Overnight Camping At Big Pine Lakes From North Fork

HIKE TO: Big Pine Lakes to First Lake, Second Lake, and Third Lake
TRAIL: Big Pine Creek North Fork 
MILES: 14.54 miles out and back (5.5 miles to Second Lake)
TIME: 3:41 hrs up, 3:29 (2 hrs up at a faster pace)
DATE I WENT: 6/7/16 - 6/8/16 
DIFFICULTY: moderate 
HIKE PERMIT: yes for overnight camping, no for day hike
CAMPFIRES: NOT ALLOWED - please practice leave no trace
LOCATION: Eastern Sierra, Inyo National Forest

It’s been a while since I’ve been backpacking and I must admit – I missed my big Osprey backpacking pack.  I haven’t been since I summit Mt Whitney last August, so last week, I decided I was going back to the Eastern Sierras to backpack just for one night [6.7.16 – 6.8.16]… and talked my adventure buddy into going with me.

Do you need a permit for Big Pine Lakes?

You can day hike to Big Pine Lakes without a permit, but we chose to overnight camp just because I missed backpacking and an Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit is required to camp overnight. Normally, you’ll want to confirm your permit before 10 am the day of otherwise they will release your permit; we were not aware of this so right after I got my “no show” email, I had to call them to let them know we were on the way to pick up our permit.  We picked up our permit at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center (the closest permit issuing station if you are coming from the Los Angeles area).

If you’re lucky enough to get a backpacking permit to camp by the lakes, consider bagging a 13k ft peak and hike all 7 Big Pine Lakes and climb Cloudripper for a bigger adventure!

What is the best time of year to hike Big Pine Lakes?

I’ve hiked Big Pine Lakes Trail every month from May – Nov since 2016 and have found the best times to hike Big Pine Creek North Fork:

  • May on a dry year is a good thing to hike to Big Pine Lakes beautiful but with some snow on the trail and mountains still. On a good snow year, I’d hold off.
  • June is a great time to visit Big Pine Lakes. On a good snow year, there will likely still be snow after second or third lake, but the lakes should be a beautiful deep turquoise color. On a dry year, I would not expect snow unless you’re climbing further up and the lakes will be a beautiful vibrant turquoise, especially mid-late June. However; June also tends to be the worse time for mosquitoes.
  • July and August are the best time to hike Big Pine Lakes so permits will also be hardest to obtain for these months. It is when the lakes are most vibrant and milky blue/ turquoise, there days are warmest so you can swim in the lake, and the daylight is longest. However; it gets hot quickly so start your hike early. July and August are also when afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. And lastly, August tends to be when fire season starts so the air quality can get smoky, but I will also mention I’ve been in August during fire season when the AQI is really bad and was perfectly fine camping at second lake.
  • September is one of my favorite times to hike Big Pine Lakes. The water is still bright turquoise when the sun hits it, but not as much as in Summer of course. The crowds start to die down in September, especially on week days. The days are warm but the nights cool down fast which is fine with the proper layers. Fall colors can start appearing mid-late Oct.
  • October is an amazing time to visit for Fall Colors. The Big Pine North Fork trail gets fall foliage from the Aspen trees and the lakes hold a deeper turquoise teal color. The weather is definitely a lot cooler though!
  • November is actually nice to hike Big Pine Lakes still. Yes, it’s much later in the season for a high-altitude hike and the temperatures can certainly and likely drop below freezing temps, but with the right gear, permits are easier to get and you can camp with little-to-no one around and enjoy the deep teal colored lake still. It’s really worth it. I’d recommend a light backpacking quilt (my favorite is Katabatic’s 30 deg quilt) or if you run very cold and the forecast is showing below 20 degrees, go with a 0 degrees sleeping bag. However, be prepared cause Winter is just around the corner and snowfall is always a possibility.
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How many lakes are Big Pine Lakes and which ones should I visit?

We hiked the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail.  This trail has 7 lakes (8 if you include Black Lake) but our goal was only to hike to and camp at Third Lake. Second Lake, Third Lake, and Fifth Lake are the only lakes that hold impressive turquoise colors from the glacial melt. First Lake is turquoise too but not as vibrant as the season goes on.

How do you get to Big Pine Lakes CA?

