Monday, September 14, 2015

Backpacking the Evolution Lake Loop

The Evolution Lake Loop isn't actually a loop.  It's more like a horseshoe starting at North Lake, traveling over Piute Pass, then descending to a junction with the JMT, then ascending to the Evolution Valley and Lakes, crossing Muir Pass, descending to Big Pete Meadow, then climbing up and over Bishop Pass and ending at South Lake.  The whole route is at high altitude ranging between 8000 and 12000 ft with three high passes of Piute(11423 ft), Muir Pass(11955 ft) and Bishop Pass(11972 ft).  There are long 3000+ ft climbs and descents that showcases some of the best of the high Sierra.  

Sachin and I set off from North Lake at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.  Toshi devised his own loop, starting from Lake Sabrina and traversing cross-country over the Echo Col and bagging an assortment of peaks near Muir Pass where he was going to rejoin us Sunday afternoon to finish the loop up and over Bishop Pass.

Our Evolution Lake Loop.  We added in a trip to Muir Ranch and  Blaney Hot Springs.  Yello and Blue was day one.  Pink and Green was day 2.  Purple was the last day.  This was from Sachin's GPS data.  Thanks Sachin!

Start Pic: North Lake.
The climb and descent from the 11423 ft Piute pass was actually pretty mellow.  This was a nice reprieve from the day before and allowed us to get into cruise mode and effortlessly tick away the miles as we made our way to the goal for day 1: taking a nice long dip in some natural mountain hot springs before camping for the night.  At first Sachin was apprehensive about taking the six mile (roundtrip) detour from the classic lake loop just to perhaps find some hot springs to partake in.  Sachin is very goal driven, and when he sets his mind on a certain goal - anything that doesn't get him closer is just more of a hindrance.  I tried to make it clear that the out and back was part of MY goal so he grudgingly incorporated it into his goal as well ;-)  Another reason for the out and back was to check out Muir Trail Ranch.  I always wanted to check the place out as it will be my resupply when I some day tackle the JMT thru-hike.  And it just so happened to be a few miles off of the loop that we were planning on...

Valley: looking down at where we started.

Looking East from Piute Pass.  Credit: Sachin.

Looking West from Piute Pass.
At Piute Pass we talked with a couple of hiker/fisherman and they were warning us about the smoke from the Rough fire that was hazing the place over.  They pointed down into the valley in the picture above and said it was just starting to move in.  Their contention was that the mornings were usually pretty clear and then the smoke would drift in during the afternoon only to clear up in the evenings again.  Our experience seemed to be mixed.  The smoke did seem to ebb and flow, probably most directly influenced by the prevailing winds, but there was never a strong odor - it mostly just affected the views.  Which was too bad because we missed out on some awesome pictures.

Once we got down into the trees - this is what it looked like.

Beautiful flowing Piute Creek.

Muir Trail Ranch.  This is the strategically placed stop-over halfway on the JMT where hikers mail 5 gallon buckets with their re-supply for the thru-hike.

This is the bear proof shelter where the food resides.
We made it to the junction with the JMT at about 16.5 miles and then traveled north and then followed the cutoff for Muir Trail Ranch which was another 3.5 miles and then another .5 miles to the hot springs.  So it actually turned into an 8 mile roundtrip detour.  But since we found the hot springs, it made it well worth the trip.  The hot springs was not easy to find.  There is the popular Blaney Meadows campground, but then you have to cross the river and follow a secret path to find the springs.  The pool was about 3 or 4 ft deep which meant that you could relax pretty well in a crouched position.  It is a muddy bottom except for where the spring water actually comes out of the ground.  There there was a sandy divot where you could feel the hot water with your feet.  The pool wasn't too hot, but right where the water came out was cookin'.  Sachin and I shared the pool with the three guys in the picture below and had a very relaxing soak while the sun started to go down with views of the valley walls all around.  I think Sachin would agree that it was worth it...

After the springs we decided to do a little night hike to regain most of the out-n-back to get closer to the classic loop for the next days journey.  During this night hike we managed to cook and eat our dinner as well so by the time we picked our camping spot we were ready to just roll out our stuff and pass out.

The Blaney Meadows Hot Springs.  

Next morning following the San Joaquin River upstream towards Evolution Valley.
As we got moving the next morning we knew that we had to be on our game to reach Muir Hut to reconnect with Toshi.  We had 18.7 miles with almost 5000 ft of climbing to get done by mid-afternoon.  I had told Toshi we were shooting for 2 p.m.

Climbing beside the beautiful rapids of the Evolution Creek.

Crossing a low Evolution Creek.  Had managed to keep the shoes dry to this point and the feet were thanking me. Credit: Sachin

Evolution Meadow.

First views of Evolution Lake.

A convenient way to cross the creek. Credit: Sachin.

Lake Wanda.  Almost to Muir Hut.  Credit: Sachin.
Almost to the hut. Credit: Sachin.

Note that Toshi left at Muir Hut.  It took him a little longer than planned.  Credit: Sachin.

