High Sierra Lakes: Fernandez Trail to Rainbow Lake Packraft

Packrafting the High Sierra

How a bit of imagination transformed a high-altitude backpacking trip in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

NOVEMBER 16, 2015 — The seemingly ubiquitous Facebook-page background photos of tourists posing in front of Machu Picchu serve as an ongoing reminder of the strange lack of imagination that seems to take hold of people when they plan trips around the world. To be fair, it’s human nature to want to do interesting things we’ve learned about from our peers, and Instagram seems only to magnify this effect. But, as my experience planning and leading adventure trips has grown, I’ve started trying to push myself harder to invent more imaginative, complex, and epic adventures. It’s fun to start with a well-known backpacking trip, and then add novel elements, like off-trail backcountry routes and additional sports, like paddling.

So, when I show up for a three-day backpacking trip in Ansel Adams Wilderness, carrying multi-piece paddles and three packrafts — small, five-pound rafts that can fit into a backpack — I hear a lot of grumbling from my friends Rich and Jake.

“I hate packrafting, so far,” Rich complains as he tries to stuff the raft into his backpack. “They’re absolutely huge. They’re like the size of a very tall baby!” To be fair, while my Los Angeles-based friend Rich and I have been planning this trip for weeks, Jake, my best friend from high school, decided to drive from San Francisco and join the trip at the last minute. I sprung my packrafting idea on them only days before leaving.

Hikers look out at Chittenden Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Hikers look out at Chittenden Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Nevertheless, they’re not surprised. They’re both already well-acquainted with my packrafting obsession, something I’ve been talking incessantly about for years. After my first difficult but rewarding packrafting trip on the Sanctuary River in Alaska’s Denali National Park, I was hooked. But there are many fewer packrafting opportunities in California, and it wasn’t until last year that I finally bought two packrafts of my own and headed out on a whitewater paddling trip with my brother on Arizona’s Salt River. Since then, I’ve had the two rafts in the corner of my dining room, constantly making me feel guilty for sitting in my apartment instead of heading outside to go paddling. So, while reviewing the details of the well-worn Lillian Lake Loop backpacking trip in the Sierra, the packrafts caught my eye. Could they be the perfect way to make our trip more novel?

Lillian Lake sits on the Lillian Lake Loop hiking trail in Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Lillian Lake sits on the Lillian Lake Loop hiking trail in Ansel Adams Wilderness.

With our food packed into bear-proof canisters, Rich, Jake, and I start hiking at the Fernandez Trailhead, about a 90-minute drive northeast from Oakhurst, California. Admittedly, all three of us are a bit skeptical about the worth of carrying so much heavy gear so high in the mountains, because flat-water paddling just doesn’t invoke the same adrenaline rush as white-water paddling. But, I encourage everyone to continue anyway, under the theory that an adventure involving two sports must always be better than one.

After a short stop at sparkling Vanderburgh Lake, we climb up a steep incline on a barely-marked trail to Chittenden Lake. Quickly, we lose sight of the path and find ourselves off-trail, slowly scaling enormous boulders and climbing over long slates of rock. We’re moving slowly and having trouble catching our breath, because we’ve traveled from near sea level to almost 10,000 feet this morning, and our bodies haven’t yet acclimated to the high altitude. As we climb, we’re all questioning our decision to lug the heavy packrafts and paddles, especially on a weekend trip that we hoped would be a relaxing getaway from the city and our jobs.

But, when we reach Chittenden Lake, a pure turquoise lake at 9,215 feet surrounded on all sides by severe black and white granite crags and towering green pine trees, it’s clear that it’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the Sierra, and all of our hard work suddenly seems worth it. After a peaceful night spent camping next to the lake under a dazzling blanket of stars, we inflate our packrafts in the morning, assemble our paddles, and head out onto the water.

“All right, it was worth it to bring the rafts,” says Jake, as he paddles across the lake for the first time. The water is perfectly still, and the packrafts glide effortlessly, making it easy to focus on enjoying our surroundings.

“It really does feel like we’re exploring and getting to see something that we only have access to because of the extra work that we put into getting these up here,” says Rich. “That’s sort of special.”

After exploring for awhile, Jake suggests that we take advantage of the rafts by paddling to the lake’s opposite side and climbing up a ridge opposite from our campsite — one that would have taken a significant amount of hiking to get to on foot. When we reach the top of the mountain, we stand by ourselves, with no one around for miles, marveling at the view of the blue-green water below us.

Hikers travel off-trail through Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Hikers travel off-trail through Ansel Adams Wilderness.

“It’s as quiet as I could ever imagine quiet being,” I say.

