Bear Basin Lollipop
August 16, 2019 - August 19, 2019
This trip report covers a four day trip in a northern section of the John Muir Wilderness, specifically the Pine Creek, Royce Lakes, Bear Basin, Italy Pass, and Granite Park areas. As usual I’ve invested more energy in the photographs, but I’ll do my best to add some colour with descriptions and personal commentary where necessary.
The Bear Basin is one of the most discussed off-trail areas of the Sierra. This scenic basin is relatively easy to reach and offers more solitude than many areas of the High Sierra, combined with a variety of recreation opportunities, most notably trout fishing.
I planned this trip with my good friend Braden. The two of us are fairly fit, so we laid out a somewhat ambitious itinerary. We would start at the Pine Creek Trailhead, then climb to Granite Park before crossing Croft Col and BeaRoyce Pass into the Bear Basin. From there, we’d go north over Dancing Bear Pass then Gabbott Pass, and down the Second Recess to Mono Creek. Then we would take the trail back to the Pine Creek Trailhead via Mono Pass, the Little Lakes Valley, and Morgan Pass. This amounted to something like 40 or 50 miles, a third of which were cross country. We had 5 days for hiking, so this seemed reasonable.
The food.
The gear.
Day 1: Pine Creek Trailhead to Honeymoon Lake
6.5 miles, +3,000
After picking up our permit in Mammoth Lakes, we started hiking from the Pine Creek Trailhead around noon. It was very hot.
The old Tungsten mine near the trailhead. There’s some fascinating history and information about the mine on this website.
A mineshaft of the Brownstone Mine in the rock along the trailhead.
Pine Creek cascading down a waterfall below Pine Lake.
The view of Pine Creek and the Owens Valley below from near the top of the initial climb to Pine Lake. From the trailhead, the trail climbs 2,500’ to the first lake along Pine Creek, Pine Lake. The climb is never particularly steep, it’s largely on an old mining road, but the heat of the Owens Valley can make it tough.
Great alpine views from Pine Lake.
A lovely spot along Pine Creek, just above Pine Lake.
A lovely Brook Trout caught in Honeymoon Lake.
We made it to Honeymoon Lake by mid afternoon and decided to camp there, rather than push on to a higher elevation. We enjoyed a good afternoon fishing in Honeymoon Lake before the mosquitos set in.
Honeymoon Lake.
Upper Pine Lake.
We spotted this animal flying around near camp and debated whether it was a hummingbird or a moth for a little while. Eventually we settled on moth, but only after getting a good picture of it. Turns out, it was a White-Lined Sphinx Moth, and we weren’t the first to struggle with this question.
Sunset on one of the mountains on the Pine Creek / Rock Creek divide.
Indian Paintbrush on the shore of Honeymoon Lake.
This evening, mosquitos descended on us, forcing us into our tent shortly after dinner. Despite it being mid-August, they were still full-on summer mosquitos. We hoped for some relief over the next few days.
Day 2: Honeymoon Lake to Bear Basin
6.7 miles, +2,500
Some sunrise photos at Honeymoon Lake.
Our plan for today was to climb to Granite Park, cross to Royce Lakes via Croft Col, and then to the Bear Basin via BeaRoyce Col. The bugs were nowhere near as bad this morning as the night before.
Looking back east over Honeymoon Lake.
Nearing tree line in the Granite Park area.
Great views all around from Granite Park.
Overlooking a meadow with Mount Humphreys in the background.
Braden strolling through a meadow in Granite Park.
The view of Croft Col (the angled snow chute) from the unnamed lake just to the east.
The view directly up Croft Col.
Braden climbing slabs towards Croft Col.
The view of the uppermost Royce Lake from Croft Col. The pass was not difficult at all, only about 400-600 feet of class 1 from the unnamed lake. The upper Royce Lake still had a fair bit of snow floating in it, even this late in the year. The imposing face of Feather Peak is directly across the lake in this picture.
Views of Royce Lakes, with Mount Humphreys and the Palisades in the background.
BeaRoyce Col from below. The col is the low point on the ridge above the snowfield. From this angle it looked like a pretty steep snowfield. We weren’t sure we would be able to make it, but thought we would give it a try and go back the other way if it was too steep.
A better view of Mount Humphreys and the Palisades.
Royce Lakes from partway up BeaRoyce Col.
