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TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

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TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby ManOfTooManySports » Sun Aug 05, 2012 6:34 pm

Sorry, this is a little long....

Day 1 – July 22 –South Lake – Bishop Pass – Lower Dusy Basin

We woke early to poofy clouds over Bishop. Uh oh, that wasn’t in the forecast. Obviously the weather was changing. Coffee, breakfast, and a quick drive to South Lake. We hiked quickly up Bishop Pass. The clouds built, but we didn’t hear any thunder until we got over the pass.


Once over the pass, the rains started. No big deal at first, but eventually we got chased under the cover of trees to avoid the worst of the rain and hail. The second time we were chased under trees, we were met by The Nicest Rangers in the World. I think their names were Susan and Andrea. As we spoke, up came a spouse with a toddler in a pack on his back. The toddler informed us that we had to go down down down to lower Dusy Basin and now they were going UP to upper Dusy Basin. That kid was way cute.

We made it to lower Dusy Basin without getting soaked and found a nice site with a few bugs, the worst we would have all trip. We felt like we had lower Dusy Basin to ourselves.

Day 2 – July 23 – Lower Dusy Basin –LeConte Canyon – Helen Lake

The queen stage! We had some early showers, but nothing to get hung about. The route can best be described as way the heck down, then way the heck up, all on trail.

On the Muir Trail, people mostly were carrying full packs. The ultralight trend has perhaps passed. Most people were very friendly and engaged. This trip we met only a group of three that was the freak show that the Muir Trail can be: Three guys in running gear (Cleveland Marathon shirts), not really going that fast, not at all friendly, with ultralight packs, carrying in their arms their bear containers. Really? I guess if I want to do an endurance event, I’ll do the Death Ride or a marathon or a century or a dance marathon or watch every James Bond movie in a row. Why the hell is the Muir Trail seen by some as a forum for an endurance event? Maybe they should man up and do the RAAM or something like that. (Here ends the rant by a cranky old man.)

We rediscovered that the stretch between upper LeConte Canyon and Helen Lake is stark and rugged, a polite way of saying it was fugly. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but while we were there a big, cold wind came up, making things seem crappier than they really were. We found a nice spot near Helen Lake, and spent a windy night there.

Day 3 – July 24 – Helen Lake – Black Giant Pass – The Black Giant – Chasm Lake

We had a cold, breezy morning, but the clouds were gone. We figured our way up Black Giant Pass and dropped our packs. (When I get time, I’ll add to the cross country pass section details about the various passes we did beyond my usual complaining.) Up the Black Giant we went.

Can we talk? Secor is full of crap. There is no way the route he describes is Class 1. Crappy talus, hands needed for balance, kind of steep in parts; that’s not Class 1. Yet he calls McGee Lakes Pass Class 2, and that was easier! If you are heading up the Black Giant (and I do recommend that you do) go up the shallow gully where there is a base of damp gravel that is more firm than the loose dirt and rock to the sides, and/or get onto the hard rock spine to the left of that gully. The hard rock is a little more technical, but it doesn’t move under your feet. If there is snow on the main slope early season or after a heavy winter, that is probably the way to go. Once over the spines (false summit!) the slope flattens out some and is pretty darned fun to clamber up. Coming down is an exercise in riding the scree. If you don’t like route-finding on loose sand and rock, you won’t like this peak.

The views from the top of the Black Giant make the side trip worth it all.


From Black Giant Pass we could see dots moving around below us on Muir Pass. That would be the last we’d see of people for the next 24+ hours.

Coming down the south side of Black Giant Pass…oh, how should I put this? It sucked. There were three kinds of rock, scientifically known as white, black and orange. The white rock (aka, “granite”) was fine for traveling, as it breaks into boxy blocks that don’t move a whole lot. The black rock shattered into a shale-like talus and scree that wasn’t fun but was manageable. The orange rock came straight from hell to twist the ankles of passing travelers. It broke into shale and uneven blocks that moved unpredictably. And of course, any route down required going through said Satanic rock. Once down the main portion of the pass, you are rewarded with a low ridge of big blocks to traverse to get to Lake 11,828. And once at the lake, more boulder-hopping. Ah, yes, that was to become the theme for the day.

