A Guide to my Favorite Trail in the Sierra

If you are going to go on one backpacking trip in your life, might I suggest the following trail. As I said in my post yesterday, it is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done.

Yesterday I shared a synopsis of our adventure, which you can read here. Today’s post is the guidebook for this trail. Happy hiking ladies!

PS. See the end of this post for a convenient day hike option within this route.

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First and foremost, where is the Sierra?

I’ve gotten this question a lot since coming home. West of the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada is a mountain range that runs near California’s eastern border. You may have heard of the Sierra Nevada in Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, or you may have heard of Yosemite National Park, which is in the Sierra.

By the way, the correct term is “The Sierra”, NOT “The Sierras”—as I was corrected. 

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Reasons We Loved This Route

  • It’s a loop: you never see the same scenery twice
  • Some of the most beautiful countryside we’ve ever seen; waterfalls, more lakes, cliffsides, vistas, you name it.
  • Campsites were flat and picturesque
  • Third day was nearly all downhill

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*Important Note*

A permit is required to stay overnight. You must get online far in advance to get a permit so if you’re interested in doing this trail, reserve as far as 6 months in advance. (Instructions later in this post.)

Where This Route is Located

In the Ansel Adams Wilderness area, inside the Inyo National Forest. Wilderness areas are designated within public lands and are differentiated by their more stringent rules against vehicles, construction, roads, or anything else that causes great disturbance.

How to Get Here from Texas

Fly into Los Angeles and connect to Mammoth Lakes, CA. Alternatively, fly directly into Reno and drive or take the shuttle to Mammoth Lakes.

I suggest flying into Reno and driving/shuttling to Mammoth. Then, after your backpacking trip, spend a few days at Lake Tahoe and fly back out of Reno. The Tahoe area is beautiful and will give you more time in the mountains. Another great option would be to stay in one of the lodges in Yosemite National Park.

My family has always enjoyed having comfortable accommodations after a strenuous backpacking trip, to give ourselves a rest and get to spend more time in the mountains before getting back to the real world.

From Reno, Mammoth is a 3 hour drive.

  • See flight schedules from LAX to Mammoth here
  • Southwest flies directly into Reno
  • Shuttle schedule here

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Time of Year to Go

  • Mid-June to mid-September.

Important note: mosquitoes are bad late June/early July.

We went the first week in August and it was perfect. The flowers were in bloom and the weather was spectacular.

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Suggested Itinerary

Day 1 – Prep Day

Allow a day to get settled in the area, sight see in nearby Yosemite National Park, and get any last minute supplies at one of the many outdoor supply shops in town. Camp that night by Lake Mary.

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Day 2 – Start the Trail

  • Park in the lot by the Mammoth Mountain Lodge
  • Hop on the Reds Meadow/Devil’s Postpile shuttle that picks up there. Enjoy the most thrilling bus ride you’ve ever been on! It’s on the edge of a steep cliff and has excellent views.
    • Shuttle tickets are $7 per person
    • Get off at the Agnew Meadows Trailhead stop. From there you can access the Shadow Creek Trail and make one last bathroom stop.
    • Pro tip: You will be coming right back to this same place when you finish your hike, since the loop ends here. I recommend storing some special celebratory treat like Oreos or sodas in a sack in the bear proof bins here. It’s unlikely someone will take it, and you won’t have to carry it on the trail, and it will be a nice reward for when you finish!
  • 10:00 am – Aim to get started on the trail by this time.
  • 7 or so miles to Ediza Lake, roughly 1,000+ ft elevation gain (though my FitBit said more like 10 miles)
  • Camp that night in the meadow by at Ediza Lake (note camping is restricted to the far side of the lake)
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The start of something great!

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Our campsite at Ediza Lake

Day 3

  • Early start recommended for cool weather and plenty of time to explore the lake where you’ll be camping this night (8:30 am should be fine)
  • Roughly 8 miles to Thousand Island Lake
  • You will pass several lakes, Garnet Lake being one of the most spectacular
  • Camp that night beside Thousand Island Lake. Campsites are scattered around the lake, and I recommend finding one out of the wind so you can cook your dinner. There are hundreds of large boulders around the lake and plenty of flat, quiet and private campsites tucked in beside them.
  • Best time of day to photograph Thousand Island Lake is definitely early morning! Set your alarm and go down by the lake, and document the glass like water, pure reflection of the mountain, and rays if the sunrise dancing on Banner Peak. It’s a sight not to miss and definitely worth waking up early for.
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Trail to Thousand Island Lake

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Garnet Lake (one of the prettiest stretches)

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Mountain views on the way to Thousand Island Lake

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Day 4 – Last Day!

This is the day you will hike the iconic Pacific Crest Trail. 🙂

  • Early start recommended (8:30 am) — the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be back to your car and on your way to a hot meal.
  • This is the best of all the days, because it is almost all downhill.
  • As you follow the trail down the alpine meadow, keep an eye out to your right. You will be able to see Shadow Lake, where you hiked the first day, on the other side of the valley from you.

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Campsites

There are no assigned campsites, only designated camping areas at the lakes.

How to Know Where to Pitch Your Tent

Look for the flattest, smoothest surface you can find that is out of the wind. If it looks like there’s an area people will be using to collect water, don’t camp in the way of everyone’s route there.

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Map

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Purchase a map of this area before starting the trail here.

