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Hiking the Headwaters: Finding Flow in the San Joaquin River High Country

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An explanatory series focusing on one of the most complex issues facing California: water sharing. And at its core is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Stay with kcet.org/baydelta for all the project's stories.

Looking west from the outlet of Thousand Island Lake, Banner Peak looms in the distance creating a backdrop worthy of a postcard. The deep blue alpine water sparkles in the sun and is speckled with the tiny granite islands for which the lake is named. Brightly colored tents are scattered on the ridge overlooking the northern shore and hikers pass by on the nearby John Muir Trail.

From the Agnew Meadows Trailhead near Mammoth Lakes, I set out for a long day hike to Thousand Island Lake -- the headwater of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, a major watershed in California. Although the water has more of an impact on the sustainability of the environment and the people of the state, it's more famously known for its image, which was famously captured by Ansel Adams. The lake has even appeared on the label of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's Summerfest, a seasonal lager beer.

In this region the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which travels 2,650 miles from the Mexico-California border north to the Washington-Canada border, is also known as the High Trail. The route traverses the San Joaquin Ridge and offers unobstructed views across the river valley to the Minarets and Ritter Range, a small mountain range within the Sierra Nevada that is comprised of the craggy Minaret peaks, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The range divides the drainages of the Middle and North Fork of the San Joaquin River. From my vantage point on the trail I can see a number of smaller creek drainages that flow into the San Joaquin River.

Tucked beneath the western flank of Mt. Ritter, the outlet of Ediza Lake flows into Shadow Lake where it becomes Shadow Creek and one of the larger tributaries of the San Joaquin River. The alpine lakes at the foot of the craggy peaks of the Minarets flow into Minaret Lake and become another tributary. Minaret Creek cascades over a large volcanic rock cliff at Minaret Falls before reaching the river. Even farther south King Creek starts in the southern end of the Ritter Range and eventually flows into the San Joaquin below Rainbow Falls.

Sierra Club founder John Muir famously explored the range in the late 1800s, writing about his adventures in the region. "Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water," he wrote in "My First Summer in the Sierra."

The melting snow, the glaciers, the lakes, and the streams in this large valley flow into the San Joaquin River. The water carries seeds, bugs, rocks, and minerals downstream. This river supplies part of the drinking water for the people of California. It waters the crops in the Central Valley, and it eventually ends up in the Delta. But first it offers water to wildlife high up in the Sierra and recreational enjoyment for people like me. As I hike along, the tributaries seem to come to life -- flowing from the high country and descending rapidly into the river below.

The High Trail travels more than six miles above 9,000 feet in elevation before reaching Agnew Pass where hikers have the option of turning on to the John Muir Trail north, or continuing on past Clark Lakes to the Rush Creek Trail, which crosses over to the eastern side of the Sierra Crest.

Some 30 million years ago the Sierra Nevada was low enough that the rivers in the state of Nevada flowed through this area en route to the Pacific Ocean. When the range began tilting and rising to form the Sierra Nevada that we know today, the headwaters of the San Joaquin River changed drastically. The higher elevation mountain range divided the watershed isolating the San Joaquin to the western side of the crest.

Reaching Agnew Pass, I continue on the John Muir Trail to Thousand Island Lake at the northern end of the Ritter Range. The JMT begins at 14,494 feet at the summit of Mount Whitney in the Southern Sierra and travels 211 miles north to Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. Most of the trail is in conjunction with the PCT, except in the Middle Fork San Joaquin River Valley where the JMT stays mostly on the west side of the river and in Yosemite National Park where the trails part ways.

Thousand Island Lake is one of the most popular stopping points on the trail for through hikers, but is also a favorite destination for shorter overnight backpacking trips from Mammoth Lakes. The water at its highest and purest form is cold and clear. Backpackers use filtration systems to pump water from the lake to cook their dehydrated meals and fill their water bottles. Some take a plunge to wash the trail dirt away. Others bring inflatable watercraft to explore the lake's tiny islands. Some cast a line form the shore hoping to hook a trout.

Wildlife is abundant here. Deer graze in high alpine meadows and bald eagles soar overhead. Bears prowl through the area. There's marmot, mountain lions, and coyotes, and a number of small birds and insects.

I take a break on the grassy shore at the lake's outlet and enjoy the view. I wonder if there are really one thousand islands. No one seems to know the answer, but there are too many to count and I give up quickly. When it's time to start hiking home, I take the River Trail for a change of scenery making the hike a complete loop and about 18 miles round-trip. The route follows the outlet creeks as it cascades over rocks quickly descending to the valley. Lodgepole and Jeffrey pine trees are abundant, keeping the trail shaded from the warm midday sun.

Lower in the valley the river slows, flowing into pools where trout hunt for food and feed on the surface. Rainbow, brown, golden and brook trout can be found in the upper sections of the water. Anglers who don't mind hiking find that wild trout are anxious to taste their flies.

The trail continues south following along the river where the Shadow Creek Trail intersects. Crossing the river and heading up the Pacific Crest Trail to where I started at Agnew Meadows, I look back to where I had been earlier in the day. The mountains are tall. The trees are thick and from a distance everything just seems to flow, spilling into the San Joaquin River from the headwaters to the Delta with a harmony that only nature can display.

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