July 4th this year fell on Wednesday, I decided to join it up to the previous weekend and head into the backcountry for a 6 day tour out of Florence Lake. Evolution Valley and Goddard Canyon are deep into the wilderness in the northern reaches of Kings Canyon National Park. The John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail follow Evolution Valley, and so is well visited by hikers passing through, but Goddard Canyon is off the beaten path.
I was originally concerned about snow at the high elevations of Goddard Divide in the early summer, but in the end the conditions were perfect. While 2018 had a snow year not far off average the exceptionally warm February meant the snow had no base, followed by the recent warm weather we’ve been having almost all of it had melted by the time I visited, leaving just a few snow fields on northern slopes.
I did some pretty big mile days and, in addition to the loop, I made a couple of side trips; first over Hell For Sure Pass into Red Mountain Basin in the John Muir Wilderness section of the Sierra National Forest, and later up to Darwin Bench. There’s no trail between Martha Lake at the top of Goddard Canyon and Wanda Lake at the top of Evolution Basin, instead I took a cross-country route through Davis Lake to close the loop, this section was all class 1 travel with a little boulder hopping in places. I had my eye on connecting through Ionian Basin but it’ll have to wait for another trip. This route passed through some of the most beautiful high country in the Sierra, if anything I could have extended it and spent a few more days exploring the basins.
Florence Lake to PCT/JMT Junction
I arrived at Florence Lake trailhead around lunchtime after the long drive down Kaiser Pass Road and the final fork to the lake. The trailhead parking lot is right before the lake and the road ends at the day use area on the lake’s edge. To the left is the Florence Lake store and the ferry service to take you across the lake. To the right the trail starts a little way up the gated road. The ferry cuts about 4 miles of walking around the lake, but I elected to hike around.
The trail alongside the lake doesn’t offer any great views across the lake, it climbs up and over a small granite ridge and drops down to cross the South Fork San Joaquin as it flows into the lake. The trail will continue to follow the river all the way to the split at the mouth of Evolution Valley, and the start of the loop.
Over the bridge the trail climbs up to the junction to the ferry landing, where it’s also intersected by a jeep trail, which is a weird sight to see in the wilderness. The Muir Trail Ranch was grandfathered in when the wilderness act was signed and have been allowed to operate a truck to make deliveries to the ranch, the trail criss crosses with the jeep trail all the way to the ranch.
Hiking up towards Muir Ranch the trail passes by a couple of meadows, Double Meadows and Blayney Meadows, which attract bugs in the early season, and then passes through a gate at the bottom of Muir Trail Ranch. From here it’s a short few miles up to join up with the PCT.
Just before the junction the trail comes right up to the river, and here there’s a number of campsites. I set up camp, cooked dinner, and climbed into bed for an early night, the real magic of the trip is yet to come, tomorrow will be a big day. As I lay in my tent bats dart around in the sky overhead and I drift off to the sound of rushing water.
Goddard Canyon and over Hell For Sure Pass
The second day I join up to the PCT and follow it the final few miles out of Sierra National Forest to the boundary with Kings Canyon National Park, at the mouth of Piute Canyon. A bridge spans Piute Creek, and the trail continues down the ravine cut by South Fork San Joaquin.
The river is flowing pretty swiftly as it’s still relatively early in the summer. The trail cuts through some pretty granite sections, past Muir Rock, and through some aspen stands. After mile or so another bridge takes us across the river and the trail skirts around the confluence of Evolution Creek and the San Joaquin as Evolution Valley meets Goddard Canyon. Just before a final bridge that spans South Fork San Joaquin the trail forks.
I was only on the PCT for a handful of miles, and, despite being miles from the nearest trailhead, the trail is thronging with hikers. The wilderness rangers call the PCT a highway, and I can see why, it’s hard to go more than 15 minutes without coming across another someone. After leaving the main trail and heading into Goddard Canyon though, the people melt away, between here and rejoining the PCT two days later I only saw one other person.
From the junction the trail climbs gently up Goddard Canyon, alternating through lightly wooded sections and open meadows, crossing over seasonal streams that flow down the steep sides of the canyon walls. The trail climbs above the South Fork San Joaquin, which cuts deeply into the canyon floor at places. After a couple miles hiking up I take break and wander over to find the river and come across a waterfall plunging into cavernous pool.
Continuing up Goddard Canyon the trail climbs up above the river and along a rock ledge, providing views down and up the canyon, and then following beside the river which continues to cut deep into the canyon floor. The trail passes by a couple of tall waterfalls; they plunge into a fine mist which blows across and gently wets my face, which feels nice as the sun beats down.
About 5 miles from the fork up Goddard Canyon an unmarked junction splits to Hell For Sure Pass. Up to this point the trail has been recently cleared out by a trail crew, the fresh cuts visible as sap leaks out. Despite not being signposted the trail junction is pretty obvious as a large cut tree straddles the trail on the fork. From here both the continuation of Goddard Canyon Trail and the Hell For Sure Pass trail are marked on the map as primitive, and are not actively maintained by the park.
Hell For Sure Pass Trail first climbs up, and then follows back parallel to the Goddard Canyon Trail, tracking along a ridge. It passes by multiple streams as they drain through vegetation, which obscures the path at points, and in the early season are host to clouds of mosquitoes that annoy while route finding. After a couple of miles of traversing sideways the trail finally bends back and starts to switchback up to the pass.
Hell For Sure Pass crosses below Red Mountain, and the red colored peak is briefly visible from the trail as it traverses the canyon. The switchbacks start through some thick vegetation, but soon leave it behind, to a carpet of green grass, and sandy rock. There’s a stream flowing down fed from patchy snow fields on the northern slopes. The trail arcs around to the left to a small plateau that cradles a few small pools of clear water, before making the final ascent up to the top of the pass.
The morning sky was completely clear, but each day the clouds start to build up through the morning and afternoon, and eventually burning off in the evening. From the pass the views across Goddard Canyon are interrupted and the valley floor is out of sight below, the steep canyon sides on the far side are shaded by the clouds.
The view over Red Mountain Basin from the pass really takes your breath away. The basin is large flat granite, among which are nestled many lakes, the biggest of which shares its name with the pass, Hell For Sure Lake. It drains down into Disappointment Lake, and is surrounded by Arctic Lake and Horseshoe Lake, with Devils Punchbowl, Little Shot Lake and, Big Shot Lake further into the distance. Whoever named the lakes in this basin clearly had some fun.
From the pass it’s an easy class 1 side trip up to the peak of Red Mountain, I dumped my pack and made the quick trip. The view from the sub-peak just next to the peak however are better, as the peak itself is so gentle. After spending a little while taking in the views from the top I joined back up with the trail, and headed down the other side, dropping into the basin.
The trail drops quickly down, and it’s less than a mile until I was sitting beside Hell For Sure Lake, resting my tired legs. The mosquitos had been bothering me all the way to Hell For Sure Pass and now again they surrounded me on the lake shore. I carried on in search of a campsite and a warm piece of granite to lie on. I left the trail behind and found a great ledge above Disappointment Lake, which contrary to its name, was not a disappointment at all.
I’m pretty sure I had this whole basin to myself, and if I didn’t, it at least felt that way. The ridge that Hell For Sure Pass traverses forms Le Conte Divide which divides Kings Canyon National Park from Sierra National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness. The west side, Goddard Canyon, flows into the San Joaquin, and the east side, Red Mountain Basin, flows into Kings River.
I watched the sun slowly descend in the sky as I cooked dinner. The clouds that had gathered overhead slowly burned off and the sun reflected off the top of the still lake water before ducking behind the horizon and turning day to dusk. I slept well tonight.
Hell For Sure Pass to Martha Lake and Davis Lake
I got up early, cooked breakfast, had a hot cup of coffee, packed down camp, and headed back up and over Hell For Sure Pass. The ridge was blocking the morning sun, and the climb up was pleasant in the cool morning air. As I got up to the pass the sun suddenly burst into view. The mosquitoes were just as annoying on the way down as the way up, especially in the wet streams as Hell For Sure Trail drops back down to join Goddard Canyon Trail.
The final push up Goddard Canyon just gets better and better. The light forest quickly gives way to open meadow as the trail climbs above tree line. The headwaters of the South Fork San Joaquin flow through lush green grass, the trail starts to disappear and soon becomes impossible to discern, but at this point it’s unnecessary, the basin is wide and flat and Martha Lake is just beyond the small ridge, surrounded by the towering Mount Goddard for which the canyon is named, and Mount Reinstein to the south.
I found a rock to sit down on and ate lunch looking over Martha Lake, and considered my options. From here I was heading off trail. I was originally thinking of climbing up the drainage behind Martha Lake, just below Mount Goddard, and into the Ionian Basin, but from where I was sitting it looked a little steeper than I had imagined. I didn’t really fancy climbing up and risking having to turn around, so I opted to leave the Ionian Basin for another day and instead take a high route over and through the large basin to the north west of Mount Goddard, and cut over to Davis Lake.
There’s a smaller unnamed lake just above Martha Lake, labelled as lake 11,184 (on the Forest Service topos some unnamed lakes are labelled with their elevations, and most are just unlabeled). Until Davis Lake none of the other lakes I come across today are named, all are nestled in high alpine rocky landscapes, and often form chains sitting in wide plateaus.
Behind Lake 11,184 water cascades down multiple streams of waterfalls, and there’s still snow on its banks. The next few hours I follow the water up as it flows down mini waterfalls from small lakes and clear pools of water that probably dry up in the late season, but in the early summer are primed with crystal clear water from the snow melt above. The short grass gives way to scree, which in turn gives way to talus.
Above Lake 11,184 there’s a large plateau with a chain of small lakes arching around, it’s a beautiful landscape. The distances here are relatively short but I’m moving slower now there’s no trail. The drainage from the largest lake, nestled in a large basin to the north of Mount Goddard, is entirely underground, and at points it sounds like a waterfall flowing underneath the tightly packed rocks I’m standing on top of. I climb all the way up to small, flat sub peak at 12,271 feet, which offers a fantastic view. From here there’s another plateau to the north and it looks like there might be a good view over Davis Lake, and it looks like I could loop around, but I elect to instead retrace my steps as the day is getting on, and I’m trying and make it to Davis Lake to camp.
I drop back down to the plateau and follow the chained lakes around, climbing up a little before dropping down a small drainage and following the ridge all the way across and around a small peak that sits just to the south of North Goddard Creek which flows from Davis Lake. The landscape at this point in the season, with almost all the snow melted, but so recently that everything is full of clear water, is so pretty. There are fantastic views down towards Goddard Canyon, and to Le Conte Divide on the far side, Red Mountain is easy to discern as a splash of red colors the tip.
The final drop down to Davis Lake descends quickly, the lake curves around multiple small peaks and from here only the tip of lake is visible. I have to cross the drainage, which is the first time I’ve had to get my feet wet so far, and drop down and back up the other side of a small subpeak. The water is refreshing on my feet, but it’s getting late in the day and my legs are letting me know that they’re ready to rest, the last push starts to test my endurance.
When I finally make it up to the shores of Davis Lake though I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m exhausted but the there’s great camping spots, a fantastic view, the sun still shining up the valley, and, for now at least, no bugs. Tonight I’ll sleep at 11,050 feet. I dump my pack, head to the shore, bathe my feet, and wash my socks. I scarf down dinner, and lay out in the sun, happy and content just to rest my weary legs.
Davis Lake to Evolution Valley and Darwin Bench
This morning I had breakfast in bed as I looked out over the lake. I got a later start than usual as I lay in my sleeping bag until the sun came up and over the horizon. I threw my things into my pack and head off around the north shore of Davis Lake.
The path around the lake first lead across a scree slope, I started around and stumbled across a path that had been flattened out around this first section. Past the scree there were alternating sections of talus, sandy areas, and then larger and larger boulder fields, shed as the mountains above slowly crumbling into the lake. Hoping over the large boulders was slow going and it took me two hours to make my way all around the mile long lake to the pass on the far side.
Just over the pass is Evolution Basin and the massive Wanda Lake, stretching a mile from end to end along the PCT. The sun is starting to get pretty intense on the exposed granite, I spot a large boulder and head to lie down underneath but when I get there the entire shaded side is covered with mosquitoes who clearly have the same idea. The entire boulder field is covered in mosquitoes, but the heat is forcing them rest in the shade, so instead I just find a spot in the sun and watch as PCT/JMT hikers make their way down from Muir Pass and around Wanda Lake.
I join up with the PCT at the base of Wanda Lake where it crosses over the drainage and find a rock to sit on and eat lunch between Wanda Lake and Lake 11,293 just below it. As I approach the rock a large high pitched chirp rings out as a marmot alerts me to its presence. I sit and eat lunch watching the headwaters of Evolution Creek flowing past while the marmot at first eyes me with uncertainty and eventually decides I’m not a threat and lies down sunning itself on its granite perch.
Evolution Basin is massive. The trail follows Evolution Creek all the way down a vast valley to the junction with Goddard Canyon. It’s often said that Evolution Valley is one of the most memorable sections of the entire PCT and it quickly becomes clear why, the top section of the valley in particular is simply spectacular.
From Wanda Lake, to Sapphire Lake, and then to Evolution Lake the valley steps down in cavernous mile long canyons, Evolution Creek cascading down the top of each. The trail clings to the side of the canyon which gives an awesome perspective, the huge granite walls on either side of the gigantic glaciated canyon floor, carpeted in green and blue. Along the far wall further basins stretch out into the distance, and in the early season they send streams of water down the steep granite. It looked like it would be fun to explore each basin.
Walking down the vast valley you feel both tiny and insignificant, dwarfed by the size the landscape, but at the same time completely immersed in it. The journey from Wanda to Evolution Lake also feels like an evolution of fauna, beginning at Wanda, desolate and baron, far above tree line, at first yielding to grasses, wildflowers, dwarfed trees, and by Evolution Lake the trees, while still sparse and not full size are now able to stand up relatively tall. It’s spring time in the valley and the spring flowers are out all the way down.
