Video: Just another peaceful night in the Sierra (Rosalie Lake).
Among the many unlooked-for treasures that are bound up and hidden away in the depths of Sierra solitudes, none more surely charm and surprise all kinds of travelers than the glacier lakes… All the upper branches of the rivers are fairly laden with lakes, like orchard trees with fruit. They lie embosomed in the deep woods, down in the grovy bottoms of cañons, high on bald tablelands, and around the feet of the icy peaks, mirroring back their wild beauty over and over again. (John Muir, The Mountains of California, 1894)
We were up before daybreak to pack up the campsite. Rush Creek kept us company with the sound of its constant flow. This water is pristine, fed from ice melt and lakes from the remote Ritter Range.
This hiking day would be an incredible journey of views, but such expansive scenery comes with a price; this would be a day of ascents and descents. We were on our second day of travel in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, and this was new territory for us.
A portion of this wilderness was originally part of Yosemite National Park when it was first created, and it certainly contains national park qualities. Later, it was converted to wilderness, and when Ansel Adams died, was named in his honor, also fitting because of the photographic qualities of this area.
This wilderness contains few paved roads. The western side is accessible only by dirt roads or logging roads; the east side primarily by trails.
From our camp at the Rush Creek Trail junction (elevation 9,670 feet), we quickly climbed the 1.6 miles of switchbacks to Island Pass (elevation 10,221 feet). But “pass” is too abrupt of a word for this beautiful wonderland.
This is not the classic Sierra Nevada pass that provides narrow passage on a windswept, austere ledge between two towering peaks. Island Pass is instead a high alpine meadow. It’s a grass-filled and wildflower-filled plateau consisting of peaceful lagoons and a stunning, never-to-be-forgotten view of Banner Peak (elevation 12,945 feet) and, less conspicuously only because of perspective, Mount Ritter (elevation 13,140 feet).
We strolled along this grassy gap to where it travels between a reflecting pool and a small lake of an indescribable hue of blue, we were overcome by the beauty encompassing us. We had been hiking less than a half hour but the location was so aesthetically pleasing that we shrugged out of our packs on a sunny stone slab and sat in awe amidst peaks and creeks, lakes and rocks, meadowlands and forest, cotton-candy clouds and azure sky. This is the essence of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and it was laid out in front of us like an exhibit of an artist’s paintings, capturing all that’s best at one venue.
Just like all passes, once atop Island Pass, the trail has nowhere to go but down. In another short mile-and-a-half, we would be at Thousand Island Lake (elevation 9,847 feet). Including the small lake on Island Pass, Thousand Island Lake would be the second of seven lakes we would be traveling alongside on this hiking day. And we would see many more lakes glimmering in the distance as we hit the high points on this day of ups and downs.
We didn’t have to wait to arrive at Thousand Island Lake to see Thousand Island Lake. There was an extensive view into the lake-filled valley during the downhill hike. And from our vantage point several hundred feet above, it became apparent that while maybe there aren’t exactly 1,000 islands, the lake is aptly named. The surface is dotted with many “islands” that are actually stone protrusions, a result of the area’s past volcanic activities, now covered with vegetation, including stunted lodgepole pines.
These gnarled trees are certainly persistent given the harsh conditions that come with the territory of attempting to grow on these piles of rock jutting from the mile-and-a-half-long alpine lake. Banner Peak, still dominating the landscape, towers 3,000 feet above the lake’s southern shore.
Just before a footbridge that crosses the lake’s outlet on the isthmus between the lake and three small ponds, the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail part ways. We would rejoin the PCT at Devils Postpile National Monument, about 15 miles south. We stopped for a snack just beyond this junction, but the wind was feisty, so we didn’t linger.
The trail leaves Thousand Island Lake abruptly; we climbed out of the lake bowl, passing a couple of small gems – Emerald Lake, then Sapphire and Ruby lakes – before descending once again to another precious stone of a lake, Garnet Lake (elevation 9,690 feet), which is about 2.5 miles south of Thousand Island. There is no reference in the Place Names of the Sierra Nevada: From Abbot to Zumwalt book (my go-to source for riddles such as this) as to why this trio of lakes is named for gemstones.
We ate lunch overlooking Ruby Lake. Ruby is July’s birthstone so the energy felt right to stop and relax here on this late July day.
Next up on this lake tour was Garnet Lake, which rivals Thousand Island Lake in beauty and size. It, too, is a large body of water, though smaller than Thousand Island, and dotted with islands from an ancient volcanic eruption. Banner Peak and its snowfields are also the backdrop of Garnet Lake, just a bit of a different exposure – more easterly – but no less jaw-dropping.
These lakes are large, especially in comparison to the lakes in the Sequoia National Park vicinity that are tucked away in cozy glacial cirques.
