This classic Sierra loop through Ansel Adams and Inyo National Forest was one of the most beautiful areas I've ever hiked through. The basin below the Minarets is filled with many beautiful lakes and creeks that I could have spent several more days exploring further.
Backpacking Trip Info
Dates: 7/23 - 7/26
Miles: ~30 roundtrip
Trail Type: Loop
Trailhead: Google Maps
Permits can be reserved online through Recreation.gov. These can be booked as far as six months in advance. Click here for a list of all important deadlines and dates for all Sierra backpacking permits.
No permits are required for day hikers.
After getting an early start on the road, we made the obligatory Schat's Bakery stop to pick up some chili cheese bread before camping at Old Shady Rest Campground off the 203 near Mammoth. It was Elaine and Youssif's first backpacking trip, so we were lucky to have an additional day to acclimate before hitting the trail.
We woke early the next day to try to pass the kiosk at Minaret Summit before 7AM to avoid paying for the shuttle. If you arrive after 7AM in the summer, you'll have to buy a roundtrip ticket from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center for 8$ per person.
After we drove down into the valley and parked in the dirt lot at the end of the windy and narrow road, we started to pack our bags at the Agnew Meadows trailhead.
Starting from Agnew Meadows (8340 ft)., it was a steady climb along the exposed High Trail.
It was another mile of hiking till the junction to Badger Lakes at 9590'. After another 0.4 miles we reached the junction with the River Trail at 9620'.
Even though we knew the first day was going to be the hardest, we were all quite exhausted as we ascended the final mile up a ridge up to Thousand Island Lake. We passed several other groups of backpackers who also seemed to be struggling with the final climb.
As we emerged on top of the ridge and saw Thousand Island Lake at 9840', we were all so relieved and amazed by the impressive Sierra views.
After reading the posted sign of restricted camping areas, we headed along the dirt trail that skirted around the lake to find a camp spot. Many other groups had already set up camp at the available spots, so we had to hike in about 0.4 miles before we found a great spot up on a smooth, rocky hill.
After setting up camp, we headed to the lake to pump water and swim. While the new backpackers took a nap, I continued climbing up a nearby peak to see if I could get a better view of the lake.
By the time we finished dinner, the sun had started to set. We were happy the strong winds kept the skeeters away, but we had only just started to see the cloudy band of the Milky Way come out before we turned into our warm tents.
The next morning Youssif and Elaine claimed they were awaken in the middle of the night by something circling their tent and brushing up against it. I thought they were just being paranoid, but when we looked around their tent there were definitely footprints around the tent! I often think I hear animal sounds at night that I attribute to the howling wind, so I was quite incredulous. They however, were quite spooked for the rest of the trip and were super diligent with putting everything scented into the bear can at night.
Since we only had a short hike to Garnet Lake, we took our time in the morning and got a late start onto the trail. We were now on the JMT!
It was 2.6 miles from the Thousand Lake junction to Garnet Lake up at 9680'. When we got there, we didn't feel like setting up camp at 11AM and felt great, so we decided to continue on to make it to Ediza. After we crossed the inlet of Garnet, the JMT followed the opposite edge of the lake before climbing up some switchbacks. After 2.5 miles, we reached the junction at 9000' to Ediza Lake.
The day was originally planned out to be the shortest day, which now became the hardest. We had another 2.3 miles and a 270' climb until we reached Ediza lake, and everyone was beat.
When we finally caught a glimpse of the turquoise lake, we were so excited, and dumbfounded by the view. Ediza Lake was the highlight of the entire trip for all of us. The scene of the turquoise water below the surrounding dramatic mountain peaks will always be a memorable one.
After dropping our packs and following the trail along the southeast side of the lake to find a campsite, we were unable to find anything on the rocky slope with a nice view of the mountains above the lake.
From this side of the lake, we spotted a potential camp site on the other side of the lake, and we chose to continue clockwise around the lake rather than clamber over the rockfall on the northeast shore. This turned out to be longer and more exhausting than we thought, as we had to cross the outlet, a grassy area, and climb over two large granite slopes. When we finally reached the site we had aimed for, we collapsed and were glad that it was actually a suitable camp spot (and that still followed Leave No Trace principles!).
The wind had picked up since we set up camp, which meant we didn't see any mosquitoes.
Determined to see the sunrise, I set my alarm for 5:45AM. When I climbed out of the tent, I let out a shriek of amazement, getting Youssif out of his tent. We watched the sky change from a deep red to a bright orange, then to a golden warm yellow.
That day we decided to follow a fellow hiker's advice to hike up to Nydiver Lakes. We didn't double check the map and followed the outlet all the way up a large ridge. We didn't find a lake over the large ridge like we thought we would, and after checking the map, we realized we should have followed the inlet rather than the outlet! Since we were already here, we decided to hike cross country to Iceberg Lake, which actually is an easy 2.5 mile hike on a maintained trail straight from Ediza Lake.
However, from our current spot we were treated to an unconventional view of Iceberg Lake. Once we climbed up and over the final ridge, we were treated with the view of Iceberg lake sitting in a sunken basin.
We realized we were viewing Iceberg lake from the ridge circling the deep granite bowl. When we explored to see if we could find a way down to the water to take a swim, we only found steep cliffs and sheer dropoffs.. no way down from here!
There were no floating icebergs in the water at this time, but we did spot a steep trail scaling the sloped sides up to Cecile Lake. From our angle, the trail looked very precarious and dangerous, and we could even spot several rock slides that seemed to cover parts of the trail.
After we finished lunch, we climbed back over the ridge to hike back to our campspot at Ediza Lake. Some parts of this cross country trek were very steep, and we had to carefully pick our way through a large rock slide at one point.
When we arrived back at camp, we packed up to try to decrease the miles we had left on our hike out the next day. Instead of hiking around the lake the way we came, we decided to brave the rockfall. Even though we went slowly, it was much faster than backtracking! After the 2.3 mile trek back to the junction, we continued on the JMT for 0.9 miles to Shadow Lake. We spotted several groups camping along the river during this section.
We stopped for a quick snack break at Shadow Lake (restricted to camping) and decided to continue onto the River Trail to see if we could find a camp spot further down.
We passed the outlet and started a section of endless switchbacks alongside the continuous river falling on a series of waterfalls. We realized we were now hiking along the long waterfall we spotted a couple days ago from the High Trail! This was a particularly beautiful portion of the trail, with views of the valley in front of us, and the series of waterfall behind us.
We were glad to have hiked the High Trail in, because the switchbacks up to Shadow Lake via the River Trail were steep and endless. The groups we passed on their way up looked quite beat. As soon as we reached the valley floor and crossed a wooden bridge, we found a camp spot complete with fire ring and benches to sit on.
Because of the thin cloud covering the entire sky, we enjoyed a sunset that painted the entire sky orange. Too bad we were in a valley for the best sunset we saw all week, but we did get to have a warm fire. It was the perfectspot to enjoy our last night out in the wilderness.
The next morning we woke up, quickly packed in anticipation of making it back, and hiked the final 3 miles in an hour and a half.
We ended up at the wrong parking lot, and had to hike along the paved road to finally reach our car. We threw everything in the trunk, paid the $10 fee on the way out, and were on our way home! Of course not without stopping by Schats for delicious, fresh sandwiches. Elaine and Youssif were stoked from their first trip and already could not wait till the next one. Success!
My favorite gear for this trip: