Ansel Adams Wilderness, California
If you’re up for an all-day challenge amidst the breathtaking Sierras, this 19-mile Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake trail near Mammoth Lakes is perfect. Head out early to watch the lakes and mountains change colour in the sun and experience a small part of the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail for yourself
Experience The Magic of the Sierras on this Day Hike from Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake
Mammoth Lakes is a hot favourite among Californians seeking an active weekend getaway. The Inyo National Forest is close by, as are Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks.
It’s also a short drive away from iconic peaks like Langley, Whitney and Tyndall. Having only recently moved to California, this was one we couldn’t miss! And being the adventurous puppies we are, we decided to day-hike the stunning Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake Trail.
Where is Agnew Meadows Trailhead?
The Agnew Meadows Trailhead is located approximately 9 miles northwest of the town of Mammoth Lakes. The precise location can be viewed on this map marked with an orange ‘P’.
This is a 19-mile (30.6 km) trail that can be done as an out-and-back or as a loop trail (more details below).
Directions to Agnew Meadows Trailhead
Head west on SR 203 through Mammoth Lakes, and turn right on Minaret Summit Road towards the Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. Continue to Minaret Summit, and drive another 2.6 miles until you get to a hairpin going south. Turn right here and go down a dirt road to reach the trailhead.
Parking for Agnew Meadows Trailhead
There’s plenty of parking at the trailhead, as well as overflow parking a few hundred feet down the road. Given the area’s popularity, parking spots get filled quickly – we arrived at 6:45 AM and snagged one of the last few in the overflow area.
We also saw online that Minaret Road is closed for passenger vehicle access from 7 AM to 7:30 PM every day (during this time, visitors are supposed to use the shuttle service). So heading out early is a good option if you want to drive.
Do I need a permit to hike this trail?
While we did it as a day hike, you can absolutely camp out near the lakes and make it a two-day trip, or even three days if you’d like to explore the area more leisurely (we might do that ourselves if we return).
As with anywhere in the Sierras, bears and mountain lions do roam, so be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and pack all your food and trash away.
Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake Trail Description
The trail was cool for the most part, even in the middle of July. The initial section was pretty gentle in terms of elevation gain, and we could maintain a good pace while enjoying the views and the breeze.
As you go, remember that this is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the most iconic thru-hikes in the United States! You’re likely to encounter some backpackers who are currently doing the whole thing or tackling the less challenging but still mighty section of it known as the John Muir Trail. You’ll also see the first of your lakes, Lake Olaine.
A couple of miles in, the challenge begins. There are some rocky switchbacks you’ll need to navigate as well as some steep parts that could leave you breathless. The good news is that there are no sandy or gravelly parts, so slipping isn’t a danger.
Trekking poles aren’t necessary (we didn’t use them), but by all means, bring them along if you’re more comfortable that way. The elevation gain for the whole hike is 1178m (3864.8ft), so take breaks if you’re feeling out of breath and carry Dramamine or its equivalent, just in case.
Landmarks along this part of the trail include Shadow Lake and a small but pretty waterfall.
As the sun comes up, you’ll see more of the classic Sierra mountain colours coming to life. This was my first time in this part of the world and I couldn’t get enough of it!
After a steep section through a talus-filled area, you come to the final section of the hike. This is where it gets a bit frustrating. You have to pass by three lakes, and for each one there’s a series of switchbacks down to the shore and then back up again for the next one.
So you’re losing the elevation gain and then having to get it back all over again. It’s beautiful to look at those patches of blue nestled in the mountains, though, so pause and take pictures from different angles. There’s a lot of Instagram cred attached to lake photos from the Sierras (#justsaying).
You’ll come to Garnet Lake first. This is the biggest of the lot, and you’ll need to loop around it and actually lose sight of the lake for a while. Don’t worry, you’re still on track.
Next up is Ruby Lake on your left. Smaller, but just as pretty.
Then, you’ll come to Emerald Lake on your right. Less than a mile to go!
Keep hiking up a grassy hillock, and as you reach the top you’ll see the lake and its banks spread before you. You’re at Thousand Island Lake! It’s the perfect lunch spot and an excellent place to view the famous Mt Ritter from. Dip your toes in the water, soak in the view, and maybe even take a nap. You deserve it.
Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake – Return Leg
You have two choices on your return trip. You can go back the way you came, or you can loop around and come through the meadows. I’ve marked the route we took on the AllTrails screenshot below.
The red trail is the official Agnew Meadows out-and-back trail. The blue trail is the one we decided to return by.
This version lets you see a little more of the PCT and also involves a gentler decline. Fair warning, though – this trail is much more exposed than the way you came and can be fatiguing on a hot day.
Carry enough water, or bring a filter – you’ll see a couple of small streams along the way. Also bear in mind that that trail can occasionally be hard to spot, so keep your GPS handy. Either AllTrails or Google Maps are fine (both worked for us).
This alternative return path has no lakes, but there are some stunning viewpoints! Stop and take pictures whenever your legs feel tired (which they’re likely to, after all, you’re hiking).
After several miles through the meadows, you’ll reach a grassy slope with a wooded area at the bottom. A few gentle switchbacks and you’ve arrived. Phew! Depending on where you parked, you’ll have to walk a little more, but you ran the gauntlet. Well done!
Now for that well-earned treat!
After all that hiking, you’ll want a substantial dinner back in town. We recommend Wok N Roll, a small but fabulous Chinese restaurant. Try their vegetarian spring rolls, cashew chicken/kung pao chicken with fried rice and broccoli tofu.
All amazing and reasonably priced. Plus, if you’re there in the summer, check out Mammoth Village. They usually have events going on during the weekends, including live music, wine tastings, beer tastings and more.
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