The big Sierra backpack trip for this summer, is one that I attempted many years ago, but never completed, and has been on my bucket list for a long time. The Evolution Valley is supposed to be one of the most stunning parts of the John Muir Trail, and I’ve been wanting to get up there for a while.
After a non-eventful drive from Sacramento to Bishop (with the obligatory lunch stop at the Woah-Nellie Deli in Lee Vining), Jon “Baristopheles” and I established our basecamp at the home of our friends Wayne, Kim, and Robin.
Day 1 First steps: North Lake—>Hutchinson Meadow (12 miles) After dropping Jon’s truck at South Lake for the end of the hike, we drove up the steep road to North Lake to begin our adventure. Piute Pass is the easiest of the three passes on this trip, but it being the first day, our packs were the heaviest of the trip, and it took us a bit to get our mountain legs. The scenery here is spectacular from the get-go, and in less than a couple of hours, we hit Piute Pass at 11, 423′. The rest of the day was a seven mile walk through the wide-open landscape of Humphrey’s Basin, spectacular high country filled with Alpine lakes, and surrounded by towering peaks. By the time we reached our first camp at Hutchinson Meadow, we’d lost all of the 2100′ we’d gained climbing to the pass. We found a delightful site on some riverside slabs, complete with fully intact donkey skull. A mellow evening passed, as we tried to get some sleep before the tough day we had ahead.
Day 2 Pain Day: Hutchinson Meadow—>Evolution Meadow (11 miles) We’d been warned that the next section of trail, between Hutchinson Meadow and the Piute Creek crossing was rough. Generally, it is a downward hike, but it goes up and down a lot of times getting there. And it’s a rough trail, with long sections of scree and rock.
The morning started with sharp pain in my knee, which got worse as we descended. I have had some knee issues in the past, but it’s been quite a few years, and I was getting a little worried about the hike ahead. Fortunately, I had a sample Spidertech x-tape in my first-aid kit, and it helped a great deal. By the time we got to the Piute Creek bridge, we were ready for this section to be finished.
We stopped for a lunch break, and watched amused, as a horse packer tried to get his lead horse to cross the bridge. It was stubborn, and he ended up having to take the third horse and put it up front, to get his animals across the bridge. The whole operation took nearly twenty minutes, and was quite humorous considering the amount of horse poo we had to walk over for five days.
The beginning of the climb up to Evolution was pretty warm, but also increasingly spectacular as we walked along the Kings River Middle Fork. The day culminates with a very significant ford of Evolution creek, probably fifty or so feet across, but not too bad, it being a dry year. All that was left was to find a place to set up for the night, and we found another lovely campsite right next to Evolution Creek, for a peaceful, quiet evening.
Day 3 Epic Day: Evolution Meadow—>top of LeConte Camp (13 miles) The next day promised to be an stunner, and it didn’t disappoint. Climbing up through several meadows, we finally hit Evolution Valley. The valley is a series of Alpine Lakes, each on a “shelf” higher than the previous one. The scenery in this area is just amazing, and my mind was on sensory overload.
I was having some significant foot pain, so during our lunch break at Sapphire Lake, undertook some surgical procedures which did help somewhat. Our plan A was to camp at Wanda Lake, named after one of John Muir’s daughters, and tackle Muir Pass first thing in the morning. But we were making good time and arrived at Wanda Lake at 2:30. So with seven hours of daylight left, we decided to press on, making the steep climb up to Muir Pass.
At the top of of the 11,955′ pass is a stone hut built by the Sierra Club in honor of John Muir. Unfortunately, a work crew was there installing a new doorframe and window, so we were unable to go inside. After enjoying the awe inspiring scenery and refueling, we headed down the steep trail from the pass, searching for a campsite for the night. The trail heading down from the pass is not only steep, but very rocky and difficult at times. We finally stumbled onto a spectacular campsite adjacent to a hanging meadow about two miles from the pass. We were both pretty tired, and found sleep quickly.
Day 4 It’s a dusy: LeConte Camp—>Lower Dusy Basin (10 miles) This promised to be another big day… not necessarily with a lot of miles, but with significant downhill and uphill. The first part of the day was a descent of LeConte Canyon, named after Joseph LeConte, one of the earliest euro-american explorers of the high sierra. This is a beautiful section with towering granite walls and waterfalls all along the trail. In good time, we found ourselves at the next trail junction, up to Bishop Pass. We stopped near the backcountry ranger station for lunch and to tank up our water supplies.
The climb up into Dusy Basin is tough. It’s steep, rugged, sunny (read “hot”), and nearly windless. As we slogged our way up the trail, I started to fantasize about real food… tacos, burritos, cold beer. By the time we found a decent campsite in the slabs at the east end of the Lower Dusy Basin, I was just knackered and ready to be done. It was a glorious campsite though, and was treated to the best alpenglow show of the entire trip. Jon was already sacked out from the days efforts. It wasn’t long before I was too.
Day 5 When you’re up you’re up, and when you’re down you’re down: Lower Dusy Basin—>South Lake trailhead (10 miles) Our trip was winding down. Another clear beautiful morning took us a couple of miles up to the summit of Bishop Pass… at 11,972′ the highest of our three passes. The view from here is astonishing, and made all of the effort in getting there worth it. Now we faced eight miles and 2100′ of downhill. Along the way we met all kinds of hikers going in for the weekend. Day trippers, ultra-runners, ultralight backpackers, and overloaded and seemingly ill prepared backpackers too.
Near one creek crossing, we seemed to have gotten on the wrong side of a young buck, who was following us, and then darted closely across our path. He seemed pretty worked up, and may have been defending his young ones, but who knows??
Finally we reached the very busy South Lake trailhead, and threw our stuff in the back of Jon’s truck, and headed from the coolness of the mountains to Bishop, where Thai Food and cold beers awaited.
Thanks to everyone who made this awesome trip possible. To my partner Jon, who was willing to put up with my sometimes sluggish pace, and my constant foot-mending. To our friends the Linse family, for providing a crash pad for us in Bishop. To all of the interesting hikers we met along the way. And to all of the pack trains who kept the trail so clean and neat. This is a great trip, and you should do it if you have the chance!
Gear List, for all of you gearheads out there:
Osprey Aether 60 backpack
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent
Mont-Bell UL Super-stretch down hugger #4 sleeping bag
Big Anges insulated air core sleeping pad
Z-lite 3/4 length pad (sitting/pillow)
MSR Superfly stove/primus kettle
Steripen water purifier
Ibex echo-t merino shirt
Ibex Indie merino hoodie
Mont-Bell UL down jacket
REI e-Vent rain jacket
North Face convertible pants
Mountain Hardwear 3/4 length tights
Darn Tough merino ankle length socks
Vasque Talus UD boots
Outdoor Research sun hat
Black Diamond Alpine cork carbon-fiber trekking poles