At the bottom end of Evolution Lake the valley opens up ahead, and after a short traverse the trail switchbacks down to the valley floor, once devoid of trees it disappears into a forest of them. At the very top of the switchbacks an unmarked trail, and there is an actual trail here despite not appearing on the maps, leads up to Darwin Basin and beyond, over Lamarck Col, and into Inyo National Forest. The trail climbs steeply up, switchbacking right alongside the drainage, which is flowing very well this time of year.
Darwin Bench is well named, it’s a large granite shelf that sits above Evolution Valley, and from the edge offers stunning views out across. It also immerses you back into solitude, away from the traffic of the PCT. I find a good campsite overlooking the lake and dump my gear. It’s already been a long day and I’m running out of energy but I’m keen to go explore the pair of canyons above Darwin Bench.
To the north is a small canyon that houses 3 unnamed lakes, two lower lakes and a third elevated above and to the side labelled The Keyhole on the map. The drainages from both canyons are flowing well and the bench is incredibly pretty. I climb up to the mouth of first unnamed lake, labelled Lake 11,540, and try to scout a route around to the middle to climb up to the third. The path along the far side looks steep, and a potentially time-consuming scramble, so I try to climb up the near side and see if I can drop down. In the end I don’t find an easy path down so I take a moment to take in the view and head for Darwin Canyon.
Darwin Canyon hosts a chain of lakes, and arcs around at the end to Mount Darwin and Darwin Glacier. I make a path from the north canyon down and back up to the mouth of the first Darwin lake. I would have loved to follow the trail up and around to the back of the canyon but I’m too exhausted. I sit down lake side and watch as the fish spot me and dart for cover, taking a few minutes to take it all in, before turning around and heading to camp.
I set up my tent and stretch out on the warm granite overlooking the lake while I heat up some water for dinner and cup of hot chocolate; it’s never tasted so good. From the very beginning of Goddard Canyon all the way to here the scenery has been outstanding, there’s been no boring section of trail, no point that didn’t offer an amazing view, a crystal mountain lake, or the humbling presence of towering granite peaks.
Darwin Bench to Florence Lake
It’s a long day today, the longest in terms of mileage, from Darwin Bench I follow the PCT to Muir Ranch and branch back off to Florence Lake, losing all the elevation gained over the first 3 days. The start of the day takes me down the switchbacks, following the the outlet from Darwin Bench all the way to the valley floor.
Again surrounded by trees the trail follows the now slow Evolution Creek along miles of forest, skirting huge open meadows. First is Colby Meadow, and not long after is McClure Meadow. Just off the trail between the meadows is McClure Ranger Station.
Further downstream the trail crosses Evolution Creek, and there’s no bridge at this crossing. In the early season the crossing can be dangerous so there’s an alternate crossing at Evolution Meadow. I checked with a hiker coming the other direction and they let me know that the creek crossing was safe, the water only came up just above the knees. When I was planning the trip I wasn’t sure if the beginning of July was a little early—in high snow years it can still be very high this early—but given the rapid snow melt this year it was already safe to cross.
I ate lunch on the far side of the creek while I dried my feet in the midday sun. Just past the crossing the trail starts to descend very quickly down to the mouth of the valley and the confluence with South Fork San Joaquin as it flows from Goddard Canyon. This section of trail is steep, exposed switchbacks and hot in the intense sun, I’m glad to be going down and don’t envy the hikers I pass climbing up. The trail up Goddard Canyon was much gentler.
Once I reach the bottom I’m retracing my path, following the deep valley cut by the South Fork San Joaquin back through to the mouth of Piute Canyon, and the border with Sierra National Forest. It’s all down hill but very hot in the afternoon sun, doing this section in the relative cool of morning on the way up was much more pleasant.
From here to Florence Lake was another test of endurance, I wanted to shoot to camp at the inlet to Florence Lake, which had some nice campsites, and would let me get back to the trailhead early the following day to head out. After many many miles I made it to the bridge and picked a campsite a little away from the river. I scarfed down dinner and headed up to the ridge to watch the sun set of the lake. I again fell asleep to bats darting overhead.
Florence Lake to the Trailhead
The final day is a short trip from the campsites at the bridge, over the inlet to Florence Lake, around the lake, and back to the trailhead. I pushed through the previous day and did a really big day so that I could get up early and head back across the Central Valley as early as possible to avoid the intense heat of the afternoon and rush hour traffic in the Bay Area.
I got up before sunrise, cooked breakfast, and broke down camp, hitting the trail just before 6am. I was most of the way around Florence by the time the sun crested the mountains. From the bridge to the trailhead is 4¼ miles and with semi-rested legs I did it in just over an hour, and was on my bike riding out before 8.
The ride back over Kaiser Pass seemed shorter on the way out, although no less bumpy. By the time I hit the two lane section my mind was already racing ahead to the great big bowl of fresh food, the long hot shower, and curling up on my soft soft bed in the evening, and yet, I was still riding the highs of the landscape I was leaving behind.