Ansel Adams Loop

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. 

Mount Davis

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.

Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile via the Minarets and Donohue Peak

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

Rodgers Peak & Thousand Island Lake

Rodgers Peak first caught my eye from the summit of Mount Dana with its sharp and rugged profile. Despite rising 12,978 feet, the peak is much less known and climbed than its neighbors to the south (Ritter & Banner) and north (Lyell & Maclure), most likely due to its remote setting. However, the view from Rodgers’ summit is perhaps the best of bunch due to it’s central position between the Ritter Range and Cathedral Range.  The trek to reach the summit via the shortest route is nearly 13 miles via Silver Lake. The trail miles at the beginning through Angew Lake and Gem Lake are pretty enough although the human infrastructure (tram lines, dams, etc.) is not my cup of tea. Moving past the last dam at Waugh Lake I started to feel like I was finally entering the wilderness with Lyell and Rodgers forming a snowy backdrop at the head of the valley. After a short walk on the John Muir Trail with views of Davis Peak and Banner Peak, I turned onto the Marie Lakes trail and shortly entered a meadow with stunning scenery. A stream flows through these meadows with cascading pools that have amazing turquoise waters and panoramas of Blacktop Peak and newly named Mount Andrea Lawrence across the basin. On January 13, 2013, President Obama signed into law the Mount Andrea Lawrence Designation act of 2011, naming peak 12,240 near Donahue Pass after the famed conservationist of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains (and two-time Olympic gold medalist in slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Oslo Games).

Beyond these meadows, snow cover became more prevalent and I traveled cross country through snow and granite slabs to lower Marie Lake, which was still 50% frozen. Beyond the lowest Marie Lake it was primarily a snow climb to the middle and upper lakes with some steep and hard sections in the morning hours. I was happy I brought crampons and ice axe for the early season climb. For the final climb up Rodgers, I chose a loose chute on the north face that made for a much better descent route than ascent. In both cases caution must be taken to avoid high rockfall danger. Once clear of the chute, the final few hundred feet of vertical to the summit is a talus hop. Back at Marie Lakes and the meadows, I enjoyed the beautiful scenery once more and then returned to the JMT. Instead of going back the same route via Waugh Lake, I decided to take the JMT over Island Pass and to Thousand Island Lake. This proved to be a great decision with spectacular vistas of one of my favorite corners of the High Sierra in excellent late afternoon light for photography. Beyond Thousand Island Lake, the remainder of the trip back to Silver Lake was largely uneventful besides refreshing my memory of the rocky and arduous trail descent to Agnew Lake via Clark Lakes/Spooky Meadow. All in all an awesome day in the Sierra! Strava route here.