Journey Through Evolution, North Lake to South Lake, Kings Canyon National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14133A, Backpack


  • Hike an especially scenic area of the Sierra Nevada, including a section of the John Muir Trail
  • Climb three passes over 11,000 feet for panoramic vistas
  • Explore or relax on a planned layover day in Evolution Basin


  • Vegetarian-friendly meals
  • Group cooking gear and commissary equipment
  • Group accommodations on the night before the trip starts


DatesAug 2–10, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffPam Abell

Trip Overview

The Trip

How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over. -John Muir

This eight-day journey into the very heart of the Sierra will allow you time to enjoy the stunning beauty of this section of the "Range of Light." Our trip will take us from the abrupt escarpment of the east side of the Sierra, down to the floor of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, then up and into the centerpiece of our trip, Evolution Basin. This part of the Sierra is renowned for rugged peaks, endless granite, dramatic vistas, and refreshing lakes. The itinerary is planned to allow for a layover day and a short hiking day in the Evolution region, where we'll hike beneath the amazing granite peaks named for Darwin, Huxley, and other great evolutionary thinkers. Fittingly, the basin provokes thoughts of the natural forces that brought about the landscape and life within it.

Our route forms an almost complete loop as we travel from North Lake to South Lake with the majority of campsites located at or above tree line. Our 54-mile route is on-trail. One planned layover day and another short hiking day will offer freedom to join a challenging hike, wander off to nearby lakes, or just stretch out on a warm slab of granite for an afternoon nap. Expect congenial leaders who love to share their fondness for these special places.


Day 1: We'll meet at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 2 at a cabin in Aspendell near North Lake. After introductions, we will check packs, divide up the group commissary, and take care of any last-minute details. Tonight's dinner will be the first meal provided. After dinner, we will shuttle cars to the South Lake trailhead.

Day 2: We’ll drive to North Lake and begin our backpack at the Piute trailhead (9,400 feet). We'll ascend, first through aspens then lodgepole pines, to enter an open glaciated canyon. We’ll pass several lakes, eventually crossing Piute Pass, with great views into Humphreys Basin. Then we'll traverse over to beautiful Muriel Lake, where we’ll make our first camp. Distance: 5 miles.  Elevation change: 2,000. Campsite elevation: 11,400 feet.

Day 3: We’ll descend from the stark granite landscape down Piute Canyon along Piute Creek. We'll make camp along Piute Creek, in Hutchinson Meadow. Distance: 5 miles. Elevation changes: -1,900 feet. Campsite elevation: 9,500 feet.

Day 4: We'll get an early start today as we hike down to the South Fork of the San Joaquin River and enter Kings Canyon National Park. After lunch we'll travel up-canyon on the John Muir Trail, and camp along the quiet river. Distance: 10 miles. Elevation changes: +650 feet, -1,450 feet. Campsite elevation: 8,700 feet.

Day 5: Following a series of switchbacks, we'll begin our "Journey through Evolution" in one of John Muir's most beloved places, the exquisite Evolution Valley. Walking along Evolution Creek, we'll pass through McClure and Colby Meadows and by Evolution Lake. Finally, we'll arrive at jewel-like Sapphire Lake, where we will camp for the next two days. Distance:10 miles. Elevation change: + 2,300 feet. Campsite elevation: 10,970 feet.

Day 6: This will be a layover day to explore the area or relax. Possible climbing opportunities are Wanda Pass (and on to Mt. Goddard), McGee Lakes Pass to McGee Lakes, or the many unnamed lakes above Sapphire Lake.

Day 7: A memorable day with beauty in every direction begins as we continue on the John Muir Trail and hike past rock-bound Wanda Lake, then gradually climb to the stunning 11,955-foot crest of Muir Pass. Here we'll sight the marvelous stone hut, built by Sierra Club members in John Muir's honor. Just below the pass sits Lake Helen (named for Muir's second daughter), which we will pass on our way to our camping spot. Distance: 8 miles. Elevation changes: +1,000 feet, -1,700 feet. Campsite elevation: 10,340 feet.

Day 8: Today we descend into glacier-carved Le Conte Canyon to a junction with the Bishop Pass Trail. We’ll then climb up into stunning Dusy Basin to make our final campsite. With the help of an early start, we'll soon be back above tree line. Distance: 8 miles. Elevation changes: -1,600 feet. + 2,500 feet. Campsite elevation: 11,200 feet.

Day 9: Our trip concludes with a hike over Bishop Pass (11,970 feet) to the South Lake trailhead, hiking past a series of sparkling lakes. We should arrive at South Lake, our final destination, by early afternoon. Distance: 8 miles. Elevation change: +700 feet; -2,100 feet.



Getting There

Our meeting place is less than 20 miles from the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop, a thriving tourist hub with many motels, restaurants, and a justifiably famous bakery. The closest commercial airport is in Reno, about 200 miles and a little more than a four-hour drive away. Los Angeles is 275 miles from Bishop and should take six to seven hours, depending on traffic. Plan on an eight-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area. It is less than 300 miles away, but several bottlenecks along the way can make the going slow. There is no public transportation to our meeting place. A participant roster will be provided well before the trip to assist trip members who would like to share rides. It is, however, the responsibility of each trip member to get to and from the trailhead.

