August 27 - Sep 6, 2020

This South Lake to North Lake Backpack is the quintessential High Sierra hike. In between two crossings of the Sierra backbone at Muir Pass and Piute Pass, we'll visit beautiful and famous Evolution Valley. Spectacular scenery abounds, with tumbling waterfalls, flowing creeks, glittering lakes, stately forests, and imposing mountains galore. As a bonus, the nearness of the two trailheads to each other makes the shuttle almost short enough to walk. We hiked this loop back in 2017, and it's time to do it again.

The Drive

We'll leave Tucson mid-morning on Thursday, August 27th, heading for lovely San Bernardino, California. This seven hour, 440-mile drive gets us well over halfway to our ultimate destination. We'll stay overnight in San Bernardino at an inexpensive motel, having dinner somewhere in that desert town. See the Lodging Links section to the right. Make your reservations early, since our trip is scheduled for the weeks before Labor Day. Reservations are free. You can always cancel later if you need to do so.

On Friday, we'll continue up the highway and make a shorter four-and-a-half hour drive, this time covering the 265-miles through Bishop to our campsite at Four Jeffrey Campground, which is near our trailhead at South Lake. We'll have lunch along the way, and perhaps pick up something for dinner before we head to camp. We'll also have to move one vehicle to our exit trailhead at North Lake. That's only about 11 miles away, so it won't take too long.

We'll spend Friday night at Four Jeffrey Campground near South Lake, acclimating to the 8,100-foot elevation before starting our trek on Saturday from 9,750 feet. It's incredibly difficult to breathe at nearly 10,000 feet when you're not used to it. You'll find yourself huffing and puffing just from putting up your tent! The low pressure at these higher altitudes makes it feel as if there is only about 2/3 of the amount of oxygen we have in Tucson at 2,500 feet.

The Plan

On Saturday morning we'll pack our gear, have breakfast, then start our climb to and through Bishop Pass. We're heading for Dusy Basin seven miles ahead of and above us. From the trailhead, the trail climbs slowly but steadily over the next three miles, passing Bull Lake and Long Lake. Beyond that, the climbing starts to get a bit more earnest as we glide past Ruwau Lake, Saddlerock Lake, and Bishop Lake. At the end of Bishop Lake, the steep switchbacks begin. Those switchbacks will carry us up the last 700' to Bishop Pass (11,972'), where we'll pause for a well-deserved breather and a photo or two. From there, we have less than a mile and a half to go to get to our first campsite at an unnamed lake. 7.4 mi / +2,500' / -900'

If it's Sunday, that means we've got a down-and-up sort of day. We'll start by descending from our perch of the night before down to Le Conte Ranger Station, which is where we meet up with the well-used John Muir Trail. At that junction, we'll turn north on the JMT and make our way up through Little Pete Meadow until we reach our campsite in Big Pete Meadow. 8.0 mi / -2,800' / +900'

We've got a long, strenuous day on a rough trail on Monday. From camp, the trail turns to the west and exits Big Pete Meadow. As it does, the rounded rocks underfoot slowly transition to sharp talus as we get closer to Muir Pass. The trail climbs steadily, swinging to the north then back to the west, finally passing Helen Lake just before the pass. Standing in Muir Pass (11,955') is a small, round stone hut that dates from 1931 when it was built by the Sierra Club. Once again, we'll pause for lunch. From the pass, we have just a couple of miles to go to our campsite at the lower end of Wanda Lake. 8.9 mi / +3,000' / -900'

On Tuesday, we'll be hiking down through Evolution Basin, passing Sapphire and Evolution Lakes as we start out on our longest day on the trail. We'll be sure to stop and say so long to the eight peaks of the Evolution Group just to the east of the trail in the first few miles of the day's hike. When the trail turns to the west again past Evolution Lake, we'll drop below 10,000 feet. Within a short distance from that point, we'll pass by a summer ranger camp at McClure Meadow. If the ranger is there, we'll stop and chat, but today we're headed for Evolution Meadow which is another few miles along the trail. We'll spend the night there. 9.4 mi / -2,400' / +500'

Wednesday is a short day. We'll head out of camp a bit later than usual, crossing the river in the first mile or so. From there, we have just another four miles to reach Muir Rock at GPS waypoint 11 S 338093 4120544. Be sure to stop there for a photo! From Muir Rock, it's less than a mile to our camp along the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. 6.0 mi / +400' / -1,500'

Thursday will be a shortish day on the trail, and it's a down and up sort of day. From Evolution Meadow, we continue our downward trend and eventually drop down to the junction of the San Joaguin River with Piute Creek. We'll cross the bridge when Piute Creek comes in from the northeast, then turn to head up the trail that follows that waterway. We'll follow Piute Canyon uphill for a few miles until we reach beautiful Hutchinson Meadow. For the second day in a row, there will be no lakes along the trail, but there is that lovely, flowing, burbling brook we'll be following. 6.6 mi / -500' / +2,150'

Friday, our last full day and night on the trail, is relatively long compared to the previous few days. We are going to be climbing again for most of those miles, too. The steady 2,100' climb from our camp to Piute Pass covers six miles, but there are no real steep sections. Once we reach Piute Pass (11,423'), we have just under two miles to go as we drop down to our last campsite at Piute Lake. 7.8 / +2,200' / -625'

Saturday finds us about four miles from our exit trailhead at North Lake. We can get up a bit late, and even laze about for a few minutes, before heading out. 4.0 / -1,550' / +700'

The Prep

This trip is planned for as many as eight people, depending on how many slots I can get in my permit. The application process starts 6 months prior to the entry date. I'll be applying for my permit early on the morning of February 29th via the Recreation.gov website. I'll also make reservations at Four Jeffrey Campground for Friday, August 28th that same day. The cost for the permit will be at least $6.00 per person, and we'll split the cost for the campsites amongst the group.

