Backpacking the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Backpacking in the Ansel Adams wilderness covers a phenomenal amount of terrain. This year, one of our regular group only had 4 days and 3 nights free, so we decided to repeat one of our favorite areas that we hadn’t been in nearly a decade. We arrived at the ranger station in Mammoth Lakes early and got in line for our permit. Thanks to awesome ranger Julie for helping us out!!! We scored permits for our group in the area we were hoping for, Garnet Lake. We hiked in mid-week so that made it pretty easy to pick up a permit the day before. There were only 5 people in line and I think 12 spots just for this trail-head reserved for walk-ins. After scoring our permit, we had a day to kill, so we goofed around in Mammoth Lakes, wished we had brought our mountain bikes for the absolutely epic lift served biking going on at Mammoth Mountain and had a good dinner. Our final hiker joined us late that night after a pretty rough drive out of the Bay Area.

Our small group drove into Devils Postpile before 7am so we could have our car at the trail head. We planned to hike 6 miles out on Sunday, then drive to Northern Oregon to catch the total solar eclipse on Monday so we wanted the car handy. We took the river trail in, which was fairly busy with most folks headed to Thousand Island Lake. At the stream that flows into the San Joaquin River from Garnet Lake, we cut across country. The river was high here and we had to take off our boots and put on water shoes to cross. Once across, we cut straight up, following the drainage from Garnet Lake until we crossed the trail again. Just below Garnet Lake we encountered a deaf JMT through hiker who got lost in the snow after crossing the bridge at Garnet Lake and was heading down the drainage. We figured out she was looking for the JMT and escorted her back up and put her on the right trail before heading around the north end of the lake and climbing above it to camp near the small tarn at the west end. This place will be wildflower central in a couple of weeks, but as it was the beautiful meandering streams and the view down into Garnet made it worth the extra mosquitoes. A commentator on my 2009 blog post of a similar trip pointed out that Garnet lake gets its name from the amount of Garnet in the rocks there. Here is what that looks like, keep your eyes peeled!

The walking was easy, the mosquitoes normal and with a short trip, our packs were pleasantly light. The focus of our backpacking trips for me is landscape photography so I brought along my Nikon D810 and just a 24mm f1.4 lens to save weight. Soon I’ll switch over to the Sony A9 and be able to bring a couple of lenses for the same weight penalty. I also brought along a polarizing filter for the glare on the water and a 5 stop Neutral Density filter to blur water and fast moving clouds. Most of the days were cloudy with some thunder and rain and pretty grey. The sun was out in the morning and there was some color in the sunsets, but not as much as I was hoping for. Any of these images and more can be licensed for use by searching through my online photographic archive.

From Garnet our plan was to head cross country to an easy pass at the north-west end of the lake and cut over to Nydiver. Well, the whole wall was covered with snow, so we ended up going around the south side of the lake and crossing a less steep pass just one knoll west of the JMT trail. The top of this pass had an amazing photogenic tarn and would have made a great campsite. From the top we also spotted a small pool at the base of a waterfall coming out of lower Nydiver lake and thought that it looked like paradise. From this pass we could see across to Iceberg Lake and Cecile where we went on our last trip. They were both still frozen and the steep approaches covered in snow so we decided we would camp at Nydiver one night, explore around and then walk about a mile down to the unnamed pool that looked so amazing. From there we would get up early and race downhill to catch up with the JMT trail heading into Shadow lake and follow it back to the River Trail and the car and then drive up to Oregon.


Black and white landscape photograph of garnet lake

Arrival at Garnet Lake under grey skies. I thought this looked like a nice Black and White composition.

sunset at garnet lake in the high sierra

The clouds started to break up around sunset and only had a little glow behind Banner and Ritter peaks, but I love all the streams in this area above Garnet Lake for leading lines.

Garnet lake photograph

Almost the same moment looking east across Garnet Lake as the last rays of sun hit.

garnet lake photograph

Clouds were in the sky the next morning, but this was all the color I got over Garnet Lake at sunrise.

Sunrise photography Banner Peak

The clouds kept the sun from really breaking out and lighting up Banner and Ritter. I got about 10 seconds of diffused light and then only a few patches. Can’t win them all.

morning light on Ritter Peak

The sun went away completely for a while and I started to walk back to camp to make coffee, then it broke out on Banner for a few minutes and I raced back for this shot. No sooner did I get this frame then the sun went away for good that day.

