Cascades & Sierra Nevada Road Trip Part 2: Backpacking Ediza and Thousand Island Lakes

The highlight of our July 2021 road trip was backpacking to Ediza Lake and Thousand Island Lake, in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. To get an early start, we stayed in Lee Vining the night before, which also gave us a chance to visit Mono Lake.

Backpacking to Ediza and Thousand Island Lakes was the second part of our Cascades and Sierra Nevada roadtrip, which I’ve described in three posts:

Friday, July 16 – continued

From Crater Lake, we continued south, stopping for lunch at Dagwood’s Burgers (TripAdvisor) in Klamath Falls. We shared the Super Dagwood, a half pound burger with grilled onions, mushrooms, three cheeses, pastrami, fries, and a milkshake. The burger was fantastic — an affordable, filling, and delicious lunch.

Soon after, we were back in the car, with a goal of reaching Lee Vining, where we would spend the night, before dusk. On the way, we drove through areas recently devastated by the Bootleg and Beckwourth Complex fires and saw the beginnings of the Tamarack fire near Carson City. Our route and timing very much threaded the needle, as roads we traveled were closed just days before and after our trip.

We arrived at Lee Vining shortly before dusk. Before entering town, we made a quick stop at the Mono Lake Vista Point. Continuing to town, we got dinner from the Basin Café (at the Lake View Lodge), sharing some excellent barbecued ribs with berry flavors in the sauce. After eating quickly, we  drove over to the South Tufa to explore with our limited remaining light.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake is a terminal lake in an endorheic basin — a drainage basin that retains water with no outflows to oceans, so water instead converges in lakes or swamps, where it evaporates. It’s also very alkaline due to the accumulation of salts deposited by the inflows. The South Tufa area showcases many tufa: limestone towers formed by deposits from calcite deposits that precipitated over many years around underwater springs in the lake. When the lake level was lowered for irrigation, these tufa were exposed. Among other harms, the lowered lake level exposed birds on islands to land-based predators, so the state is currently working to slowly undo this.

The lake is also home to many kinds of wildlife, especially migratory shorebirds. These, along with nesting birds, feed on brine shrimp that thrive in the lake. We also were surprised by the clouds of alkali flies (Ephydra hians). You would not think it, but running through them and causing them to swarm was strangely delightful.

We enjoyed wandering around the tufa and watching birds, including a nesting osprey, as the sun set. As the evening grew dark, we returned to our car and went to our hotel, Yosemite Gateway Motel (TripAdvisor | Booking.com | Hotels.com), to check-in. The location was convenient to town and the room was basic, with a view back to the lake.

Saturday, July 17

We woke up early, with two goals. The first was to see the Main Tufa area at Mono Lake for sunrise (5:55am).

The second reason was to get into the Agnew Meadows area with our car before 7am. After 7am, anyone not staying in the Angew Meadows or Devil’s Postpile Monument area must instead use a shuttle. I’m normally a proponent of shuttles in parks, but we found the system here somewhat hostile for backpackers. The fees were $15 day, which is a fair deal if you are exploring the various sites in the National Monument. For our use case – just riding a stop or two to the trailhead and exiting a few days later, it was hard to justify $60, especially since our annual pass already covered the entrance fee. Additionally, we hoped to explore the monument some after our backpacking trip, and that would be a lot easier if we could leave our full packs in the car.

So, we had a strong incentive to wake up early and get into the park. We estimated that the time of sunrise would allow us to do both with barely enough time. It helped that the main tufa area was close to the parking lot. We got to watch sunrise, hop in the car, drive south, and squeak past the gate with 10 minutes to spare.

Backpacking to Ediza Lake

Leaving the parking area turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the trip. We parked where we would exit–near the stables and the PCT–and then walked down the road to our entering trail. There were many signs and many trails, none of which exactly aligned and none of which matched our map. Following signs and the map took us on a route that dead ended, and we ended up doing a tenth of a mile or so cross-country to the John Muir Trail to get back on track.

From there, the route was straightforward. We could move quickly, descending and then ascending at pack grade. We passed Olaine Lake. Before long, we were ascending to Shadow Lake, along a lovely set of cascades with interesting rocks. We paused for a good break at Shadow Lake. There, we met a ranger who checked our permit, verified we had the right equipment for leave no trace camping, and gave us tips on where to camp at Ediza Lake.

From Shadow Lake, the trail followed along the meandering stream that runs between Ediza and Shadow lakes. I loved this stretch of trail, including the stream and glimpses of peaks through the green forest.

At Ediza Lake, we followed the use trail counter-clockwise, toward the north side of the lake. We stopped often for views and to inspect potential campsites. About two-fifths of the way around, we found a nice, sheltered site away from the water but with good access to a nice rocky spot with views, the lake, and some flat areas for cooking. (Another group later camped on that spot despite it not being compliant with permits and a potential lightning magnet.)

After getting set up, we set out for a short day hike up to Iceberg Lake. This brought us even higher and closer to the Minarets, and to another beautiful lake. At Iceberg Lake, both paths lead around each side. The one that led clockwise around the lake tempted us most for its views, but the footing looked a little sketchy, and so we decided against it.

