Sleeping in the car is not the most comfortable night’s sleep. But it worked. We were quickly ready to set off. The walk from the hiker’s parking lot to the trailhead is not far, and of course very flat. The trailhead leaves from the North Lake Campground – the starting point for our North Lake South Lake loop hike.
It was as we immediately left on the trial that we noticed the campsite is actually larger than it looks from the loop road. There was at least one campsite that was empty, so if you are looking for a night here make sure to get out of your car and check all the sites.
Day one of a hike is always tough. Getting your legs in is one reason, as is it‘s the day where your packs are the heaviest with all the food for the entire trip. The first day of this hike does not help by having a 2000ft gain in the first couple of miles.
The trail stays within the pines as it started to switch back upwards. There are a couple of simple creek crossings, all of which were either log or rock hops. At times the trail breaks out, more frequently the higher it is, to show some vistas back over towards Bishop. After maybe 90 minutes of uphill grind and a gain of 1000 feet, we reached Loch Leven.
After about another mile and 500 feet of elevation gain, we arrived at Piute Lake. By this time we had climbed 1500 feet in around 2 and 1/2 hours. This was a pretty exhausting start to the hike and so this was a great place for a break and snack. Piute Lake gave the first sense of the alpine lake environment that would predominate on this trip.
From Piute Lake, the crest of the Piute Pass comes into view. The hike to The pass looked easier and less daunting than the initial climb. There was quite a crowd resting at Piute Lake, both day hikers and backpackers. Some returning from their trip to Desolation Lake were telling stories of mosquito maulings. A good number of dogs were also out hiking, many with their own packs, all super friendly and well behaved.
After a 30 minute break, we set off for the pass. The climb was relatively easy, although this was the first time we saw a small amount of snow crossing the trail. No issues navigating through it. Finally, after just over 3 hours and a gain of over 2000 feet, we arrived at Piute Pass, at 11’423. From the pass the view into the heart of the Sierra opens up, Summit Lake and Humphrey’s Basin come into view and in the distance, we could see the descent into Piute Canyon. Looking back gave a magical view of Piute Lake.
I always like what feels like a point of commitment. From Piute Pass, we could either return to the trailhead or press on into the Piute Canyon. The number of hikers would dramatically decrease as we’d rapidly be beyond day hike range. Of course, we pushed on.
We started the much easier and gentle descent across Humphrey’s Basin. The trail started off gently slopping for the next mile or so. As we walked across the basin, Piute canyon would grow in our field of view. Initially lightly footed with trees, slowly getting denser as we descended. The fragrance of the pines replacing the purity of the higher air. All the time Piute Creek was on our left side, coming in and out of view. As we descended the creek getting larger as more tributaries merge into it. We crossed more and more of these little streams, nothing more than a rock hop, stopping once to filter water.
After hiking about 11 miles, at the time being around 4 pm, we had descended back into the pine forest of Piute Canyon and started looking for a campsite. Just before French Canyon / Hutchinson Meadow, we found a large, flat, open area. This was certainly a durable campsite and was right next to Piute Creek. We decided to pitch tens here for the night.
After a long day, it didn’t take too long to set up camp, filter more water and prepare dinner. I like to have a well-defined routine for setting up and breaking down camp, as it helps to ensure nothing gets forgotten. For this campsite, we were still eating food that was not in our bear canister, but all the trash and smellable items would have to be packed in before staying the bear canister a good distance from our campsite. My general routine is:
- Set up tent, put all necessary items inside tent
- Blow up pad, pillow, unpack sleeping quilt to give it time to fluff
- Filter water, cook dinner
- Clean and rinse all cookware so its ready for the next meal
- Clean teeth
- Put all necessary items into bear canister and stow away from camp site, stow other kitchen items with bear canister
- Make sure I have enough clean water for the night
Mosquitos weren’t too bad. But as soon as the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly – a good time to tuck into warm sleeping bags for the night. Day 1 of our North Lake South Lake loop hike in the bag!