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Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -


This year the Mountain Sabbatical went up from North Lake over Piute Pass, crossed Humphries Basin cross-country, descended Carol Col (Puppet Col), crossed the trail to Royce Lakes, went over Royce Pass, crossed Italy Pass, and then descended Hilgard Branch from Lake Italy to pursue the PCT over Seldon Pass and then come around to Piute Canyon with a day hike up French Canyon before returning home over Piute Pass again. Total mileage for nine days was about 70+.


2010 will go down as a banner year for park service attendance, as thousands of folks who ordinarily did more pricey vacations took to the relatively inexpensive hills way past Labor Day. This was the first year we ever encountered a packed parking lot, with the overflow lot also packed at North Lake. The vast majority appeared to be headed over Lamarck Col with many planning assaults on Mts. Darwin and Mendel.


The 5.0 mile trail to Piute Pass (11,880 ft. elev.) spends about 2.5 miles winding from the North Lake Trailhead through aspen and pine woods, crossing streams over log bridges and taking a good long while to gain elevation until past the 10,400 foot mark, when the trail ramps up suddenly via stone stairs and switchbacks past a short waterfall on the left to Loch Leven and to the Piute Lakes on a terrace where one can contemplate the pass itself and the final 400 feet.

2010-092 (261K)

Finally one approaches the last 100 yards, which winds up between snowbanks to the saddle of the pass itself.

After attaining the breezy saddle, one is rewarded with a splendid view of Humphries Basin and Summit Lake, a glacier-plowed alpine tundra area at the foot of Mt. Humphries that once was an inland sea.


Descending 400 feet to the Basin, one notices the imposing bulk of Mount Humphries.


Anyone with the energy is encouraged to explore the lakes that rest at the base of this mountain, but most people camp at one of the two Desolation Lakes. Here is camp at Lower Desolation Lake. Temperature at night was 25 degrees.

From this vantage point one has a panoramic view of the entire Glacial Divide. The following pics move from right to left in sequence. Snowtongue Pass looks completely impossible from this view.

After an evening of coyote serenades, sounding discomfortingly close, we strike out across the trackless Basin for Mesa Lake.

Along the shores of this seldom-visited area, we note the tracks of our choir of the previous evening.


The way to Carol Col is by way of the obvious feeder creek on the right. The leftmost drainage takes one to the charmingly intimate Box and Tomahawk lakes below. There is no path and there are few ducks/cairns, but the way is obvious up the creek and to the left inside the cut. Looking back we view again the Glacial Divide. Temperature in Bishop is about 90 degrees, but up here the temp hovers around 61 in the sunshine.

As one ascends to the Col, the pass levels out to a watery flat that ramps up gently to the drop. In this area live several species, and we witnessed a couple redtail hawks coming within a hundred feet of us. Close to the drop we came across a flock of birds who seemed unwilling to take wing, perhaps knowing that the redtails were hovering near. Sierra Ptarmigans.

The way to the drop is deceptively easy. In minutes one scampers up to the lip.

At the lip of the Col, one then looks down. The best way is to take the middle drainage and work to the hard right. The others require removing the pack and lowering by ropes before fisting down cracks to get to something humanly possible and safe. Ignore the ridiculous cairn which misdirects people going down; it is a marker for those coming up. Takes about 45 minutes of careful picking to get to the next lip at Puppet Lake below. Just when you thought you were done. On the upside, we talked with folks who did the higher Steelhead Pass to the northeast, and they reported immense talus boulders and "the worst hiking we have ever done. Horrible."

Looking back up at the Col you see why few people do the Roper High Route in reverse. And it is steeper than it looks here. Still, it is much easier than Steelhead pass, Snowtongue or Alpine Col

Getting around Puppet Lake is fairly easy. Looking back, it seems impossible to find the actual col.

Puppet Lake sits on a ledge 200 feet above the ledge that holds Elba Lake, Moon Lake and L Lake. Its a little bit of boulder work to get down but nothing extraordinarily difficult.

Looking back up at the Puppet Lake shelf you can see that it is best to descend the easier talus slope that is more to the west of the lake, then traverse at the level of the shrubbery to the east side where there are prepared campsites. People do not come this way often and there are no markers. The elevation is about 11,000 but the shelf is unusually well sheltered.


The next day one descends the slope to the French Canyon Trail, climb that for about a mile and then cut northeast away from the trail about where the Pine Creek Pass levels out to a shelf and a series of dry hills. Along the way, one traverses alpine sub-arctic tundra, passing tarns and intermittent streams for fairly easy going, albeit steadily uphill. This view looks east towards the Pine Creek Pass.

After clambering over the last 50 foot hill the austere Royce Lakes area comes into view. There is a sort of use trail that exists intermittently as one approaches the Royce Pass until the last lake.

Yep, it does get cold there.

There are fish in there, but the fishing is much better lower down at the last lake.

Morning stillness. Not a single ripple.