The famous turquoise Big Pine Lakes in California is located 11 miles from Big Pine, CA in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. From Los Angeles, it is about a 4.5 hr drive without traffic: 4 hours to the town of Big Pine Lakes and another half hour up the mountain road. The road to the trailhead is paved the entire way.

Pro Tip: stop by Copper Top BBQ after your hike for the best BBQ along hwy 395!

Big Pine Lakes Trailhead and Parking Lot

THE JOURNEY BEGINS:  We got to the parking lot and started hiking around 1 pm. There is a separate parking lot for day hikers and overnight hikers (the overnight parking lot is half a mile before the day-use trailhead).

Be Bear Aware

There are definitely bears in the area, including the parking lot, so be bear aware!

There are bear lockers and restrooms at both trailheads; leave anything scented or food you do not want to bring from your car in the bear lockers – label your items with your name and exit date.  

You need a BEAR CANISTER or bear bag if you plan to stay overnight.

Also, bring BUG SPRAY if you’re going in late Spring/ early Summer! There were so many mosquitoes throughout the trail and I got lit up on this trip. Bugs tend to come out in June/ early July depending on the snowmelt of the season.

Big Pine Creek Campground

If backpacking is not for you, there is a campground and a small lodge at the trailhead you can stay at. Then you can day still hike Big Pine Lakes – start early.

Big Pine North Fork – Trail Report

There is a trail that starts from the overnight hiker’s parking lot which is supposed to be the Big Pine Creek trailhead, but we weren’t entirely sure so we walked along the road to the end and began where the day users start. We started here at 1:21 pm.

This trail is so beautiful because you are walking along North Fork Big Pine Creek for most of the trail – you always hear the water in the surrounding area and there are plenty of options to filter water!  So we start off walking along Big Pine Creek.  Keep an eye out for the “trail” signs in the beginning – I think we saw two, but you can’t get lost.  10 minutes in, we came across the first waterfall (keep in mind, I’m a decent-paced hiker but did this with a backpacking pack, so day hikers may get there faster).  If you’re from LA, you know that we don’t have “real” waterfalls… now, THIS was a real waterfall!  It flows strong!  Just a minute later (0.37 miles from day user parking lot), you will soon come across the fork and sign for South Fork Big Pine / North Fork Big Pine:  hang right to take the North Fork trail leading to the beautiful green lakes.

At 1:47 pm, we came to an opening with no signs specifying right, left, or straight.  I went with a hunch and steered right – follow me!  Straight in front was another bridge and just on the other side was the NF Big Pine trail sign. I believe this is where the backpackers’ trail connects with the day users, but keep left to stay on the trail.

For the next mile, you are not walking next to the creek.  The trail has very limited shade and this was definitely the hottest and most boring part of the hike.  You can see the second waterfall at a distance, but it’s a lot farther than you think.  The trail starts to elevate a lot more here as well, probably the most during the entire hike to the start of the lakes.

At 2:15 pm, the trail steers a hard right and climbs even higher – the elevation gain really was not too bad, but with the heat of the sun and the weight of my pack… the incline really slowed me down to say the least.  There were many pink/ lavender and yellow flowers that bloomed and just lit up the trail – it was actually one of my favorite parts of the hike.  Keep a lookout for another trail that goes left (u-turns) along this part of the trail.  It’s soon after you pass this unique tree, but you will want to make sure you take that route instead of continuing straight to who knows where.

2:20 pm, 1.82 miles, you will see another NF Big Pine trail sign to ensure you took the right path.

Just over 2 miles from the start, you will approach the second waterfall which we came to at 2:35 pm, and just around the corner from that is the John Muir Wilderness / Inyo National Forest trail sign.  

NOTE: at this time of year, there were a LOT of ladybugs!! I mean I walked for about four mins (back along the creek) with swarms of ladybugs flying all over me, all up in my face, and attaching onto any part of me they could. and yes, I time out and track every detail of my hike just so I can share it with you.  Anyways, I’m pretty sure the ladybugs are harmless and once you pass them, they don’t go chasing you.  It was just surprising and a bit annoying.

