Mount Ritter in Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Mount Ritter in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Ansel Adams Wilderness is home to one of the most scenic sections of the John Muir and Pacific Coast Trails and some of the most beautiful and cherished high country in California. The highlight of this paradise, which is sandwiched between Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite National Park, is the spectacular Ritter Range. The Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak are some of the most striking mountains in the Sierra Nevada. There is so much to explore here — lakes, streams, glaciers, meadows and peaks. It’s easy to see why Ansel Adams, the master of landscape photography, fell in love with this landscape 100 years ago.

Welcome to the High Country

The Minarets in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

The Minarets are a tall ridge of jagged spires that harbor glaciers in their shadows. You can spot them driving up 395 North after you climb the grade from Bishop. They’re a site to see on the horizon, especially at sunset — certainly one of the more distinct mountains in the Sierra Nevada. At their base lays a series of lakes containing beautiful trout. Ansel Adams Wilderness was actually called Minaret Wilderness until it was renamed after Ansel Adams’ death in 1984.

Shadow Creek in Ansel Adams Wilderness.
A dead tree in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

A lot of hikers power through Ansel Adams Wilderness on the JMT or PCT, but the Shadow Creek Trail, which juts off a little after Shadow Lake, should not be missed. It follows Shadow Creek, which is full of hungry brook trout, to Ediza Lake then continues on to Iceberg Lake.

A dead tree near Cabin Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Morning light on a dead tree near Cabin Lake, which is about three-quarters of a mile off trail via a steep route that’s well marked with cairns. It’s a pretty little lake where you’re unlikely to see another soul. 

Iceberg Lake

Whitebark pine, Ansel Adams Wilderness near Iceberg Lake.
Fishing Iceberg Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness.
A brook trout from Iceberg Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Iceberg lake is one of the most inspiring spots in Ansel Adams Wilderness. Many backpackers crowd the northwest shore of Ediza Lake to camp, but for whatever reason, few make the climb to spend the night at this gem. Situated at the base of the Minarets and fed by glaciers, Iceberg Lake is surrounded by some of the most dramatic terrain in the High Sierra. The fishing is spectacular and there are many cozy campsites to choose from. At night, you’ll fall asleep to the sound of wind whipping through the granite spires above. Don’t worry — most of the campsites here include solid wind breaks. 

Boulder, Iceberg Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Morning, Iceberg Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness.

There’s plenty of room to scramble up the hillsides on the northeast side of the lake, including some great spots to sit and watch light crawl across the mountains. 

Moonrise, Ansel Adams Wilderness.

A waxing crescent moon rises in the direction of Cecile Lake. 

Mount Ritter, Ansel Adams Wilderness.

That’s the southeast face of Mount Ritter beyond the tree to the right. At 12,936 feet, it’s the highest peak in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Garnet Lake

Banner Peak at sunrise from Garnet Lake.

Garnet Lake is enormous, beautiful, and a good spot for soaking up views of Banner Peak  (12,864 feet) and Mount Ritter. Be prepared for a crowd, though. This is a popular stop on the John Muir Trail. The brook trout and rainbow trout here seem to match the size of the lake and are much bigger than the fish in Iceberg Lake.

Banner Peak at sunset from Garnet Lake

Rays of sunlight slice through the gap between Mount Ritter (left) and Banner Peak. At more than a mile long, Garnet Lake is enormous for a High Sierra lake. Even with the crowds, there is plenty of ground to explore and opportunities for solitude if you’re willing to seek them out. 

Thousand Island Lake

Moonlight on Thousand Island Lake.

Moonlight reflects off Thousand Island Lake at the base of Banner Peak. 

The north face of Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake

The miracle of this photo is that there is not a person or tent visible. Thousand Island Lake, which is even bigger than Garnet Lake, sits along the John Muir and Pacific Coast Trails, so it’s become a thru-hiker hostel. There are tents and campsites everywhere, though that’s not to say you wont’ find privacy if you go off looking for it hard enough. The fish here are as big as the ones in Garnet Lake. All the people aside, this is a stunning spot, especially when you come over the ridge on the JMT — one of the most dramatic and beautiful bodies of water in the Sierra Nevada.