I thought it curious that Secor described Black Giant Pass beyond Lake 11,828. Now I understood that it was because once off what one would consider the pass, the fun had only begun. The ravine after Lake 11,828…oh, what’s that word again? It sucked.


All the way to Chasm Lake, you had big-time boulder-hopping descents, with meadows and lakes in between. We found that if you stay well to the right of the stream on the descent, you can hit some sloped meadows rather than acres of boulders. Some of those meadows were quite nice. And again, snow fields would probably be your friend.


We made it to Chasm Lake and found a campsite (a dry meadow spot on the first rise on the east side of the lake). A couple of skeeters came to keep us company, but we didn’t have to take action against them.


Chasm Lake was pretty cool. We hadn’t seen any use trails, and we hardly saw footprints at all. We think we had the east part of the Ionian Basin to ourselves.

Day 4 – July 25 – Chasm Lake – Lake 11,592 – Wanda Pass – Sapphire Lake

We headed up Chasm Lake’s main inlet stream. This was a pretty serious boulder-mess for about half the distance to Lake 11,592. We saw some tracks in the dirt to the east (to the climbers right), but that looked like people riding the scree to descend. It wasn’t going to work going up. Eventually we saw some meadowed benches on the west slope of the ravine. In a few steps we were in Beethovenian landscape (“Freude! Freude!”) after landscape and conditions worthy of Wagner (“Das Kaninchen töten!”). It was truly joyous walking the rest of the route to Lake 11,592…

…which is sorely misnamed. A lake like this deserved a better name than “Lake 11,592”. We now dub thee Lake Awesome.


A short stay for a snack at Lake Awesome was followed by some serious route-finding questions on Wanda Pass. The short story is that we targeted a talus chute on the right, but the better routes are ramps on the left. It’s some serious climbing, but all doable.


The north side of the pass was a long, ugly slog down broken blocks of granite. It reminded me of a badly carved mogul field, where it’s hard to make a good turn and you can’t get a rhythm going. And it was relentless. But we survived. There were snowfields to the west, but they looked thin; the consequence of punching through would be catastrophic. If there were large and deep snowfields, they would be the way to go.

Secor advises that once off the pass you travel on the west side of Wanda Lake, and other accounts I’ve read echo that. So, like sheep to be sheared (but why does the farmer have a knife this time?) we followed the virtual herd and went around the west side. Of course, we should have gone around the south side of lake after all. I realized all too late that the reason for the advice is that there is usually a nasty snowfield dropping to the lake that might be treacherous. But with a light winter, not so much. Oh, well. The west side of the lake was a couple of miles of boulder-hopping punctuated by some rough meadow.

Back to the Muir Trail, down to Sapphire Lake and a pleasant evening there with the hordes.


Day 5 – July 26 – Sapphire Lake – Evolution Lake – Colby Meadow – McGee Canyon – McGee Lakes Basin

After getting beaten to a pulp by the ins and outs of the Ionian Basin, we wanted to get our confidence back by doing something less challenging. So, we did a long open-jaw route to McGee Lakes Basin rather than go the direct route.

Down the Muir Trail we went. At Evolution Lake we ran into two fun guys on a day hike from their campsite near Colby Meadow, Sam and Leonard. We talked about our route, and they gave us info on their friend Dwight so that we could pretend to know him if we saw him. But we never saw this Dwight guy on our travels; so, we wonder if he’s real.

We hung out at Evolution Lake for a long snack, because when we had been there in past the conditions had sucked. Let’s enjoy it this time.

We dropped past the cut-off for Darwin Bench and met Ranger Dave on the trail. He marked up our map for our route up and out of McGee Canyon and over Lamarck Col. It was like getting a celebrity’s autograph.

In Evolution Valley we crossed the river at Colby Meadow. Next time we’ll cross much higher in the valley. We found the use trail, but struggled to follow it because it was overgrown and there many downed trees across the trail. If you do follow the use trail from Colby Meadow, note that there is a long period of traversing; if you go up too soon you wind up way too far west on a steep slope.

The trip was through some nice forest that then opened into a series of amazing meadows – we felt like we had entered a fairy tail and were waiting for Snow White to show up.


