Cross-country Agnew to Tuolumne via Nydiver, Maclure Creek, and Johnson Peak

Who: Just me!
What: Backpacking
When: 8/4/19-8/8/19
Where: Ansel Adams Wilderness + Yosemite NP, native land of the Me-Wuk and Numu
Mileage: 43 miles (24.5 on trail + 18.5 xc)
Elevation gain/loss: +10,500ft/-9,800ft
More photos: here
CalTopo: here

Ansel Adams Wilderness near Mammoth and Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite are some of the most beautiful—and popular—areas in the Sierra. There’s so much beauty that can be seen with relatively little effort and the JMT runs right through there, so many of the lakes have camping restrictions or become little villages of tents every night. The on-trail lakes, that is. I found solitude in this area by taking a mostly cross-country route, and speak to any other humans for 3 days. In fact, the only other person I saw was from a distance—a kayaker on Ireland Lake.

Day 0
Transportation logistics

I drove from Oakland to Yosemite, dropping my car on the side of the road not too far from the store in Tuolumne Meadows. I caught YARTS bus down to Mammoth and camped for the night at New Shady Rest campground.

Day 1
Agnew Meadows to Nydiver Lakes via Shadow Creek
6mi +1,550ft/-700ft on trail, plus 1mi +1,200ft/-0ft xc

I was a bit lazy getting going this morning but managed to make it out of the campground to stick my thumb out to hitch a ride from town. After about ten minutes or so, I was picked up by pretty much the type of ride I’ve come to expect hitching around the eastern Sierra… a kinda beat pickup driven by a friendly but shirtless middle aged man. He drove me up to the main lodge area where I rode the bus down to Agnew Meadows and started my hike.

I hiked along the river trail in the warm sun and soon was turning up Shadow Creek towards the Ediza Lake area, which opened up some nice views back towards Mammoth.

River Trail

The hike up Shadow Creek was mellow and the sound of the cascades was soothing. I was excited to be returning to this area for the first time in a few years. I just adore this part of the Sierra. It’s been a bit overused in recent years but my mostly cross country route would ameliorate many of the issues associated with overuse.

Shadow Creek

I arrived at Shadow Lake and stopped for a snack break with this view of Ritter and Banner. I’d be hiking around the right side, then up to Nydiver lakes.

Shadow Lake

I left the trail between Shadow and Ediza at the spot that I roughly remembered coming down a few years back. There’s an old use trail here that leads up to the lowest of the Nydiver lakes. It’s easy to spot if you’re paying attention. About halfway up there is a magical cave, with a waterfall in the background and the views of the Volcanic Ridge from the bench above are quite nice indeed.

Old unmaintained Nydiver trail

Last time I was here fire smoke choked this view, so I was glad to see it.

Old unmaintained Nydiver trail

Old unmaintained Nydiver trail

The most difficult part of this route is the last bit to the lowest Nydiver lake. You can see its outlet cascading in the middle left of this photo. I ascended along the grassy rocks just to the right of the snowfield. There were a few class 3 moves, but nothing too scary or difficult.

The usual ascend is in the snowy gully. I had to do about 25 feet of Class 3 to get to a point where I could ascend along between the snow and the cliff on the right.

After 25 feet of class 3 moves, I got to where I could do some class 2 between the snow and the rock.

Snowy gully

And when you get to the top, it’s this. T_T

Lower Nydiver

Looking back down Shadow Creek

I continued around to the ridge between the Nydiver Lakes and Ediza, looking for a spot to camp. I was greeted with this view of the Minarets and Ediza. Iceberg Lake is tucked back in there, too, and you can see its frozen surface if you squint real good.

Ediza and Minarets from near my camp

I found what might be the best campsite on the planet earth, and puttered around marveling at just.. well.. everything. Look at where I get to sleep. L O O K

Camp above lower Nydiver

I got water and set up for dinner, with a view.

Dinner with a view

View from camp

I tried to capture the magic of this place as best I could with my camera. Here’s a more zoomed in shot of Iceberg Lake, with Cecile in the empty space hanging above it. You can really see how treacherous that infamous snowfield along its eastern shore is—in fact someone died descending from Cecile to Iceberg a few days before I camped with this view, but I didn’t know that at the time.

Zoomed in on Icerberg Lake. The snowfields look so treacherous. After returning from the trip, I learned a hiker died sliding down them the day before I took this photo.

