Packraft Loop in the Sierra Nevada

It all started with a photo. A picture from high on Banner Peak looking down towards Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes in Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA. It was enough for a lightbulb to go off in my head…

I don’t remember where I found this photo but it made me think “perfect for a packrafting trip!”

Thousand Island Lake is iconic and may be the most well-known alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is a 320-acre lake with six miles of shoreline and is dotted with a lot of islands, ‘thousands” you could say. Ray and I had been there before. In 2016, we hiked the John Muir Trail and went right by the outlet of Thousand Island Lake. Also, we had been behind the two lakes when we hiked the Sierra High Route in 2018.

A classic view of Banner Peak at Thousand Island Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA.

Though the popular John Muir and Pacific Crest Trail pass by the outlet of Thousand Island Lake, there is a lot of unexplored islands and parts of the lake that rarely see visitors. Garnet, the next large lake to the the south, is also accessed at the outlet by the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails but except for a few campsites near the trail, it remains largely unvisited. What a perfect packrafting loop and a great way to explore the rest of the two lakes I thought. The planning began in earnest.

We invited two friends we have known for a long time, K and G. They are serious adventurers and strong athletes.

Trip Summary

This was a more relaxed trip than some of our backpack trips and thru hikes. We spent time relaxing, fishing, boating and exploring. I could get used to this kind of trip. Here is what we did:

Day 1: Rush Creek Trailhead to Thousand Island Lake
Day 2: Exploring Thousand Island Lake by Packraft
Day 3: Thousand Island Lake to Garnet Lake Via Easy Saddle Pass
Day 4: Garnet Lake Paddle/Hike to Middle Fork San Joaquin River
Day 5: Middle Fork San Joaquin River to Rush Creek Trailhead

Here is a map showing our campsites and where we hiked and boated. What follows is a description of our trip and what we did day to day.

Packraft/backpack loop through Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes.

Day 1: Rush Creek Trailhead to Thousand Island Lake
Distance: 8.4 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,484 ft/546 ft
Camp: Thousand Island Lake

`The motley crew at the start of the hike.

We are a motley crew I think to myself. Four people in their 50s and 60s carrying boats on our backs up a trail that goes over 3,000 feet in less than four miles. G, K, and my packs weigh around 35 pounds. Ray is carrying a heavier pack as he has two boats. His pack is around 45 pounds.

Besides carrying heavier packs and having a steep trail to climb, we have a few other challenges. K, also known as “Pea” has new shoes that don’t end up fitting her feet. Pretty soon she is wearing one shoe and a plastic croc shoe on the other foot.

Lessened learned: if the shoe doesn’t fit, wear a croc.

G, well, he has one leg. Yes, you read that right, G has one leg and a prosthetic leg. I would bet my life that there is no one else out there backpacking with one leg. It is almost beyond comprehension. I have known G a long time, though, and there is nobody that has a stronger mental focus and the ability to handle anything thrown his way. He puts us all to shame.

Hiking up Rush Creek Trail

So we start up the trail: four people of “mature” age, carrying boats, one person who ends up hiking with one shoe, one person with one leg, and, of course, we are hiking up the toughest trail that goes to Thousand Island Lake. It is rated “difficult”. Who’s idea was this? Oh yeah, I was reminded of that several times.

Pea and G hiking up the trail below Agnew Lake

We get started early, by about 7:45am. It is hot down by June Lake and is expected to be in the mid 90s today. Luckily (or unluckily) we will be gaining roughly 3500 feet and will be over 10,200 feet in elevation when we reach Thousand Island Lake. It will be cooler up at higher elevation but, heck, that’s a lot of feet to climb up!

I am all smiles before the climb

The first two miles is a gradual uphill with 800 feet elevation gain, and a wide and well used trail. We get into a rhythm and reach Agnew Lake which was has a dam and provides hydroelectric power to the cities of June Lake, Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining.

Sierra Tiger Lily (Lillie parvum). This is perhaps my favorite wildflower. It only grows in the High Sierra.

But the first two miles turn out to be the easiest part of the hike today. Above Lake Agnew it gets very steep. We zigzag back and forth up a rock pile that climbs over 2,000 feet in less than 2 miles. It is grueling and tough. Later I go on-line to look at reviews of the trail and get a few laughs. From Alltrails reviews: “The trail disappears in rocks but you know you’re on it because there is literally no where else to go” and “I can’t possibly imagine anyone going UP this way”.

By early afternoon, we reach Thousand Island Lake and stare in awe. It is no wonder that this was John Muir’s favorite lake. The grandeur of this place is bold, and it does not move over me quietly. Instead, it strikes me as hard as a punch and shutters through my being. Beauty can sometimes be that way, more piercing than peaceful.