Know
Before
You Go

Because the JMT and PCT run through Ansel Adams Wilderness, this area sees a lot of use from backpackers, especially around Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes. Please follow The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace during your visit.

  • Permits are required for overnight stays in Ansel Adams Wilderness, which is in Inyo National Forest. Use this link to find info on the permit relevant to you.
  • There are many camping restrictions in Ansel Adams Wilderness that you should understand before hitting the trail. No camping at Shadow Lake. No camping between the trail and Shadow Creek. You can only camp on the southwest side of Ediza Lake. No camping within a quarter mile of the outlets at Garnet or Thousand Island Lakes. This JMT handout from the Forest Service has some good info.
  • There are also some new restrictions (circa 2020) in place banning wood campfires throughout most of the wilderness. Don’t plan on having a campfire up here. 
  • Dogs are allowed in Ansel Adams Wilderness, but they cannot travel into neighboring Yosemite National Park.
  • This is the high country and the weather in Ansel Adams Wilderness can change drastically any time of year. Come prepared with the proper layers.
  • To access the primary trailhead out of Agnew Meadows, you’ll need to park at the Main Lodge in Mammoth and take a shuttle since the road to Red’s Meadow is usually closed to vehicle traffic in the summer. However, in 2020 the shuttle is not running due to the coronavirus. You either need to grab a spot at the trailhead or park in an overflow or at the Main Lodge and hike to the trailhead.

Know Before You Go

Because the JMT and PCT run through Ansel Adams Wilderness, this area sees a lot of use from backpackers, especially around Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes. Please follow The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace during your visit.

  • Permits are required for overnight stays in Ansel Adams Wilderness, which is in Inyo National Forest. Use this link to find info on the permit relevant to you.
  • There are many camping restrictions in Ansel Adams Wilderness that you should understand before hitting the trail. No camping at Shadow Lake. No camping between the trail and Shadow Creek. You can only camp on the southwest side of Ediza Lake. No camping within a quarter mile of the outlets at Garnet or Thousand Island Lakes. This JMT handout from the Forest Service has some good info.
  • There are also some new restrictions (circa 2020) in place banning wood campfires throughout most of the wilderness. Don’t plan on having a campfire up here.
  • Dogs are allowed in Ansel Adams Wilderness, but they cannot travel into neighboring Yosemite National Park.
  • This is the high country and the weather in Ansel Adams Wilderness can change drastically any time of year. Come prepared with the proper layers.
  • To access the primary trailhead out of Agnew Meadows, you’ll need to park at the Main Lodge in Mammoth and take a shuttle since the road to Red’s Meadow is usually closed to vehicle traffic in the summer. However, in 2020 the shuttle is not running due to the coronavirus. You either need to grab a spot at the trailhead or park in an overflow or at the Main Lodge and hike to the trailhead.

Directions to Ansel Adams Wilderness

The best way to access Ansel Adams Wilderness is out of Agnew Meadows on either The River Trail or The Shadow Creek Trail. Just head to Mammoth Lakes via US 395 and CA 203, following Postpile Road until you see signs for the Agnew Meadows Campground and Trailhead.

Related Organizations

The JMT Wilderness Conservancy

The JMT Wilderness Conservancy is dedicated to the conservation of the John Muir Trail for people to enjoy for the centuries to come by caring for the wilderness, wildlife and waters along its path in the high Sierra Nevada of California.

Eastern Sierra Land Trust

Eastern Sierra Land Trust works with willing landowners to protect vital lands in the Eastern Sierra region for their scenic, agricultural, natural, recreational, historical, and watershed values. By partnering with forward-thinking landowners, agencies, and conservation supporters, they work with their community to conserve the Eastern Sierra for the future.

Pacific Crest Trail Association

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.

The Wilderness Society

The mission of the Wilderness Society is uniting people to protect America’s wild places.