Finger Lake is a Sierra gem beneath the towering walls of Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. The aptly named lake is flanked by granite cliffs and features a glacial turquoise color emanating glacial remnants above. The route to Finger Lake starts at the Big Pine Creek Trailhead and follows up the South Fork Big Pine Creek. The first part is a high desert with sage and even cactus. There are clumps of aspens near the stream that on this day were brilliantly yellow. At the headwall of the South Fork, the trail switchbacks beneath an imposing cliffs and at the top of the climb it is as if you enter a new world of peaks and alpine vegetation. A small valley is crossed with a junction for Willow Lake before more switchbacks resume up to gorgeous Brainerd Lake with its amphitheater-like setting. From Brainerd Lake, the way becomes a loosely defined use path to Finger Lake. At the beginning, follow near the north shore of Brainerd Lake before following cairns alongside a talus swatch to the upper path, eventually popping out at stunning Finger Lake. On this day, I ventured onto the cliffs to the south of Finger Lake with great panoramic views of the lake and Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. To attain these summits, cross Finger Lake at its outlet and head up granite slabs and talus to the base of the remnant glacial ice and rock. The standard route up Middle Palisade is a sustained class 3 scramble while Norman Clyde features some 4th class. Complete photo album here.
While I have made the trek from South Lake to Bishop Pass and into Dusy Basin several times, the magnificent views of the Palisades never cease to inspire. Mount Agassiz, Mount Winchell, and North Palisade collectively form a wall of granite that towers above the basin filled with numerous alpine lakes. Aptly named Isosceles Peak is especially striking from the southern part of the basin and perfectly frames the Palisades “wall.” Columbine Peak and Giraud Peak complete the 360 panorama of rock and ruggedness. On this day, the concept was to do a loop through the upper part of the basin, a “tour de Dusy” and hit some of my favorite photography spots in the process. Complete photo album here.
The weather on this autumn afternoon was perfect – a light breeze, sunny skies, and excellent clarity. We made it up to the foot of Bishop Pass in good time and negotiated some snow and ice over the trail on the final rocky switchbacks to the Pass. The south side of the Pass was snow-free and we ran into the Basin and headed cross country for the highest lake, which also happens to be the largest, but conspicuously tucked in a bowl underneath the Palisades and not visible until you crest a minor ridgeline. Additional scenic lakes lie just below with Isosceles Peak towering above. We completed the tour by passing around a few more lakes lakes before returning to the Bishop Pass trail. Complete photo album here.
I was last in Sabrina Basin in May 2007 for an overnight peakbagging outing with amazing memories of this strikingly beautiful region. My photo session at Sailor Lake on that trip produced one of my all time favorite mountain scenery photos. It was time to return. I had just enough time to squeeze in a morning run to Hungry Packer Lake and make it back in time for a run to Dusy Basin later that afternoon. On this morning there was some breeze that precluded the type of mirror-like reflection in Sailor Lake that I had witnessed in 2007, but further explorations to Hungry Packer Lake’s outlet yielded some nice shots. I climbed up the ridgelines on both sides of Hungry Packer Lake to gain 360 degree views of the Sabrina Basin. The crisp and clear autumn air produced superlative clarity. A dusting of snow on the north and east facing slopes made it magical. Among my favorite scenes from this outing was a patch of pine snags above the Hungry Packer Lake. The contrast of the reddish orange snags with the deep blue lake and granite was mesmerizing. Complete photo album here.
On a Friday afternoon Joel and I were discussing options in the Tuolumne Meadows area and I remembered looking at Ireland Lake on the map and thinking it would be a neat spot to visit. I had also viewed the Lewis Creek Basin from Vogelsang Peak and wanted to explore the many alpine lakes I saw in the basin. A high pass separates Ireland Lake from Lewis Creek Basin including some cross country travel and scrambling on the west side of the pass making for a logical loop. We could also ascend to the summit of Parsons Peak about 700 vertical feet above the pass for sweeping views of the Yosemite high country.
