July 9, 2016 | By Nick Carver
Minaret Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness
Click Photos to Enlarge
Backpacking is a tough thing for landscape photographers like myself. It's exhausting, overwhelming, and mentally challenging. I'm speaking, of course, of the agony spent over deciding which camera to bring. The hiking itself...that's just one foot in front of the other. But come on, for a camera junkie like me, the real difficulty is deciding which gear to pack! So when I planned to take a backpacking trip to the Minarets in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, I had a difficult decision to make.
Okay, first we can strike off the Shen Hao TFC 617-A panoramic camera. The scenery up there would be perfect for this camera, but there's no way I could bring it. If you don't know why, Google image search that beast. Then there's the Mamiya RZ67 - an awesome camera with an excellent negative size for capturing intricate detail in the landscape. But no dice on the RZ because, well, I'm not Arnold Schwarzenegger. So what about my Fuji GA645Zi? Nah, it's a rangefinder camera which means no using Split ND filters while I'm out there - a definite deal-breaker.
That left my Canon EOS 6D digital SLR. This is my workhorse camera I use every week for my professional work. It fit the bill perfectly. Sure it lacks the romanticism of shooting film, but it has excellent image quality and resolution, it's relatively lightweight for a full-frame DSLR, and it has an impressively high maximum ISO, which meant I'd be able to photograph the Milky Way in the dead of night. I attached my Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS and packed a set of Lee filters: 1-, 2-, and 3-stop hard edge split NDs; 2- and 3-stop soft edge graduated NDs; and a polarizer.
I've moved away from what I'd call "traditional" color landscape photography in recent years - you know, bright colors, epic wide angle compositions, a strong foreground - but I decided on this trip to deliberately go back to this style for a couple reasons. One: it's a great way to capture the epic-ness of such an epic place. The bright colors and wide angle views jive well with this kind of in-your-face scenery. And second: I pursued this style of photography for years based largely on my admiration for world-famous photographer Galen Rowell. He basically invented this style of high-saturation, high-alpine photography that drew me into picture-taking all those years ago. Since I knew this scenery was in the heart of Rowell's stomping grounds and since I'd be doing a bit of mountaineering - something for which Rowell was well-known - I figured it would be fun to go full "Galen Rowell style" on this trip and just embrace the style he made so popular. I'm glad I did.
Framing up a shot at Iceberg Lake with my Canon EOS 6D
But then there was the issue of the tripod. Now I sure as hell wasn't going to opt for one of those ridiculous little ground tripods because, I don't know about you, but very few of my best compositions are from 6-inches off the ground. After a lot of research and comparing models, I ended up with a set of Oben CT-2331 Carbon Fiber legs (link) and a Benro IB2 ballhead (link). $320 out the door with a featherlight total weight of 2.5 pounds and a maximum extended height of nearly 5 feet. Sure, it's not the most rock-solid and rugged tripod in the world, but you can't beat that weight, height, and price. With my camera on mirror lock-up and with the help of a cable release, I was able to get all the stability I needed.
All-in-all, I was happy with this camera setup. There were a few times I wish I had a 20mm or 18mm lens, but that would have meant carrying a second lens, which wasn't worth the extra weight. I wish Canon would make an 18-100mm lens for full-frame cameras, but alas, that was not an option.
Aside from the camera gear, I had the usual stuff: tent, sleeping bag, bear canister, food, water filter, clothes, etc. But the 2 items that win the award for the "Thank God I Brought This" category: crampons and bug spray.
My 2 compadres on the slopes along Cecile Lake
Our proposed trail ran like this:
- Sleep the first night at Mammoth Mountain Inn to get acclimated to the higher altitude
- Hit the trail next morning starting at Devil's Postpile National Monument
- Hike up to Minaret Lake for night 1
- On day 2, hike to Iceberg Lake via the "unofficial" trail up and through Cecile Lake
- Camp night 2 beside Iceberg Lake
- Hike out to Agnew/Red's Meadows to catch the bus out of there
The start of the trail: Devil's Postpile
I'd like to elaborate on each one of these points for anyone who's thinking of doing a similar route, but before I do that let me just say that this plan worked out great! Both of our campsites were stunning, the hiking was fun and full of variety, and we were never once bored. The weather was mild, too, by the way. It was the last week of June and the temperatures were high 70's, low 80's at most, 40's at worst. It was the perfect 3 days, in my humble opinion.
