The hike to Big Pine Lakes may be one of the best day hikes in California. If the views don’t take your breath away, the color of the turquoise lakes will. Located in the John Muir Wilderness and nestled in the Sierra Nevadas, this unrelenting day hike takes you deep into the forest.
When it comes to day hiking in California, there are a few elements to consider. After doing a ton of research on this long and strenuous hike, we decided to book a trip to the Eastern Sierras just for this hike alone. I had seen photos years ago and had bookmarked it as a must-experience. There are a few options for how to experience the hike, whether you go for the day or overnight it.
So I’m going to share just how to hike in one of the most beautiful places in California. And trust me, the water color is truly that turquoise.
*Please read before traveling our how to travel responsibly and safely in California this summer.
A Guide to California’s Most Epic Day Hike to Big Pine Lakes
What to Know Before You Hike
You do not need a permit for a day hike. If you plan to go backpacking, you will need a permit that will need to be reserved far in advance. They are incredibly limited and require a reservation. You can reserve a wilderness permit here if you do want to go backpacking. Allowance is 25 overnight hikers per day.
The Trail Name
Commonly referred to as the Big Pine Lakes trail, the technical trail name is Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail. It begins at Big Pine Creek Campground and works its way back into the Sierra Nevadas, part of the Inyo National Forest area.
The trailhead is rather remote, so you will want to either camp in the area or stay nearby in Bishop the night before. We stayed in Bishop, which put us around 40 minutes from the trailhead. The optimal experience would have been to grab a campsite at the campgrounds.
Best Time of Year to Hike
Late Spring after the snowmelt or early fall before the first snow. The choice to go in the middle of the summer was not in our favor. Most of the trail is exposed to the sun and on our way back it was over 100 degrees. I’d recommend going mid-week to avoid weekend crowding.
Where to Park
You’ll park at the base of the trail near Big Pine Creek Campground. The parking is limited for day use, so I’ll suggest an early start. Here is the Google Maps location.
Where to Stay for Hiking Big Pine Lakes
There are very limited options and a frequent question is where is the best place to stay to hike Big Pine Lakes?
I’m honest opinion is this: if you can grab a campsite at the base then that is your best location. It may seem that Bishop is closer than Mammoth (which it is) but there is hardly anything in the city. We stayed there and other days in the area were spent commuting back and forth to Mammoth. If you plan to do activities near Mammoth, I’d recommend staying in Mammoth and making the longer drive the one day for the hike.
You can snag some amazing Airbnbs here:
The Trail and Experience
The trail in total is around 13 miles as a loop if you plan to do all lakes. We only hiked to the second lake, which put us at around 11 miles round trip. See this map on AllTrails. We started the hike at 7 am and it put us at the second lake around 11 am. We made it back to the car by around 2 pm.
The first part of the trail is unrelenting. Straight uphill and steep, this part of the trail was the hardest. You’re also exposed to the sun the entire time unless you leave early enough.
As you make your way up, you pass by a waterfall and creek which is cooler and shaded. There are plenty of places to stop off the trail to allow others to pass by safely with distance during this portion.
As you make your last climb, you’ll pass by the first lake which is stunning. Then a few minutes later the second lake will appear. The second lake is insanely beautiful and we chose to just go to this one. You could go on to the final lakes if you’re up to it as well.
The trail is very well marked and has a few creek crossings but nothing too serious.
What to Bring for a Day Hike
You’re going to need a lot of water for this hike. We went through three, 32-ounce water bottles, mostly because of how hot it was. We packed a lunch and a few snacks as well to refuel and enjoy at the second lake.
Some of my favorite day hiking essentials are:
- Hiking Boots: KEEN Women’s Terradora Mid Wp-w Hiking Boot (on sale for $75 as they’re an older edition). If these are sold out, I’d recommend these KEEN Targhee III Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot. I never wore hiking boots before this trip and I am SO glad I did. The trail has a lot of loose gravel and rocks and the hiking boots made a huge difference.
- Day BackPack: We have this Pacsafe Venturesafe X34L Backpack which is large enough for most necessities. I also carried a smaller Pacsafe backpack (no longer available). This Db The Explorer Backpack is a good alternative.
- What I Wear: I’ve been loving these high-waisted black performance leggings from Everlane, paired with an Alo Yoga bra and t-shirt. For hotter days, I also live in these Alo biker shorts. And these wool socks for my boots!
- Other Items: A reusable water bottle or this one by Larq that cleans the water with a touch of a button. Reusable food storage bags for snacks, these by Stasher are my go-to.