North Lake to North Lake Loop ~ 2017

Sunrise below Muir Pass. 

The popular "North Lake to South Lake Loop" or "Evolution Loop" is usually referred to as a "loop". . . The Forest Service and describe it as the "North Lake to South Lake Loop". There are countless online trip reports for the "loop" including some on Summitpost, Backpackinglight and High Sierra Topix. I stopped counting after finding 14 videos for the "loop" on YouTube.

According to the FKT site the current fastest known time for the "Evolution Loop" is 10 hours and 31 minutes. Impressive, although not so much considering the FKT holder had to hitch a ride back to North Lake after "finishing" at South Lake.

I have often wondered what it would be like to do a proper loop and include the last section over the Tyee Plateau and close the circle back to North Lake  . . . So last week I hiked from North Lake to North Lake and along the way threw in some cross country travel and peak bagging to keep it interesting. In the end it was a 64+ mile loop with four passes and 34,200' of elevation change.

I started with my usual late night drive through the desert on Wednesday night to camp at the base of the East Side of the Sierra near Independence. Spending a night at 4,000' always helps me acclimatize to the big climb over the Sierra Crest on the first day, and by Thursday morning I was ready for the climb over Lamarck Col from the North Lake trailhead.

North Lake to North Lake Loop, 64 miles. 

Day 1: 11 miles, 4,000' up, 2,000' down.

The lingering snowfield at the base of Lamarck Col.
Crossing the final snowfield on the way over Lamarck Col. 

Lamarck Col, 12,880'. 

Emerald Lakes in Darwin Canyon. 

After trudging along the sometimes slow going through the boulders in Darwin Canyon I made it to the idyllic Darwin Bench with plenty of time to find a nice place to camp and have dinner before settling in to watch the alpenglow.

Sunset in camp at Darwin Bench. 

Day 2: 11 miles, 1,700' up, 1,200' down: 

After a windy night I was looking forward to seeing the fall colors in one of my favorite areas of the High Sierra: Evolution Basin.

The contrast between the lingering snow, high water and abundant wildflowers from earlier this summer and the dry golden meadows and low water levels in fall was striking. I strolled along the JMT, over Muir Pass and made camp above Helen Lake.

Fall colors on the outlet of Darwin Bench. 

Fall colors along the outlet of Darwin Bench. 

Evolution Lake and Mt. Darwin. 

Golden meadows in Evolution Basin. 

Sapphire Lake. 

Low water level in Evolution Basin. 

The JMT through Evolution Basin. 

Mt. Darin & Mt. Mendel. 

Wanda Lake.

Muir Hut @ Muir Pass. 

The Black Divide from Muir Pass. 

Alpenglow on the Black Divide from camp above Helen Lake. 

Day 3: 14 miles, 3,200' up, 5,400' down: 

As all of my backpacking buddies know, for me an "alpine start" begins at about 8:00 am. . . at the earliest. This morning was no different, and by 8:00 am I was starting the approach to Black Giant Pass. I made it up the straightforward route to the top of Black Giant by 11:45 am and after taking a few photos I scree-skied down the west slopes of Black Giant and got back to camp by 1:30 pm. With many hours left in the day I packed up and headed back onto the JMT and down through the beautiful outlet of Helen Lake.

While taking a break at the top of a huge waterfall overlooking LeConte Canyon I accidentally let my bear canister roll over a ledge. I watched as it bounced off hundreds of feet of granite ledges and waterfalls until it finally reached the river below. As it floated down the river I figured it was lost for ever, until it got stuck in a pool created by some downed trees.

It wasn't long before I found a cross country route to the river below, waded across the river, unloaded the water from inside the canister, reloaded it in my pack, re-crossed the river and finally rejoined the JMT. Somehow the canister survived with only a small dent in the metal corner on top and no damage to the carbon fiber sides. Amazing. Thank you Wild Ideas for making a solid canister!

The trail crews had already cleared much of the avalanche debris in lower LeConte Canyon and I made good time on the JMT to the Bishop Pass trail junction. After a dinner break there was still time to head up the switchbacks toward Dusy Basin and by 7:00 pm I found a place to cowboy camp on a ledge about 1,000' above LeConte Canyon.

Sunrise on Helen Lake. 

Sunrise/Moonset over Muir Pass. 

Lake 11,939 starting to freeze. 

The chute up to Black Giant. 

The view back toward Muir Pass on the climb to Black Giant. 

Black Giant: 13,380'. 

A Zpacks Arc Haul compresses into a nice little summit pack. 

Huge thumb, or a small peak register? 

The first posts from 2006 in the peak register for Black Giant. 

Palisades from Black Giant. 

From the top of Black Giant. 

Looking into Ionian Basin from Black Giant. 

Looking back at Black Giant from LeConte Canyon. 

Day 4: 27 miles, 8,200' up, 8,500' down: 

After spending some relatively easy days enjoying Evolution Basin it was time to make tracks back to North Lake. Although it would be a long day I was looking forward to seeing the Tyee Lakes and Tyee Plateau.

I wasn't sure how long the hike back to the car would be. I had already been through most of the route many times and I hadn't bothered to bring a map or measure the distance beforehand. It ended up being a 12 hour day to make the 27+ miles back to the North Lake parking lot. My usual 8:00 am start meant that I would be doing some night hiking by headlamp at the end. . . but since this was probably my last trip of the season I wanted to make the most of it and a little night hiking was fine with me.

The trail hiking through Dusy Basin and the Tyee Lakes was beautiful. Unfortunately a few miles of road walking was necessary to make this a real loop. There is a short section, about 1.5 miles from the South Lake trailhead to the Tyee Lakes trailhead, and another 2.5 miles from the Lake Sabrina trailhead to the North Lake parking lot.

I was surprised by the beauty of the Tyee Lakes, the stark solitude of the Tyee Plateau and the incredible views of the Palisades and Piute Crags from the top. The well maintained trail up made for some good hiking but the final approach to the Tyee Plateau and the downhill section to George Lake was more like a narrow sandy single track, similar to the final climb to Mt. Langley.

By the time I made it to the Lake Sabrina trailhead it was dark, cold and windy so I put on an extra layer and hiked the final 2.5 miles by headlamp to North Lake. It was 37 degrees when I finally made it to the car and I cranked the heat as I sped downhill to a welcome cheeseburger in Bishop.

In the end it was a 64+ mile loop with four passes and 34,200' of elevation change.

Breakfast in a bag, overlooking LeConte Canyon from Dusy Basin. 

Fall colors in Dusy Basin. 

Bishop Pass view. 

The Tyee Lakes trailhead. 

Lower Tyee Lake.

Looking back down during the climb above Tyee Lakes. 

Upper Tyee Lake.

The highest Tyee Lake. 

View of the Palisades from the stark and sandy Tyee Plateau. 

Sandy narrow single track switchbacks on the hike down to George Lake. 

Alpenglow on Piute Crags.

Fall colors at sunset over Lake Sabrina. 

Nigh time once I reached Lake Sabrina trailhead. Night hiking by headlamp from here. . .  

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