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A Backpacking Trip Like No Other

The most beautiful and awe-inspiring places are, without fail, the hardest to write about on this blog. Nothing I say can do them justice. I end up sputtering out phrases like “it was so incredible!!” and hoping the pictures will tell you everything else.

So here goes—this week I’m sharing the “epic” “stunning” “gorgeous” and “incredible” trail I recently hiked in the Sierra Nevada, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Today’s post is about the adventure, and tomorrow’s post is all about guidance for your own hike there.

Update: guidancce post is live! Click here: A Guide to My Favorite Trail in the Sierra


I’m blessed with a brother that loves the outdoors even more than me. He hikes, rock climbs, ice climbs, and scrambles over precipices from here to the Western seaboard, and is gone so much he’s hard to keep up with. He owns at least 3 of everything a person needs to go backpacking, and stuffed away in his noggin between baseball stats and economics data lies a decent knowledge of the Sierra Nevada.



So, when I told him Brandon and I wanted to go backpacking, he not only acquiesced but took up the chore of researching trails and coming up with a game plan. He was essentially our mail order guide, though slightly peskier.

(Justin and my previous backpacking trip together, over 15 years ago, bordered on complete failure. We hiked into the remote reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park with our mother and a bunch of rented equipment from REI, only to find that it was going to rain for three days straight and the tent would leak. Our mother laid awake every night listening for bears, since due to weather we were forced to eat summer sausage in the tent. Good times.)

This was Brandon’s first backpacking excursion ever, and with no idea how he would react, I was crossing my fingers for perfect conditions—weather wise, elevation-wise, and distance-wise. I wanted him to have fun, of course, but I also hoped that at very least he wouldn’t be completely miserable. I made sure we had new hiking shoes, some new gear (I may have used this as an excuse to get a few new things, no big deal), and helped us get as prepared as possible. All summer, Brandon would load my pack up with physics textbooks and carry it on our walks around the neighborhood. We were a sight to behold.

The trail we hiked started in Mammoth Lakes, California, a cute mountain town. One of the great decisions we made was to get there a day early and stay at one of the many drive-up campsites around Lake Mary and Lake George.


This allowed us time to get organized, sight see in nearby Yosemite National Park, and say our final goodbyes to flushing toilets. (Tear.)


I would recommend these campsites if you’re with young kids or not up for a big backpacking excursion! The scenery rocks and the campsites are tidy (thanks in part to the chipmunk cleanup crew), and there are dozens of gorgeous trails in the area. See tomorrow’s post for a day hike suggestion.

Our trail was 21 miles long in total, with about 1,000 feet elevation gain each day (with the exception of the third day). We planned to hike about 6-7 miles each day, with the final day leading us back to the car. The trail was a loop, as opposed to out and back, so we never hiked the same part of the trail twice.

The morning of our hike, a funny thing happened. Each of us emerged from our tents wearing orange! It looked completely planned, though it was not.


Go Team Orange!

Given that the trail we were hiking was located in a wilderness named after the most famous landscape photographer of all time, Ansel Adams, I had expected great things. I also knew that the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the more famous trails in America, would be part of our hike and that our particular route was so popular that we couldn’t get advance reservations.

But despite all of that, I was so unprepared for the beauty that lay before us.


Within the first half a mile: this view.


Within the next two miles: this view.


Over the next few miles, constant views of a gushing waterfall as we approached Shadow Lake.


The reward at the end of the next steep incline: the beautiful Shadow Lake.

Resting at Shadow Lake

One amazing sight after another–and so it went for three days.


So many trails in this world require you hike for miles and miles through the woods just to enjoy one or two beautiful sights. On this trail, we barely had to go a mile before we were treated to something new.


The first night, we camped beside Ediza Lake, a glacial lake surrounded by peaks called The Minarets.


I had a lot of fun that night leading the guys in a yoga session (I NEVER thought they would go for that…but they did), inventing a story for them about how Ediza Lake got it’s name, and singing old camp songs. I’m sure if I hadn’t been there they may have enjoyed the peace and quiet of the wilderness a little more.


Just after the sun set, Justin and I climbed up a nearby rock for a view of the lake at twilight.


(One of his pieces of backpacking advice is to explore the area around your campsite.)


Brandon did not join us. We had climbed over 1,000 feet in elevation that day, and he was out like a light. In our relationship, he’s typically the responsible one, but this time we had a little bit of a role reversal as I set up the tent and took care of unpacking our things.



The following day was as gorgeous as the day before. It was this day we were treated to one of the most beautiful parts of our hike—a downhill traverse with panoramic views of Garnet Lake.


It was all I could do not to fall flat on my face while trying to hike and enjoy the view at the same time.


That night, we camped by Thousand Island Lake. It was even grander than Ediza Lake, and I felt like I was walking through an Ansel Adams photograph.


Named for the rock outcroppings which dot its surface, Thousand Island is framed by two huge peaks—Banner Peak and Ritter Peak—and rimmed with massive boulders smoothed by ages of wind, snow, and rain.



We camped on a flat rock outcropping with a view of Banner Peak. I look at this picture and still can’t believe this was our campsite!


Our third and final day on the trail was perhaps my favorite—it was downhill (amen) through a flowered meadow, with panoramic views of the Sierra mountains all around. We could see Shadow Lake in the distance.



We could feel the pizza and hamburgers we’d been fantasizing about getting closer and closer with every step.


On the trail you have ample time to think, and often your thoughts circulate around what you would eat if you were back in civilization. We all agreed there was only one thing we needed:

Not to just eat pizza, but to eat pizza while sitting in a hot tub.

(On your next backpacking trip, tell me if that’s not what you dream about too.)


As we were coming down off of the trail, we passed a surprising number of women and couples heading on up the trail the other way. I loved seeing all those women taking on the trail!

My brother, who has seen lots of countryside in his day and climbed more peaks in the lower 48 than I can count, said that this trail was the most beautiful one he had ever seen. A lot more subtle and soft spoken than I am, my brother is not one for hyperboles so I take his statement to heart.



Even Brandon, who by the end of each day was face down in a pillow, said this trail will be hard to top.


I’ve decided that with hiking, there’s a ratio of effort to beauty, and that ratio determines if you’ll enjoy it in the end. This trail was high on the effort side of the scale, but the beauty far outweighed the effort.

Oh and by the way, we did make it to that hot tub.



A huge shout out to my brother for planning the trip, equipping us, putting up with my jokes, and stretching his hamstrings during yoga. He even hiked a portion of the trail the week before we arrived to make sure it was good enough. Justin officially receives a Whit’s Wilderness Gold Star for Service to the Blog.

Tomorrow: guidance on how to hike this very route!