Ray at first campsite at Thousand Island Lake

After getting to Thousand Island Lake, we decide to camp instead of continuing on in the boats. This means we share this camp area with many others as the outlet is where the John Muir Trail crosses through. There is at least 50 people here. Although I prefer more remote experiences, I accept that many people want to camp at Thousand Island Lake as it is incredibly beautiful and well known. I am ok with it as I know we will take a route less traveled tomorrow. Everyone else here will continue on the John Muir Trail and head onto other lakes and passes. We, though, will plunge forward into the lake and the explore the lesser known areas by packraft.

Day 2: Exploring Thousand Island Lake by Packraft
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 71 ft/17 ft
Camp: Thousand Island Lake

Today is a fun day with no big goals other than to explore Thousand Island and check out the islands. The four of us take our time getting up, enjoy coffee or tea, and blow the boats up. We are traveling to the other end of the lake so have to take everything in our packs with us. Items in our packs are either on the front of the boat or within the tube (using a zipper called a “Tzip”).

Getting ready in the morning to paddle across the lake, with plenty of time to explore islands. The blue and pink boats are the new Classic Alpacka rafts, the brown one is the old Classic Alpacka and the red boat is the new Alpacka Refuge.

We have four boats that are all from Alpacka raft. Ray is using our old classic packraft circa 2003. Yeah, we were packrafters before it was cool and hardly known (except for maybe in Alaska). Now packrafting is taking off as a sport and there are more people out exploring with boats. Pea and G are using our new Classic Alpacka boats we bought last year and I am using a new Alpacka Refuge.

Paddle time!

The Refuge is a little smaller than the classic boats and weighs about a pound and a half less. That makes it a great backpacking boat. But does it lose any performance by being smaller? I am excited to test it out.

Testing out the new Alpacka Refuge. It is recommended that anything hard or sharp be left on top of the boat and not put into the boat tubes. For this trip, I put everything from my pack inside the tubes except the bear can, lunch, my fishing setup, a rain jacket and water bottle. I loved this setup.

As it turns out, I love the Refuge and how it performs. I am a solid class II/III boater on rivers, very comfortable on lakes, and don’t mind putting in long hard days carrying a boat on my back. For me and what I like to do, it is the perfect boat.

We enjoy the day as explorers, checking out the bigger islands and little bays. It is a fun day as we giddily jump out to look around on the islands.

Ray and I on one of the islands on Thousand Island Lake
The Ranger’s buttons (Sphenosciadium capitellum) were in full bloom. Ranger’s buttons are toxic to livestock and humans, and can cause blindness. Infusions of the roots were used by Native Americans to treat lice and venereal sores.

I had hoped to camp on an island but wilderness regulations require that we be at least 100 feet from water. Between that requirement and the size and rockiness of the islands, we don’t find a good fit. Also, we will be hiking tomorrow and it is easier if we don’t have to pack for boating to leave an island, unpack once we get to shore, and then repack our packs to hike over the pass. For these reasons, we decide that camping near the end of the lake along the shore is better. We can then just paddle today and hike tomorrow.

G paddling on Thousand Island Lake
Beautiful, elongated green epidote crystals formed from hydrothermal fluids moving through the granodiorite.

Eventually we make it to the other end of the lake and find a great campsite. We joke around about names for the camp and decide on “Paintbrush Heights”. Ray takes some incredible pictures here of the meadow full of paintbrushes with Mount Banner in the background.

A beautiful meadow of paintbrushes with Mount Banner in the background. Photo by Ray.

Day 3: Thousand Island Lake to Garnet Lake Via Easy Saddle Pass
Distance: 2.7 miles
Elevation Loss/Gain: 276 ft/484 ft
Camp: Garnet Lake

Our goal for today is to make it over Easy Saddle Pass and drop into Garnet Lake and camp. Easy Saddle Pass is between Thousand island and Garnet Lakes. There is no trail connecting the two lakes over Easy Saddle Pass. It is off trail with boulder scrambles and grassy ramps.

Hiking on Easy Saddle Pass. In the foreground are clasts of indurated volcanoclastic tuff entrapped in the granodiorite.

Ray and I hiked over Easy Pass Saddle when we hike the Sierra High Route a few years ago. But we wonder how G will do with only one leg and it being off trail. It is very hard to scramble over rocks with an artificial leg. G focuses on each step and he is mentally so in the zone he is unaware of anything else around him. Frankly I am amazed at his willpower and strength. He inspires me and reminds me that anything is possible.

G on Easy Saddle Pass.

