Hike of the Week: Thousand Island Lake Loop

Hike of the Week: Thousand Island Lake Loop

Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. For us, discovering a great trail through pictures and description is enough to get out there and explore it for ourselves! We hope this series inspires you to do the same.

This week's spotlight is on the Thousand Island Lake Loop in east-central California's Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Featured Photo: Banner Peak over Thousand Island Lake (Photo by Tom Fassbender)

Why Hike the Thousand Island Lake Loop?

If you're searching for one of the best hikes in California's Sierras, but not up for something quite as intense as climbing to the top of Mt. Whitney, then this trail is for you. Just hearing the name “Ansel Adams” conjures up some of the most stunning mountain panoramas in North America. Alpine lakes and rocky peaks surround you as you hike on parts of the legendary PCT and John Muir Trail in some of the Golden State's most picturesque mountains.

  • 21 miles
  • 3-day, 2-night trip
  • 2,000+ feet of elevation gain
  • Rated moderate to difficult
  • Best time to go: July through October
  • Highlights include Mt.Ritter, Banner Peak, the Minarets, alpine meadows, Thousand Island Lake, Emerald, Ruby, and Garnet Lakes. The High Trail (on your last day) boasts some of the best vistas.
  • This is an especially great trip if you're into backcountry fishing as well with all of the lakes and streams.
  • Several spur trails are in the area if you wish to extend your trip. (The jaunt to Iceberg Lake is especially spectacular with the Minarets rising behind it.)
  • A campground near the trailhead makes it convenient to arrive early and get a head start the next day, affording you more time to explore the area.

Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:

  • Bear canisters are required.
  • Reservations/permits are required and a quota is in place, so plan early!
  • Campfires are not allowed above 10,000 feet
  • You will need to get a very early start if you wish to park next to the trailhead, avoiding the mandatory shuttle and fee if you arrive after 7am.

How Do I Get There?

The Mammoth Yosemite Airport is the closest airport to the River Trail trailhead in Agnew Meadows. Flights from LAX and other major cities are available and traveling to the trailhead is much shorter from here.

From the airport, head out on Airport Road for a little over a mile before turning left and briefly staying on Hot Creek Hatchery Road before turning right onto US-395 N. After 2.5 miles on the highway, take exit CA-203, then turn left onto the westbound road and continue 3.8 miles. Turn right onto Minaret Road and continue another 5.4 miles.

Continue onto Lookout Point Road/Postpile Road for 2.7 miles. Turn right onto Agnew Meadows Road. Continue about a half-mile before reaching the parking area on your left. The entire trip is a short 17-mile drive that takes about 30 minutes.

Map of Recommended Route

The following map outlines our recommended route. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate along the route and view recommended camp sites.

For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.

  • Day 1 - Agnew Meadows to Ediza Lake (6 miles)
  • Day 2 - Ediza Lake to 1000 Island Lake (6.6 miles)
  • Day 3 - 1000 Island Lake to Agnew Meadows (8 miles)

Trail Description

From Agnew Meadows, head out on the River Trail. Be prepared for steep switchbacks as you head up towards Shadow Lake. The payoff is better and better views the higher you climb. When you reach the cascading river forming multiple small waterfalls, take solace in the fact the lake is nearby. After perhaps stopping at this beautiful area for a break, continue west toward Ediza Lake. Your view for the evening can't be beat with Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter rising up as the backdrop.

Backtrack about 1.5 miles in the morning and head northwest on the John Muir Trail (JMT). If you love bodies of water, you will be in heaven on day 2. Plenty of turquoise and deep blue lakes await you, the first being Garnet Lake after ascending more switchbacks. Not far after rounding the north side of this lake, you will come across Ruby Lake and Emerald Lake. All of these, of course, make great pit stops or off-trail exploring adventures. Less than a mile from Emerald Lake you'll find the trail's namesake, Thousand Island Lake, where Banner Peak greets you again across from your campsite for the evening.

Day 3 starts out downhill as you head towards the Pacific Crest Trail/High Trail junction. Though you won't see many lakes on your way back to civilization, the scenery is said to be the best along this portion of the trail with sweeping views in all directions. Rocky ridgelines eventually turn into dirt paths again, traveling through rolling mountain meadows, as you near the towering trees of Agnew Meadows once again.

What Will I Need?

Even during the summer months, nighttime lows can be pretty cold due to the elevation. While average highs range between 55° and 72° from July through October, you can expect average lows between 20° and 33°F. That being said, you'll want a nice, toasty sleeping bag with a low comfort rating to keep you warm at night. As always, you're sleeping bag is only as good as your sleeping pad, so make sure you get one with a high R-value to keep the cold at bay.

Paria Outdoor Products ReCharge UL Insulated Sleeping Pad

A lightweight, insulated sleeping pad can make for a comfortable night on the trail. To save your lungs at the higher elevations, consider getting a pump sack as well.

Obviously, hammock camping at higher altitudes is pretty much out of the question, so a lightweight, but spacious tent will suit you well for this journey.

There are some steep sections along this trail, so you may wish to bring along some ultralight trekking poles to be a little kinder on your body. Plus, if you have a shelter that works with them, they can pull double duty in keeping your abode upright for the night!

You'll need to eat, of course, so don't forget your cooking pot and long-handled utensils!

If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.

Shop Backpacking Tents
Shop Ultralight Tarps
Shop Backpacking Quilts
Shop Down Sleeping Bags
Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
Shop Backpacking Pillow
Shop Folding Trekking Poles
Shop Titanium Cookware
Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories

Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!

Do I Need a Permit?

Yes, overnight permits are required. You can find more information on them in the links below.


Inyo NF Wilderness Permits
Ansel Adams Wilderness


If you're looking for a moderately challenging hike with some of the best views of the Sierras, the Thousand Island Lake Loop is waiting for you!

Have you completed this trail or any others in the Ansel Adams Wilderness? Have a suggestion for another great backpacking trail? Let us know in the comments below!

Read Next

If you're looking for more hike ideas, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other amazing backpacking trips in California.

Hike of the Week: Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail
Hike of the Week: Rae Lakes Loop
Hike of the Week: Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney
Hike of the Week: Joshua Tree National Park
Hike of the Week: Lost Coast Trail

For even more amazing backpacking trips visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed writeup like this one.

The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

Hike of the Week USA West

1 comment

  • Steven Michael Cannon

    I want to stay at Thousand Island Lake. Which campsite for my permit do I choose? Currently, I have on my permit to stay at “Emerald Lake JMT-Thousand Island Lake.” However, I also recognize that “Garnet Lake JMT-Thousand Island Lake,” “Island Pass JMT-Thousand Island Lake,”Ruby Lake JMT-Thousand Island Lake," and “Thousand Island Lake JMT-(River and High Trail)” are also other options. Could you please explain these campsites to me? I am trying to stay and camp at Thousand Island Lake. Which one would I choose for this?

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