Saturday, July 18, 2009

PCT: Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake

We recently finished a backpacking trip from Mammoth (Agnew Meadows) to Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. This post covers the first day of that trip, July 11, 2009.

The day before, Larry, his father, Phil, his son, Garrett, and Garrett's friend, Nathan, drove to Yosemite Valley and parked their van. They caught a Yarts bus to Mammoth ($15.00 per person) where I'd made reservations at the New Shady Rest Campground, right near the Ranger Station and Visitor's Center. I drove up Friday evening after work with Mark and Steve Wicks. We got there after 10:00. Larry and crew were already asleep. I slept in the car.

I woke up Saturday morning about 5:20 a.m. and as I got out set off the car alarm. It went for several minutes while I tried to figure out how to turn it off. What an embarrassing way to get started! I drove Steve and Mark to the Mammoth Lodge while Larry and crew walked to McDonalds for breakfast. I came back for them and also picked up breakfast at McDonalds for Steve, Mark and myself. Below, Mark, Steve, me, Nathan, Garrett, Larry and Phil at the Reds Meadow shuttle stop in front of the mammoth statue and the Mammoth ski hills behind us. The shuttle picked us up at 7:30 ($7.00 each) and drove us to Agnew Meadows (the first stop).

After we were dropped off, we walked a short distance down a paved road, past a campground, and found the trailhead near an outhouse and a drinking fountain. We had several options. We were going up the canyon created by the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. The John Muir Trail goes up the west side of the canyon and is longer and has more elevation gain and loss. It is also the most beautiful of the trails. The River Trail follows the valley floor and is the least scenic. The Pacific Crest Trail goes up the east side of the canyon and gets a beautiful panoramic view of the west side. After talking with a knowledgeable backpacker on the shuttle, we decided to take the PCT rather than the JMT because it would be an easier hike to get to Thousand Island Lake by nightfall, our destination.

The trail starts immediately uphill, switchbacking to gain 400 feet of elevation before heading northwest up the canyon. About 2.8 miles in, we entered the Ansel Adams Wildernesss.

The views were nice, but not spectacular. The prettiest view was of Mammoth Mountain, where the shuttle started, still partially covered in snow.

Mark spotted a ruffed grouse and I was able to get quite close for a picture.

As we climbed higher, the views to the southeast got better as more peaks with snow came into view.

Mark pointed out that some of the rock had an iron content from the reddish tint to it.

We got a few early glimpses of Mount Ritter and Banner Peaks, made famous by the black and white photographs of Ansel Adams, for whom this wilderness was named. I believe it was called the Minarets Wilderness previously. Mount Ritter, on the left, is 13,143 feet in elevation, and Banner Peak, to the right, is 12,936 feet.

Around a bend, with a little side trip, one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen exploded into view. Across the canyon, in an undulating mass of volcanic rock, Shadow Lake, filling a depression, emptied by an outlet waterfall, is crowned by the beautiful peaks of the Ritter Range. To the left are the jagged peaks of the Minarets, still partially blocked from view by a lower, intermediate sized mountain, and to the right Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. We stopped for quite awhile, taking many pictures and just gawking at this incredible vista. We were sharing this view with a scout troop from the Poway area of San Diego.

A closer view of Shadow Lake.

A closer view of Ritter and Banner.

The PCT continued contouring the east side of the canyon, all the while giving us a view of the Ritter Range, the view changing, little by little, as we saw the peaks, lakes and streams from a different vantage point.

Ahead of us was the head of the canyon where the PCT and River Trail eventually meet and the PCT crosses over to the other side of the canyon and merges with the JMT at the outlet of Thousand Island Lake, the source of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River.

Below, the Minarets, to the left, become more visible.

A closer view of the Minarets.

And an even closer view of the Minarets. The view was absolutely stunning and the full sense of it, including the chill mountain air and slight breeze, cannot be captured by the camera lense.

Below, Ritter and Banner as the backdrop of some green plants I called skunk cabbage and Mark called mule's ear. After checking it out on-line, I think we're both wrong and I'm not sure what they are.

We had some spring wildflowers, but not alot.

The view behind us got prettier as we gained elevation and distance. Again, beautiful Mammoth Mountain dominates.

We stop for a break along the trail.

5.2 miles in, at an elevation of 9,710 feet, a trail branched off to the Clark Lakes. We saw a group head up that trail on horses.

Near the trail junction, we pose for a group photo.

The same area, without the people, full of skunk cabbage/mule's ear/unknown plant.

At this point, we're reaching the head of the canyon and begin to wind around to the other side. We pass the junction of the River Trail and begin to get some striking views of Ritter and Banner.

I'm not sure if the outlet stream here is from Thousand Island Lake or Garnet Lake. I suspect it is from Garnet Lake. The mix of rock, snow and trees is amazing.

Again, the jumble of grass, trees, plants, rock and snow is eye candy.

We finally stumble on to the outlet stream from Thousand Island Lake with Banner Peak as the backdrop. It is not possible to get anything much prettier than this.

And then we emerge on to the view of Thousand Island Lake. Breathtaking.

No wonder Ansel Adams spent so much time here. I've always loved the Mount Whitney region of the Sierras, but for beauty, that region doesn't hold a candle to this.

Steve, at the edge of Thousand Island Lake. We stopped to rest and just soak in the view. The only downside was mosquitoes, billions of them. Here the PCT and JMT joined up again. We were at 9,840 feet, 7.8 miles from our trailhead. However, there is a one-quarter mile no camping zone around the outlet, so we decided to follow the lake trail around the north side of the lake.

Garrett and Nathan, mosquito nets in place, set up camp with the beautiful backdrop of Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak.

Another view from our campsite.

Some of the "islands" as viewed from our campsite. We did not try to count islands, and wondered whether small, poking out rocks should be counted as islands, and finally decided they had to be, to get anywhere close to a thousand. We may have to come back some other time to do the counting.

We finished the day, tired, but happy in this beautiful area. The ranger warned us that a bear was regularly visiting the campsites. She was prophetic. Because of the topography, we were spread out from each other. I was separated from the others, in my small bivvy bag. I recall, during the night, hearing the snort of a bear right outside and the sound as it swatted my bear cannister onto its side. I had some concern, hoping the bear did not decide to camp on top of me, entombing me in the bivvy, turned body, bag. In the morning, I talked to Steve and Mark, camped above me about 30 yards. They'd not heard the bear, but one of their two bear cannisters was on its side. About 30 yards above them, I talked to Larry and Phil. They had seen the bear, about 2:00 a.m., in the full light of the moon. It had swatted over all of their bear cannisters but one, the one that was not locked shut!

It was a great beginning to a great trip.


  1. I am going from Agnew to Devil's PP then North on JMT to Tuolumne Meadows. I would appreciate as much information as your willing to share.

  2. What was your itinery for the rest of the trip (to Happy Isles). We're planning a similar trip 1000 Island Lake, Bagging Banner, South to Cecile lake, Up to Iron Mt and Iron Lake, To Red Peak, then along the IllIlouette Creek, with our final night in Little Yosemite. Is this the route you took?

  3. Enjoyed your trip post, thanks. Just to note, the grouse is actually a Sooty Grouse. Ruffed Grouse are not found in the Sierra Nevada.