Thursday, April 19, 2012

Introduction to Backpacking Evolution Valley, Basin and Le Conte Canyon

Evolution Valley and Le Conte Canyon are some of the wildest parts in California and the Pacific Crest Trail. Bound by 11,000 and 12,000ft passes, it is the platonic ideal of wilderness and is the best backpacking destination in the Sierra Nevada.
Backpacking Evolution Valley
The Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail are on every backpacker's bucket list. Months of hiking from Mexico to Canada through deserts, mountains and forests of the west is the ideal vacation. However most of us also have full time jobs, families, bad joints and other commitments which aren't exactly conducive to 2,600 miles! So if you're looking for an ultimate wilderness backpacking destination that won't take months to do, I'd like to present Evolution Valley and Le Conte Canyon.

Located in King's Canyon National Park, these canyons are perhaps the furthest you can travel from civilization in California. First of all, the drive to get to the trail head will likely test the limits of your car. Second of all, it is a 2 to 3 day walk from the trail head just to get to these destinations. This, combined with the extreme elevation changes makes this the ultimate wilderness. Nevertheless, the towering mountains, clear streams, ancient glaciers and alpine lakes make it all worthwhile. I've encountered just a few places in this country which match the serenity and solitude you could experience deep in the heart of the Sierras.
Crossing Evolution Creek at 10,800ft
Most folks who travel through here are on the John Muir Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The John Muir Trail itself is mostly the same as the PCT but I consider it like the "Best of the Sierra Nevada" trail. The southern portion of the JMT goes through King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and this is the most isolated part of the entire PCT. Backpackers have to pack almost a whole week of food to get through these sections as there are no re-supply locations for 100 miles. Therefore, the importance of preparedness and self-reliability cannot be overstated in this part of the Sierras.

If you're looking at making a trip just out of this section, there are several option all with their own advantages and disadvantages.

The map above should give you a good reference for the area. The blue line follows the PCT/JMT while the red lines indicate access trails. If you click the link, exact distances can be calculated. The John Muir Map Pack also has an excellent overview of the area.

Overview of Trail Heads, Routes and Entry Points 

Specific details on each route and backpacking logistics will be elaborated in future posts. There are no easy entry points and each has its advantages and disadvantages. The only access from the West is Jackass Meadow. From the East, there are 4 options but all involve traveling over 11,000ft passes. The starting elevation of each trail is included.
  • Jackass Meadow and Muir Trail Camp (7,200ft): Located on Florence Lake on the Western side of the Sierras, this location is the closest and "easiest" entry point for Evolution Valley. This campground is located about 90 miles from Fresno, CA and at the end of the infamous Kaiser Pass Road. This is a difficult and somewhat harrowing road that penetrates deep into the mountains. A 4x4 would be highly recommended. From here you take a water taxi to the 4.7 mile lost valley trail and Muir Trail Ranch.
  • Bishop Pass Trailhead (South Lake Trailhead) (9,800ft): This is the preferred entry point from the Eastern Sierras and is located 22 miles from Bishop, CA. The Bishop Pass Trail s 11.6 miles and is a grueling trek over the 11,972ft Bishop Pass. Its a popular route in the summer and although its the closest entry point for this part of the Pacific Crest Trail, it is very steep and challenging. You also must consider that the starting elevation gives you little time to acclimate.
  • Pine Creek Trailhead (7,900ft): This trailhead is also 22 miles from Bishop, CA and is 18.3 miles from the PCT/JMT trail through Evolution Valley. From here, the trail climbs over Pine Creek Pass at 11,100ft. Its a much longer approach than the Muir Trail Camp approach but much easier to get to from the East side. Also, the road is much easier to drive than the Kaiser Pass Road.
  • Piute Pass Trailhead (9,400ft): The Piute Pass trail brings you to the same point on the PCT/JMT as the Pine Creek Trail but starts much higher and is slightly gentler. It brings you over Piute Pass at 11,423ft and is 15.7 miles from the PCT/JMT. 
  • Taboose Pass Trailhead (5,500ft): This is the most isolated and roughest trailhead of the bunch. For folks who would like to go through the Upper Basin, Palisade Basin, the Golden Staircase and Le Conte Canyon, its closer than the others. However the elevation gain is insane and the parking lot is located at the end of an especially rough 4x4 trail. It is 10 miles from the trail head to the PCT/JMT and over Taboose Pass at roughly 11,500ft. 33 miles from Bishop, CA.
The insane, single-lane Kaiser Pass Road
As you can see, the incredible challenge of getting to Evolution Valley adds to the allure of hiking through it. You can be confident that anyone who's out there with you is every bit as much of a hard-core backpacker as you. I can confidently say that I've never traveled through a place that was further from any trace of civilization than my trek through Evolution Valley and Le Conte Canyon.

This is an introductory post with details on each route to come. Stay posted!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!


  1. Thanks for posting this page. I plan to backpack Evolution Basin for the first time this summer.

    You say you "never traveled through a place that was further from any trace of civilization than Evolution Valley." I want to mention that if you spend time in the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness in Idaho, you will revise your statement.


    1. He said CA in the paragraph if you read it. Come on man.

    2. No, he doesn't. Read it again. Come on dude.

  2. Hey Joe - Do you think it's possible to loop from somewhere to Evolution Valley and back in 3-3.5 days? This would be more of an ultralight/death hike adventure. I've done a few of these routes you mentioned, but the shortest one was 5 days. I'd love your thoughts.
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Ah that is a good question. The remoteness of Evolution Valley makes it difficult to get to if you only have 3-4 days. Have you looked at doing Evolution Valley via Lamarck Col and the Darwin Bench? Its a really tough, class III scramble that is not very straightforward- I haven't done it myself, but it would be the shortest route from Piute Pass Trailhead. Maybe this will help-

      Hope you make it! Its a great adventure!

  3. Thanks for your wonderful post.

    How many miles from the water-taxi drop off to beginning of Evolution Basin? To the end of Evilution Basin?


    1. It is about 4.7 miles from the drop-off to the beginning of Evolution Valley. From here, it is 22.7 miles (one-way) though the Valley and up to Muir Pass. There are several areas for backcountry camping along the way and a small hut at the top of Muir Pass. Hope that helps! -Joe

    2. I have heard, maybe from this site, that you reach a certain point where there are no longer any camp site, so best to camp there. Can you say anything about that.

    3. I should be more specific. If hiking from the water taxi direction, towards Muir Pass, I've hear at some point there are no more camp sites. Where is that point? Thanks.

  4. Joe:

    Once again, thanks for your info. Is Muir Pass at the south\east end of Evolution Basin? And what's with the hut? Do people stay in it? How many does it hold?

    1. Muir Pass is at the southeastern end of Evolution Valley, just before coming up on the equally gorgeous Le Conte Canyon. The hut really isn't much- I didn't stay there and I heard there are some marmots that live nearby that occasionally take food not stored in a bear canister but I don't know much else about it. If you have the time, Le Conte Canyon is just as epic.

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  6. I'd like to repeat David's question: When hiking west to east up Evolution, towards Wanda, is there a spot beyond which there is no camping? Or, do your recommend camping at Wanda, or Sapphire?

    1. I don't recall any specific restrictions on camping when I was hiking through the area other than general Leave No Trace guidance (i.e. a site on a durable surface with the least amount of impact). The wilderness ranger I spoke with said there were no restrictions in camping that he knew of. I recall camping at a lousy site on the Middle Fork of the Kings River on the east side of Muir pass but would have much preferred lake Wanda or Sapphire. Far more scenic. Hope that helps!