Hiking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Notes by piero scaruffi | Other California trails
Pictures of this hike | Ansel Adams Wilderness' Weather
The Minarets | Mt Ritter and Banner Peak

From Silver Lake

A number of hikes starts from Silver Lake and touch Agnew Lake (4 kms), Gem Lake (7.5 kms), Waugh Lake, the Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake.

Directions from the Bay Area: drive across Yosemite on 120 to Mono Lake and turn south (right) on highway 395 to the June Lake loop. Drive on the June Lake loop to the Silver Lake resort. The parking lot for the Rush Creek trailhead (2,300m) is on the right hand-side.

The trail ascends rapidly to Agnew Lake (2530m) in about 4 kms. Right after the dam, look for an unsigned trail that crosses to the other side of the lake. After coasting the lake for ten minutes, it heads south and takes to the Clark Lakes and then to Thousand Island Lakes (2,997m). It's about 4.5 hours from Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lakes. You can then visit Garnet Lake (4 kms) and return from there (again the trail is unmarked but in good conditions). It's about one hour from Thousand Island Lakes to Garnet Lake. If you have two cars, you can park the second one at Agnew Meadow and do a one way from Silver Lake to Thousand Islands Lake (4.5 hours) to Garnet Lake (1 hour) to Agnew Meadow (3.5 hours).

From Agnew Meadow

If you keep driving south on highway 395 and turn right onto 203 through Mammoth Lakes and then turn right on Minaret Summit Road and continue past Minaret Summit, you reach the right turn to the Agnew Meadow trailhead (a short dirt road). Beware that cars are not allowed most of the day.

Agnew Meadow is confusing, to say the least. As you drive on the narrow dirt road, you'll pass two parking lots not counting the pack station (horses). The first trailhead is for those who go north on the Pacific Crest Trail towards Agnew Pass and Summit Lake. The second trailhead is the one for the River Trail, and, confusingly, to go south on the Pacific Crest Trail. If you are looking for the campground, it's further down, past a gate that (in 2021) had no information about a campground being anywhere. There are three trails originating here to go north: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), also known as the "high trail", that takes you straight north to Thousand Island Lake; the River Trail that takes you straight north to Thousand Island Lake but stays lower; and the Shadow Creek trail that takes you to Shadow Lake, where you pick up the John Muir Trail (JMT) to go north to Garnett Lake and then Thousand Island Lake. For a while the River Trail and the Shadow Creek trail are the same trail. They fork further up. Note that in the entire Ansel Adams wilderness the signs don't have distances. The shortest route to Thousand Island Lake is the River Trail. The shortest route to Garnet Lake is a combination of River Trail and JMT. (There is also a trail that connects the north shore of Garnet and the south shore of Thousand Island, but not very hiker-friendly).

Here is a loop to see 5 of the prettiest lakes. Take the River trail. It soon goes down and coasts the San Joaquin river to the right (east). You rarely see the river because even this "low" trail stays much higher. You pass a small lake (Olaine Lake) two junctions with Reds Meadow trails and then the junction with Shadow Lake. Keep walking north on the River Trail. When you hit the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), go left and you'll soon reach the Thousand Island Lake at the junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT). Agnew Meadow (2530m) to Thousand Island Lake (3000m) is about 11 kms. The trail continues and it's probably a good idea to follow it for awhile because it gains elevation and you get better and better views of the lake and all its islands. When you're done, retrace your steps to the junction with the JMT and follow the JMT as it climbs the ridge between this lake and Garnet Lake, passing by two smaller lakes: Emerald Lake (on your left) and Ruby Lake (on your right). On the other side, the trail goes down quickly to Garnet Lake (about 3 kms from Thousand Island Lake). Past the lake's outlet (where an unmaintained shortcut could take you straight back to the River Trail) the JMT goes up the southern shore of Garnet Lake towards another pass. You get many views of Garnet Lake. On the other side, the trail descends for a long time before reaching the junction with the trail that goes to Ediza Lake. Turn left and in a little more than a km you'll reach another junction. On the right is a bridge and that's the continuation of the JMT. On the left the trail soon descends to Shadow Lake and then coasts the nothern short of the lake. From Garnet Lake to Shadow Lake is about 8 kms. After leaving the lake, the trail becomes rocky and steep. It descends to the river and, after another bridge, it hits the River Trail. Turn right and start ascending the River Trail towards Agnew Meadows. From Shadow Lake To Agnew Meadow is about 9 kms. Total: 11+3+8+9=31 kms.

River Trail trailhead at Agnew Meadows
Wilderness sign 20'
Olaine lake 1h
Junction with the Shadow Lake trail 2h
Clark Lakes junction 2h15'
Pacific Crest Trail junction 3h20'
Thousand Island Lake 4h
50 minute break
Emerald Lake 5h
Ruby Lake 5h15'
First views of Garnet Lake 5h30'
Outlet of Garnet Lake 6h
Junction with Ediza Lake trail 7h30'
Shadow Lake 8h
Bridge 8h50'
River Trail 9h
Agnew Meadows trailhead 10h

But don't underestimate the bureaucracy: you cannot drive your own vehicle to Agnew Meadow during the day. Bureaucrats specialize in ruining a hiker's experience and in making simple things really complicated.

Lakes north of Garnet Lake:

See the Mt Ritter page for the Mt Ritter and Banner Peak routes that also start from Agnew Meadow.

From Yosemite: Mono Pass trailhead to Rush Creek trailhead

A nice trail connects Yosemite High Country and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Park one car at the Mono Pass trailhead in Yosemite east of Tuolumne Meadows (west of Tioga Pass) and the other car at the Rush Creek trailhead of Silver Lake (take the June Lake Loop from highway 395 and look for a large parking area on the west side of the road and the north end of Silver Lake near the Silver Lake campground).

Take the Mono Pass trailhead and turn right onto the Parker Pass trail.

The hike starts at the Mono Pass trailhead off Tioga Road (Highway 120) just west of Tioga Pass. Usually two ways to the top are described: via Helen Lake and via Parker Pass. Be aware that there is no way to reach the real summit via Helen Lake. Kuna Peak has two horns, the southern and northern horns. The real summit is the southern one and nothing connects the two horns (there is a deep chasm between the two).

The Parker Pass route is relatively simple. Follow the Mono Pass trail and just before Mono Pass turn right into the Parker Pass trail. The trail to Parker Pass is a straight line that hardly gains any elevation. After Parker Pass the trail is another straight line that hardly loses any elevation. But then (after great views of the valley to the east) the trail bends right and starts ascending via steep switchbacks (with increasingly great views of Mono Lakes and the lakes south of it). The switchbacks take you to Koip Pass. On the other side you can see the Alger Lakes. The trail that descends to these lakes is a one big waste of time because it unwinds via long, long switchbacks. Once at the Alger lakes, the trail goes up again shortly, then down steeply, then up to Gem Pass, then down to Gem lake. Alas, there is one more steep uphill section along Gem Lake to get to Agnew Lake. From there it's all downhill to the Rush Creek trailhead.

  • Mono Pass trailhead (2950m)
  • Turnoff to Parker Pass: 5.5 kms
  • Parker Pass: 8.5kms, 2h15'
  • Bottom of switchbacks: 11 kms
  • Koip Peak Pass (3736m): 15 kms, 4h15'
  • Alger Lakes outlet (3290m): 19.5 kms, 5h30'
  • Gem Lake (2761m): 25 kms, 7h30'
  • Agnew Lake (2530m): 28.5 kms, 9h
  • Rush Creek trailhead (2,300m): 32.5 kms, 11h

Or, if you want to make a loop, from Gem Lake turn right to Thousand Island Lake and then you can return to Yosemite via Donahue Pass and the John Muir trail.

  • Mono Pass trailhead (2950m)
  • Gem Lake (2761m)
  • Thousand Island Lake (2997m): 3kms (cross-country via Sullivan Lake) or 6 kms (trail)
  • West side of the lake: 2kms
  • Lake Catherine (3365m): 3kms
  • Banner Peak (3946m): 4kms
  • John Muir trail (3200m): 4kms
  • Donahue Pass (3370m): 8kms (10 kms from Thousand Island Lake and 20 kms from Tuolumne Meadows)
  • Ireland Lake junction (2700m): 11 kms
  • Mono Pass trailhead (cross country shortcut): 8kms