Sierra California- North Lake Loop

Monday 9th September 2019 Our aim was to do a loop hike starting at the North Lake trailhead, west of the town of Bishop, hiking north on a chunk of the Sierra High Route, returning via the John Muir Trail and then finishing with a cross country meander past Darwin Lakes and Lamarck Col.

Our route starting at North Lake Trailhead, west of Bishop

We started with a trip to Basin Bakery for some great bagels then the Bishop Visitor Centre and again managed to get a same day permit for the hike with no trouble. It’s a lovely drive climbing steeply out of the Bishop valley with some final dirt road to North Lake trailhead.

From the trailhead we had an easy gradual on-trail ascent past multiple lakes to Piute Pass at 11,423 feet. There were a few other hikers around and we met a nice guy with a donkey! The west side of the pass is gentle going over a plateau like area but we soon split from the trail to head north cross country to Puppet Pass. The area is flattish, dotted with boulders and lakes with mountains on the horizon all around. The descent from Puppet Pass was to the north of the lowest point – bouldery and slow going but the Puppet Lakes below were beautiful. We made it northwards to Elba Lake to camp in a lovely spot with sun and some shelter in amongst krummholz whitebark pine.

Mesa Lake looking back south to the Glacier Divide
Puppet Pass and Lakes

Pretty cold overnight with our water bottles freezing- I guess we are quite high at about 11,000 feet. Our start was a relaxed cross country descent down to French Canyon to boulder hop across the frost fringed river. We were both glad no wading was required as it was still frigidly cold! After a relaxed 1 mile hike west on trail we split again with some faint trails and xc up to Merriam Lake sitting in stark alpine surroundings. Easy going from there up a remote feeling valley across meadows and slabs to La Salle lake before a steep granite boulder and slab push to Feather Pass at about 12,300 feet. We met 2 guys here (first since Piute Pass yesterday) who are out for 10 days.

The descent was on better rock this time with some fun scrambling on grippy granite then onto a snow slope to easier ground. We then wound round various lakes with bear related names and all in a grand wild setting before reaching White Bear Pass with its beautiful lake near the top. The descent from this one though was a bit of a pain with endless willow scrub, gravel and loose rock! We were both glad to make it to flatter terrain and past two more lakes to reach the Hilgard valley where we would split west from the Sierra High Route.

A trail was marked in the valley but we found some rough going initially before a rugged trail gradually became a bit clearer. Cool valley though with granite slabs and green meadows. We made it to about 1/2 mile short of the John Muir Trail and pitched the tent fairly tired after a long rough but excellent day.

Leaving camp at Elba Lake
Above La Salle Lake
Hilgard Valley

Boy was it cold in the morning- our shoes had frozen as well as our water. We soon hit the JMT and headed south on a long gradual ascent to Seldon Pass – drying the tent out in the sun on some granite slabs. The lakes below Seldon were scenic and on the other side the trail was easy as it descended 3,000 feet down to Muir Ranch. This is a place where JMT hikers are able to resupply and stay the night. There is lots of spare food here, left behind by JMT hikers and we were able to stock up on bonus nuts and raisins and a few bars – superb!

Suitably replenished, we headed on south following the steep sided San Joaquin River on a grand trail camping just below Evolution Meadow after a fine day of JMT trail walking.

Nearing Seldon Pass
At Muir Ranch
Above the San Joaquin River

We started the next day with more chilled out JMT trail walking through Evolution Valley before striking steeply uphill off trail to Darwin Bench. Actually there was a pretty good ‘use trail’ much of the way but with some boulder hopping round the fine turquoise Darwin Lakes. After Lake 4 we stopped at its small beach before hitting the 1,000 foot climb up to Lamarck Col. The views opened out as we followed various sandy trails with the odd scramble to pop out at the col in late afternoon at 12,800 feet. A grand spot.

The descent involved crossing a snow slope which was in the shade and had hardened so we got out the micro spikes and ice axes to cross to the boulders below. From there it was easier arid slopes with a trail forming lower down. We stopped at a trickling water source then looked around a bit for a good viewful camping spot, eventually finding a wonderful place on the ridge above. What a view east over to Owens Valley and the White Mountain range. Even better was a full moon popping out over the jagged ridge to the south and no wind to rattle the tent even on this exposed spot.

After taking a few pictures over breakfast in the morning, we headed down steadily on trail in the morning back to the North Lakes trailhead. Another great loop !

Darwin Lakes
Lamarck Col
Snowfield descent from Lamarck Col
Camp below Lamarck Col

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