Starting from the trailhead at 6:40 a.m. we enjoyed a great 6.5 mile run through Lyell Canyon in the crisp morning air to the junction with the Ireland Lake Trail. We hiked up the forested slopes and then broke out into golden meadows. Cirrus made for striking photography as we ascended above the tree line and entered the tundra region surrounding picturesque Ireland Lake, which is aptly named as the terrain looks much like Ireland (save for the fact that the grass was now golden instead of green). This unique setting includes a wide expanse of golden meadows, the clear waters of Ireland Lake and a rocky backdrop of Amelia Earhart Peak and Parsons Peak. After much photography we traversed around the shores of Ireland Lake and continued up the rocky slopes toward the south ridge of Parsons Peak. The final push to the summit included some talus hopping but we were soon on top enjoying 360 degree views of the Yosemite High Country including Lyell and Maclure, Simmons Peak, Mount Florence, the Cathedral Range, Half Dome and Mount Conness. We peered down at Ireland Lake on one side and the lakes of Lewis Creek Basin on the other. The first cumulus clouds were forming in the high country enhancing the photography. We surmised that we had at least a few hours before thunderstorms would develop and this proved true as we only experienced photogenic cumulus “puffs.”
After enjoying the summit vistas, we made our way down the Talus to the pass that would grant us access into the Lewis Creek Basin. After some scrambling down the upper slopes and talus lower down we were at the first of a string of high alpine lakes we would pass through on our descent towards Bernice Lake. The Lewis Creek Basin is spectacular and we were surprised to not see evidence of human travel throughout the area. At the far end of Bernice Lake we connected with a path that took us down into the canyon where we joined with the main trail heading up to Vogelsang Pass. This is a short but moderately steep ascent to the pass with great views of the Lewis Creek Basin and Clark Range. The other side of Vogelsang Pass is a gradual descent with a great view of Vogelsang Lake, which was enhanced on this day by the presence of cumulus clouds. The final 8.5 miles from Vogelsang Pass to the trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows are very enjoyable alpine trail running.
Mount Ritter, Banner Peak and the Minarets are collectively the centerpieces of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. With numerous lovely alpine lakes surrounding these mountains and their close proximity to Mammoth Lakes it is no wonder this region is so popular with hikers and backpackers. It had been since 2007 since I last climbed Ritter and Banner and three years since I was in the Ansel Adams Wilderness (I did a climb of Clyde Minaret in 2009) so it was time to return this past July 29th. I aimed to do an aesthetic loop of the region and tour as many of the spectacular alpine lakes as possible (and take a ton of photos), particularly timing Garnet and Thousand Island Lake in the early morning when I figured (correctly) that lighting would be ideal. Many more photos here.
Joel and I started at Agnew Meadows and took the River Trail up to an unmarked junction with a short but steep use path that ascends to Garnet Lake, a spectacular lake nestled among granite cliffs with a grand view of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The reflections of Ritter and Banner in the calm waters were superlative and we stopped to take many photos. We continued along the John Muir Trail to Thousand Island Lake, which featured more awesome reflections of Banner Peak. We contoured the north shore of Thousand Island Lake and then began a climb up to North Glacier Pass. The pass includes a great view of Lake Catherine and the small glacier descending to the lake between Ritter and Banner. I contoured above the lake and then scrambled up some rocks to reach the upper portion of the glacier. After traversing some hazardously loose hardpan I found myself on the glacier which was showing some blue ice. I put on crampons and ascended the icy slopes to the north face route on Mount Ritter. I was happy I brought the crampons as the steep slopes to the start of the route on Ritter would not have been possible without them. The scramble up the north face of Ritter is not very difficult and goes mostly as class 3 but it requires energy, both on ascent and descent, and it is not hard to stray off route and find more difficult and technical rock. The summit of Mount Ritter provides a wonderful vantage of the Minarets and nearby Banner Peak.
Back at Ritter-Banner Saddle I embarked on the talus slog up to Banner Peak, which features the finest view of the region’s lakes from Thousand Island Lake to Lake Ediza. Descending the south side of Ritter-Banner saddle entailed more steep and icy snow slopes and then slow travel over choss before I reached the use path heading toward Lake Ediza. Ritter and Banner tower above the meadows here and I stopped for many photographs. The backdrop of the Minarets over the clear waters of Lake Ediza is always lovely. Back on the trail, I ran most of the way back to Agnew Meadows. The Ansel Adams wilderness did not disappoint and even surpassed expectations from my previous trips here with many memorable views. Complete photo album here.