- Acclimate the first night: Best idea we had the entire trip. Don't go up to 9,500 feet from sea level and just hop right onto the trail. Give your body a night to catch up. You'll be less winded the following day when you start your journey up the mountain.
- Start at Devil's Postpile: You have to take the bus in for this. They'll pick you up at Mammoth Mountain Inn and drop you off at Devil's Postpile. Check to be sure, but when we went in June, the buses ran 7:00am to 7:00pm with a new bus picking up about every 45 minutes. You'll take the same bus out but from a different pick-up at Agnew/Red's Meadows.
- Night 1 at Minaret: Absolutely stunning. See the pictures below. There are 2 campsites on the far west end of the lake that are gorgeous and provide easy access to running water. But if you go in June like we did, bring a vat of mosquito repellant. My God, the mosquitos...
- Hike to Iceberg Lake via the "unofficial" trail: Okay, lots to say here. This trail starts at the far west inlet to Minaret Lake, travels steeply up the scree-covered mountain on a barely marked path, leads you up to Cecile Lake, across the bank of Cecile Lake, then eventually down to Iceberg Lake. Don't let my short description here belie the reality of this trail. This was, without question, the most trying portion of the trip.First off, the journey from Minaret Lake up to Cecile Lake is not officially marked on park maps for a reason. It barely exists. There isn't really a worn trail to follow once you get above tree line. You have to rely on some sparse cairns and your gut to find it. Not to mention the scree and vertical nature of the path makes climbing it pretty difficult at times.Secondly, there was a lot of snow there...in the last week of June. We brought crampons thinking "eh, we probably won't need these, but just in case." Oh, man, thank God we brought them, because we really needed them. There was no path in the snow so we had to forge our own trail along an incline that, at times, must have been 45-degrees or steeper. But that's not all. When you get to the end of Cecile Lake and it's time to go down to Iceberg Lake, you're in for some sketchy rock scrambling. Another hard-to-find scree-ridden ultra-vertical trail made this the most nerve-racking portion of the trip for me. Climbing down really steep scree is one of the sketchiest things you can do with 46 pounds on your back. One little misstep and you could be in for a long fall.
Check out this view from the end of Cecile Lake. This is what you see right before you start the near-vertical descent down to the far side of Iceberg Lake. If this view doesn't make your heart flutter a bit, I don't know what will.
Here's the view from the end of Cecile Lake looking down to Iceberg Lake
Once you get past this part, it's time for more leg-cramp-inducing trail-blazing across even steeper embankments of snow. It was exhausting, scary at times, and so damn fun! It was tough, but the scenery was beyond words and the experience was something I'll never forget. Plus, if you go later in the season, I'm sure there would be less snow, which would make the journey much easier.
Here's a rough diagram showing the trail we took down from Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake. This picture is taken from our campsite at Iceberg Lake looking back at where we came from:
Here's the view looking back after we reached camp #2,
showing where the previous picture was taken from.
Our trail is marked in yellow.
So, in summary, if you want to hike the trail from Minaret Lake to Iceberg Lake via Cecile Lake, I highly, highly recommend it. You'll be in for some major eyegasms. But make sure you're in good shape, you're okay dealing with heights, and give yourself plenty of time to tackle it. Best to go slow and arrive alive than to be rushed and find yourself sliding down a death slope. And bring crampons.
Me navigating the trail back up at Cecile Lake
Thank God for those crampons.
(Photo by Austin Mattison)
- Camp night 2 at Iceberg Lake: Beauty beyond description. Won't. Even. Try.