Instead, we decided to continue cross country, exploring the basin above Ediza Lake and to the north of Iceberg Lake. This offered beautiful views, but I’m not sure it was easier than taking the boot path higher would have been.

Back in camp, we had dinner and watched dusk at the lake, a lovely evening to cap off a beautiful day. We were also treated to a beautiful, clear night. I woke up to enjoy views of the Milky Way over the Minaret Peaks.

Sunday, July 18

I woke up early to see alpenglow across Ediza Lake, on the the Minarets. We had breakfast and broke camp. The forecast called for afternoon storms, and so we hoped to reach our next night’s camp at Thousand Island Lake before the rain.

Heading to Garnet Lake

Our route took us back along Ediza Lake’s outlet and through the forest, retracing the previous day’s steps. Before we reached Shadow Lake, we turned to the north, ascending a ridge separating Ediza Lake’s valley from Garnet Lake’s valley. This was the toughest climb of the route, but it still passed quickly. We soon forgot all of that work when we crested the ridge and looked down on a spectacular view of Garnet Lake.

While tempted to linger along the lake, the sky had started to cloud up, reminding us of the forecast storms. So, we pressed on and over the next ridge, passing the smaller Ruby and Emerald lakes.

On to Thousand Island Lake

By the time we reached Thousand Island Lake, the sky had clouded over. Thunder rumbled, not far away. We still took some time to find a nice campsite, but upon selecting one, we wasted no time in setting up camp. It started to pour moments after we got the tent fly on.

We waited out the worst of the storm in the tent, happy to be dry and warm. Even once the storms past, we were surprised to see the sky remain unsettled, with small showers passing through. We had anticipated the storms to pass through and leave us with an afternoon that invited further exploration. Instead, we stayed close to camp, wandering down to the lake to admire the views of distant peaks and lovely wildflowers.

Back at the site, marmots and Belding’s ground squirrels came by to visit. While checking out some of the rocks above camp for views and a potential dinner site, we soon saw the marmots loved this spot too. The rocks were covered with jaw-dropping amounts of, well, droppings.

As we finished dinner, the sky offered a few small patches of blue sky. We walked back down to the lake in hopes of a colorful sunset. The lake’s waters reflected Banner Peak and surrounding mountains. A buck came down to the water not far from us. Wildflowers glistened. The most colorful parts of the sunset, though, stayed obscured by the ridge to our north.

Monday, July 19

In the morning, we woke up to partly cloudy skies. The sun cast a golden light which combined with the grey to create a beautiful and moody scene.

As we ate breakfast, the lower clouds burned off, and it started to look like we’d enjoy blue skies for the morning. That made it hard to leave. We must have stopped ten times, a dozen times, or more to look back as we headed out.

We followed a network of trails over to the High Trail, which would lead us along a volcanic ridge, but below its heights, and back to Agnew Meadows. The trail alternated between forests and meadows. The meadows offered views across the valley, back to the lake basins, the Minarets, Mount Ritter, and Banner Peak. Several of the more exposed viewpoints tiled with basalt columns.

Each time we broke out into a new meadow, we noticed the sky had become more threatening. Soon we heard thunder and then saw torrential downpours across the valley. We were glad the trail was not on the crest of the ridge. We hastened our pace, hoping to be down in the forests before the storms reached us.

The storm caught us long before we made it back into the thick trees. We found a low spot, partly protected by thin, low trees, as we were pelted with hail as large as a dime. After ten or fifteen minutes – though it felt much longer – the hail let up and the lightening had passed. The rain, however, remained.

We considered our distance from the trailhead and the possibility of more storms, and decided it would be better to continue rather than to try to wait out the rain. We could see blue skies to our south, but bands of rain continued to douse us as we hiked out.

When we reached the trailhead, we were very glad we had been able to park the car here and to change into warmer, dry clothes and shoes.

Devils Postpile National Monument

By the time we changed and made the short drive to the Devils Postpile trailhead, the day felt completely different. The sky was blue and the sun warmed us.

Devil’s Postpile is a large formation of columnar basalt, near the San Joaquin River. It formed from pools in a lava flow less than 100,000 years ago. A short loop trail led to a combination of jumbled, broken columns, and then up on top, where we could walk on an area that seemed “paved” with these columns. This was well-worth the detour. Other trails lead to waterfalls in the area, but, with limited time, we decided that would be too much for the day.

Drive to Chester

From Devils Postpile, we drove back to Lee Vining. There, we stopped for dinner at the Mobile (yes, a gas station) and Woah Nellie Deli (TripAdvisor). This was a great trail-end meal, and the location offered views back over Lee Vining.

As we drove further north, and I checked news on my phone, it became clear that fires had spread. Much of Susanville was without power. Smoke clouded the skies, and ash accumulated on our car.

In Chester, we checked in at the Best Western Rose Quartz Inn (TripAdvisor | Hotels.com | Booking.com). The hotel’s clientele was a curious mix of vacationers and fire crews. The first group walked through the hallway with pool noodles, the latter with chainsaws. A couple sat out in the jacuzzi as the ash fell. We debated whether we’d see Lassen in the morning as planned, or just head home.

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