A few skeeters tried to join us along the way, but failed to inflict much misery. It was easy to lose the trail when going up; we heard later that going down is not such a problem. If you head up, at some point you need to cross over and stay on the east side of canyon. We saw few human footprints, but had some success following deer tracks instead. They knew where they were going.

We came out onto the first lake and took a long break. Nice basin!


We headed to the other lakes to find a campsite. There were quite a few at the second and third lakes. We thought we had the place to ourselves, but then ran into Sam and Leonard again who were fishing their way back to camp. We swapped info, then they headed down to Evolution Valley, leaving us in isolation. Yup, we pretty much had a few square miles all to our lonesome. Throw in a snake and some fruit trees and we could go all pre-fall on you.
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby ManOfTooManySports » Sun Aug 05, 2012 6:38 pm

Yeah, really long....

Day 6 – July 27 – McGee Lakes Basin- McGee Lakes Pass – Darwin Bench – Darwin Canyon

We ended the day before about a mile from where we started. As the crow flies, anyway. It would take a couple of hours to get back to Sapphire Lake over McGee Lakes Pass. Maybe it was that long because we kept turning to admire the view as we ascended a series of benches and meadow. Very nice!


We went over McGee Lakes Pass on easy ramps then down to the Muir Trail above Sapphire Lake. The only hard part was navigating a cliff band near the top. We found a class 2-3 chute to the south of the pass’s low point that was doable. We saw trails going more directly down, but we didn’t want to deal with scree and gravel on rock. There are rumors that if you go further south toward Lake 11,293 you get to easier ramps, but the ledges there looked narrow.

Down again we went on the Muir Trail with the large hordes, then up to Darwin Bench. It was gorgeous, of course.


We saw an older couple doing a day hike, then ran into our now-old friends Sam and Leonard. “I see you guys more than my wife!” said Leonard. They gave some info on campsites, we took pictures of each other, then went our merry ways.

We struggled to find the route a couple of times. Heading to Darwin Canyon from Darwin Bench, we wound up way too high on the slope north of the creek. The better route is to stay closer to the creek. We also went way too high getting around the cliffs that drop to the lake on the peninsula in first lake. But I couldn’t tell what the right route would have been.

It was windy and cold in the canyon. We found a campsite nestled in some trees between first and second lakes, which served us just fine. As we settled for dinner, we spoke with a young couple coming off Lamarck Col. It took them 9.5 hours to come from Upper Lamarck Lake. Uh oh, we better get up very early.

Day 7 – July 28 – Darwin Canyon – Lamarck Col – North Lake – Hitchhiking to South Lake

We got up very early and hit the trail. Getting around the lakes wasn’t too hard, just some boulder-hopping and—d’oh! We got a little stuck at one point and had to hand off packs, just like the couple the night before had mentioned.

The advice from Ranger Dave, which we affirm, is to go to the last large lake in the canyon before heading up. It’s fairly easy to pick up the use trail for a while. Then it’s fairly easy to lose the use trail. (Did I mention that we started calling them “useless trails”?) So, as usual, we got off track a few times, but not so bad we couldn’t recover.

It’s a heck of a long way up to the col. Part of the reward is great views.


We saw one guy coming down, and two people coming up behind us. That couple split up leaving one person quickly approaching our very slow selves. It turned out to be Ranger Susan, who we first met in Dusy Basin. She caught us at the top and gave us some info about the descent.

It was a nice day for a hike, which was good, because it’s a long, long way down.

We saw only one group of three coming up. For the reputation of the pass, we hardly saw anyone.

