Ansel Adams Wilderness
I was asked many questions on social media about my solo backpack trip into the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and hope this summary answers them.
The area where I backpacked is west of Mammoth Lakes, California, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Most of it is not on, or near the Pacific Crest Trail, or John Muir Trail. This cuts down on foot traffic. Looking at the map below, the green line is the PCT. The red is the JMT. The yellow is where I went, in a counter clockwise manner (almost all on trails).
Here is the upper lakes section. The red dotted line is where there is no established trail. Parts of this are a boot beaten path. Some of it on snow, and some of it boulder hopping.
This was my third trip into this area. The first time was back in the late 1980s when I saw a photo taken by Colorado photographer John Fielder of the Minarets that piqued my interest. My father wasn’t a backpacker, but he camped and was a fly fisherman, and had a good general idea where this was. Like myself, Fielder liked and wrote poetry, and here’s a poem and photo of the Minarets from a book of his.
The upper lakes area was remote when I first went. Now, in the summer this entire area is fairly crowded, with a shuttle bus leading to trailheads. I am lucky in that the heavy 2023 winter made this trip in September feel like July.
I had a feeling before I even got here this could be the last time in my life I visit some of these places, specifically Cecile Lake, and perhaps Iceberg Lake. Not that I’m suffering from some terminal illness with weeks to live, it’s just that this is not an easy area to visit. I did a LOT of hiking this spring and summer to prepare, which helped.
At no real point were my legs very sore. I felt the altitude, but was never physically exhausted. My feet never hurt either. But I went slower than years gone by. I’ve lost a little physical strength or power in the last few years too, and a sliver of agility, with middle age caching up to me. I noticed this on that awful traverse from Iceberg to Cecile Lakes, and the boulder hopping along Cecile. I’m not nimble like someone 38 years old, let alone 18. Pushing my body up and over large boulders carrying a full backpack was demanding.
Star Trails over Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake. Shot on film back in 1996
My “camera” on this trip was merely an iPhone SE2, that’s it. I’m hoping this at least somewhat proves two things: The old saying that “it’s the carpenter, not the tools”. Also that this area is spectacular, with any camera. I have been around photography a long, long time, and do have expert level skills in Photoshop, but for the most part, all the photos are as taken. The area is beautiful enough on it’s own.
If you are determined to get to Cecile Lake, I strongly suggest you simply go from Minaret Lake, up and back. The traverse from Iceberg to Cecile was truly awful. As I mentioned before, I never felt in danger, but a few years back at least one person was killed there sliding down the snow, ice and rocks into Iceberg Lake, and at least one more person was badly hurt. I fell over in the snow more than once, and slid some on the snow, not a dangerous amount, but it was a bit disquieting. This was my third time on the traverse, and will very likely be my last.
If you wish to just visit, one can get to Ediza lake in a moderately long 12.5 mile (round trip) day hike. If you can get a permit, backpacking to Ediza, then doing day hikes around there, and to Iceberg Lake, would be a fantastic trip. Be ready for crowds in the summer, even mid-week.
There are high lakes just north of Ediza I had hoped to visit named Nydiver Lakes, but they will have to wait for a future trip.
There are two more “difficult” backcountry backpack trips I want to take before I’m too damn old (though I saw a man who was 76 at Thousand Island Lake, with a group). One is south of this area, to a place called Granite Park, and beyond over Italy Pass into another section deep in the Sierras. The other area is Evolution Basin, even further south. A friend and superb nature photographer from Oregon, John McMurray, said this was his favorite spot in the Sierras, and the pictures from anyone you see online hardly do it justice.
Yes, I like solo backpacking, to remote areas. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I understand the risk. No I didn’t take a Garmin GPS unit (maybe in the future, or the new iPhone with satellite SOS, if I can afford either). Yes, I tell people where I am going, get permits, and check with rangers. Yes, I have outstanding orienteering and directional skills, I’m not going to be modest about this. Yes, it gets lonesome, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to the spirit. Yes, waking up at 5:30 in the morning when its 29 degrees out and barely light is tough. Warm up your pants in your sleeping bag, sit up, put the down jacket on, put your feet in your cold shoes (this sucks, but they warm up before you know it), and get moving! It’s worth it.
My backpack is an Osprey Atmos 50. The size of the pack really pushes a 5 day trip, but I’m good at this and made it work.
I took a chair. An REI Flexlite Air, at 1lb. I was 50/50 on taking it until the last moment. I’m mostly glad I did.
My shoes were Hoka Kaha 2. These are shoes, not boots. But they are crazy comfortable, have a Vibram sole, and are Gore-Tex. Hiking shoes have come so far in the last decade, unless you have bad ankles, boots are for snow and winter, or climbing.
Every pair of socks I wore worked fine. Darn Tough, Smartwool, or Wrightsocks. I tried liners one day with the Darn Tough. Maybe it’s my feet that are tough, as I had zero problems.
My pants were Kuhl Deceptor. I have hiking pants by Prana, REI, even Arc’teryx. All are good. The Kuhl are the best overall, and I was very happy with them.
My main top was a Smartwool t-shirt, and when cold, a Smartwool Intraknit top, which is just incredible. Buy one, give everything else to Goodwill.
I took two pairs of underwear. A 3rd might have been a good idea. That’s all I’m going to say on this topic!
My sleeping bag was a Therm-a-rest Parsec 0, and I was on a Therm-a-Rest Neoair Pad. I was plenty warm. I ran into two people using closed-cell (no air) foam pads, and 15 degree bags, and both had cold nights. My tent is an MSR Hubba Hubba 2. I’ve had a few problems with this tent, but love everything about it.
Everyone takes too much food. Knowing this, I left thinking I barely had enough, and was worried I’d run out on my last day. When I was finished I had 2 energy bars, and several handfuls of trail mix left. So even knowing what I did, I still took a little too much.
I filtered water with a Katadyn BeFree (Tactile). Worked great, over and over. I cooked on a Jetboil Stash, which also worked great.
I took a bear canister. I saw one set of faint bear prints (another hiker pointed it out) in a quiet area, that’s it. I am okay with the canister, but am a believer in Urasack Bear Bags, and using odor bags or doubled up freezer bags, plus keeping all of it as clean as possible to cut down on scent. That last part is key in my opinion. I’ve also found bears are the least nuisance when it comes to food. Squirrels, chipmunks, ravens, field mice, they like to get into anything and everything when you aren’t looking, and will chew right through your backpack or tent. But they can’t chew through the Ursack bag.
I mostly camped before, and after this trip, sleeping in my car. It was two days after my backpack adventure before I finally stayed in a cheap motel in Carson City. Next trip I’m going budget in motels the night before, and first night after. I was really grimy, and it sucked. But this trip I couldn’t afford even that. But you know what, I made out just fine in the end.