It has been a couple years since I visited the marvelous Rae Lakes region so it was time to return. However, having run the loop straight through twice in the past (deep snow in 2009 and FKT of 7:29:50 in 2010) I thought it was time for something new and Sixty Lakes Basin was intriguing place I’ve been wanting to explore. My original plan called for summits of Mount Cotter, Painted Lady, and Mount Rixford as an out-and-back along Bubbs Creek, but this plan changed along the way with time constraints and my proclivity for aesthetic loops kicking in. Instead, after climbing Mount Cotter and completing a photography extravaganza in the Sixty Lakes Basin, I decided to finish out the loop and descended towards Woods Creek and Paradise Valley. Total time was 12h28m with the Rae Lakes Loop portion taking around 8h15m. Joel had completed the loop straight through enjoying the amazing scenery and idyllic early fall weather. We had agreed to make best efforts to finish by 5 pm in order to allow for a sane arrival time back in the bay and I was able to accomplish that finishing before 4:50 pm. Complete photo album here.
We started at 4:18 am on a clear and unseasonably warm fall night with a full moon providing extra light. With anticipation for a beautiful day ahead, we wished each other enjoyable trips. The first switchbacks up Bubbs Creek were uncomfortably warm, but fortunately the temperatures dropped into a nice running range during the ascent and I even needed my gloves past Junction Meadow to Glen Pass. I made it to Glenn pass in 3h45m, only 15 minutes slower than my FKT effort in 2010. This gave me confidence that under similar conditions I could hopefully dip under 7 hours for the entire loop. From Glen Pass, I made my way down the north side and marveled at the beauty of the Rae Lakes, magical as ever. At the middle Rae Lake, I left the trail and found a rock balcony above a small inlet and peninsula that provided a breathtaking vista, a feature I dubbed “postcard peninsula” (pictured above in the first photo).
From Rae Lakes, I ascended granite slabs to a small lake below Rae Col, the entrance to Sixty Lakes Basin, which features more of the same stunning scenery as Rae Lakes. The novelty of the peaks and lakes in this region proved especially enjoyable for me. After passing numerous lakes, I began the ascent up Mount Cotter on slabs and then talus and gravel. After a few minutes of scrambling on the final ridge line I found myself on the summit. The top of Mount Cotter features an impressive view of the the Sixty Lakes Basin on one side and Gardiner Basin’s numerous lakes on the other. Mount Clarence King towers to the north and Mount Gardiner dominates to the south. Interestingly, I hadn’t met anybody in the Sixty Lakes Basin until I was a couple hundred feet from the summit, where I passed a recent Cal graduate who was in the midst of an extended JMT trip with extensive peakbagging aspirations. It was fun hearing about his plans and pointing out peaks and features from the summit. After 25 minutes on the summit, I made my way down Cotter’s slopes and through Sixty Lakes Basin, stopping to photograph the amazing scenery. My favorite lake in the including a long narrow lake with a palette of turquoise to deep blue set amidst granite cliffs, my favorite lake in the Basin. More photo stops and scenery gawking welcomed me back to the Rae Lakes. After nearly 300 photos, it was time to start the ~22 mile trail run back to Road’s End. Having prior experience on this trail, I knew exactly what to anticipate and ran this last stretch in under 3.5 hrs, stopping for a break at Woods Creek Bridge and the Castle Domes. Complete photo album here.
- Road’s End: 0:00:00 (4:18 am)
- Sphinx Junction: 42:06
- Junction Meadow: 1:55:09
- Vidette Meadow: 2:33:13
- Glen Pass: 3:45:11
- Arrive Mount Cotter Summit: 6:45:34
- Depart Mount Cotter Summit: 7:10:20
- Rae Lakes (back on trail): 8:58:20
- Woods Creek Crossing: 9:58:16
- Road’s End: 12:28:55 (4:47 pm)
The Evolution Loop is a magnificent route through some of the most inspiring terrain in the High Sierra. Technically the route is not a loop as the start and finish are at different locations (more accurately, it’s a horseshoe) utilizing the North Lake and South Lake trailheads (note: the trail and/or road segment that links these two trailheads would not be fun). On Sunday I ran the “loop” in 12h15m from North Lake to South Lake, which is a new FKT (fastest known time), starting at 5:01 am and finishing at 5:15 pm. The adventure entails ~55-56 miles and 10,000+ ft elevation gain including three high passes – Piute Pass (11,400 ft), Muir Pass (12,000 ft), and Bishop Pass (11,960 ft). About 25 miles of the route are on the John Muir Trail passing by the famous Muir Hut at Muir Pass. There is no official record of fast times but some inquiry revealed that Phill Kiddoo has a fast time somewhere in the 13:xx hour range. I have been wanting to run this loop for some time and it was great to get on it before the snow flies over the high country. A special thanks goes to a gracious couple I met at the South Lake TH that provided me with a ride back to North Lake. It was surprisingly deserted at South Lake for a Sunday afternoon so I felt lucky, thanks again! The scenery was stunning as expected, and even enhanced by afternoon cumulus clouds that created shade contrast on the granite. I couldn’t resist spending a fair amount of time on photography on both sides of Muir Pass from Evolution Lake to Helen Lake. Complete photo album here.
