A Field Guide to Overnight Adventure in Ansel Adams Wilderness
Essential gear, dos & don'ts, and film photography from one of California's most stunning, yet overlooked, landscapes
A one-time favorite of renowned naturalist John Muir and oft-cited inspiration for photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams, the aptly named Ansel Adams Wilderness is home to one of California's more stunning landscapes. Dotted with sparkling lakes and granite peaks, the area offers many dramatic take on the spectacular high alpine landscape nestled between Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Lakes.
Inspired to escape the city and spend a night under the stars my brother and I weighed the many options and decided to make the trek to Garnet Lake, a serene, blue paradise set in the shadow of the 13,000-foot mass of Banner Peak and framed by ridges of granite and lodgepole pines.
So, we threw our packs in the car, made the drive down from Sacramento and spent the night in the bed of my brother's pickup as visions of the Sierra backcountry danced in our heads. The next morning, we woke early, narrowly snagged the last two trail permits for the day, and headed up to Mammoth Mountain Resort.
From there, most visitors looking to get into the backcountry—ourselves included—take a (very crowded) shuttle to the Agnew Meadows Trailhead which offers easy access to some of the most beautiful scenery in the Sierra, and an easy approach to some of the range's most revered peaks.
"The Sierra always seems to offer a strenuous approach as 'price of admission' to the natural beauty the backcountry has to offer."
In my experience, the Sierra always seems to offer a strenuous approach as “price of admission” to the natural beauty the backcountry has to offer. It’s a relationship that demands your best effort and your utmost respect in return for a brief escape from an over-connected society driven by ego and uncompassionate capitalism.
After eight or nine miles of steep switchbacks and rocky terrain, we reached the lake with morale high, thanks to large handfuls of sugar-filled Swedish Fish and distracting views of endless granite peaks.
As we settled on our choice plot of land to set up camp, it seemed we were transported straight into an Ansel Adams photograph. The two stars of the show, Banner Peak and Ritter Peak towered over the landscape with their snow spotted peaks reaching for the clouds.
We awoke with the sun the following morning to get an early start on the hike out, still full from a classic camp dinner of rice and beans the night prior. This day of trekking was easier, as most of the trail back you are hiking downhill, but also wistful, as you are descending back into the monotony of daily life.
The truth is, the end of any trip to the wilderness is a mixed bag of emotions—I enjoy the gratifying feeling of a brief symbiosis with Mother Nature yet yearn to not be held by schedules or standards, to be free to go and never return. Because, to me, being free to go is invaluable.
5 Gear Essentials for Backpacking in Ansel Adams Wilderness
REI Co-op Magma 30 Sleeping Bag, $320
A Lightweight bag boasting an impressive water-resistant 850 fill goose down will keep you warm even if the Sierra challenges you with an unexpected thunderstorm.
Black Diamond Trail Trekking Poles, $130
A large majority of the trek up to Garnet Lake is steep with relatively rocky terrain. Your lungs will appreciate a set of supportive trekking poles to help pull yourself up this trail and others like it.
GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Soloist II Cook Set,$50
A self-containing cookset perfect for any backcountry meal. Kittredge Sports, in Mammoth Lakes, opens early and has many propane options if you happen to forget fuel. BYOStove.
Sunday Afternoons Adventre Hat, $42
A stylish alternative to applying face sunscreen. This full brimmed hat is perfect for keeping the hot California sun off your face while camping at nearly 9,000 feet.
Ben's 100 Max Deet Tick & Insect Repellent, $6
A high DEET insect repellent I wish I used more of. You’ll be very happy to have this on a warm summer evening while camping next to the lake. Trust me.
10 Do's & Don’ts for Backpacking Ansel Adams Wilderness
DO get your free backcountry permit for the River Trail at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center the day BEFORE you intend to start your hike, as we got ours the same day and just barley snagged the last permit.
DON'T forget a map of the Agnew Meadows Area Trails as there are many splits in the trail and the signs were confusing for someone not familiar with the area.
DO get to the shuttle in the early morning. The later shuttles are very busy and make for an uncomfortable ride to the trailhead.
DON'T set up camp on the initial side of Garnet Lake—instead, walk across the wooden bridge and set up on one of the many flat spots on the far side with superior views.
DO bring a comfortable, yet lightweight pair of camp shoes for when you arrive at Garnet Lake. My recommendation is something similar to the Teva Original Universal Urban Sandals, as they are comfy, lightweight, and easy to hang off your pack while hiking.
DON'T forget to bring long sleeves and pants even if the weather is favorable. The mosquitoes will have a field day on any exposed skin.
DO remember to buy or rent a bear canister. They are required for the Ansel Adams Wilderness and can be rented at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center.
DON'T fail to remember a good book to read once you have set up camp. Your favorite paperback after a hard day on the trail is truly hard to beat.
DO bring along a map or download an application to help identify the many peaks you will be seeing along your trek. My personal choice is PeakFinder App, which uses GPS to generate a 360-degree elevation model of all peaks. No internet connection needed.
DON'T sleep past sunrise! First light on Banner and Ritter Peak is unreal.