Your Ultimate Guide To Big Pine Lakes Trail

Big Pine Lakes Trail

If you enjoy hiking and outdoor adventure, this hike should be at the top of your list of things to do in California. I knew I had to visit as soon as I first saw pictures of these shimmering turquoise lakes. In this article, I’ll describe how to hike to one of California’s most picturesque locations.

Overall, this trail is not challenging and is not particularly steep, but it does include continual climbing and a few switchbacks.

Where is Big Pine Lakes Located?

Big Pine Lakes Trail

Big Pine Lakes is situated in the center of California’s Eastern Sierras. It is about 15 miles south of Bishop and about 10 miles west of the tiny town of Big Pine. It is also conveniently located close to Mammoth, making it a good stop on the way to Mammoth Lakes.

When Is It Best to Hike to Big Pine Lakes?

Big Pine Lakes Trail

In our experience, these times of year are the best to get on the trail, but they always depend on the amount of snowfall that particular year:

Late May to Early June: I carefully considered the timing of my trip and decided to go the first week of June. The snow on the trail had already begun to melt, but not in the peaks. The trails weren’t crowded because it was midweek and still early season.

Late September to Early October: A lovely stretch of Aspen trees can be found in the trail’s middle as it ascends to Lake 1. best in the fall when the leaves are changing.

Mid to Late April: Before the permit season starts, if you have snowshoes, you can enjoy the breathtaking scenery up here. There would be a lot fewer people gathered around you. I wouldn’t be as concerned about getting lost if I lost the trail because it has clear directions and no steep slopes (but always be careful).

Due to the popularity of this trail, I’d also strongly advise visiting during the weekdays.

Do you need a permit to hike the Big Pine Lakes

A permit is NOT required if you plan to hike the Big Pine Lakes Trail in a single day. Only those who intend to camp at the lakes need a permit. There are very few permits available, so reservations are necessary. A wilderness permit may be ordered here.

Quotas place a cap on the total number of travelers who are permitted overnight trips. The quota is the maximum number of individuals who may begin at the specified location each day. Because of this, the start date of your permit’s validity is set to the designated entry date and location. The daily limit for overnight trips on the Big Pine North Fork Trail is 25 people.  15 of the available overnight permits may be reserved six months in advance. The remaining 10 are reserved for walk-up bookings.

How Long is The Hike to Big Pine Lakes?

Although most hikers only reach the first lake, second lake, and third lake, which are all adjacent to one another, the hike along the North Fork of Big Pine Lakes is approximately 15+ miles long. The time it takes to hike to Lake 1 can range from 3.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on your pace, level of fitness, and time it takes you to adjust to the altitude. We took about 4 hours to get to Lake 1 and 4.5 hours to get to Lake 2. We did, however, stop frequently for breaks.

What is the Elevation Change at Big Pine Lakes?

The views along the trail

Starting at about 7,600 feet, the Big Pine Lakes trailhead ascends to about 10,500 feet at Lake 3. This isn’t the highest elevation in the Eastern Sierras, but it’s still a respectable elevation that some people may find difficult. Not everyone experiences altitude sickness in the same way. Walking and hiking may cause some people to feel a little out of breath, but for some people, this problem can be crippling. The amount of oxygen available to breathe in decreases as you ascend higher in elevation, which has an effect on how your body feels.

Altitude sickness can cause mild to severe headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, exhaustion, and trouble sleeping.

Most people can experience the first signs of altitude sickness within a few hours of ascending to a higher elevation. We have, however, observed it happen numerous times that it takes a little longer to really notice or that the symptoms fluctuate.

How To Prepare For The Elevation Change

The views along the trail

Although most hikers only reach the first lake, second lake, and third lake, which are all adjacent to one another, the hike along the North Fork of Big Pine Lakes is approximately 15+ miles long. The time it takes to hike to Lake 1 can range from 3.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on your pace, level of fitness, and time it takes you to adjust to the altitude. We took about 4 hours to get to Lake 1 and 4.5 hours to get to Lake 2. We did, however, stop frequently for breaks.

In addition, abstain from alcohol, consume a lot of water (3–4 liters daily), eat more carbohydrates, and ascent to altitude should be gradual. Get to lower elevations if you experience symptoms that do not go away with water, electrolytes, or pain relievers.

Big Pine Lakes Trail Report

John Muir Wilderness sign

The start of the trail will differ slightly depending on whether you start at the main trailhead or the parking area for overnight hikers. For us, the hike started at the parking lot for overnight hikers at 6:30 a.m. The sun was already high in the sky and shining directly down on us. The trail is relentless for the first two miles. A straight uphill climb with no cover. Looking back, I would say that this section of the trail was the most challenging, both going up and coming back down, primarily because of the sun exposure and the lack of a breeze.

You will ascend a few rocky switchbacks before reaching the well-known John Muir Wilderness sign. This is the place where everyone pauses to take pictures. You will also pass by waterfall one. If it’s already hot outside, this is a great place to take a quick break, catch your breath, and cool off.

The next section of the trail is less steep, providing your legs and lungs with some relief. The Wilderness Rangers Camp, also known as Lon Chaney’s cabin or the Forest Service Cabin, will soon be in sight. If you’re backpacking, this is the halfway point and a great place to take off your packs, dip your toes in the water, and take a rest.

The views along the trail

From this point on, the trail winds its way through manzanita fields, through luxuriant forests with wildflowers, and over a few streams. Before you get to the first lake, there is one more set of switchbacks without any cover.

When you reach Lake 1, you can stop to take in the beauty before heading down to the shore or continuing on to Lake 2. We advise continuing your journey to Lake 2 as this lake has a lovely “beach” where people love to take pictures and jump in the water to cool off.

The distance from Lake 2 to Lake 3 is not very far but if you’re exhausted, I wouldn’t go any further. The fourth lake is not turquoise and is more of a pond color. While the fifth lake is a stunning blue color, it is still not quite as amazing as Lakes 1-3.

Big Pine Lakes Trail Weather

The views along the trail

Like other places in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Big Pine Lakes experiences erratic weather. It can get quite warm during the day. As we hiked back down on our final day, the temperature reached 93 degrees, which is extremely hot when there is no breeze or shade. However, during the spring and fall, temperatures can drop significantly, with lakes even partially freezing by October. The best course of action is to regularly monitor the weather before your trip and to pack for hot, cold, and rainy conditions.

Big Pine Lakes Swimming & Fishing

Only the most daring will find swimming in the Big Pine Lakes to be enjoyable due to their extremely chilly temperatures. The majority of people frequently dip in and out. Despite the fact that you may be hot you should exercise caution when entering the water because it is extremely cold and can quickly result in hypothermia.

During our visit, we didn’t actually go fishing, but we saw a lot of people hiking up and down the mountain with fishing poles. Like everywhere else in the Eastern Sierras, fishing is only permitted with a valid sport fishing license. Although adults in the group should have a license, children under the age of 16 are exempt from this requirement.

What to Bring for a Day Hike

The views along the trail

In addition to essential backpacking equipment and first-aid kit, we advise bringing the following items on this hike:

  • Snacks and food to maintain your energy
  • The Forest Service mandates the use of a bear canister.
  • Water filtering device or tablets for purification
  • A rain jacket—in the Sierras, summer afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence.
  • Hiking Poles
  • Sun protection

Additional tips for Hiking The Big Pine Lakes

The views along the trail

Before organizing your camping and hiking trips to Big Pine Lakes, keep the following things in mind.

Consider taking a longer trip; Big Pine Lakes is a wonderful weekend getaway in California, but the area is full of sights to see, from lakes to more hikes and waterfalls. You can plan to visit places like Lone Pine or Mammoth Lakes or add numerous side trips and hikes to your itinerary. Therefore, it is best to plan your camping trip to Big Pine Lakes for 1-2 days, plus an additional 4–5 days to visit some nearby places.

Big Pine Lakes in Winter: While hiking may not be a great option in the winter, the same route is fantastic for snowshoeing. If you visit during this time, you can also arrange skiing excursions at the mountains of Kid, Slide, and Mount Alice.

Sort your permits well in advance: Unplanned weekend trips to the Lakes are certainly possible, but if you want to camp in the Big Pine Lakes, you must have a permit. As I said earlier, arrange for your permits a few months beforehand because it is difficult to get a spot. You should be aware that in addition to the permit for overnight camping, you also need other permits for things like a campfire, fishing, and another one if you want to use any other campgrounds close to Big Pine Creek.

Water: At the trailhead, there is no potable water available. You will need to carry a water filter so you can treat any nearby streams’ water before drinking it.

Try to avoid hiking in the weekends: Californians and others enjoy hiking Big Pine Lakes, so there are a lot of visitors during the summer. If you want to take in the serene views with fewer people, I’d advise going during the weekdays.

Handling Altitude Sickness: AMS symptoms can range from a minor annoyance to, for some people, stress. If you have never taken a hike like this, get ready a little before going. Maintaining hydration and drinking lots of water will keep you healthy. Carry your prescribed medications with you if you are prone to mountain sickness, or take them beforehand. To avoid the ensuing exhaustion, go slowly.

Practice Leave No Trace Principles : Leave No Trace is comprised of seven guiding principles, each of which provides the best minimum impact advice for ethical outdoor recreation. In other words, Leave No Trace offers a framework for appreciating nature while leaving the smallest possible mark. The idea is to respect the areas where we play and leave them in better (or the same) condition than when you found them. 

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

Frequently Asked Questions About Big Pine Lakes Trail

Is parking available in Big Pine Lakes?

The closest parking area, known as the Hikers’ Parking area, is off the main road at the trailhead close to Big Pine Creek Campground. The best parking area for overnight use is this one.

The parking lot at the end of the road is only available for day parking, so if you’re planning a day hike, get an early start because it gets more difficult to find a spot as the day goes on, particularly during the busy seasons.

How hard is Big Pine Lakes Trail?

For seasoned hikers, the hike to Big Pine Lakes is considered challenging due to the elevation gain, the length of the trail, and the trail’s terrain. It might be a moderate hike for you if you are a serious mountaineer or have a lot of prior mountain climbing/hiking experience.

Are dogs allowed at Big Pine Lakes?

Yes, you are permitted to bring your dogs on hikes or while camping at Big Pine Lake. However, you must follow the Leave No Trace policy and pick up after your animals.

How far is Big Pine Lakes from Los Angeles?

It takes approximately 4 hours to travel over 270 miles from Los Angeles to Big Pine Town.

Where is Big Pine Lakes located?

Big Pine Lakes is situated in the John Muir Wilderness of the Inyo National Forest in California, which is at the center of the higher Eastern Sierra Mountains. The lakes are accessible via the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail, which is located 10 miles west of Big Pine and 15 miles south of Bishop.

How many Big Pine Lakes are there?

There are seven Big Line Lakes numbered on the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail, but apart from these, there are many smaller lakes, cascades, and creeks along the way, including a few waterfalls.On the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail, there are seven Big Line Lakes, but besides these, there are numerous smaller lakes, cascades, and creeks along the route.

What is Big Pine Lakes Altitude?

The altitudes of Big Pine Lakes change as you travel farther and deeper. Arriving at the First Lake involves a 2700 foot elevation change. The trailhead for Big Pine Creek’s North Fork is situated at 7814 feet above sea level. If you reach Seventh Lake or Palisade Glacier from the trailhead, the elevation difference is roughly 5500 feet.

Consequently, you can roughly anticipate a minimum altitude of 7700 feet and a maximum altitude of 12500 feet.

Do You Need A Permit To Hike Big Pine Lakes?

You do not require a permit if you only intend to hike for a day. However, a permit is required if you want to backpack or camp at Big Pine Lakes. It’s important to note that they only permit two or three dozen tourists to spend the night in the wilderness.

Due to this cap, you will need to order your permit far in advance to secure a spot for camping or backpacking.

How long does it take to hike to Big Pine Lakes?

The Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail, also known as the Big Pine Lakes Trail, is a 16-mile loop that passes by the Fourth lake and a little farther. The trail starts at Big Pine Creek Campground and travels through the Inyo National Forest before entering the Sierra Nevada. If you want to hike to Big Pine Lakes in a single day, you can also choose to complete some of the trail’s sections, which will be much shorter in length. The Big Pine Lakes hike can take anywhere from six to ten hours, depending on the trail you choose.

Can you day hike Big Pine Lakes?

Yes, day hikes to Big Pine Lakes are feasible.  If you start the hike as early as you can, you can complete a few lakes and return the same day. Camping at Big Pine Lakes is an option if you want to do more exploring.