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hidden gem

Our last hike on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada was to Agnew and Gem Lakes. We took the Rush Creek Trail, ascending for just over two miles up a rocky, moderately steep path that took us high up the mountainside while offering great views of Silver Lake below. Had we stayed on this trail long enough, it would have eventually connected with the Pacific Crest Trail, passing through the Ansel Adams Wilderness and taking us all the way into Yosemite. This of course would have required quite a lot longer than a day hike.


After failing to find any Gold Rush relics in Lundy Canyon, we got excited when we spotted what looked like a rail line clinging to the mountainside. An overturned cart lay a few dozen feet below the part where the trail crossed the rail, evoking visions of the bygone mining era. After crossing the mountain pass that led to Agnew Lake, however, we were forced to admit that our brush with history was nothing more than fancy.


Both Gem and Agnew Lakes had been dammed in the 1920’s to provide hydroelectric power to June Lake and the nearby town of Lee Vining. The rail line, which also ascended from Agnew Lake to Gem Lake, was part of the hydroelectric project. The dams had expanded both lakes, but they also somewhat diminished their beauty, especially the lower Agnew Lake, which lay in a shallow basin beneath Carson peak.


It took us over two hours to climb up to Agnew Lake. We stopped frequently to take pictures, but we had also gained 1300 feet in elevation in just over two miles of trail. We had left our campsite late and S had a few misgivings about continuing on to Gem Lake, another mile of trail that would take us 500-600 feet higher. We pressed on, largely because the slope above Agnew Lake was all exposed scree and offered no place to sit and have lunch.


We were glad we did so. Surrounded by snow-covered pines and ringed by snow-capped mountains, Gem Lake was astoundingly beautiful. Its deep blue waters sparkled under the sun while an icy, alpine draft coming off its surface reminded us that we were now more than 9,000 feet above sea level. We snapped a few pictures, but quickly put the camera away as the images we captured failed to do justice to the landscape.


It was chilly and our fingers grew numb while we made sandwiches even though the sun continued to shine overhead. A couple of scantily clad trail runners breezed by, defying the weather. As it was too cold to linger and we had no intention of hiking on to the next lake on the Rush Creek Trail, we turned around after lunch. Dark clouds had begun to gather overhead as we finished up our sandwiches, and we heard the distant rumble of thunder after passing Agnew Lake again.


We had just traversed an exposed section of snow when we felt the first drops of rain. We had brought our rain gear all the way from Kenya, but two weeks of gorgeous weather had spoiled us and we had not bothered to pack it for this day hike. The large, icy raindrops increased in frequency, but fortunately the rain stopped short of an all out downpour. We half-ran, half-stumbled down the rest of the trail, wishing we had half the grace of the trail runners we had seen earlier, arriving cold and wet at our car.


It was the earliest we had returned from a hike in almost two weeks. The rest of the day was shot for hiking, but the rainstorm coincided with the start of a playoff hockey game, so D was perfectly happy to spend the remaining daylight hours in June Lake’s lone open pub, sampling the area’s local brews and cheering on his team. The rain mostly died down by the time we got back to June Lake, so S left D parked on a barstool and spent a few hours exploring the little lakeside town, checking out a few cute shops and making friends with the local artisans.


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