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 quality photos 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 Clark Range is a sub-range west of the Sierra Nevada crest in one of the more remote regions in Yosemite National Park. The range divides Illilouette Creek from the main stem of the Merced River and forms the western side of the Merced River headwaters. As the range is set apart from the other high peaks in the region, the views are spectacular and include the entire Cathedral Range and Ritter Range to the east. The view includes a panorama from domes and spires of the Tuolumne Meadows region to the roof of Yosemite on Mount Lyell to the impressive Mount Ritter to the chiseled Minarets. The primary summits in the Clark Range are Mount Clark, Gray Peak, Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Of the bunch, Mount Clark is the only one with more technical scrambling and the others have class 2 or 3 routes available. For my first visit to the Clark Range I made a tour of the southern end of the range via Mono Meadows with climbs of Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. I started with Red Peak and then traversed the Ottoway basin to Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Views from all three summits were spectacular. I especially liked the view to the rugged Minarets group, which are always impressive. It was nice to see the peaks coated in late season snow, and especially when some afternoon light found its way under a layer of high clouds. Upper Ottoway Lake was still frozen but Lower Ottoway Lake had melted out and was especially pretty on my return trip in the evening. Total mileage ended up being 37.5 miles so it’s a long ways in, but a good early season route and many of the trail miles are runnable in pleasant montane forest. GPS route here.
The Lyell Fork of the Merced River is one of the most remote and rugged regions in Yosemite National Park. Any approach requires many miles on trail followed by off-trail travel. The lower part of the drainage features a splendid series of meadows as the river snakes through a grassland with an amazing view upstream to the chiseled rideline including Mount Ansel Adams and Electra Peak. Higher up in the basin, the forest thins and the terrain transitions to a granite playground with a series of spectacular alpine lakes. It seems as if each lake has a different color, from midnight blue to milky turquoise. It’s not entirely clear to me what is responsible for producing the different colors when the lakes are all connected and in such close proximity, but the resulting palette is magical. At the highest reaches of the basin the terrain is entirely devoid of vegetation and the uppermost lakes sit in a strikingly barren landscape of talus and granite. Above these uppermost lakes is the roof of Yosemite, Mount Lyell, at 13,120 feet above sea level and the highest point in the national park. I have looked down into the Lyell Fork of the Merced River from numerous points including Mount Lyell, Foerster Peak and Rodgers Peak and I have always wanted to explore the basin. In order to accomplish this goal, I designed an aesthetic loop out of Tuolumne Meadows that would include the Lyell Fork of the Merced River and also the summit of Electra Peak, one of the more remote summits in Yosemite with a grand view of the region. Since Electra Peak is the central feature of the route I called it the “Electra Loop” and entails nearly 44 miles and close to 10,000 feet of elevation gain. The loop is similar to the Roof of Yosemite Loop I did earlier this year but is a bit longer to incorporate the Lyell Fork Merced River and Electra Peak. GPS route info here.
The route starts with a trek up Lyell Canyon on the John Muir Trail, one of the most runnable stretches of trail in the High Sierra. At the head of the canyon is a climb up to Donohue Pass with an excellent view of Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. Soon after Dononhue Pass leave the trail and head south through easy alpine terrain to the meadows beneath Marie Lakes where the Marie Lakes trail is intersected. A short climb on this trail brings one to Lower Marie Lake. From here continue cross country up a ridge on the south side of the lake and then traverse granite and talus slopes to North Clinch Pass. Lower Marie Lake is a large body of water and includes stupendous views of Mount Lyell and also across Rush Creek basin to Donohue Peak and Mount Andrea Lawrence. The narrow ridgeline is particularly scenic with a “secret Marie Lake” visible deep in a granite bowl. The direct route over North Clinch Pass includes some class 3 scrambling on its south side but it looks like a somewhat circuitous detour south along the ridge could eliminate the class 3 altogether. Passage through North Clinch Pass brings one into the remote upper reaches of the North Fork San Joaquin River. This drainage, like the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, is rarely visited but a real gem of the High Sierra. My passage through this basin was at its uppermost reach via a high traverse to Electra Peak on talus and granite slabs. I could see the numerous inviting lakes below, but my path would remain above them. I look forward to visiting these lakes in the future. in fact, the High Sierra Route passes through perhaps the most dramatic part of the North Fork San Joaquin River drainage as it descends from Lake Catherine and traverses to Twin Island Lakes with wild views of the North Fork San Joaquin River Canyon and Mount Ritter and Banner Peak towering above. After the traverse of the headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River to Lake 11,815, the climb of Electra Peak’s north ridge is a straightforward scramble on talus and then some rock on the final portion on the ridge. The view from the summit is incredible and takes in a 360 degree panorama encompassing everything from Half Dome to the Clark Range to Mount Lyell to Ritter and Banner. The best view in my opinion looks down the Lyell Fork of the Merced River with it’s numerous colorful lakes and beautiful meadows. From the summit, descend Electra’s northwest slope (talus and slabs) to Lake 10,999, a deep blue lake situated in a barren granitic landscape. Descending down the drainage from Lake 10,999 leads to Lake 10,702 tucked in beneath a rugged ridge extending to Mount Ansel Adams. A descent down a minor headwall beneath Lake 10,702 leads to a lake with striking bright turquoise color. This lake is not even assigned an elevation on the topo maps, but is one of the unique highlights of this region. The next lake on the trip down the Lyell Fork is perhaps the most spectacular and is labelled as Lake 10,217 on the topo map. This lake retains some of the turqouise color as the previous lake but has a bit more of a blueish tint. The lake also includes more vegetation along its shores, an alpine beach, and an elongated shape that makes it look like a swimming lane with Mount Ansel Adams and Foerster Peak towering above. This is certainly a spot I could spend some time relaxing! Below Lake 10,217 is the primary headwall of the drainage and includes a fair amount of micro-navigating to avoid small cliff bands (although numerous routes are available). Below the headwall, travel becomes easier through open forest eventually reaching the splendid meadows. From the meadows it’s about a mile downstream through forest and granite slabs to the Isberg Pass Trail which is taken north to the Lewis Creek Trail. The ascent up the Lewis Creek Trail leads to Vogelsang Pass and then down the Rafferty Creek trail back to Tuolumne Meadows. GPS route info here.
