Backpacking Thousand Island Lake Loop in Ansel Adams Wilderness

MILES: 23.73 miles
TIME: 3 days / 2 nights
DATE I WENT: 7/21/18 - 7/23/18 
DIFFICULTY: moderate backpacking trip
HIKE PERMIT: yes for overnight camping, no for day hike
LOCATION: Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra
Backpacking Thousand Island Lake Loop in Ansel Adams Wilderness

Gear I Used to hike and camp to Thousand Island Lake

DAY 1: 7.35 miles | 2:13 pm – 6:15 pm | Agnew Meadow Trailhead to Shadow Lake to Ediza Lake
DAY 2: 7.88 miles | 9:08 am – 2:27 pm | Ediza Lake to Garnet Lake to Thousand Island Lake
DAY 3: 8.5 miles | 9:42 am – 2:02 pm | Thousand Island Lake to Agnew Meadow Trailhead

Thousand Island Lake Loop in Ansel Adams Wilderness in Mammoth Lakes is a trail I’ve been wanting to do for over two years but I just never got around to it. I was stoked when I found permits for the weekend last minute so I messaged an Instagram friend (who I had never met before) on Wednesday, booked the permits, and we were on the trail by Saturday. I didn’t check the weather forecast beforehand like I usually do… I was just so excited that I forgot, but it was forecasted to thunderstorm all weekend so this turned out to be the summer I experienced my first thunderstorm in the mountains.

The hike took us exactly 48 hours total, not that we planned it that way… but we started at 2 pm on Sat and finished at 2 pm on Mon. We did a 2-night backpacking loop, but there is a shorter direct trail (River Trail)  for those of you who just want to day hike to Thousand Island Lake.

Thousand Island Lake Loop: Full Hike Report

DAY 1: Hike Mammoth Lakes Shuttle to Ediza Lake

agnew meadows trail map

Vanessa picked me up early at 5 am. We had a late start to our day and made it to the Mammoth shuttle at 1:45 pm (costs $8/ day pass in 2018 – keep it for your ride back), got off on the first shuttle stop in Agnew Meadows to start the trail by 2:13 pm.

We started the loop clockwise from Agnew Meadows on the Shadow Lake Trail which starts on the same trail as the River Trail & PCT, but this one allows access to camp at Ediza Lake. We went in the middle of July which was also the peak of wildflowers season – it was lush green with beautiful flowers everywhere… almost like a dream! 

The trail starts very flat and one thing I remember about the beginning part of Ansel Adams Wilderness was that there were a lot of rocks on the trail and I wish I wore my Adidas Terrex hiking boots instead of my light, versatile hiking shoes.

The first leg of the trail follows along Shadow Creek all the way up to Shadow Lake and Ediza Lake. Around 2 miles in, we walked past a small lake which I believe to be Olaine Lake (judging from my tracker) and the trail did start to ascend a little bit after this when the switchbacks start. At 2.43 miles, we reached the junction where Shadow Trail and River Trail split and we continued towards Shadow Lake to reach our destination for the night – Ediza Lake.

There are a few switchbacks after this, along with some elevation gain, but the view opens up towards the south and you can see how high you’ve come from the valley floor, so don’t forget to take in the view.

When you start to see the waterfall, you’ll be close to Shadow Lake as it is right behind it – if you’re doing the same loop as me, remember this waterfall as you’ll see it on your last day hiking out from across the High Trail/ PCT. It’s always cool to see where you came from. We got to the waterfall by 3:45 pm and took a 30 min lunch break here as well as filtered water (I do remember having one bar of cell service for AT&T here and there’s spotty reception along this entire loop, for those of you who don’t want to fully disconnect).

Shadow Lake was just on the other side of this but the large boulders, and close-distance, fast-flowing water source made this a better lunch spot.

At 5:04 pm, about 5.2 miles from the start, we reached the Garnet Lake/ Ediza Lake junction from the Shadow Lake trail. You can continue north to Garnet Lake from here, or take a 2-mile detour to Ediza Lake by continuing west. I remember walking through some of the most beautiful wildflower fields from this trip in this next section and about an hour later, we arrived at the beginning of Ediza Lake.

The trail continues on the right side of the lake but disappears along the lake a bit and the traverse becomes a small scramble. At the end of the rocks, you’ll find the trail leads to lots of camp options and it was ridiculously crowded when we arrived. The storm seemed like it was coming in fast and since we got there late, we had a hard time finding an open spot that wasn’t sloped but we did get lucky with some dry dirt patches near the beginning of the campground.

