followtiffsjourney finger lake

Big Pine South Fork Creek, Hike to Finger Lake

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
HIKE PERMIT: yes for overnight camping
LOCATION: Eastern Sierra, Inyo National Forest
big pine creek south fork

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

big pine south fork junction from backpackers overnight parking lot

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.

followtiffsjourney filtering water with the katadyn befree

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 πŸ™‚ 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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The popular Big Pine Lakes to Third Lake

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12 thoughts on “Big Pine South Fork Creek, Hike to Finger Lake”

    1. Hi Brandy, Yes that blog post is coming up soon! πŸ˜‰ Subscribe to be notified and be sure to check your spam folder in case my eblasts end up there…

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  2. Dwight Edward Tichenor

    I have a permit to go up the South Fork in mid July – 2 nights. I am looking forward to going back into the Sierras – it’s been a long time as I have been living abroad for the past couple of decades. Your trip notes/report were inspiring, Tiff. Thanks for info and it looked like you had a great trip.

  3. Can you elaborate more on how to go from Brainard to Finger lake? I took a trip last week with final goal to Finger lake. However, after reaching to Brainard lake, I couldn’t find way to Finger lake, so I had to turn around and get back. A disappointing trip for me. Maybe I would go again if I can find reliable info of how to get to finger lake. Is there a direct trail to finger lake without going through Brainard lake first? From the map on all trail, it appears there should be a direct trail. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi William, you need to have some route-finding/ map-reading skills to get from Brainerd Lake to Finger Lake as there is no direct trail. Alltrails is not always accurate and I’d recommend always reading more than one trail report before heading out.

      Do you know how to read a topographic map? I’d recommend learning that because it’s all cross-country hiking from Brainerd to Finger Lake. Once you reach Brainerd Lake, you’ll quickly start ascending the boulders in the southwest direction. Follow the path of least resistance. There should be a slightly worn trail at parts of the climb but you just keep going up the boulders until you reach the north tip of Finger Lake. Make sure you download a map/ GPS beforehand to help you. Hope this helps and let me know how it goes on your return trip!

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