-center). 
 Donahue Pass: View of Lyell Canyon looking towards Yosemite National Park


Elevation profile for Day 5

Day 6 (Lyell Creek Canyon to Toulumne Meadows)

Date : Friday, September 5, 2008

Begin : 9 am at Lyell Canyon (8969 feet)

End : 2 pm at Toulumne Meadows (8702)

Distance: 7.7 miles

Total Distance: 36.1 miles

Lyell Canyon

The final stretch was mostly flat (the elevation profile below presents a zoomed in look, it should not be compared to the previous profiles) and mostly in the open meadow. First we passed the junction with the Vogelsang Trail and later the junction with the High Sierra Trail, both alternate routes to Yosemite Valley. We reached Toulumne Meadows by 2 pm and after a brief wait in queue at the Toulumne Meadows Grill for a well earned bite, we were off.


Elevation profile for Day 6

Elevation profile for the entire trip

Day Mileage Location Elevation
Day 1 0.0 Devil's Postpile 7676
Day 1 2.0 Minaret Lake Trail Jn 8139
Day 1 6.2 Minaret Lake 9762
Day 2 7.2 High Point between Minaret and Cecile Lakes 10399
Day 2 7.7 Cecile Lake 10250
Day 2 8.7 Iceberg Lake 9811
Day 2 10.9 Rejoin JMT (low point)  9024
Day 2 12.7 Cliff over Garnet Lake 10035
Day 2 13.6 Garnet Lake (low point) 9680
Day 3 15.0 Cliff over Garnet Lake 10136
Day 3 16.0 PCT Jn (low point) 9853
Day 3 17.6 Island Pass (high point) 10243
Day 3 19.0 Creek Crossing (Low point) 9683
Day 3 19.8 Marie Lakes Trail Jn 9950
Day 3 20.3 Marie Lakes 10218
Day 5 23.5 Donahue Pass (highest) 11030
Day 5 26.8 Lyell Creek Meadow 8991
Day 5 28.4 Camp Day 5 8969
Day 6 29.5 Vogelsang Jn 8936
Day 6 33.7 High Sierra Jn 8760
Day 6 36.1 Toulumne Meadows 8702

Elevation profile for the entire trip

Google Earth view of the entire trip

Complete view of the entire route on Google Earth. Yosemite Valley can be seen top-center (with the 3 square boxes representing Glacier Pt, Half Dome etc.)


Photo Album in PicasaWeb (Click on the Image to open Album)
Ansel Adams Wilderness
Google Maps (Click on the View Larger Map link to open in browser)
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Google Earth file (Click here to download Google Earth) Google Earth file

Text : Malini Kaushik and R. Venkatesh