Overall, I was pleased with my run, but concede that my lack of route knowledge affected performance in some sections. In particular, I didn’t have quite enough left in the tank for the final big climb up from LeConte Canyon to Bishop Pass. I have never done a 3,400+ ft climb after so many miles beforehand so it was unfamiliar territory and I was largely hiking this entire climb. I could imagine higher energy levels on the ascent to Bishop Pass alone would result in 30+ minutes of time savings. I’m also undecided on which direction is faster, but will likely try South Lake to North Lake next time to find out. Regardless, with experience on the entire route, I’m hopeful that the next time I attempt the Evolution Loop it will be faster.
A phenomenal shorter option that hits most of the highlights entails the route up Lamarck Col and down to Darwin Bench. This high col skips the portion in Humphrey’s Basin, Piute Meadows and Evolution Valley resulting in total distance of about 35 miles. Some of the travel is cross country but fairly easy to navigate.
The climb up to Piute Pass in the darkness is very straightforward as it’s a relatively gradual ascent. The descent through Humphrey’s Basin is spectacular although I arrived too early to see rugged Glacier Divide illuminated in sunlight – perhaps next time. Continuing down to Hutchinson Meadow and Piute Canyon is not as dramatic, but there are some nice sections of trail to open up the stride. After a rocky and slow last couple miles down Piute canyon where it reaches a junction with the JMT, the first 4 miles on the JMT are runnable on nice trail. A series of switchbacks leaving Goddard Canyon brings one to Evolution Valley with its pleasant forest and meadow running. At McClure Meadows near the seasonal ranger outpost, The Hermit can be seen towering above the meadow. At the end of the lengthy Evolution Valley, another series of switchbacks brings one to Evolution Lake, commencing the most scenic part of the loop in my opinion. Highlights include Evolution Ridge (with summits of Mount Darwin and Mount Mendel), Sapphire Lake, the Muir Hut and Lake Helen. The first half of the descent from Muir Pass into LeConte Canyon is rather arduous as gravity is outweighed by copious roots and rocks on the trail. Eventually I made it down to Pete Meadow and its smooth trails for a couple miles of enjoyable running. Unfortunately, the accumulation of miles and the taxing descent from Muir Pass precluded any substantial running on the big climb out of LeConte Canyon to Bishop Pass which entails 3,400+ ft of elevation gain. At Bishop Pass I took a break for a few minutes before beginning the final descent to the South Lake Trailhead. Once I was below the rocky upper switchbacks it was smooth sailing for the remaining miles to the trailhead.
- I found a nice map of the route online here (although mileage estimates are off in spots)
- TrailRunner July 2012 article on Fastpacking the Evolution Loop
- Visit Sage to Summit in Bishop for all your mountain running needs and expert advice
Start North Lake TH 00:00:00 (5:01 am)
Piute Pass 01:05:00
Hutchinson Meadow 02:18:02
Piute Canyon/JMT Junction 3:13:44
Goddard Canyon Junction 3:50:59
McClure Meadow Ranger Station 4:49:15
Muir Pass 7:16:41 (left at 7:30)
LeConte Canyon/JMT Junction 9:00:23
Bishop Pass 11:04:33
South Lake TH Finish 12:15:04 (5:16 pm)
- La Sportiva C-Lite 2.0
- Ultimate Direction Wasp Pack
- Black Diamond Ultra-Distance Z-Poles
- First Endurance EFS Drink Mix and Ultragen
- Injinji Socks
- Rudy Project Sunglasses
Complete photo album here.