Distance: 4.5 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2300 feet
A few months ago, I was perusing the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits website, like one does in their free time, and noticed that there were two permits open for Big Pine Lakes for the night of October 27! Big Pine Lakes have been on my list for quite awhile, so I immediately swooped the permits up.
For a few weeks before our trip, I was a little nervous about the weather. Weather in the Eastern Sierra can be extremely unpredictable, and the high range typically starts seeing snow beginning in October. Fortunately for us (but unfortunately for the region), the High Sierra had only seen one small dusting a few weeks before. Both the trail and skies were completely clear for us!
We left LA on Saturday morning around 5:40. We got to the permit office in Lone Pine three hours later, picked up our permit, and hit the road once again. Although the trailhead is only about 10 miles from the town of Big Pine, it takes a little over 30 minutes to get to the trailhead. The road is extremely windy and steep, so be sure to account for this if you are trying to get to the trailhead by a certain time.
If you are staying up at the lakes overnight, you must park in the overnight parking lot (pictured above). There were plenty of spots when we arrived, but I imagine that during the summer, the lot fills up pretty quickly. Because of this (and among other reasons), I would suggest getting to the trailhead early during the summer.
The Big Pine Lakes trail is also very popular with dayhikers. Dayhikers are allowed to park in the Glacier Lodge parking area and start their hike from there. I think that the hike from the Glacier Lodge is a bit shorter than the hike from the overnight parking, but not by much. A couple of years ago, I actually attempted to hike to Big Pine Lakes by myself; however, ya girl is absolutely terrified of hiking solo (I’m working on it), and ended up turning back after the first mile or so. The start of the hike from the dayhiking area is quite different than the start from the overnight area. It is much more shaded, switchback-y, and steep, and it hugs Big Pine Creek for quite awhile until it finally converges with the trail from the overnight parking area.
By the time we got to the trailhead, it was just about 10am. Because we had our bags packed the night before, we were able to hit the trail right away!
The trail begins surrounded by high-desert chapparal – lots of sagebrush and manzanita. Other than some very brief switchbacks, you are in for a long*, straight slog up the hillside, getting further above the road with every step.
*read: not actually that long, but feels like an eternity when you can see your car on the way back down, with the promise of cheeseburgers and cold beer, but are still so far from it!
Around a seventh of a mile in, you’ll see the grove of pine trees surrounding the north fork of Big Pine Creek. Once you arrive at the trees, the trail still stays above them, but curves to hug the hillside to follow them. On a hot day, I can imagine wanting to cross-country down to the lower trail next to the creek, but since it was a cool, late-October weekend when we went, we elected to stay on the exposed high trail.
We were totally expecting to have missed the fall colors, but to our surprise, they were at the end of their peak, but peaking nonetheless! The leaves were a deep gold; one that you could only find at the end of the fall season. The contrast of the gold leaves against the dark green pines and the gray granite was absolutely beautiful. Fall in the Eastern Sierra never ceases to amaze me.
For all of you dayhikers out there, there is a picnic area a little less than a mile from the dayhiking area (an estimate in distance). Plentiful picnic tables shaded by tall pine trees – what more could you ask for? As we hiked past with our heavy packs on, I dreamt of an afternoon spent there with a bottle of wine and a charcuterie board… and then remembered the dehydrated dinner I had waiting for me in my pack. Fun.
Anyway… with daydreams of wine and cheese long gone, we continued up the trail. If you decide that you would rather take the creekside lower trail up, this would be the place to cross-country down. Once you continue up the hill, the trails get further and further apart, and you would have to lose a lot more elevation if you chose to switch trails at a later time.
Once you emerge from the tops of the trees, Big Pine Creek comes into view again. Do you see the V of pine trees in the distance? This is where Big Pine Creek waterfalls down to the present valley, and is exactly where the trail takes you up.
Pictures don’t do it justice, but the sight of the gold trees spilling out of the mountainside was absolutely beautiful. It looked like a golden waterfall emerging from the Sierra granite. If you ever get the chance to hike to Big Pine Lakes in the fall, regardless of if its a dayhike or overnighter, take it. This view on its own made the trip for me.
Around 1.4 miles in from the Overnight Parking Lot, you’ll hit the Baker Creek Trail. This trail looked STEEP AF, but no doubt led to beautiful views of the Big Pine Creek area (and maybe the Owens Valley?). This trail will actually take you to South Lake in 12.2 miles, which is pretty crazy considering that it would take you about an hour to drive between the two trailheads. It’s crazy to me how much smaller the Sierras seem when you are traveling by foot, rather than having to drive around them in a car.*
*For example, I once met a couple in Mammoth who would hike from the east side of the Sierras to the west side whenever they wanted to visit family in Fresno. They would start their hike in Little Lakes Valley, take Mono Pass up, and hike to Lake Thomas Edison, where their family would be waiting to pick them up!
