Backpacking: Big Pine Lakes
“Third time’s the charm” has never had as much meaning as it did this past weekend. The last two years in a row I have had permits to backpack Big Pine Lakes, but for reasons due to weather, fire, and Elton John, they have all been cancelled (and yes, Elton was totally worth it on his Yellow Brick Road tour). This past weekend, those backpacking dreams came true and I laid my eyes on what might be one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen.
PREPARING FOR YOUR ADVENTURE
Securing Your Wilderness Permit
If you’d like to experience the desolation and beauty of Big Pine Lakes, the first thing you’ll need to do is secure a permit for North Fork Big Pine Creek. You can day hike here without a permit, but any overnight stays require a permit that you can secure up to six months in advance from recreation.gov. I HIGHLY suggest that you secure your permit as early as possible due to this destination’s popularity, and for good reason. So, if you are planning on backpacking in June – August, you will need to get your permit Dec – Feb.
For the most jaw dropping views of Temple Crag, as pictured below, you will want to indicate you’ll be staying at second lake. There are seven lakes total and the first three are the only ones with views of Temple Crag. We didn’t make it past the third lake, but according to pictures, the upper lakes are amazing in their own right, you’re just going to have to work a little harder to get to them as they are at even higher elevation.
Unless you live in the Big Pine/Bishop/Mammoth area, the trailhead can be quite a bit of a drive. For us in Lake Tahoe, it was 4+ hours to get to the trailhead, so we opted to stay at the nearby Benton Hot Springs the night before our hike. I would totally recommend the tub sites at this campground. It was clean, private, and such a great way to kickoff our trip. In hindsight, we also would have reserved a site for the night after our hike to soak in the amazing springs. From Benton, the drive to the trailhead was just over an hour.
Next, to get to the trailhead, travel to the town of Big Pine off of Hwy 395. In town, you will turn West on Crocker Street by the Shell gas station. This will eventually turn into Glacier Lodge Road and after 10 miles, you will arrive at the trailhead. The trailhead is clearly marked for “hikers” and “overnight parking.” You do not need a parking permit and there are some nice vault toilets here. If there isn’t any parking in the lot — and there might not be if you get here after 8:00 am June – Sept — there is plenty of parking on the road.
What to Bring
Although the hike in is under 6 miles to the second lake, you will be glad if you pack fairly light due to it being all uphill. I’d recommend bringing your typical backpacking gear (you can find my list here), plus extra layers to keep you warm at night. Since you’ll be camping well above 10,000′ it gets chilly as soon as the sun sets behind the mountains and you’ll be grateful if you have a few extra layers (at least when we went in June).
Also make sure to pack your bug spray! In June, the mosquitoes were annoying and I came home with well over 100 bites. Those little buggers love me, so you might not fair as bad, but it is still important to protect yourself from the annoying skeeters.
As mentioned above, the trail from the car to the second lake is ALL uphill. According to my Gaia GPS app, we hiked 5.61 miles to our first campsite and gained 2,668 feet in elevation. It’s also important to note that the first several miles are all exposed and can be very hot on a summer day. There is also no water until you reach the second falls, so make sure you have plenty, especially if you have a dog with you.
After you reach second falls and the John Muir wilderness boundary, you will welcome a change in scenery and hike through a wooded forest with aspens and pines that provides some relief from the sun. You will also pass by the Lon Chaney cabin which is a fun pit stop to read about the history and imagine what it would have been like to own that little slice of heaven.
After the cabin, you will start again up an exposed area and soon reach the 10,000′ mark and a sign that states “no fires.” At this point, we were greeted by the prettiest little hummingbird that was enjoying the Indian Paintbrush. I had no idea that hummingbirds could live at 10,000′ and relished the idea that it might be a sign from my late mom who absolutely loved hummingbirds.
At this point, you are getting much closer but still have a couple of miles to go. You’ll continue to climb past the wildflowers, aspens, and pines, and before you know it, you will be looking down upon first lake. Once you reach first lake, it is a short and easy hike on to the second and third lakes.
Where to Camp
We had our heart set on camping at second lake, so quickly hiked past first lake on to our destination. There may have been some good camping here, but we didn’t stop to check out any of the campsites.
Upon reaching second lake, there were a few tents setup on the east shore, which is lined with granite cliffs. We decided to continue on to a dirt trail through the woods and down to a sandy beach. Here, we found a nice tent site perched above the lake that was fairly private and less exposed than the granite sites we saw upon first arrival. We were both completely spent from the day and glad we found a great spot with an amazing view.
Although we loved our first site and the incredible view, we decided to explore the next day further down the trail and found an even better site on the northwest shore. This site was closer to the water and much bigger than our previous site so we packed up and moved. In fact, it could easily have held three tents, but we liked the fact that we could use the separate areas for our tent, kitchen, and card playing. There were also some awesome granite rocks to sit on and take in the view of the crag and falls at the inlet of the lake. Moral of the story, don’t take the first site that you see when you reach second lake. Keep going down the trail till you get close to the inlet, and there are some awesome sites that are good size and fairly private.
If you continue even further past second lake and onto the third lake, there are some additional sites there with equally as impressive views. We found a few that were pretty large and would be nice for groups.
As always, it is important to practice leave no trace principles anytime you are in the wilderness. A few of the sites we came across had obvious fire rings and burnt wood/trash. If you come across one of these, please be sure to destroy it and not give into the temptation of a fire. This is such a beautiful place and it would be so sad to see it destroyed because of careless behavior.
If you’d like and have the stamina, you can reach the Palisade Glacier in a few more miles and a few more thousand feet of elevation gain. Being this was our first trip of the season and were pretty wiped out after the hike in, we didn’t try to make it to the glacier, but is on our list for next time. The Palisade Glacier is the southern most glacier in North America and likely won’t be around forever. Make sure to check it out while you can.
This hike can also be done as a loop, reaching the first five lakes and Black Lake. All are beautiful and if you have the time, I would highly recommend it based on what we heard from some hikers we passed. This is also on our list to checkout next time.
All-in-all, I would 10 out of 10 recommend this hike. It is absolutely stunning and there is so much to explore in the area. Comment below if you’ve even done this hike. I’d love to hear how it was for you!