Camp above lower Nydiver

Day 2
Nydiver Lakes to Thousand Island via Ediza + JMT
7mi +2,100ft/-1,200ft, plus 3.5mi +300ft/-1,500ft xc

I woke early to an ethereal and ephemeral sunrise of cotton candy clouds over Ritter and Banner. The lingering snowpack is just like jewelry on these gorgeous babes.

Sunrise views around camp above lower Nydiver

Sunrise views around camp above lower Nydiver

The sunrise. My god. The rays creeped up from the east, setting the granite aglow inch by inch from the top down. I might have cried a little.

Sunrise views around camp above lower Nydiver

Sunrise views around camp above lower Nydiver

Sunrise views around camp above lower Nydiver

Sunrise views around camp above lower Nydiver

After a good breakfast of coffee, oatmeal, and crying about how we don’t deserve this Earth, I headed around the south side of the upper Nydiver lakes towards Ritter and Banner, and looked up at Whitebark Pass (the low point on the ridgeline below) and thought about how I dragged an ex on his first time backpacking trip over there back in 2013. Oops. I just wanted to show him the beauty of this place, ok?

Lots of snow up here still

Making my way from lower to upper Nydiver lakes

As I got closer, I got a good view of Whitebark Pass.

Making my way from lower to upper Nydiver lakes

I continued on roughly southeast around the upper most of the Nydiver Lakes, looking to climb over a saddle and then find the use trail that people use to climb Ritter, which would lead me down to Ediza. The going was a bit slow with the snow, but the scenery and solitude made up for it.

Making my way from lower to upper Nydiver lakes

I did find myself backtracking here and there in a worrisome mood, trying to figure out where to cross the saddle, since the snowpack had created quite a few hazardous tarns that I needed to make my way around. Breaking through the snow into one of these would be Not Fun, at best.

Terrifying snowfield melting into a tarn

Terrifying snowfield melting into a tarn

Snow still fills the valley that has the use trail for climbing Ritter

Eventually I picked my way through and made it down into the valley below Ritter. I descended mostly on snow until I ran out of it, and then picked up a use trail alongside the snowmelt stream feeding into Ediza.

Waterfall below Ritter

I had a little break at Ediza. I guess I get why this is a favorite, a highlight lake.

Snack break at Ediza

The usual crossing of Ediza’s outlet in the valley below was washed away, so the route to get down this year is along the north rather than south side of the outlet stream. It’s just a use trail, and definitely involved some scrambling.

Since the log bridge over Ediza's crossing is washed out, a use trail on the north side of the outlet has gotten a lot more use. It has some gnarly bits!

Since the log bridge over Ediza's crossing is washed out, a use trail on the north side of the outlet has gotten a lot more use. It has some gnarly bits!

Washed out Ediza bridge

About 50 yards down is a much better crossing.

I continued down and eventually met up with the JMT, where I turned to head back up towards Garnet Lake.

JMT between Shadow Creek and Garnet Lake

It was your usual idyllic Sierra scene: hanging meadows, granite, distant peaks.

JMT between Shadow Creek and Garnet Lake

JMT between Shadow Creek and Garnet Lake

Descending to Garnet Lake gave me a view up towards the north side of Whitebark Pass. I had considered going that way when planning this trip, and looking at it from this side I was glad that I hadn’t. It’s not too steep, but the half-melted snow atop the loose and large talus would be tedious. Plus, going the long way round I got to hike that part of the JMT between Shadow and Thousand Island, that I hadn’t hiked yet.

A look at Whitebark Pass. A lot of steep snow still!

I had lunch (and awkward timed selfies) along Garnet Lake’s east shore.

Garnet Lake

And soon enough it was time to continue on hiking past Ruby and Emerald Lakes and towards Thousand Island Lake, where I would camp for the night. I knew I was in for a crowd at Thousand Island, so I wanted to arrive at a reasonable hour to try to find a decent spot far enough from the ukulele crowd.

Ruby Lake

Emerald Lake

The view of Banner from the outlet of Thousand Island is just like.. the platonic ideal of a mountain. Look at it. Look.

Get ready for a zillion photos of Banner

Banner and Thousand Island

I climbed a bit higher towards Thousand Island Pass and found myself a perch atop a ledge above Hostel Thousand Island. It was stupid pretty.

Camp on a ridge above Thousand Island

Camp on a ridge above Thousand Island

Day 3
Thousand Island to McClure Creek
7mi +1,800ft/-1,500ft, plus 1.5mi +300ft/-100ft xc

I got up early to tell this mountain to fuck off. I mean, come on. It’s just a little bit ostentatious, don’t you think?

