Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin is a popular backpacking route in the Eastern Sierras. If you’re looking for an overnight backpacking trip from Bishop, I highly recommend this trail. 6 miles one way, 2000 ft in elevation gain. It’s steep, but short with big sceneries. It’s an Eastern Sierras classic!
The trail starts from South Lake (near Bishop, CA), climbs over Bishop Pass before descending to Dusy Basin in Kings Canyon National Park. This part of Kings Canyon is supposed to beautiful and offer everything you could want in a classic backpacking trip – dramatic views over glittering alpine lakes and granite peaks. I’d wanted to visit for many years, but there just never seems enough summer weekends to do everything I want to do. Sigh, such is life I guess.
This year, I finally decided to make it happen. But first, I had to deal with red tape.
Red Tape: Bishop Pass Permit
To manage the crowd, Inyo National Forest has implemented a quota system that limits the number of people entering trailheads. Permits can be reserved up to 6 months in advance. For popular trailheads such as South Lake – especially for holiday weekends – you DO need to get them 6 months in advance. They’re sold out like *snap* that.
Usually I never plan things that far in advance which was another reason why it’d been so hard to plan for this trip. Who plans things 6 months in advanced? Anyway, I woke up early one morning in March and managed to score 4 permits for Labor Day weekend.
Inyo Forest Wilderness Permit
Even though Dusy Basin is technically located in Kings Canyon National Park, permits are issued by Inyo National Forest where the trailhead is located. A maximum of 36 people are allowed to enter at South Lake trailhead daily; 22 permits are for advanced reservations, while 14 are for walk ups (can be picked up as early as the day before your desired date).
Day hikers do not need a permit.
High Altitude Backpacking
From South Lake trailhead, the trail climbs steadily, passing one alpine lake after another. Long Lake is the first of many lakes on this trail. At 2.7 miles you’ll find a sign to Ruwau Lake (if you’re trying to summit Chocolate Peak, this is the trail you want). After the fork, you’ll pass Spearhead Lake, Saddlerock Lake, and Bishop Lake… Eastern Sierra’s eye candies at their best.
There’s plenty of opportunity to filter water, so no need to carry a lot with you. I brought 1L Nalgene bottle and it was sufficient. (Aquatabs is my go-to water purification tablet).
All of this water only means one thing: mosquitos! Ugh. They were definitely making their presence known. Fortunately they seemed to heavily favor our friends over me. I got by with only 1 bite on this backpacking trip. Which never happened before! I’m usually a mozzy buffet. I definitely need to go backpacking with these guys more often.
(Side note: they use Picaridin-based insect repellant, while I use Lemon Eucalyptus. Coincidence? Possibly.)
As you gain altitude the scenery just gets better. At mile 4, the trail turns into rocky switchbacks, climbing to Bishop Pass at 11,980 ft.
Almost all of Bishop Pass – Dusy Basin trail is at over 10k feet in altitude. The trailhead at South Lake is at 10,000 ft. While Bishop Pass is almost 12,000 ft in altitude.
The high altitude and the 2000 ft elevation gain means we were huffing and puffing pretty much right away. While my lung was screaming for oxygen, my thighs, calves, and hip started sending out all sorts of emergency signal. They hadn’t worked this hard for… awhile.
I’m SO glad we had our friends with us. The suffering is less bad with the camaraderie. Misery loves company. I get it now.
Our friends who joined us on this trip brought along their 16 month old toddler. During his 16-month long existence, this baby has gone on plenty of camping trips, plane rides, and other adventures. This was, however, baby’s first backpacking trip.
Jack and I were curious how it was all going to work out. Carrying a pack with your tent, sleeping bag, and food is hard enough, but lugging a 25 lb baby? At altitude? That’s just legit hardcore.
Spoiler alert: Between the 5 of us, baby had the best time and slept the most sound.
Death on the Trail
On the switchback section up Bishop Pass we came across a macabre tableau. 3 years ago, dozens of mule deer fell down Bishop Pass to their death. Remnants of this incident – skeletons and bones, some still covered with patches of fur – are scattered around the trail.
I was sad for the deer, of course – but at the time, I was simply glad for the distraction from the fact I was totally out of breath and out of shape.
Our Camp at Dusy Basin
After a quick break at the pass, we dropped down towards Dusy Basin. We decided to camp by the first lake we come across at 11.000 ft. There were a few possible campsites around this beautiful lake with its smooth granite shores, meadows, and secluded coves. Remember that you’re supposed to camp at least 100 ft from water. Here’s a link to 7 Leave No Trace principles in case you need a refresher.
All 4 of us were experiencing signs of altitude sickness by this point. While setting up tent, I had a tightness around my temple that throbbed whenever I moved my head too fast. I got through the camp set-up pretending I was wearing a neck brace. Still, I insisted in downing a can of beer I brought with me. Yeah, that probably didn’t help. Me so dumb sometimes.
Thankfully in my case, after some Advil and food I was as good as new.
After dinner, we hiked around the lake enjoying the beautiful pre-dusk light.
South Lake to Dusy Basin Backpacking Stats
Trailhead: South Lake, 20 miles from the town of Bishop, CA (full amenities).
Length: 13 mi (round trip)
Starting Elevation: 10.000 ft
Maximum Elevation: 12.000 ft
Difficulty: Medium – Hard
Trail Type: Out-and-back
Best Hiking Season: Summer (depending on snow cover)
Time: 5-6 hours each way
Permit required: Yes. It can be picked up at any Inyo Wilderness Office (locations).
Parking: Overnight parking is available at the trailhead. Overflow parking is available about 1 mile before the
From where we camped, the trail would eventually meet up with the legendary John Muir Trail at LeConte Canyon. Jack and I did a part of JMT many years ago. We had a great time and I wonder why we’ve never gone back to complete it.
This backpacking trip Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin reminded me how much I missed being out there. I’d been so focused on climbing and general traveling that I’d forgotten how rewarding it is to hear the silence of the wilderness. There’s a certain appeal to the mundaneness of packing and re-packing your backpack, filtering water, and doing nothing but watching the sky change colors.
This year has been a tough year for many reasons. I was glad to be able to unplug and recharge, to find my bearing and sanity. Once again I was reminded how luck we are, us Americans, to have all of this public land to do just that.
I definitely would love to come back. I just need to plan 6 months ahead of time.
- Insect Repellant. You need it, trust me. The mozzies are relentless. I prefer non-Deet repellants such as Lemon Eucalyptus (this one) or Picaridin based sprays. They’ve been proven as effective as Deet-based.
- Cooking equipment. We use our trusty, 10 year old, Jetboil. For dinner we rely on freeze-dried Backpacker Pantry foods. Keep it simple.
- Water filter/tablets. I’ve been using Aquatabs for travels and backpacking for years now. It’s tasteless and super easy to use.
- Bear canisters. Bear-proof canisters are required in Dusy Basin. Available to rent from your local Sports Basement or REI.