Trip Review: Piute Pass to Muriel Lake & Goethe Lakes
Glacial blue lakes & granite crags in Humphrey’s Basin
Trip Overview & Specs
- Region: Ansel Adams Wilderness
- Date of Visit: September 4–5, 2022
- Total Length: ~14 miles
- Elevation Gain: ~2,592 feet
- AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/california/piute-pass-trail
On the back of a cancelled cabin trip near Yosemite, Kristen and I scrambled to pull together a last minute Eastern Sierra trip happen shortly before Labor Day Weekend. I had been wanting to do a true Eastern Sierra adventure for quite some time, but in the past two years have been much more pre-occupied with adventures more proximal to San Francisco, in Big Sur & Yosemite primarily.
Though options were limited, we were able to find a permit for one night in Piute Pass on Kristen’s recommendation and, after scouring Google Earth, I agreed that this would make for a great one-nighter. Piute Pass, whose access begins at North Lake, just north of Sabrina Lake, plays gatekeeper to Humphrey’s Basin, a fantastic alpine valley featuring bountiful lakes including Lake Muriel, Goethe Lake, Desolation Lake, Packsaddle Lake, Paine Lake & Golden Trout Lakes. The area is also home to a handful of glaciers clinging on for dear existence including Goethe Glacier and Matthes Glacier. Notable peaks include the Piute Crags, Mount Muriel, Mount Goethe & Mount Humphreys.
Transit: Genoa, NV ➞ North Lake Parking Lot, Bishop, CA
The Eastern Sierra is a bit more challenging to get to from the Bay Area when compared to Yosemite & Big Sur. All in, you might be in for a 6–8 hour drive each way, depending on your chosen route & traffic. We broke up the drive by staying with my extended family in Genoa, NV (Nevada’s oldest settlement) on Saturday of the long weekend and got to hang out with a couple of delightful derps in the process.
The drive from Genoa to the trailhead took about 3 hours flat, where we found plentiful parking in the North Lake parking lot. We initially drove all the way up to the campground at the trailhead, which is very small and has no parking available unless you have a permit to camp there. The hike from the North Lake parking lot to the trailhead for Piute Pass adds about a half mile each way to the journey.
Day 1: North Lake ➞ Muriel Lake & Goethe Lakes
The trail begins from North Lake Campground, winding up along the north fork of Bishop Creek, which was flowing healthily in late summer. With California undergoing a historic heatwave, we appreciated the tree cover for the first couple miles of the trail, before things opened up around Loch Leven, the first of a number of delightful lakes that sit below Piute Pass.
We passed numerous fisher-persons on our ascent, both those that fished the lower lakes as well as those returning from multi-day fishing treks in the backcountry. I wouldn’t say there are any sections of the climb that are harrowingly steep, but I would characterize miles two and three as the most challenging. The climb to Piute Pass is a modest 4 miles, and took us about three (3) hours to complete.
Once at Piute Pass, you just kind of go left toward Muriel Lake, which isn’t visible from the pass. Eventually a clear trail presents itself, which winds counterclockwise around the lake from your approach. Toward the lake’s center, there are some awesome islands, which you can navigate to simply by following Muriel Peak as a landmark, clockwise around the lake. The best camping in the area is generally right by the lake shore near the islands, though there were a few other sneaky spots we saw some veterans take advantage of.
Once we made camp and offloaded our packs, we made our way up to Goethe Lakes, two lakes sitting below Goethe Glacier. My original ambition had been to hopefully get closer to the glacier itself and the two interesting looking glacial pools directly below it, but time was against us that day.
The path to Goethe Lake can be followed either by boulder scrambling from Muriel Lake in Goethe’s general direction, or by following the trail, which was quite clear in some spots, and scant in others. As we approached the path between the lower & upper segments of Goethe Lake, boulders tended to dominate our path making the trail was much less clear.
Lower Goethe Lake is significantly smaller than the upper portion, but it is hard to tell if you haven’t studied a map beforehand. Both lakes contain glacial sediment which inspire teal / aquamarine coloration, though require the right lighting to really show it off. We visited this area on a fairly moody day, and as such had to be patient for the sun to come out and really let each segment of Goethe Lake shine its best colors.
Back at camp, we realized that we had put our packs down probably 100 yards too soon, and decided to make dinner a bit closer to the water where we could watch the sunset on Muriel Lake / Peak. This shoreline, basically as close as you can get to the islands in the middle of the lake, is probably the flattest & most beautiful place you can make camp at Muriel Lake.
Day 2: Muriel Lake ➞ North Lake Parking Lot ➞ San Francisco, CA
Not much to report here! Back from whence we came — the downhill march was much quicker than the ascent, obviously, and we were back at the car in about an hour and a half, though admittedly we were hauling in ass in anticipation of Labor Day traffic. All in all Piute Pass and our small segment of Humphreys Basin was a beautiful introduction to the Eastern Sierra and I can’t wait to come back.
Lessons Learned & Tips for Success:
- Optimal Length: I would have liked to have spent more than a single night in and around Humphreys Basin if the permits had worked out. There are just so many lakes / peaks in the area and the basin itself it a gateway to many other High Sierra Adventures. Other lakes I would have liked to have explored, and hopefully someday will, include Packsaddle Lake, Payne Lake and Desolation Lake, which sits below the region’s eponymous Mt. Humphreys.
- Fishing Gear: Though I am striving to pack as light as possible these days (seems to always pay off), this entire area has a great reputation as a golden trout fishing spot. In fact, if you Google many any of the bodies of water in this area, the most useful descriptions are often from fishing websites.
- Car Navigation: Google Maps basically only presented two viable options upon our return: (1) drive through Yosemite or (2) drive up to South Lake Tahoe. We ended up driving Sonora Pass, which may not show up automatically on your navigation device. Overall, we found it to be a technical drive but certainly faster than the other two would have been. Yosemite would not have been viable without a drive-in permit anyhow.