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Backpacking the North/South Lake Loop in Six Days: An Overview

6 Nights Backpacking the North Lake South Lake Loop

6 Nights Backpacking the North Lake South Lake Loop

For those who have backpacked the famous John Muir Trail, Evolution Valley is often mentioned as one of the most beautiful and memorable spots along the trail.  But is there a way to get to Evolution Valley on just a one-week backpacking adventure?  The answer is YES – and the most popular of these routes is the North Lake – South Lake Loop.

The North Lake South Lake Loop is a 55-mile trail that begins and ends in the Eastern Sierra in the Inyo National Forest.  The trailheads – one at the North Lake Campground and the other at the South Lake day use parking lot – are just a 10-mile drive apart – and it is equally popular to start at either end.  If hiking as a group, it is very efficient to leave a car at both ends.  If hiking with just one car, there are various local shuttle services that can drop you off at either end.  There is also a public shuttle bus that runs from South Lake to Bishop multiple times a day during the summer months.

Trail Details
Distance: 55 miles
Time: 4-6 days
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 9,418 ft
Dogs: No
When to go: Late July-Early October
We chose to start at North Lake for several reasons:  First, it has a self-service campground, allowing us to camp there the night before we began…giving us both a gear shakedown and an acclimation sleep at 9,400 feet.  The campground is $24 a night and you just put your money in an envelope and drop it in a slot.  The camp host comes by later to pick up the money and mark your spot.  There is plenty of water at the campground, fire rings and bear boxes.

The 55-mile route is epic!  It starts from the North Lake campground and heads west and up, climbing 2,000 vertical feet over five fairly gentle miles to the summit of Piute Pass.  Then the trail heads across Humphreys Basin and down along Piute Creek until it reaches the San Joaquin River and the bridge that crosses you into Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Trail.

Beautiful Piute Creek
Piute Creek

You then head south on the JMT, along the river until you reach the junction with the Goddard Canyon Trail.  From there, you head back west and up up up to Evolution Valley and then Evolution Basin – finally topping out at the summit of Muir Pass. From here, it’s west and south down and into the epic Le Conte Canyon.

Muir Hut at Muir Pass
Muir Pass

Then, its west and up up up as you depart the JMT and head back via Dusy Basin and the summit of Bishop Pass.  Finally, it’s down along the Bishop Pass trail, passed a half a dozen gorgeous lakes to the South Lake trailhead and done!

On the Bishop Pass Trail

Three legendary mountain passes and a journey through Evolution Valley and Evolution Basin – it’s about as perfect as a 5-6 day backpacking trip in the Sierra can get!

North Lake/South Lake Loop Trail Map & Elevation Profile

Download file: North_Lake_South_Lake_Loop.gpx


Whether you start at North Lake or South Lake, the permitting process is the same.  You apply online at for either the Piute Pass-North Lake trailhead or the Bishop Pass-South Lake trailhead as your entry point – up to 6-months before your entry date.  You will pick up your permit for either one at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, CA.  They will ask you how you are storing your food and they will remind you NO fires above 10,000 feet.

Once you have your permit – you’re ready to go!  AND, if you have time, don’t forget to stop at the world famous Burger Barn as you head out of town on Highway 168 – it’s worth the trip!

Six-Day North Lake–South Lake Loop Backpacking Itinerary

We decided on a pre-trip overnight at North Lake Campground followed by a 6-day trip – as we don’t like to hurry and LOVE to camp!  Our schedule would be:

  • Day Zero – Travel day. Pick up permit, eat at Burger Barn, head to North Lake Campground and spend the night
  • Day One – Piute Pass trailhead – over Piute Pass – down through Humphreys Basin to Hutchinson Meadow
  • Day Two – Hutchinson Meadow – down Piute Creek to the JMT junction – down along the San Joaquin River to the Goddard Canyon Bridge Junction
  • Day Three – Goddard Canyon Bridge Junction – Up to Evolution Valley – then into Evolution Basin and camp at Sapphire Lake
  • Day Four – Sapphire Lake – up to Wanda Lake then summit Muir Pass – then down into Le Conte Canyon and camp at Little Pete Meadow
  • Day Five – Little Pete Meadow up to Dusy Basin and camp at the highest tarns below Bishop Pass at 11,200 feet
  • Day Six – Up over Bishop Pass and down to South Lake – Finished!

NOTE: We originally had planned this trip for July, but changed it to August due to the snow and water challenges that the 2017 winter had created.  We were glad we did!  Our conditions were near perfect!

Key Things to Bring

  • Bug spray, head nets and Permethrin treated clothes – the mosquitos were still challenging in certain spots
  • Microspikes – not really needed, but brought – my wife used them on Muir Pass and Bishop Pass
  • Water shoes – we had no less than 14 wet crossings – we used Teva sandals with water socks
  • Rain gear – we did have rain on three separate occasions – one night pretty hard with hail
  • Map, compass and GPS – We used GaiaGPS for iPhone and the Tom Harrison “Bishop Pass North Lake South Lake Loop” map.

Bishop Weather Forecast

[forecast width=”100%” location=”93514″]

Note that this trail begins much higher than Bishop, and climbs. Compare with the forecast at 11,484′ on Mt Agassiz (near Bishop Pass) .

Originally hiked August 19-25, 2017.

Continue to Day One: Piute Pass Trailhead to Hutchinson Meadow


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