From endless mosquito bites to stunning sunrises and sunsets, hiking and living out of a backpack for a few days around Lake Tahoe is something everyone should try. Read Lee Cohen's account of what's widely called the most scenic section of the JMT: The Evolution Basin. Words and Images by famed adventure photographer Lee Cohen, who has countless Powder Magazine covers to his name.
I can’t honestly say backpacking is a sport — I think pastime or hobby is a better description. It doesn’t require any special athletic ability but it can definitely be physically demanding. Backpacking gets you out to unique places, gets you in shape, and helps slow down life in general. It’s a chance to relax and sort out the mayhem of the hectic world many of us are trying to leave behind at the trailhead. It is nothing short of wholesome food for the soul.
Without a doubt the Sierra Nevada are some of the most incredible mountains in the U.S. Looking at them from the east side they abruptly rise thousands of feet, referred to as the Eastern Escarpment of the Sierra, running 400 miles north-to-south, the most distinct chain of mountains in this country. Standing taller toward the southern end they are the home of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight, countless other peaks, and Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Some of the best backpacking ever awaits those ready to put some mileage on their feet, including the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails. Besides the super-long one way hikes, numerous options abound, looking at a map of the 1.9 million acre Inyo National Forest the options for backpacking are too many. At some point you simply have to pick out a hike that fits into your time frame and get on with it.
After perusing maps and asking around a little we wound up deciding on North Lake to South Lake, a 55 mile loop near Bishop that takes you over three passes through the heart of the Sierras. We planned for four nights. Leaving the parking lot in the afternoon at North Lake it was sunny, an hour in it started to drizzle.
The rain became steady as we headed up, by the time we topped out at Piute Pass and dropped down the other side a bit the sky was still smoky with rain, so we decided to call it a day— make an early camp, cook some dinner, hunker down and hopefully take in some scenery across Humphrey’s Basin. Storms moving out are always good for magic light and magic moments, and this night was no exception as the weather pushed east. We ate and sat around taking it all in as the sky blew up, then the clouds moved out and starlight took over in darkness.
It was the only rain of the trip. The rest of it was California sunshine and blue as can be skies. Heading down Piute Canyon on day two all the granite reminds me of the domes and pinnacles of Yosemite. Descending gradually alongside Piute Creek we were at the bottom of a gorge, the canyon walls funneling the heat of the sun down upon us. Luckily there was easy access for repeatedly dousing our heads to keep cool and refill water bottles. I kept noticing an aroma in the air that smelled like a flint that had just been struck but hadn’t caught fire. I’ve smelled it before – I think it must be rocks moving a little scraping against each other.
Toward the end of Piute Canyon the trail broke up and away from the creek where the gorge becomes impassable, returning to it near the trail’s end. There it meets up with the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail and the confluence of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. After a bridge crosses the creek a sign says you’re entering Kings Canyon National Park, the trail following on the north side of the San Joaquin. With dusk upon us we hiked a little more and nooked in among some rocks, ate dinner as it got dark, and stashed our bear canisters a good distance from our camp. We wondered if we’d wake up to the sound of a bear smacking them around, this camp was much lower than our first, out of the alpine, in the forest by a river. The Forest Service requires backcountry travelers to use bear–proof food containers around these parts, and they rent them cheap, a good thing since most people don’t own any.
After hiking a bit more downriver in the morning the trail breaks away for a five mile haul up to Evolution Basin. Cascading waterfalls in Evolution Creek give the air a welcome chill as we make our way up the switchbacks, then we’re back in and out of forest as the trail follows the creek up to the high alpine.
One of the highlights of this trip was not getting destroyed by bugs, a lot of that might have had to do with it being late August when things have dried out. Good thing too, because we forgot insect repellent. If there’s one thing about summer camping I don’t love it’s getting harassed by mosquitos and horse flies. Getting into the high alpine is a good way to steer clear if you can stay away from swampy areas.
Sierra Club Outings calls Evolution Basin “the most scenic section of the magnificent John Muir Trail” and it would be hard to say otherwise. Peter Croft’s legendary Evolution Traverse, an eight mile link-up of nine summits over 13000 feet took place along peaks above Evolution Basin and Darwin Canyon. This is some of the finest backcountry in the Sierras. It’s around 9500 feet where we camp near Evolution Lake and whip up dinner. Afterwards we play Hearts and 31 and watch the glow on the peaks fade as the sky deepens in color and the sun goes down. The three of us get a good night of solid sleep after putting in a good day on the trail. I wish I slept that well at home.
When you’re hauling weight for several days having freeze dried meals makes a big difference. Our dinners were lasagna, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and beef stroganoff. Oatmeal was simple and quick for the mornings, and trail mix, dried fruit, bars and gels were good on the fly during the day. A big chunk of cheese was knocked off the first two days before it got haggard. We used a Steri pen to filter water, iodine pills for back up.
Leaving Evolution Basin the trail strings its way through high alpine lakes with rugged peaks all around, then climbs gently up to Muir pass through a land looking increasingly barren. At the pass the Muir Hut sits in all it’s glory at a hair under 12000 feet, a squat beefy stone shack built in 1930 for emergency shelter. Financed for a whopping $ 5810.48. We meet up with three guys who are hiking together after meeting on the trail, they’re ferrying some mail to the McClure Meadow Ranger Station.
When you haven’t been out on the trail a bunch there is definitely some getting used too. The weight of a heavy pack pulling down on your shoulders continuously pulls on your trapezius and neck. Waist and chest belts help but time on the trail getting used to it is the best cure. Even if you are experienced getting back to doing something after an absence usually sees two things for sure — you forget stuff and you get sore. We did well not forgetting anything we really needed and did pretty good with our feet but this was Laura’s first real backpacking trip and she got a nasty chafe on the front of her hips from her pack. By the time she showed it to us the fourth night it was looking pretty bad, we did what we could with some moleskin and took thanks in having only one more day to go.
Descending Le Conte Canyon is nothing like the gradual climb up to Muir Pass, it’s much steeper, switching and winding its way down over 3200 feet to camp. The Middle Fork of the Kings River starts at Helen Lake a bit below the pass, and the trail follows its path. We make our final camp near Le Conte Ranger Station and scope our last day on the map—we’ll climb switchbacks and hike through Dusy Basin, taking in views of the Palisades, peaks of Sierra renown. Then it’s up and over Bishop Pass, the days climb equal to the descent from Muir Pass the day before. Our third pass of the trip, and the highest one, less than twenty feet higher than Muir Pass. We celebrate at the top for a few minutes and then start heading a couple thousand feet down to South Lake, where another celebration is in order. We’re all definitely feeling it. Packs are peeled off, tape is stripped off toes, and a lot of water is consumed. Luck is on our side and we catch a quick ride back to the car. Loading up my rig we are tired but content, a half hour later we are back in civilization in Bishop, relishing bleu cheese bacon burgers and shakes at Burger Barn before starting a long drive home to Utah.