Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Backpacking Ansel Adams Wilderness, Silver Lake to Clark Lakes

Banner Peak & Mt. Ritter above Clark Lake

The Ansel Adams Wilderness sits on roughly 250,000 acres of the high sierra stretching from Devils Postpile to Yosemite. No roads run through the wilderness and it is mostly accessed by backpackers. We set out over the Tioga Road, departing the Bay Area at 3am, reaching Lee Vining at 9am after a brief stop over in Yosemite. We started up the Rush Creek trail near Silver Lake. Our goal was to make it up to Thousand Island lake but climbing the mountain passes to get there took too much out of us so we made camp at one of the Clark lakes instead. The next day we would circle around Gem Lake after a brief visit to beautiful Agnew Pass.


From Lee Vining
Take Hwy 395 South towards Bishop for 6 miles
Right on CA-158 towards June Lake for 8.9 miles
Right into dirt parking lot (before the RV camp)

Day 1: Silver Lake to Clark Lakes

After a monster breakfast of pancakes, hashbrowns and eggs at Nicelys we left Lee Vining and hit the trail just after 10am. We began at a nice pace up the dusty trail, actually passing several day hikers, even with our heavy backpacks on. Right away the trail climbs steadily up, and up, and up. I assured Beylah, "don't worry, the trail does most of the climbing within the first three miles". Wrong. The only sections come after the hike tops out at 10,000ft on the doorstep of the first of the clark lakes.

Sunrise heading up Hwy 120 near the Old Priest Grade

For now though we were oblivious, and happy marching up the trail. About a mile and a half after leaving the trailhead we bumped into some old gravity car tracks (and high school kids running up them). The trail switches over the tracks once and then up a steep set of switchbacks carved right out of a granite wall. The trail then switches back over the tracks and on up for another half mile before reaching Agnew Lake, 2.2 miles and 1,200ft from the trailhead.

Agnew Lake is highly unimpressive, a man made lake it is part of a dam system which includes the much more lovely Gem Lake. Power lines, maintenance structures, and heavy equipment are scattered about both sides of the lake. Following the trail up and to the right would lead to Gem Lake, to the left, the much less trodden path leads more directly to the Clark Lakes through Spooky Meadow.

After refilling our water by the shore of Lake Agnew we staggered our way up the trail which was sketchy at best as it darted in and out of trees and over rocky sections. We managed to feel our way to the bottom of a huge talus slope on the shoulder of Carson Peak. 1,000ft tall the relatively short stretch of trail tops out at Spooky Meadow. I was nervous about rockfall as well, this being a talus field and all. We did our best to make good time but the steep trail left us little choice but to simply shuffle along, counting our steps as we went to pass the time quickly (my best was 1,100 consecutive steps).

Beylah Climbing up the pass to Spooky Meadow, Mono Lake in the distance.

The trail finally caps out in an idyllic meadow with a rushing creek lined with wildflowers and steep canyon walls on all sides. Honestly though, we were in no mood to enjoy the flowers, trees and other pleasant things. There was still climbing ahead, and another several miles past that to get to the lakes. The trail is flat for only a few hundred feet in Spooky Meadow before it starts to climb up the slope opposite Carson Peak.

The trail above Spooky Meadow

In the distance a steep red, brown, volcanic wall constantly looms above the trail. Fortunately our route would be going around it, and not over it. The lower meadow eventually leads to a high, more open meadow. The ascent was constant. The trail eventually starts to kick back though once the meadow sneaks out of sight and eventually, the volcanic soil starts to slope down for the first time.

Finally cresting the ridge, from here the trail starts to head down.

Just a couple steps into the descent we hit the first of the Clark Lakes. Very small and lined with reeds and swampy soil and tall grasses. The best campsite on the north end of the lake was already occupied so we continued along the trail. A huge deer was grazing on the opposite shore. Around the lake we passed the edge of the volcanic ridge and instantly the grandeur of the Ansel Adams wilderness was before us. Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter, which look like just one mountain from this angle, dominate the skyline.

Stormy skies over Mt. Ritter & Banner Peak

A short walk off the trail up to a ledge offers a great view of Gem Lake and the north end of the wilderness beyond. The wind had really picked up though, and storm clouds that had been threatening all afternoon were looking especially fierce in the mid-afternoon. When we approached the largest of the Clark lakes we started looking hard for a campsite. Two groups had established themselves RIGHT on the edge of the lake (I wanted to go over and yell at them, but thought better of it, or beylah talked me out of it rather).

Gem Lake from near the first Clark Lake.

At 4:30, roughly 6 hours after we left, after hiking only 5 and a half miles, we established camp on the shore of Clark Lake. We first pitched our tent on the top of a small rise with a great view of the lake but decided to move it to the back side, a little more out of the wind. The area had been heavily used by other campers and a bench and kitchen area was already set up. After pumping some fresh water we tossed a couple Guinesses in the lake to chill (oh yeah, we brought beer!) and started the stove to make some freeze dried mac and cheese.

The trail down to the the largest of the Clark Lakes, plenty of good camp sites here.

We put off lunch earlier in the day and were now ravenous, before the mac and cheese could even cook we devoured some burritos we had set aside for lunch. After dinner I walked out to the lake and set up to photograph the sunset which was fairly weak. It had the light purple tones of a dying sunset so I hiked back to the camp and curled up for the night and got ready to read. Not 5 minutes after I did so I noticed out of the small plastic window in our rain fly that the whole sky was a brilliant red. I snuck my head out and found the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen. I raced down to the lake in my underwear and bare feet, stepping on sharp volcanic rocks and pine cones along the way to take photos. At first I handheld, then ran back to camp to grab my tripod as well and continued shooting. As the sunset began to fade a couple minutes later I finally walked back to the tent wondering what kind of great shots I could have had if I had prepared a bit more.

Sunset on the shore of Clark Lake.

Just as a snuck my head into the tent it started to rain a little and the wind picked up dramatically. I started re-reading Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" and drifted off soon after. I woke up repeatedly throughout the night as the tent shook in the wind. The first couple of times I found Beylah still awake, engrossed in her book "Eat, Pray, Love" (now a movie). She tried to read me passages a couple times but I fell asleep. In spite of the wind, and my air mattress deflating in the night (somehow I rolled over and opened up the valve with my arm) I slept well. I would need the rest as the next day we would add several miles on to our hike, and cover plenty of new ground including Agnew Pass, Summit Lake and Gem Lake.

Day 2: Agnew Pass & Gem Lake


  1. Good gods man, GORGEOUS photos in this post!

  2. Looks like an amazing trip. Can't wait to see the rest.