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Backpacking the Eastern Sierra's Evolution Loop

58 miles, 4 days, 3 nights, 3 strong women...

By: Kristen Fuller + Save to a List

I met Summer a few months back, and I was instantly inspired by her, both on and off the trail. So when she asked me if I wanted to join her group to spend three nights and four days on trail backpacking through the Evolution Valley and Basin, I jumped at the chance. I love being invited on trips and having the opportunity to make new friends, but this 58-mile loop has been on my bucket list for years. I was a bit nervous about backpacking with three ladies, who I have never met, but Summer vetted them, and I trust her opinion, so I figured everything would work out.

Never leave little Moo behind, except…

The primary reason I never pulled the trigger for this trip is that dogs are not allowed in the Evolution Basin, and I am never a fan of leaving little Moo home while I venture in the backcountry. In reality, I try to go on one big backcountry trip each season where I have to leave Moo behind, so I figured North Lake to South Lake out of Bishop would be it for this summer.

The logistics

Summer did a fantastic job planning the itinerary. North Lake to South Lake is the most popular route due to Muir Pass. I could not imagine going up Muir Pass from the other direction. However, going down Muir Pass on day three was knee breaking, so either way, this hike is challenging.

South Lake has construction on the weekdays for the entire summer, resulting in horrible traffic, but as long as you prepare for this, it all works out. We ended up getting dropped off AND picked up at both the entrance and exit trailheads, which was crucial for this trip. Otherwise, we would have had to car shuttle, which would have added an extra one to two hours on day one.

We initially had a group of six women on our permits, but two were unable to make it due to injuries, so the four of us were dropped off at the North Lake trailhead out of Bishop. We wanted to get an early start since the first day we were logging 18 miles. 

Sun drunk in Yosemite

I spent the previous day playing HARD in Yosemite with a friend. We hiked, paddle boarded, and drank one too many IPAs while taking in all the sights and sounds of the most beautiful National Park in California. I didn’t get home until after sunset and woke up at 4 am the morning of day one to organize and throw everything into my pack. I left my house in Mammoth at 6 am, and we were on trail by 7 am…, not bad. But I was exhausted from the previous day, although Yosemite was SO worth it, I genuinely wished that my body was not hurting from too much sun, lack of sleep, and not enough hydration.

Day one: North Lake to Piute Canyon

North Lake is nestled above the town of Bishop, and it is the access point for both Piute Pass and Lamarck Col. I have backpacked over Piute Pass into Hutchinson Meadows last summer, so I knew what to expect. Thankfully, this summer, Piute Pass was clear of snow, and the water crossings through Hutchinson Meadow were minimal.

The beginning of day one was pretty uneventful as we made our way up to Piute Pass. We all were making conversation, and the definition of a mountain pass was one of the fascinating topics that came up in conversation. We were hyper-focused on how a pass in the Sierra is almost always above a source of a river, constituting a drainage divide.

We stopped for lunch, and I couldn’t wait to eat my made-to-order deli sandwich from Vons. I am a huge fan of packing a monster sandwich or burrito in my pack for the first day on trail since every day; thus after will consist of dehydrated meals. THIS IS A GAME CHANGER. I now also do this for big day hikes (in addition to a cold beer in my pack). The trail to Piute Pass is stunning, but I could not wait to be on a section of this trail that I had not previously hiked, so of course, I was looking forward to days two and three.

Tough decisions

We started to notice that one of the gals in our group was having a challenging time keeping our pace, and she kept fidgeting with her pack. Her pack was too big for her and weighed 52 pounds. I kept my mouth shut, but I knew this could be a problem, especially because we were only a few miles in on our 58-mile journey. She placed her pack down and started to cry because she felt bad for holding us up. She immediately stated that she wanted to turn around because she thought she was in over her head. It was hard to watch, but I think we all knew that we had to have a tough conversation at this point. This was my first time meeting her, and this was not my trip, per se, but I decided to open the conversation about her potentially exiting the trail. I was worried that she would have a hard time going over Muir Pass, and each day was just going to get harder and harder. We were currently six miles in, and I knew if her pack was this uncomfortable, we could get into some trouble down the road. We all took out our maps, put our heads together, and found some great trip alternatives and exit points. We made sure we could communicate with her through our Garmin, we gave her a big hug and went our separate ways. This was a tough decision for everyone involved, but it was the right decision. We were all respectful of each other’s views, and it was so lovely to see everyone on the same page and agreeing with each other.

