Minaret Lake should be on every backpacker's list. Doable in a short weekend backpacking trip, the jagged peaks of the Minarets are some of the most dramatic scenes in the Sierra.
You'll hike along the Minaret Creek past meadows, an enormous waterfall, and eventually you'll see the entire range of the Minarets above you.
You don't need a permit to hike this is a day hike.
But to camp overnight, you'll need to obtain a permit like most spots in the Eastern Sierra. You can reserve permits ahead of time online here, or try to get a last minute walk in permit as early as the day before at any of the ranger stations listed on their site here.
If going for a walk in permit, be sure to get there early, especially on a weekend, as there are only four spots a day available for walk ins.
You'll most likely be taking the Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile shuttle to get to the trailhead. Each hiker will need to buy a $8 roundtrip shuttle ticket from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center, and you can find parking down the hill. Don't lose your ticket, you'll need it for your return shuttle!
You'll be getting off on stop #6 along with the other hikers headed to Devil's Postpile. There is a water spigot and bathrooms near the Ranger Station here.
The mandatory shuttle helps with congestion on the windy roads and runs from about mid June to early September. If you're hiking outside of when the shuttle runs, you can drive to the trailhead yourself. During the summer you can also arrive before 7am to avoid having to take the shuttle (like we did for our Thousand Island Lake backpacking trip), and this allows you to have your car waiting for you when you return from your hike.
Starting at 7,562 ft, we headed south from the parking lot onto the JMT, crossed a bridge over the Middle Fork San Joaquin River, and then headed north through the trees. After 0.75 miles, we passed the North/South junction for the PCT. After heading left here, the trail steadily climbs up through the trees, gaining some slight elevation the entire time.
After rock hopping across Minaret Creek for the first time of the day, we reached our first lake of the day.. Johnston Lake (8,127')! The lake was quite marshy, but there were some nice spots in the shade to relax and watch the dragonflies flying low across the meadows.
Only two miles in, we decided to have our Triscuits and tuna lunch (click here for my tried-and-true backpacking meals) on the edge of Johnston Lake, since this would be the only other lake we would pass before reaching Minaret Lake, our final destination. After lunch we steadily climbed another ~600 feet over another two miles before turning a bend and seeing an enormous waterfall cascading down the side of the mountain!
We switchbacked back and forth up the side of the mountain until we reached the top of the falls and headed over the ridge. The trail now mostly follows the Minaret Creek, and we spotted lots of fish in the clear waters darting away in front of us. Although the scenery so far has been pretty typical of a high elevation Sierra forest - dried pine needles and lots of boulders, the portions near the creek were surprisingly lush.
This entire time we hadn't had a single glimpse of the Minarets that we would be camping beneath. It wasn't until we turned a bend late in afternoon that we finally saw the tips of the jagged peaks in the distance above the nearby trees. After gaining a little more elevation, we finally saw the entire Ritter Range in all of its glory.
There were too many peaks to count, and I can see why this is popular climbing and alpinist spot. We passed two groups of hikers that sported some climbing gear who probably had their eyes set on higher end goal than us. I'd love to come back for some more technical routes up some of the nearby peaks - the view must be incredible from up there.
The final mile to Minaret Lake was the hardest and the steepest. Since we didn't get to acclimate by sleeping at elevation the night before, we were feeling the altitude and had to take a break every 15 minutes on the final climb to catch our breath. Finally we started seeing pools of water, and eventually we arrived on the shore of gorgeous Minaret Lake!
Nothing about the first six miles of the hike gave any hint of the magical scenery held up in Minaret Basin. Out of all the places I've backpacked in the Eastern Sierra, the Minarets have to be the most jagged and dramatic section of mountain range in the Sierra.
We found a nice, well-protected campsite on the southeast shore of the lake that still had views of the tops of the mountains. After pitching our tent, we headed down to the shore to pump some water and take an afternoon dip.
As the sun started to set, the light rays created by the shadows of the peaks became more and more pronounced. All day we could detect the faintest trace of smoke in the air from all the wildfires California has been battling, and as late afternoon rolled around, we could visibly see the haze settling into the basin, even up here at 9,800 ft.
That sunset ended up being one of the most memorable I've experienced in the backcountry. We watched the final light rays radiating up from behind the mountains glow from yellow to orange before the sky darkened and blue hour set in.
Although smokey conditions can be considered a drawback for many, there is a silver lining of having smoke in the air - sunsets are so much more unique and colorful.
We headed to bed early in normal backcountry fashion, and woke at dawn to catch the sunrise. Although we didn't get glassy lake conditions because of a slight wind in the air, we were treated to smoke-free, crystal clear skies. I scaled the ridge on the eastern shore to get a better vantage point of the multi-lobed lake and enjoyed some peaceful moments watching a fly fisherman steadily cast his line back and forth.
After having breakfast and packing up our packs, we started our hike out. We took our time enjoying the morning light in the trees, and we even happened upon a doe and a fawn. Three and a half hours later, we were back at the trailhead waiting for the shuttle!
I've been wanting to visit Minaret Lake for so long now, and I love that I was able to squeeze in a weekend trip from the Bay Area. Now having visited, I can't wait to go back and explore some of the other lakes and peaks in the area!
Favorite gear for this trip: