Mt. Darwin is the grandfather of the Evolution region of the Sierra Nevada. Its flat-topped summit massif is recognizeable from great distances, and all of its routes are challenging. To the north, Mt. Humphreys is the only Sierra peak that rises higher. There is much loose rock on this peak, particularly on the east faces. The summit is an impressive stack of huge granite blocks that stand detached from the summit plateau. This has been described as class 3 to class 5 by various parties, depending on one's comfort with exposure - the climbing isn't hard, but the fall is.
The easiest (standard) route is the class 3 West Ridge via the Darwin Glacier. This is usually done as a multi-day trip staying overnight in the upper part of Darwin Canyon. The shortest approach for this route is via Lamarck Col out of the North Lake trailhead.
Take Highway 168 west out of Bishop on US395. The Lake Sabrina trailhead (for climbs on the northeast ridge and southeast face) is 18.5 miles up Highway 168 from Bishop (don't take the South Lake or North Lake turn-offs). The trailhead is before the Lake Sabrina dam on the left side of the road, but feel free to drive up to the dam and back down if you want the full tour. Overnight parking is 3/4 mile down the road at the turnoff to North Lake. Bummer. Dayhikers can park immediately next to the trailhead if space is available. Nice.
For approaches to the North Face or west side of Darwin, you'll probably enter via Lamarck Col, so take the North Lake turnoff and park in the overnight lot next to the stables. There is no overnight parking closer to the trailhead unless you occupy a campsite at the campground there. The trailhead to Lamarck Col and Piute Pass is located at the west end of the campground, about a mile from the parking lot. Bummer.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the area. No charge if obtained at the Forest Service office. Parking is free at both the Sabrina Lake and North Lake trailheads. Do not park in the day use areas for overnight trips.
Everything you need to know about permits and regulations can be found on the Eastern Sierra - Logisitcal Center page.
When To Climb
Best time to climb is during the summer and fall months, June-Oct.
Camping is allowed anywhere in the Wilderness, following the usual rules of camping away from trails, streams, and lakes. No fees required.
The peak was named in 1895 by Theodore S. Solomons and E. C. Bonner. '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 Mt. Darwin.' (Solomons in Appalachia 8, no. 1, 1896: 47.)
In his fanciful style, Solomons named a handful of other nearby peaks after the leading scientific minds of his day, including Mt. Fiske, Mt. Haeckel, Mt. Huxley, Mt. Spencer, and Mt. Wallace. Later, nearby Mts. Lamarck and Mendel were named to add to the collection of famous naturalists.
The first ascent was made by E. C. Andrews of the Geological Survey of New South Wales and Willard D. Johnson, USGS, on August 12, 1908. 'I begged [Johnson] to allow me to take our record in the small baking-powder tin ... and place it on the actual summit ... I made use of a monstrous icicle one foot in diameter to assist me in climbing the broken masonry of the outstanding peak. I had just placed the record in position on the summit, and was looking around for a few loose rocks with which to secure it -- and I commenced the fearful descent to the chimney for this purpose -- when it dawned on me that that the descent was more perilous than the ascent ... I thereupon reached upward for the tin, placing it in my pocket, knowing full well that I would never have the courage to make the ascent of the chimney the second time.' (Letter, Andrews to Farquhar, Sept. 26, 1923, in SCB 12, no. 1, 1924: 88-90.)"
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
About Charles Darwin: