South Lake to Bishop Pass: Disappointment at Dusy Basin

What a difference a week makes. After an amazing trip to Moonlight Falls near Lake Sabrina, I was ready to get back up into the Sierra as soon as possible. Full of excitement, I headed back up to the Bishop area to explore the Dusy Basin area of Kings Canyon, but unfortunately my streak of luck was not meant to last.

Trail Details

Mileage: 18 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 4000 feet
Day(s) Hiked: 6/16/12 > 6/17/12
Trailhead Location
Dog Friendly: Partially (Dogs can hike up to Bishop Pass)
Red Tape: Overnight camping requires a permit from Inyo NF.

Trip Report

I started the hike at the South Lake trailhead around 10:30 on a Saturday morning. The first 6 miles of the Bishop Pass trail are in the John Muir Wilderness, a dog friendly zone, but I was heading over the pass into Kings Canyon National Park which meant that Callie was not able to tag along. This was my first time backpacking alone, and it was a test run for an upcoming 9 day solo adventure through Kings Canyon and Sequoia. I think I failed the test.

The weather felt like it was in the low 80’s, which is unusually warm for 10,000 feet. I donned my headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes, which always attracts some curious glances from nearby hikers. It’s not a fashion show people! If it was, I would undoubtedly be booed off the stage.

The weather forecast for the day had a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms, so I was intent on hiking over Bishop Pass as fast as I could to compensate for my late morning start. I covered the 6 miles to the top of the pass in about 2 and a half hours, stopping a couple of times along the way to take a few photos.

The trail from South Lake to Bishop pass starts out fairly flat as you make your way through the woods. You walk along a number of large lakes on the hike, and you are likely to see many dayhikers and fisherman on the shorelines enjoying the easy High Sierra access. As you get closer to the pass, the trees begin to thin out and the landscape changes more into a typical high altitude moonscape.

Upon reaching the pass, I was glad to see that the threat of afternoon thunderstorms wasn’t appearing to pan out. There were some clouds hovering on nearby ridges, but nothing causing any immediate risk, so I enjoyed a nice extended break on the pass. Looking East from the pass, there is a great view of a bunch of the lakes you just passed by.

The border to Kings Canyon is at the top of Bishop Pass. After my break was over, I threw the heavy pack back on and entered National Park territory. The trail from Bishop Pass heading west goes down into Dusy Basin and eventually leads to the John Muir Trail in LeConte Canyon after about 6 miles. My plan was to head down a couple miles and then move offtrail to one of the Dusy Basin lakes where I would make camp.

As the trail descends into the canyon, the landscape morphs from the dry moonlike environment seen near the pass on the East side into a more lush alpine ecosystem.

There were small meadows with streams rolling through them next to the trail. A trail runner heading back up the trail commented that the area was “exceedingly beautiful” and I wasn’t going to disagree.

Providing a backdrop to the foreground view, the Palisades rise dramatically out of the basin with some breathtaking ridgelines, and further down the trail in the distance the Black Divide provided another layer of epic mountain peaks. The mountains seemed to extend as far as the eye can see. Every time I see a view like this, I foresee another few weeks of Sierra exploits in my future somewhere down the line.

The sky was littered with puffy clouds. I was a little worried that they could turn into a storm, but I was more excited about the prospect of a dramatic sunset. The afternoon sunlight splintered through the clouds and provided some dramatic lighting on the impressive landscape. I was drawn towards the view and kept heading down the trail, despite the fact that I should have been veering off at this point.

This is when the mosquitoes started to swarm me. In the lower area of Dusy Basin, the once dry landscape had morphed into a damp environment where snow had recently melted and mosquitoes had hatched. I quickly donned a loose long sleeve shirt and opted for a headnet to avoid using DEET. In retrospect, using the headnet was a big mistake as the limited peripheral vision made me spend much less time surveying the landscape than was needed.

I headed down to a lake that was visible from the trail, thinking this was the start of the chain of lakes in the Dusy Basin. The off-trail hiking was easy, as I went through mainly grassy areas down a slope to small lake. Upon reaching the lake and looking at the surrounding ridgelines, I realized this is not exactly where I had intended to be. I had seen enough pictures of the Dusy area to have a rough idea of what to expect, but I hadn’t been paying enough attention earlier to ensure I went to the right spot initially.

The ominous cloud bank moving in from the Black Divide did not make me want to linger here for too long. Making camp before a potential afternoon rainstorm hit was key, so I quickly forged ahead up the basin. With the hot afternoon sun beating down from overhead and a swarm of mosquitoes following my every move, I was tired and not in very good spirits but I figured that if I could make it to my destination my situation would improve. This brute force approach turned out to be a mistake, as I began overexerting myself and not spending much time thinking about my course of action.

I began taking a direct route to where I thought I wanted to go. I had gone about 600 feet lower in elevation than the part of Dusy Basin I was shooting for, and I was going to walk back up to that area directly off-trail. This meant crossing a boulder field next to the lake that I was currently at. As I entered the boulder field, it was hard to see just how big it was and what I was getting myself into, not that I was thinking much about it anyways. About 10 minutes later after scrambling over countless boulders, I looked around and realized how stupid my decision had been.

I was surrounded by gigantic boulders, and each step became somewhat treacherous. A few near slips made me realize just how easy I could seriously injure myself in this situation, and in my fatigued state with 40 pounds of gear strapped to me, mistakes were becoming harder to avoid. I looked around and saw boulders in every direction for at least 200 feet. I was in the thick of it, and if I injured myself seriously who knows if I could get out or how long it would take for someone to find me. I cursed myself for being so stupid as I slowly and carefully made it out of the boulder field.

Upon reaching the slope above the field, I looked back and marveled at the area I had just traversed and how stupid I had been.

At this point the terrain became much easier to navigate and I slowly made my way up towards the upper lakes in Dusy Basin. The grade was very steep and I labored as I made the ascent. The mosquitoes still swarmed me but fortunately my clothing make it impossible for them to land a bite. I frequently stopped to look back downhill to see the banks of clouds rolling in. My concern about being caught in a storm slowly faded and I enjoyed the expansive views of clouds overhead along with the constantly changing light on the surrounding ridges.


I finally made it up to the area I had been targeting all along. I probably added about 2 miles, 600 vertical feet, and 2 hours to my hike, but at least I made it in one piece! I put down my pack and collapsed on the granite for a moment to regain my breath.

After an extremely necessary break, I canvassed the area and decided upon the highest lake in the area, lake 11393. It is a big lake that is right at the base of the surrounding ridgelines. From the west side of the lake looking east, there is a giant steep bowl coming out of the lake that rises over a thousand feet in all directions. I was hopeful that this bowl would catch the evening light providing a spectacular vantage for me to photograph the sunset from. I quickly made camp so that I would be ready for any changing conditions.

As the afternoon transitioned to evening, the wind began to pick up. The swarms of mosquitoes were suddenly gone, giving me a much needed respite from their constant presence. However, this disrupted the surfaces of all of the surrounding lakes tarnishing the pristine reflections that had been there when I arrived. I utilized a neutral density filter so that my camera had very slow shutter speeds in an attempt to blur the ripples on the reflections.

Despite my string of bad luck I was still hopeful that I might experience a great sunset which would have made all of the tribulations of the trip well worth it. Well, the clouds that had been looming all day never made their way over to the Dusy Basin, but they did manage to block the sun for the last hour or so of the day, eliminating any chance of alpenglow hitting the mountains behind the lake. My morale dropped significantly as the sun dipped below the horizon. The lack of sunset combined with the unfavorable conditions made the trip feel like a total bust. I entertained thoughts that Callie has placed a curse on the trip as revenge for me not bringing her along. I retired for the evening in poor spirits.

The following morning I awoke to a quiet and empty basin. There wasn’t a creature to be seen, including mosquitoes.

I’ve read that this area can become somewhat crowded with backpackers, but I didn’t see a soul during my short stay in Dusy Basin. Sitting in the basin in complete silence was a profoundly peaceful experience, and it gave a much needed boost to my attitude. I seized the momentarily still water and lack of bugs and took some photos. Most of the basin was shrouded in shadow, but Isosceles Peak was catching some nice morning light which was reflected on Lake 11393.

Once the sun rose over the ridge and began warming the ground, I was visited by some furry neighbors. Marmots are notorious for eating various gear and are hated by many backpackers, but I can’t help but love the little guys anyways. These marmots didn’t seem very afraid of me so I enjoyed taking some photos from close up.

As I finished packing up my campsite, the mosquitoes began to accumulate and it was definitely time to get a move on. This time, I moved directly west from the lake to head back to the trail. This allowed me to see another one of the Dusy Basin lakes that I had previously missed, but after finishing the stretch it was clear that moving northwest would have been a better route. The route I chose had me go up a hill and then back down it to reach the trail, adding a couple hundred feet of unnecessary elevation.

The bugs followed me all the way up to the pass, and then they were gone. There were scores of dayhikers, backpackers, and fisherman on the trail. It felt like I had returned to civilization prematurely. At least the views were still great looking down the canyon.

I reached the car after about 4 hours on the trail – dirty, tired, sweaty, and wiser from the experience. 

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Categories: Trip Report | Tags: , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “South Lake to Bishop Pass: Disappointment at Dusy Basin

  1. Bob Schmalz

    Reading your account of the hike and seeing your pictures was almost like being there, minus the heat and mosquitoes. It will whet the appetite of others who want to hike in that area.

  2. Joel

    we did the same trip on labor day of this past year (2012). The temps were great for us, but boy was it sunny in the basin. I really felt drained by the time we got to the basin, which probably explains why we ALSO got off course and over-shot the lake we intended by a significant margin. All’s well that ends well !!

  3. LHoiland

    Thanks for your trip report and the beautiful photos. I hiked the John Muir Trail this last summer and took photos too, but yours are amazingly clear and sparkling. My photos are here I too have a dog and go backpacking with him as often as I can (usually in the Trinity and Marble Mountains, and Russian Wilderness). It’s sad to leave our friends behind when we hike in the national parks.

  4. Great photos! Thanks for sharing your adventure – been there, done that 🙂

  5. Great story. We have the technology… why not allow dogs on the trails, but get a swab of their DNA before they hike, and when their poop is not picked up, let the rangers anal-ize it and charge their owners $100 per poop-isode? Somewhat seriously, another Ducy (my understanding of the spelling) Basin veteran…

  6. Pingback: Hiking South Lake to Treasure Lakes | CaliTrails

  7. Sweet story. Loved the pics. Were looking forward to going!

  8. Pingback: CaliTrails

  9. “my streak of luck was not meant to last.” I don’t understand your comment based on your good weather and photographs.

  10. I am now using the new A7RII. I took the lead from you and bought a Canon 17-40mm f4. This a great “In the mountains” lens. Am now considering the 24-105 Canon lens too. It seems like the combined weight is not that bad for backpacking and gives one lots of photo options. My Zeiss 55 1.8 is still my favorite lens. Primes vs zooms seems to be a never ending discussion. A good thing about zooms is using the lens to crop. The file remains it’s full size. I also recently bought a used Canon 100-400 for wildlife. Unless I anticipate running across Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep, that lens at 3 lbs will stay home.

  11. Rick

    Hi. We will be hiking up to long lake on Sunday coming out on Wednesday and I can’t wait to do some fishing. Happy hiking

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