Backpacking Duck Pass Trail


Eastern Sierra, Hike Reports / Sunday, May 12th, 2019

HIKE TO: Barney Lake, Duck Pass, Duck Lake, and Pika Lake
TRAIL: Duck Pass Trail
MILES: 5.6 miles one way
ELEVATION GAIN: 1739 ft
MAX ELEVATION: 10502 ft
TIME: 2 days/ 1 night (or you can day hike it 3.5 hr one way)
DATE I WENT: 9/1 – 9/2, 2018
DIFFICULTY: moderate backpacking trail
HIKE PERMIT: yes, wilderness permit required for backcountry camping
LOCATION: Mammoth Lakes Basin/ EASTERN SIERRA

The trail for Duck Pass and Duck Lake starts at the end of Coldwater Campground. There is a big parking lot that fills up fast, a bathroom, and a few bear lockers to store the extra scented items that aren’t making it on the trail with you.

Duck Lake is only 5.6 miles one way so you can easily day hike it, but it’s nice to backpack it and enjoy more time at the lakes. The out and back trail passes Heart Lake (there’s a side trail to this one), Arrowhead Lake, Skeleton Lake, and Red Lake before reaching Barney Lake. It then goes on to Duck Pass and Duck Lake at which point you can go down to Pika Lake or move forward to Purple Lake and connect to the JMT/ PCT. You can also create a loop and swing by Emerald Lake on your way back.

We started at 2:28 pm and the trail picks up with some elevation gain right away and switchbacks throughout most of the trail, reached the Arrowhead Lake junction at about the one mile mark at 3:03 pm (it’s a short walk down the left trail where you can access the water), arrived at Skeleton Lake at 3:25 pm, and got our first views of Barney Lake at 3:54 pm. The trail up until this point is well shaded in the trees.

Barney Lake and Red Lake (the small lake to the left when you get down to Barney) are about 2.4 miles from the trailhead and a great place to filter water before you start up Duck Pass. The pass isn’t very long but it’s full of steep switchbacks and can be very exposed depending on what time of day you’re trekking. There’s a creek that runs through the trail between the lakes which had a lot of flowing water to filter when we went in Sept 2018.

Once we reached Barney Lake, we decided to head back to the top (before the trail dips down towards the lakes) to find a spot to pitch our tents overlooking the lakes for the night so we could enjoy some time exploring the area and hanging out in the lakes. There were a few other campers down between the lakes but no one around us up above it.

Since the trail is short, we slept in and started towards Duck Pass at 9:20 am. It took about an hour to reach the top of the pass and once you get to the top of the trail, Duck Lake sits very large in front of you and you can see Pika Lake at a distance.

We chose to head down the left side of Duck Lake and over to Pika Lake instead of continuing because Pika Lake looked like it had more color to it and I personally like smaller lakes rather than large ones. Heading down can be a little slippery with the loose rocks and dirt since it’s a little steep also, but it’s only a short distance before the trail flattens out (note that it’s fully exposed here also) and we arrived at Pika Lake within 20 mins.

pictured above: Duck Lake
I’ve seen a lot of clear blue lakes… but look at that color – no filter!

Pika lake flows into Duck lake so as you cross over, you can filter water here again (assuming there’s water flow depending on the season). We saw quite a few people who camped along this section of the trail and around Pika lake so if you got your wilderness permit, this is another campsite option.

Pika Lake was so green and serene so Vanessa and I spent over an hour here just hanging out, having lunch and floating along – there were no other people at the lake although some were off in the surrounding wilderness at their campsites. This was only my second trip with Vanessa, but by now, she’s inspired me to dip into as many backcountry lakes as I can and not be a whimp with the alpine chill (in the summer season at least).

So on our way out and back, we decided to stop at Duck Lake and dipped in there too (yes, I’m quite proud of myself)! 30 mins later we were back on the trail.

We started heading down Duck Pass at 2:26 pm, made a detour around the cliffs next to Red Lake to explore (you can see either Skeleton or Arrowhead Lake from higher up, not sure which one), and as the clouds rolled in, we packed up camp at 4:20 pm and were off the trail by 5:30 pm.

Thanks for reading!

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – have you been?
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