Piute Canyon, my knees and feet began to ache. I started to get tired and cranky and, frankly, was ready to be at camp. I was about done for the day and was unsure if I could go any further, so I put my music in and pushed as hard as I could for the last couple of miles. At mile 18, we reached camp, and I could not wait to soak my feet in the cold stream and get into bed. I officially was feeling the consequences of my day of “too much fun” in Yosemite. I will say that Piute Creek was raging and beautiful. The shimmering granite against the rushing waterfalls was stunning and was my favorite part of day one. It was also nice to finally be on a trail that I had never hiked before (last trip we stopped at Hutchinson Meadow).

Day two: Piute Canyon to Evolution Lake

Day two was stunning, so much more remarkable than day one, in my opinion. We were on trail by 7:30 and came across a gate on the trail with a wooden latch we had to open. I have never seen anything like this before, and we were all a bit confused at first, but after seeing multiple versions of these “gates,” we quickly realized that they were for stock. I imagine that these gates are used to keep stock animals from wandering too far on the trail when they got loose. Ahh, now this made sense. Apart from these interesting stock gates, some very cool drawbridges crossed huge rushing rivers. They reminded me of the drawbridges on my Everest Base Camp trek. We ran through endless (very easy and shallow) water crossings, hiked past stunning waterfalls, and were in complete awe as we approached Evolution Valley. We were officially on the JMT/PCT, so of course, we saw some interesting thru-hikers, in particular one guy who was carrying his cat on his back with a shade umbrella! I had so many questions but did not even know where to start, and I am sure he is now Instagram famous.

Meet Dana

Summer’s friend Dana came along for this trip, and each mile, I fell more and more infatuated with her. She is a breath of fresh air; she is stunningly beautiful, super strong, and has THREE kids, and this was her first backpacking trip ever. Let me be clear. This loop is not a “first time backpacking trip.” I don’t think anyone should attempt this on his or her first time carrying an overnight pack, well, unless your name is Dana. Dana brought a fishing rod, skipped rocks in the river and packed in a Sling Light chair that I seriously thought was a beach chair until Dana schooled me. You guys, Dana, is inspiring and is full of tricks. I mean, who can skip rocks and catch fish in the backcountry on a whim? Anyways, one of my favorite parts of this trip was having the pleasure of hiking with Dana.

Skinny dipping and tent fixing

As we came across Colby Meadow, all of our jaws dropped, and our cameras came out. It was stunning! Most of the day was relatively flat until our final ascent to camp at Evolution Lake. I have heard about Evolution Lake repeatedly from every JMT hiker, and I COULD NOT WAIT TO SWIM IN THIS LAKE. The uphill to the lake seemed more brutal than it actually was because the hot sun reflected off the granite, and we were roasting. When we got to our campsite at the lake, I immediately took off my clothes and jumped in the water. I washed my clothes with water only in the lake and tried to get all the sweat and dirt off my face and body. Few PCT hikers were setting up camp, but I could care less. I was so hot and gross; I desperately needed to stand naked in this lake for a few minutes. As I walked back to camp in my underwear and windbreaker, I hurried to set up my campsite so we could all relax and watch Dana fish. After my tent was set up, I secured the corners with rocks, but just as I turned my back, a giant gust of wind blew my tent over. So here I am, chasing my tent down this granite rock, in my underwear with all my gear inside the tent. #clusterfuck. 

As I grabbed my tent, the other girls came running and helped me try to sort it out. One of my tent poles snapped in half, and I was pretty much defeated. Summer and I decided to think of how we can fix this tent with the supplies we had in our first-aid kits. Summer had an extra tent pole splint, so we cut the tent rope, pulled the splint through, and re-tied the line together, and guess what? It worked! We previously tried two other mechanisms that failed, so I was getting impatient and very desperate. As we “jerry-rigged” this tent together, Dana screamed out that she caught a golden trout off her rod.