Seeing Toshi from the hut.  He just got done climbing Mt Warlow(pictured in the background)

The gang - back together.  Credit: Sachin.
We ended up reaching the hut at about 2:30 and then Toshi got back from climbing Warlow just before 3.  So, not bad, all things considered.  This was also where a kind hiker woman was attempting to get the perfect photo of the hut.  She asked me to move out of her picture frame to obtain said picture.  I cooperated, but then she indicated that she didn't want my backpack in the picture either - the backpack that I had leaned up against the hut.   Now I was just miffed and let all parties concerned know it - then instantly regretted it.  It was such a peaceful beautiful place and then I let that woman get to me.  Whatever.

Now descending along with the headwaters of the Kings River.

If this valley reminds you of my last trip to the Sierra, that is because this valley connects directly with the giant valley that Sachin and I travelled down to finish off the Rae Lakes Loop.  The smoke from the Rough fire was really screwing up the views.

Nice Teeth.

Warning about the trouble Bear.
The tale about the horse eating bear:

As we neared in on our Bishop Pass exit we kept getting rumors of a bear that had eaten a dead mule on the climb to the pass.  It was explained that this represented a bad situation for hikers, maybe because the bear had gotten a taste of meat or something - didn't quite understand why.  We read the above warning and wondered what we were in for.  As we climbed the switchbacks we came across yet another note that read something to the effect of: "Mule eating bear encounter imminent on next switchback - cut straight up the mountain - laconte ranger".

I looked at Sachin and he gave me this "yeah, whatever" look like he thought that was the silliest thing he ever heard of.  Why would a bear just "hang out" at a switchback  - even long enough for a written note from a ranger to guide any backpackers...  I then looked at Toshi who said: "great, this will be faster - let's go straight up!"  He doesn't like switchbacks...  I was more inclined to Sachin's point of view and decided to follow him up the trail.  We neared in on the switchback and all of the sudden Sachin turns a 180 with a terrified look in his face streaming a whole string of expletives as he sprints full speed at me.  He almost ran me over when I was somehow able to stop him and calm him down trying to explain that what he was doing might be the worst thing to do if you do encounter a bear (as if he didn't already know this) (also, this was after I confirmed that there was no bear following him - in which case I was going to make sure to sprint faster than Sachin...)  He described to me how a big black bear was just sitting there at the switchback.  We decided to backtrack to the cut-up where the ranger not was and pushed up the mountain.  After a while we got a ways up and as we looked down Sachin pointed to the bear who was indeed just sitting there.  Theories as to why the bear seemed to be immobilized included: maybe he was tranquilized?, big stomach ache from all the meat it wasn't used to?, maybe just trying to recover after the biggest meal it had ever had?

Anyways - the next day we got a story about how the dead mule came to be.  A man on a horse and a boy following on another horse passed us as we descended from Bishop Pass.  The man told us that a guy from his company had gotten drunk and decided to ride the mule over the pass at night.  The mule tripped and fell on the man.  The mule ended up dying and the man got a punctured lung and got fired.  And then the bear found the mule.  The guys were climbing the mountain to clean up the mess.  The end.  Of one duzy of a hiking story...

Climbing the switchbacks to Dusy Basin.

Views as the sun was going down.

Credit: Sachin

Finishing packing - getting ready to finish off the hike! Credit: Sachin

Snow Sensor.

Toshi made sure I captured this moment of him "running" down the trail.  This trip was 99% hiking.

Credit: Sachin.
At the base of chocolate peak we decided to have a coffee break.  This was a nice luxury to enjoy on our last morning of hiking as we knew we were on schedule and would be able to make it back to the bay area before Toshi's self-imposed 10 p.m. home time to get ready for his business trip the next morning.  We also shared the rest of our chocolate.

Long Lake.

South Lake.

A very low South Lake with a nice panorama. Credit: Sachin.

Toshi was able to procure a ride back to lake Sabrina to pick up his car from some generous hikers and we were on our way back to the bay area.  First we had to make a little side trip to get in a nice post-hike hot springs soak.  Toshi had researched several public/free hotsprings in the valley and we settled on a place called "hilltop" since it was supposed to have nice views.  I think if there wasn't any smoke from the Rough fire, the views would have indeed been quite spectacular.  But instead it was a rather cramped pool with a grand walkway in the middle of a farm field.  It was actually really nice.  It was cool to get the story of this years Burning Man from a couple who had split a day early.  Burning Man has always intrigued me in a "never would I go there" kind of way.  But the stories are good.  Sachin and I ended our trip once again with grand plans of feasting on some Indian lunch buffet, but are now 0/2 on selecting an establishment that was actually open for business at the crucial time.  Oh well - there is room for improvement on our backpacking trip logistics...
All in all I have to say that the Evolutions Lakes loop was really good.  I have felt incredibly blessed to be able to enjoy two of the most iconic high Sierra trail loops around this summer and consider this year to be a complete success with respect to my backpacking ambitions.  Four fantastic weekends in four incredible places, all with friends to share the trail with.  And Sachin always says yes.  I have to give thanks to my family for being supportive when I disappear for weekends at a time!  My next backpacking blog installment should be a post dedicated to reviewing the gear that I have come to trust and love for these adventures.  I know I find other's gear recommendations fascinating and helpful so I think that might actually be something that is helpful to some of this blog's readers. 
Video Compilation:


  1. Always interesting stories and amazing pictures when you come back from these adventures! I'm glad you have found something to enjoy, and that you have friends to do it with!

    1. Also, it really tickled me that it said, "stay organized" on Toshi's note.

  2. Sounds like a great trip, and glad you guys were able to avoid the bear!