Mt Darwin

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | California hikes
Pictures of the hikes
One can reach Mt Darwin (4215m, N37.16690 / W118.6706) in a day hike either
  1. via North Lake and Lamarck Col (northern routes that usually involve snow/ice climbing)
  2. via Lake Sabrina to the Haeckel-Darwin Pass to Evolution Lake to the southwestern face (probably the easiest route, but very long as a day hike)
  3. via Lake Sabrina or North Lake to the northeastern ridge (above Blue Heaven Lake) to the east face
Note that the summit block is not easy to climb if there is still snow. Best is to do Mt Darwin in late summer and in a year of low snowpack.

North Face

The North Lake trailhead is located near Lake Sabrina, west of Bishop off 168. It requires about 3kms of driving on unpaved road. The only way to leave the car at the North Lake trailhead is to take a campsite. Otherwise you have to leave the car at the hikers' parking lot 2kms before the trailhead. The North Lake trailhead splits almost immediately: the main trail goes up towards Piute Pass, the left trail goes to the Lamarck Lakes. Take the left one to the Lamarck Lakes. In less than one hour you reach the lower lake. Continue following the trail. After crossing a creek, the trail heads towards the second Lamarck lake. Unfortunately the trail is not easy to follow. You need to know where it continues. If uncertain, just climb the hill that you are ascending and you'll find it on the other side. From there on that use trail is usually easy to follow. It climbs to a saddle, then down into a canyon, then up along a creek towards the plateau of Mt Lamarck. To the southwest of Mt Lamarck is a snow field. Depending on the season, it might be easy to coast it to the south. When you hit the big boulders, you can ascend to the left and find a way to completely bypass the snow (even in early summer) by staying high up almost at the top of the ridge.

(If you want to climb Mt Lamarck (4090m), it is fairly easy: before the snow field, climb up the class-2 slope on the right, a tedious but simple ascent).

When you reach the top of Lamarck Col (almost 4000m) you are welcomed by the sign of the Kings Canyon national park and you have a great view of the lakes of Darwin Canyon,

not to mention Mt Darwin and Mt Mendel in front of you.

You want to head for the ridge to your left (east) so you don't lost elevation, coasting the moraine that comes down from Darwin. If you stay right on the ridge, you'll have good views of the lakes on the other side, including Lake Sabrina in the distance. Eventually you'll be forced to lose elevation and head for the glacier. When you enter the glacier, the northeast ridge is on your left, the prominent rib of the north face is on your right. In the middle is a very steep glacier. If you have crampons, you can try and climb the glacier, although it is truly scary. If not, the rib is class 3 and 4, sometimes with exposure.

My 2009 time:

  • North Lake trailhead (2,800m)
  • Lower Lamarck Lake: 1h
  • Lamarck Col (3945m): 4h
  • Notch of the eastern ridge: 5h
  • Entering the glacier: 6h
  • Bottom of the north rib: 7h

Coming down you have the option of using one of the many "passes" on the eastern ridge to descend to Blue Haven Lake or (easier) the lakes above Lake Sabrina. Or just return to Lamarck Col.

Western Face

This is (as far as climbing goes) the easiest way to get on Mt Darwin, but unfortunately it is very far from every trailhead. As a day hike, it is extremely long (it took me over 20 hours). You can get there either via Lake Sabrina and the Haeckel-Darwin Pass or via North Lake, Darwin Canyon and Evolution Lake.

Lake Sabrina (2780m) is located at the end of 168, west of Bishop. From Bishop take 168 west, aka West Line St, all the way to the end.

The trailhead for the Lake Sabrina routes is located before the Lake Sabrina dam on the left-hand side of the road. There are very few parking spots and overnight parking is not allowed. There is free parking along the road near the campground (about 1km before the dam).

After coasting Lake Sabrina for about 2 kms, the trail climbs steeeply to Blue Lake. Logs help you cross the creek that drains Blue Lake. At the fork for Donkey Lake take the right turn towards Dingleberry Lake. Careful not to end up at Donkey Lake. It is very easy to make a mistake here, as the trail disappears and only cairns mark the route: you should be turning 90 degrees west away from the lake if you are on the right trail. This frustrating trail goes up and down. It drops elevation to Dingleberry Lake, that will be on your right handside. After passing this lake, and after another creek crossing over stones, you reach another fork. You can go left to Hungry Packer Lake, or right to Midnight Lake (3300m). Ideally go right towards Midnight Lake but, before reaching Midnight Lake, head for the ridge to your left as soon as you can. You can easily find the chute that leads you to the top.

