The Evolution Loop in the Eastern Sierras (aka “Evo Loop”) has been on my list for a few years now, but each year something comes up and I haven’t been able to fit it in. That changed after a run conversation with Dan Brounstein about fall plans following his big TRT100 outing turned into a brainstorm about putting together a fun adventure run before we moved too far into the fall. Neither of us were very motivated to do another race, but we both had a solid fitness base and wanted to put it to use having some fun in the mountains! After plotting out a few different options, we settled on the Evo Loop as our first choice, with a backup route option in & out of the McGee Creek trailhead if we ran into permit issues.
Planning, Prep, & Gear
We decided that we wanted to do it as a fastpacking overnight instead of trying to push all in one day. So once we secured a permit for the Paiute Pass Trail, we were confirmed! Second, we didn’t want to drive two cars (although there are other less-than-ideal options), so we decided since we had two days that we could link the loop with about 10-12 extra miles. Most people do the standard 55 mile loop that involves having two cars to shuttle the distance between North Lake (start) and South Lake (finish). Then, we received the “locals” map from Todd Vogel, a Bishop resident and ultrarunner, instructing us that we needed to do the “real” Evo Loop. Checking this new route on a couple different mapping sites measured out at 64-66 miles. Our task would be about 33 miles/day carrying packs – we felt fairly confident we could do that and wanted to take on the challenge!
We used the first few weeks of August to plan out and gather our gear and food. We found ultralight sleeping bags (15-16oz) and sleeping pads, larger volume running packs (we both went with the Salomon XA 25L), and a few other small items. Given the good weather report, while keeping in mind that it is the Sierras, we followed Chris Cloyd’s advice and opted to not take a tent or cover to save weight and only packed emergency bivy sacks (3.5oz) as our inclement weather backup.
For food, we planned on about 3500 calories a day, minus breakfast on the first day and dinner on the last … with some extra calories thrown in for backup. This included liquid calories (Skratch, Tailwind) as well as Spring gels, Pro Meal Bars, PB&Js for Day 1 lunch, and two camp meals. Our dinner for the one night was cold-soak ramen and instant mashed potatoes. Breakfast the next morning was granola with powdered soy milk. All worked out well and were excellent meals, although the ramen does take a solid 45-60 minutes to soften up – expected, but a long time when you just want to go to sleep!
Mistake/Issue #1 – the bear bin. After receiving adamant direction from the park ranger that we couldn’t go without a bear bin, we made the decision to take it over the UrSack we had. We didn’t know if something had recently changed with bear behavior in the area, and we didn’t want to risk our trip. But a painful lesson was learned. While this is in no way a DPMR endorsement – don’t attempt to fastpack with a bear bin. Go with the sack and just be extra mindful of how you stow it at night. Your back and moving time will thank you. Ugh!
We set out from the Tyee Lakes Trailhead, about 2 miles down the road from South Lake around 6:40am. The first day started with a 2500′ climb over Table Mountain past the Tyee Lakes and down to Lake Sabrina in the first 8 miles — excellent route, beautiful views, and not very heavily used.
After stopping at the Lake Sabrina cafe for a water refill, we followed the “real” Evo Loop route and went up off trail towards a pass on the North side of the lake. Any hint of a trail disappeared quickly into rockslide and bushes … into full-on, slow bushwhacking and steep loose-gravel scrambling up to this pass that felt like it took forever and really dug into our timing on the first day. I think if we would have skipped that climb and gone around to North Lake, we would have made much better progress that first day (we were aiming for about 35 miles and only made it 30) — those first two climbs also zapped our energy for the rest of the day I think. Maybe our effort was too hard as well. So, climbing up the Piute Pass Trail after reaching North Lake was beautiful but slow.
This is where I first started feeling what I think were lingering effects of Covid in some unusual shortness of breath and fast heart rate – Covid had finally caught up with me the first week of August after dodging it for 2 1/2 years. I’m guessing it was a factor, coupled with altitude and that early exertion. So I had to take a few long breaks to let my system relax before continuing. It meant longer breaks and we couldn’t run as much as planned, more hiking. But the views looking back down the Piute Pass Trail were crazy amazing…
Once over Piute Pass, sprawled out before us was an expansive basin (Humphreys) with some fairly runnable flat/downhill trails and we made reasonable time. We trudged along until just about dark, and Dan found a spot to camp along the river in Piute Canyon just before the intersection with the JMT/PCT where you enter Kings Canyon NP. My watch was just shy of 31 miles, which wasn’t as far as we were hoping to make it on Day 1. But we were ready to rest and eat after a long, hard day.
We got a bit of a late start getting reorganized and ready for the second day, around 8am, so that cut into our plans again … but we rolled with it and it turned out to be a spectacular day – especially since I re-organized my pack to get the bear bin directly off of my back. We moved well with bellies full of some awesome granola and followed the JMT and Evolution Creek up to Evolution Valley in good time, and felt good through 9-10 miles. It’s a stunning, wide grassy river valley surrounded by 12-13k ft granite peaks and ridges. We stopped to eat, refill, and Dan soaked his feet and legs in the river. Amazing!