It is actually more work to boulder around the high lake to the approach than it is to climb up and over the pass itself, which is done in a matter of fifteen minutes. One of the easier trackless passes. The view to the northeast reveals Honeymoon Lake. The best way to do this and get to Granite Park is to simply walk down the middle/left of the drainage here, keeping as much to the left as one can without getting into the big boulders. One skirts the cliffs on the left, staying as high as possible for about one hundred yards. This extremely easy descent should put you still high enough that it is a simple matter to go up the ridge on the left via one of the two drainages indicated by the line of trees.


After dropping down and crossing the stream, one heads upwards by a well-marked trail, always choosing to go left when the trail gets ambiguous. There are markers and trails that send one east to Chalfant Lakes, so be sure to use the compass. The terrain changes from bucolic to Roman Wilderness.

Granite Park is stunning in its austere beauty, over which reigns the brooding bulk of Mount Julius Caesar.

Although the trail obviously vanishes on the rock, there are markers to guide the obvious way. One can pay heed or not, as the way is clear. Eventually, the impressive rampart of Italy Pass (12,400 ft. elev.) presents itself. Hidden to the right and above is a small jewel of a lake shaped in the form of a valentine heart.

There are no technical challenges to this climb. The footing is solid and there is no loose talus, as one climbs by means of fractured planes of granite that often form neat little ramps that could just as well support a wheelchair. Gradually Granite Park recedes far below.

Then comes the final hundred feet to the saddle.

Its nice to pause for the view.

Brown Bear Pass is easily accessible from this point. Just traverse to the left, hop over the snowfield there and climb fifty feet to drop down to the Bear lakes region. Unfortunately, after five days of 25 degree evenings and no fishing, we decided to drop down to Lake Italy instead.

Lake Italy is not without its charms, but it tends to be heavily frequented these days. There are only three campsites, all located on the south shore, although there may be others located on the north shore near the eastern influx.


There are two high passes, each over 12,200 feet in elevation at the eastern end of the lake. Both are listed as "Class 2", and both drop down into the Mono Recesses region, but neither should be attempted by newbies without doing some serious research, as the unwary can get into quite dangerous situations. Cox Col features a lot of "loose talus", which should raise a red flag for anyone who does not know what the term "Col" means, or have pretty good bouldering skills. Gabbot Pass in particular hosts a wide range of inaccurate, misleading and plain wrong stone markers. You get to and from the cols by passing along the north shore as the south shore features unnecessary cliff problems near Toe Lake.

One of our staff found it necessary to render assistance to a party heading toward Cox Col; he provided their leader with written instructions on just what to do.


In the morning, after breaking up the ice in the water bucket, its time to negotiate the boulder-strewn shore of Lake Italy.

After about 45 minutes, one looks at the deceptively easy start to Hilgard Creek, the trail for which is marked only "not suitable for stock." Heh, heh, heh . . . .

A beautiful, clear trail appears. It looks so easy. The next two miles will just fly by ....

There are Disney waterfalls even . . . !

The camera date notes indicate these were taken before noon. Four hours later, after scrambling, hunting for clues, briefly pursing markers that actually went to a different lake (Teddy Bear), cursing, falling over sideways, and desperately clinging to narrow goat tracks above a gorge we descended those two miles almost to the junction of the PCT, noting a curious schizophrenia in the trailwork.

It seemed clear that two separate teams went to work on different sections of the trail. Each team was given different drugs. One team was given cocaine and this team blasted through, lifted, hauled and set prodigious amounts of rock. Various sections of trail boasted boarders of stone that featured boulders weighing easily hundreds of pounds set in earth far from any other rock; not really necessary, but cute nonetheless.

The second team was given pot. This team apparently went out to the site, smoked a few joints and daydreamed with the butterflies before placing a few cairns in random locations before going home for the day. At times the markers consisted of true cairns about three feet high. Other times the ducks were a single stone. Often the markers led off into some hyperspace of the mind rather than anything meaningful. On these stretches, the hiker is entirely on his own.

Again we had to pause to render assistance to a couple who got sent across the stream into impenetrable thickets by a weird cairn that made no sense at all.

Two rules came out of this:

1. Use stone ducks as suggestions only. Best is to find your own way that makes sense.

2. Allow 5.5 hours minimum for ascending or descending the rugged Hilgard Branch.

3. Don't smoke pot before doing trailwork.

Okay, that's three rules. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition either.

Camped that night near the outflow of Orchid Lake near Rosemarie Meadow around 6pm, totally beat, having traveled a linear distance of about 3.5 miles. Only camp of which we never took pictures.


The trail from the junction between Hilgard Branch and the PCT is fairly dull until it gets back to above the 10,000 foot level. As it ramps up past the cutoff to Rose Lake it starts to get more interesting.

As one pops up above 10,400 feet again, the hiker enters a pristine jewel area of the wilderness at the heart of which are Marie Lake and Seldon Pass.

The area is so beautiful, and yet bounded by execrably boring trail access from north and south that it is well worth it to locate a good cross-country route from Piute or French canyons.

