Ansel Adams Wilderness October 2023


Feb 14, 2023
I don't have much of a back story for this trip. I try to make it out to the Sierra at least once a year, and the historic snow pack forced me to rethink my summer plans. I'd blocked off a week in October to squeeze in my last big hike of the year, and wasn't sure if I'd head to Colorado, Utah, or somewhere on the JMT. Around mid-August I found a great deal on a flight to Fresno, and at the time grabbed a permit starting from Yosemite Valley, not knowing how October weather would look I figured that would be a safe bet. I really had my eye on the high country though, and as the time grew closer conditions were looking ideal. I was scheduled to fly in the morning of October 17, and Yosemite doesn't allow overnight parking on Tioga Road past the 15th, so that meant I'd have to venture outside the park, which led me to my start from the Rush Creek Trailhead. I did a little research on routes, and had a general idea where I wanted to go, but decided not to commit to anything too specific.

Day 1: This was a long travel day in my usual fashion. I woke up at 3am east coast time for my 5:30 flight. Everything went smoothly, I landed on time and was in my rental car right around 10am west coast time. I had about a 5 hour drive to my trailhead, 3 hours of that was traveling through Yosemite which was always a treat. As I got to tunnel view I noticed the valley was full of smoke, I'd remembered reading they'd be doing controlled burns that week, and the effects were much heavier than I'd have thought. I could actually feel the heat from the flames as I drove up out of Yosemite Valley, and the haze was quite thick when I made it to Olmsted Point & Tenaya Lake. I was hoping this wouldn't be an issue in the area I was headed.

Once I exited the park and made my way down 395, the smoke was barely visible, and I was quite relieved as I enjoyed the rest of the drive. The fall colors around June Lake were absolutely gorgeous, full of aspens as vibrant as any I've seen. It was hard not to stop for photos, but I needed to get my hike started if I didn't want to walk in the dark. I made it to the trailhead around 3:45, with the goal of making the 2 mile & 1300' climb up to Agnew Lake, and grabbing the first piece of flat ground I came across that would let me access the lake. The trail starts with a nicely graded uphill section that runs parallel to the road for maybe a mile & a half, then as you get a look at Horsetail Falls the switchbacks up toward the dam begin. Finding my way south across the dam area was a bit tricky, most hikers stay north going through that section. I made it to camp around 5:45, with just enough time to set up and have dinner before it got dark. After such a long day, falling asleep wasn't difficult.

Day 2: It wasn't my intention to sleep in past 10am, but that's exactly what happened. The view of Agnew Lake was impressive though, and I was on my way around 11:30. My tentative plan for the day was head toward Thousand Island Lake, which was only a few miles but included a steep 1400' climb that I would begin immediately. The views looking back toward Mono Lake were exceptional, as I made my way across Spooky Meadow. I stopped at Clark Lakes for lunch, then eventually made my way to Thousand Island Lake around 5pm, and had camp set up around 6. Scenery was fantastic pretty much the entire day and despite my pack being 35 lbs, I was getting around quite well.

I knew days would be short during this trip, with sunset being around 6:20, and it being totally dark just past 7. I wish I'd dug a little deeper into fire restrictions as they weren't allowed in many of the places I wanted to camp, which made the long nights much longer. I did manage to crawl out of my tent around 11pm though, to a brilliant sky overhead. I've been wanting to try some night sky photography since I'd gotten my Sony Alpha earlier this year, and never managed to do so. I threw my layers back on, grabbed the camera & tripod, found a rock to sit on looking toward the lake, and sat out in the cold for an hour taking 30 second exposures.

Day 3: My initial thought was that I would take the JMT headed north, and veer off up to the seldom visited Davis Lakes area for the night. Looking at the map that morning, I saw I'd be getting on the trail pretty close to Emerald & Ruby Lake, which seemed like it would be worth the relatively flat 1/2 mile detour. I stopped for lunch at Ruby Lake, and something about the terrain called to me to go a little further. It looked like there'd be a nice view of Garnet Lake ahead, and that would be my cue to turn around for the day...

One look over Garnet Lake, and I absolutely knew I was going to drop down there to camp for the night. That would make for a very short day 3 and a much longer day 4 than I'd wanted, but I planned short & flexible days for situations just like this. I made the descent down to Garnet Lake and had found a spot to camp by 1:30. I opted to jump in the lake for a bit to rinse off, and lasted all of about 15 seconds. I filtered some water, stashed my uneaten snacks into the bear canister, and spent the afternoon walking up & down the lake shore. There was one couple camped on the opposite side of the lake, but no other people around that I could see. I had dinner fairly early, and had some whiskey with a cigar as the sun set on Banner Peak & Mt Ritter.

Day 4: I woke up around 8am, after another long 13 hours of darkness. I knew I had a lot of ground to cover, and started my hike out around 9:30. The initial climb up from the lake wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, and every switchback offered a fantastic view. It took no time at all to make it back up to Ruby & Emerald Lake, and backtracking my way to Thousand Island Lake was beautiful and pleasant. The climb up toward Island Pass was slightly more difficult, but still not terrible, and I couldn't help but to turn around and admire the view looking over Thousand Island Lake every few minutes.

Grey clouds were moving overhead as I made it up to the small unnamed lakes at the pass, not ominous enough to be worried, but enough to keep an eye on. I stopped for lunch at one of the lakes and felt a few light rain drops which let me know it was time to get moving. The next two hours I spent hiking under cloud cover, with some occasional light rain and even some hale. I kept moving, never needing to put my rain gear on, and was back under clear skies soon enough. As the JMT got near rush creek, I was in the trees for the first time on this trip. The forest was open & pleasant, with the occasional giant tree the Sierra are known for. I got off the main trail heading west, following Rush Creek toward Waugh Lake as I started looking for a campsite. I found a nice spot off trail down through the woods, where there was a nice little valley as the creek came out of the woods and into the lake. I couldn't see Waugh Lake, but it appeared to be just around the bend and would be a nice way to start off the next day.

Day 5: This was my last day of the trip. I started my hike out around 9:30. I had about 8 miles to make it back to the trailhead, most of it headed downhill. As I began my hike along Waugh Lake, it wouldn't take long to discover it was completely dry, at one point I could see all the way up to the Gem Lake dam was nothing but a dry lake bed. That was a bit of a bummer as I'd been looking forward to seeing another beautiful Sierra Lake, but the only water present was Rush Creek barely trickling through the big open valley. The scenery shifted to more of a high dessert type of landscape as I got back toward Gem Lake, and I started to see aspens once again, being surprised I hadn't seen any since the drive in. I took my time making my way along Gem Lake, doing my best to enjoy my final afternoon in this spectacular wilderness.

Being a Saturday, I was surprised to see only a few people on the trail as I got closer to the roads. As much as I hated that the trip was nearly over, the views looking down across June Lake on the last mile were beautiful, and I couldn't help but envy the couple of kayakers I saw out on the lake. I'd booked a room at a hostel in Mammoth Lakes for the night, and was looking forward to visiting the area for the first time, but not as much as the cheeseburger that had been on my brain for the past few days. I made it back to the car around 3:30, enjoyed the remaining drive around the June Lake Loop, and a nice evening in Mammoth Lakes.

I made my way out early the next morning, enjoying the drive through Yosemite as I headed back toward Fresno for the flight home...

Day 1 photos:

Day 2 photos:

looks like a good trip, I miss the Sierra

Did you see many people? Or just on the way out?

thanks for sharing
Yep--those are gorgeous photos. Fall is such a beautiful season in the Sierra--until the snows start, and then you need to get out, or bring along fat friends. (c.f. Donner Party :^)) And once you get past the middle of September, you often have the place to yourself. That storm that blew in brought a few inches of snow, followed by another week of lovely weather.
Beautiful shots @shredhiker. Thanks for sharing.

What were the temps like up high in October. I see that you were in shorts for one of the shots, so they must have been pretty reasonable?
Beautiful shots @shredhiker. Thanks for sharing.

What were the temps like up high in October. I see that you were in shorts for one of the shots, so they must have been pretty reasonable?
It was surprisingly warm actually. I was perfectly comfortable wearing shorts while the sun was out, every day of the trip.

It got pretty cold (just below freezing) for about 3-4 hours right after sunset every night, but then warmed up about 10 degrees through most of the nights I was out. Given the time of year, I still brought micro spikes & made sure I could get out of there within a day, just in case winter weather came in unexpectedly.
Beautiful photos! Someday we hope to make it to Ansel Adams, and this is a great reminder of why it's on our list. :)
Nice photos Shredhiker and Thanks for posting! Have never been much to the Sierra's. One of the reasons is that No Grizzlies are left in that country. But still nice photos and it seems you had a good trip. Best to You!
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