Brian at the blog CaliTrails.com let me borrow this map. He has an incredible post about this trail which you can see here. (The only difference is that we didn’t continue on past Ediza Lake, so you can ignore the red squiggly line that goes southwest from Ediza Lake.)

Distance

  • Roughly 24 miles
  • 2,000+ feet elevation gain (see a topographic map for specifics)

Difficulty

I will confess, it was a grueling trek. I stopped to catch my breath quite a bit and I was tired at the end of each day. There were a few points when I may or may not have asked, “Are we there yet?”

That said, I did it. And I still enjoyed myself immensely.

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How to Acquire a Permit

This trail is wildly popular so be ready to get online 6 months before your start date to request a permit.

Make a morning coffee date with the online reservation system.

How to Book Online

  1. Visit www.recreation.gov.
  2. Search “Inyo National Forest wilderness permits.”
  3. Select your dates, party size, and trail. For this, select Shadow Creek Trail. See screenshots below.
  4. Pick up your permit at one of the four ranger offices listed on this website: Inyo National Forest Permit Pickup

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How to Get a Permit in Person

60% of the available permits are reserved for those who book online (above), and 40% of permits are reserved for walk-ins.

The in person pickup process is so much of a circus that would be amusing, if not so stressful. Bear with me.

  1. On the day before you’re set to hike, get to one of the ranger offices listed on this page: Inyo National Forest Permit Pickup Locations NO LATER THAN 10:00 AM. THE EARLIER YOU CAN GET HERE THE BETTER. At some unknown point before 11am, they start passing around a sheet of computer paper on which everyone wanting a permit writes their names, time of arrival, permit requested, and number of people. You want to be as high up on this list as possible because this is the order in which they distribute the remaining walk-in permits.
  2. They begin issuing walk-in permits at 11am, and you must be standing within earshot to hear your name being called. There is no microphone and if you’re in the bathroom, you will miss it.
  3. When they call your name, you go up to the ranger desk and tell the ranger which trail you want, and he sees if there are any permits left.
  4. The ranger is pulling your permit from the same database the other ranger offices are using, so you just have to pray that Joe Blow at the other ranger office doesn’t get it before you.
  5. NOTE: You can NOT have a permit to two trails at once. This means that if you have pulled a permit for a “Plan B” trail, but attempt to get a walk in permit to this trail (your Plan A), the ranger will have to cancel your Plan B permit before issuing your Plan A permit–during which time beads of sweat will form on your upper lip as you hope no one at another ranger office is taking your permit while he does this. (Can you tell I don’t do well with last minute plans?) That said, I definitely would have a Plan B because you’ve come all this way and what are you going to do?

If you haven’t already noticed, I find this to be a nerve-wracking option. And I speak from personal experience–this is what we did. HOWEVER, I am really glad we did at least try because we got the permit, dang it, and I was able to go on the hike of a lifetime. 🙂

Weather

Typically 70’s during the day, 30’s and 40’s at night.

As a Texan, you will notice the chill at night, so bring a down jacket and a warm vest. I also recommend a hat, long underwear, and gloves.

Food and Water

We cooked everything with my brother’s small backpacking stove. The following is a great set to get you started: Pocket Rocket Stove Kit, REI.com.

Our menu:

  • Breakfast: hot oatmeal, Starbucks Via coffee (<–these can be easily prepped by boiling water from the lakes)
  • Snacks: Lara Bars, Clif Bars, and Luna Bars
  • Lunch: summer sausage and cheese in tortillas
  • Dinner: mac and cheese, freeze dried meals (you can find these at REI and outdoor supply stores)

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(This beef stroganoff is the best!)

Water

Assume 2 liters of water per person per day.

We each carried two 1-quart Nalgene bottles of water every day, and refilled them in the evenings at the lakes and then again in the morning for the rest of the day.

Water needs to be purified even if you’re drinking it out of a clear mountain lake, and we used chlorine drops like the following: Aquamira water treatment drops, REI.com.

Some people use pumps and filters, but these drops are lighter and work fine for this trail, where the water is not murky.

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Justin collecting water

General Pointers for this Trail

  • It’s bear country, so all your food and oil based cosmetics such as sunscreen, lotion, and chap stick MUST go in a bear proof container such as the following: BearVault, REI.com.
  • I recommend a prep day as mentioned above
  • Plan to eat out the first night you’re back to civilization!
  • Don’t waste valuable packing space on extra clothing. One set will be fine.
  • Bring trekking poles such as the following: Traverse Trekking Poles, REI.com
  • Bring a camera with a big SD card. You will be taking pictures right and left, the scenery is so breathtaking.
  • When allowing people to pass you on the trail, be cautious that you don’t get pushed off the side of the hill. This may sound silly or obvious, but I nearly got knocked over by a group of haughty college guys.
  • Take your time, take breaks when you need to, and catch your breath. Starting early in the morning will give you plenty of time to go the distance while still taking plenty of breathers.
  • Stretch each night
  • Enjoy and explore the land around your camp site!
  • Do not pour soap or waste into the lakes

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Book to Read in Preparation

  • Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild is about her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which you will cover on this route. It’s also a movie with Reese Withserspoon. (Read my review of Wild here.)

*Day Hike Option*

Camp at Lake Mary and take a day hike up to Shadow Lake. Stop and have lunch before returning home. This would be a spectacular and full day!

I hope you all make it here some time in your life and get to experience the adventure we loved so much. This trail opened up a new love of the Sierra mountains in me and I hope to go again sometime soon.

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