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 to secluded lakes.
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. It is entirely up to you and how you want to experience it.
Had we been able to get permits to go overnight, I would have opted to do this. They are really limited so we were not able to get one. The day hike was still incredible and we had plenty of time to be able to enjoy all of the natural beauty this part of California has to offer. The elevation gain was challenging but once we got to the first lake, it was all worth it.
I’m going to share just how to hike in one of the most beautiful places in California. Everything you need to know on how to visit the lakes and some detailed information on the trail that takes you there. And trust me, the watercolor is truly that turquoise.
*Please read before traveling: how to travel responsibly and safely in California this summer.
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A Guide to California’s Most Epic Day Hike to Big Pine Lakes
Frequently Asked Questions About Hike Big Pines Lakes Trail
Do you need a permit to hike Big Pine Lakes?
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.
How long is the hike to Big Pine Lakes?
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 covering 16.2 miles in a loop trail.
Should you choose to do only a portion of the trail, the hike would be shorter. It is considered a difficult trail by rating.
How do I get to Big Pine Lakes?
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.
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. You will find bathrooms as well here for when you visit, so I’d recommend going before hitting the trail.
What is the best time of year to hike to Big Pine Lakes?
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 as well.
Where is Big Pine Lakes in California?
Big Pine Lakes is located in the heart of the Eastern Sierras of California. It is roughly 10 miles west of of Big Pine and around 15 miles south of Bishop. It’s not far from Mammoth.
What is the elevation change at Big Pine Lakes?
To the lakes, the change is 3,400 feet and then to Palisade glacier it is 4,400 feet.
Choices for Big Pine Lakes Hotels
There are very limited options and a frequent question is where is the best place to stay to hike Big Pine Lakes?
In my honest opinion for 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 long drive one day for the hike. There are several wonderful Airbnbs in the Mammoth Lakes area as well.
There are several hotels to choose from in Mammoth as well. I recommend searching here to help find the best hotel for you:
Big Pine Lakes Camping
I mentioned earlier that there are public campgrounds at the base of Big Pine Lakes. There are permits to camp as well in John Muir Wilderness, which is seperate from the public campgrounds before the trail.
When we were there, we popped by the campgrounds and they looked really great. Situated along the river, they’re tucked under the trees and well-covered. They were all really full this last summer, I’d imagine you need to book far in advance.
The two main campgrounds at the base of the trail are Big Pine Creek Campground and Big Pine Canyon. They are family friendly and great as a base for exploring this area. If you stay there, you could easily walk to the trailhead early in the morning.
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. I wish we would have honestly even started in the dark to miss the exposure of the sun. The views are beautiful as the sun starts to rise higher and higher.
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. We had to stop a few times to catch our breath as the elevation made it challenging for us.
We also made sure to pack plenty of snacks and water to help us stay fueled for the journey.
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.
We spent a good hour enjoying our lunch with views of the lake. It was still too early in the season to jump into the lake. The water was quite freezing, though I did see one brave soul jump in. I know later in the summer, the lake becomes a bit more tolerable for swimming.
The trail is very well marked and has a few creek crossings but nothing too serious. I do recommend having the trail saved offline on All Trails Pro if possible. It’s always smart to do so. You will pass other hikers as well should you need to ask a question or two.
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.
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