Sunrise views of Banner over Thousand Island

Sunrise views of Banner over Thousand Island

Sunrise views of Banner over Thousand Island

And no worries if you didn’t manage to wake up for sunrise, because it’s just as gorgeous at literally any time of day. I packed up camp and started climbing towards Thousand Island and then Donahue Passes. My goal for the day was to cross Donahue into Yosemite on the JMT and then leave the trail for a cross country section up McClure Creek.

Banner and Thousand Island

Banner and Thousand Island

JMT near Island Pass

The route up gives more ridiculously gorgeous perspectives on Banner, and now Ritter in the background.

JMT between Island Pass and Marie junction

There were a few log crossings, nothing too crazy. It’s the JMT after all.

JMT between Island Pass and Marie junction

JMT between Island Pass and Marie junction

JMT between Island Pass and Marie junction

JMT south of Doonahue Pass

Ascending towards Donahue Pass, the trail is somewhat deceptive… it appears closer than it is, though there’s not too much elevation to ascend, it still takes a bit of time to reach the top. Once there, you go down. Wow! Imagine that. I’ll spare you the details since this is the JMT, a literal hiker highway.

JMT south of Doonahue Pass

Views from Donahue Pass

Views from Donahue Pass

JMT north of Donahue Pass

On the descent I did spot one kindred spirit, doin’ a li’l chirp chirp from under his rock perch. Hey pika!

Pika!!!

As the JMT descends down Lyell Canyon, you get amazing views up into the high country.

The tarn at the Lyell Fork headwaters

The tarn at the Lyell Fork headwaters

JMT north of Donahue Pass

I followed the JMT along a shoulder and then cut southwest before reaching Maclure Creek.

JMT north of Donahue Pass

The cross country terrain was easy until I arrived at the large talus field, which looked rather annoying but was not too terrible after all.

Leaving the trail to head to McClure Creek

Talus must be crossed

Midway through the talus I had magnificent views down Lyell Canyon.

Talus must be crossed

After the talus, there was some gentle valley walking, a stream crossing (of Maclure Creek), and then some really chill hillside walking to reach the bench where I planned to camp.

Then some gentle valley walking

And crossing McClure Creek

Climbing up the other side of the creek, views began to open up. I love the way snow accents the granite.

More gentle walking on grass, ascending to some small tarns

More gentle walking on grass, ascending to some small tarns

Once atop the bench, I had my choice of idyllic campsites. I chose to head all the way back to the northeastern most tarn so that I could get a view both across Lyell Canyon and also back up towards Maclure and Lyell.

Camp in McClure Creek drainage

Camp in McClure Creek drainage

After making my little home for the night, I headed to a tarn nearby for a swim and some water gathering. I came across some mountain lion poo. Perfect for easing the ol’ solo cross-country anxiety. Yep. Just what I wanted to see.

Is it mountain lion poop? It was LARGE, too big for coyote.

But well worth it for this as my private little lake. I swam, then warmed myself on some rocks, filled up my water and returned to camp for dinner and rest.

McClure Creek drainage

Day 4
McClure Creek to Townsley Lake
7.5mi +1,700ft/-1,700ft xc

I made myself crawl out of my tent early enough to catch some of that eastern Sierra sunrise alpenglow. It’s generally worth it close to the crest since the height of the mountains plus the severe drop to the Owens Valley means that the sun’s rays flow through lots of atmosphere before painting the granite peaks.

Camp in McClure Creek drainage

The cool thing about backpacking by yourself is you can set your own schedule and go back to bed for a bit after the alpenglow ritual. I started back towards Lyell across easy granite slabs, avoiding meadows so as to minimize my impact on the plants.

McClure Creek drainage

McClure Creek drainage

My plan was to walk up the granite ramps, first to the left and then to the right, up to the wide saddle, where I’d find some tarns to navigate around before reaching the pass south of Ameila Earheart Peak.

McClure Creek drainage

McClure Creek drainage

McClure Creek drainage

I walked up granite slabs from near the trees on the right, diagonally up to the left, where I tried to connect with some grassy ramps I’d heard would bring me back up to the right above the steep cliff face.

McClure Creek drainage

Climbing slabs

Beautiful heather bloom

I got a little tangled in a maze of ramps, but spotted this young buck along the way.

A buck!