We originally wanted to hike to Iceberg Lake (only 1 mile away)  but the dark clouds hindered us from continuing. Our tents were set up by 6:45 pm and I remember it being so cold even though the storm didn’t end up hitting this night. I was getting ready to head into my warm 0° sleeping bag and as I was getting ready for bed just after 8 pm, we were graced with one of the most incredible and colorful sunsets I had ever seen in my life. It was the best surprise I never would have expected.

From Ediza Lake, you can also hike in the other direction to Iceberg Lake and the Minarets. Click here to read the Minaret Lake Loop blog post.

DAY 2: Hike Ediza Lake to Thousand Island Lake

The first night’s sleep was pretty warm – but I guess I can’t complain with my winter sleeping bag in the middle of summer.

I find that when I sleep by myself in a tent, I have a harder time getting up in the mornings. I wake up early, but I spend up to an hour in my toasty sleeping bag before really dragging myself up and out; it’s nice to just lay there in the mornings and that’s exactly what I did this morning. I was up for about half an hour before I finally got up and out just before 8 am. On a normal morning, it takes me about 30 mins to pack up my tent, brush my teeth, and filter water in the mornings.

It was a beautiful, warm sunny morning which made for a nice encouragement to continue the loop. Because of the thunderstorm forecast all weekend, we were thinking about day hiking to Iceberg Lake and then heading back out, or packing out altogether if the storm hit, but the weather seemed in our favor. We took our time through the morning, enjoyed the lake view and captured some memories before starting the trail around 9 am.

We backtracked about 2 miles to that trail junction towards Garnet Lake. From this point, we hiked 5.76 miles for the day in 4 hrs with 1,434 ft elevation gain. We started at 10:07 am.

hike thousand island lake loop

From this junction, the trail follows the JMT all the way to Thousand Island Lake. It starts as a gradual incline but the elevation gains more as you reach the pass. I had read that there are two passes to get to Garnet Lake, but I only noticed one. The trail is well-shaded for most of it until right before the pass which honestly wasn’t difficult – it felt like any other set of switchbacks.

At 11:41 am, we reached the top of the pass and got our first look at Garnet Lake. The wildflowers game was still strong and I only wish my photos did it justice. From the top of the pass, it took several switchbacks and another hour to hike to the bottom where we had a lunch break and filtered water at Garnet Lake with a view of Mt. Ritter. There’s no camping allowed around Garnet Lake but at the East end of it, there was a trail that leads to a campground (not sure how far away that is).

By 1:06 pm, we got back on the trail and started to walk all the way around the lake and got above it with a higher view. By 2pm, we reached Ruby Lake and only 10 mins after, we reached Emerald Lake. Emerald lake is close off the trail but when you’re tired, extra steps to walk down to the lake seems like a hassle, so if you don’t carry a lot of water on you, I’d recommend filtering at Ruby Lake which you walk right alongside.

camping in eastern sierra afternoon thunderstorm

Just a couple minutes up ahead was the beginning of Thousand Island Lake.

The clouds were rolling in fast it took a while to find a campsite but we finally got a spot and set up camp by 3 pm. Our timing was impeccable – it was sprinkling lightly as we pitched our tents and only a minute or two after I got inside my tent, the pouring rain came down hard! This was the first storm I’d ever camped in – there was HAIL, THUNDER, LIGHTNING, and HEAVY RAIN SHOWERS.

I love my Big Agnes tent and I’ve used it in the rain a few times but there was a little flood around and underneath my tent! I felt like the icy snow (from the hail) started to seep through just a little so my tent felt extremely cold and damp on the inside, but not wet. I was sitting on my sleeping air pad and when I touched the tent floor next to me, it felt like I was on a waterbed. When I looked outside my tent but inside the rainfly (I call it my “porch”), there was a 2″ flood and my lightweight shoe was floating on the water… I freaked out.

My friend’s tent was set up right next to me and when I was yelling at her, she couldn’t hear me because the rain/hail was too loud. I used earplugs which didn’t drain out the noise by much. I’m not religious but I prayed. I felt all alone and scared out of my mind and it was the first time I actually thought – what if something happens to me, what if the lightning strikes a tree and it just happens to fall on me and I wouldn’t even see it coming. My mind went everywhere with the what-ifs and for the 20 minutes the rain stopped around 4:15 pm, I jumped into my friend’s tent. I’ve never been so scared that I’ll change my sleeping accommodations… but I was just scared.