Then we climbed up to Evolution Basin around 11,000 ft where the moonscape-like granite basin lakes sit. I had another bout with breathing/heart rate, so I laid down by one of the lakes for about 15 min. We were able to run a bit here but I continued to struggle all the way up and over Muir Pass. Luckily, Dan looked solid the entire trip and kept us moving!
At this point, the realization was setting in that there was no way we’d make it to the finish that day – the mileage math somehow must have been off. This was a bit of a low point for us, especially with the way I was feeling. Then after another water refill and food stop just over the pass, I seemed to find a second wind and we pushed pretty steadily down through an INCREDIBLE string of canyons and lake basins on the JMT following the Middle Fork Kings River to the intersection of the Bishop Pass Trail, the point were the loop diverages from the JMT.
It was about 15 minutes before dusk, but we both felt good. So we ate, strapped on our headlamps, and hiked up 2,000 ft in the dark to Dusy Basin to camp for the night so that the next day we only had about 1,000 ft of climbing before getting over Bishop Pass. We texted our families via our Garmin inReach (thank you, Helen!) to let them know we had another half day ahead of us and were going to camp for the night. We made about 32 miles that second day. We also had to start rationing our calories a bit in order to get through the (unplanned) next day.
We woke up to some frost on our bags and got going early – on the trail just a bit after sunrise. The basin we spent the night in was stunning, not to mention the stars at night — it felt like we were on top of the world sleeping at 11k ft and looking up into an explosion of starlight.
I had 3 gels and a Pro Bar left, so I started a little calorie-light that day and paid the price. Made it to the pass no problem and feeling fine, but started to bonk on the way down the hardy, granite cliff-side trail. Made it down to the first lake 1500ft below and refilled, rested a bit and ate my bar. After 30 minutes I was moving better down to the South Lake trailhead past a beautiful string of lakes along the way. There were lots of day hikers coming up this section that morning to those lakes (Labor Day weekend!), and I made a mental note to return and do the same with my family.
Dan and I were filled with relief and joy to finally hit the parking lot at South Lake, even though we had 2 more miles to get back to the car. The last 2 miles were on the road though, so it was a bit easier for us to jog downhill to the car – a very nice break for our legs after hundreds (thousands?) of granite steps on the way down! About 11 miles total to finish on Sunday — way more than expected.
Mistake/Issue #2 – mileage. By the end, both of our watches had us closer to 73-74 miles. Big difference from the maps, which was the main reason for needing a third day. We couldn’t quite figure out what accounted for the 10 mile difference, other than the potential interpolation differences of mapping software (CalTopo, Gaia) vs our watch software. We both were using Garmin watches, but different models.
But the adventure was swiftly followed by an amazingly gluttonous pig-out at the Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining, where Dan and I each ordered two meals that included pizza, burger, fries, and lobster taquitos!
Learnings & Takeaways
In hindsight, we think our plan to do this in two days was a stretch given the extra mileage, underestimated our need for regular rest breaks and time for filtering/refueling, and of course carrying packs! And if I were to do it again, we would plan 3 or even 4 full days to build in more time to enjoy the scenery, swim in the lakes, rest, set up camp early and just hang out while still light, etc. We know many folks who push the 55 mile loop in a single day from pre-dawn to dusk with much smaller packs, but we both prefer the overnight slower paced option better. Of course that means carrying more food, but it’s too incredible of a route to rush it and not allot ample time to appreciate the breathtaking, otherworldly scenery.
As fastpacking newbies, we learned several key things that we can apply to future trips, such as:
- Be online right when the final set of permits open up for sale two weeks before your date, if you don’t get them ahead of time. This is particularly true for the more popular entry points like we used. Inyo National Forest Permits
- Don’t carry a bear bin even if the park service requires it (don’t tell anyone we said that!) — very difficult to run with and it did a number on my back. There is a high quality sack (Ursack) that you can use instead and it’s much easier to carry.
- Plan more time for rest stops and water filtering, and/or consider more real food for fuel. We used a lot of Skratch/Tailwind, which takes a little time to mix, and perhaps we could get away with more bars and gels and just water.
- The cold soak and non-heated food options worked well — the best one was instant mashed potatoes pre-seasoned with butter, salt, etc. … soooo good in the moment! The cold soaked ramen noodles really hit the spot as well. Granola with powdered soy milk was a hit as well and super fast/easy to just add water and eat right out of the zip lock.
- Use lots of zip locks vs other heavier containers — I took a nalgene bottle to mix stuff, but didn’t need it.
- The lightweight bivy bag is good enough for summertime — don’t need a tent or small bivy-style tent unless there are storms in the forecast. We did take bug netting that fits over your head, but never needed it.
- Always take more calories than you think you need – just in case!
- Alpenglow and Tahoe Mountain Sports locally were great resources. They have some experienced people there and were helpful with choosing sleeping bags and pads.
Now to start dreaming about another adventure for 2023!