“Every body needs a montage…” Snowy hike out from Garnet headed over pass to Nydiver.

From the top of the pass between Garnet and Nydiver looking across at a frozen Iceberg lake just below the Minarets

Fun at the pass

black and white landscape photograph

Black and white photograph of a cool old tree as Monique and Nathan take advantage of the high terrain to have a look at everything

black and white high sierra photograph

A black and white photograph of the cool tarn at the top of the pass.

Nydiver lake in ansel adams wilderness

Middle Nydiver Lake

Nydiver lake and wildflowers

Some of the wildflowers were just starting, but we saw entire fields of shooting stars about a week or two from blooming.

nydiver lake black and white landscape

Black and white photograph at the outflow of the middle Nydiver Lake.

Nathan fishing. We didn’t have as much luck this trip at Nydiver.

pink sunset photograph over banner and ritter peak

The clouds were thick all day and we didn’t expect much but we got about 5 minutes of pink back light right at sunset, then it closed in.

campsite at dusk with tent photograph

I got into my campsite photography this year. One of the things we loved about this hike, and most any time we go backpacking off trail, no people! Middle Nydiver lake with Banner and Ritter visible over tent.

star photography in the high sierra

The nice thing about the nikon 24 f1.4 is that it is super sharp and I get another stop and a half out of it which makes it a great star photography lens.

middle nydiver sunrise photograph with banner and ritter peak

Sunrise still had some clouds on the eastern horizon, but I got a couple of minutes of first light before it greyed out. Banner and Ritter peaks over the outflow from the middle Nydiver lake.

I turned and faced behind me from the previous shot once the sun faded from Banner and Ritter and there was still some light farther down on the Minarets.

sunrise over lower nydiver lake

Finally the sun climbed above the clouds on the horizon and I got this last photograph from the same spot. I used a small aperture (f/14) to get the starburst just as the sun crept over the mountain in front of me. Looking at lower Nydiver Lake.

At the east end of lower Nydiver lake we needed to find a way down to the amazing pool below the waterfall. Nathan and Monique at top are looking for a path above the wall next to the outflow. I was already most of the way down the hard way. Turns out you stay to the left of the stream as you descend and it’s a piece of cake.

High sierra landscape photography

My only picture from around lower Nydiver lake as the sun poked out and showed the deep blue and green of the water, plus the striped rock formations on this side of the lake were pretty cool.

High sierra landscape photography

Bottom image, one last shower in the icy stream below middle Nydiver. Top, following the trail down there are still some big snow drifts.

person photographed under waterfall

Nathan at the waterfall coming out of lower Nydiver.

waterfall black and white photo

Corn lilies and waterfall in black and white with neutral density filter to blur the water in the daylight.

high sierra campsite under waterfall

Our amazing campsite below the waterfall and in a clearing near a crystal clear pool.

high sierra milky way photo

The last night I climbed up on the ridge to grab a quick shot of the Milky Way over the Minarets. You can see stars reflected in Ediza lake if you look hard.

High sierra sunrise photograph

Sunrise on our last day over the Minarets and Ediza lake. This was the only real view from our secluded little campsite by the waterfall, and you had to climb up a small hill for it.

woman hiker drinking coffee at sunrise

Monique got her coffee and joined me from the top of the hill overlooking Ediza and sipped away as the sun came over the mountains.

solar eclipse 2017 solar atmosphere

After sunrise, we rushed out to the trail head about 6 miles. Got in our car and drove 11 hours to Oregon to catch the total solar eclipse. It was so worth it. Even with no planning and no real photographic preparation, just the visceral reaction through my whole being as the sun turned into a black hole in the sky was like nothing I had ever experienced. This image is a 5 exposure bracket combined to show the solar atmosphere in a photograph the way it looked to us when we were viewing it.

solar eclipse sequence

Finally my sequence of the event, shot about every 10 minutes and each frame blended in Photoshop.


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Fine Art Landscape Photography

Lake Tahoe Landscape Photographer

Scott Sady is a freelance and fine art landscape photographer based in Lake Tahoe and Reno. Scott specializes in Lake Tahoe landscape photography, Sierra landscape photography, Reno and Lake Tahoe stock images and freelance and photojournalism. Scott is available for freelance photography assignments in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area.