HIKE TO: Finger lake TRAIL: Big Pine South Fork MILES: 10.74 miles out and back TIME: 8:05 hrs (1 night) DATE I WENT: 6/13-14/20 DIFFICULTY: moderate-strenuous ELEVATION: 10,789 ft ELEVATION GAIN/ LOSS: 3,568 ft HIKE PERMIT: yes for overnight camping PARKING PERMIT: no LOCATION: Eastern Sierra, Inyo National Forest
I’ve been wanting to hike to Finger Lake in the Palisades region of the Eastern Sierra for years but have avoided it because everyone told me it was gnarly and strenuous… well, I got a last min “walk-up” permit for Big Pine South Fork and went for it. It was definitely strenuous, but it was also my first Eastern Sierra backpacking trip of the season at high altitude so my body wasn’t used to it. With that being said, it’s totally doable, the last scramble section was not nearly as hard as I expected it to be, and if I can do it, so can you. I just would not recommend it as a day hike unless you’re speedy.
South Fork Big Pine Trailhead: You can start from the Big Pine day hikers trailhead or the overnight parking lot, half a mile down the street if you have a wilderness camping permit for backpacking. We started from the overnight trailhead parking lot but exited at the day hikers trailhead which saved some mileage… but there was a half-mile walk back to the car on the road.
Mosquitoes: Unfortunately, the bugs are out to play already. There wasn’t any at the lakes when I went (only some along the trail near water) but I heard they were there the following weekend so don’t forget bug spray!
Trail Report: Big Pine South Fork to Finger Lake
We started our hike at noon. At the 1-mile mark from the overnight parking lot, you’ll take a trail on the left to head down towards the bridge and connect to the South Fork Big Pine trail. If you miss this trail junction, you will continue on to North Fork Big Pine. The trail then descends 0.2 miles before you reach the junction to return back to the day-hikers parking lot – continue straight to head stay on the South Fork trail to Finger Lake. In another 0.3 miles, you reach another junction – head straight/ right for the South Fork Big Pine trail (turning left/ u-turn is a direct shot back to the parking lot as well which we took on our way back).
Here at 1.6 miles from the trailhead, you are officially on the South Fork Big Pine Creek Trail. The trail starts off flat as you cross through the valley floor and there is one larger stream crossing with a man-made bridge to help you through. By 2.8 miles, you enter the John Muir Wilderness and the elevation gain starts. The next mile is a series of switchbacks with 989 ft elevation gain. Near the top, there was one small patch that had very loose dirt and small rocks which made it slippery and nerve-wracking for me to get up the next few steep steps of scree.
Once you reach the top of these switchbacks at around 4 miles in, the trail descends for awhile. The trail does not directly reach Willow Lake (first lake on the South Fork Trail which you’ll have to take a side trip to) so we continued on to Brainerd Lake and stopped for a break/nap by the next main water source. We took an hour break here.
Continuing on at 4:10 pm, the trail starts to ascend again through the beautiful trees which add plenty of shade and you get to a point where you overlook Willow Lake behind you. The trail follows South Fork Big Pine Creek just a little bit before turning east towards Brainerd Lake. The trail is well-established but you’ll have to pay attention a couple of times to know where it continues. We were also pleasantly surprised by a few unnamed lakes along the way.
At 5:03, we finally reached Brainerd Lake 5.47 miles from the trailhead. There is an abundance of great camp spots that overlook Brainerd Lake but if you have it in you, scramble half a mile further up to reach Finger Lake.
There are not many camp spots up there with a view overlooking the lake so if that’s your cup of tea, I’d recommend camping down at Brainerd Lake and day hiking up to Finger Lake, but definitely go that extra distance to Finger Lake! The Middle Palisade Glacier melts directly into it, giving it beautiful blue-green water (varies depending on when you see it).
Be extra careful and aware of your surroundings when you’re on the last ascent. The Class 2 scrambling route does not follow an actual trail; there is a somewhat-worn trail you can mostly follow if you can find it.
We camped here for one night away from the lake, woke up early, and hung out at the lake all day before packing up and hiking back out 🙂 The hike down the rock field was a lot easier and shorter than expected. It took us 40 mins to get up the rock-field scramble section and 20 mins down.
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