Soon enough I found the grassy ramps I was looking for.

Ascending a grassy bench to some higher tarns below Amelia Earhardt "pass"

And I followed them all the way up.

Ascending a grassy bench to some higher tarns below Amelia Earhardt "pass"

I took a short snack break and surveyed the next part of my route. I went across between the tarns and then crossed the snowfield in a narrower, less steep part. Then it was chunky slab walking all the way to the ridge.

Tarn below Amelia Earhard pass

Ascending Amelia Earhardt pass

Ascending Amelia Earhardt pass

Ascending Amelia Earhardt pass

The arrival of more clouds did make for an interesting texture to the sky, but they also signaled afternoon thunderstorms. Although the views up there were absolutely spectacular, I didn’t linger atop the pass long before picking my way down towards Ireland Lake.

Ireland Lake from the pass

Ireland Lake from the pass

Towards Parsons Plateau

How far I've come!!

This had been a big snow year, and you know what they say about big snow years—big sun cups. Some of these were as deep as my thighs.

Lots of snow on the way down to Ireland Lake

Looking back towards the ridge from where I’d come. I picked my way between snowfields until I was down in the flats and I couldn’t avoid them.

Lots of snow on the way down to Ireland Lake

The terrain in here was a little convoluted and required some micro routefinding to get down to Ireland Lake. I don’t remember exactly where I went, but I do remember that I had to backtrack a couple times after arriving at something too steep or too filled with snow.

Lots of snow on the way down to Ireland Lake

Lots of snow on the way down to Ireland Lake

From my vantage point high above Ireland Lake I spotted a kayaker! Now that’s dedication. Hiking in a kayak. Wow.

A person on an inflatable kayak on Ireland lake. I didn't get to talk to them.

Descending to Ireland's outlet

Once down at the lake, I crossed its outlet stream and then had another little break. I hemmed and hawed about what to do, with the clouds building. My next destination was over a little saddle just north of Peak 11,480, a shortcut avoiding the trail that would get me to Fletcher Lake. But my did it look barren up there. Not really a great place to be if the weather decided to get grumbly.

Crossing the wide meadow east of Ireland

I headed partway over there anyway, into some low scrubby trees and pitched my tent. I ate Reeses Pieces and chatted with a marmot while I waited to see what the storm would do.

A visitor came to entertain me while I waited out a thunderstorm on the ridge I wanted to cross

It did this, so I was glad for my caution.

Dark clouds above Ireland Lake as I ascended to cross into the drainage above Townsley / Evelyn

Dark clouds that kept me waiting for a while

But, as is often the case in the Sierra, it blew on through after throwing some lightning at the peaks to my south and thoroughly soaking the meadow near Ireland Lake. In the after-storm clear, I climbed over the ridge and down the other side through magical hanging meadows. There was a bit of hmmm where should I cross this wide pond-y creek, but before long I was bootskiing down loose sandy gravel to Townsley Lake.

Making my way down from the ridge

Making my way down from the ridge

Lush spongy meadows!

Lush spongy meadows!

2019-08-07 17.20.02.jpg

Camping down at Fletcher Lake isn’t allowed, so I snagged this nice little ledge spot to call home for the night. I ate dinner as the sun sunk behind the ridge southwest of Rafferty Peak and bathed my little home in all its warm glory.

Camp near Townsley Lake

Camp near Townsley Lake

Susnet view of Fletcher Lake

Day 5
Townsley Lake to Tuolumne via Johnson Peak + Elizabeth Lake
4.5mi +500ft/-1,300ft, plus 5mi +1,100ft/-1,800ft xc

I woke to a few scattered clouds, had breakfast, and headed down to catch the JMT near Fletcher Lake. The plan was to hike north just over Tuolumne Pass—barely a pass though I guess the trail does go up and then down—and then leave the JMG and hike up the shoulder of Rafferty to a small hanging valley before crossing over the ridge south of Johnson Peak.

Sunrise from camp near Townsley Lake

Fletcher Lake

Highway of a trail

Trail between Fletcher and Evelyn

Beautiful views on my cross country route near Tuolumne Pass

I got a little distracted and side tracked by acres of thigh high lupine.

Beautiful lupine blooms above Tuolumne Pass

Beautiful lupine blooms above Tuolumne Pass

Beautiful lupine blooms above Tuolumne Pass

As I climbed a helicopter was making trips back and forth to Vogelsang, perhaps bringing supplies for a trail crew. I don’t know. It didn’t seem like a rescue operation, though.

