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Day Hike To California’s Stunning Big Pine Lakes

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I remember the first time I saw a photo of Second Lake. Sparkling glacier blue water framed by a crown of mountain peaks piercing into the equally blue sky above it. I didn’t know the name of the lake, or exactly where it was at the time, but I knew I had to go! 

I would later find out that the lake that had captivated my imagination was known as Second Lake. A little further research revealed that The Big Pine Creek North Fork Hiking Trail is home to some of the most stunning alpine scenery in the Eastern Sierras. To be honest, I feel pretty comfortable expanding that claim to include the entire United States. As it turns out, Second Lake is only one of seven lakes that call the basin below Palisade Glacier home. This string of picturesque lakes is known cumulatively as the Big Pine Lakes. Individually, they are known by the numerical order in which they appear. A somewhat uncreative yet exceedingly practical naming solution. 

The only thing left to do was hike it! Of course, that proved to be the most challenging part. Years passed, and somehow I never found myself in the Sierras at the right time. Then, a couple of weeks ago, after years of daydreaming, a series of unfortunate events conspired to trap Quin, and me smack dab in the middle of the Eastern Sierras during an unseasonably early heatwave. And just like that, the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail was back on my radar. 

So at 3:30 am, after a sleepless night in the scorching hot van, Quin and I decided to head up the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail to see if we could beat the heat. Needless to say, it lived up to all my wildest expectations! 

Hiking along the Big Pine Lakes trail with the First Lake in the background. This is just before you reach the first views of Second Lake.

The Hike To Big Pine Creek’s Second Lake At A Glance 

Type of Hike: Out and back 

Distance: Approximately 10 miles round trip 

Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous 

Total Elevation Gain: Approximately 2,300 feet

Length Of Time: It took us about 2.5 hours to get up to Second Lake and a flat 2 hours to get back down. This included water breaks and short stops to take photos along the trail. 

Best Season To Hike: We hiked the trail in mid-June, and the conditions were perfect. That being said, it was also during an unseasonably early heatwave. In general, I’d say July-September would be the safest bet. 

Watching alpenglow on Temple Crag just after sunrise at Second Lake.
Early morning view of Second Lake from the trail.

Detailed Trail Description To Big Pine Creek’s Second Lake

We arrived at the day-use parking area around 3:30 am. Despite the heatwave, the night air had a refreshing alpine crisp to it, and I was glad that we had decided to get an early start on the trail. We donned our headlamps and headed up past the service gate next to the Glacier Lodge. The lodge is no longer there, but several traditional cabins that can be rented out remain. You will hike a short distance with the cabins to your right and the river on your left before you hit the first of multiple forks in the trail. Luckily they are all well signed! 

Take the trail to the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. You’ll immediately head up a series of switchbacks. If you miss the fork and accidentally head up the South Fork, don’t worry! You will eventually meet back up with the North Fork Trail; you’ll just hike a little farther. That being said, this portion of the South Fork Trail is less steep than the North Fork, so if you prefer distance over incline, South Fork is a good alternative. 

Shortly after you reach the top of the switchbacks, at around 0.7 miles (according to my Apple Watch), you will again need to choose between the North and South Forks. If you missed the first turnoff, this is where you will be able to rejoin the North Fork. Quickly after this, you will hit yet another junction. This time the choice is between an upper and lower North Fork. We weren’t sure which one we were supposed to take, so we opted for the lower trail! It appeared to match the route on my AllTrails app, plus it got us to our final destination. But I’m guessing that the upper trail would have worked just as well. 

It’s relatively easy cruising from here on out. The trail has a constant uphill grade, but it never felt like a slog. I still think that the switchbacks at the beginning were probably the most demanding part of the hike, and I barely noticed it at the time because, well. . . it was dark, and we had fresh legs at the time. 

Around the 2 mile mark on the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail, you will see this sign announcing that you are entering the John Muir Wilderness.

Around the 2 mile mark, a large sign will announce that you are entering the John Muir Wilderness Inyo National Forest. From here on out, there’s easy access to water, shade, and extensive views. And then there’s the Big Pine Creek Wilderness Ranger Camp! 

Apparently, the charming service cabin was once a summer home of one Lon Chaney, Sr, one of Hollywood’s most famous character actors. It was designed by Paul Revere Williams, who was the first African American to be granted a fellowship in the American Institute of Architects. The porch makes for a nice protected spot to enjoy a snack or just take a load off for a few minutes. You can also refill your water in Big Pine Creek here before continuing your hike. It was still pretty dark when we passed the cabin on our way up, but it made for a lovely stop on our way down. 

