Ansel Adams Wilderness Area

Where: Ansel Adams Wilderness Area
Mileage: 26.50 miles
Difficulty: Difficult
Recommended: Fishing license, Wilderness Permit,
water filter, bear box

Why run a marathon when you can hike one in 3 days with a 50 pound backpack that gets lighter by the day? We hiked a marathon in the Mammoth High Country in Inyo National Forest.

Arrived Friday night and slept in a small campground at Silver Lake to get accustomed to the elevation. Of course we made a fire this night, because there are no campfires in the areas we were going to be camping. Before we headed out, we picked up overnight permits since we were going to stay up till Monday. We also, picked up a 2 day fishing license.

Day 1: Rush Creek Trailhead: 9 miles. Our destination was Waugh Lake (9,420 feet) starting from Silver Lake (7,200 feet). During the hike we passed by Agnew (8,508 feet), Gem (9,050 feet) and Billy Lakes. Agnew and Gem Lakes are reservoirs used for electricity. Most of the time you are surrounded by the sound of rushing water, since the trail is close to Rush Creek. This creek and area mostly contains Rainbows and Brookies.

The beginning of this trail is only uphill. With a 1,300 foot elevation gain in the first 2.5 miles, we were breathing hard in those first couple miles, but once we got used to the elevation the rest of the way past Gem Lake to Waugh Lake was a lot easier. That and it was flatter.

On our way to Agnew Lake, we passed by an old rail track for a tramway that serves hydro-electric plants to Gem and Agnew Lakes. Once we had Agnew in full sight below, we could see hikers across the way, with binoculars of course, trekking slowly up the slope. Smiled a bit knowing that we would only have to go downhill on that part of the trail. Agnew didn’t have much water from the looks of it, you could see an outline of the lake from where the water used to be. There were very few people on the trail, which was nice because you could hear the sound of isolation between you and the surrounding forest.

From Agnew we took some more switchbacks to Gem Lakes east edge, but it was nothing compared to the first two and a half mile stretch. We hit Gem Lake early afternoon and took a little side trail down to the lake to have a quick lunch. We were unfortunately bothered by some bees, probably because we were in their territory. Gave our feet a break by taking our shoes off (yes, awful smell). After a quick dip of the feet in the water, we headed back up the trail for some more elevation gain.

Before leaving Gem Lakes area, we saw many tents set up; this is where civilization was hiding. We arrived to Waugh Lake and didn’t find as many campers at this lake. Got about halfway around and found an area that overlooked the lake which had an admirable view of its entirety. After setting up camp, we fished and had absolutely no luck with catching any Rainbows nor Brookies. Instead of fresh fish on the fire, we had to have what we carried in our packs. After dinner we headed down by the water to watch the sunset. See in the pictures attached how quietly impressive it was.

Day 2: 8 miles – Destination Garnet Lake, 9,680 feet.

The next morning we woke up and as we do almost every lake we stop at we took a dip in the freezing water. Obviously there are no showers in the area, so the use of the lake was an option that we settled for; let’s just say that it woke us up! After breakfast and some scenic picture taking we headed out earlier than the first day on our journey to our destination of Garnet Lake. Once again we were going to pass by multiple lakes before getting to Garnet’s beauty.

Leaving Waugh Lake we headed towards the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails. After a slight descent we ascended up to Island pass, through switchbacks and reached 10,200 feet for a breathtaking view of a small lake and its surrounding area. We took a small break at the top to catch our breaths and snack on some dried mangos. This was one lake we were not going to take a swim in.

After the pass we entered into the trees to descend slowly to Thousand Islands Lake. Every step we took we got closer added a panoramic view that only made us stop every 2 minutes to take another picture. At this point, you were able to to see Mt. Davis (12,309 feet) and Banner Peak (12,936 feet). In the pictures you’ll see Banner Peak on the left and Mt. Davis on the right. We were contemplating on taking a detour to Garnet by climbing next to Banner Peak; the closer we got to Thousand Islands we ended up just taking the route we were headed for in the first place.
Dropping down to the foot of the lake we crossed a small foot bridge. At this point the two trails merged and we continued on the John Muir Trail passing by two more small lakes (Emerald and Ruby). There were many people here, mostly day hikers who came in to Thousand Islands Lake only to turn back around and away from its beauty.

