A Short Walk in the Sierra Nevada

Evolution Valley and Muir Pass (I)

This page includes photos and short descriptions of the hike in Evolution Valley and the traverse of the Muir Pass, one of the most spectacular sections of the Pacific Coast Trail and the John Muir Trail (which coincide here). This is one of those mythic or "iconic" sections of these trails which will certain leave a lasting impression on hikers.

The hike up Evolution Valley and over the Muir Pass was on August 7 and 8, 2011. The winter of 2011 was an exceptionally high snow year in most of the Sierra Nevada, so that even in early August there was still lots of snow at high altitude, especially on both sides of Muir Pass, from Wanda Lake to the Muir Hut at the summit of the pass and to Helen Lake south of the pass. The crossing of Evolution Creek, one of the more challenging stream crossings during the spring run-off, was not problematic - snowmelt at lower altitudes had ended.

Evolution Valley in the Sierra Nevada,
from the junction of Evolution Creek and the San Joaquin River
to Muir Pass. Evolution Basin is the upper part of the valley,
from Evolution Lakes to the Pass, above tree line.

From north to south / west to east, Evolution Valley starts at the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, into which flows Evolution Creek, at an altitude of  8486 feet / 2590 metres, and rises to Muir Pass at 11,991 feet / 3655 metres, a vertical rise of 3,500 feet / 1075 metres. The trail distance from the junction of the San Joaquin River and Evolution Creek to the summit of Muir Pass is 15.4 miles / 24.8 kilometres (mile 113.2 to mile 128.6 in the Blackwoods Press  John Muir Trail Atlas).

The trail includes one major unbridged crossing of Evolution Creek - often an exciting wade during the spring run-off -  and three high meadows, Evolution Meadow, McClure Meadow and Colby Meadow. Most backpackers camp at least one night in Evolution Valley before crossing Muir Pass (or after crossing Muir Pass, if heading north). Planning the PCT or the JMT should include camping in Evolution Basin, the upper part of the valley, either at Evolution Lakes or Wanda Lake, one of the high alpine lakes on the north side of Muir Pass.

Eight peaks on the east side of Evolution Basin are named for important nineteenth century scientists associated with the theory of evolution. Most were named in 1895 by Theodore S. Solomons and E. C. Bonner.  Solomons, who is credited with the idea of constructing a hiking trail parallel to the Sierra Crest, wrote in 1896: "Immediately upon our right towered a long, thin ridge of reddish buff granite, fully two miles in length, whose crest rose into several peaks, the whole upper surface of the wall being crowned with fantastically shaped pinnacles ... which we called Mount Darwin." (Solomons in Appalachia 8, no. 1, 1896: 47). The peak at the south side of Muir Pass is named for Solomons.

Solomons named a handful of other nearby peaks after the leading scientific minds of his day, including Mount Fiske, Mount Haeckel, Mount Huxley, Mount Spencer, and Mount Wallace. Later, nearby Mount Lamarck and Mount Mendel were named to add to the collection of famous naturalists (see below). Missing from this scientific pantheon is Charles Lyell (1797-1875) - but Lyell has a entire canyon and distinctive peak named just him, south of Toulomne Meadows. Lyell was a geologist whose theory that the earth was far older than was thought at the time, mid-19th century, addressed one of the major scientific objections to the theory of evolution - that there simply was not enough time for incremental changes to organisms resulting in new species to take place.

There are several other major named peaks bordering Evolution Basin. The most prominent is The Hermit (12328 ft / 3758 m), clearly visible from the the lower Evolution Creek since it seems to straddle the upper basin, Mount Goethe to the east, and Mount Warlow east of Wanda Lakes. Mount Solomons, to the west of Muir Pass, is the east end of a long ridge that rises to Mount Goddard, 10 kilometres west of the pass. Mount Goddard (13568 ft / 4136 m) is named for George Henry Goddard, the civil engineer who surveyed the Sierra Nevada in the 1850s.

Enjoy! Happy hiking!

Paul Ladouceur


Mount Darwin - 13831 ft / 4216 m
Charles Darwin (1809-1882), British naturalist; originator of the theory of evolution
through natural selection.

Mount Lamarck  - 13417 ft / 4090 m
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (
1744-1829), French naturalist, proponent of evolution on the basis of acquired characteristics.

Mount Mendel - 13710 ft / 4179 m
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), Austrian botanist and geneticist.

Mount Haeckel - 13418 ft / 4090 m
Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), German naturalist and philosopher.

Mount Wallace - 13377 ft / 4077 m
Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), British naturalist and geographer, co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of evolution.

Mount Spencer - 12421 ft / 3786 m
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), British philosopher and biologist.

Mount Huxley - 13086 ft / 3989 m
Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), British biologist and anatomist.

Mount Fiske - 13503 ft / 4116 m
John Fiske (1842-1901), American philosopher and historian,  populariser of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Mount Solomons - 13040 ft / 3975 m
Theodore Solomons (18701947), American explorer, naturalist and writer who first had the idea, in 1884, of a trail parallel to the crest of the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, which eventually became the John Muir Trail.

Day 1 - August 7, 2011

 JMT junction with Piute Pass Trail
adjacent to the South Fork
of the San Joaquin River to Evolution Lake

20.6 kms / 12.8 mi.
849 m. / 2785 ft. elevation gain

Goddard Canyon, South Fork of the San Joaquin River
 above the junction with Evolution Creek

Goddard Canyon

Bridge spanning the San Joaquin River

Goddard Canyon Wall

Evolution Creek

Hardy flowers
(may be
Cistanthe - Pussypaws - which one?)

Boiling Evolution Creek

Waterfall on lower Evolution Creek

Looking west down Evolution Creek

Evolution Creek

Cauldrons on Evolution Creek

Evolution Creek running over granite slabs

Evolution Creek just below the crossing

Sign at the crossing with ranger advice

Evolution Creek crossing after the spring run-off

South wall of Evolution Valley

Indian Paintbrush to brighten the hike

McClure Meadow, the second
of three meadows along the creek

McClure Meadow looking upstream
The triangular peak in the centre background is The Hermit
To the left, slopes of Mounts Mendel and Darwin

Friendly ranger warning

Colby Meadow

Kelley's Lily (Lilium kelleyanum),
a type of Tiger Lily - 
easily the most beautiful flowers in the valley

Unnamed peak south of Evolution Valley

Another Kelley's Lily

Evolution Lake (10870 ft / 3310 m.) - a great place to camp
The triangular peak in the middle is Mount Spencer

Evolution Lake outlet

Evolution Lake outlet

Sunset over Evolution Basin

Slopes of Mount Mendel

Reflection of Mount Mendel

Mount Mendel

Sunset and ...

Moonrise -
end of a great day's hiking

Click here for Day 2

Check out our video The Best of the John Muir Trail

Online: 11-07-14