Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Bishop Pass and Dusy Basin

Meadows and streams of Dusy Basin
15 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The alpine streams, lakes, and meadows of Kings Canyon National Park’s Dusy Basin are hemmed in by the greatest array of granite peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada, making this a sublime destination for hikers looking for a High Sierra experience. The standard hike to Dusy Basin, which lies west of the Sierra Crest, starts from South Lake near Bishop on the east side of the crest and thus involves crossing high-elevation Bishop Pass, an extremely scenic route littered with alpine lakes and wildflowers in season. While Bishop Pass is a standard day hiking destination from South Lake, Dusy Basin, just 1.5 miles further, is typically visited only by backpackers and is thus somewhat quieter than the pass; however, very fit day hikers who start early can visit this remarkable destination in a day.

Altitude sickness is a major concern at Dusy Basin: Bishop Pass is at nearly 12000 feet, while Dusy Basin itself remains at nearly 11400 feet, so many hikers- especially those coming straight from sea level in Los Angeles or the Bay Area- will experience at least some symptoms associated with altitude sickness. Diamox (by prescription) can help alleviate symptoms if taken beforehand; altitude headaches are common and should be taken seriously. If altitude sickness symptoms progress beyond a mild state, you should turn around and descend to lower altitude. This hike is only accessible in summer after winter snows melt off of Bishop Pass; summer hikers should be wary of summer afternoon thunderstorms and check the forecast before heading out, as Bishop Pass is especially exposed and dangerous during storms.

I hiked to Dusy Basin during a July trip to the Bishop area. Dusy Basin had been on my radar for a long time: I first learned about it while researching Kings Canyon National Park for a visit with my parents at the end of middle school so I was excited to finally see it in person. The timing of my trip was quite good: July is a perfect time of year to see wildflowers blooming along the trail to Bishop Pass. The hike is usually accessible from sometime in June or July through October each year. While I describe a day hike to Dusy Basin in this post, those who want to spend more time in the basin and camp will need to obtain backpacking permits departing the trailhead at South Lake, which can be obtained online in advance at 

The trailhead for Dusy Basin is just outside the town of Bishop but is a long drive from any major metropolitan area, about five hours from Los Angeles and over six hours from the San Francisco Bay Area. Unless you approach on Highway 6 from Tonopah, you’ll inevitably have to arrive at Bishop on US 395. Once in downtown Bishop, at the junction of US Highway 395 and Highway 168, I headed west on Highway 168 and followed it out of town and uphill, continuing straight along this road until I reached the turnoff for South Lake. Taking the left turn for South Lake, I followed the South Lake Road until it dead-ended at a hiker and backpacker parking area near the lake, just above the dam. When I arrived at 7:30 AM on a Saturday morning, the lot was half full already. There are pit toilets at the parking lot. The trailhead lies within Inyo National Forest.

The Bishop Pass Trail started at the south end of the parking lot. I followed this trail into the aspens, descending briefly through forest before coming out to a nice initial view of South Lake. South Lake and nearby Lake Sabrina are both reservoirs, held back by dams built by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that redirect Eastern Sierra snowmelt through an engineering marvel of aqueducts to keep the lawns green in San Fernando Valley. During my visit in 2022, the water level of South Lake was shockingly low: the bathtub ring around the lake seemed to suggest that the lake level was perhaps as much as a hundred feet below normal. Still, the backdrop of High Sierra granite peaks here made the scene quite pretty.
South Lake
The trail began a steady uphill climb above the east shore of South Lake at this point. The trail predominately stayed in the forest during this ascent, although halfway through the climb there was a brief clearing that allowed some more views of South Lake.

At 0.8 miles from the trailhead, I came to a fork in the trail: the trail to Treasure Lakes headed straight, while the Bishop Pass Trail branched off to the left. I took the left fork to continue my journey towards Bishop Pass and Dusy Basin. The Bishop Pass Trail continued a steady ascent through the forest but soon passed by some small, elongated meadows that stretched along a burbling stream. In July, wildflowers such as shooting stars and paintbrush were blooming prolifically here. A steady ascent through the forest eventually brought me up to a rocky outcrop at 1.6 miles with some open views over the South Fork Bishop Creek valley; most notable were views of the High Sierra Peaks and of Hurd Lake below. 

Hurd Lake
The trail continued to ascend past this viewpoint with occasional switchbacks and passed a junction with the Chocolate Lakes Trail at 1.8 miles. Finally, at 2 miles from the trailhead, the Bishop Pass Trail flattened out and then dropped sightly to reach a lovely, open green meadow with views of Mount Goode, Mount Agassiz, and the brown and white swirls of Chocolate Peak. From here to Dusy Basin, the Bishop Trail Pass was a nonstop parade of spectacular alpine scenery.

Chocolate Peak and Picture Puzzle Peak from a meadow near Long Lake
At the far end of this small meadow, I came to the northern end of Long Lake, a drop-dead gorgeous lake lined with trees and meadows at the base of Mount Goode. The trail crossed the lake’s outlet stream and then followed the east shore of Long Lake for the next three-quarters of a mile, hugging the lake at times while heading up and down nearby hills at other times. Explosions of blooming wildflowers dotted the lakeshore.

Mount Goode rises above Long Lake
I passed a turnoff for Ruwau Lake to the left at 2.6 miles from the trailhead and came to the far end of Long Lake at 2.8 miles. The trail crossed an inlet stream and began wrapping around the south side of the lake before turning south again to continue heading up Bishop Creek Valley.

Looking north along Long Lake
Shortly afterwards, Spearhead Lake came into view at the bottom of the valley below the trail at the foot of Mount Goode. The trail began a steady ascent up a rocky slope. 
Mount Goode above Spearhead Lake
While ascending above Spearhead Lake, I saw patches of pink and yellow Sierra Columbine in bloom, one of the prettiest wildflowers that grace the alpine Sierra in summer.

Sierra columbine
A 300-foot ascent from Long Lake brought me to one of the two Timberline Tarns at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. The trail came upon this small lake right after crossing South Fork Bishop Creek; the tarn was exceptionally scenic with Mount No Goode rising behind it and Bishop Creek cascading down a small slope into the tarns' beautifully blue water.

Mount No Goode above the Timberline Tarns
At the far end of the Timberline Tarns, the trail began a short ascent along tumbling South Fork Bishop Creek to climb to Saddlerock Lake. I found this stretch of trail, where the stream flowed through lush meadows with point Mount No Goode in the background, to be especially scenic.

South Fork Bishop Creek below the outlet of Saddlerock Lake
At 3.7 miles, the trail came upon the much bigger Saddlerock Lake, which filled an alpine basin with Mount No Goode rising impressively behind it. Here, the trees were really beginning to thin out and the opposite shore of the lake was mostly barren rock. The trail followed the lake's eastern shore for about a hundred meters before it began ascending again.

Saddlerock Lake
As the trail ascended above Saddlerock Lake, it passed a small, unnamed pond to the left. With trees now very sparse, there were open views along the rocky trail both back down the valley towards Mount Goode and Saddlerock Lake and ahead towards Mount No Goode and Bishop Pass.

Looking back to Saddlerock Lake
The trail came over the top of a hill at 4.1 miles and descended slightly, reaching a spur trail that led to Bishop Lake and the crossing a tributary stream that fed into Bishop Lake at 4.3 miles. The spur trail provided shore access to Bishop Lake; while it was a nice detour, I consider it an optional stop on this hike as the climb to Bishop Pass provides plenty of excellent views over the lake as well.

Mount Agassiz above the inlet to Bishop Lake
After crossing the inlet to Bishop Lake, the Bishop Pass Trail began its final steady climb up to the pass itself, gaining 750 feet in elevation over the next 1.5 miles. At this point, I began to feel the effects of the altitude more acutely and found myself struggling a bit more with the ascent than I usually would with a similar uphill climb at lower elevations: I was now at over 11300 feet above sea level. My frequent need for breaks during the climb gave me more time to enjoy lovely views over Bishop Lake at the foot of Mount No Goode and Mount Goode. Bishop Lake is the last of the chain of lakes in the valley and is thus also the headwaters of South Fork Bishop Creek.

Bishop Lake
As the trail continued to climb, the trees ended and the I entered rocky scree slopes that make up the highest elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The trail made liberal use of switchbacks to moderate the grade during the ascent, which tackled a set of cliffs that almost seemed to wall off the pass from the valley below. Incredible views back down the valley to Bishop and Saddlerock Lakes opened up. 

Looking back down the South Fork Bishop Creek valley
A more macabre find during the climb were the full skeletons of a number of deer and a good amount of scattered deer bones and hide. These remains were left over from a 2017 mass death event of mule deer at Bishop Pass. Bishop Pass is an animal migration route across the Sierra Nevada; in 2017, mule deer that overwinter in Round Valley in the Eastern Sierra were descending from their summer homes in the High Sierra but ran into icy and treacherous conditions at Bishop Pass, which caused around a hundred of the herd to slip down the slope that this very trail follows to their deaths.

