Backpacking the High Sierras Above Mammoth Lakes

Above Mammoth Lakes, California among some of the most remarkable landscapes in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, the high altitude lakes and magnificent peaks of the Ansel Adams wilderness are a backpacker’s dream. 

With easy access and a well-traveled trail system, you can hook up with sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail that are among the most pristine hiking routes in the country. John Muir himself called the crowned jewel of the area, towering 13,150-foot Mt. Ritter, the “noblest mountain of the Sierra.” The intrepid adventurer who made this region famous is said to have made the first ascent of the craggy peak in October 1872. 

To experience this area is not difficult, but it does take some planning as there are a limited number of reserved permits that are granted. The park service allows just 12 reserved permits and eight walk-up visitors to each section of the trail, and you must register beforehand at the ranger station. A bear container or UR bag is also required for backcountry travel. 

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There are a few standard routes in this area that follow either the PCT or the John Muir Trail, but if you really want to have some privacy, try venturing further up into the higher lakes like Ediza Lake and exploring the old Minaret Mine.

A popular loop for covering this area is the 22-mile Thousand Island Lake Loop, which leaves out of Agnew Meadow on the High Trail (a section of the PCT) toward Thousand Island Lake. Here you’ll find a pristine mountain lake with dozens of lakes, probably not really 1,000. Even if there are lots of campers, you’re sure to find a private spot. From here you can hike back along the John Muir Trail, deterring up to Lake Ediza to camp for the second or third night before returning along the Shadow Lake trail.

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For the more adventurous type you can use this area as a jumping off point to hike clear into Yellowstone National Park. Just continue toward the north along the PCT until you enter the land of ancient glaciers.

To visit this area you also have to take a shuttle bus and park your car at the Mammoth Mountain ski area. The shuttle costs $7 round-trip and you cannot leave any food in your car unless you want it clawed by a bear. Black bears in this area are numerous though generally harmless to campers as long as you maintain proper bear safe practices.