Once you pass the Wilderness Ranger Camp, the trail gets a little steeper. But it’s worth it for the views that are just up the trail! About one mile up the trail from the cabin, you will get your first views of Temple Crag peeking out from behind the surrounding landscape. This iconic peak will serve as your directional beacon for the rest of the hike. Not that you need it, because well, there’s a trail! 

Before you know it, you’ll hit another sign, this one directing you to Lakes 1-3 and a small water crossing. You’re basically there! When we left at 3:30, we had anticipated the hike taking much longer, and given that it was literally summer solstice the day we hiked the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, we didn’t expect to make it to the lakes for sunrise. But when we saw Temple Crag start to glow pink with the rising sun, the race was on! Quin took off up the trail, and I picked up my pace as well. I made it to First Lake as the mountain peaks exploded with alpenglow. 

Reflections of Temple Crag in Second Lake just after sunrise is just one of the benefits of getting an early start on the Big Pine Lakes trail!

A few minutes later, I found Quin standing on a rock ledge overlooking the view from the photograph that had stuck with me all these years. Ironically, the distance between First and Second Lake was so short that I didn’t realize I was looking at Second Lake. After we ran around photographing what remained of the morning glow, I turned to Quin and asked him if we should continue up to Second Lake? To which he slowly shook his head and informed me that we were already there! 

Food always tastes better in the backcountry! Enjoying a quick breakfast above Second Lake.

Getting Permits To Camp Overnight At Big Pine Lakes 

You don’t need permits to day hike to Big Pine Lakes. You can just go! 

There are few other places in the Sierra Mountains where such spectacular scenery is so easily accessible. For that reason, Big Pine Lakes is considered one of the best day hikes in California. But, if I had it all over to do again, I would definitely turn this into a backpacking trip. It’s such a beautiful area, and there’s so much to explore that setting up camp for a couple of days would be ideal. 

A wilderness permit is required year-round for overnight trips into the John Muir Wilderness. Because the Big Pine North Fork Trail is located in the Inyo National Forest portion of the wilderness, you reserve your permits online at recreation.gov

On their home page, search “Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits” to explore available permits. 

The number of people allowed to begin overnight trips is limited by quotas. The quota is the number of people that can start at the listed location each day. Therefore, your permit is only valid to begin on the specific entry date and location reserved. For the Big Pine North Fork Trail, the daily quota for overnight trips is 25 people. 15 of the available overnight permits can be booked 6 months in advance. The other 10 are set aside for walk-up reservations. Usually, walk-up reservations become available after 11 am the day before your desired start date. 

HOWEVER, this year (2021), because of lingering COVID restrictions, walk-up reservations must be reserved online at recreatoin.gov. Walk-up permits are released 2 weeks before the trip, at 7 am Pacific time. 

So if you are like me, and you literally have never planned something 6 months in advance in your life, then you will want to look on the recreation.gov website at 7 am Pacific Time on the same day of the week, two weeks before your desired trip entry date. The reservation system is live, so even if you miss out on permits 2 weeks in advance, I’d keep checking each day to see if there are any last-minute cancelations you could snag. 

3 Things To Keep In Mind Before you Reserve a Permit To Camp At Big Pine Lakes

  • Only the person designated when the reservation is made can receive or use the permit. Reservations cannot be sold or transferred. Leader or alternate leader names cannot be changed or added.
  • Your reservation will be canceled as a “No Show,” and your space may go to other groups unless you arrange to receive the permit before 10 am on the entry date.
  • A $6.00 non-refundable reservation fee is required for each permit reservation. In addition, there is a $5 recreation fee charged per person using the Inyo National Forest trails. (All prices based on 2021 rates).

Getting To The Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail Head 

Big Pine Lakes is located in the John Muir Wilderness, Inyo County, 10 miles west of Big Pine and 15 miles south of Bishop. 

From the cute little town of Big Pine, CA, on US Highway 395, you’ll turn west onto Crocker Street. Eventually, the road turns into Glacier Lodge Road, and you will pass the overnight parking area on your right. From there it’s a little under a mile to the day-use lot and the beginning of your hike! The trailhead is well signed, so you will know pretty quickly whether you are in the right place or not. 

There are a total of seven Big Pine Lakes that you can hike to. Here I am enjoying the views from First Lake before our hike back down to the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trailhead.

