32 Mile Ansel Adams Backpacking Loop

Agnew Meadows

Incredible mountain scenery. Beautiful alpine lakes and streams. Close proximity to wildlife - particularly black bears!

Backpacking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Named for the famed landscape photographer and environmentalist, the Ansel Adams Wilderness protects over 230,000 acres of the eastern Sierra Nevada near Mammoth Lakes. It is renowned for its sparkling lakes and craggy peaks, and it offers great backpacking for all ability levels. This adventure takes us on a loop of 22.5-25.2 miles, depending on the route, through some of the Sierra Nevada’s most stunning yet accessible landscapes.

What to know before you go:
Permits are required for all overnight trips into the Ansel Adams Wilderness; these can be obtained at the Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center, the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine, the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, and the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center in Lee Vining. Because of the accessibility of such great scenery, this area can be very busy, and finding solitude is not likely to be easy. Permits are much easier to get mid-week than on weekends; reservations also are possible up to 6 months in advance.

Black bears are extremely active in this area, and overnight adventurers are required to carry a bear canister. When I backpacked through this area a few years ago, we had a bear in our camp on three of our four nights. Hanging your food WILL NOT work! While bears of any sort are not to be messed with, you shouldn’t fear them; the overwhelming odds are that they will go straight for your bear canister, and after you chase them off once, they likely will move down the trail to the next camp.

The mosquitoes here, like any lake-filled region of the Sierra Nevada, can be hell. Especially if you are a mosquito magnet like I am, be sure to bring at least high-test bug juice and maybe even a headnet.

Getting there:
We begin at Agnew Meadows (8335’), a prominent trailhead near Mammoth Lakes Ski Area. Take CA-203 through Mammoth Lakes, and continue on Minaret Summit Road toward the ski resort. Past Minaret Summit, continue another 2.5 mi and turn right onto a dirt road that leads to the trailhead and a campground. Get some acclimation to the altitude by spending a night at the campground before you head in. Be aware that access via personal car is limited between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Head in before 7 a.m. or after 7:30 p.m. if you want to park at the trailhead.

The adventure:
There are several different trails in the area, and a good map can save you a lot of trouble. Our particular route takes us first on the Shadow Lake Trail to Ediza Lake, a lake of legendary beauty at 9265’. The trail climbs gradually for about 4 miles past Olaine Lake to Shadow Lake, a great place to stop for a snack and to enjoy the view. Just past the west end of the lake, we pick up the John Muir Trail heading west-southwest (not southeast) for about 2/3 of a mile; at this point, the JMT heads north, but we continue west to Ediza Lake for another 2.3 miles. When we reach the lake’s outlet, we head across and along the north shore to the good (and legal) campsites on the west end of the lake. This camp makes a wonderful base camp for exploring Iceberg Lake, Cecile Lake, and Minaret Lake, so consider spending two or more nights at Ediza.

After we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Ediza Lake, we head back the way we came until we again reach the JMT, where we turn north and head to Garnet Lake, a huge lake at 9678’. This leg of the adventure is just under 5 miles, and it’s only 2.6 mi more to the outlet of Thousand Island Lake (9840’), so there’s plenty of time to relax at the lake, whichever one we choose. Both lakes have outstanding views of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter; sunrise on these peaks can be pretty great, so don’t be too tempted to sleep in.

From the outlet of Thousand Island Lake, we have a couple options for returning to Agnew Meadows. (Again, a good map is key.) The River Trail gets us back to the trailhead in 7.8 miles through dense forest and takes us past Olaine Lake again. The High Trail, a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail through this region, is longer, about 10.5 miles along San Joaquin Ridge and past Badger Lakes. The River Trail will get us back with less effort and in less time, but the views are better along the High Trail. Choosing one over the other is a happy problem.

Whichever trail(s) you choose, and whatever direction you decide to go, this is a memorable trip through country with staggering beauty. Happy adventuring!

Pack List

  • Wilderness permit
  • Bear canister
  • Mosquito repellent/headnet
  • Backpacking essentials
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RT Distance 32 Miles
Activities Camping, Fishing, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Loop


Leave a Review

Overall rating: 

Great Fishing, Photography and Bears!

I've done a modified version of this loop twice and I highly recommend this hike/area to any backpacker looking for a great 3-4 day trip. I went last August and the weather was absolutely perfect day and night. If you are a photographer, these lakes, Mountain peaks and sunsets are simply amazing. Bring a fishing pole because you can catch dinner in about 10 minutes out of nearly every lake mentioned. I used a simple cast master spin bait and spin reel, while my buddy used a fly rod and we had similar success. The bears aren't timid here either. I watched as a bear walked off with another fisherman's entire stringer of trout about 10 feet from him. haha

Such an insane area of the JMT - the alpine lakes are awesome. If you would like to see a shorter adventure along this same route look here...http://bit.ly/1LlFz6r

This trip is pure magic! We did the trail in 2010, connecting into the Valley and the JMT. High season can lead to the feeling of a human highway, but , really, you can find your own space. You just might have to try.

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