Thursday, August 26, 2010

Backpacking Ansel Adams Wilderness, Agnew Pass and Gem Lake

Day 2

After a tough night's sleep, with the wind waking me up every couple hours, I rolled out of bed, laced up my boots and headed out to photograph early in the morning. Beylah was still sound asleep as I hit the trail. I followed the trail we came in on the previous morning and quickly found myself out back on the large volcanic ledge I had photographed Gem Lake at the previous morning. The soft morning light hitting the mountains and Gem Lake below me, the trail end of the storm clouds still rolling over the high sierra, all became too much to take in. Instead of photographing away, working different angles and doing my usual thing, I had to pause, walk away from my camera and sit down for a couple minutes and just take it all in.

Morning, above Gem Lake

After about 20 minutes on the ledge the sun began to move a bit higher in the sky and with the harsher light I decided to head back to camp and get breakfast going. Despite waking up numerous times to a wildly flapping rain fly and the booming roar of gusts of wind tearing through the high sierra, I woke up fairly well rested (maybe its because I went to bed at 8:30?). Somehow I talked Beylah into walking down to the lake to pump water and grab the bear can while I set things up for breakfast near the tent. Soon enough we were devouring our favorite breakfast meal, freeze dried granola and milk.

Wildflowers near Clark Lake.

After scarfing down breakfast and getting camp packed up we hit the trail. From our campsite it was only a few hundred feet to Agnew Pass and stunning Summit Lake. The Granite on the back side of the lake runs right into the waters of the lake. There are some good campsites back behind the lake in the direction of Clark Lake in some trees. All around the lake were beautiful wildflowers all at peak bloom. Summit sits right on Agnew Pass and just beyond it is a huge drop off down to a long mountain valley.

At the top of Agnew Pass, beyond Summit Lake

Behind Agnew Pass sits Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, the neighboring mountains which dominate the entire Ansel Adams Wilderness and are some of the most picturesque peaks in the sierra's. We sat and soaked in the view almost half an hour. We watched the tail end of the storm continue to pass over the high peaks. Shadows from the big black clouds rolled over the granite landscape. We put some thought into continuing on towards Thousand Island Lake but decided Agnew Pass was enough.

Summit Lake

After saying goodbye to Agnew Pass, Summit Lake, and Clark Lake we headed back down past the shores of the lakes and began down the trail to Gem Lake. We had decided that we did not want to descend back down through Spooky Meadow on the steep trail with heavy backpacks. A fall on the steep scree slope could be potentially disastrous and Gem Lake looked interesting as well. Mt. Ritter disappeared for the last time behind the ridge as we began a slow descent back down.

Looking down on Clark Lake from Agnew Pass

The trail heads down through a dry forest filled with Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine's. The descent is gradual at times, but hits stretches of steep switchbacks. Several small granite encircled lakes break up downhill trip. The much more gradual (even on the steep stretches) descent down to Gem Lake was pleasant, our packs were comfortable and our energy levels were high. Two and a half miles later I reached down into my pocket to check the map to see where we were only to discover an empty pocket and the resulting grimace on my face. I had studied the map a lot the night before so ultimately losing the map wasn't a big deal except for the cost of the map.

Unnamed Lake on the descent.

The trail eventually dumps out back to Rush Creek, running from Waugh Lake to Gem Lake. Though the flat trail by the shore of the river was nice, we hit the first mosquito problems of the trip. After taking a few photographs by the creek, lathering up the bug repellent, and reapplying sunscreen we moved on. Around 12:30 we reached Gem Lake.

Rush Creek Cascades

Gem lake is a beautiful, huge shimmering lake with picturesque emerald bay's and steep mountains rising around it on all sides. It is part of a dam system which includes Agnew Lake. Unlike Agnew though Gem is not surrounded by equipment and the dam itself is only visible just before leaving the lake. On the north end where we arrived we found a serene lake and amazingly we had the whole thing to ourselves.

Gem Lake

We set up for lunch on mostly tree-less (except for one which gave us shade) rocky spine a hundred feet above the lake. We both agreed this was our favorite lunch location on any hike or backpacking trip so far. The storm had long past, and the heat of the day was just starting to kick in so it was warm and sunny. We devoured our last burrito, pumped fresh water, and split some tuna and trail bars. We still had a good 5 miles ahead of us with some steep descending to do, as well as some climbing around the lake.

Relaxing after lunch by Gem Lake.

The trail wrapping around Gem Lake goes on for just over two miles of very dusty, very hot terrain. The beautiful views of the Sierra crest in the background spurred us on for awhile but by the time we reached the dam we were very ready to leave the lake behind us. A final climbing stretch was the last obstacle in our way. It put us atop a small platform of rock which offered a commanding view of the sierra crest off in the distance behind us as well as Gem Lake, in front of us June Lakes, and Agnew Lake.

Last view of Gem Lake from the rock platform.

We did not sick around long as the sun was sagging in the sky, it was nearly 3pm and we wanted to be leaving soon. The trail down to Agnew Lake is steep with constant switchbacks. We passed the first hiker of the trip heading up, she was working very hard to climb up so we stopped to talk only briefly. Before long we found ourselves back at the fork in the trail on the east shore of Agnew. A few more steps and we were looking out on Silver Lake. The final few miles were a race against a group of horses behind us. Beylah and I separated for awhile while I became single minded about getting down. I moved as quickly as I could and actually did beat the horses to the bottom. I felt bad because I had blown off a friendly ranger who looked like she wanted to talk to me as well as an adorable dog who clearly wanted to be pet. 10 minutes after reaching the bottom, Beylah moved out of the trees behind me. We changed into some street clothes and started driving home. We finally arrived in Sunnyvale at 11pm, I showered and fell asleep almost instantly.

Back to Day 1: Silver Lake to Clark Lake


  1. What a spectacular view! And your girlfriend always makes for cute photos. ;)

  2. You've really got my interest peaked for these trails. Great photos.

  3. Thanks Shonelle, Thanks Randy.

    It's a thigh burner! Certainly the easier road into the same country is via Agnew Meadows (I'd love to do a multiday and hit Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Island Pass, Donahue Pass, & Iceberg Lake via the meadows).

    This is what prompted my whole discussion topic last week though - I'm not sure I would have appreciated Agnew Pass quite like I did had we approached from the easier route.