We finally made it to North Lake mid-afternoon. After about 15 minutes we got a ride to the main road in the back of a pick-up, then a couple of minutes later a ride in the back of another pick-up to South Lake. Neither groups would take more than our thanks; we own some big time backpacker hitchhikers karma points! Riding in the bed of a pick-up truck on a warm day made me think my next car will be a convertible.
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby Cross Country » Sun Aug 05, 2012 8:16 pm

For me that was the most enjoyable read of this area I've ever had. I can relate to your name (MOTMS). I was the same way. I PM'd you once about it, remember? Although I've been all around Ionian Basin I've never been there. I like fishing. Again this was a truly enjoyable read.
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby cgundersen » Mon Aug 06, 2012 9:48 am

Dynamite report! As another cranky old man (at least, whilst in the city), I just cannot figure out why folks are cranky in the moutains; no one's forcing you to go up there (with our without Cleveland marathon gear) and even if you're on the JMT freeway, you've expended some effort to get there. At least, pretend to be cheery? And, with any luck, someday you'll find yourself listening to Wagner at the base of the three Sirens or other stalwarts of Ionian basin.
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby ManOfTooManySports » Mon Aug 06, 2012 10:30 am

Cross County: I remember our exchange. I'm down to marathon training and martial arts as my mainstays, with hiking/backpacking/climbing and skiing as activities I do when I find time. For reasons I can't fathom, people I work for demand time and effort in exchange for compensation. This definitely gets in the way of my activities.

cgunderson: We only spent a day this trip in the Ionian Basin. It was some hard travelling, but it was worth it. The region is remarkably rugged and dramatic. In the photos everything looks black and gray, but the reality is that there are usually patches of green with wildflowers to contrast that. The benches heading to Lake Awesome were so fantastic because they were still rugged, yet had that vibrant green and were in such a dramatic setting. Charybdis was our constant companion.

I've added below some snapshots from the basin. In some ways it's typical High Sierra scenery. But maybe much more rugged and with a certain, different personality than even whats over the ridge from it. An interesting aspect of the Ionian Basin is that there is no easy way in. The typical easy way to get in a basin--up the drainage--is said by all to be a class 3 slog with serious bushwhacking involved. Black Giant and Wanda Passes were not easy. Maybe coming over from Martha Lake is easier, but even then you have to deal with the talus and cliff bands to move around within the basin. We felt pretty isolated, which is what we were looking for!

Just about everyone we met was in a great mood. The endurance guys were the exception. There were some JMT hikers who had that deer in the headlights look because they were really getting hammered by the ascent to Muir Pass. But they were still into it. How can you not be in the Evolution area? I think it's the most scenic part of the Sierra, which is saying a lot.
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby maverick » Mon Aug 06, 2012 12:39 pm


Welcome to Ionian Basin. Some folks love it, others hate its stark, rocky, and
unforgiving terrain. It has a unique quality with small gems scattered all around
the basin which one has to find. Its remoteness and silence adds to its intriguing
qualities. If you think IB is nasty try going into the heart of the Black Divide
towards Mt. Mcduffie or the Wheel Mountain area, the scree manufacturing plant
of the Sierra, though the Mt. Wallace area is pretty nasty too.
From the east BRP is the easier class 2 pass allowing access to IB, but scree, and
talus will be on ones plate no matter which of the three class 2 passes you choose.
This brings up some thing you mentioned about following described routes (Secor's
routes) and was discussed in another thread that when traveling crosscountry one
needs to follow ones instincts rather than following a use trail or described route
(this is assuming that one is well versed in cc travel). Sometimes there may be only
one pass/col that is available and it is the only one safe route, but many times there
are alternatives that are easier than the so called described route/pass/col but are
not tried for fear of it not being the official way and that one may have to try the
unknown, though with Google Earth one can make a decent determination of the
difficulty of a certain route.
Thank you for your entertaining report and wonderful photo's!
Professional Sierra Landscape Photographer

I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby kpeter » Mon Aug 06, 2012 6:59 pm

I enjoyed reading report--as you trekked around the loop I did last year but on steroids! So interesting to see how vastly different the terrain and experiences can be going between these two trailheads. Nice photos too.
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby windknot » Tue Aug 07, 2012 8:44 am

Great shots, thanks for the detailed report.
A few backcountry fishing pictures:
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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby Mradford » Tue Aug 07, 2012 9:47 am

sounds like quite the pain in the butt, but also looks very worth it! Great TR and thanks for posting.

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Re: TR: South Lake to North Lake BWO Ionian Basin, McGee Lakes,

Postby LMBSGV » Tue Aug 07, 2012 10:02 am

Great read and wonderful photos. Thanks for posting.
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