After a summer trip to Canada we were eager to get back on the trail and backpack again in the Sierras. We’ve been tempted for over a year by beautiful pictures of Big Pine Lakes on Instagram. Big Pine Lakes is a series of lakes in the Eastern Sierra just outside Big Pine, CA. Be warned you must have an overnight camping permit to backpack this trail and its very hard to get with reservations filling up way in advance. There are a limited number of walk in permits available from the Ranger Station in Lone Pine that can be had via lottery at 8am the day of. We were lucky and snagged a walk in permit in Lone Pine.
The hike begins at Big Pine Creek trailhead just past the Big Pine Creek Campground. We followed the road through the locked gate past a few cabins and the trail shortly turns to dirt. We crossed the North Fork of Big Pine Creek and then soon after made a right hand turn at the trail junction heading toward the North Fork. There are a few short but steep switchbacks before the views really opened up and the trees disappeared. Like many Eastern Sierra hikes the approach can be hot and this was no exception it was late August and the sun was beating down on us.
The trail leveled off and the hike up the valley was pretty easy before reaching a set of falls and climbing steeply. Not too long after we thankfully reached some shade and trees again. The trail continues to climb through the trees and at about 4.5 miles we reached a sign for Lakes 1-3 bearing to the left. Within a few minutes we reached the brilliant blue of Lake #1. It’s about as stunning an alpine lake that you can find in the Sierras. The timing on our part was perfect as the sun was starting to set.
Just a short climb and we made it up Lake #2, what they lack in names they make up for in beauty. Lake #2 was even bigger and the scenery more stunning. We pulled over multiple times to take as many pictures as we could. As the sun was rapidly setting we pushed on to see Lake #3 and set up camp. We quickly found a spot at Lake #3 that had decent water access and made camp while taking a few more photos of the last bits of sunlight.
The next morning, after a lazy breakfast, we decided to venture further up the creek and see 4th and 5th lakes.
We kept it light and left the tent and other camping gear behind and hit the trail. The trail climbs pretty steeply up for a few hundred feet before reaching a meadow with 4th lake.
Lakes 1-3 are fed directly by Palisades Glacier and have a striking glacial blue color. Lakes 4-7 are not glacial fed lakes and although pristine alpine lakes lack the blue hinge from glacial silt. We had a delightful lunch at 5th lake before turning around and heading back. There are a series of great vistas just off the trail above 3rd lake that are a must stop for this hike.
After packing up camp we headed back down the trail. We were so lucky that we got a late start to the day because when we arrived back at the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st lake the light and weather aligned and we were blown away by the beauty of these lakes. I can’t remember a prettier lake then what we saw that afternoon on the hike back. We were pretty speechless as we quickly tried to fill up our camera memory cards.
After a long photo session we loaded up our backpacks and headed down, stopping to take a few more shots on the way back.
We made it back to the car hot, tired, and hungry but again thrilled that we able to see such a phenomenal place not too far from home.
Distance: 15 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 3000 feet