Humphreys Basin and French Canyon via Piute Pass

Who: Phil and me
What: Backpacking
When: 9/2/17-9/5/17
Where: John Muir Wilderness, native land of the Monache
Mileage: 28 miles (21 on trail + 7 xc)
Elevation gain/loss: +5,300ft/-5,300ft
More photos: here
CalTopo: here

This crazy spring we’re having has me holed up writing trip reports instead of backpacking—it’s snowing in much of the Sierra this Memorial Day weekend—what even! But here we are. So, I took Phil, an avid cycle trekker, dj, and overall incredibly capable friend of mine, on his first ever backpacking trip in the John Muir Wilderness! Over Labor Day weekend in 2017, we set out from North Lake to explore Humphrey’s Basin and a pass on the Sierra High Route. We were impressed by the snowfields that still managed to linger and hinder our progress even in the first week of September of this high snow year—perhaps a sign for what’s in store for us again in 2019. Phil ripped his homemade shorts. We had a great time.

Day 0
Oakland to Intake 2 campground (HWY 168)

We had some shennanigans trying to get going. I didn’t want to backtrack and add miles and time to a Friday-of-Labor-Day-Weekend departure, I asked Phil to meet me at the Castro Valley BART station. That way, I could leave straight from work and then grab him on our way out of the bay. It worked out great! We hit the road and made good time straight for the eastern Sierra. We didn’t have a campsite reservation for the night, so we crossed our fingers and didn’t dilly dally with unnecessary stops.

After driving through Yosemite after dark, we headed down 395 and then up towards North Lake on Highway 168. We drove through several campgrounds before snagging what I think was the last spot at the romantically-named Intake 2 campground. We set up camp and talked about our plans for the trip. We went over what Phil had packed and got rid of about half of the food and plenty of other things (like a giant-ass set of keys? what you gonna unlock out there?).

Day 1
North Lake to Desolation Lake
8.5 miles, +2,850ft/-700ft

We packed up camp and drove up to the North Lake trailhead, parked, and set out. The trail up to Piute Pass is pretty gentle, ascending at a rate of about 500 ft per mile. It starts out with a couple stream crossings in the woods, but soon you reach treeline and the views open up.

Phil logs off

Piute Creek cascades below Emerson

Looking down towards the trailhead

After the wooded section ends, the trail meanders along the shores of two larger and numerous smaller lakes, all in a chain leading up to the pass. When we reached Loch Leven, we could see that even in September, there was still some snow up there on Piute Pass.

Piute Lake and Piute Pass in the distance

Phil on the way up to Piute Pass

Phil on the way up to Piute Pass

The snowfield was late-season, consolidated, easy to hike across. The only small concern was the snowmelt stream running beneath part of it, so care had to be taken not to posthole down into running water through that bit.

September snow below Piute pass

The view from Piute Pass is not the most dramatic of the east side passes, but pleasant nonetheless. We stopped for a break and snacks on granite slabs with a view of Summit Lake.

Summit Lake

That face of accomplishment

Soon enough it was time to get going again and we followed the trail down past Summit Lake and through some shrubby areas with a couple of stream crossings.

Fireweed in September

Piute Trail

About a mile or so west of Piute Pass, there’s a use trail that leads north into Humphreys Basin. It’s easy to find and follow, and pretty gentle hiking. Plus you get a great view of Mt Humphreys.

Mt Humphreys

Tetrahedron rock

The use trail continues gently climbing and meandering through the rocks on its way to Desolation Lake. I love the views of the Glacier Divide from this area.

Above Lower Desolation Lake

Above Lower Desolation Lake

Along the way we met a couple of guys who were returning from fishing in Desolation Lake. We chatted for a bit and then one of them said “WEASEL!!” and Phil and I turned around to see. There was actually a pair of weasels watching us from a nearby rock. They scurried in and out of cracks, running back to hide if we moved too much, then inquisitively peeking out from a different crack seconds later. They were so freakin adorable—I’d never seen weasels in the Sierra before!

Li'l buddy

After watching them for a while, it was time to keep moving. We came across some super weird dirt orbs, what? How? Please let me know if you understand where this came from.

What, how?

Phil below Mt Humphreys

Phil was feeling a bit tired at this point, but we were nearly there. The use trail petered out as we reached the lake, so I told Phil to take a break while I scoped out campsites. I poked around the benches on the southwest shore of the lake and found an established tent site with a windbreak, and a nearby spot that had a natural ledge shelter, so I went back to grab Phil and show him. We set about tent futzing + sleeping bag fluffing at our respective sites and then Phil came over to my site to make dinner.

Camp 1, shelf below Desolation Lake in Humphreys Basin

Camp 1

Sunset at Camp 1

During dinner we were treated to a spectacular sunset with Mt Humphreys glowing even more red than usual alpenglow and a smattering of clouds adding technicolor to the sky.

Chow time

Sunset at Camp 1

Sunset at Camp 1

Mt Humphreys

We chatted about what our plans the next day should be. There were thunderstorms in the forecast, so we hemmed and hawed about staying above treeline or retreating to the woods. We decided to sleep on it and make a gametime decision in the morning.

Day 2
Desolation Lake to Moon lake
4mi xc, +900ft/-1,200ft

The cloudy AM sky was not encouraging. Clouds were rolling here and there but looked like they were mainly staying farther south over the Glacier Divide. We took our time getting going so we could keep an eye on the shifting patterns and around 10:15am we decided to give Puppet Pass a go.

