Added by Greg Owens
Trek through some of the Sierra Nevada's most stunning scenery via a South/North Lake semiloop. Hike past and over picturesque alpine lakes, mountain passes near and above 12,000', and multiple peaks over 13,000'
It’s been called the crown jewel of the Sierra Nevada, the highlight of the entire 211-mile John Muir Trail. Whatever superlatives are used to describe it, Evolution Basin is undoubtedly one of the most incredible landscapes you’ll ever explore. There is a small catch, though: There is no easy route to it. No matter which way you go, getting there takes a lot of work and good conditioning. Once you’re there, though, the effort fades into the background of towering, craggy peaks and gem-like lakes. The total distance for this adventure is 38 miles with an elevation gain of about 7600’ and a total descent of about 8200’.
Though this is commonly referred to as a loop, it’s more accurately a shuttle trip. Leave a car at the North Lake trailhead, and hike from South Lake to North Lake.
This adventure begins on the Bishop Pass Trail at South Lake, about half an hour from Bishop. Take CA-168 west (Line Street) from Bishop past Aspendell, and turn onto the dirt road that leads to North Lake; leave a car here in the backpackers’ parking lot. Then, head back to the main road, follow the signs to South Lake, and park in the backpackers’ parking lot above the lake and near the trailhead at 9768’.
Lakes and great fishing abound on the first part of our journey, as the trail takes us past Long Lake, Spearhead Lake, Saddlerock Lake, and Bishop Lake. The trail climbs steadily to Bishop Lake at 11,240’; stop here for a rest and make sure you have water for the steep climb ahead to Bishop Pass (11,972’), where the route crosses into Kings Canyon National Park and then descends to upper Dusy Basin (~11,500’) in about 1.5 miles and the lower basin (~10,800) in nearly three miles. Dusy Basin is a terrific place to camp on the first night, and there’s a great side trip to Thunderbolt Pass. If you go all the way to the lower basin, this day of the trip is about 8 miles with a climb of about 2200’ and a descent of nearly 1200’. If you find that your pack is too heavy for your ambition, there are good campsites near Saddlerock Lake.
The next part of the journey takes us three miles down from Dusy Basin to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail near the Le Conte ranger station at about 8750’. The views of Le Conte Canyon along the way are staggering. Once we reach the trail junction, though, it’s uphill on the PCT/JMT and north through the canyon, passing first Little Pete Meadow followed by Big Pete Meadow (9240’). At Big Pete, the trail turns to the west and climbs to a series of lakes where good campsites can be found. These are good places to stop for a night before the next day’s climb, which takes us up and over Muir Pass and down into Evolution Basin. This day’s work is a distance of about 8.5 miles with a descent of 2100’ followed by a climb of 1600’.
After a good night’s sleep in the Sierra backcountry, we continue up the hill past a pair of smaller lakes before reaching Helen Lake, a huge alpine lake at 11,617’ set in the moonscape above tree-line. From here, it’s a short distance to Muir Pass (11,955’), where we can stop and rest at the Muir Hut before beginning our descent into Evolution Basin. The trail takes us past Lake McDermand on the right and huge Wanda Lake (11,426’) on the left, though there is a conspicuous lack of good campsites in this area. Our best bet is to continue north past Wanda Lake and past another large lake on the right to beautiful Sapphire Lake (10,966’), which sits at the foot of Mount Spencer (12,431’) and near Mount Huxley (13,086’). There are decent campsites here, and sunset at the north end of Sapphire Lake also tends to be spectacular when conditions are good. We could also continue north from Sapphire Lake to Evolution Lake (10,852’), one of the most beautiful lakes in the Sierra Nevada. The distance between the two lakes is short, just a mile or so between the north end of Sapphire and the south end of Evolution. There are a number of excellent campsites toward the north end of Evolution Lake, and we should consider spending an extra day here without the heavy pack: The summits of Spencer and Huxley are great for side-trips, and the two smaller lakes to the northwest and northeast of Mount Spencer are fun to explore. A couple of high points tucked between the north part of the Evolution Lake and its southeast arm provide outstanding, elevated views of the lake, Spencer, and Huxley. Dramatic sunsets, especially if there are low-hanging clouds to the west above Evolution Valley, happen often here. The total distance to Evolution Lake is about 9.5 miles, elevation gain of 1600’, elevation loss of 1100’.
After our night at Evolution and perhaps an extra recovery day, we continue northwest along the PCT/JMT for about a mile before turning northeast onto a much fainter footpath that leads up an obvious draw to Darwin Bench (11,200’), the gateway to Darwin Canyon and its five lakes. The path continues along the north side of the canyon to several good campsites, especially between the first and second lakes. This is country through which we shouldn’t hurry, so we camp in this gorgeous granite canyon before the last day, the trek over Lamarck Col to North Lake. From Evolution Lake, the distance is about 4 miles to Darwin Canyon with an elevation gain of about 750’ and a small loss of about 200’.
After a good breakfast and a second cup of coffee, we continue heading east through Darwin Canyon to the head of the fourth lake, where the path takes us up the canyon’s north side. The path here is more of a scramble/boulder-hop than a trail, but we make our way up the slope from about 11,600’ at the fourth lake to 12,960’ at the col, where we exit Kings Canyon NP. Be sure to take in the views along the way of the five lakes in Darwin Canyon, Mount Mendel (13,710’), and Mount Darwin (13,832’). From the col, we descend first to a tiny glacial lake at the foot of the col and then to Upper Lamarck Lake (10,918’), where we find a well-tread trail that leads us the final three miles to North Lake (9356’). Total distance from Darwin Canyon to the North Lake trailhead is about 8 miles with an elevation gain of 1400’ and a descent of 3600’.
What to know before you come:
- Permits are required for this trip, and they can be hard to get depending on when you want to go
- The Bishop Pass Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Sierra Nevada, and a substantial portion of the route is on the John Muir Trail, which also is extremely popular
- Stop at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, 798 N Main Street, to get your permit
- Bear canisters also are required for backcountry travel in this area. For a trip this long, each person will need his or her own
- Dogs are NOT permitted in the backcountry of Kings Canyon NP
- Especially if you’re not used to the elevation, it’s a good idea to spend a night at a roadside campground before heading into the backcountry. The Inyo National Forest website lists a number of these campgrounds
- On the back end of this incredible adventure, good food (not freeze dried!) and plenty of inexpensive motel rooms (showers! real beds!) await you in Bishop
- Bear canister
- Mosquito repellent/headnet
- Backpacking essentials
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