The upper part of BeaRoyce Col. It was quite steep, but the soft snow, suncups, and occasional rock outcrops made it doable.
Braden climbing BeaRoyce Col.
Braden on the sand slopes at the top of BeaRoyce Col.
Sky Pilot atop BeaRoyce Col.
The Bear Basin. From BeaRoyce Col. We were very excited to get our first views of this rarely visited alpine basin. The mountain on the left is Seven Gables, and the three lakes in the foreground are Bear Paw, Ursa, and Big Bear Lake.
After a couple of short downclimbs, the descent from BeaRoyce Col was much easier than the climb.
More Bear Basin views.
Looking back at Feather Peak.
Erratics atop slabs.
We set up camp just below Ursa Lake on a sandy flat patch. To our surprise, there was another couple across the outlet stream, about a hundred feet away.
Braden fishing in Ursa Lake. We didn’t catch much, maybe one fish each.
Evening views, with the other tent nestled in the rocks.
Braden fishing Ursa Lake some more.
The last light of the day on Seven Gables.
The mosquitos were much more tolerable here than the night before. We were able to eat dinner outside without headnets.
We discussed our plan for the next couple of days over dinner. Given the pace we were moving, we would have to hike most of the next two days to complete our loop over Dancing Bear, Gabbott, Mono, and Morgan Passes. We weren’t too excited about that ratio of hiking to relaxing, so we decided to use the Italy Pass shortcut. In order to see some new scenery, though, we planned to camp in the Chalfant Lakes basin. That meant that tomorrow, we would cross Dancing Bear and Italy Passes and then drop down to the Chalfant Lakes area.
Day 3: Bear Basin to Chalfant Lakes
5.1 miles, +1,200
In the morning, we decided to climb to the unnamed high point in the middle of the Bear Basin. From here, we had a great view of Vee Lake.
The view of Big Bear and Ursa Lakes from the high point.
A curious marmot was poking around camp as we packed up in the morning.
A stream flowing down into Big Bear Lake.
Big Bear Lake.
Braden climbing above Black Bear Lake.
The view through a notch across White Bear Lake.
White Bear Lake and Seven Gables.
Dancing Bear Pass.
Italy Pass and Mount Julius Caesar from Dancing Bear Pass.
Jumble Lake and Lake Italy from the big contour to Italy Pass.
Braden on a snowfield with Dancing Bear Pass in the background.
Italy Pass and Mount Julius Caesar.
Granite Park again, with Mount Humphreys in the background.
Looking back at Dancing Bear Pass.
Granite Park views, with some clouds starting to build overhead.
Chalfant Lakes from above. The descent from Granite Park was a little bit tricky, but we probably didn’t pick the easiest route.
Beautiful meadows and light timber at the upper Chalfant Lake.
Lingering late-season wildflowers.
More Chalfant Lakes views.
A golden trout caught in one of the Chalfant Lakes. The fishing in this basin was incredible, the best I’ve ever seen in the Sierra. We got a bite on almost every cast.
Mount Julius Caesar above the lakes.
The mosquitos were quite bearable again tonight, despite being so close to Honeymoon Lake where they were intolerable only two nights earlier.
I took a couple of star photos from the tent, this one turned out pretty well.
Day 4: Chalfant Lakes to Pine Creek Trailhead
7.9 miles, +300
Sunrise photos of Mount Julius Caesar above Chalfant Lakes.
Looking east over the Pine Creek drainage.
Another of Mount Julius Caesar, just as the sun began to hit the lake.
More morning photos in the Chalfant Lakes basin.
The direct descent along the creek to Honeymoon Lake looked a bit too brushy from below, so we opted to cross the shoulder south of the lakes.
Great view of the Chalfant Lakes and Mount Julius Caesar.
Braden standing atop the ridge, with great views of the peaks across Granite Park.
The high clouds made for great photo conditions.
We had a bit of a hard time finding a way down from the ridge. We were cliffed out a couple of times and ended up having to downclimb once or twice until we found a gully where we could descend to the trail.
Honeymoon Lake from above.
Pine Creek above Pine Lake.
Colorful Peak 12245 rising above Pine Lake.
One last view of the mountains across Pine Lake.
Fireweed flowers.
We began our descent back towards the Owens Valley. On our way down, we ran into a number of groups headed up for the week. It sounded like Mount Julius Caesar was a very popular objective.
Another shot of the mineshafts of the brownstone mine.