Mt Humphreys in the morning, crossing the outlet of Desolation Lake

We headed straight there from camp, pretty much, just crossing Desolation Lake’s outlet stream and then walking up sandy, rocky ground to some granite slabs.

Mesa Lake

Mesa Lake

Mesa Lake

Climbing up the off-trail route to Puppet Pass, Mt Humphreys in the background

The routefinding was easy and I’m pretty sure you could take nearly any ol’ way you wanted to get up to the south side of Puppet Pass. The terrain is class 1 with maybe a teeeeeeeny bit of class 2 pretty much wherever you go.

Climbinb like a boss on his first trip!!

Climbing up the south side of Puppet Pass

As we approached the pass, we could start to see the peaks on the far side, and a small flat snowfield we’d need to cross.

Easy class 1 up to Puppet Pass

The view from the top of the pass is spectacular with Puppet Lake in the foreground framed by the Royce Lakes basin and waterfall.

First view out the other side! Puppet lake and the waterfall outlet of Royce

Basin north of Puppet Pass

The descent on the north side of the pass is class 2 through large talus. Going up would be a bit easier than going down since it’s always easier to see routes from below, but we managed to pick our way down without trouble. We stayed a bit to the right from the low point of the pass and followed along next to a cliff band.

We'll make our way down the talus along the wall there

Class 2 scrambling down north side of Puppet

We made it down!

Once down, we skirted around the south side of Puppet Lake and into the shrubby forest on its east side before descending to Moon Lake. Our route was made a bit more complicated by some lingering snow and we were spurred on by ever increasing clouds and some drizzle.

Puppet Lake and waterfall from Royce Lakes outlet

L lake, named for obvious reasons

Snowfields in September, and Moon Lake

Hot pink paintbrush!

Down on the east shoulder of Moon Lake, above Elba Lake, we hurried to set up our tents in the meager shelter of a puny alpine-stunted forest and dove into our tents just as some rain came on. We napped and read in our little silnylon caves until the storm passed. We still had lots of daylight, so we went for a walk down to Elba Lake, checking out wildflowers and views and just generally enjoying the scenery.

Elba Lake

Elba Lake

Back at camp we made dinner amidst some rather dramatic clouds. I read John Muir aloud for a bit—it’s fun to be a living parody of yourself—and then we headed to bed.


Sunset at Camp 2

Day 3
Moon Lake to Piute Trail below Humphreys
10mi, +1,850ft/-1,750ft

We awoke to scattered clouds and magnificent views down French Canyon. After breakfast and the requisite airing out of damp gear, we set off to meet up again with the trail that heads down French Canyon.

Heading down Pine Creek's canyon in the morning on Day 3

We would follow French Canyon all the way down to Hutchinson Meadow, where we would meet the trail that heads back up to Piute Pass.

Pine Creek Canyon

Pine Creek Canyon

Royce Lakes waterfall up close

Even closer

The trail was deeply rutted in places, enough to provide cover from, say, a rival backpacking crew you’re battling.

In the trenches

And there were some Mushrooms Of Unusual Size, which I did a bad job of capturing since I didn’t provide anything for scale. I wonder if Westley would kick me out of bed for this transgression.


Pine Creek

Apparently I didn’t take a lot of photos in the woods. This is typical. You can use your imagination: trees over here, some other trees over there, and a few more on the other side. You’ve seen a Sierra forest before. That’s what the trail was like for quite a few miles when we descended to Hutchinson and then began ascending again. Phil kept wanting to sing songs but I was tired and getting out of breath on the ascent. Eventually we emerged from the woods and had a great view of Mt Humphreys again.

We walked in the woods for a while oops I don't have any photos. Here's Mt Humphreys once we got out of the trees.

We poked around here and there on the trail, considering where to camp. We couldn’t quite decide, plus it was on the early side, so we just kept going.

Looking up towards Piute Pass and Muriel Peak


Matthes Crest

Matthes Crest

We remembered some streams we’d crossed on the way in and decided to see if we could find a decent spot to camp near them. And we did. We puttered about and I read some Italo Calvino while Phil lamented bringing a hair comb but nothing to read. I offered him my topo map because I’m an ass. (Though really I probably spend an equal amount of time staring at topo maps as I do reading when backpacking! I love lamp map.)

Camp 3

One more magnificent sunset, one more backcountry night.

Sunset from Camp 3

Day 4
Out over Piute Pass and home
6mi, +500ft/-2,350ft

We got up and hiked out, and then we drove home. Here are a couple photos of that. K byeeeeeeee.

Cool light of morning for the hike out

And then back down this valley

Nearing the trailhead

Want to do this trip yourself? You’ll need a permit from Inyo National Forest for Piute Pass, which you can reserve online here. Pick up the Tom Harrison Mono Divide High Country map as well as the Mount Tom USGS Quad.

3 thoughts on “Humphreys Basin and French Canyon via Piute Pass

  1. Did French Canyon in 64/65. Thanks for the photos. Details remembered: a hike out to replace broken axe (fires allowed then), getting caught out on the trail in snow storm – mule droppings stained the snow, revealing the trail. Thanks again.

  2. Great pictures!!!! My brother and I are planning an 9 day 8 night trip in the French Canyon, Humphrey Basin and Bear lakes area in September 2019. Your report will help our planning. Thanks again!

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