The hike to Big Pine Lakes is easily one of the best day hikes in all of California. I mean, who knew there was a little slice of Banff National Park right here in Eastern California? If the views of Temple Crag and the surrounding mountain ranges don’t take your breath away, the color of the bright, turquoise lakes will most certainly captivate you. Hands-down, this bucket list hike to Big Pine Lakes was the #1 highlight of my latest Eastern Sierra road trip!
The hike to Big Pine Lakes via the North Fork Trail is still a well-kept secret among avid hiker and outdoor enthusiasts. That’s right you’re not going to find any influencers with a lighting crew or Instagram model girls here!
It’s no easy feat, but if you put in the work, you will most definitely be rewarded. Your reward will be the most beautiful, still turquoise lakes in all of California! Keep reading to learn more about the hike as well as read about my experience hiking to Big Pine Lakes. Lastly, don’t miss my Big Pine Lakes essential tips and packing list at the end of the post!
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BIG PINE LAKES HIKE: AN OVERVIEW
Located in the John Muir Wilderness at the end of Glacier Lodge Road, lies the North Fork Trail. This tucked-away trail leads up to the seven breathtaking Big Pine Lakes. These lakes are not just the bluest waters that you’ll see in California, but they’ll be that much more postcard-perfect with the rocky peaks of Temple Crag in the background.
The Big Pine Lakes trail (or North Fork Trail) is a loop trail that’s rated as difficult, beginning at Big Pine Creek Campground and working its way back into the Sierra Nevadas, covering 15-16 miles of distance. Given the total distance as well as the elevation gain required to reach the lakes, the hike itself is no walk in the park.
The first three lakes are known to be the most scenic because they are all backdropped by the majestic Temple Crag. However, you can continue on to see lakes 4 through 7 if you have more energy and time on your side.
Should you choose to do only a portion of the trail, you can cut the overall hike distance and turn the traditional loop trail into a shorter, out-and-back trail. For example, opting for Lakes 1-3 only will clock you at 11 miles roundtrip (out-and-back style), while the loop to see Lakes 1-7 (all of them) will bring you up to 15-16 miles roundtrip.
There are a few different ways to experience Big Pine Lakes, either as a day hike or as an overnight backpacking trip.
You do not need a permit for a day hike. If you plan to go backpacking, you will need a permit that should be reserved far in advance (they are really hard to get, but you should definitely try if you want to wake up with the turquoise lakes). Allowance is 25 overnight hikers per day.
Had we been able to get permits to stay overnight, we would have opted to go backpacking. We were, however, able to secure campsite reservations at Upper Sage Flat Campground, which allowed us to wake up just 1-mile away from the trailhead for our day hike. We loved this campground because we slept to the lulling sound of rushing creek water, along the banks of Big Pine Creek!
For the day hike described below, we only visited the first three lakes. We started at 6 am and returned to our car at around 1 pm.
BIG PINE LAKES HIKE: THE LOGISTICS
- Distance: 11 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,850 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 7,800 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 10,300 ft
- Elevation Gain: 3,400 feet around Big Pine Lake 3. If you continue on to the Palisade Glacier, it will be approx. 4,400 feet of gain total.
- Hike Duration: 6-10 hours
- Dog Friendly: Yes
- Permit Required: Permits are not required for day hiking, but are required for overnight backpacking. Reserve up to 6 months in advance here at Recreation.gov.
- Trailhead Location: The trailhead to hike the Big Pine Lakes Trail begins at the Big Pine Creek Campground. There is a small parking lot at the trailhead that fills up pretty quickly on summer weekends. Should you find no parking here, head to the nearby overflow lot (Big Pine Creek Overnight Parking).
WHERE IS BIG PINE LAKES LOCATED IN CALIFORNIA?
Big Pine Lakes is located in the heart of the Eastern Sierras of California. It is approximately 10 miles west of Big Pine, CA, approximately 15 miles south of Bishop, CA, ~6 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area and ~5 hours from Los Angeles.
The nearest airports to Big Pine, CA are:
- Reno, NV (RNO) – 216 miles, international airport
- Ontario, CA (ONT) – 239 miles, international airport
- Mammoth Lakes, CA (MMH) – 50 miles, domestic airport
BEST TIME TO HIKE BIG PINE LAKES IN CALIFORNIA
By far, the busiest season for hiking Big Pine Lakes is in the summer. July and August are popular months to hike because the clear blue skies result in the lakes giving off the most vibrant blue colors. However, there is one major drawback to hiking Big Pine Lakes during the summer–the heat. Since most of the trail is exposed to the sun, the hike can be brutally hot, especially if you’re hiking on a day that’s well above 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
We did our hike in mid-August, and I suppose we got lucky because it was only about 90 degrees on our hike day. If you do plan on hiking during the summer, be sure to get an early start so you can get through the switchback ascent before it gets unbearably hot. Honestly, I’d recommend starting no later than 6:30 am in the summertime.
