Mount Ritter is the centerpiece peak of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and at 13,150 ft, it’s also the highest peak in the region with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. Together with its close neighbor Mount Banner, the two peaks are visible from virtually anywhere in the Ansel Adams Wilderness and are a familiar sight when looking north from high points as far south as Sequoia National Park. I’m a frequent visitor to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, but one of my favorite spots in the region is the seldom visited north side of Mount Ritter which contains a chain of spectacular glacial lakes set in a wild setting of dark rocks and spires. The following description details a loop up and over Mount Ritter into the Ritter Lakes basin. Along the way you get some spectacular scenery at iconic spots like Shadow Lake, Lake Ediza and Thousand Island Lake. Photo Album here.
The standard route up Mount Ritter is known as the southeast glacier route. Unfortunately, “glacier” may not longer be an appropriate name for the route as climate change has caused the glacial ice to retreat into the shadiest, steepest part of the cirque such that on a dry year one can likely avoid snow and ice entirely. If earlier in the season or during a wet year where firm neve forms later in the season consider bringing crampons and ice axe. Starting at Agnew Meadows, descend to the River Trail and then turn right on the Shadow Lake Trail. Beyond Shadow Lake, continue to gorgeous Lake Ediza with its magnificent views of the Minarets. If heading for Ritter, the quickest way around Lake Ediza is on its north side. After crossing a small talus field that reaches the water, a use path becomes more defined and heads up to the beautiful alpland meadows beneath Ritter and Banner. Mountain hemlock forest transitions to open meadows with streams cascading down the slope. Mount Ritter and Banner Peak tower over the landscape. At a large tarn, the route for the SE Glacier turns left and utilizes ledges and gullies to climb through a broken cliff band to access convenient granite slabs above. Climb the slabs to the start of the snow fields and ascend into the cirque containing the remnants of the glacier. Once in the cirque, one can climb a steep and somewhat loose chute known as the Secor chute which provides a direct route to slopes above or take a more circuitous but less steep route by continuing up the snow in the cirque and then circling back on talus. The final few hundred feet of climbing to the summit is a straightforward talus hop. The summit of Mount Ritter has a fantastic view including the Ritter Lakes and Mount Catherine immediately below, Mount Lyell and Rodgers Peak to the north, and the Minarets to the south. Immediately to the northeast is Banner Peak and Garnet Lake. Farther afield, Mammoth Mountain, the Silver Divide, Mono Divide and Red Slate Mountain are visible.
To access the Ritter Lakes from Mount Ritter descend the NW slope route by descending talus and scree from the summit to a broad saddle south of the summit. Cross over the saddle and traverse south to a broad gully descending the northwest slope of the mountain. Descend this gully until the the terrain starts to transition from loose scree to solid rock and cliffs. At this point, traverse skiers right to a broad slope. Steep snow patches may remain on this slope until late in the season. Descend this slope and then angle down to the highest of the Ritter Lakes. Upstream of this lake, a larger glacier occupies the northern slopes of “Neglected Peak,” a prominent point along the South and SW ridges of Mount Ritter. This glacier supplies minerals to snow and ice melt creating a wonderful emerald color in the highest Ritter Lake. At least three other large lakes can be found lower down, each nestled among cliffs and slabs. The high lakes often hold onto ice late in the season and ice bergs were observed in September this year. After traversing the lakes a pass leads to the south side of Lake Catherine. Round Lake Catherine on its west side to reach North Glacier Pass and the straightforward descent to Thousand Island Lake. Complete the loop by taking the River Trail or PCT back to Agnew Meadows.