In 2010 i left lots of cairns along my favorite route, which is all class 1-2. At the top of that broad chute (that splits the ridge north-south in two) climb the crest to your right and stay on the crest all the way. When you reach a massive pinnacle, bypass it to the left. On the other side of the pinnacle you will notice the very steep chute that descends straight to Midnight Lake. (When coming back down, head for the pinnacle.

At the pinnacle you could take the very steep chute down to Midnight Lake. Just keep in mind that there is always snow in this chute and you reach Midnight Lake's western tip, which implies a long traverse over talus rock to reach the trail. Better bypass the pinnacle and stay on the crest. Stay right in the middle of the crest and you should find my cairns. Ignore any small chute. The chute you want splits the crest in two causing a 100-meter chasm.

Drop into that chasm and it should be obvious how to descend the chute to your left. Again, look for my cairns that avoid all the snow patches and take you past Midnight Lake. If you continue straight down, you will hit the lake northeast of Midnight Lake and don't forget that the trail is on the other side of this lake).

If you are doing this in early summer or in a year of heavy snow, you are better off going towards Hungry Packer Lake and climbing the ridge from its northern side (southern side of the lake).

At this point you are entering a plateau (actually up and down) with several small lakes and with Mt Haeckel towering on the left.

From this point (whether you came from Midnight Lake or Hungry Packer Lake) it is just a matter of climbing one ridge after the other of the "plateau" (while proceeding west) and coasting a series of small lakes. Eventually the wall connecting Haeckel and Darwin becomes very visible. There is one last lake (3762m). Coast the lake to the right and head for the easily climbable part of the wall, near the Darwin side of the crest. At the top of this wall you have a view of the other side: there is a lake to the left/south, and a ridge leading to Mt Spencer in front of you.

Once on the other side of this pass, follow the ridge in front (west) avoiding the pinnacles and drops (better walk to the left of the edge). Your next destination is Spencer Lake, to the right/north of the ridge that you are walking (3533m). Skip the first chute to the right that would take you nowhere. The second one is also steep and usually full of snow. The third one, however, is mild class-2. The northern side might be full of snow, but the ridge to the right of the snow should be easily mastered. Once you are down, head north and you will find yourself on top of the Spencer-Darwin ridge that comes up from Evolution Lake.

The other way to get to Darwin's west face is from Lamarck Pass and Darwin Canyon. From North Lake to Lamarck Pass and Darwin Canyon see the Evolution loop for more details. En route you are entertained by good views of Mt Darwin's and Mt Mendel's north faces:

If you follow this route, climbing Lamarck Pass, following Darwin Canyon and then meeting the John Muir trail as high as possible, you will have to walk south along Evolution Lake for almost all its length (until you are clear of the granite slope on your left) and then climb towards the base of the chutes (keeping the Spenceer-Darwin ridge to your right), a very long hike.

Time-wise, it's hard to tell if you are better off starting from Lake Sabrina or from North Lake. The route via Lake Sabrina and Haeckel Pass drops your right at the base of the chutes.

If arriving from the Spencer-Darwin cirque, the route to the base of the chutes is relatively obvious: just climb the ridge south of Spencer, staying as east as possible, then climb down progressively while heading towards Darwin's west face. This will save you most of the tiring bouldering that people experience when coming up from Evolution Lake. The chute is straight up from this location.

It looks like it is the only chute that can be accessed from the west (let's call it the "middle chute"). It dead-ends after 20 meters. Big cairns show how to climb the ridge to the left so as to enter the chute to its north (let's call it the "north chute"). This one splits almost immediately: the left side is easier (solid rocky ridge) and takes you straight to the Mendel-Darwin ridge but with a scary traverse to reach Darwin's summit plateau; the right branch is tougher (much more scree) but avoids the gap. The split is not obvious: you are likely to go left simply because it's easier. When you finally (one hour or so) reach the ridge on this northern left branch, you have to move right and do some class-3 moves. As you are doing this, you will notice a notch from which you can reenter the middle right chute (if you continue on the ridge you will reach an impassable gap). A big cairn marked this junction in 2011. The downclimb is short and not as difficult as it looks. Whichever way you came, the middle right chute deadends against a wall. Keep moving to the chute to the right of where you are as you encounter dead ends. You are basically traversing to your right, keeping approximately the same elevation. In 2011 there were cairns to mark this traverse. Finally the climbing turns easy and you surface on the summit plateau. You still have about 15 minutes to walk to reach the summit block, which is detached from the plateau.

