You don’t have to go on a multi-day backpacking trip to get to the heart of the High Sierra. Just a few hours of hiking in the June Lake Loop region will lead to a hidden gem—literally. Set at 9,100 feet in the famed Ansel Adams Wilderness
, Gem Lake is a vast oasis encircled by jagged and cascading mountains lightly covered in snow. The 3.4-mile (one-way) hike up to this watering hole via the Rush Creek Trail brings bigger and better scenery with every step—and there are a lot of steps (1,700 feet of elevation gain). Start at the trailhead on the northern end of Silver Lake, where you’ll make your way past rustling aspen trees along a dirt and rock trail. The ascent comes in a series of switchbacks that go over old and eerily steep rail tracks. Slim waterfalls seem to appear out of nowhere while Horsetail Falls stands out with its thick and swift flow. The trail then levels out, passing Agnew Lake before the final push to Gem Lake. Take a rest when you reach the lake or continue along the shoreside trail to snag a picnic spot on one of the promontories. Dip your toes in the crisp, glacier-fed water and kick back to enjoy lunch. This also is an excellent access point for reaching the much-loved (and photographed!) Thousand Island Lake
a few miles (one-way) further.BONUS:
Treat yourself to the perfect après-hike cooler at June Lake Junction, where thick and delicious milkshakes are made with real ice cream. The cookies & cream shake goes down smooth.
From Hwy. 395, follow the June Lake Loop (Hwy. 158). The trailhead starts from a large paved parking area on the west side of the road and the north end of Silver Lake, near the pack station and Silver Lake Campground & RV Park. Dog-friendly!