Accommodations and Food

The first night accommodations will be at a cabin located on Bishop Creek in Aspendell that is two miles from North Lake, where we will begin our journey. Participants have the option of sleeping in the cabin in any of the four beds, on the cabin grounds, or in the tree house created by Pete Nelson of the Treehouse Workshop. The first meal provided is dinner at the cabin through lunch on the last day. While this is not a vegetarian trip, you are encouraged to contact the leader to see if your needs can be met. We will be serving simple breakfasts on most days to accommodate early starts. Hot cereal or granola with fruit and milk will be typical, along with plenty of coffee and hot drinks. Trail lunches may include cheese, salami, tabouli, hummus, jerky, peanut butter, or tuna, along with crackers or some type of bread and cookies. Dinners will always begin with soup and will usually include pasta, mashed potatoes, stuffing, rice, or another kind of carbohydrate with a hearty sauce and perhaps a vegetable. An occasional happy hour and nightly desserts will add calories and lift our spirits. Snack bags are provided for each trip member to carry, so you will always have something to snack on. Every effort is made to provide a nutritious and delicious variety of foods to fuel our adventure. As with most Sierra Club backpack trips, all participants will share in the preparation and cleanup of meals.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 4 (moderate/strenuous), but all backpacking trips at high altitude are strenuous. Participants need to be involved in a program of regular cardiovascular exercise. Your enjoyment of the trip will depend on how prepared you are. This is an especially high trip and we will be spending four of our eight nights camped close to 11,000 feet. The trip covers more than fifty miles with most individual days being eight to ten miles over well-maintained trails. Some prior experience in multi-day backpacking is desirable. On three trip days, we will gain over 2,100 feet of elevation. Another two days involve an elevation loss of approximately 2,000 feet. In both cases, strong legs and good cardiovascular fitness are an absolute necessity. If you are arriving from a lower elevation, the leader may ask that you arrive a couple of days early so that you can adjust and enjoy the trip. While blue skies are to be expected, afternoon thunderstorms are common and can be quite severe. Typical daytime temperatures are 60-70 degrees, but nighttime lows can dip down to freezing. The sun can cause problems for some people as it's more intense at altitude and there is little shade along the high trails. Good sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen are mandatory.

Equipment and Clothing

Trip members furnish their own backpack, tent, sleeping bag, eating utensils, and personal gear. The Club provides all food and commissary equipment. A complete equipment list for this trip will be sent out to each participant. Should you have questions or need guidance concerning equipment or logistics, please feel free to contact the leader. We will be using bear-resistant canisters to store all our food and toiletries. The canisters weigh just over 2.5 lbs. each. The weight of your backpack and all personal gear should not exceed 25 pounds. You will receive up to 15 pounds of group commissary on the first day. To accommodate this load, including the bear canister, you will need to allow space in your pack equivalent to that of a full grocery bag.


Please plan on bringing your own map and compass -- not only is this a matter of safety, but you will have a better appreciation of where we are going and where we have been.


  • Maps covering our route include: The "Bishop Pass Trail Map," published by Tom Harrison Maps, covers the complete route.
  • Alternatively, the combined "Mono Divide High Country" and "Kings Canyon High Country" maps published by Tom Harrison Maps also cover the complete route.
  • The two-sheet map set of the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia/Kings Canyon Wilderness published by the US Forest Service.
  • Seven USGS 7.5-minute quadrangles: "Mt. Thompson," "North Palisade," "Mt. Goddard," "Mt. Darwin," "Mt. Henry," "Mt. Hilgard," and "Mt. Tom."


  • Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. The Mountaineers. An excellent general reference to trails, cross-country routes, and climbing routes in the Sierra Nevada.


2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines "wilderness" as "an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor." This important act first established the National Wilderness Preservation System, originally protecting nine million acres of national forest lands. Today some 106 million acres are encompassed by the system, including the John Muir Wilderness and the Kings Canyon Wilderness, where we will be "visitors" during our eight-day trip. Although this wilderness is now protected from logging and mining activities, this has not always been the case. Furthermore, the surrounding national forest lands do not receive the same level of protection. We will examine and consider the level of protection that the park has given to this area, appreciate how this land compares with other types of "protected" areas we are familiar with, and give thought to how we will pass these areas on to future generations. We seek to minimize our own human impact on the parklands, but clearly we do have an effect on the environment. This outing is an excellent opportunity to consider the impact our own visits have upon the wilderness and to compare this with the ideal that we would like to achieve.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest.



As a girl scout, Pam Abell spent her youth backpacking The Smoky Mountains in Kentucky. After college, she moved to California where she immediately fell in love with the Sierra. Over the past 20 years, she has backpacked and hiked all over the Sierra on her own and as a Sierra Club trip member. She enjoys meeting new people and sharing her love of the Sierra with others. She currently lives with her husband and three sons in Oak Park, California, where she works as a graphic designer for a biopharmaceutical company and spends her free time hiking and trail running in the local mountains.

Assistant Leader:

Laura Bonds-Johnson's long-standing hobby of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, and slickrock canyons of the Southwest has evolved into her quest for conservation activism and outdoor leadership. Laura has led and assisted on Sierra Club trips in the Sierra Nevada, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Colorado Rockies, and Southwest. Laura is a registered nurse and wilderness first responder and resides in Evergreen, Colorado.

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