ROUTE 2 - Italy-Merriam Pass

Bear and Royce Lakes Basins via Italy, Dancing Bear, Merriam, Pine Creek, and Royce Passes.

Royce Pass back to the northeast.
Easy descent from Royce Pass to Honeymoon Lake.
Upper Royce Lake and the traverse to Royce Pass.
Lower Royce Lake with Merriam and Royce Peaks.
A broad, flat Pine Creek Pass.
Royce Lakes outlet waterfall.
Merriam Lake tralheaad in French Canyon is not obvious.
Meadows below Merriam Lake with the pass behind.
The descent route from Merriam Lake.
Southeast descent to Merriam Lake.
Steep scramble to the top of Merriam Pass.
Steep snow on the northwest approach to Merriam Pass.
Seven Gables Lakes and Gemini Peak.
Vee Lake and Seven Gables Peak.
Big Bear Lake from the east.
Tarns and Black Bear Lake.
White Bear Lake Descending from Dancing Bear Pass.
Southwest to Dancing Bear Pass from Italy Pass.
Hanging shelves in the Granite Park.
Pine Lake from the west.

(Mouseover triggers interactive features.)

Route Description

Route 2 Data TableA "Sierra classic," this cross country loop traverses Bear Lakes Basin to Seven Gables Lakes and Merriam Lake, crossing Italy, Dancing Bear, Merriam, and Pine Creek Passes in about four days. A side trip through the Royce Lakes on the way out, returning over Royce Pass, is well worth an extra day. The total distance, with side trip, is 29 miles.

Permits are available at the USFS station in Bishop. For the trailhead, take Pine Creek Road, about 10 miles north of Bishop on US 395, west past Rovana. The paved access road turns southwest; the Pine Creek trailhead (and pack station) is on the left before reaching the inactive mining operation.

The route initially follows a closed road to the old Brownstone Mine. Ascending the switchbacks can be a bit of a long, hot slog - two miles as the crow flies, but twice that and 1000 ft by trail - so it's probably best to start when it's cool. It's not really until you arrive at Pine Lake that it starts to feel like the high country marker 1. Leave the main trail at Honeymoon Lake and ascend the scenic Granite Park marker 2. Some maps show an unmaintained trail part way, or all the way, over Italy Pass and the going is easy. A bivouac above Honeymoon Lake might be a more pleasant choice if the mosquitos are active. [For future reference, the loop reconnects to this trail near (below) the stream crossing just above Honeymoon Lake.]

From Italy Pass (12,096 ft), follow the crest south and west marker 3 (perhaps over snow) to Dancing Bear Pass (12,076 ft) - Class 2. The lake in front of you as you cross the pass marker 4 is White Bear Lake, and you want to angle down and left to a saddle. Pick a path through smaller ponds marker 5 on some of the more rugged terrain of the route to reach the southwest outlet from Black Bear Lake.

Descend the outlet creek course southwest, crossing a granite shelf between Big Bear Lake marker 6 and Ursa Lake. Continue southwest, climbing though an obvious notch, and descend a ramp toward Vee Lake marker 7, which is a great bivouac.

Traverse the north shore of Vee Lake and cross its outlet, descending south into the Seven Gables Lakes basin toward Gemini Peak marker 8. Easy terrain leads to the northwest approach to Merriam Pass. Crampons, ice axe, and mountaineering skills may be helpful on steep snowfields lower down marker 9, and the pleasant rock scramble to the top marker 10 is Class 2-3. Merriam Pass (11,877 ft) offers a spectacular vantage in both directions.

The southeast side is easier Class 2. Descend to a shelf with a small lake and scope a path southeast toward Merriam Lake marker 11. From here it is slabs and large blocks - leg breaking terrain if you aren't careful - down to the lake. Keep more left, and eventually traverse out left to avoid steep slabs at the bottom. Merriam Lake offers good bivouac opportunities, including back from the lake on the broad, flat plateau to the southeast. marker 12 shows the descent line from across the lake, and the lower slabs to avoid.

Meander over easy terrain down the lake's outlet and across large and scenic meadows marker 13 - Merriam Pass is the right center notch - picking up a trail (shown on some maps) at about the tree line (10,700 ft). The trail is hard to follow in places - it's "going back to nature" - but the navigation is straightforward. In fact it is not obvious where it intersects the main trail in French Canyon marker 14.

The French Canyon trail leads northeast, past the falls marking the outlet of the Royce Lakes marker 15, reaching the broad Pine Creek Pass (11,015 ft) in 3.1 miles marker 16. Descend north and return via the trail to the Pine Creek trailhead, or take a side trip through the Royce Lakes (recommended).

To reach the lower Royce Lakes, traverse WSW, slowly gaining altitude on easy Class 1 terrain until the lower lakes and Merriam and Royce Peaks come into view to the west marker 17. Contour north to the upper lakes; Royce Pass (11,723 ft) is just around to the right, and out of view in marker 18. Royce Pass hardly rises above lake level and isn't much of a "pass" in this direction - just the most obvious way down. Descend northeast toward Honeymoon Lake and the Pine Lakes over Class 1 terrain that is easier than some trails marker 19! Find an opportunity for one last bivouac in the high country; marker 20 shows the pass in morning light from the northeast.

Reconnect with the Italy Pass trail above Honeymoon Lake and follow it 5.9 miles back to Pine Creek trailhead.