During our fall trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, we spent two days hiking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Bordered by the Yosemite Wilderness to the north and the John Muir Wilderness to the southeast, the Ansel Adams protects 232,000 acres of imposing granite peaks, steep-walled gorges, sparkling lakes, and spectacular high alpine landscape spanning both sides of the Sierra Crest. Named after renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adam, the area includes approximately 350 miles of trails, including portions of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails.
During my research for our trip, I looked at the description for Parker Lake and quickly dismissed it. It looked too close to highway 395 and too short for our liking. But when some locals told us it was one of their favorite fall color hikes, we reconsidered.
Given its location off the scenic June Lake Loop and its relatively short length, Parker Lake is a popular destination. Add in visiting during peak fall colors and you are going to have a busy day on the trail. We started our hike early, which I highly recommend. There were only a few cars at the trailhead and we only passed a couple people on our hike in. Contrast that with our hike out where we passed a steady stream of hikers and returned to a completely full trailhead.
The trail began at the bottom of a sagebrush covered hillside giving little hint of the beauty ahead. We climbed quickly over the first half mile. It was surprisingly steep at times with grades close to 30%. At around 8,000′ elevation, you might find yourself stopping to catch your breath. That is a great opportunity to turn around and check out the fantastic view of Mono Lake in the distance.
The scenery quickly changed as we gained elevation and soon we found ourselves in a pine and aspen forest.
We reached Parker Lake at just shy of 2.0 miles. We enjoyed having the shoreline to ourselves and watching a couple of fly fisherman out on the lake. It was a calm morning and the reflection of the mountains and fall colors was stunning.
Directions to trailhead: from Lee Vining, drive five miles south on US-395. Turn right onto June Lakes Loop and continue 1.3 miles to Parker Lake Road. Turn right and follow this gravel road 1.9 miles to a fork in the road. Turn to the left and continue 0.6 miles to the trailhead at the end of the road. The gravel roads in were washboard and dusty, but were suitable for any car during the time of our visit.
Shadow & Ediza Lakes
One of my favorite hikes during our time in the Sierras was also our longest. At 13.7 miles with 1,700 feet elevation gain, our day up to Shadow and Ediza Lakes was a long one, but it was worth every step.
Ediza Lake has a reputation as one of the most beautiful lakes in the Ritter Range and it certainly is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes we have seen. From its shore rise the toothy spires of the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. This jagged ridge of peaks is considered to be the one of the most spectacular massifs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The hike to Ediza is long, but highly scenic for the majority of its course crossing the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, climbing alongside pretty waterfalls and cascades along Shadow Creek, and passing beautiful Shadow Lake. As an added bonus, we saw three black bear over the course of the day!
We began our hike at the second trailhead parking area at Agnew Meadows. We began by hiking a shared stretch with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and quickly entered the Ansel Adams Wilderness. This first part was easy hiking and not much for views as we gently descended through the forest. Soon enough, we found ourselves descending a cliffside trail on our way to the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. There were some nice views and I stopped for a few photos…but I felt like I was missing something. It took a moment before I realized that a black bear had been sitting silently in a berry patch in my last photo. Once he realized we posed no threat, he went back to eating and we delighted in watching him for a few moments before continuing down the trail.
At 2.3 miles, we passed Olaine Lake. We enjoyed some yellow aspens over the next half mile and up to the crossing of the Middle Fork on an excellent footbridge.
Immediately after the river crossing, we began a moderate and prolonged climb up granite steps and along cliffs to Shadow Lake. Climbing through the junipers and pines, we found ourselves paralleling above Shadow Creek. Near the top of the climb, the creek formed a series of scenic waterfalls cascading down granite clefts. This stretch of trail was as spectacular as any I’ve seen and I could have sat there all day. I took a brief pause to soak in the beauty and catch my breath, then we continued on.
After climbing close to 700 feet in just under a mile, the trail passed through a gap between the creek and the cliffs and we suddenly found ourselves at beautiful Shadow Lake with Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak towering along the skyline. At 4.0 miles from the trailhead, this makes a worth day hike all on its own, but we had loftier goals. We enjoyed a snack here and continued on.
The trail continued along the northern shore of Shadow Lake for about half a mile. Granite cliffs towered above us with yellow aspens adding color to the scene. Just beyond the end of the lake, we joined the John Muir Trail (JMT) for a half mile stretch.
Between Shadow and Ediza, the trail made a relatively gradual, but near constant climb. Granite cliffs continued to tower above us and Shadow Creek was constantly presenting us with waterfalls and pretty cascades.
We crossed Shadow Creek on a log bridge at 6.5 miles and made a final climb on switchbacks to traverse around a massive granite knoll before finally arriving at Ediza Lake (elevation 9,265 feet) at 6.7 miles from the trailhead. Views were as spectacular as we’ve seen with Banner Peak and Mount Ritter towering above the northwest end and the jagged spires of the Minarets at the southwest end.
Our return hike was relatively long and uneventful until we crossed back over the San Joaquin. “Oof”, we had that long climb back up to the top ahead of us. It wasn’t a particularly steep climb, but it isn’t what you want to see after 12 miles on a warm fall afternoon. We filtered extra water out of the San Joaquin and dug in for the climb. The climb went well enough and we had a huge reward at the top—I glanced up to see a black bear face staring at me from behind a tree. As it backed up to hide from us, its butt poked out the opposite side. Just as I was about to saw “awww”, I glanced over and saw a cub a few trees past mom… Mom clearly did not want trouble with us and we did not want to cause her distress. We immediately continued on, delighted that we had seen three bear in one day!
We ended our spectacular day with a meal at the Mammoth Brewing Company in Mammoth Lakes. The food was standard fare for a brewery, but it tasted exceptionally good after nearly 14 miles of hiking at high elevation.
Logistics & directions: if you want to hike to Shadow and Ediza Lakes, odds are good you’ll have to take the mandatory Reds Meadow/Devil’s Postpile Shuttle to the trailhead at Agnew Meadows. The shuttle typically runs from around mid-June to mid-September. We lucked out and visited after the shuttle had ceased operations and shortly before the road closed for the season. When planning your trip, be sure to click here for schedule, rates, etc. If you luck out and avoid the shuttle, drive through the town of Mammoth Lakes on Highway 203 and turn right onto Minaret Road. Follow Minaret Road for 5.8 miles to the pay station for Devils Postpile National Monument. Pay the fee and then drive down narrow and winding Postpile Road for 2.7 miles. Turn right on the Agnew Meadows Road and follow the dirt road for 0.4 miles to the second trailhead parking lot.
The Adventure Continues
Please join us for our next post as we continue our Sierra Nevada adventures in the John Muir Wilderness. And don’t forget to check out our Amazon RV and Adventure Gear recommendations. We only post products that we use and that meet the Evans Outdoor Adventures seal of approval. By accessing Amazon through our links and making any purchase (even things as simple as toothpaste!), you get Amazon’s every day low pricing and they share a little with us. This helps us maintain this website and is much appreciated!