What better way to spend your birthday weekend than squeezing a late season backpacking trip in the Sierras, answer not much. We decided on a quick overnight trip somewhere relatively close to the LA area and came up with this little gem Cottonwood Lakes. These lakes are tantalizingly close to Southern California just outside Lone Pine, CA a mere 3.5hr drive from Los Angeles. We failed to nab an overnight permit so we left late Friday night and spent the night in Lone Pine just down the road from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center which gives out walk in permits via lottery each morning. Thankfully I nabbed #1 in the lottery and was easily able to grab a permit for Cottonwood Lakes.
We had a leisurely breakfast in town finished packing our backpacks and hit the road up to Horseshoe Meadows which is the trailhead for this hike. The drive up from Lone Pine is pretty spectacular right outside of town is the Alabama Hills which was the filming location for numerous westerns with the dramatic backing of the Sierras close by. From the Alabama Hills the road climbs steeply for 5000 feet with sweeping views of the Owens Valley and White Mountains to the east. The road ends at Horseshoe Meadows a large expansive meadows at nearly 10,000 feet.
We quickly parked the car and hit the trail as it was already early afternoon and we had 5+ miles to hike to reach Cottonwood Lakes and find a campground. The trail is relatively flat and thankfully easy on the lungs despite the high elevation. Starting at 10,000 feet saves you from the typical steep elevation gains required to visit alpine lakes in most of the Eastern Sierras. The trail skirts around Cottonwood Creek mostly remaining in the forest before eventually crossing the creek with logs.
From the next trail junction the trail climbed more steeply gaining elevation to reach the Cottonwood Lakes basin. When we crested into the basin we were rewarded with a beautiful stream crossing which was perfect timing since we ran out of water. While I was refilling water Max the Wonder Dog was treated to play time with two full size Australian Shepherds. Max (our mini Aussie) has a nose for other Aussies and they ran circles for a few minutes to blow off some excess energy and make us all laugh. After filling up we pushed on as the sun was setting. The trail stayed away from the 1st lake and when we reached a corner we were blown away by the reflections on Cottonwoods Lake #2. We whipped out our cameras and took a bunch of photos before moving on to find camp. Most people appeared to have setup below the ridge close to Cottonwood Lake #3 which looked promising as it was well protected from the wind. Sadly the only available spots were way too close to other campers so we pushed on.
From Lake #3 it was a short and steep climb up a rocky trail alongside a tumbling cascade from Lakes 4 and 5. We were able to find this lovely campsite nestled right between Lakes 4 and 5. We were treated to an amazing sunset over the lakes right after we set up the tent.
We hastily made dinner in the dark as the temperature dropped. We were really glad that we had brought a dehydrated Thai Curry from Good to Go (pricey but delicious). After dinner sadly Max decided that it was a perfect time to have an upset stomach. We fretted over him and left him outside for a few minutes to deal with his stomach. Eventually even Max got cold and wanted to dive inside the tent for warmth.
Thanks to our Feathered Friends down sleeping bags we were both comfortably warm despite the temps in the high 20’s overnight. We slept in and waited for it to warm up a bit before getting up and making breakfast. After a hot tea and oatmeal we ventured out around the lakes and took pictures. Although terribly exposed our campsite had fantastic views of Sierra Crest and both lakes. It was perfectly situated between the two lakes a picture perfect setting and exactly what we were hoping for on this trip.
After enjoying an extended photo session we packed up and began the trek back to the car. The hike back was pretty easy. The trail isn’t steep and the mileage back isn’t extreme. We made great time on the way back to the car. Heck we even made it back to the car with hours to spare before sunset which is a rare event for the two of us. Max was able to keep up despite having an upset tummy and he looked none the worse for wear. It was a short backpacking trip but we glad that we had taken advantage of one last overnight weekend in the Sierras before the weather cools off too much. Cottonwood Lakes is a great short trip that was close to home, I highly recommend it if you live in the LA area.
Distance: 14 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet