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Backpacker Magazine – January 2012

Readers' Choice 2012: Evolution Loop, Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP, CA

Hike cross-country to a pocket of dreamy lakeside camps on the John Muir Trail.

by: Madelyn Rios

During my summer as a volunteer wildlife technician in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, I spent my days trekking with a pack full of tracking equipment to survey animal populations. After my work was done, I’d jump in the nearest river, cook, then bear-proof my camp. At night, I’d comb through maps by headlamp, creating my ultimate ticklist for the parks. At the top was Evolution Valley—as a wannabe biologist, I fell in love with the name. It was also one of the last areas explored by early park pioneers.

Theodore S. Solomons and E.C. Bonner explored this area in 1895 while scouting a hiker’s route along the crest of the Sierra (it would eventually become the John Muir Trail). They came across a congregation of stunning peaks lining the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, and they altered course to the glaciated valley beneath them, finding clear lakes, dwarf meadows, and jagged sky-stabbing peaks. Solomons christened these mountains the Evolution Group because “I could think of none more fitting than the great evolutionists, so at-one in their devotion to the sublime in Nature.”

I never made it that deep into the backcountry that summer. But the Reader Leader contest was all it took to get me planning again. Here’s how I did it:

Day one
Take the Piute Pass Trail from North Lake Campground, 20 miles west of Bishop, and hike six miles gaining 2,000 feet to make camp near Upper Golden Trout Lake (no camping within 400 feet).

Day two
Continue on Piute Pass to reach the JMT (and enter the national park) at mile 17.4. Reach a footbridge over Jeffrey pine-lined Piute Creek, and camp on designated pads nearby.

Day three
Descend 7.3 miles on the JMT into Evolution Valley, then add an easy 1.2 miles to camp by Evolution Lake.

Day four
Rest and explore. Get surefire solitude in McGee Canyon (south about .5 mile back). Or bag flattopped Mt. Darwin via the class 3 West Ridge.

Day five
Leave the JMT, taking the switchbacks above Evolution Lake to access Darwin Canyon and a class 2 scramble up and over Lamarck Col to Upper Lamarck Lake, 2,100-feet below. Camp, or finish the last 2.7 miles to the trailhead.

Map Mono Divide High Country ($10,

(559) 565-3766;

Trip ID

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Mark T
Jun 14, 2012

I'm planning a North lake to South lake trip, is this an insane way to go?

Rob Hartman
Jan 26, 2012

Day 3 is all uphill , not downhill as you suggest.

Rob Hartman
Jan 26, 2012

Day 3 is all uphill , not downhill as you suggest.

Rob Hartman
Jan 26, 2012

Day 3 is all uphill , not downhill as you suggest.

Jan 26, 2012

This is an amazing trip–the options for side trips and peak-bagging is totally stunning. The other option is the classic shuttle between South Lake and North Lake. Climb from South Lake Trailhead over Bishop Pass through Dusy Basin (worth an extra day or two to explore the passes), then down to LeConte canyon, with a slow ascent of the JMT towards Muir Pass and the high country of Evolution Basin. If you can get out there, a side trip to the totally-remote Ionian Basin is tough going, but totally worth it–just leave the JMT just before you get to Helen Lake & Muir hut and set out west over talus for Black Giant pass. You're on your own getting out. There are several other passes that lead back towards Evolution Basin, but they look intense. Back on the JMT, I have to give a special shootout to Sapphire Lake, as its simply one of the most stunning places I have ever seen. The end of my trip follows the one noted in the article, but you are approaching Darwin Bench from the other direction. I prefer to camp in Darwin canyon, as the sunset along the string of lakes is something to behold. That leaves the climb over the pass for the morning and then out to Bishop for burritos and beer.


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