Crossing another footbridge on the eastern end of Garnet Lake, we skirted a portion of the lake’s south side, passing by a sizeable group of Boy Scouts lounging shoreside, before climbing once again on switchbacks to an unnamed pass (10,175 feet). From the top, several more lakes came into view; we had passed so much water, in fact, it was easy to forget that California was in the throes of a fourth year of drought. There seemed to be no shortage of water here, although that would remain our little secret.
Next up on this rollercoaster-ride of a day was a 3.5-mile descent of about 1,500 feet that afforded more incredible views of the precipitous Ritter Range. We bottomed out in a canyon formed by Shadow Creek. We had left the exposed high country and were now in forest.
We pulled out our map at a trail junction to determine if we were to travel upstream or downstream. We were learning that the U.S. Forest Service signs were vague, listing place names we had never heard of and not always delineating the John Muir Trail, which would have simplified the route-finding.
After determining that we would continue downstream, we headed creekside to filter water and refill our water bottles. It was here that we noticed a large camping area with many tents on the other side of the creek.
Most of the tents were too big to be used by backpackers. But these weren’t car-campers because no roads lead here. This area is inaccessible by trail from the west side of the Sierra; the Ritter Range is nearly impenetrable.
We hadn’t realized we were so close to civilization; we eventually surmised that these campers were probably brought in by horses, as were their ice chests, barbecue grills, fishing gear, folding chairs, blowup mattresses, and pillows. Agnew Meadows, on the east side of the Sierra, is just five miles away, and there are campgrounds, a pack station, and bus service to and from the town of Mammoth Lakes, 9.5 miles from the trailhead.
So far, in nearly a week on the trail, we had met pack stock and riders on horseback, both private and commercial, every day. All told, by the end of nearly a month of traveling, there were only a few days that we didn’t encounter horse and rider.
We weren’t carrying any of the above-mentioned luxury items. We were carrying the bare necessities needed for warmth, sustenance, and basic survival, and it all fit into a single pack on our backs.
If we needed something cold, it would be immersed in a creek. Our dinners were heated quickly over a butane stove. No chairs for us, just rocks and logs and our bear canisters. Our self-inflating mattresses were about an inch thick, being more beneficial in providing insulation from the cold ground than any kind of plush softness. And pillows? That was our luxury item. Thank you, Big Agnes, for coming up with an inflatable pillow that has added so much comfort to sleeping on the ground. Previously, a pillow entailed a rolled-up fleece jacket.
In the mile it took us to reach the sixth lake of the day, Shadow Lake (elevation 8,810 feet), we descended steeply along the creek, which provided a brief respite from a day of climbing and the distraction of a series of toppling, tumbling waterfalls. The trail traverses the southern shore of Shadow Lake, which is surrounded by pockets of dense forest in a bowl protected from all but the strongest winds.
Now just four miles from the Agnew Meadows trailhead, we met several groups of day-hikers and overnighters. We had to struggle to come up with what day of the week it was: Friday, so the trail was probably busier than it would be midweek. Shadow Lake, definitely a worthwhile destination, seemed to be quite popular with these people in clean clothes carrying tiny packs. However, due to previous overuse, the lake is closed to camping.
That meant onward and upward for us. This was the last incline of the day, but it made us earn our zero day (a rest day with no mileage) that was on the itinerary for tomorrow. As we left Shadow Lake, there was a 700-foot climb over two miles on tedious switchbacks.
It was mid-afternoon, the sun was directly on us, and the temperature was hovering around 80. Jennie had a cold and a pulled leg muscle. I had an inflamed hip bone and a pinched nerve in my back. Our bodies were rebelling and our minds were concurring, conspiring to convince us that all this walking with all this weight to the point of absolute exhaustion every single day was a bad idea. But there was no complaining, that would be useless; the hill would still have to be climbed. We were exactly where we wanted to be. We share a singular love of being in the mountains and a strong desire to live and sleep outside. Our bodies would get the message soon enough that this was a way of life for awhile.
We separated along the climb, Jennie hiking uphill faster than me (it used to be the other way around but that has forever changed, I reckon). Although separated, we both had the same resolve: to get to the top of the ridge.
When we met up again at the saddle, we were impressed with how fast we conquered this stretch of trail. With this minor hindrance behind, we embarked on a half-mile descent to our destination for the next two nights: Rosalie Lake.
As we descended to Rosalie Lake, we were on the north shore and above the water. The trail dropped us down to the lakeshore on its east end.
There is a group campsite here, but we yearned for solitude, so Jennie scouted out a campsite on the lake’s south side and off the trail. Although I had some aches and pains, my journal entry explains, “It was a tough day, but this is the first day that I wasn’t absolutely fall-down, dead-tired at the end of the day…” I think our muscles and ligaments were beginning to get used to what we were demanding of them.
We set up camp; took our daily ice bath; celebrated happy hour with a rehydrating electrolyte drink; savored a three-course meal of miso soup, a dehydrated entrée, and garlic mashed potatoes; stashed the bear canisters; and fell asleep before the stars came out.