Pea decides since the hike is short, she will carry her boat in her arms. The boat weighs just over 5 1/2 pounds so I can see why she might just carry it. She straps it on her wrist and up she goes. I am in awe of her too.

Pea carrying her boat over Easy Saddle Pass. Check out the fancy foot ware!
At the top of Easy Saddle Pass with Thousand Island Lake in the background.

We pick a route and work our way over the saddle and down to the next lake, Garnet. It is so serene back here. Later we all agree that this was the best day on the trip. The geology is beyond amazing and it is good to have a third geologist (Pea) along for the arm-waving.

A large chevron fold of Mesozoic meta-sedimentary rocks altered and compressed by intruding granitic rocks during the Mesozoic or Cenozoic era. A normal fault can be seen in the right upper corner of the photo. This was quite dramatic!
Pieces of volcanic scoria incorporated in the granodiorite. The green halo around the scoria is epidote formed by hydrothermal alteration.

We work our way to Garnet Lake and even though it is only mid-day, G must stop. There are fish to be had. The back part of Garnet Lake has a beautiful sand shelf and beach and we are in awe of this private spot.

Sometimes you just have to jump out of the boat and fish.
12-inch Brook Trout caught by G. Pea and I also fly fish but aren’t successful.

We decide to camp here for the night and call it “Glacial Beach Camp”. We lounge away the afternoon pontificating about the geology, doing some fishing, and playing around in the boats.

The perfect beach on Garnet Lake for swimming, camping, fishing, and paddling around.

G is successful in catching two fish but no one has brought butter or oil so we improvise. I brought some freeze-dried bacon that becomes a wrap for the fish. G wistfully says “this could have been a gourmet meal” as we peel pieces of burnt fish and bacon off the charred pie tin.

Ray and G attempting to cook fish over a small backpacking MSR stove.

We laugh hard and hope there are no bears in the area as we all now smell like fish and bacon.

Day 3 camp at what we called “Glacial Beach”. Hopefully a bear won’t pick up G’s leg which is outside the tent.

Luckily, it is a quiet and peaceful night.

Day 4: Garnet Lake Paddle/Hike to Middle Fork San Joaquin River
Distance: 5.3 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 536 ft/589 ft
Camp: Middle Fork San Joaquin

The sun rising over Garnet Lake with a smidgeon of haze drifting in from the Oak Fire.

Today is a multi-modal day. We will paddle across Garnet Lake to the outlet where we meet up with the John Muir Trail. We will then hike back towards Thousand Island Lake and camp somewhere that will set us up for hiking out the next day.

Ray and I paddling away from our camp.

The paddle trip across Garnet Lake is glorious. John Muir comes to mind, a naturalist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness. I deeply feel his thoughts recorded through time: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” This place strengthens both my body and soul.

Paddling through text book geology. These beds are almost vertical!
Paddling across Garnet Lake

By mid-day we are across the lake and breaking down the boats to start the hiking. Ray and G take a quick dip before we pack away the boats.

Ray and G at Garnet Lake

Once the boats are packed away, we start the hike back past Thousand Island Lake and down the Rush Creek Trail. The Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River originates at Thousand Island and we diverge off the trail to camp by the river. There are beautiful cascades and waterfalls by our site so this campsite becomes “Cascade Falls Heights”. It is nice to fall asleep to the sound of the rushing river.

Beautiful waterfall near our campsite for night 4.
Cascade Falls Heights campsite, night 4

Day 5: Middle Fork San Joaquin River to Rush Creek Trailhead
Distance: 6.9 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 523 ft/2848 ft

Today it is time to head back to our vehicles. We have had good weather but it is definitely turning. It starts to rain and I realize I have my raincoat buried in my pack. Rookie mistake. I should know better. Luckily it doesn’t last but the skies remain dark.

Hiking past weakly formed columnar basalt. We are not too far from Devil’s Postpile

We pass by the Clark Lakes and get to the steep 2,000 rocky drop to Agnew Lake. Despite having only one shoe (and a croc), Pea is feeling good and wants to take off. I think of the old English phrase “give a horse it’s head”. Pea moves to the front and we gallop down the trail. It feels good with lighter packs on the last day of the trip.

By mid-day, we are out with Ray and G not too far behind us. I feel fortunate to experience this place a little differently then most people who pass by Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes. It is truly one of the prettiest places on the planet. Taking the time to explore islands, fish, swim and paddle made me appreciate the area more than I would have just passing through. Additionally, it didn’t hurt that the geology was mind-blowing. Sharing it with good friends also deepened the experience. I love these very beautiful lakes in the High Sierra. I probably will be back.

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