I finally had time to finish writing up this TR, was hoping to get this up shortly after the trip but I was far to busy.
Day 1: North Lake > just below Piute Pass
Day 2: Piute Pass > Mesa Lake
Day 3: Mesa Lake > Carol Col (Puppet Pass) > Royce Lakes
Day 4: Royce Lakes to Hutchinson Meadow
Day 5: Hutchinson Meadow > North Lake
We had planned on bringing my buddy’s dog but he injured his paw a few days before the trip
. A bummer because after the trip we were pretty confident he would have been just fine on this route.
Tuesday the 21st of August we headed out of the Roseville area and picked up our permits in Lee Vining. From there we snagged our last proper meal at the Whoa Nellie Deli, then on to the North Lake Campground where we would acclimate before starting our hike on the 22nd. I have discovered from past experience that I have to acclimate before ascending with a full pack or else I'm asking for trouble. We receiving a light rain in the late afternoon and the forecast predicted thunderstorms for the night as well as the following afternoon. Sure enough that night I awoke multiple times to thunder reverberating off the canyon walls. A few of the strikes sounded and felt somewhat close, definitely the loudest thunder I've heard.
Day 1: The campground was foggy the morning of the 22nd.
We parked the car in the lot and headed up the the trail toward Piute Pass at around 9am. I had never been up Piute Pass before, but the objective was to make Mesa Lake for the night. The fog cleared as the morning progressed leaving a clear view of the clouds billowing around, not yet looking threatening. The closer we got to Piute Lake the more threatening the clouds appeared. Most of the hikers hiking out or passing us on breaks would comment much too optimistically that they thought the Pass could be crossed in time, but we decided not to press our luck. We were also feeling the altitude a bit more than we felt comfortable with and I didn't want to push it trailblazing trying to beat a storm and inducing altitude sickness. At around 12:30 we set up camp about 15 minutes up the trail from Piute Lake just as it started to lightly hail on us. The hail let up after a short time and an hour later the rain started dropping so into the tents it was for an afternoon of reading.
Piute Pass from Camp
A pair of hikers nearby had told us earlier as we passed their camp that the previous night rocks were falling off of the peak north of Piute Lake. Sure enough that night we heard a few rocks tumbling down, one from the north of the lake and one from somewhere around Peak 12,707 which tumbled down the hill for quite some time before splashing into the water. The chances of a rock coming through your tent seem pretty slim but I was glad to have picked a camp spot accordingly.
Day 2: In the morning I spend some time exploring the area, which was well worth it.
Camp was close to the Pass which didn't take more than a half hour to reach.
From there we followed the trail in search of the split off to Desolation Lake. When we saw the trail, we dismissed it as run off as it was very narrow and maybe the recent rain gave it that appearance. After about 10 minutes I realized that our run off was the trail, and we headed cross country intending to intersect it. We reached Lower Desolation lake before intersecting the trail and instead of finding it to make hit Desolation Lake before reaching Mesa Lake, we skirted the south shore and hiked over the hill to Mesa Lake.
Camp would be on the eastern shore of the lake, which we accomplished by noon. There were a few anglers at the lake who had been casting from spot to spot around the lake since we first crested the hill east of the lake. I brought fishing gear, expecting to stay 2 nights at Mesa and 1 at French Lakes and noticing that they hadn't caught anything after 3 hours of fishing, we gathered the fishing gear and headed down to Tomahawk in hope nobody would be there. Indeed nobody was fishing at Tomahawk but we only managed to catch 1 11inch brook trout. Dinner would be Mountain House for my friend, and brook trout with couscous for myself, followed up with jerky and other snacks as one 11 inch trout and a side dish isn't quite enough. After dinner we reviewed the route ahead of us and decided to cut out French Lakes and head straight to Royce. We didn't feel the need to stay a 5th night out and decided that heading to Royce and then out via Hutchinson Meadow would feel complete.
The sun set bright red on Humphreys Peak
Day 3: I awoke the next morning with dew frozen to the inside of my rain-fly and set it on a rock to dry out.
After snapping some photos and breakfast, we set off for Wedge Lake in order gain Carol Col. The hike up to Wedge and then Carol Col was easy enough but I was pretty tired starting out so it seemed to drag on. We made it to the pass by and found a route used to reach the wall.
Route is visible above the wall.
My buddy headed down first, and I gave him 5-10 minutes head start as to not send any rocks tumbling down the pass towards him. My buddy managed to make it over to the standard route down along the wall, but I missed it. I kept heading down a bit too far and ended up going down on top of the wall. Even though I didn't take the proper route I didn't run into any problems and had an easy enough time making it down which took a half hour.
We rested for a while at the base, two other hikers were heading up, about 15 yards left of the rock wall, and didn't appear to be having an easy time. As we set off for the opposite side of Puppet Lake to find a route down we came across two ultralight hikers with nothing but small daypacks. They asked for a quick refresher on the proper route up Carol Col and remembered the rock wall when we pointed it out. As we reached the edge of Puppet Lake we searched for a good amount of time for some sort of light route down, and while we found one I'm not convinced it was the best choice. It was easy class 2 heading down, shooting for the L Lake Trail between Elba and Moon lake, and although it was easier than Carol Col I was happy to make it too flat ground. After the descent and some quick bushwhacking we quickly found the L Lake Trail.
