Seeking Sierra Solitude in Bear Lakes Basin, John Muir Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14134A, Backpacking


  • Visit remote High Sierra lakes and passes
  • Hike cross-country
  • Bag a peak or relax on layover days


  • Lightweight group equipment
  • All delicious meals and snacks
  • Experienced wilderness leaders


DatesAug 1–10, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffRichard Gross

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Trip Overview

The Trip

This remote piece of alpine heaven has everything a backcountry adventurer could want: serene lakes, high passes, exciting cross-country travel, and multiple layover days to swim, bag a peak, fish, or write that novel. Bear Lakes Basin is tucked between the famous Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks and rivals them both, without all the extra people. The name “Bear Lakes Basin” doesn't show up on any maps per se. The lakes range in size from a backyard pool to an inland sea (ok, maybe not that big). They actually lie on either side of a granitic ridge, accessible only to those with the time and desire to go off the trail to find them.

We'll start on a major trail, but by the second day we'll start to find our own way, using map and compass, to the passes and 13,000-foot peaks that form the basin. Every one of our camps will be above 10,000 feet. Most nights we'll camp by a beautiful lake and have plenty of time to soak in the alpenglow of the surrounding peaks. Two layover days are scheduled for exploring or relaxing.

If you are an experienced backpacker or a novice backpacker without cross-country experience and are in excellent shape, you are welcome to join us on this journey into the heart of the John Muir Wilderness.


Day 1: We will meet for a potluck dinner at a Forest Service group campsite the night before we start hiking. The leaders will arrange for the campsite. We will have a chance to get acquainted, review gear, and pack snack bags.

Day 2: After a short car shuttle, we'll begin our hike up the Bear Ridge Trail, starting from the Vermillion Valley Dam. We'll climb 2,000 feet and turn onto the John Muir Trail, where we'll start to see the rugged peaks of the Mono Divide. We'll camp along cascading Bear Creek.

Day 3: After three miles on the John Muir Trail, we'll leave it behind and start our exploration. We'll head toward one of the chain of lakes lying at the foot of Seven Gables (13,075 feet). Our camp will reward us with the peacefulness of the High Sierra.

Day 4: We'll have a layover day, giving us the opportunity to summit Seven Gables, explore the lakes to the south, or relax at camp.

Day 5: We'll hike deeper into Bear Lakes Basin, over cross-country passes and possibly visit Little Bear, Big Bear, White Bear, Black Bear, Bear Paw and other lakes. We'll find a perfect campsite and hope to enjoy the evening alpenglow on the surrounding peaks.

Days 6-8: We'll continue to explore this region and then go north toward Teddy Bear Lake. One of these days will be a layover day for further exploration without a heavy pack.

Day 9: We'll head back to the John Muir Trail and camp near a stream below the Mono Divide.

Day 10: We'll hike to the northeastern end of Lake Thomas A Edison to catch a boat shuttle to take us to Vermillion Resort, a major stop for thru hikers. Some of our cars will be parked there and we'll shuttle back to our cars parked at the entry trailhead.



Getting There

The Lake Edison trailheads and our day one campground are on the western side of the Sierra. You'll get to them at the end of Kaiser Pass Road, about 27 narrow, twisting miles from the end of highway 168, about 70 miles northeast of Fresno, California. Private or rental vehicles are the only transportation options. The leaders will provide trip rosters with contact information so that trip participants can share rides.  Pre-trip communications will provide detailed information on directions. The closest airport is Fresno Yosemite International Airport, but it may be easier to share rides from San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Accommodations and Food

The night before we start hiking, we will have a potluck dinner at the campground. The leaders will bring main courses (camp cookout food) and participants can bring side dishes and beverages. Buying something at a store on the way to the trailhead is fine.

All meals and snacks for the trip, from breakfast on the first hiking day to lunch on the last day, are included in the trip price. The food on the trip is delicious, hearty, and memorable while being lightweight and backpacking specific. Many of the meals that are planned are suitable for vegetarians and the leaders are happy to accommodate vegetarians. Please let the leaders know if you have any particular food requirements. As usual on Sierra Club trips, all members help with cooking and cleanup chores, with each person (as part of a team) assisting for a number of days.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is targeted for experienced backpackers. Trip members must be in excellent physical condition.

Strong, enthusiastic novice backpackers should contact the leaders so we can talk about how to adequately prepare for a trip like this.  While we hope for sunny and dry days, we must be prepared for any condition: warm sunny days, cold nights, and even long periods of rain or thunderstorms.

We will be crossing streams and may be hiking in wet terrain. You may have wet boots some of the time. 

Some hiking days may be long, but we will also have a number of layover days where we will do hiking with day packs to explore the mountains and high meadows. The leaders have a strong appreciation for lazy days in the mountains as well so you will always have the option of enjoying the beautiful scenery around camp on layover days.

Equipment and Clothing

Trip participants are expected to furnish their own personal equipment. The leaders will provide a complete equipment list with the letter of approval sent to each participant. The Sierra Club provides group equipment, including pots, cooking utensils, stoves, fuel, a cooking tarp, satellite phone, bear canisters, repair kit, and group first-aid kit. Please feel free to contact the leaders with any questions about equipment.


  • Mono Divide High Country Trail Map, Tom Harrison Maps
  • Morley, Kathy, Sierra South – Backcountry Trips in California’s Sierra Nevada, 8th Edition.


Sierra Club outings and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, along with various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies began a series of monthly conference calls to organize celebrations in 2014 to highlight this major achievement of American society. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Local events such as service outings, urban walks for wilderness, exhibits, booths at fairs, concerts, lecture series, and more to publicize and promote wilderness will be the best way to reach a maximum public. Sierra Club is in the thick of the organizing, and almost all Sierra Club Chapters had named wilderness anniversary coordinators by early 2013. 

The Sierra Club’s outings program is a vital part of our organization’s celebrations for wilderness. While the Act was far in the future when our Outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s historic leading role -- in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

The Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, established our country’s National Wilderness Preservation System. Starting with only 54 Forest Service areas in 13 states totaling less than 10 million acres, the system has now grown to more than 100 million acres in 44 states -– and is still growing. Approximately 80 percent of Sierra Club national outings take place all or partly in designated wilderness.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Sierra National Forest.



Rich Gross has been leading Sierra Club National Outings in Alaska, Canadian Arctic, Rocky Mountains and California for 24 years. He is also an avid mountaineer, having climbed a number of long alpine routes in the United States and Canada. His very first backpacking trip was a Sierra Club outing in Yosemite, during which he made many mistakes resulting in his being cold, wet, tired, and incredibly thrilled. He has a particular love for the wilderness because it makes him feel small and insignificant. His other passions include music (he sings in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus). His 21 year old son, Zack, has come on the last five trips and is leading his second Sierra Club trip this summer. In his real life, he works for a non-profit organization that finances and develops low-income, multi-family housing.


Marta Chase has been leading Sierra Club National Outings in Alaska, Canadian Arctic, Canadian Rockies, Washington and California for over 15 years. An experienced backpacker and leader, she was also an American Youth Hostel (AYH) leader. Her delicious meals have made her famous among trip participants. When Marta isn’t out traveling, she is a consultant in the medical diagnostics world.

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