The Ansel Adams Wilderness is in the Sierra National Forest bordering Southern Yosemite. Lillian Lake loop is rightly the most popular backpacking destination in the wilderness, offering multiple lakes nestled into the granite ridgeline that forms a barrier with the park.
The hike starts at Fernandez Trailhead, not too far from Clover Meadow Ranger Station. The trailhead is off the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, a large loop through the northern Sierra National Forest made up of Minarets Road to the south and Beasore Road to the north. Minarets is longer drive but is paved all the way to the Clover Meadow junction, whereas Beasore Road turns unpaved just after Beasore Meadows. Both ways are easily accessible by car (or motorcycle), although the last 2 miles down the trailhead access road is particularly bumpy. There’s restrooms at the trailhead but no water so if arriving the night before bring some extra.
The most popular direction to hike is clockwise, passing by Vanderburg Lake first, however the approach to Lillian Lake this way is steeper, for a slightly longer but less steep approach take the Walton Trail and head counter-clockwise. The lakes are by far the prettiest places to camp, so ideally the first day should cover the 6 miles to Lillian Lake, but there’s some camping options by Madera Creek halfway to the lake.
Lillian Lake is prettiest in the late spring, as the snow still lingers on the surrounding mountain ridges, and the day time temperatures are cooler, although the early season means bugs, so be prepared for mosquitos, particularly in the morning and evenings. In the late season the bugs mostly disappear and some the smaller creeks dry up.
From Lillian there’s multiple opportunities for side treks. To the north is Flat Lake and Rainbow Lake which can either be accessed by following the Lillian Lake trail back down and splitting north at the trail junction, or by a simple cross-country over the granite ridge to the north of Lillian. Another short and simple cross-country trip loops around the north of the lake and up to Shirley Lake. To the south the trail drops down and climbs back up to Chittenden Lake. Chittenden Lake is one of my favorites in the area, it’s nestled high up in the shadow of Sing Peak and offers a fantastic view over the entire basin and across to the Ritter Mountain Range.
From Lillian Lake, continuing counter-clockwise, the trail drops down the exposed granite (another reason to prefer counter-clockwise is that this is a pleasant morning drop down, but could be a gruelling afternoon climb up the shadeless slope) to the chain of Stanford Lakes. In the early season these lakes are bursting with the snow melt.
From Stanford Lakes it’s a small climb up and over a ridge and a drop back down to the junction to Lady Lake. There’s good camping spots at Lady Lake and to my eyes it’s actually a little prettier than Lillian. There’s actually two lakes here, a slightly smaller lake feeds into the main lake, and in the early season there’s a waterfall cascading down the mountains behind from the snow melt that is the perfect background to fall asleep to.
Past the Lady Lake junction, after another short drop, is Vanderburg Lake. The trail goes right past the lake. From Vanderburg the trail climbs back up and over one more ridge and then drops down what the rangers call “the wall”, a granite staircase that switchbacks on itself. The trail then continues to meander through the forest, past a couple of meadows, eventually arriving at the wilderness boundary and dropping back down to the trailhead.
I’ve done this loop three years in a row now, the past two years working with National Forest rangers and trail crews to clear the trail of fallen trees. It’s a beautiful corner of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, a very accessible hike that is rewarded with multiple mountain lakes nestled into the granite.