Evolution Loop

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | California hikes
Pictures of the hikes
The Evolution region of the Eastern Sierra can be reached from Bishop on a day hike via either Lake Sabrina or North Lake.

Assuming that you park one car at Lake Sabrina, you can design a loop that takes you through three of the most spectacular places of the Evolution region: Darwin Canyon, Evolution Lake and the lakes south of Lake Sabrina.

Lake Sabrina is located at the end of 168, west of Bishop, about 1.5 hours driving time south of Mono Lake, i.e. 6/7 hours from the Bay Area. From Bishop, take 168 west, aka West Line St, all the way to the end. You need to park one car by the Lake Sabrina campground (as far into 168 as the law alows you). Then head for nearby North Lake with another car (the North Lake turnout is on the right just before the Lake Sabrina campground). The road to North Lake is only 3km but mostly unpaved. The only way to leave the car at the North Lake trailhead is to take campsite for two nights. Otherwise you have to leave the car at the hikers' parking lot 2kms before the trailhead.

The North Lake trailhead splits almost immediately: the main trail goes up towards Piute Pass, the left fork goes to the Lamarck Lakes. Take the left to the Lamarck Lakes. You will cross three bridges. Then in about one hour you reach the lower lake. At the unmarked fork, go left and cross the creek. Continue following the trail. Just before the second lake, a sign "Trail" sends you to the right side of the creek. In a few minutes you have to cross back to the left side, which may or may not be intuitive. If you miss this crossing, you get to the second lake, and that means you are on the wrong route. From there on that use trail is usually easy to follow. It enters a canyon and follows it to the plateau of Mt Lamarck.

To the southwest of Mt Lamarck is a snow field. Lamarck Col (or, better, Pass) is the prominent chimney west (right) of it.

This can be a major hassle because of the ice between the bowl and the actual pass. The ice is always there, any season of any year, no matter how little it snowed. To bypass it, there are two easy ways. One is to simply climb the gentle moraine to the left even before you arrive to the bowl. The other one is to climb higher up the promontory to the left. When you arrive at the bowl, stay about 10 meters higher to your left.

I'll describe the route to bypass the ice coming down from Lamarck Pass because it is usually downhill that one gets more intimidated. From the pass, walk down just a few steps and start traversing to your right. Walk through a notch and downclimb into the first chute (a little tricky, but this is the only difficult part). Then stay at approximately the same elevation and climb the other ridge of the chute. Climb up this second chute and climb over its other ridge. Now downclimb into this much gentler chute or, if there is still ice even in this chute, traverse one more chute: the chutes get gentler and gentler as you keep moving in the same direction. In fact, going this way is a shortcut of sorts even with no snow.

When you reach the top of Lamarck Col (almost 4000m) you are welcomed by the sign of the Kings Canyon national park and you have a great view of the lakes of Darwin Canyon,

not to mention Mt Mendel and Mt Darwin in front of you.

If you are coming down from Lamarck Col to North Lake, there are several places where you can get confused and lose the trail. Starting from Lamarck Col and going down, there are basically four plateaus. P1 is where Lamarck Col is. If you are going up, your only problem is to figure out which one is Lamarck Col. It is never trivial. Even less trivial is to figure out a safe way to climb it because it often has snow and ice. On the righthand side you see the face of Mt Lamarck. P2 is just below P1. You don't see Lamarck Col yet, nor the face of Mt Lamarck. The only confusing thing here is how to avoid the snow patches. P3 is where things get tricky if you are heading down. Be careful: lots of people make the same mistakeand this has created a sort of use-trail towards the wrong route. The trail runs all the way to the right but many people miss the right curve and go straight. If you go straight, you reach a waterfall (often covered with snow) and you'll have a beautiful view of the two Lamarck lakes and of a flat-topped hill to the right: you are in the very wrong place. Retrace your steps and move all the way to the other side of the plateau. The trail is very visible. P4 is the plateau of the flat-topped hill. This one is fairly uneventful. The trail goes to the right of the hill and then plunges down steeply for awhile. There is no P5. The trail keeps going down BUT be careful (especially in sections where the trail is obliterated by snow) that the trail will move to the very left into the forest. It is tempting to follow the creek but that would be another bad move because your lakes are on your left and the creek falls down on your right, very far from your destination. The trail climbs to the left towards a pass, then it goes down steeply on the other side towards the lakes. When it gets to the bottom of this hill, it goes up and down for a while and (confusing part) it crosses the creek three times, about ten minutes apart, and then it crosses the lake at the outlet. None of the crossings is trivial (except in the driest of seasons) because you need to find the easiest place to do it and this is generally not where the trail takes you. After you leave the lake behind, there are no more tricky spots. If you are heading up from North Lake, the only catch is the fork to Grass Lake. If you miss that sign, you may continue straight, which is NOT the trail to Lamarck lakes.

After Lamarck Pass the use trail is no longer useful. Descend into Darwin Canyon coasting the lakes to the north. Make sure to look back countless times because you need to remember where Lamarck Pass is, and there is literally no major landmark to help you. There are five main lakes: Darwin 1 (as far west as you can see) to Darwin 5 (the highest that you can see). Ignore Darwin 5 that you should not reach. Your descent route is to head for Darwin 4 and, if you are lucky, after a few minutes of downclimbing boulders, you will hit one of the many use-trails that come up from Darwin 4. The use-trail continues down Darwin Canyon, coasting all lakes to the right (north side). The other side usually has snow. All these lakes are approximately at the same elevation of 3500 meters. You are passing in front of Mt Darwin, Mt Mendel and the unnamed peak that is almost as high as them. Alas the terrain is as unfriendly as it gets. The use trail goes up and down, and frequently dead-ends against impassable boulders or... in the water. After Darwin 1, the slope gets steeper and the creek creates waterfalls and rapids. The canyon also opens up quite a bit. Now you want to cross the creek and head south. This will lead you to another lake, Darwin 0. Bend left as much as you can avoiding the moraine coming down from the corner peak. There is a use-trail but finding it is like a lottery, so, if you don't find it, simply keep circling left around this corner peak, slowly entering the John Muir Trail side of things. You can clearly see that you hit a T junction. Unfortunately the John Muir Trail is much lower than where you are, and of course you want to limit the elevation loss as you head towards it. Boulder hopping and bushwhacking takes you to a place near Evolution Lake where you can easily cross the drainage and meet the John Muir trail.

A word of caution if you are coming from the opposite direction. First of all, make sure you keep bending right to enter the Darwin Canyon. It is tempting to stay in the middle of the Darwin Ledges (where the main creek is) but then you may head straight ahead, which actually takes you into the Goethe basin. You have to keep circling to the right in order to enter Darwin Canyon. Note that it is difficult to see Lamarck Col from any of the lower lakes. What you see is either the peaks of the Goethe basin (if you are looking more north than east) or the ridge connecting Lamarck Col to Mt Darwin's north face (if you are looking east). It is very hard to tell where Lamarck Col is from any of the lakes. When you reach Lake Darwin 4, there are cairns and use-trail that should help. Basically, Lamarck Col is straight up vertical from Darwin 4.

Back to the route towards Mt Darwin: use the John Muir Trail to coast Evolution Lake and continue south on it towards Sapphire Lake. Before this lake (past Mt Spencer on the left), head up the ledges. If you keep Mt Spencer to the left as a reference point, you will be heading up west towards unnamed lake right below Mt Haeckel. From this lake look up north (left) and you should identify a prominent moraine that, unlike the nearby slippery granite slabs, allows to climb (class 2) towards a chimney (also class 2). When the chimney ends, you are above the granite slabs. Move up and right towards the crest that connects Mt Haeckel and Mt Darwin. You should see a U-shaped boulder.

Climb towards it and onto it. It allows you to cross over into the Haeckel basin. There is a small lake underneath. Coast to the left of it (lots of boulder hopping) and finally reach better ground, but stay as much to the left as possible to minimize the up and down ridges of this plateau. If you head for the northeastern corner of the plateau, you will enter a steep chute with much loose scree that goes straight down to Midnight Lake. It is debatable whether this is a short-cut, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is more reasonable to head for the ridge to its right that overlooks Midnight Lake to the left and Hungry Backpacker Lake to the right. Continue on that ridge until a chute on the left (south) of the lake that allows you to zigzag to the lake over gentler terrain. Once at the lake coast the south side until you his the trail. The trail goes down to Dingleberry Lake and Blue Lake and finally Lake Sabrina.

The trailhead for Lake Sabrina is located on the paved road before the dam. When you are coming down the trail, you'll end up on the paved road halfway between the campground and the dam. Just walk down a short distance on the paved road and you should find your car in a few minutes.

My 2008 time:
  • Lower Lamarck Lake: 1h
  • Lamarck Col (3945m): 4h
  • Last Darwin Canyon lake: 5.5h
  • John Muir trail at Evolution Lake (3300m): 6.5h
  • Leaving the trail before Sapphire Lake: 7.5h
  • Lake south of Haeckel: 8.5h
  • "Haeckel Pass" (3962m): 10.5h
  • Last lake of Haeckel basin (3762m): 11h
  • Chute to Midnight Lake: 12h
  • Midnight lake (3350m): 12.5h
  • Lake Sabrina (2780m): 15.5h

Note that a shorter loop can be made from Lake Sabrina southwest along Bishop Creek through a series of lakes to Bottleneck Lake (3400m). Then bend west through the Schober Holes (another series of small lakes) and climb the ridge (3800m) to the north of the moraine. Continuing straight west one reaches Darwin Canyon bypassing Lamarck Col. But this is a completely cross-country route.
Pictures of this hike
See also:
Weather forecast for the Evolution region