Beginners Backpack, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14130A, Backpacking


  • Learn backpacking basics in the company of like-minded adventurers
  • Explore the spectacular Thousand Island Lake area and revel beneath the Minarets, Mount Ritter, and Banner Peak
  • Relax or ramble amidst the Sierra’s grandest sights on two layover days 


  • Backpacking basics instruction
  • All meals on trip


DatesJul 27–Aug 2, 2014
Difficulty2 (out of 5)
StaffJulie VanTilburg

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Trip Overview

The Trip

If you want to have a nice entry into the world of backpacking and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, this trip is for you! Our trek through the Ansel Adams Wilderness to spectacular lakes that lie at the base of the Minarets, Mt. Ritter, and Banner Peak traverses some of the most dramatic terrain in the Sierra Nevada. Moderate hiking distances with layover days will allow time for learning wilderness skills and natural history, exploring the area on day hikes, relaxing, and simply enjoying the great outdoors.

This trip is tailored to beginner backpackers who are interested in developing skills associated with wilderness travel. Basic instruction will be provided on organizing gear, ensuring wilderness safety, reading topographic maps, cooking backpacking cuisine, operating and cooking on portable stoves, using tarps, and following Leave No Trace principles.

Our objectives are to enjoy spectacular country, complete the trip safely as a group, and learn backpacking basics. While this is a beginner backpack, participants need to be fit, be dedicated to training to meet the demands of this specific trip, invest in proper equipment, and should come prepared to meet the variety of challenges that outdoor travel brings when exposed to high altitude, primitive camping, extreme weather changes, and sore feet from carrying heavy packs. 

As successful backpacking experiences require thorough advance planning and preparation, the leader will provide pre-trip correspondence and resource information to help with backpacking gear selection and physical conditioning. 


Day 1: We will meet at a local campground on Sunday, July 27 where we will conduct our pre-trip orientation, provide instruction on gear packing, and share our first dinner together. Spending our first night at 7,800 feet elevation will help participants to acclimate to the higher altitude.

Day 2: On our first hiking day, starting at 8,300 feet, we’ll head out from Agnew Meadows on the River Trail, traveling 4 to 5 miles with a total ascent of approximately 1,200 feet that's concentrated over the last couple of miles.  Camp will be near the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River.

Day 3: We’ll travel a short distance of about 3 to 4 miles, ascending to Thousand Island Lake (close to 10,000 feet elevation), where we will set up camp for the next two nights. We’ll spend our afternoon relaxing at the lake.

Day 4: We’ll enjoy our layover day exploring nearby lakes. Afternoon options include relaxing or practicing outdoor skills.

Day 5: Traversing from Thousand Island Lake on the John Muir Trail, we’ll pass by a trio of alpine gems called Emerald, Ruby, and Garnet lakes. Traveling just under nine miles, we’ll reach our camp at Ediza Lake (9,300 feet elevation), where we will stay for two nights. This tends to be a very long day that's full of ascents and descents -- we could be on the trail with our loaded packs for about seven hours.   

Day 6: We'll spend our layover day exploring the nearby Iceberg Lake or relaxing at Ediza Lake.

Day 7: After breaking camp and heading down from the high country, we’ll travel seven and a half miles past Shadow Lake to the River Trail, returning to Agnew Meadows by mid afternoon.



Getting There

Our trip starts at a local campground in Mammoth Lakes. The exact location will be provided prior to the trip. Mammoth Lakes is about 160 miles from Reno, 250 miles from San Francisco, and 310 miles from either Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Trip members arriving from other parts of the country should explore the option of flying to one of these major cities and sharing a rental car or arranging a ride. We will send a trip roster to all participants well before the trip in order to help facilitate ride-sharing. Specific driving directions will also be sent before departure. 

Accommodations and Food

All on-trip meals, beginning with dinner on our first day and ending with lunch on our last day, are included in the trip fee.  Meals will be diverse and flavorful.  Some will take more preparation and some will take a minimalist approach, giving exposure to both approaches to backpacking. We will provide a vegetarian-friendly (non-vegan) menu. Trip members will share the responsibilities for meal preparation and cleanup.