The trail becomes “flat” again and at about 2.64 miles (2:50 pm), there is a big rock that offered some much-needed shade for a break, while my friend backtracked his steps to locate something he dropped.  We stayed about 10-15 minutes before carrying on and it felt really nice to take my backpack off!  You soon enter back to the shades of the beautiful, tall green trees, and at 3:13 pm, you pass the Big Pine Creek Wilderness Ranger Camp.  This is just over the 3 miles mark.  With just a little incline here and there, you will continue to trek along the creek and mostly in shade in the middle of the afternoon.

At the 4 mile mark (2 hrs), you will get your first glimpse of Temple Crag in the distance!  At 4.45 miles, 17 mins later,  you will cross a small stream and a larger rock-skipping water area within ten mins.  If this part confused you, just know you’ll encounter water with your steps within ten mins of your first glance of Temple Crag.

At 4.89 miles (2:38 hr), we finally saw the sign for Lakes 1-7 / Black Lake.  Continue straight to the pretty green water!  8 mins later, and 5.16 miles from the parking lot… hello First Lake!  We arrived at 4:19 pm and at this time of day, the water was gleaming green (it was a lot prettier when we passed through the next morning).  We stopped for a quick photo before wanting to move on our way to the other lakes because we heard they were prettier.

5.35 miles and less than 10 minutes from First Lake – hello Second Lake! It took me a while to get here my first time but I’ve gotten up as quickly as two hours on other trips. This one took my breath away.  The water was green and beautiful and the view of Temple Crag straight on was so dramatic and just makes you go woah… 😀 We saw some other backpackers set up camp around here, but I’ve always wanted to hike to Third Lake so fifteen minutes later, we trekked on to find our last stop.

Third Lake is a bit farther apart than first and second lake.  We arrived here at 5 pm/ 6.22 miles/ 3.5 hrs from the start.  At this time of day, there was plenty of day light that just brought out the colors of the lake.  There is a small waterfall on the opposite side of the lake which is actually feeding the lake water with the melting Palisade Glacier; that water source is also the explanation of the turquoise/ green water.  You get a different angle of Temple Crag from here but it’s still awe-mazing!

big pine lakes third lake

We set up camp, ate dinner, and waited for the sun to go down.  The sun didn’t set until after 8 pm and at 9 pm… there was still light outside!  I only remember this because my friend was waiting for darkness in the sky so he could get some shots of the stars.  This is my first backpacking trip in the Eastern Sierra aside from Mt. Whitney so I was still pretty excited about the long daylight. Since we weren’t moving around much anymore, we were easy targets for the mosquitoes so I ended up hiding out in the tent most of the evening. 🙁 If third lake is all you want to hike to, you can stop reading here; just go back the same way you came in.

The next morning, we slept in because I wanted to wait for the sun to rise a bit higher to shine on the lake before adventuring on.  At 6 am… the lake color was not very vibrant yet.

We trekked a bit further at 9:40 am and towards Sam Mack Meadow, but there was too much snow to make it much farther. There were even more mosquitos here than along the rest of the trail. We hiked until about 10:30 am before turning around, back to camp at 11:10 am (1.5 miles total), then onwards and off the mountain by 1:30 pm. Four hours later, I was back in San Gabriel Valley.

By the way, I counted 30+ bug bites when I got home!

If you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment below. 🙂

Click here more info on the North Fork Trail description and map.

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Big Pine Lakes via North Fork Creek Throughout the Years – see below

Safe to say, I fell in love with Big Pine Lakes and have revisited it multiple times a year, every year since then.

Nov 2020
Nov 2020
Aug 2020
Aug 2020
Aug 2020
July 2020
June 2019
June 2019
Sept 2018
May 2018
Sept 2017

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11 thoughts on “Overnight Camping At Big Pine Lakes From North Fork”

  1. Bjorn Skoggard Hedensjo

    Awesome, thanks! I just got a permit for the very same hike june 7-8 this year! Would you know if it generally is this snow free that time of year? Best/B

    1. Hi B! I think the trail conditions would really depend on the amount of rain and snowfall we get for the season, but when I went, the trail got completely snowed out starting the meadow and I’d say the Eastern Sierra is generally still heavy with snow in early June. I’d recommend you check with the permit issuing station before your trip for latest conditions. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help but let me know if you have any other questions! I’ve been back several times since this trip.

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