Please note that two vehicles are required (or desired) in order to make the shuttle work. If we're unable or it's not practical to take a second vehicle, we could always take a bit of a chance and try to hitchhike from North Lake back to South Lake at the end of our hike. People do it. It's just not something I've attempted before.

As mentioned above, you'll need reservations at two hotels. Use the Lodging Links section to the right. Once I've filled my permit, I'll pass out the names to everyone, in case you'd like to share hotel rooms. You can work out those arrangements among yourselves.

There will, of course, be additional shared costs for fuel and our campsite near the trailhead, as well as individual costs for meals, hotels, etc., along the road. Plan on as much as $250.00 or $300.00 per person. In most cases, credit cards will be fine. That's your call.

You'll need food for eight breakfasts, seven lunches, and eight dinners. Of those meals, seven breakfasts, six lunches, and six dinners must fit in a bear canister. The extra meals -- one breakfast, one lunch, and two dinners -- can go into a bear box at our trailhead campground, then straight into your pack for our first day on the trail. If you have a bit of extra room in your bear canister, please be generous with sharing that space (once we're in camp) with those whose food doesn't quite fit into their own bear canisters that first day or two.

The Elements

Although it's a bit late in the year, there should be water all over the place. I don't foresee any problems, since California has had significant rains and snows over the winter.

The weather in the Sierra Nevada can be very nice at higher elevations, but will be warm in the lower portions of our trek. Daytime highs will be in the 70s or even the low 80s with nighttime lows in the mid 40s and low 50s. There might be one or two nights of temps in the high 30s. Be prepared! Click the links for the different campsites below to get spot weather forecasts for that particular area. Remember that those forecasts will be for as much as ten days into the future from when you're able to look at them. Even so, you will probably only need a cool weather sleeping bag for this trip. I'm hoping to be able to take my warmer weather 40° bag.

The Hike

day miles elev gain elev destination
Thu 460 mi driving - - - Motel 6, San Bernardino
Fri 290 mi driving 8100' Campsite; car shuttle; Four Jeffrey Campground
Sat 0.0 / 0.0 0 ft / 0 ft 9750' South Lake Trailhead
Sat 3.0 / 3.0 1000 ft / 1000 ft 10700' South end of Long Lake
Sat 2.6 / 5.6 1500 ft / 2500 ft 11972' Bishop Pass
Sat 1.8 / 7.4 -650 ft / 2500 ft 11350' Campsite; northernmost large lake in Dusy Basin
Sun 2.6 / 10.0 -600 ft / 2500 ft 10750' Just past lower lakes in Dusy Basin
Sun 3.0 / 13.0 -2100 ft / 2500 ft 8650' Le Conte Canyon / junction with the JMT
Sun 2.4 / 15.4 900 ft / 3400 ft 9200' Campsite; Big Pete Meadow
Mon 2.8 / 18.2 1100 ft / 4500 ft 10300' Trail turns to the north
Mon 1.5 / 19.7 800 ft / 5300 ft 11000' Trail turns to the west southwest
Mon 2.5 / 22.2 1100 ft / 6400 ft 11955' Muir Pass
Mon 2.1 / 24.3 -900 ft / 6400 ft 11500' Campsite; Wanda Lake
Tue 5.4 / 29.7 -1500 ft / 6400 ft 10000' Trail turns to the west
Tue 2.3 / 32.0 500 ft / 6900 ft 9700' McClure Meadow Ranger Station
Tue 1.7 / 33.7 -350 ft / 6900 ft 9350' Campsite; Evolution Meadow
Wed 4.2 / 37.9 -1500 ft / 6900 ft 9350' Exploration; Campsite; San Joaquin River
Wed 1.8 / 39.7 400 ft / 7300 ft 8350' Goddard Canyon
Thu 1.4 / 41.1 -150 ft / 7300 ft 8200' Piute Canyon
Thu 5.2 / 46.3 2150 ft / 9450 ft 9700' Campsite; Hutchinson Meadow
Fri 6.0 / 52.3 2200 ft / 11650 ft 11423' Piute Pass
Fri 1.8 / 54.1 -450 ft / 11650 ft 10900' Campsite; Piute Lake
Sat 4.0 / 58.1 700 ft / 12350 ft 9350' North Lake Trailhead
Sat 20 mi driving - - - Shuttle cars from South Lake Trailhead
Sat 90 mi driving - - - Lunch in Bishop; Comfort Inn, Lone Pine
Sun 650 mi driving - - - Tucson, AZ

 

The End

After shuttling over to South Lake to get the other vehicle, we'll head down to Bishop for lunch in a local restaurant. After our repast, we'll drive down the road to the little town of Lone Pine. If we're too early to go to the hotel, we'll stop over at the Interagency Office to browse through their displays and merchandise. When we do check into the hotel, we'll unload our gear and have plenty of time to take a couple of showers and get a bit of rest.

That evening, we'll go on a short walking, shopping, and sightseeing tour of Lone Pine, then stop for a great pizza-and-beer dinner before going back to the hotel for some much-needed rest.

On Sunday, we've got a ten-hour drive back to Tucson, perhaps dropping off people along the way. One good thing about this schedule is that you'll have Labor Day to rest up from your eight-day trek before going back to your regular labors on Tuesday.