Trip Difficulty

The trip difficulty is rated 2 (approaching a 3) on a scale from 1 to 5, where a rating of 1 would correspond to the least difficult of the trips that we offer and a rating of 5 would denote the most difficult. Mileage on our hiking days ranges from 3-9 miles, with a total of almost 25 miles for the trip (not including layover day hikes). Our camp at Thousand Island Lake will be just under 10,000 feet and our camp at Ediza Lake will be at 9,300 feet.

Although participation in this outing does not require previous backpacking experience, carrying a 40-pound pack on trail with elevation changes is physically challenging. Participants must be in good physical condition and be prepared for the rigorous physical demands of such a trip. The leader will provide physical conditioning recommendations to participants.

Known for its temperate summer weather, the High Sierra can also experience sudden, unexpected spells of rain, hail, snow, heat, and cold. Daytime temperatures can soar into the upper 80s, while nighttime temperatures can dip into the 30s or lower. It is essential that you be prepared for extremes in weather conditions, and also be flexible so that we can adapt our route to accommodate unexpected conditions or events.

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club will provide the following items: food (including all trail snacks), pots, cooking utensils, stoves, fuel, bear-proof canisters, and water purification treatment. At the beginning of the trip you will be issued one bear canister loaded with food, plus a portion of the group gear, which together may weigh up to 15 pounds. You will be required to limit your personal gear to 20 pounds or less, so that your total pack weight is less than 40 pounds, including up to 2 liters of water, which can account for almost another 5 pounds.

We require sturdy, fully broken-in boots with rubber lug soles for this trip. We recommend that you waterproof your boots before beginning the trip. For shelter, we strongly encourage you to bring a tent with a rain fly -- a lightweight waterproof tarp is the required minimum. For raingear, bring a waterproof jacket and pants instead of a poncho. The leader will send detailed equipment recommendations to participants well in advance of the trip. More information regarding personal gear may be found at the following link:


Please plan on bringing your own map and compass -- not only is this a matter of safety, but you will have a better appreciation of where we are going and where we have been.


  • The U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute “Mount Ritter,” and “Mammoth Mountain” quadrangles together cover our planned route.
  • The Ansel Adams Wilderness Trail Map published by Tom Harrison Maps ( covers the complete trip and, while not providing as much details as the 7.5 minute maps, is a good general map of the area.


  • Alsup, William, Missing in the Minarets: The Search for Walter A. Starr, Jr. The book centers on the search for Walter A. "Pete" Starr and is filled with wonderful background on the legendary early mountaineers and explorers of the Sierra.
  • Arnot, Phil, High Sierra: John Muir’s Range of Light. Written in 1996 when the Ansel Adams Wilderness was formerly called the "Minaret Wilderness," this has excellent descriptions of the entire area of our trip along the Ritter Range.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada (published by the California Academy of Sciences). An excellent guide to the plants and wildlife of the Sierra Nevada.
  • Clark, Ginny, Ansel Adams Wilderness. Colorful maps, trail descriptions, and area history. 


If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. - President Lyndon B. Johnson

The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy and participation in the goals of the Club.

We will venture into pristine alpine lake basins, which appear today much as they must have to the early mountaineers of the 19th century. We will share the mountaineers' stories and their visions for ensuring the preservation of this treasured wilderness for many generations to come. As a group we will diligently observe Leave No Trace principles, and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we will discuss historic and current protections for California wilderness.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Inyo National Forest.



Julie VanTilburg went from athlete to explorer when she moved from Indiana to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1998, and began developing her love for the outdoors. She is a financial planner and analyst by profession. As much as she enjoys her vocation, communing with the wilderness, land, and sea feeds the soul, and she looks forward to offering the joy, solitude, and camaraderie of such special places with the Sierra Club. Her explorations have included Grand Canyon, Mt. Lassen, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks, Ansel Adams and Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wildernesses, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Na Pali Coast in Kauai. Julie is a Wilderness First Responder, certified by Wilderness Medicine Institute.

Assistant Leader:

Diane Cook has been leading moderate and light-moderate backpack trips in the Sierra since 1981. Early family vacations included hiking and car camping, but she did not learn about the wonders of backpacking until she grew up. She became involved in leading group trips with the Chicago Chapter of the Sierra Club before moving to California. Now she enjoys passing on the pleasures of hiking in the Sierra to both experienced and inexperienced backpackers. She particularly enjoys planning meals that don't fit in with your preconceived notions of backpacking dishes -- we want you to look forward to your meals, not have to pack them out!

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