Day hike: 14 miles round-trip to Garnet Lake
Backpack: 31 miles one way to Tuolumne Meadows (3 days)
This section of the PCT near Mammoth Lakes doubles as a big chunk of the John Muir Trail, a 215-mile trail stretching from Yosemite Valley to the Lower 48’s highest peak, Mount Whitney. Day hikers will tackle only the approach to the PCT, enjoying glacially carved lakes and breathtaking views of the Minaret Range. Backpackers will share the same approach trails, plus 20 miles on the PCT (make sure you have secured a wilderness permit in advance).
Begin your trip at Agnew Meadows in Devils Postpile National Monument, heading into an eye-candy region of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Follow the River Trail (not the High Trail) along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River for two miles to tiny Olaine Lake, then bear left and climb uphill to tree-edged Shadow Lake. Join the John Muir Trail on its far side and continue north and upward for about three miles to reach a high point overlooking stunning Garnet Lake. If this glacially sculpted landscape looks like Ansel Adams’ photographs in real life, that’s because it is. Framed by Banner and Ritter Peaks (both at nearly 13,000 feet in elevation), Garnet Lake boasts one of the most photogenic settings in the Sierra.
Drop down to the lakeshore and soak in the beauty. Day hikers should retrace their steps for an epic 14-mile day; backpackers continue another 2.6 miles to Thousand Island Lake, another showstopper. Here the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail join as one for the next 20 miles. Find a camp spot, soak in the scenery, and be sure to get up early to snap sunrise shots of Banner Peak.
From Thousand Island Lake, the PCT makes a moderate climb over 10,200-foot Island Pass, then drops down into the headwaters of Rush Creek. A steady ascent up above tree line leads to 11,056-foot Donahue Pass, the southern border of Yosemite National Park and the heart and soul of Ansel Adams’ “Range of Light.” From boulder-lined Donohue Pass, you descend to the headwaters of the Lyell Fork, a pretzel-like, meandering stream. It pours all the way to Tuolumne Meadows, and the PCT traces alongside it for more than four miles. At Tuolumne Meadows, you’ll need to have a car shuttle waiting for you, or you can arrange transportation on the YARTS bus from Tuolumne Meadows to Mammoth Lakes, where you can pick up the Devils Postpile shuttle bus to get back to Agnew Meadows.