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.
The Minarets are a spectacular collection of jagged spires in the Ritter Range of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Usually I like to spread my adventures throughout the High Sierra since there are so many hidden gems to explore and mix up the character of scenery, but I have a particular affinity for the Minarets with repeated visits including July 2009 (Clyde Minaret), July 2013 (Minaret Loop), October 2013 (Tuolumne to Devils via Minarets), and July 2015 (Ansel Adams Loops). There are seventeen unofficially named spires and most are along a single ridge forming an arête. I have only climbed one Minaret, Clyde Minaret, which is the highest and named after Sierra climbing pioneer and legend Norman Clyde. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag a few more spires in the future. While I haven’t stood atop many of them, I have seen them from all different angles and I can’t seem to get enough of the spectacular ruggedness of these spires and the trio of three gorgeous lakes immediately beneath them – Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake. While I’m merely an amateur photographer with a lot to learn, attempting to take qualityphotos is a big part of my personal enjoyment in the mountains. I use the word quality because some trail runners have a tendency to focus more on their watch and braggadocio than the scenery resulting in mediocre photography results at best and at worst, video that is so shaky and random in movement that it is essentially unwatchable. This approach couldn’t be more opposite than the ethos of John Muir. Whether it’s the Minarets or other photogenic gems in the Sierra, I always find it worth the time to scope out the best angles and enjoy the scenery. Each time I have visited the Minarets it has featured different light, snow conditions etc. so it’s fun to compare the results. On this trip, I had the best conditions I’ve seen yet at Minaret Lake with excellent clarity and a few puffs of clouds swirling about the spires. My photography tip at Minaret Lake is to climb a granite outcropping near the outlet of the lake, which provides amazing composition of the entire lake and a turquoise inlet below with the Minaret spires towering behind. This balcony provided such a great view I probably took a hundred photos within a span of 15 minutes (I’ve spared this blog from most of those photos but there are still plenty). It’s one of my favorite vantages in all of the Sierra. It was great to spend some time at Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake and really enjoy the awesome surroundings. To complete the loop I recommend the River Trail instead of the JMT through Rosalie Lake. Both routes are very boring compared to the preceding section beneath the Minarets, but I like the River Trail better as it had less elevation gain and some nice peaceful single track in the forest next to the river that gets surprisingly little use. Strava GPS route here.
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.
The point-to-point route from Tuolumne Meadows to Agnew Meadows or Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile is well established among trail runners. However, I haven’t heard of anybody extending the point-to-point into the Minarets and including a summit of Donohue Peak. Both of these additions substantially enhance the aesthetics of the route making it a complete highlight tour of an immensely scenic region spanning Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness. This objective has been high on my list for some time and I was happy to run it in perfect autumn weather. It was great to enjoy many familiar sights, some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer, all in a single day. This is an instant classic and I look forward to doing this route and/or variations of it next year!
A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Donohue Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image.
The first 8 miles are along nearly flat Lyell Canyon. Cool air tends to pool in the canyon and temperatures were in the low-20s, but with calm winds the running felt comfortable. Just before Donohue Pass, I peeled off the trail and headed up toward Donohue Peak. The final bit of scrambling took a bit longer than anticipated as the high point of Donohue is at the eastern end of the ridge and entailed some traversing of talus covered with snow. The view from the summit is incredible and includes most of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range, a mirror view of the panorama I saw from Foerster Peak just a few days prior. A small tarn below Donohue Peak is particularly photogenic with Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure towering in the background. From the tarn I took a cross country route down slabs and grassy slopes to reconnect with the John Muir Trail in Rush Creek Basin. This beautiful basin was largely dry but still featured excellent views of Donohue Peak, Mount Andrea Lawrence and Koip Crest.
Beyond Rush Creek Basin I made quick time up to Island Pass. After a stop to photograph Banner Peak reflecting in the tarns near the pass, I met Joel and we descended to Thousand Island Lake soaking in the amazing scenery. The beautiful views continued as we made our way to Garnet Lake. At the Shadow Lake junction, I turned upstream to gorgeous Lake Ediza and then made the ascent to Iceberg Lake. From Iceberg Lake I encountered fairly deep snow up to Cecil Lake, but fortunately somebody had kicked steps before me so the micro spikes were not necessary. It was an ethereal view from Iceberg Lake and Cecile Lake with the jagged spires of the snowy Minarets backlit by the afternoon sun. After the traverse around Cecile Lake, I descended to Minaret Lake where I enjoyed more awesome afternoon views. Beyond Minaret Lake I was back on maintained trail and made quick time over the last 7.5 miles to Devils Postpile. Total time for the 38 mile point-to-point was 11:19 including hundreds of photos (nearly 800!), a selection of which follows. Strava route here.