Big Pine Lakes is a cluster of nine high elevation lakes located in the High Sierras, west of Big Pine, California, typically accessed via the North Fork Trail. The first seven lakes are numbered one through seven, while the other two lakes are named Summit Lake and Black Lake.
The elevations of the Big Pine Lakes range from 9,961 to 11,088 feet high. The natural beauty of the lakes combined with the breathtaking views of the nearby peaks makes this location a popular choice for backpackers and day hikers alike. This trail journal covers the hike up to Second Lake.
Distance: 9.6 miles
Duration: 5-7 hours
Elevation Gain: 2250 feet
From Hwy 395 in Big Pine, turn west on Crocker Street and continue approximately 10 miles to the end of the road. Overnight parking is located about ½ mile below the end of the road and day use parking is located at the end of the road.
I got my first glimpse of Big Pine Lakes, on Facebook. My friends Jim and Arden had posted pictures of themselves standing next to a surreal looking milky blue colored lake, with a dramatic peak in the background. I had never seen anything like it. And of course, I wanted to experience it for myself.
Jim and Arden told me it was called the Big Pine Lakes (aka Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail). They also said they would happy to return there for another hike.
I mentioned it to a few other friends, Kim, Chris, and Rocio, who quickly jumped on board. We set a date of July 31st since a few of us would be attending the Mammoth Bluesapaloosa Festival a few days later. Jim and Arden agreed to lead the hike. A few weeks later, Kim and I were in the jalopy heading north.
We stopped at the Lone Pine Interagency Visitor Center to pick up a map of the Big Pine Lakes area and settled on the Thomas Harrison “The Palisades” trail map. It was about a 4o minute drive from Lone Pine to Big Pine.
We arrived at the Big Pine Creek campground by late afternoon and hung out with our friends before calling it a night. The next morning, we met at the trailhead and took a quick group photo before we started our hike.
Our eager hiking crew at the Big Pine Lakes Trailhead
The weather was slightly cool when we started the hike but it warmed up quickly. Before long, we climbed up a couple of switchbacks and saw a group of impressive looking mountain peaks in the distance. We figured one of them was the Palisade Glacier.
The Palisade Glacier is the largest glacier in the Sierras with the Palisade Crest rising above 14,000 feet. But with so many jagged peaks sticking up in various directions, it was hard to tell what was what. We soon crossed the wood bridge at First Falls.
First Falls bridge on North Fork trail
About halfway between First Falls and the Baker Creek Trail junction, Arden decided to turn back. She just wasn’t feeling it that day and had already done the hike a few weeks prior. Chris and Rocio said they would go back with her to keep her company. Jim said he would lead me and Kim up the trail the rest of the way to Second Lake.
Before long, we left the shady coverage of the trees and found ourselves on an exposed wide open trail. This section of trail was dry, rocky, fairly steep and not particularly beautiful. Every trail has it’s plain sections and this was it.
Tedious section of Big Pine Creek North Fork trail
Just beyond the Baker Creek Trail junction, Jim pointed out a distant waterfall, called Second Falls. He said we would hike right next to it. The trail leading to the falls didn’t even look passable. All we could see was a massive craggy wall of rock, curving in a huge arc.
Fortunately, the trail leveled off a bit, allowing me to catch my breath. We trudged forward, climbed a few more switchbacks, and then reached Second Falls.
Second Falls was beautiful. It wasn’t a tall waterfall by any means, but it was wide, powerful and majestic. You could feel the cool mist from the crashing water and bask in the tens of thousands of negative ions being generated. It was thoroughly invigorating.
Soaking in the ions at Second Falls
Once past Second Falls, the trail meandered through a pleasant, tree-covered area called Cienega Mirth. Eventually, we came across the cabin built by movie actor Lon Chaney in the 1920s. Now it’s owned by the U.S. Forest service and it was locked.
A group of backpackers lounged in the shade of the veranda. Turns out they had been forced to spend the night on the veranda the previous night due to a fierce and sudden rainstorm.