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.
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.
Fall is one of my favorite times of the year in the Sierra. This time of year comes after the summer monsoon thunderstorm season but before winter storms roll in off the Pacific burying the high country in snow. The result is weather that is characterized by numerous clear and crisp days interspersed with the occasional light snowfall. Mosquitoes and crowds are non-existent, and the trails are in great condition. Foerster Peak hadn’t really been on my radar, or the entire region for that matter, but while looking at the maps midweek it looked like a nice objective and I’m always interested in visiting new spots off the beaten path. Joey joined me for this trip and we both agreed this adventure far exceeded expectations entailing a beautiful off-trail approach through Long Creek to Rockbound Lake and the exquisite Blue Lake, and a stellar 360 degree summit panorama including the entire Clark Range and much of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range. My favorite view was the rarely seen west side of the jagged Minarets. Strava route here.
A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Foerster Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image.
We started the trip from Isberg Pass Trailhead after a long, bumpy ride on the Beasore Rd. While this route is shorter, the pavement on Beasore road is so badly eroded it’s actually worse than if the road had been all gravel. We parked about 0.6 miles from the trailhead to avoid a rocky section of road (the reality of driving low clearance cars). On the way back we took the Minaret Road which is substantially longer in distance, but a much better drive due to its smooth pavement. We followed the Isberg Pass Trail through the Niche and shortly thereafter broke off on the Chetwood Cabin Trail. The montane forest and meadows were so pleasant for running we passed the dilapidated Chetwood Cabin without even noticing it, which meant we also passed the location where we were supposed to turn off. On the way back we took the old use trail that we were supposed to take in the morning and came to the conclusion that trying to follow this path is essentially useless and our unintended off-trail route in the morning was more efficient. A couple years ago a major windstorm blew through the forest and toppled countless trees over the old trail. Combined with lack of use, the old path has grown very faint and difficult to follow.
Back to the morning, we discovered our “error” of overshooting Chetwood Cabin when we came to a second junction for Cora Lakes. Instead of backtracking we headed uphill cross country to a saddle on the east side of Sadler Peak. The cross country travel proved to be very efficient and straightforward and it turns out this is my recommended route versus the route we took in the afternoon. Thus, for the most direct route into Long Creek I would stay straight past the Niche heading to Cora Lakes and then head cross country from the second junction with the Chetwood Cabin trail. Beyond the saddle on Sadler Peak’s east side, the use trail can be picked up again with numerous cairns and followed down to Long Creek where the trail ends for good. Travel up the granite canyon of Long Creek is a pleasure with a babbling stream, grassy meadows and clumps of trees amid a setting that is predominantly ice-polished granite. At the headwaters of Long Creek we turned east ascending slabs and grass over a ridge to spectacular Blue Lake with a perfect backdrop of Mount Ritter, Banner Peak and the Minarets. At Blue Lake, Foerster Peak is finally within striking distance. The final scramble starts with an ascent up a grassy ramp, followed by granite slabs, and finally some talus hoping to the summit.
The challenge of Foerster Peak is clearly its remote location and not the straightforward scramble. The reward for reaching the summit is a truly remarkable vista, which was enhanced for us by a perfect fall day. We could see virtually all of the headwaters of the Merced River and the top of Half Dome. Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure (the roof of Yosemite) stood tall across the Lyell Fork of the Merced River with a series of high alpine lakes visible in the granite basin. Close at hand was the rugged west face of Ansel Adams Peak and the ridge crest to Electra Peak and Rodgers Peak. To the south, the rugged Ritter Range dominated the skyline with impressive views of the west side of the Mount Ritter and Banner Peak massif and the intricate spires of the Minarets. Over our stay at the summit, we watched the light on the Ritter Range become increasingly better. After spending over 45 minutes on top, we retraced our steps to Blue Lake and stopped for a photography extravaganza along its blue shores… just great!
The final views of the day (before entering forest) were near Sadler Peak with excellent afternoon light on the Minarets and the North Fork San Joaquin River canyon. I look forward to climbing to the summit of Sadler and taking the 2 mile ridge to Long Peak in the future. This ridge is sure to have excellent views for its entire length. Enjoying this last view, we thought we were set for a fairly easy last 8 miles back to the trailhead, but we were wrong. The old use path we were supposed to take in the morning from Chetwood Cabin proved extremely challenging to follow with copious downfall to navigate. In fairness, the Tom Harrison Map does not show this trail at all and we were relying too heavily on outdated USGS topo maps. This region has seen more foot traffic in the past. In the end, we decided the unintended cross country route taken in the morning was now a more efficient, superior access route to Long Creek and Foerster Peak. After what seemed like a long time, we finally popped out into a meadow and saw the ruins of the Chetwood Cabin indicating we were back on familiar ground and maintained trail. From this point we made good time back the trailhead. Foerster peak and this remote region far exceeded expectations and I will definitely be back for further exploration!