Over the last couple of years the North Fork Trail to Big Pine Lakes has become one of the most popular hikes in the Eastern Sierras. It’s an undeniably beautiful trail that leads to the most picturesque alpine lakes in the area. You can find the town of Big Pine on Hwy 395 less than a 5 hour drive from Los Angeles and only 2 hours away from the east entrance to Yosemite. Due to it’s increasing popularity, overnight backpacking permits are difficult to obtain and the trail is becoming more crowded each day. This does not mean it’s not worth going to. This is the most breathtaking hike I’ve ever been on and I think it should absolutely not be missed! Read on to learn how you can visit the Big Pine Lakes.
This hike is not for beginners or anybody who is not in reasonably good shape. The full loop is 16 miles and climbs almost 4,000ft in elevation. Even if you only hike to Lake 1 and back you will be hiking 10 miles and over 2,000ft at high elevation. Outside of the summer months the trail might see significant snow and overnight temperatures can dip well below freezing. Check the weather conditions and be prepared for anything before setting off on your hike.
With that said, I found this trail to be moderate and less strenuous than other’s have reported. I gave myself time to acclimate to the elevation. In addition, during the weeks leading up to this hike, I spent time hiking trails of similar length and elevation near my home to make sure I’d be comfortable and conditioned.
If you want to camp at the lakes overnight you will need a permit. Permits become available exactly 6 months ahead of the day you wish to go. There are a small number of permits available online, and they more often than not are gone within 1 minute of their release. If you are unable to get a permit online there is still a possibility of getting a walk up permit. Normally this would be in person, but due to Covid safety measures these permits are being released virtually on the Recreation.gov website the Monday prior to the date you wish to go. If all else fails and you are unable to secure an overnight permit, there is no permit necessary for a day hike.
Whether you are camping overnight or spending a short time at the lakes you will want to pack as light as possible. Bring all of the essentials you would for a long hike; navigation tools, sunscreen, first aid kit, fire starter, emergency shelter, flashlight or headlamp, insulation, and plenty of food and water (though with a filtration system there are several places you can fill up along the way). Not having enough water or food is a quick way for your hike to become dangerous. If you are camping overnight bring all of the above mentioned items plus a lightweight tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and bear canister (and anything else you deem necessary to keep you safe and comfortable).
The hike begins at either the Big Pine Creek Campground or the trailhead parking lot near Glacier Lodge. There are some parking spots along the road just before the entrance to the campground, but these are often full. If you are not staying at the campground, the parking lot near the lodge is large and there are plenty of spots available through the morning. Staying at the campground the night before your hike does give you the advantage of starting as early as you’d like and being able to walk straight to the trailhead from your site. It’s a beautiful campground with some prime spots next to the creek. Whether you’re lucky enough to snag a spot near the creek or not, the waterfront is the perfect place to relax and soak after a long day of hiking. If you are staying outside of the area, I highly recommend staying as near to Big Pine as possible. Unless you are hiking on a very cold winter day, it’s important to begin this hike early.
The first couple miles of the trail are largely exposed with very little opportunity for a shady spot to rest. There are some strenuous switchbacks and it’s a steady climb up, but you will eventually reach the cascading falls and an area of the hike with significantly more shade.
You’ll come across Lon Cheney’s cabin around mile 3. This is a great place to stop for a break if needed. The cabin sits very near the water, so this is a perfect time to fill up and filter your water bottles.
The trail winds through gorgeous tree covered forests with spectacular changing scenery for the remainder of the hike to First Lake.
That initial view of the lake will take your breath away. The incredible blue waters are mesmerizing and you think it’s not possible the other lakes will compare. But the best is yet to come. If you have the energy, lakes 2 and 3 are the real show stoppers.
Second Lake is the most popular lake due to the crystal clear waters and backdrop of Temple Crag. There are several well defined campsites and a lot of people choose to set up camp at the first unoccupied spot they see here. This is a good plan if you’re camping on a weekend day in the summer, got a late start, or are worried about not finding a site. But, I think there are even better spots to set up at the next lake.
Third Lake was my favorite lake and the stopping point for me on this journey. I spent a couple hours exploring the perimeter of the lake and enjoying areas nearby. There are some amazing campsites around here if you look long enough and it tends to be less crowded than Lake 2.
If you have the time and energy you can continue on your hike to the remaining four lakes. Most people you talk to will tell you Second Lake and Third Lake are the prettiest, but all seven of the lakes are alluring in their own right and well worth a visit.
On the way down I passed dozens of people just starting their climb and struggling in the heat of the day, so keep that in mind when you decide what time to start. I also came across some mule trains making their way up. Be sure to step aside and let them pass. The way down was pleasant and had some lovely views through the canyon below.
This is my favorite and most rewarding hike I’ve ever done and I recommend it to anyone. But remember no hike is worth risking injury or illness. If you feel unwell, run out of food or water, or encounter impassable trail conditions please turn around immediately and try again another time.
Above all else HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!