To reach the summit block, descend the little chute that leads to it and walk to the eastern side of the block. One chute leads up and then a steep crack leads to the very last three boulders.

Note that snow/ice would make it difficult (if not impossible) to hike the summit block.

Here is the loop i did in early september 2011 (yes, i hiked all day and all night long):

  • Lake Sabrina (2780m):
  • Muir sign 20'
  • Second waterfall and beginning of switchbacks 50'
  • Blue lake, crossing on logs 1h30'
  • Donkey Lake junction (go right!) and downhill 1h50'
  • End of downhill and small creek crossing 2h5'
  • Dingleberry Lake and crossing on rocks (3200m) 2h30til058
  • Midnight-Hungry Packers sign 3h15'
  • Base of Midnight Lake chute or Hungry Packer lake (3370m): 3h
  • Pinnacle 5h30'
  • Last lake (3762m)
  • Haeckel-Darwin Pass (3962m): 7h30'
  • Chute to Spencer-Darwin cirque 8h30'
  • Outlet of Spencer Lake (3533m) 9h
  • Entrance to middle chute 10h30'
  • Top of chute 12h30'
  • Mt Darwin's plateau 13h
  • Summit block 13h30'
  • Top of summit block 14h
  • Evolution Lake and John Muir trail (3300m) 15h
  • Leaving the trail to go right and up 16h
  • Darwin Canyon 17h30'
  • Last lake and start climbing to Lamarck Col 19h
  • Lamarck Pass (3945m) 20h30'
  • Lamarck Lake 22h30'
  • North Lake 24h
My 2012 time via Lamarck Col:
  • Hiker's parking lot (not the same thing as the trailhead)
  • North Lake trailhead: 12'
  • First lake (creek crossing): 1h10'
  • Second lake (double creek crossing before the lake): 1h45'
  • Saddle: 2h45'
  • Lamarck Col (3945m): 4h45'
  • Lake Darwin 4: 5h30'
  • Lake Darwin 1 (3500m): 6h15'
  • Lake Darwin 0: 7h
  • John Muir trail at Evolution Lake (3300m): 7h45'
  • Base of chute: 10h
  • Summit plateau: 11h 45'
  • Summit block: 12h
  • Evolution Lake: 14.5 hours
  • Darwin 4: 17.5 hours
  • Lamarck Col: 19.5 hours
  • North Lake: 23 hours

East Face

Most people reach the East Face via Lake Sabrina. See above how to get to Lake Sabrina and to Dingleberry Lake. From Dingleberry Lake you have two options: 1. The straight way is to climb up one of the creeks that come down from the western ridge (both of them have a lot of trees) until you get to a sort of line that goes up diagonally towards Mt Darwin, emerging in the plateau with a few tiny lakes; 2. If you prefer to stay on trail as long as possible, continue on the trail past Dingleberry Lake, and turn right to Blue Heron Lake, from where you head northwest towards the plateau before the East Face. At the northwestern corner of Mt Darwin find a chute that takes you to the northeastern ridge. This chute requires major climbing skills. When you get to this ridge, you will have a view of the Darwin glacier to your left and north of Lamarck Col.

The other (easier) way to get to this ridge is to take the Lamarck Col route from North Lake. See above. When you reach Lamarck Col, head east on sandy/rocky terrain (but i found a use trail) and then coast the crest that separates Darwin Canyon (to your right) from the Schober Holes (to your left). At some point you can't continue on the crest and you are forced to descend into the canyon that comes down from Darwin's glacier. Climb that until you reach the notch at the base of Darwin's northeastern ridge.

Another way to get there is to hike along Lake Sabrina till the switchbacks begin and go left (west) up the creek that drains the Fishgut Lakes. That creek comes down from the Schober Holes. Northwest from the highest Hole there is a mild chute that takes to the lowest point in the crest between Lamarck Col and the Darwin glacier.

Whichever way you came, you now need to climb the northeastern ridge until it becomes possible to move left/south towards a prominent rib. Climb to the other side of the rib and head for the next rib. Climb this one too and you should see the central chute that goes towards the summit. The main difficulty of this route is the northeastern ridge, which has a class-4 section.

Pictures of Darwin's East Face:

View from Mt Darwin
Pictures of this hike
View from Mt Darwin
The classic southeast face route
Evolution loop via Lamark Col, Darwin Canyon, Evolution Lake
Southern Evolution loop via Wallace Col and Echo Pass
Weather forecast for Mt Darwin and Mendel
A possible northern route from Lamarck Col:

Topomap of Darwin: