Off The Trail: Piute Pass gives hikers a fast, gorgeous way to get to the far side of the Sierra

Piute Pass is one of the fastest, easiest (well, easy is a relative term in the Eastern Sierra) ways into the high alpine country that dominates the Sierra backcountry.

Along the five-mile hike to the top of a 11,400-foot pass, hikers will pass two beautiful teal and indigo high-country lakes and numerous waterfalls and swimming holes, along with sweet, alpine meadows and wildflowers.

Best of all, the hike is on a well-graded and well-maintained trail. It’s steep—gaining 2,100 feet in the five miles—but it’s relatively easy walking compared to other Eastern Sierra routes into the high country.

Loch Leven Lake is only about three miles in, and Piute Lake is at about four miles in, making the hike a great day-hike or a good one for a weekend.

At the top of Piute Pass, the views extend deep into Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park and north to Pine Creek Pass’s rugged, crazy, zebra-striped mountains.

Also at the top, a wonderland of high country lakes waits for exploration, many of them within a few easy miles of cross-country rambling.

Go on.

Get out there.


The hike

Begin your hike at the Piute Pass trailhead. The trail begins to climb almost immediately, in a series of switchbacks and climbing grades, angling up toward the first of two large lakes on the way to the pass.

The first mile of the hike is very lush, filled with willow, lodgepole pine, wildflowers and small creek crossings. It can also be a bit buggy, so bring your bug repellent.

The trail begins to open up at about one mile in, as it starts the climb up the right side of Piute Canyon. The trail is still well graded, however, making the elevation gain relatively easy. 

At about three miles, you pop up over a waterfall-covered rim of granite and see the first lake in this basin, Loch Leven Lake, at 10,700 feet. The view back toward Bishop and the White Mountains is as stunning as the view in front of you. It’s a good place for a break before you begin the second half of the climb up to the pass.

Continue walking west, following the shore of the little lake. The landscape is now classic High Sierra alpine country; grassy green tundra covered with sedges and wildflowers, trickling streams and racing waterfalls, big ponds and swimming holes not far from the trail, high granite peaks on both sides of you scouring the sky.

At about four miles in from the trailhead, the second big lake of Piute Canyon lies in front of you. Piute Lake sits in a green bowl at about 11,000 feet, full of brown and rainbow trout, lined with flowers, fed by the big, ever-present snowfield not too far above you.

Continue on up the trail as the landscape becomes increasingly stark, yet sublimely beautiful. You are entering a world of light and granite and sky; trees diminishing with every foot you gain in elevation.

Like in a classic Japanese painting, where every single line counts, this country doesn’t have much patience with extravagance. Grassy meadows give way to granite slopes and late summer snowfields are still very much in evidence. Looking west, you can see the top of the pass about two hundred feet above you.

The trail climbs the last mile to the top of the rocky pass, alternating rocky tread with some snowy patches. 

At about four miles, you are standing on top of Piute Pass, looking west into the vast reaches of the Sierra high country. To the south is the Darwin Canyon and Evolution Basin country, some of the region’s most rugged back country.

In every direction lies some of the best high country in the Sierra—vast, fertile, green, high granite basins studded with dozens of lakes, meadows and high peaks and passes, most of it accessible to the experienced high country hiker—and the rest accessible to even inexperienced walkers (with a map and as long as you stay close to the pass).

Take a map, pick a lake, and go.

It doesn’t get any better.

Bonus:You can take your dog, since this is one of the few places in the Sierra where the crest of the Sierra range doesn’t immediately plunge you into Sequoia Kings Canyon or Yosemite National Park, where dogs are banned.

It really doesn’t get any better than that.