Seldon pass is a moderate climb from about 10,600 feet at the lake to about 11,000 feet and offers no particular challenges. The pass is closed in to a narrow notch but does offer nice views north and south.

After a brief scramble down and passing between the arms of two granite cliffs, the hiker comes across Heart Lake, named (like a couple other lakes) for its perfect valentine shape.

From this delightful spot, one descends through tundra, alpine, subalpine and down below montane regions to the bucolic gentility of Sallie Keyes Lakes.

The now clearly defined trail passes between the two lakes into dense woodlands.


There follows a long, hot, substantially dry (save for Sanger Creek and mushy springs at the Muir Ranch cutoff) and extremely tedious trail for about 11 miles to the PCT confluence of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River and Piute Creek. An endless series of switchbacks after the cutoff across a barren slope puts the hiker down near the South Fork to follow that stream at a goodly distance for about two miles. Bear sign was everywhere, even on the trail itself.

At last, near 8100 feet in elevation, one crosses the little bridge to enter Kings Canyon National park to find a plethora of campsites.

After leaving this pleasant spot and its scores of fishermen, one ascends along the splashing Piute Creek steadily and with surprisingly gentle ramps to get above 9,500 feet, taking a leisurely 7 miles to do so.


Along the way, one encounters charming waterfalls and deep pools. There, it is well for the contemplative hiker to consider Life's Mysteries, and by doing, so cleanse the mind.

Along the way, it is also well for the grimy and somewhat odiferous hiker who has spent about 8 days without a shower to do well to take a bath.

After a couple miles, one notices by the odor caused by the decay of two dead horses that one has arrived at the edge of the mile-long Hutchinson Meadow which sports easily an half dozen campsites up to and past the center meeting point. It is important to note that one is not restricted to the Grand Central Station area which collects several campers every night.


For this trip we needed to fetch items left in a cache near Pine Creek Pass, so we headed uphill into French Canyon to find a spot two miles north of the Meadow.

The following morning, we headed up the canyon with a daypack and walking stick. The stream borders revealed the change in seasons was at hand with garlands of icycles.

The lower half of the canyon is moderately dull, however, as one ascends above treeline into alpine tundra the views open out.

One disadvantage in coming to the Sierra so late in the year is that by late September, the Sierra Spring and Summer have come and gone, taking all the phlox, shooting star, lupin, and paintbrush with the vanished seasons. Still, here and there a lone colorspot remains.

After lunch and a period of relaxation, its back down to Hutchinson Meadow.

From the meadow one gradually ascends by means of constant upward slopes and the occasional stone staircase, hardly knowing that one is moving over the course of 7 miles from 9,500 feet to above 11,000. Along the way, packer whimsy can be found parking on a log.

What we took to be two skulls is actually a skull and part of the hip area of another animal. The skull is probably that of a bear. The bones have been there for several years.

Because of the day-hike we find ourselves -- not without some pleasure -- camping still along Piute Creek that night.

The inquiring mind wants to know if there be trout in the stream.


What are trout good for?

Alas, the time comes to break camp and depart.

From this spot, located by packers conveniently at 9,998 feet in elevation (so they can build fires legally below 10,000 feet, one ascends gradually through the montane to alpine again. The savvy hiker will select the right-hand path, which follows the creek and the chain of lakes, as opposed to the left, which climbs a stone stair from a field of granite slabs to go high across the dry tundra.

Soon, the familiar escarpments of Mounts Humphries and Emerson poke into view above the Basin.

From this close vantage one can study Snowtongue Pass closely.

No camping is allowed at Golden Trout Lake, but lunch is certainly is.

After hummus and bisquits, the march to Last Camp begins. Across the former seabed one approaches Piute Pass. The unwary should know that this escarpment is just the hump before the actual pass itself, which lies concealed by the buttress of Mount Humphries to the left.


After about 45 minutes one tops out just below the Pass, which we do not cross this day. Instead we traverse right to Lake Muriel and a campsite there at 11,800 feet in elevation.

Two hikers cross a ridge, heading also for Lake Muriel.

Lake Muriel, nestled below the mountain of that name, is a popular destination. The way to Alpine Col is around the lake to the right and over that saddle, behind which resides another lake. From interviews, we learned that the best way around that lake is also to the right. Take the supposedly "easy-looking" ledges on the left will get hikers into some nasty class 3 and 4 rockwork.

All good things come to an end. Time to go.

In the grey light of dawn, we awoke to unearthly chirping, chirring and grunts; looking out we saw grey forms bobbing and skittering toward us. Ptarmigans again!

Passing the feeder tarn to Muriel we head across to the Pass.

With a last look at Humphries Basin and Summit Lake, we head down the stone stairs.

So go get into shape, put on a pack filled with sand and get on the stairmaster and run that a moderate pace for about six hours or so . . .

After Loch Leven, the hiker descends rapidly from the 11,000 foot shelf holding the lakes back below montane level and through forests of quaking aspen into Big Tree territory.

That first shower is going to be gooooooood . . . .