The Thousand Island Lake loop in California’s southern Sierras is easily one of the state’s most magical treks: what other 22-mile trek allows you to cover pristine ground in both Inyo National Forest and the Ansel Adams Wilderness on some of the most picturesque segments of the PCT and JMT? This route is packed with emerald-colored lakes, numerous views of mountain peaks, and sunrises and sunsets that you just can’t pay for! In reality, you might as well call the Thousand Island Lake loop the “Greatest Hits” trek of the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails!
This trek had been on my bucket list even before moving to California a year-and-a-half ago. Ideally, this trek should be done over 3 days, at a pace that allows you to appreciate the surroundings, and is even suitable for beginners. With an average daily distance of 7 to 8 miles, you’ll have plenty of time for long breaks and relaxing evenings at camp before the cool nighttime weather starts to kick in (much of the hike is between 9,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation, so don’t forget to pack layers, hat, and gloves). But enough background information…let’s hit the trail!
To access the trailhead, take the Red’s Meadow bus from the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge to the first stop at Agnew Meadows. Day 1 kicks off on the PCT, with a 1,500 foot ascent on the High Trail, which is smooth sailing after the initial climb. 3 miles in, you’ll be rewarded at Minaret Vista, which provides views of the trek’s 3 most revered mountains: Mount Ritter, Banner Peak, and the Minarets. From there, you’ll continue another 5 miles on to Thousand Island Lake, where you’ll meet up with the John Muir Trail and set up camp for the night. While the views of Mount Ritter and the island-covered lake at its foot are some of the best views of the trek, try to resist the urge to camp within view of the lake; the wind at night can be strong and create for a less-than-passive sleeping environment. Do your best to grab a campsite that is at least partially protected by the surrounding rock formations.
Day 2 starts off on the JMT, before taking a mile-and-a-half detour to Ediza Lake at the end of the day. The day is mostly downhill to start, and you can binge on picturesque lake views as you pass by Ruby, Emerald, and Garnet Lakes. You’ll eventually hit a fork that gives you the option to veer off the JMT and head to Ediza Lake, which is a must if you want a pristine, un-forested location for camping under the stars that night. If you’ve got the energy and sunlight to spare, you can go for a swim in the lake, or take a hike up toward Banner Peak.
While you’ll likely be fairly focused on making your exit on day 3, don’t forget to enjoy the water-hugging trails that you’ll be on for most of the day. From the time you leave Ediza Lake to rejoin the JMT and pass by Shadow Lake, you’ll almost exclusively be on creek-hugging trails with small waterfalls and babbling brooks sounding in the background. After a long downhill on the Shadow Creek Trail, you’ll eventually hit the River Trail, which will take you back to the starting point of the loop at Agnew Meadows.
Wilderness permits can be booked for $6 per person 6 months in advance at recreation.gov for Inyo National Forest (make sure to select either the High Trail, River Trail, or Shadow Creek Trailhead), and picked up at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center (2510 Main Street, Mammoth Lakes, California, 93546). Bear canisters are also required for this trail and can be rented for $2.50 per day at the welcome center.
Parking is available on the road leading up to the Mammoth Mountain Lodge, where the Red’s Meadow Shuttle can be booked for $7 per person, which will take you to the trailhead at Agnew Meadows (first stop).
If arriving the night before your trek (recommended), New Shady Rest is a great place to car camp the evening before, or any of Mammoth Lakes lodges or hotels.