The rain and hail came crashing down again but I was less scared since I wasn’t alone anymore… we took a nap to try and forget about the storm and around 6:30 pm, the sun peeped out and shined brightly on the tent. At this point, it finally seemed like mother nature had calmed down so we were able to make dinner and enjoy ourselves finally. Around 7:50 pm, the sky cleared a lot and there was a glow in the clouds. We sat around out above the lake to enjoy the view I’ve waited so long to see and around 8 pm, the most insane sunset started to bring out the colors in the sky. This sunset was extra special because the lake reflection doubled it and lit up the entire view. We were rewarded with the most stunning sunset I’ve ever seen – even more magnificent than the first night which I thought was hard to beat already. It’s true what they say, the best sunsets come after the worst storms.

DAY 3: Hiking High Trail Back to Agnew Meadows Trailhead

We got up around 7:50 am with the intent to hike out this day. It would be our longest day hike of the loop (only about 8 miles) and as we started to get ready, we decided to jump in the lake for a little bit, also so our tents could dry more since the sun was finally out. We played around, filtered water, packed up, and hit the trails by 9:42 am.

Today, we would follow the PCT/ High Trail back to Agnew Meadows to catch the shuttle. About 45 mins in, you come across the River Trail junction which you can also take back to the trailhead, but I heard the High Trail offered pretty views so we wanted to explore that.

We went through shaded forests, then there was a large section that’s exposed with some wet narrow dirt trails and a ton of bugs due to the wildflowers that lined the trails (all downhill and depending on the time of year you go, there may be streams to filter water along this section), and then the pretty open views came which is exposed also but we had a lot of clouds.

If you pay attention and look across to the mountains on the right, you’ll see shadow lake and shadow creek (the waterfall from the first day). You can also download the offline area on google maps so you can check when you’re close, but we got here around 12:30 pm. The trail ends with switchbacks down into the forest again and we made it back to the trailhead at 2:02 pm.

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please leave a message below! 🙂

& don’t forget to practice Leave No Trace

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9 thoughts on “Backpacking Thousand Island Lake Loop in Ansel Adams Wilderness”

  1. Hello! Thank yo so much for sharing this amazing experience!! I do have a question when it comes to reserving permits. If permits aren’t available at Shadow Creek, will River Trail permits also work? I’m looking at the trail names and quotas and I get so confused as to which one I’m supposed to select. Thank you!!

  2. You’re the best!! Thank you!! Ima about to reserve permits in a bit for June and July! Aaahh I’m so excited! I’m planning to do them solo, but I will reserve 2 permits just in case hahaha I’m just starting backpacking! My first will be Havasupai Falls in March! Thank you Tiff for all the info!!

  3. Hi Tiff,
    Great trip description and pics. I am doing the same loop in 2 weeks and appreciate all the details you provided. Glad you had fun.

  4. Andrew Ghenender

    This looks amazing! I just booked my permit for memorial day weekend. I am worried it’s too early in the season, any input there? My wife and I are pretty new to all of this. Also, when I booked my permit, I designated Garnet lake as our campsite for night #2…should I have chosen Thousand Island lake instead? If so, do you know if it’s possible to change my permit? This is all a first for me. Thank you!

    1. Hi Andrew, it really depends on the rain season but I think the shuttle won’t be running at that time and the road may be closed, but check with Mammoth Visitor Center about that. Definitely, be prepared for cold weather though. Snow can linger up through June at higher elevation in the Eastern Sierra. I’ve backpacked Big Pine mid-May on a dry season and there was snow at 10k feet, the nights were freezing cold, and I’ve hiked Kearsarge Pass the first weekend of June on a dry season and hit a lot of snow at the pass around 10-11k. Although this trail is just under 10k feet in elevation, it’s more north in Mammoth which I believe gets more snow.

      In my experience when speaking with rangers, the camp name listed on your trail doesn’t need to be too accurate – the rangers just need a rough itinerary but they tend to be understanding that things happen and you may end up camping at a different spot off that trail. Hope this helps and have a great time! Pretty sure you cannot change dates on your permit. Just keep an eye on weather/ trail conditions.

  5. Beautiful blog on this loop, I know this is an older post, but there are several photos of you camping in the meadow at Ediza….I don’t think this is something you do anymore, but camping on living vegetation is never ok and after seeing several people camped in this spot when I was there, it would be cool if you could put a little note or something not to camp in the meadow. I also realize you said it was crowded so maybe all the sites up on the cliff and in the trees were full 🤷‍♀️

  6. Pingback: Backpacking Ansel Adams Wilderness in Mammoth: Minaret Lake Loop | Follow Tiff's Journey

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