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.

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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.

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