During the summer, I’d also recommend going mid-week if you can swing it. Summer weekends do tend to get very busy, so you won’t get very much peace and quiet if that’s what you’re looking for.
You can also hike Big Pine Lakes in the late spring after the snowmelt or early fall before the snow comes back around. Do note that the lake water might not be as vibrantly blue during these times.
HOW TO GET TO THE BIG PINE LAKES TRAILHEAD
You will most definitely need a car to get to the Big Pine Lakes. The trailhead does take a bit of driving to get to, so you will want to either camp in one of the nearby campgrounds or stay in a nearby town like Big Pine, CA or Bishop, CA the night before. There are limited services in Big Pine and full services/more amenities in Bishop.
From Big Pine, go west on Crocker Avenue, which then becomes Glacier Lodge Road. Follow Glacier Lodge Road until the road ends end of the road. You’ll park at the base of the trail near Big Pine Creek Campground. The parking is limited for day use, and there is no overnight parking here. With that in mind, the best thing you can do is just wake up early for your hike in order to get an early start.
You can expect a vault toilet at the trailhead, so I’d definitely use this before commencing your hike.
BIG PINE LAKES VIA NORTH FORK TRAIL: TRIP REPORT
We woke up from our creekside slumber at Upper Sage Flat Campground at 4:45 am with the goal of arriving at the trailhead at 5:30 am. After more dilly-dallying than we expected, we finally hopped in our car, drove one mile to the trailhead, and arrived at the trailhead parking lot right before 6 am. At this point, the first parking lot had just been filled, so we had to park in the overflow lot just a few dozen feet away.
Since we started hiking before the sun came up, it was nearly pitch black. Since we were walking right by the rushing creek for a good while, the air was very brisk for the first half-mile (even though it was eventually going to reach 90 degrees in the afternoon). Remember to carry a light jacket with you just for this section if you can’t bear the cold!
This first section is fairly flat. If you’ve started early enough, you can catch the morning’s first rays light up the mountain peaks! You’ll soon reach the junction of the South Fork and North Fork trails. Head right at the fork to take the North Fork Big Pine Trail. You’ll hike a few shaded switchbacks before the views start to open up.
Eventually, you’ll pass a bridge that will take you over an impressive waterfall called First Falls. If you’re tired at this point, take a break at the waterfall bridge and enjoy a quick snack before continuing further.
The hike will then introduce an unshaded, uphill climb. This climb will continue for a couple of miles in the form of a few rocky switchbacks. I know you’re going to be huffing and puffing, but don’t forget to commemorate your hike with a photo by the John Muir Wilderness sign during the climb!
Eventually, you will reach another waterfall section, Second Falls. Once at the Second Falls, enjoy a well-earned break in the shade after such a long, exposed climb. You can even splash your face with some of that refreshing water to help you cool off!
As you make your last climb, you’ll pass by Big Pine Lakes 1, which is stunning in itself. You can walk down to explore and possibly even get a quick swim in! Once you’ve spent enough time soaking up the views of this lake, head back to the trail the same way that you arrived and continue heading uphill. You’ll get to enjoy more views of Big Pine Lakes 1 as you continue up the trail.
You’ll probably want to stop at the first lake for lunch. Don’t do that just yet, because after just a few more steps, the Big Pine Lakes 2 will make its grand appearance.
Ladies and gents, let me tell you the second lake is by far the most impressive out of the series of lakes! This is where all the iconic pictures of the Big Pine Lakes hike are taken, so be sure to snap as many photos as you can until you get that perfect shot!
We spent about an hour or so here, taking pictures of the different lake angles and enjoying our lunches. We saw a bunch of campsites set up around here and realized how lucky these backpackers were to be able to wake up with views as gorgeous and unforgettable as this!
From this point, you can hike for about 0.4 miles to get to Big Pine Lake 3. It’s a wonderful lake that matches the previous two in majestic beauty! Just like with Lakes 1 and 2, you have the ability to wind your way down to the banks of the lake for a quick swim.
Once you’re done enjoy the commanding views of this lake, you have the option of going further to the other lakes and completing the loop trail. The loop will take another ~5 miles. These miles will require some more climbing with at least another 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
After reaching the third lake, we decided to turn around the way we came. We retraced our steps to ultimately get back to the trailhead. Back to the campsite we went to take quick post-hike “baths” in our lovely creek, get in a cat nap, and cook up some hearty, well-deserved burgers!
BIG PINE LAKES HIKE: WHERE TO STAY
The best option for hiking Big Pine Lakes is to camp. Camping at either Big Pine Creek Campground or Upper Sage Flat Campground will allow you to minimize the need to drive and get an early start to the day, thereby reducing your exposure to the hot, blazing sun especially in the summer season.
- Big Pine Creek Campground – This small 30 site campground is the closest to the trailhead, making it our top recommendation for day hikers and backpackers alike.
- Upper Sage Flat Campground – the next best thing and where we stayed for our hike. Offers more campsites and more space for groups. From here, you can either drive to the trailhead or walk to it if you have the stamina to do so.
Do note that these campsites often get booked up pretty early on. If you are not able to snag a campsite at these campgrounds, you can stay in Big Pine, CA or Bishop, CA.
Despite Bishop being further away from the trailhead (40 minutes to be exact) compared to Big Pine, I would recommend booking a hotel here as there are more lodging options. For a more comfortable stay, I recommend the following hotel in Bishop, CA:
- Creekside Inn – One of the best options in Bishop, hands-down! This hotel features a year-round outdoor hot tub and a seasonal outdoor swimming pool. It also offers guests a creek-side patio with stellar views of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Guests can enjoy a daily hot breakfast too.
If nothing in Bishop, CA or Big Pine, CA works for you, you can also choose to stay in Mammoth Lakes, CA. Staying in Mammoth Lakes will bring you to a 1-hour 15-minute drive to the trailhead.
Pro Tip: If you do stay in Bishop or anywhere further than that, plan to get a very early start as the parking lot fills up by 7 am in the summer.
BIG PINE LAKES HIKE: ESSENTIAL TIPS
- During the summer, I highly recommend starting the hike at 6 am or earlier to avoid getting beaten down by the sun. It may sound early, but you’ll be so much more comfortable struggling with the uphill battle without sun exposure.
- If you can snag an overnight permit, go the overnight camping route. They are really limited, but getting the chance to wake up in front of Temple Crag and these stunning alpine lakes is worth the effort.
- Day hiking Big Pine Lakes is wonderful, but you will be pretty tired at the end of the day.
- You’re going to need plenty of water for this hike, especially if it’s going to be 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit on the day of your hike. I recommend at least 3 liters of water if it’s going to be that hot.
- Be sure to pack plenty of snacks and water to stay fueled for the journey. You should bring a packable lunch to enjoy at the lakes, too. We brought sandwiches with us for our hike!
- You won’t have any cellular service, and your phone’s GPS may be spotty. Screenshot the hike instructions beforehand, or download trail directions for offline access. Lastly, I’d be sure you know what the lakes look like–if you pull up your Google Maps and you’re nowhere near the seven lakes, you’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way.
- If you want to take a dip in the lake, be sure to bring a quick-drying travel towel and a bathing suit. The water is very, very cold so it’s best not to be in there for too long.
- Note, there is a vault toilet at the trailhead, but none after that point. If you gotta go somewhere on the trail, always pack out what you pack in!
- The trail has a few small creek crossings, but as long as you have either waterproof hiking boots or hiking poles to help keep your balance, you should be fine. However, if your balance is terrible and you don’t have waterproof shoes, bring an extra pair of socks just in case!
- The trailhead to Big Pine Lakes sits at an elevation well above sea level, which means for a lot of us, we’ll need to remember to acclimate to the altitude. Take this seriously, because I’m talking 8,000 – 10,000 ft above sea level! You will probably feel the elevation while walking on flat ground, hiking, and even sleeping. Be sure to pace yourself, drink lots of water (more than you’re used to drinking), and avoid alcohol if you can help it.
- If you’re traveling in the summer, be sure to check for forest fires before embarking on your trip. We like to use Cal Fire’s Incidents Overview Map to check if there are any fires along our route. If there happens to be a fire nearby, check out the Air Quality Index before going, especially if you plan on being outside a lot.
- If the day-use parking lot is full, you can park at the overnight parking area. If that’s the case, plan to add another 0.6 miles to your trip each way.
- Wondering how many lakes to see on your hike? Lakes 1-3 are the most impressive. Lake 4 is not turquoise, and while Lake 5 is a beautiful blue, it’s still not quite as impressive as Lakes 1-3.
BIG PINE LAKES HIKE: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
- Hiking Boots | Bring broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Hiking poles | Very helpful for more intense hikes like Big Pine Lakes. Here is a budget-friendly option, or a lighter, higher-quality, more ergonomic option
- Lots of water and snacks | maybe even a packable lunch for you to enjoy at the lakes.
- Stinger Waffles are one of my favorite sources of quick and delicious energy.
- Moisture-wicking clothes with sun protection | You’ll be sweaty and hot, so dress accordingly. I love my Patagonia Capeline Midweight Crew for longer hikes like this. Even though it’s a long sleeve (for that much-needed sun protection), it won’t trap heat.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Nights here in the mountains can get cold, and you never know when rain may come. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Packable Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the early spring or fall, you’re going to need layers in the mountains, especially at times when the sun is not up. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Camelbak Water Reservoir | I love water reservoirs for a few reasons. For longer hikes, it’s always best to bring a water reservoir of 2-3 liters of water with you.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key here. It’s especially important when you’re at higher elevations! As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff headband then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Sunscreen | Sunscreen is absolutely necessary for mountain destinations. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
- Mini survival kit | Get one that’s pre-made like this one, or make your own. Be sure to carry this with you in your hiking backpack.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from the lake back into your shoes. This one here is a great option.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | This is a must if you’re going to be camping or hiking before the sun is up. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries!
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads; ibuprofen for the downhill hike, etc.