- Hike out: Originally we planned to hike down from Iceberg Lake, camp a third night just few miles away from the end of the trail, then pack it out the next morning. We changed our mind when we saw the final campsite. The bottom line is it's just too close to civilization, so you get a lot of the crap that comes with it - bits of trash, idiots' names carved into trees, well-worn campsites. After staying in the breathtaking scenery of the high country, this low-country stuff wasn't worth it. Plus, the mosquitos were even worse than before! So instead of staying there for the third night, we finished off the remaining few miles to the bus stop and got an early start on the drive home.
Overall I think this was a really good itinerary. I'd only do a couple things differently. First, I'd try another time of year to avoid the incessant cloud of mosquitos. The mosquitos were really the only thing taking the enjoyment down a few notches, and they did that very effectively. I counted 70 mosquito bites on my body when I got home - almost all of those having occurred through my clothes! And second, I'd spend more time in the high-country at tree line and higher. I'd plan on staying a 3rd night, but somewhere high up, like at the beautiful Ediza Lake we saw on the way out. Spend as little time as possible in the lower altitudes because it just can't hold a candle to the high country.
It really is beyond description, but I'm going to have to try to supplement my photos with some words because even the photos don't do it justice. It was so beautiful that it was sometimes laughable. I hope you've experienced this before, when something is so stunningly beautiful that you can't help but laugh at how perfect it is. As in "Haha - that's ridiculous. That can't exist." or "Haha - Come on. Are you kidding me? This kind of beauty is real?" or "Haha - Oh my God, I am an insignificant speck in the universe and I will never create, imagine, or conceive anything remotely as beautiful as this." You know, that's all.
This level of beauty is why backpackers return to the wilderness despite the sweat, aches, bug bites, and dangers. I've been to some of the most incredible places in the natural world, but when it is completely untainted by human hands like it is up there (and unlike in a National Park), it takes on a whole new level.
And these particular mountains are especially gorgeous. People travel from all over the world to California just to hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and for good reason. It's like Lord of the Rings made a baby with Yosemite National Park and fed it a steady diet of Ansel Adams photos. This area we backpacked in is called "The Ansel Adams Wilderness" for Christ's sake!
All that brings us to the real meat of this post: the photos. As I mentioned, I used my Canon 6D for most of the trip but I also snapped some quick photos with my iPhone while we were hiking (too much work to get out the camera until we got to camp). I used my Lee split ND filters pretty heavily on this trip. As per usual, none of these photos are HDR or composite images. They are all single-frame photos shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Lightroom.
Day 1: Minaret Lake
This unusual cupping effect in the melting snow is called "sun cups"
Can't beat dusk at high elevation
The Milky Way over Minaret Lake
For the photo junkies: 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 20,000
Star Trails over Minaret Lake
Photo junkies: 21 minutes, f/5, ISO 200
Single frame exposure, not stacked
Not a bad front porch
Day 2: Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake
On the steep hike up to Cecile Lake.
Minaret Lake in the background.
Crossing 10,000 feet on the way up to Cecile Lake
More sun cupping
The top! Cecile Lake in late June.
Look at all that snow!
Finally down to Iceberg Lake
Day 3: Iceberg Lake Sunrise
Camp along Iceberg Lake at sunrise
I thought this might be kind of interesting to the photographers out there. Here is Iceberg Lake photographed in the afternoon, at sunset, then finally at sunrise. It's amazing how different light alters the landscape.
^ Iceberg Lake in afternoon light ^
^ Iceberg Lake in sunset light ^
^ Iceberg Lake in early morning light ^
Day 3: Hiking Out
We stopped at yet another stunning lake on the way out: Ediza Lake. I'd love to come back here for a day hike sometime. The water was crystal clear and the views were gorgeous! Please forgive the ugly light and quick-snap iPhone panoramas - this was just a quick stop on the way down the mountain.
And, by the way, the scenery all the way down from Ediza Lake to the trailhead was far from disappointing. Roaring waterfalls, verdant meadows, serene lakes, boundless views, and stately Sequoia trees were just some of the things we were treated to on the way down. It was on the way down that my hiking partner and I agreed that this whole area really should have been a national park, because the beauty surpassed Yosemite in many ways. Then we agreed that we're glad it never achieved National Park status. We don't need more crowds out in these parts!
Thanks for reading!