Invigorated by our successful flat-water paddling experience, the three of us decide to spend most of our second day on the water. After packing up our gear at Chittenden, we head back down the steep mountain toward Lillian Lake, where Rich suggests after lunch that we inflate our packrafts and paddle again right away. Lillian Lake is impossibly blue, and our impromptu paddle on the lake is a perfect way to break up the long backpack toward our final paddling destination. After Jake takes a quick dip in the cold water, we head off-trail, over a few high ridges, toward Rainbow Lake. We stop for lunch at Flat Lake, and, then, climb up the final steep peak toward Rainbow. Now, we’re more accustomed to the altitude, and though the climb leaves us breathless, we manage to reach the lake with enough time before dark to fit in a sunset paddle.

“Rainbow Lake was really worth saving for the end,” Rich says. “You could settle in for a few days here and keep exploring it and keep finding something new.”

When we ease into our rafts and paddle out onto the lake, we discover chains of small islands, meandering channels, and humbling views of tall trees. It’s a perfect pre-dinner appetizer. After spending another night under a clear, star-filled sky, we decide to paddle Rainbow one more time, early in the morning, before tackling the long hike down the mountain, back to the trailhead.

Though I’ve never been there, I’m sure Macchu Picchu is beautiful. But, as we enjoy our last paddle on Rainbow Lake, with the reflection of a golden Sierra sunrise on the water, it’s hard for me to imagine a more serene, fulfilling weekend adventure, made possible with just a bit of imagination.

How to Hike and Packraft Chittenden, Lillian, and Rainbow Lakes in the High Sierra

Packraft: Alpine
Ansel Adams Wilderness, Northern California
3 days
20.3 miles
4,623 ft gain — 4,214 ft loss
7,262 ft min — 9,353 ft max
Physical Challenge 6 of 10
Psychological Challenge 6 of 10
Beauty 10 of 10
Uniqueness 8 of 10

OVERVIEW: Lillian Lake Loop is a two-day, 12.6-mile hiking loop in Ansel Adams Wilderness near Yosemite. This trip can also be turned into a three-day, nearly 20-mile trip by visiting some or all of the other lakes in the area as side trips, including Lady Lake, Chittenden Lake, Staniford Lakes, and Rainbow Lake.

LOGISTICS: A wilderness permit is required all year for those camping in Ansel Adams Wilderness. Sixty percent of the trailhead quota is available through advanced reservations, which can be made by filling out and mailing this application form with a check for $5 per person. Forty percent of the quota is available on a walk-in basis. Call the Bass Lake Ranger District (559-877-2218) for availability information before mailing an application. The Fernandez Trailhead can be reached by driving toward Clover Meadow Campground on Beasore Road (5S07) from Bass Lake. We picked up our permits in Clover Meadow, but depending on your schedule, it may make more sense to pick up the permits in Oakhurst to avoid driving so far — about 20 minutes before reaching Clover Meadow, the Fernandez Trailhead is labeled at a turnoff on the left side of the road. Taking precautions to protect food from bears is required in Ansel Adams (using bear-proof containers or hanging a bear bag with the counter-weight method), and bear-proof containers are available for rent in Clover Meadow. The marked, Lillian Lake Loop trail is fairly easy to follow, but be prepared with a map, compass, and GPS device if you decide to head to Chittenden and Rainbow Lake (or you simply want to do some off-trail hiking). Some of the routes can be difficult to follow.

PACKRAFTING TIPS: Packrafts are five-pound rafts that can fit into a backpack. They tend to be stable, forgiving crafts that flow over waves easily and are resilient when bouncing off sharp rocks. Packrafts are most likely to tip backwards, so make sure to learn forward in rough water. Hypothermia is a risk; it’s easy to get very cold while rafting in cold weather because you expend less energy than you do while hiking. Packrafts position you almost directly on the water’s surface, so you will get wet. Wear warm, synthetic clothing, and put on more layers than you would for hiking. Be sure to bring a patch kit (duct tape, Aquaseal) in case a valve leaks or you manage to punch a hole in the raft — otherwise, you could end up with an unexpected, long hike home.

ROUTE: View the route below or download the Without Baggage Packrafting the High Sierra GPS track in GPX or KML format.

4 thoughts on “High Sierra Lakes: Fernandez Trail to Rainbow Lake Packraft”

  1. Great writeup. I discovered packrafting a couple years ago, and like it for pretty much the same reasons. I finally took mine to Juneau this year. If you're ever around Glacier MT in mid-July, they're two years in the APA Roundup. Everybody gets together far and wide to paddle the Flathead forks.

  2. Great to hear from you, Dan! Wow, that Glacier trip sounds amazing. I'll see if I can fit it into my schedule, because I'm sure I'd love it.

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