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.