With awesome scenery and close proximity to the year around resort town at Mammoth Lakes, the Ansel Adams Wilderness is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada. On any given summer day Thousand Island Lake is more aptly described as Thousand Person Lake. The reality is that Thousand Island Lake has far fewer than a thousand islands (actually only a few dozen) and most summer days people easily outnumber islands. However, the Ansel Adams Wilderness spans 231,533 acres and it’s remarkably easy to find solitude outside of the narrow corridor along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River, which includes Shadow Lake, Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake. I have visited the Ansel Adams Wilderness over a dozen times, each time venturing beyond the well-trodden path to visit remote lakes and peaks including Mount Ritter, Banner Peak, Clyde Minaret, Mount Davis, Rodger Peak, Electra Peak, Foerster Peak and Volcanic Ridge. The Ansel Adams Wilderness never disappoints! On this day I designed a loop that mostly features places I have already been to in the past (often multiple times), but it was amazing to combine these favorites into one aesthetic loop and see some of the best scenery in this region of the High Sierra. Starting from Agnew Meadows I headed down to the River Trail and then up to Shadow Lake in the pre-dawn hours. I timed sunrise nearly perfectly at Lake Ediza and then found a lovely tarn above the lake (marked on the USGS topo maps) to enjoy early morning light over the peaks and reflecting in the water, in the process taking over 100 photos in about 20 minutes! This tarn overlooks Lake Ediza for a tiered view and includes the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. From the tarn I continued up slabs and talus to Volcanic Ridge which is one of the best viewpoints in all of the High Sierra. The tremendous panorama includes the best view of the impressive Minaret spires. From the summit of Volcanic Ridge I headed down the southwest slope toward Minaret Lake and then toured the triumvirate of three spectacular lakes beneath the Minaret spires – Minaret, Cecil and Iceberg. Each of these three lakes is stunning and provides a different angle on the Minarets which soar above the lakes like sky scrappers. From Iceberg Lake I traversed the basin above Lake Ediza and then headed up through meadows toward Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The meadows ultimately transitioned to talus, but I was pretty good at avoiding any loose rocks making for an efficient climb to the snow chute leading to the Ritter-Banner Saddle. The steep now chute required crampons and ice axe. From the saddle, Banner Peak is a short talus hop away and soon enough I was looking down at Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake from the high perch. Mount Ritter is more complex. Unlike the past two times I had done the north face route, the snow had completely melted off the ice requiring a semi-sketchy crossing of hard, steep ice in aluminum crampons to reach the ramp for the north face route. This proved to be the crux. Once I was on rock, I encountered no further difficulties on the enjoyable class 3 scramble as I have done this route twice before and I was soon enjoying the view from Mount Ritter’s summit. This might be the year the snow and ice completely melts off and crampons and/or ice axe are not needed for the chute or to access the north face of Mount Ritter. It’s unclear whether the underlying loose rock would actually make the route more difficult. After the summits of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter, I headed down to the Ritter Lakes via Mount Ritter’s west slope. The west slope route poses no technical difficulties, but it’s important to follow the route as it’s fairly easy to wander off into much more difficult terrain. The west slope essentially utilizes two bowls connected by a slabby ramp. Finding and using this ramp is the key. The west slope descent route deposited me at the Ritter Lakes were the only spot I had not visited previously. I had high expectations as I first became intrigued while looking at them from Mount Davis. The Ritter Lakes did not disappoint as the wild and rugged character of the basin was breathtaking. These pristine lakes range in color from sapphire blue to bright turquoise. The uppermost lake beneath Neglected Peak is strikingly turquoise. From the Ritter Lakes I traversed to Lake Catherine which had excellent late afternoon light and then headed over North Glacier Pass and down to Thousand Island Lake for a pleasant early evening stroll along the entire length of the lakes north shore. I completed the loop by taking the River Trail bac to Agnew Meadows.
Higher is not always better. I’ve been to several peaks recently that are only modest in elevation but contain outstanding views. It many ways, being surrounded by impressive peaks of equal or greater height provides a more dramatic perspective. Mount Davis is one of these peaks. While relatively remote and obscure, the views are breathtaking and include taller and well known neighbors to the north (Mount Lyell and Rodgers Peak) and south (Mount Ritter and Banner Peak). To the west is the rugged and wild headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River, including the enchanting Twin Island Lakes, and to the east is spectacular Thousand Island Lake and the Davis Lakes. On my way to Mount Davis I visited the always-beautiful Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake, making sure to time my passage with idyllic morning light. While the shortest route to Mount Davis is via Silver Lake trailhead, I prefer the route from the Agnew Meadows trailhead which is more scenic in my opinion. This route also enabled me to easily include a morning visit to Garnet Lake, one of the prettiest lakes in all of the Sierra. GPS route here.I continued up from Thousand Island Lake to North Glacier Pass, a route that seems more efficient each time I get the chance to visit the pass. The pass is a worthy destination in itself with a commanding view of the deep blue Lake Catherine situated below the rugged north faces of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The view includes the glacial remnant that flows between these two impressive peaks. From North Glacier Pass, it seems as if Davis would be close, but quite a bit of leg work remains. One can either descend to the rocky shores of Lake Catherine or traverse higher up to avoid losing elevation. Both require some travel through cumbersome talus, but the beautiful clear waters of Lake Catherine are a great distraction.Higher up above Lake Catherine the terrain transitions to friendly granite slabs that lead to the “Davis Plateau,” a broad area of high elevation between North Glacier Pass to the south and the summit of Mount Davis at the north end of the plateau. While the summit of Davis has some prominence, there are numerous ridgelines and points along the plateau that are not that much lower in height. In this regard, Davis is more of a massif. In order to reach the high point, which includes the best views looking north along the crest toward Mount Lyell, an expansive glacial bowl must be crossed with copious talus and some interesting ice remnants (sadly it’s doubtful this ice makes it through this exceptionally dry and warm year). After crossing the bowl, the summit of Davis is an easy talus hop. On the way back I made a slight diversion to a small point at the south end of the Davis plateau that features an amazing view overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Catherine and the multi-colored Ritter Lakes, nestled underneath the rugged buttresses of Mount Ritter with colors ranging from deep blue to turquoise. I have probably spent more time in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region exploring the area around the Minarets and Ritter/Banner than anywhere else in the High Sierra but the scenery never ceases to amaze and inspire. GPS route here.