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Splendor Hiking The High Sierra

Take the finest mountains in the world, add high-country meadows, glacial valleys, alpine lakes, pine-and-hemlock forests, and what do you have? A recipe for backcountry bliss.

4. Thousand Island Lake/Minaret Lake
Ansel Adams Wilderness

25 miles (MOT); 2 to 4 days

“To die for” is how noted Sierra veteran Steve Roper describes this route, which you can hike in either direction. If you begin at Agnew Meadows, follow one of various trails to Thousand Island Lake, where the reflection of Banner Peak glows pink at sunrise. Hike around the lake to the north, then cross an isthmus, where you’ll begin a long passage of hiking off-trail and via unmarked (“use” or “social”) trails. Leave your pack at the lake and scamper up to Lake Catherine’s far side for an inspiring western view, then hoist your load across trail-less tundra until you hit climbers’ trails from Lake Ediza to Mts. Banner and Ritter and the Minarets, the summits of which tower overhead. You can rejoin the maintained trail system here, or carefully follow more use trails and cross a few steep snowfields (once they’ve softened in the afternoon sun) to Iceberg Lake and on to Minaret Lake. Maintained trails then lead you to the astounding basalt pillars of Devils Postpile. Finish at Reds Meadow, then grab a shuttle back to your car.

Getting there: Take the shuttle bus from Minaret Summit (in the Mammoth Lakes ski area). Maps: Tom Harrison Maps Mammoth High Country; USGS Mammoth Mountain, Mt. Ritter, Cattle Mountain, Crystal Crag; Forest Service Ansel Adams Wilderness. Contact: Inyo National Forest.

5. Bear Lakes Basin
John Muir Wilderness

25 miles (MOT); 3 to 4 days

Meander slowly through this fascinating place, where every turn reveals a fresh vista more lovely than the last. Lakes of all shapes and sizes abound, some austere and rockbound, others embedded in perfect floral meadows. All are spread beneath the lovely 13,075-foot Seven Gables-scramble up this peak for a 100-mile view from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite. Even without this climb, you’ll enjoy some of the finest views in the Sierra. From the Pine Creek Pass trailhead, hike trails across Italy Pass to Lake Italy, then cut due south and wind your way across the basin and over Feather Pass to Merriam Lake. Much of the way is gentle travel, though in places you’ll need to pick your way carefully to avoid class 3 drop-offs. From Merriam Lake, follow a social trail down to the main trail that leads over Pine Creek Pass to the trailhead.

Getting there: Turn west onto Pine Creek Road 10 miles north of Bishop. Maps: Tom Harrison Maps Mono Divide High Country; Forest Service John Muir & Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wildernesses; USGS Mt. Abbot, Mt. Tom. Contact: Inyo National Forest.

6. Mt. Lyell Loop
Yosemite National Park

50 or 60 miles (MOT); 4 to 6 days

Thousand Island Lake knocks your socks off with its oft-photographed view of Banner Peak. An hour later, you’re scrambling past cramped alpine Lake Catherine high on Banner’s shoulder, and then, all of the sudden, the floor drops out and you just have to sit and gaze for a while across the huge vista westward toward Yosemite.

From Tuolumne Meadows, hike up Lyell Canyon on the John Muir Trail/PCT to Donahue Pass and continue to Thousand Island Lake. Trails lead to Lake Catherine, then cross-country down to the San Joaquin River. Pick up a trail to Bench Canyon for a short distance, then hike cross-country over a pass just south of Foerster Peak and down to a trail to Lewis Creek. Follow the creek past Vogelsang Lake and over Tuolumne Pass before dropping into Lyell Canyon. For another day or two of hiking, start at Mammoth Lakes. Alternatively, take the shuttle to Agnew Meadow, then explore any of various routes to Thousand Island Lake.

Getting there: Get to Tuolumne Meadows from CA 120 west of Tioga Pass, or reach Mammoth Lakes from US 395. Maps: Yosemite National Park; USGS Vogelsang Peak, Mt. Ritter, Mt. Lyell, Mammoth Mountain; Tom Harrison Maps Yosemite High Country. Contact: Yosemite National Park; Inyo National Forest.

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