Our options: To fish in one of these two small lakes or to get to the campsite and fish at Garnet Lake. Since we had a date with Garnet Lake, we decided to head straight there to set up camp, relax and fish. Little did we know after a couple hours of casting we wouldn’t catch anything. Once again we were stuck with eating freeze dried food. I have to say at that point it didn’t matter because we were extremely hungry. Once you pass Ruby Lake you hit a pretty steep uphill portion of the trail, switchback after switchback again, but they weren’t as hard as some of the other ascents we had already made. Though after 15 or so miles it seemed like it was one of the harder ones.

Once again we hit a descent to the foot of Garnet Lake where we hit another foot bridge and at this point the sun was shining on Banner Peak and the wind began to pick up. We headed to the right after the foot bridge and found a spot on the side of the lake where we fished and as I said before we did not catch any fish, just rocks. While looking for camp we heard a very strange noise that was coming from an animal. Never heard it before, but we decided that it was a quail type of animal, who kept us up through the night. After some fishing we got another chance to take a “shower”. One of the most refreshing feelings, considering we had already done 17 miles already. Since the wind had picked up, well, the time to get in the water was a little longer than expected; but nonetheless business was taken care of.

After the “shower”, we decided to walk .5 miles back to the foot bridge to try fishing there as the sun was going down; but again had no luck. I did have luck though in snapping my fishing pole. After the sun started to hide behind the mountains we headed back to camp and made dinner. This was probably my favorite night of the three; the moon lit up Garnet Lake in a fashion that you could see a perfect reflection on the water of it, the mountains and the stars. Once the wind picked up a little later we were unable to experience that moment. It got down below freezing to 28 degrees. We woke up with frost on the ground and on our tent.

Day 3: Another 9 miles back down to Silver Lake through Agnew Pass (9,890 feet). This normally would have been 8.4 miles, but I’ll explain later why it turned out to be 9. 680 feet down, 900 feet up and 2,610 feet down (imagine how our feet felt after). We headed on our way out around 7:00 am, since we had a long drive to go after the hike down.

From our camp we headed back toward the foot bridge and took a small footpath right next to a small waterfall of about 3 tiers. After many switchbacks down next to the river, we turned right before crossing the river on a smaller footpath that wasn’t going the correct way. After about 1 mile, we decided to take out the map and compass. Figured out where we were and proceeded off trail to find the River Trail that we were supposed to be on originally. This wasn’t easy because we had to find a safe place to cross the river and go uphill with our 40 lbs. bags. After walking by the river for about 10 minutes, passing waterfalls, pools that we could have swam in, we found a narrow part of the river that we could jump. We finally got back on the right path after an incline that we were slipping on and turned back towards the crossing for the next trail. This took us up to Agnew Pass.

After a heavy breathing climb up to Agnew Pass we passed by several lakes (Summit and Clark Lakes). Since it was a couple hours before lunchtime, we decided to try one more time to fish at one of the Clark Lakes; this time with only one fishing pole. There were plenty of fish, but they were deep in sleep. So deep in sleep that even though our hook hit them they wouldn’t move. After some time we gave up, had a snack and headed on our last part of the journey back to Silver Lake. We headed downhill and then uphill again hitting 10,300 feet right above Spooky Meadow, mountains surrounding us with red and black volcanic cliffs. We passed by one more small picturesque lake, which I cannot seem to find a name for, probably because it was too small.

We slowly hit the hardest stretch of the hike on your knees, especially since we had already trekked over 20 miles at this point. No, EASY WAY DOWN was not how it turned out to be, even though in the beginning by Agnew Lake we smiled and thought “we only have to go downhill on that trail”! The trail zigzags all the way down to Agnew Lake. It was extremely tough downhill with switchbacks, but a very scenic one. We could see Mono Lake in the distance and at this point we were on the mountain next to Agnew Lake. Right below Carson Peak (10,909 feet), we walked carefully on the rocks down to Agnew Lake. Passed over the bridge and headed down more switchbacks. By this time we were running down to finish the hike as soon as possible, since we had a long drive ahead of us.

Feet = beat up, Knees = in a little pain, Head = hurting from the heat, Hands = swelled up from holding them down, Back = sore from the constant pounding on the way down. This is why when we hit the last cross over a river, we took off our shoes and soaked them in the freezing water. All in all 26.5 miles wasn’t too bad, especially since we were out in wilderness, with no cell phone reception, no internet, no city noises.

Note to self: Buy a new fishing pole before the next overnight hike.

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