PCT: Red's Meadow to Tuolumne Meadows

Yosemite National Park

Miles 906.7-942.5 of the northbound PCT: From Devils Postpile National Monument to Yosemite National Park, through the photo-famous landscape of Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
57 km
Ascent
1.9 km
Descent
1.6 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
2.3 km
High Point
3.4 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Red's Meadow to Tuolumne Meadows Map

Description

The Ansel Adams Wilderness is named for a famous photographer, and its designation now protects much of the landscape that most inspired him a century ago. This northern reach of the wilderness area has some of the Sierra’s steepest summits, which were captured by Adams in photographs and now seize the attention of every hiker on the PCT or John Muir Trail (JMT).

As it delves into this picture-perfect setting of granite spires and glacial lakes, the PCT also moves closer to Yosemite National Park and the northern end of California Section H. By topping Donohue Pass, the northernmost 11,000-foot pass on the PCT, the trail transitions from the Ansel Adams Wilderness to the wilderness of Yosemite National Park, and later reaches the road in Tuolumne Meadows to end the section.

This segment begins from Red’s Meadow near Mammoth Lakes, and travels through a portion of Devils Postpile National Monument. An alternate trail leads to the park’s main area, and passes beneath the “postpile” of columnar basalt. Otherwise, the PCT crosses the Middle Fork San Joaquin River on a bridge (NB mile 907.3) and traces the opposite side of the canyon with zoomed-out views of the basalt cliff.

North of Devils Postpile the PCT and JMT diverge (NB mile 909) for about 13.5 miles before rejoining at Thousand Island Lake. The PCT makes a traverse above the river canyon, while the JMT meanders west of the canyon through a series of lake basins. PCT purists will of course stick with the official trail, but many PCTers opt for the JMT alternate instead, adding the unforgettable spectacle of Garnet Lake and its backdrop of glacier-flanked peaks. This JMT route shaves about half a mile off the PCT route, but adds close to 1000 feet of total elevation gain.

If sticking with the PCT, you’ll have a few additional opportunities to leave trail for Mammoth Lakes north of Red’s Meadow. The first is at Upper Soda Springs Campground (NB mile 911.0), and the second is at Agnew Meadows/High Trail (NB mile 915). Both have bus service into town via the Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile Shuttle.

From Agnew Meadows the PCT switchbacks up a brushy slope, then climbs steadily along the side of the valley, through spacious and sunny forest with gratifying views. Gazing across the river gorge, you’ll see the jagged spires of the Minarets rising from glacier-clad basins. Waterfalls stream down the opposite valley side, and lakes peek through chinks in the cliffs. This stretch can feel dry and exposed, but the trail crosses several small streams which typically have water.

Finally rising to nearly 10,000 feet at the Middle Fork San Joaquin headwaters, the PCT slips between two granite domes and emerges to a view of Thousand Island Lake (NB mile 922.9), with the vertical crest of Banner Peak towering above. This lake is photo famous for its many stony isles and dramatic backdrop, and makes a coveted place to camp. The JMT rejoins the PCT here, and camping is restricted near the junction. However, you can move along the lakeshore to find a panoramic spot all your own.

From the lake the PCT/JMT climbs through increasingly expansive views to Island Pass (NB mile 924.6) at 10,227 feet. This grassy saddle is less memorable than other named passes in the Sierra, but it’s a preview to the better scenery soon to come at Donohue Pass. From there the trail heads downhill and crosses a small stream (NB mile 926), then turns upward again and soon fords Rush Creek (NB mile 926.9). There are small campsites nearby, for those wishing to spend the night close to the pass. The trail climbs steadily higher, through a subalpine landscape of scattered trees and boulders, hemmed by ragged stone ridges on every side. Additional campsites and bivy spots can be found, but the terrain is for the most part rocky and exposed.

The trail over Donohue Pass (NB mile 929.5) is straightforward and the gradient is gradual, so even in the snow it should present no major problem. At just over 11,000 feet, however, it is quite vulnerable to weather so it’s best to summit early in the day if storms are possible. This pass marks the boundary of Yosemite National Park, where the trail crosses from the Ansel Adams Wilderness into the Yosemite Wilderness.

From Donohue the trail descends gradually into the deep, green valley of Lyell Canyon. The rest of the way is a romp though aromatic forest and resplendent meadows, crossing logs over small streams and bridges over bigger streams, all the way to Tuolumne Meadows. As the trail nears Tioga Pass Road (Hwy 120), Yosemite’s polished granite domes suddenly appear above the trees. Hikers staying at the backpackers camp may take the JMT offshoot that leads to the campground (NB mile 940.2). Otherwise the PCT continues across a bridge and then past a lodge to soon meet the road near Lembert Dome trailhead (NB mile 942.5). The place for resupply is the well-stocked store near the campground, where there is also a post office and restaurant. Note that these facilities as well as the road may remain closed into July during high snow years, but are normally open by mid June.

Permits: This segment is mostly within the Ansel Adams Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, but crosses into Yosemite National Park. Both areas require a wilderness permit for camping. The PCT long-distance Permit is recommended because it covers the requirements for both agencies. If you don’t have that, you’ll need to arrange a permit through the agency in charge of wherever you start your hike. For example, starting from Red’s Meadow (or elsewhere in Devils Postpile) and going north to Yosemite requires an Inyo wilderness permit. Starting in Yosemite and going south, however, would require a Yosemite wilderness permit instead. Note that these permits are good only for continuous wilderness travel, meaning that if you leave the permit area you will need a separate permit to legally re-enter. Also, bear-resistant canisters are required for camping along much of this segment. Additional regulations apply as well, and the number of permits may be limited, so it’s recommended to research and plan well in advance.

Sources: https://www.halfwayanywhere.com/trails/pacific-crest-trail/best-pct-section-hikes-sierra/ https://www.hikespeak.com/trails/thousand-island-lake-ansel-adams-wilderness/ https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tmcamp.htm https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/

Difficulty

Moderate

Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Similar routes nearby

Guidebooks in this area