“Of course you did, Dana,” I thought to myself.

Summer and I were uber proud that we fixed my tent the proper way. I am NOT handy at all, so it feels terrific to fix something, especially in the backcountry.

We spent the rest of the afternoon fishing by the lake, drinking vodka, sitting in my underwear in Dana’s Sling Light Chair, and enjoying one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. We watched the sunset with a couple of JMT hikers over this stunning waterfall that overlooked the whole valley. As I walked back to camp, the mountains and lake reflected a deep orange from the sun as it set for the night. It was stunning, and I will remember this afternoon for the rest of my life.

Day three: Evolution Lake to La Conte Canyon

We awoke on day three, and I was nearly jumping up and down because today we would be going over Muir Pass, an iconic pass in the Eastern Sierra that has been on my bucket list for over a decade. As we left camp, our jaws were wide open, basically hitting the granite floor because Evolution Basin is just that beautiful. We walked past some of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen, and I wanted to take it all in. I took my time filtering water and eating snacks and could not believe this was real life. It seemed as though each day kept getting better and better. As we approached Wanda Lake, Summer and I screamed, ran, and waved our hiking sticks in the air as gnats swarmed us. SO MANY gnats. Dana had her bug net on (because well she is Dana), so she watched Summer, and I run around like two idiots. When we finally got a break from the swarming gnats, Summer and I dug in our packs and became “makeshift beekeepers” as we hiked around the lake in our bug nets. Of course, we could not turn down this photo op!

Muir Pass

As we approached Muir Pass, the anticipation was killing me, and I nearly cried when I saw the hut because I was so overwhelmed with emotion. The hike up the pass was not challenging, so it was nice to sit and relax and eat lunch on the pass. I met the cutest mountain marmot that I chased around for a good 20 minutes. We met some great thru-hikers, chatted with them as we ate lunch, took a few photos, and continued on our way. Going down Muir Pass was the most challenging part of the trip. The steep granite downhill was a solid 6-7 miles, and every step was knee breaking. We were all completely gassed as we tried to find a suitable campsite and went straight to bed. I was so tired; I did not even set up my tent but decided to cowboy camp because it was easier. The weather at night was in the high 50’s, and I found myself way too warm the previous nights, so I figured this would be an excellent chance to cowboy camp.

Day four: La Conte Canyon to South Lake

We woke up before sunrise on day four as we wanted to get a very early start going up Le Conte Canyon as we heard this was a ball buster, and the sun beating down on us would make it even more of a suffer-fest. We were on trail by 6:15 am and made great pace up La Conte Canyon into Dusy Basin. La Conte Canyon is hard, and I could not imagine hiking up this canyon in full sunlight. It would be miserable. As we hiked into Dusy Basin, we were quickly on our way to Bishop Pass. I previously hiked Bishop Pass from South Lake a week prior, so I knew once we approached Bishop Pass, it would be all easy and downhill from there to the car. We arrived at Bishop Pass at 11 am, ate lunch, watched a pack train cruise by, and hustled down to South Lake, where Dana’s dad was awaiting our arrival.

I can’t thank Summer and Dana enough for inviting me on this trip, it was one for the books, and I will always remember and cherish these miles, memories, conversations, hard lessons and days. Cheers to both of you!

Trip Summary

  • Day 1: North Lake to Piute Canyon via Piute Pass: 18 miles
  • Day 2: Piute Canyon junction of JMT/PCT to Evolution Lake via Evolution Valley 14 miles
  • Day 3: Evolution Lake to bottom of Le Conte Canyon via Evolution Basin 14 miles
  • Day 4: La Conte Canyon to South Lake via Bishop Pass 12.5 miles
  • Mosquitoes: none, gnats on Wanda Lake
  • Weather:75-85 during the day, 58-62 at night.
  • Water crossings: 10-12 each day but easy peasy.
  • Favorite Pass: Muir Pass
  • Favorite Lake: Evolution and Sapphire

Thanks so much for reading!

See you on the trails

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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