Helicopter made at least 4 trips back and forth to Vogelsang

I continued to climb up grass and ledges, though I was going perpendicular to their flow so the going was somewhat annoying walking up and down when the spot in front of me was too tall to hoist myself up.

Climbing towards Johnson Peak

Climbing towards Johnson Peak

The views back towards Vogelsang got better and better as I climbed.

Climbing towards Johnson Peak

And then I crested the ridge and saw this absolutely spectacular little hanging valley. This would be an amazing place to camp in the future. I continued on, down relatively easy grassy gullies and across the meadow towards the trees in the distance. I would climb through them, then up to the left to reach the ridge.

Lovely little hanging valley below Rafferty and Johnson

Lovely little hanging valley below Rafferty and Johnson

Route up to Johnson saddle and peak

The broken granite slabs below Johnson Peak were knit through with heather in full bloom.

Route up to Johnson saddle and peak

Route up to Johnson saddle and peak

At the saddle I ditched my pack, bringing just a bit of water and a snack to climb the Class 2 route up to Johnson Peak, a few hundred feet above me to the north.

Route up to Johnson saddle and peak

The view from the top is like a who’s who of Yosemite—you can see just about every famous Tuolumne area peak since you’re standing atop one of the lesser-known ones. There’s Rafferty, Vogelsang, Fletcher, Florence Lyell, Maclure…

View from Johnson Peak

Kuna, Blacktop, Donahue…

View from Johnson Peak

Ragged, White, Conness…

View from Johnson Peak

View from Johnson Peak

Unicorn, Cathedral, Cockscomb…

View from Johnson Peak

View from Johnson Peak

The Matthes Crest and just… wow.

View from Johnson Peak

View from Johnson Peak

After opening and closing my mouth a bunch both to express awe and also to eat snacks, I started scrambling back down. I went a slightly different and more annoying way. There were trees choking large boulders and I definitely got myself in some awkward positions.

View from Johnson Peak

View from Johnson Peak

View from Johnson Peak

I grabbed my pack and walked down easy granite slabs to the west, then down past some incredibly endearing tarns.

Descending to Elizabeth Lake

Descending to Elizabeth Lake

I used the tarns outlet streams as a handrail and followed ramps down into the forest. I knew that if I kept not too far from the creek, it would take me down to Elizabeth Lake where I could pick up the trail down to Tuolumne.

Descending to Elizabeth Lake

Descending to Elizabeth Lake

Open forest walking down to Elizabeth Lake

I saw a tree with a butt.

A tree butt

And a weird bloody smear on a rock.

Questionable smudges on some rocks

And then a lake. And LOTS of people for the first time since the kayaker on Ireland Lake.

Elizabeth Lake

Look at how huge this trail is! I hoofed it on back and made it to the Tuolumne Meadows Store around 1pm for lunch and a relaxing adult beverage before returning to my car for the journey home.

Trail down from Elizabeth Lake

Want to do this trip yourself? You’ll need an Inyo National Forest Wilderness permit for Shadow Creek. If you want to skip the Nydiver Lakes portion, you could alternatively use any of the other trails heading north from Agnew Meadows. The Mount Ritter and Vogelsang USGS Quads will be helpful. You might also want to pick up the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Yosemite SE Ansel Adams Wilderness (#309) map.

2 thoughts on “Cross-country Agnew to Tuolumne via Nydiver, Maclure Creek, and Johnson Peak

  1. I love your photo of Banner Peak from your camp above Thousand Island Lake. I also love that area on the ridge between Nydiver and Ediza Lake with the view of the Minarets above Iceburg Lake. Very interesting x-country route beyond Donahue Pass. Awesome trip! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lovely commentary and some very nice photographs. I’ve climbed Ritter and Lyell with a German Shepherd, although on different trips. I’ve also walked from Agnew Meadow to Yosemite with a Shepherd, almost passing a ranger in the sandy braids of the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Just over the top of Donahue Pass is a killer camping area, right near a gentle section of the stream, which was terrific for swimming and floating… You really didn’t need that tent, at least not everywhere. In those days, I was carrying a Nikon, now a 4 x 5″ view camera. I have a short folding ladder, I can immediately see how I would have used it for several of your perspectives on, otherwise, flat terrain. We should talk. I publish in L.A. You did the beauty of the region justice; it was a thrill to reminisce through your eyes. Thank you.

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