View of Elba Lake from Puppet Lake
While I had seen pictures of most of the destinations I made it to on this trip, the beauty of the L Lake Trail was quite a surprise to me as it headed along the side of French Canyon on our way to Pine Creek Pass. While there was not much running water, it was the first time I saw wildflowers on this trip mixed in with grass on the shallow slope above the trail. We stopped to filter water at the creek which runs through the center of French Canyon (which I don't see named anywhere) and headed up towards Pine Creek Pass. Our original plan was to hike to the top of the pass and follow the ridge up, but as we walked by the wetlands near the top of the pass we came across a group of CCC members carrying shovels and water. The leading individual who I assumed was their leader asked us if we were headed out, and when I said we were headed to Royce she looked at me funny and said that they had been up there 3 days ago and just went straight up the hill behind the wetlands. So we did. I could never tell how the route up the ridge would have been; probably more rocky than the hill so maybe this was a better choice. The hill was a good climb, and once we had the lowest of the Royce Lakes in view we kept our distance from the it not wanting to lose more elevation than we had to. We set up camp at what looked like a popular spot in between lakes 2 and 3. As I approached the spot, I was alerted to the presence of a group of Rock Ptarmigans by a call that seemed to say “stay away,” so I kept my distance as I made my way to the site. These Ptarmigans stayed near the same spot all afternoon and evening, pecking at the ground and not concerned with our presence. Royce Lakes is a spectacular place, I felt like I was on a different planet or something.
After we set up camp we made our way around the east shore of the 3rd and largest lake. The area is all boulders and talus, and any place that is flat is a camp spot.
View of Honeymoon and Pine Creek Lakes
This area had a high concentration of pika's, probably the most I've encountered in one spot in the Sierra. After the sunset I headed into the tent and had no trouble sleeping for the night.
Day 4: The air froze again that night, and once I woke up I realized it was going to be quite a wait for the sun to hit our camp, so I grabbed my breakfast and headed to the south shore of the lake, which the sun hit about an hour ahead of our camp. A pika made it known that it was alerted to my location and ran a few loops around me at a 30ft radius. The critter was pretty hilarious because as it would pass a larger rock, it would jump up the side of the rock, make it's squeak and bounce off, checking to see if I was still there. Soon as the sun hit camp, my buddy rolled out of his tent and we packed up. We left pretty late as we were in no hurry, I think some time around 9:50, and returned to the hill above the wetlands at Pine Creek Pass. We made our way down the hill and returned to the trail, and as we were heading down into French Canyon we ran into two hikers. One of these hikers had bandaged his forehead above his right eye, and his shirt had blood splattered all over it. We talked with them for a while and he was clearly not in shock, thinking clearly and able to hike. He asked if we had seen “the Ranger” or “the pack horses” which we hadn't and apparently missed by no more than 30 minutes (assuming they all headed up Pine Creek Pass). They were going to exit Pine Creek, and we went our ways, keeping our eyes out for a ranger but never saw one.
The trail down French Canyon was very relaxing after our previous 3 days as is follows the canyon. Tree's and shade were a nice change of pace and we took very few breaks on our way to Hutchinson Meadow.
It took 2 and a half hours to make the meadow at 2:10. We filtered water and headed as far as we could up Piute Creek without straying to far from the water. We came across two hikers just as the trail made its first switchback up from the canyon floor. One of them said that he hadn't been here in at least 20 years, but remembered the trail taking a different route down to the meadow. He said he thought he remembered that after Piute Pass, you would stop at Summit Lake and the next major stop would be Lower Golden Trout Lake. I had never heard of that but again this was my first time here. Just as they left and we decided to look nearby for a spot to camp not wanting to climb up the canyon and staying in range of water. Sure enough, after making it maybe 20 ft off the trail, we found what looked like a very old but once well used trail and shortly after found an old camp site. It would be a relaxing afternoon/evening and I spent a good amount of time in my book which I had neglected at Mesa Lake and Royce Lakes.
Day 5: While we were at only 10000ft, it was still pretty chilly in the morning and with no sun we were slow to get moving. It was a nice gradual ascent up the canyon
We made the Pass by 11am, and as we were descending it we ran into one of the ultralight hikers we met just below Carol Col. She was climbing back up to the pass with her dog which she didn't have before, and her camera so she could take a picture into the basin from the pass. Being downhill, we made our way toward the trail-head at a good pace. With most hikes I go on, there is always that final stretch of the hike that drags on and on, and every corner I come to I am searching for a parking lot. This wasn't the case for either of us, and maybe it was due to how distinct each section of the trail is, but it was an enjoyable hike out. We made it to the trail-head by 2:30, dropped our packs and walked down to the parking lot to grab the car. Before we left we filled up our water bottles with water from the pump at the trail-head so we didn't have to buy any nasty bottled water on the way home.
We had a great trip, and I will definitely return to Royce Lakes someday and use a layover day to explore the area in a more relaxed manner. I also enjoyed the French Canyon, and especially the L Lake trail, I'll have to find an excuse to use it again in the future. Humphreys basin was nice, but next time I return it will be on a wet year, or at least earlier in the year if it is a dry year.