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North Lake to South Lake

Day 1 of 7

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Monday, August 12th
North Lake to Piute Lake
4.1 miles
1810 vertical feet (ascent)
180 vertical feet (descent)

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GPX File

Monday morning, we woke up around 7am, had breakfast, cleaned up, and did our final packing, leaving our rental house in Mammoth Lakes around 9:20am. We had an appointment to be picked up at 11am at South Lake, and I didn't want to miss it. We had discussed several ways to complete the near-loop in the months and weeks before the trip. Many people just hitch-hike from one trailhead to the other. I could have dropped off my family at North Lake, driven the car to South Lake, then hitched a ride back to North Lake to start the hike. The though of me hitch-hiking didn't please my wife, though.

We also had someone who was willing to let us borrow his car, but then we would have to return it and it was a bit out of the way. Finally, a high school friend of mine happened to be in the area at the same time and offered to drive us, but he had a trailer which wouldn't do well on North Lake Road. So, eventually, we discovered that there are actually several taxi options. We settled on Mammoth Taxi, which provides trailhead service for much of the Eastern Sierra. It's a bit expensive, but it's very convenient and appears to be pretty reliable.

We drove south on 395 and then up to South Lake, parking in the overnight lot which was almost full. We arrived at 10:20am, then started to finalize our packs. I dumped out the trekking poles and 4 packs, and did a final weigh-in. I made a last-minute adjustment, tossing out my medium pillow, then convincing Jared to use the lightweight down pillow instead (I'd use his small pillow). We were still sort of finalizing things when the taxi arrived, early, a bit after 10:45am.

Click here to see a list of food and gear we brought, and unused food/gear (click tabs at bottom to switch views).

The taxi had plenty of space, and we dumped everything into the back and were off by 10:50am. The drive to North Lake only took about 25 minutes. We talked to the driver, who told us that they even do transport for people doing the John Muir Trail, taking them from Whitney Portal to Tuolumne Meadows (or Yosemite Valley). Maybe we'll use them for that in the future. The driver said they do about 2-3 trailhead trips per day.

The driver drove into the North Lake campground and all the way up to the Piute trailhead sign. We unloaded our packs and said goodbye to the taxi. We relaxed a bit and ate the lunch that we had brought -- the last "real" food we'd eat until Sunday. We only had 4 miles to travel today. Even though it was all uphill (about 1700 feet), I figured we could relax a bit and take our time.

While we were at the trailhead, some guys finished their hike out. They had spent the previous nights at Muriel Lake, using it as a base camp for day hikes to the surrounding area. They did mention that their Camelbaks froze overnight at Muriel Lake (11,336 feet elevation). When we told them we were about to start the North Lake to South Lake trip, they said they didn't feel so proud of themselves anymore.

While we ate our lunch, I suddenly realized that we only had 7 trekking poles instead of 8. I was sure we'd checked the taxi before it left, and it was nowhere to be found at the trailhead, so I concluded that I'd simply left it in the car. I hadn't actually had time to count them before we left the South Lake parking lot. I'd just assumed they were all together, but one of them must have fallen to the side in the trunk. We would easily have noticed this if we'd started the hike from South Lake, and then we'd immediately return to our car to get it. But because of the shuttle thing, that wasn't possible.

Piute Pass trailhead

Another guy came by the trailhead sign later, and we got to talking. It turned out he'd be starting the same trip (North Lake to South Lake) that we were doing, though he said they'd do it in 6 days instead of 7, starting tomorrow. So we'd probably see him again later. He asked about the taxi, and explained they had two cars and would leave one at South Lake. He said they might try to make it all the way to Hutchinson Meadow tomorrow, which is where we'd be camping.

Since I was already talking to him, I asked if he happened to have an extra trekking pole, but he didn't. In hindsight, I guess I could have asked him or someone else if they could drive me to South Lake and back so I could retrieve the pole. But we just decided we'd make do with 7 poles instead of 8. Jared doesn't really use his poles much, anyway. The only thing that concerned me a bit was the river crossing. The Evolution Creek crossing looked wide, and he'd probably need both poles for that. But I figured we could still manage that.

So, around 12:30pm, we started off on the trail. We'd been at this trailhead before - twice. Once for a hike to Grass Lake, and just last October for a day hike to Lower Lamarck Lake. But this time, after hiking for a couple minutes to the intersection, we continued straight toward Piute Pass instead of turning left for the day hikes.

From the intersection, the trail basically starts climbing immediately and fairly incessantly. It's a fairly steady climb, not too steep. But of course since we had the full weight of our packs today, it wasn't easy.

The trail roughly parallels the North Fork of Bishop Creek heading upstream. We rock-hopped it a couple times, passing a couple of women who were waiting for their leader to head back down behind them. While we saw a couple day hikers today, it was mostly backpackers that we saw, most of them heading back to the trailhead.

North Fork of Bishop Creek

After about 500 feet of climbing, the trail broke out into the open a bit so that we could start getting some good views. Around this time we finally ran into the group leader who was leading the other women downhill. Even though she was heading out, we'd see her again later in our trip.

Mountains to the south

Above us to our right was Piute Crags, reddish-brown mountains to the north. Behind us were better and better views of the valley. The trail climbs granite rock steps, some of them quite high (especially for kids). After about 2.8 miles, we reached Loch Leven, a pretty lake sitting at 10,743 feet elevation, about 1400 feet above the trailhead elevation.

Piute Crags

View looking southeast

Lone tree, not sure what kind

Looking southwest up the trail

View to the east

Mountain above Loch Leven

Trail next to Loch Leven

We enjoyed a nice snack break at Loch Leven, then continued up the trail. From here, the trail is easier, since there's only about 200 feet left to ascend. There are several smaller lakes or ponds between Loch Leven and Piute Lake. Soon enough, we reahed Piute Lake, elevation 10,958.

Ponds between Loch Leven and Piute Lake

There's a small stone and wood structure near the eastern end of Piute Lake. I'm not sure what it is. It is fairly far from the main trail, so I don't think it's an emergency shelter, though I'm not sure what it is.

Small structure near Piute Lake

We put down our packs, then started looking for a camp site. One thing I wish I had brought (sort of) was FRS radios; they would have been nice to have while looking for campsites. But on the other hand, I didn't really want the extra weight. In any case, we made do without.

There was a large camp site near the northeastern shore of the lake. We looked in vain for a nicer spot closer to the water that would fit our tent. We eventually just stuck with the camp near the northeastern shore. It was still only 5:30pm, so we had plenty of time to enjoy a relaxing dinner.

Piute Lake

Around 6:30pm, a large group of backpackers walked by. They eventually found some sites about halfway up the shore, fairly far from us. After 7pm, it got cold fast. At least it wasn't at all windy. We were so tired today, though, that we were in the tent and asleep by around 8:30pm.

Piute Lake

At 10,958 feet elevation, the lake would be the highest campsite of this trip, and in fact is the highest elevation we've ever camped at (the previous high was Rae Lakes at about 10,600 feet). It showed itself evident, too, as I developed a mild headache (despite having spent 3 nights sleeping at Mammoth Lakes).

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