Practice Leave No Trace Principles On Your Hike

Leave No Trace is built on seven core principles that outline the best available minimum impact guidance for enjoying the outdoors responsibly.  In other words, Leave No Trace provides a framework for enjoying the outdoors while leaving the smallest possible footprint. The goal is to respect the places we play and leave a location in the same state (or better) than you found it. The next people to visit shouldn’t be able to tell you were there! The Leave No Trace principles include: 

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (aka stay on the trail) 
  • Dispose of Waste Properly (use the provided pit toilets)
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts (There are no campfires permitted around Big Pine Lakes)
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

I encourage you to visit The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for more detail regarding these principles, as well as information on how you can protect the beautiful places we all love so much. © 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.

What to Pack On A Hike To Big Pine Lakes 

On the day we hiked to Second Lake, the temperature ranged from about 50° F to 90°. Even though we had nearly perfect conditions, I still used almost all my layers at one point or another. The weather can change quickly and dramatically in The Sierra, and it’s essential to be prepared for anything Mother Nature feels like throwing your way. 

Day Pack: I actually used a backpacking pack when we hiked to Second Lake because I was training for a few longer overnight trips. But the Ospreys Sirrus 36L Backpack is my favorite day pack. It’s not the lightest pack I own, but I find that with the support it offers—including padded waist straps—it’s much more comfortable than many ultralight packs. Its little sister, the Sirrus 24L Backpack, also comes with all the bells and whistles. It’s nice to have the integrated rain cover as well!

Down Jacket:  Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hooded Down Jacket is my go-to layer for warmth right now. It has an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio and packs down to nothing in my bag. I also packed my Patagonia Los Gatos Fleece for this hike because it’s just so comfy!

Rain Jacket: Rab Kinetic Plus Hooded Jacket is hands down the best waterproof jacket I’ve owned. It’s the perfect blend of comfort and function.

Breathable Base Layer: When you need temperature regulation and comfort over the long haul, Icebreaker base layers are a great, environmentally friendly option.

Hiking Boots: I always hesitate to recommend hiking shoes because I know that everyone has different preferences, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. That being said, the two go-to pairs that I wear interchangeably for both day-hikes and longer treks are the  Keen Terridoras and Danner Mountain 600 Hiking Boot.

Good Hiking Socks: Merino fibers naturally resist odor during extended use while also providing superior breathability and softness. I own a few pairs of these Darn Tough socks and a couple of Smartwool socks, and I honestly love them equally.

Ten Essentials: Whether you’re going on a short day hike or camping deep in the backcountry, you should always carry The TEN ESSENTIALS for outdoor adventure with you. They might just save your life! 

Headlamp: There are fancier headlamps out there, but I like to keep it simple. The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp is easy to operate, very lightweight, and charging is a breeze with a micro-USB or AAA batteries. 

Water Filtration System: You definitely do not want to carry all of your water on this hike. Luckily you don’t need to because there are endless sources to refill at. All you need is a good water filter. I brought the Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System and a large bladder for my pack.

Food: For the hike up to Second Lake, we packed lots of little snacks as well as a backpacking meal because we also had our backpacking stove with us. Whenever you head out into the backcountry it’s important to pack more food than your think you will need!

Bug Spray: Mosquitos weren’t an issue for us, but I hear they can get pretty bad in this area. I’d pack some just in case!

Camera: At some point, you’re going to want to take a photo – even if it’s just on your phone! Given the hike’s difficulty, Quin and I tried to minimize the heavy camera gear we packed. We brought the Sony a7rIII with a 16-35mm f4 lens and the Sony RX100 VI. Check out my COMPLETE CAMERA GEAR GUIDE for a list of the gear we use on our travels!

Pro Tip: Always be aware of the weather. If you are hiking The Enchantments early in the season (basically before mid-July), you may encounter snow and ice at the higher elevations. If that’s the case, you may want to pack micro-spikes or other traction devices. Make sure to check Washington Trails Association or AllTrails for an up to date trail reports.  

If you’re looking for more outdoor gear and apparel, check out my Complete Hiking and Camping Gear Guide

Backcountry.com is also a great resource. Not only do they carry a large variety of widely respected outdoor brands, but their expert Gearheads are always available to answer specific questions you might have about the right gear for you. Plus, you can get 15% off your entire order by using JESS15 at checkout.

Please note that this blog post includes affiliate links from Backcountry.com. If you do choose to purchase something, I may earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.

Looking forward to returning to Big Pine Lakes with overnight permits someday. Although I finally got to experience Second Lake, I feel like I just scratched the surface of what this stunning area has to offer.

I hope this post can help you plan your own hike up to Second Lake, and maybe even beyond! Questions? Did I miss anything? Leave a comment, and I’ll see you on the trail! 

Thank you so much for your support! Happy Adventuring. jess

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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