I couldn’t help but continuously look back south to where we came from. Kid Mountain (left peak in the picture below) rose higher and higher from the green and golden creek below. It truly was a sight to see. Again, if you ever have the opportunity to hike Big Pine Lakes in the fall, take it.
After continuing straight for a little under a mile, the trail starts to curve around to the left, towards the granite cliffs.
You are treated to an amazing view of Kid Mountain as you curve with the trail.
For the first time, the trail turns into switchbacks as you make it up the granite cliffs to the right of the creek. Although exposed, there are a lot of great places to pull off to the side and take a quick snack break (or for us, since we started so late, a nice lunch break!)
At the top of the switchbacks, you enter the John Muir Wilderness!
Once you enter the John Muir Wilderness, you (very quickly) come across Second Falls. If you stayed on the high trail from the overnight lot, this is the first time that you happen upon the creek. This is a good place to pump if you need more water.
The trail hugs the falls for a few minutes, but then takes you up and away from the creek, and back into the manzanita.
There was seriously so much gold along the creek! I absolutely could not believe it. Some of the aspens had already started to lose their leaves (above), but some were in their prime peak (below). I’ve never thought of either forks of Big Pine Creek as a spot to go leaf-peeping, but man, did it deliver. It obviously requires a little more effort than the more accessible June Lake Loop or McGee Creek Canyon, but a little effort goes a long way.
Around 3 miles in, you’ll hit a Forest Service cabin originally built by actor Lon Chaney. According to the LA Times, “the Chaney cabin was built under a government special use permit that allowed Chaney to own the structure while leasing the half-acre site from the federal government. The cabin was sold in 1932, and again in 1955. It reverted to the government in 1980 when the permit expired.” Although rarely used by the Forest Service these days, it remains on the list of candidates for official designation on the Register of Historic Places.
The creek runs right behind the cabin, making for a nice, shaded spot to take a break or eat lunch.
Once you leave the cabin, you are back to alternating between manzanita fields, aspen groves, and pines.
You know you are getting close when you can start to see the top of Temple Crag looming in the distance.
For the first time since entering the John Muir Wilderness, the trail starts switchbacking again. At one point, it seems like you are heading in the complete opposite direction of Temple Crag!
At the top of the switchbacks, you’ll hit a fork that will either take you to Big Pine Lakes 1 -7 or to Black Lake. If you have a few days, you can make a loop out of this trail; however, it is my understanding that you must hike cross-country between Black Lake and Summit Lake, which will then take you on a trail to Lakes 6 and 7. I haven’t done the loop, and really know nothing about it, so if you are looking to do the loop, make sure to do a little more research on the area!
Continue to follow the trail towards Big Pine Lakes, and in a few minutes, you’ll come out at the top of First Lake! By the time we got there, the sun was very much to the west of us, but the lake was undeniably turquoise.
If you continue along, you’ll soon run into a fork in the trail, with the main trail continuing to the right, and a use trail separating off to the left. I had a feeling that the use trail probably led to some campsites, and oh, did it.
We took the use trail down to the left and followed it for a few minutes. Although we hadn’t seen Second Lake yet, it was pretty clear that the use trail was between the two lakes.
You’ll come upon a clearing to your left, where some amazing campsites sit! I’m sure that this area gets pretty crowded in the summer, but since it was so late in the season, we had the place completely to ourselves!
Although there were a couple of dead trees in the area, there were plenty of established spots without snags or widowmakers that you could lay your tent down on. (Looking for a few tips on how to pick your perfect campsite? Check out my blog where I outline the things I find most important when deciding where to camp!)
For the area, this really was the perfect campsite. It was surrounded by big rocks and sturdy trees, so when the wind picked up that night to 30-40 mph, it barely touched our tent. Had it not been so sheltered, we would have been in for a loooong night.
After setting up camp, we continued along the use trail and came to the outlet of Second Lake! Like First Lake, since the sun was already so far west, the water appeared much more turquoise than bright teal, but it still had that extremely distinct green color of a milky, glacial lake. It was absolutely beautiful.
The wind picked up as the sun went down, but that did not stop us from having dinner and drinks by the water! It was so peaceful, and we only saw two other campers that night. Having Temple Crag all to ourselves was quite possibly just as amazing as the glacial lake. Temple Crag is so intricate; it is unbelievable to me that it is completely natural. It almost looks like someone went in and chipped away at the rock to give it a design. Maybe it was the wine, but I truly could not tear my gaze away. I could have looked up at it all night long.
Unfortunately, we only had time to stay for one night. In the morning, we woke up to a deep blue Second Lake, where we quickly had breakfast and pumped water before heading back down the trail. The wind had yet to die down from the night before, so we got out of there pretty early. It took us no time at all to get back down to our car, where we loaded up and headed straight to Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine.
Overall, we had a great weekend. I always forget how much I love late-season hiking – it’s so easy to get permits and there is no one else on the trails! If you can be flexible with the weather and brave the cold, late-season hiking is always worth it.
If you have any questions about my trip to Big Pine Lakes in October 2018, please let me know by commenting below or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy Trails!