The clouds added some texture to the background of this photo of the unnamed peak rising above the abandoned mine.
We reached the car again early afternoon after a long descent down the Pine Creek trail. We had one more night before we had to be home, so we decided to head up to Mammoth and get a campsite near one of the lakes where we could fish and enjoy one more night under the stars.
The Next Day
We got a campsite at the Lake Mary campground that night, where a visitor came by in the early evening (sorry for the blurry photo).
The next morning, we stopped at the Whoa Nellie Deli on our way home and saw professional climber Brad Gobright.
We took the scenic route through the park and stopped in Tuolumne Meadows to fish for an hour or so. Braden caught a couple of small trout, but I didn’t have any luck.
Looking Back
This was a very pleasant trip. It’s always fun to share the outdoors with others and finding strong, capable partners lets you do that while pushing yourself. We struck a good balance of pushing ourselves, visiting some remote and scenic places, and relaxing. Here are my thoughts on a few things specific for this trip.
The Pine Creek Trailhead is not a particularly easy trailhead. Sure, it’s no Taboose or Sawmill Pass, but using this trailhead is signing up for at least 3,000’ of climbing early in your trip. The fact that this trailhead is right next to the much more inviting Rock Creek Trailhead makes Pine Creek even less inviting. That said, if your goal is Granite Park, Royce Lakes, or the Bear Basin, this is your best bet.
The hike up the abandoned mining road from the trailhead to the lowest of the Pine Lakes leaves much to be desired, but after this 90 minutes of hard work, the scenery and hiking improve dramatically.
Specific Areas
I’ll comment specifically on Royce Lakes, the Bear Basin, and Chalfant Lakes.
Royce Lakes was an impressive display of High Sierra grandeur. The high elevation of these lakes meant they were mostly frozen, and there wasn’t much vegetation growing in the basin. The relief with Merriam, Royce, and Feather Peak to the west was very impressive. It didn’t look like there was anywhere in this basin to make a comfortable camp.
The Bear Basin was also quite remarkable. The alpine lakes nestled among granite and high peaks made a lovely lakes basin scene. It’s easy to see why this area is so popular. We camped here for one night and saw one other group also camping, and four others hiking around the area. While it wasn’t complete solitude, it also wasn’t overrun by any means. We had some trouble with the fishing in this area, only catching one fish in a couple of hours of fishing.
Finally, the Chalfant Lakes areas was another fantastic spot, and it was quite close to the Italy Pass Trail. We found excellent fishing, great scenery, and solitude here, and I’d highly recommend trying to get to this basin for a night instead of camping along Pine Creek. The only gotcha is that the access is a little bit tricky.
Finally, I’ll add some brief commentary about each of the passes we crossed, in order.
The hardest thing about Croft Col is figuring out exactly where to leave the Pine Creek Trail to find the lake below the pass. Well, that or the small bit of talus on the north and west shores of the lake. After that, the ~500’ climb to the pass is straightforward. The views of Feather Peak and Royce Lakes from the pass are very good.
BeaRoyce Col is a bit of a different story. For our mid-summer trip after a big snow year, we found extensive snow in the upper Royce Lakes Basin and the east side of this pass. This made for a tricky ascent of this pass. There were a couple of spots which were almost too steep, but the soft, suncupped snow granted us stable footing. In addition to terrain difficulties, we had a bit of trouble identifying the exact location of the pass, it’s a small notch to the right on the ridgeline, but the left chute is equally inviting. Near the top, the snow turned to sand which was safer, but no more enjoyable to climb. The views from the top of the pass were awesome. The west side of the pass was a couple of short downclimbs, then easy scree and sand skiing down, which would be miserable to climb.
Dancing Bear Pass was pretty straightforward from the Bear Basin. The only noteworthy section was from Black Bear Lake to White Bear Lake, where we found some large gullies that had to be skirted. The final pitch and plateau to the pass was unremarkable. The long contour to Italy Pass was tedious, but easy.
Finally, Italy Pass was the easiest, as it has a trail over it, but the trail is a bit difficult to follow. We didn’t find it on the west side of the pass, but crossed it at the top of the pass. On the way down, through Granite Park, it disappears and reappears constantly. You’re better off not worrying about it above about 11,400’. The views of Granite Park and Mount Humphreys from Italy Pass are awesome.
I think that’s about it for this trip report, hope you enjoyed it!