We took a short break in the picturesque area between the cabin and Big Pine Creek and then poked around a bit before getting back on the trail.
The Lon Chaney cabin now owned by the Forest Service
Back on the trail, we passed the junction to Black Lake. This is one of the lakes you would encounter if you did the Big Pines Lakes loop. Kim and I still hadn’t seen any evidence of a pond, much less a series of lakes. Just when we started to wonder if we were actually going to see a lake, First Lake popped into view on the left.
Pictures are one thing. But seeing these milky turquoise colored lakes with your own eyes is something else entirely! I’m not sure if the best word to describe it is surreal or bizarre. Either way, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Me and Kim at First Lake
We hiked to an area between First and Second Lakes and took picture after picture. Off the trail, there was a very narrow rickety looking footbridge that spanned Big Pine Creek. It looked more like a plank and sat about 15 feet above the raging whitewater. Even though it was off the actual trail, it looked interesting. Jim and Kim crossed the footbridge without hesitation.
I’m a big stocky guy and wondered for a moment if the bridge would support my weight. Along with the rushing water, there were also a few gnarly looking boulders popping out of the water, under the bridge. I tested the bridge with my foot and it seemed fairly sturdy. So I walked across without incident and poked around a little.
After a few minutes, we headed back across the footbridge. While Jim was halfway across the bridge, I had him turn around for a photo. It was an interesting but somewhat dicey option. Fortunately, that side-option is not a required part of the hike.
Jim crossing the rickety foot bridge over Big Pine Creek
After a well-deserved lunch break, we hiked down to Second Lake. Just like First Lake, Second Lake had the same milky blue color. The unusual color apparently comes from the glacial powder of Third Lake, which is fed directly by the Palisade Glacier. The glacial powder is carried by the melting glacier and eventually ends up in First and Second Lakes.
There was a picturesque boulder sitting a couple feet inside Second Lake. We had to hop across the water to get to the boulder. It was trickier than it looked.
I hike with Kim quite often. When we bag a peak for the first time, it is our custom for me to cradle her in my arms on top of the peak. And pose for a picture. Since we hadn’t really bagged a peak (despite feeling like we had), we did the pose on the boulder. The majestic and ominous looking Temple Crag provided the wildly beautiful backdrop.
Peak Bagger’s pose at Second Lake, in front of Temple Crag
After goofing around for a little while longer, we started to feel a few raindrops. Knowing the High Sierra’s reputation for sudden weather changes, we decided to head back. We also remembered the backpacker’s story about the sudden downpour the night before.
Our return hike was obviously a bit easier than our hike up since we were mostly going down hill. We met some backpackers at the junction with the Black Lake Trail and took a photo before continuing on. They were planning on doing the entire Big Pine Lakes Trail Loop.
Kim and Jim with a couple of backpackers
Eventually, it started to rain. By the time we crossed the Baker Creek Trail junction, it was raining hard. We quickly put our waterproof windbreakers on and made it back into a tree covered area before getting too wet. It stopped raining by the time we got back to the trailhead. Arden was waiting for us and we all returned back to the campsite, where we rewarded ourselves to ice cold beers.
The Big Pine Lakes area was definitely beautiful territory with fantastic, majestic views. Admittedly the hike was tougher than I expected. But certainly worth the effort. If you ever get the chance to hike Big Pine Lakes, it is without a doubt, a most worthy destination. This is one hike you will definitely want to bring a good camera on.
For additional information about the Big Pine Lakes area and hike variations, check out the hike reports and websites listed below.
|Title||Blog / Website||Link|
|Big Pine Lakes via the North Fork||modernhiker.com||Hike Report|
|Big Pine Lakes||americansouthwest.net||Hike Report|
|Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail||fs.usda.gov||Trail Info|
|Big Pine Area Trails||fs.usda.gov||Area Map|
|Wilderness Hiking: Big Pine Canyon||fs.usda.gov||Hike Brochure PDF|
Hike Date: July 31, 2014