At 5.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail delivered its final views over the South Fork Bishop Creek Valley before heading into a small ravine. While the approach to Bishop Pass from the north is quite steep, the pass itself is quite broad: it took a half mile of fairly flat hiking across rocky terrain to finally arrive at the nearly 12000-foot high pass at 6 miles from the trailhead. Arriving at the pass, I crossed from Inyo National Forest into Kings Canyon National Park.

The view of the Kings Canyon backcountry from the far end of Bishop Pass was stunning. Mount Agassiz rose directly from the pass to the south, while a wall of summits that included Columbine Peak and Giraud Peak rose to the west.

High Sierra view from Bishop Pass
Bishop Pass is a good turnaround point for many day hikers: the round trip to this destination is 12 miles, a satisfying full day hike for most people. Dusy Basin is the hike's most scenic destination and is only an additional 3 miles round trip, but is about 650 feet downhill from Bishop Pass, which means that there is a substantial ascent for hikers on their return journey. If you have enough in the tank, Dusy Basin is a very rewarding destination, but if the hike's altitude, length, or weather have you skeptical about going onward, Bishop Pass is an appropriate place to turn around. Day hikers to Dusy Basin should especially be aware of summer thunderstorms, as returning to the trailhead requires a second crossing of Bishop Pass, meaning that lightning can effectively create a temporary trap for day hikers on the wrong side of the Sierra Crest.

I continued on towards Dusy Basin by continuing along the trail from Bishop Pass. The trail began to ascend gradually at first as it traveled through rocky scree and then meadows with million-dollar views of Columbine Peak, Mount Agassiz, and the Black Divide. The landscape below soon opened up into the meadows of the upper part of the Dusy Basin; the trail skirted around this area by descending along a minor ridge down into the main part of Dusy Basin.

Giraud Peak rises over upper Dusy Basin
The descent into the basin was scenic every step of the way: this area has some of the very best scenery of the High Sierra. At 7 miles from the trailhead, the descent began leveling out as the trail entered the main basin of Dusy Basin. A lake was visible off to the left- this would be my destination for the day. 

Descending into Dusy Basin with views of the Black Divide
The Bishop Pass Trail does not itself visit any lakes in Dusy Basin, so I left the trail at this point and traveled cross country until reaching this nameless but strikingly beautiful lake.

Columbine and Isosceles Peaks rise above Dusy Basin
The first (and lowest) lake in Dusy Basin featured some lush, green meadows on its shoreline but had a stark and barren backdrop of dramatic granite peaks. Chief among those peaks was an austere ridge of skyscrapers composed of Mount Agassiz, Mount Winchell, Thunderbolt Peak, and North Palisade. North Palisade- the last of this parade- is the third highest peak in the Sierra Nevada.

To the right of this great wall rose Isosceles and Columbine Peaks. Isosceles Peak indeed looked like an isosceles triangle from this vantage point. Further to the right rose Giraud Peak, a particularly picturesque wall of granite; beyond that lay the Black Divide. To fully soak in the scenery, I spent over an hour wandering around the environs surrounding the lake, taking in not only the lake itself but the idyllic nearby meadows and streams, all set beneath one of the most stunning High Sierra backdrops.

North Palisade and Columbine Peak over the first lake in Dusy Basin

Columbine Peak and Isosceles Peak

Mount Agassiz, Mount Winchell, Thunderbolt Peak, and North Palisade
There are four additional lakes in the upper reaches of Dusy Basin, which is an area where hikers can spend days exploring. As I was on a day hike to Dusy Basin, I unfortunately only had time to enjoy the first lake before I had to return. This would undoubtedly be an incredible place to camp and see alpenglow on Sierra peaks; I just didn't have the time on this trip.

An early afternoon thunderstorm flared up while I was in the Dusy Basin, forcing me to wait out the storm near the lake. After the storm lifted temporarily, I made a quick dash back up to Bishop Pass and made a rapid descent back into the South Fork Bishop Creek Valley before the next round of lightning kicked in. I finished the hike after a lengthy 12 hour day.

There were a decent number of other hikers on this trail: the Bishop Creek area is one of the best known High Sierra hiking areas and is clearly not off the beaten path. However, it never felt crowded as the other hikers were spread out over such a lengthy trail. The beauty of this landscape is ultimately rivalled by only a few other alpine regions in the United States; any serious hiker should not miss seeing the High Sierra scenery here.

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