The North Lake/South Lake loop is a really perfect slice of the Sierras. At 55 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain its a nice 5-6 day hike with easy logistics out of Bishop, CA. More than that, it covers some of the prettiest sections of the Sierra such as Piute Pass, Muir Pass, Bishop Pass, Evolution Basin and Dusy Basin.
I had wanted to do this loop as part of a 200 mile hike with my son in the summer of 2019. But an injury cut the trip short and we only did half our planned route. With the craziness of 2020 I realized mid summer that I didn’t have a hike planned, so on a whim I flew out to California to do this loop by myself.
Day 1: North Lake to Hutchinson Meadow, 10.5 miles, 2300 ft elevation gain
I flew out, rented a car and drove to Bishop where I picked up some supplies and drove out to North Lake Campgound. The campgound is very small with few spots and no potable water (I filtered from the creek), so it was fine but not ideal. If I do this loop again I would go ahead and start hiking that first evening up to Lake Loch Leven. It was very pretty and only 2 miles in (1300 ft up). Another mile and I passed Piute Lake. Bigger and just as pretty, both lakes would have been excellent spots to camp. After a quick break I kept going. I wanted to get over Piute Pass before noon to avoid getting caught in afternoon storms, and the clouds were already building.
Piute Pass at 11,400 ft is pretty easy, nothing technical and it doesn’t provide the grand views of other Sierra passes. Once atop the pass, I felt the cold wind of afternoon storms approaching and saw only treeless alpine meadow before me…no shelter in sight. So I hurried along trying to get back down to the trees as the sky darkened quickly lightening streaked on the horizon.
The storm skirted me and I continued on towards my goal for the night, Hutchinson Meadow. It’s a beautiful area with a river and forest and plenty of granite to camp on.
Day 2 stats: Hutchinson Meadow to Evolution Meadow 10.3 miles, 2000 ft elevation gain
From Hutchinson Meadow is it a slow and beautiful 1500ft descent through Piute Canyon. I hiked along Piute Creek as it churned and gained power down the canyon. It was a clear day but at times the air was hazy. I didn’t realize at the time, but California was beginning to burn in its worst fire season ever.
Eventually I joined the John Muir Trail and crossed a bridge to head south. Having hiked the JMT in 2017, it was nice to be back on the trail I loved so much. I would now hike along the San Joaquin River in a really beautiful section of the JMT.
My last 1.5 miles would be an 800 ft climb up Evolution Valley alongside Evolution Creek. Finally I reached Evolution Meadow where I picked a flat pine needle campsite alongside the river where I would cross in the morning. It was a lovely peaceful night.
Day 3: Evolution Meadow to Sapphire Lake, 8.2 miles, 2300 ft elevation gain
I began the day by crossing the cold but gentle creek (it was a dry year; back in 2017 the creek was too dangerous to cross!) Then I continued along the valley along the McClure and Colby Meadows. Its a gentle climb all day, but more forested than previous days.
Finally it was time to climb another 1000 ft up to Evolution Basin. You can see the meadows disappear behind you as you climb. The basin is stunning, sitting at 11,000 ft and well above the treeline. Several alpine lakes sit along the basin. I would hike around Evolution Lake to Sapphire Lake where I would camp that night.
I had camped at Sapphire Lake in 2017 as well, and it is one of my favorite places. At ~11,000 ft it was cold and windy, but also beautiful and peaceful.