|Mt. Ritter (left, a bit further back) and Banner Peak (in the foreground and therefore looking taller) tower over Garnet Lake|
Our friend John Zaller recommended a backpacking trip to the Minarets, a series of jagged peaks in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The Minarets (about a dozen with individual names) are part of the Ritter range; Mt Ritter and Banner Peak are the two main mountains. The John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails weave around the many lakes at the foot of the range. We camped at Badger Lake, and also passed Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Shadow Lake, Ruby Lake, Emerald Lake, and a bunch of smaller lakes.
|On Starkweather Trail with Minarets in the distance. Riding trails around Mammoth was previously the closest I got to those mountains.|
The Minarets were named in the 1860s by the California Geographic Survey. Only their family name was bestowed by the California Geographic Survey, their (unofficial) individual first names came much later. Mount Ritter, the main mountain of the range, was named at the same time and before there was any known climbing (John Muir takes credit for the first known ascent).
We visited our daughter Anya in Davis over the weekend and the backpacking trip added only 150 miles of driving, a small price. Backcountry permits can be hard to obtain because it is a hugely popular area, but I got permits for a Monday start on the High Trail/Pacific Crest Trail. Our trailhead was at Agnews Meadows, which is on the road to the Devil's Postpile National Monument (huge tourist attraction) and therefore requires taking a shuttle bus. We were on the trail (PCT going north) at 4 pm.
|On the High Trail/PCT, Minarets in the hazy distance|
There are big wildfires and air quality can be very poor. Over the weekend, it was in the unhealthy range in both Davis and Mammoth, but it had improved to moderate by the time we started. The afternoon still had some haze, but it cleared completely overnight and air quality remained very good.
|On the High Trail|
The Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails are extremely popular. They are polished with signs at every intersection that make it hard to get lost. By 7pm, Kathy was getting very tired and when a sign pointed to Clark Lakes uphill and 1000 Island Lake still an hour away, she suggested going to Agnew Meadows because that sounded promising and it seemed to be downhill. Not remembering where we had started 3 hours earlier is a sign that it was time to stop.
|Agnew Meadows would have been the one wrong choice out of those 3|
She had to stumble on a little longer, but not much. Badger Lake was close and enough off the PCT to be empty (whereas 1000 Islands is always busy). We made camp at sunset. There are several Badger Lakes, maybe 5, but only one is of a reasonable size, the others are more like ponds.
|Badger Lake at sunset|
|and at sunrise|
It was a lovely evening and despite being absolutely still, there were no mosquitoes or other flying insects. We didn't even unpack the tent. The haze had cleared, there was no moon and an amazing night sky with many shooting stars. Badger lake is a little over 2900 m.
|On the PCT heading towards 1000 Islands Lake|
Maybe because of the late start yesterday afternoon, we had not seen anybody since a large animal pack train (15 horses/mules) coming the opposite way during the first hour. But this morning, we encountered the first ranger ready to direct traffic before 10am. Nobody has ever wanted to check my permits, but this day our permits were scrutinized twice (and verified that we haven't gotten lost yet and also reminded about backcountry rules).
Now we are at the foot of the mountain range and 1000 Islands Lake (and the others) are spectacular. At 3000 m, the vegetation is fragile because nature's metabolism slows down. 1000 Islands Lake along the John Muir trail might be more appropriately named 1000 Hikers Lake and regulations are needed to keep the area reasonably healthy. So there are many signs on where not to camp and it generally is a better idea to look for places not directly along the JMT or PCT.
Here is the beginning of the San Joaquin river: The outlet of 1000 Islands becomes the middle (and main) fork of the San Joaquin. The north fork starts near Mt Lyell and a short south fork in Kings Canyon.
|The outlet of 1000 Island Lake becomes the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin|
The San Joaquin is an amazing river, almost 600 km long. It originates on the Eastern side of the Sierra and for 150km is a rocky mountain stream with a steep gradient and many waterfalls. Yet somehow it manages to get across the Sierra Nevada to meander for 400 km through the Central Valley from Fresno to Stockton. Most of the water is used for agriculture and by the end only a heavily polluted trickle is left to join the Sacramento river and eventually flow through Suisun and San Francisco Bay into the Pacific.
|Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. Ritter, on the left, is a little over 4000m and Banner a little under 4000m. But the perspective makes Ritter look smaller. Garnet Lake in the foreground|
|Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak again|
Mount Ritter is king of the mountains of the middle portion of the High Sierra, as Shasta of the north and Whitney of the south sections. Moreover, as far as I know, it had never been climbed.
Muir, John. The Complete Works of John Muir: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies & Letters (p. 211). Madison & Adams Press.
|Crossing the outlet of Garnet Lake. The trails are very manicured.|
The descent to Shadow Creek/Lake surprised us. It seemed long and hard and we didn't think we had climbed up that much. It was interrupted by another permit check by a backcountry ranger and by many hikers coming the opposite way and asking "are we almost there yet?".
Looking southward along the axis of the range, the eye is first caught by a row of exceedingly sharp and slender spires, which rise openly to a height of about a thousand feet from a series of short glaciers that lean back against their bases, their fantastic sculpture and the unrelieved sharpness with which they spring out of the ice rendering them peculiarly wild and striking. These are the Minarets. Beyond them you behold the highest mountains of the range, their snowy summits crowded together in lavish abundance, peak beyond peak, aspiring higher, and higher as they sweep on southward.
Muir, John. The Complete Works of John Muir: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies & Letters (p. 19). Madison & Adams Press.
Roughly the same view, but Muir must have looked from a higher elevation to see the peaks behind them, from Ritter rather than from the John Muir Trail. Of course, there was no John Muir Trail then and its construction started in 1915, the year after John Muir died. Maybe there was no trail at all: Trails start for utilitarian purposes, first by animals, then followed by humans, connecting grazing, hunting, and eventually trading areas. Primitive trails over Kearsarge or Mono Pass were known and surely many current hiking trails follow much older trading and hunting routes of the native Paiutes. But around here, there would be little practical use for animals nor people looking for them. Joe Nisbet LeConte, who became Muir's successor as Sierra Club president, pioneered a high route in 1908, roughly the modern JMT, and those efforts would be needed to create connections between traditional trails.
Joining Shadow Creek Trail, I had a tentative plan of maybe turning right/west going up Shadow Creek. Shadow Creek starts in the Minarets and then flows through Cecile/Iceberg/Ediza lakes. However, after Ediza, it is an unmaintained/no trail route along the Minarets and, from what I believe, partly along a glacier. This would be a slow scramble of a route, adding another day, and probably one I need to do on my own.
Shadow Creek and Shadow Lake are particularly pretty. Shadow Creek drops 1000 m over the short distance from its origin to the San Joaquin and therefore has many waterfalls.
|Shadow Lake, Mt Ritter in the back|
|Shadow Creek shortly before it joins the San Joaquin|
Even more descending after Shadow Lake and by now our knees had enough of that. Also, now it was in the afternoon, the sun was hot, and the temperature was rising the lower we got to river bed. Fortunately, the trail back to Agnew Meadows along the river was shady and that was very welcome. And a surprise at the river crossing: There actually are a few sequoias, the Sierra redwoods. Far from the western slopes where they are usually found! Just a few, not giant and not old (decades, not centuries), but also not where I expected any as it is outside their natural range.
Another 1000 years and it'll look more like this