North Lake to Humphreys Basin (CA)

Easy Facts: 14 miles round trip. Best season mid to late. Strenuous when done with only one overnight stay. Starts at North Lake. Ends at Upper Golden Trout Lake.

Humphreys Basin offers excellent cross-country day hiking to dozens of lakes. From huge, barren Desolation Lake to lightly forested, turquoise Packsaddle Lake. The intricate, twisting beauty of the basin’s many stream channels surpasses any human design. You can easily spend a day rambling up and down one. There are peaks to bag, ranging from difficult Mt Humphreys (Class 4 by the easiest route) to gentle, unnamed knobs. A base camp there give you access to countless high-country delights. The trail is easy. Away from it, be ready for cross-country hiking that grades from easy off-trail to enjoyable but demanding boulder scrambling.

Description from “”

The Piute Pass trail eases up through a forest of lodgepole and quaking aspens before following the North Fork of Bishop Creek; Paintbrush, Columbine and Penstemon flank the trail as one climbs higher near the rusty cliffs of the Piute Crags and Mt. Emerson. Entering the high country above Loch Leven, the glaciated canyon is floored with smooth granite and small alpine meadows. Yellow-bellied marmots can be seen sunning on rocks or dashing into the shadows. Over Piute Pass (11,423) the trail drops into Humphreys Basin, loaded with many high alpine lakes.

The Lamarck Lake. trail begins at the camp ground and heads south across 2 footbridges through a grove of aspen trees. From the upper part of the trail, views of Mt. Emerson and the reddish Piute Crags are seen. This country is rugged and rocky with sheer cliffs of granite and rough boulder slopes. Lower Lamarck Lake lies in a small granite basin, Cross the stream and outlet and follow the flowered trail to the upper lake.

All hikers should be prepared for the changing weather conditions in the high country, Thunderstorms can appear suddenly without warning bringing cold rains and snow at any time of the year. Due to the presence of giardia, all drinking water should be treated or boiled at least 3 minutes.

Description from the trail guide “Sierra South” (page 17+18)

This backpack begins at the North Lake (2853 m) trail head. Go 18 miles from Bishop on highway 168 almost to Lake Sabrina and turn right on a dirt road. After a few hundred feet turn right again and go 2 miles to a backpacker’s parking area just west of North Lake. You must walk the last .5 mile to the trail head beyond the camp ground.

Shortly after leaving the trail head (2853 m), this route enters John Muir Wilderness and then ascends gently along slopes dotted with meadowy patches, aspen groves and stands of lodgepole pine. In season you will be greeted by a wealth of wild flowers in these little meadows and in the sandy patches among the granite slabs (paintbrush, columbine, tiger lily, spiraea and penstemon). After the trail fords and quickly refords the North Fork Bishop Creek, the ascent becomes moderate. Aspen is left behind, the lodge pole becomes sparse, and some limber pine is seen. This glaciated canyon is flanked by slab topped Peak 12691 on the south and Mt Emerson (3998 m) on the north. The newcomer to the High Sierra will marvel at how the great granite slabs maintain their precarious perches atop Peak 12691, seeming to be almost vertically above him or her. But they all topple eventually, due to the action of frost wedging, and add to the piles of talus at the foot of the peak.

Approaching Loch Leven, the trail levels off. There is a camp site north of the trail, near the lake’s west end. The trail then ascends moderately again. Through a cover of sparse lodgepole and white bark, winds among large, round boulders, arriving at the next bench up the canyon, which contains this Piute Lake (3340 m).

From Piute Lake, the trail ascends an open, rocky slope to tree line overlooking alpine meadows threaded by streamlets and dotted with bright pools. Sooner than you might expect, it switch backs up to the last traverse before Piute Pass. Here in midsummer you will probably pass through a “road cut” in a show bank, created by packers using sand and shovels. At the pass (3482 m) there are grand views west to Pilot Know and the canyon of the South Fork San Joaquin river, south to Glacier Divide (the north boundary of Kings Canyon Nat’l Park) and north over barren blue lakes to the unnamed ridge (separating Humphreys Basin from French Canyon and to Mt Humphreys).

The rocky-dusty main trail descends briefly towards pale blue Summit Lake and then curves north west high above the lake, along the three less edge of the great cirque that is Humphreys Basin. (The old trail that followed the creek down to the bottom of the cirque has been abandoned.) Below you to the south, the headwaters of Piute Creek spill ribbon like down the basin, forming a lake here, a pond there. Unseen above you to the north lie the Marmot and Humphrey lakes, whose outlets you splash across where they nourish trail side high camp sites with panoramic views cling to the open slopes between the trail and these remote lakes.

At a point where the main trail is above and north of a small lake with a green island, you meet the unmarked use trail north to the Desolation Lakes. Those intrigued by the Desolation lakes’ reputation for fishing and fond of treeless, open camps will find a camp site or two east of the use trail above Lower Desolation Lake, and some wind-raked flats among the great white boulders surrounding aptly named Desolation Lake.

The main trail continues to descend to the cascading outlet of the Desolation lakes – the last reliable water before Hutchinson Meadow in a dry year. If you missed the use trail to the Desolation lakes, you can follow the outlet northward from here. Below, the Golden Trout lakes gleam down in the cirque bottom. Those heading for the camp sites on the knolls around Upper Golden Trout Lake, about 1/2 a mile south depending on your route, will spy some use trails or find a cross-country route down the shrubby slopes of the lake. On the knolls, small white bark pines shelter little flats overlooking the water, which mirrors the Glacier Divide. There are fine views north-east to Mt Humphreys and west to Pilot Knob. Lower Golden Trout Lake is closed to camping within 500 feet of its shoreline.

These sites and others in Humphreys Basin make fine base camps for exploring the basin’s wonders. Use stoves; downed wood is very scarce to non-existent here.


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2 Replies to “North Lake to Humphreys Basin (CA)”

  1. Interested in the locations of your pictures of your Humprey’s Basin trip. Is there a log that associates pictures with their locations ? Thanks, great pix.

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