Trip Type: 5 day/4 night loop
Trailhead to Puppet Lake: 10.5 miles
Total Loop: 35 miles
Altitude Gain: 2400 feet
Maximum Altitude: 11,800 (Puppet Pass)
Trail Difficulty: Advanced/Technical (cross country)
Season: Mid-Late Season Destination
- Trail Traffic: Moderate/High from trailhead to Desolation Lake junction (5.8 miles). Light from Desolation Lake to Hutchinson Meadow (5.8 miles to 22.8 miles).
- WSH Trip Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars: Day 1 out of North Lake can be a bit of a grunt and with high trail traffic it's not what one expects to see from East Side entrances but the Piute entrance is one of the easier ways in on the East side. Outside of this one minor bit this loop is simply STELLAR and provides backpackers with an excellent East side/high country experience.
- The Hike: To access the trailhead you'll need to park at "North Lake Hiker Parking" which is about a 1/3 of mile from the trailhead on the right. Just follow the signs to the Pack Station and you'll find the lots. Plenty of room. You can drop your packs at the trail head if you want to shave this walk off the first day.
- Trailhead to Desolation Lake: The trail begins at 9400' as quickly ascends in a well shaded area as you follow along Piute Creek. While pleasant the grade is noticeable, particularly if you're coming from sea level. At the 1 mile mark you leave the protection of the shade and continue the consistent ascent as you make your way to Loch Leven (10,700') and 2.2 miles. Loch Leven is a stunning lake and offers a few nice areas to grab lunch or, if you had a late start, even camp for the evening. After circumnavigating around the North side of Loch Leven the climb continues to Piute Lake but the grade is less steep. The challenge on most of this first day is the high number of steps built into the trail. It might be useful to get your box jumps in before this hike, your quads and hammy's will be much happier if you're prepared. Again, Piute Lake is stunning and has ample camping available all along the North shore. If you're looking to make this a 5 day loop I recommend continuing to either Lower Desolation or Desolation Lake as Day 2 is a technical day of cross country and route finding. Continuing past Piute Lake to Piute Pass you'll find even more steps but as far as Eastern Passes go Piute is tame and is relatively quick and painless. Make the pass and descent down toward Summit Lake. Follow the trail for about 1.5 miles to the nondescript turn off/use trail to Desolation Lake. There are no signs but a clear use trail with a couple of obvious cairns near a large boulder right at the top of a rise. Take the use trail towards Desolation. Camping is available at Lower Desolation (about 1 mile from the junction) but it's a little dicey. Your best bet is to continue to Desolation where there are ample area to camp. Either lake provides stunning high country views as you bask under the watchful eye of My Humphreys.
- Desolation Lake to Puppet Lake: Here the most direct route is to cross the outlet of Desolation Lake, head over the small ridge and go around the SOUTH side of Mesa Lake. This might seem like the long way but it's by far the easiest walking and avoids gaining altitude then losing it again. Once on the West side of Mesa Lake follow the drainage NORTh between peak 11641 and Wedge Lake. Note our rout to Wedge Lake meant we climbed the ridge West of Wedge Lake but then had to descend down to the river feeding Mesa Lake. Also note circumnavigating Mesa Lake to the North can be done but there is a buttress that could make that traverse "interesting". OK, so now you're at the river north of Mesa Lake, climb the to the ridge to the West and veer North as you climb. once there you'll see the obvious saddle. Head for it but head of the right side as your descent will be on the right. Once in the saddle move northeast up the saddle until you're almost due East of Roget Lake from there you should see dirt paths amid the rocky outcroppings - that's your way down! Pick your way down, some class 3 here and there and a bit of rock hopping and you're down. We camped on the far end of Puppet Lakes which provided STUNNING views of Elba and Moon Lakes as well as Gemini, Seven Gables, Merriam, and Royce Peaks, not to mention Bear Creek Spire.
- Day 3 - Layover Day. Use this day for exploring. We did a loop starting with Star Lake, L Lake, Moon Lake, Elba Lake, then back to Puppet. This also helped us pick our route down for Day 4. We also took a second day hike over to Paris and Alsace Lakes. Alsace is particularly beautiful. Honestly, this entire area is a playground.
- Puppet Lake to Hutchinson Meadow or Beyond: Leaving Puppet Lake you'll want to follow the lake to its northernmost point. You should find an "alley" of grass which you should follow. As you walk this alley you'll see a large rock outcropping to the right, it's just past this you'll want to make your way down. You should once again find a dirty use trail amongst the rocky outcroppings. Pick your way down and connect up with the fisherman's trail on the north side of Elba Lake. Head East which will connect you up with the use trail taking you down into French Canyon. Follow the French Canyon Trail to Hutchinson Meadow. At this point you're about 6.2 miles in to your day and dropped 1800'. Stopping here will mean a LONG final day so I suggest you continue at least until you cross the stream feeding Lower Golden Trout Lake (another ~4.3 miles and a gain of 1500'). That's strong day right there - 10.5 miles, drop of 1800'/gain of 1500'. We however continued to Piute Lake (14 miles) making the final day a short 4 miles.
- Piute Lake to North Lake Trailhead: 4 miles, mostly down and time to hit Bishop for breakfast!