The North Fork Trail of Big Pine Creek to the 7 alpine Big Pine Lakes is definitely one of the prettiest and best hikes in the Eastern Sierras, and probably one of my favorites – once you get past the elevation gain and sun exposer. These turquoise lakes are absolutely gorgeous juxtaposed against the crags mountains. This hike is full of wildflowers, waterfalls, streams, meadows, and so much more!
- Distance: 9-17+ round trip (depending)
- Type: Out & Back, or semi-loop
- Time: 6-8 hours for a day hike, 2-3 days for backpacking
- Elevation at trailhead: 7,800 feet
- Elevation Change: Up to 3,500 ft
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Crowd Factor: Low – Moderate
- Best Time: June – Aug
- Permits/Fees: Yes, permits for overnight use and for fishing (if planning on fishing)
- Water: Yes, needs to be filtered
Distances, Elevations & Trail Map
While there are 7 lakes that are the “official” Big Pine Lakes (which are so creatively named First Lake, Second Lake, Third, Fourth , Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh), there are actually 9 lakes that are accessible via the North Fork trail, as well as a few other attractions that you may want to visit on this hike.
Here’s the distance (one way) and elevation for the main points of interest (from the trailhead):
|Lon Chaney’s Cabin||2.75mi||9,150′||1,350′ gain|
|First Lake||4.5mi||9,950′||2,150′ gain|
|Second Lake||4.8mi||10,050′||2,250′ gain|
|Third Lake||5.5mi||10,450′||2,650′ gain|
|Forth Lake||6.5mi||10,800′||3,000′ gain|
|Fifth Lake||6.8mi||10,850′||3,050′ gain|
|Sixth Lake||8mi||11,150′||3,350′ gain|
|Seventh Lake||8.5mi||11,250′||3,450′ gain|
|Black Lake||5.25mi||10,650′||2,850′ gain|
|Summit Lake||7.2mi||10,950′||3,150′ gain|
|Sam Mack Meadow||7.25mi||11,000′||3,200′ gain|
|Palisade Glacier||9mi||12,410′||4,610′ gain|
The Big Pine Creek Trailhead starts right next to Glacier Lodge, which is located about 20 mins from Big Pine, CA:
Note that this is also the trailhead for the South Fork of this trail too. Pay attention to the signs to make sure that you’re following the right trail when first setting out.
There’s no overnight parking available directly at the trailhead. There are a few day use spots available, but these are also limit to roughly 8 spots.
I read in other blogs that there was also the option to pay to park at Glacier Lodge overnight, but when we did this hike over the July 4th weekend (when lots of people were at the Lodge), there were no options for paying to park here.
The overnight parking lot is located roughly .75 – 1 mile down the road from the trailhead, available here (you’ll also see it on your way driving in, it’s well marked as “hiker parking”). The overnight parking lot can hold probably 30-40 cars, has a pit toilette, dumpster, and also bear boxes.
From the parking lot, there are two options for getting to the trail:
- You can take the “Upper Trail” which starts at the end of the parking lot. This Upper Trail bypasses the first part of the “official” trail/trailhead and also bypasses the first falls. It will slightly shorten the distance of your hike (by maybe .5mi?) and will intersect with the North Fork Trail about 1.5mi into the trail. But honestly this trail is just awful.
It’s completely sun exposed as it cuts across the ridge of the hill. It’s dusty, hot, surrounded by shrubs, gives you nothing to look at, and maintains a constant upward grade. It’s not a nice way to start your hike (although we did use this trail on our way back when we were coming down and the sun was at our backs… and even then, it still was pretty sucky).
- Walk along the road to the trailhead. This route is far superior to the Upper Trail. The road is shaded by lovely pines, which you can smell as you walk through them, and follows alongside Big Pine Creek. It’s graded slightly upwards, but on smooth pavement making this a very easy walk. The road is wide enough not to cause any problems with passing cars. Also, if you want to be really smart about it, just drop your packs off at the trailhead before going back to park your car – that way you don’t have to carry the extra weight for this short walk.
Permits are required for overnight use. No permits are required for day hikes.
Permits are available on Recreation.gov from the Inyo National Forest and are available 6 months in advance. Applications open at 7 am Pacific Time each day.
To get a permit, follow the above link and then look for “Big Pine North Fork” once you’ve entered your dates and group size:
There are 25 permits available per day (15 with advanced reservations, 10 walk ups which are available after 11 AM the day before your departure). This is a very popular backpacking area, so make sure to plan ahead and get your permits early. For the popular season (weekends during the summer), advanced permits are usually gone within 5-10mins.
The closest issuing center is Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center in Lone Pine.
You are required to use a bear canister/vault as part of your permit.
There’s lots of trout in these lakes (plus probably some other fish I couldn’t identify). We saw the most fish at Summit Lake – they were so many swimming around the shoreline even in the middle of the day and even jumping out of the lake to catch bugs.
If you want to fish these lakes you must have a current CA Fishing License.
You can camp at pretty much any of the lakes (or wherever you want) up there. The only limit on the permit is that you have to camp 100ft away from any water source or from a trail.
I think that the best lakes for camping are: Second Lake, Third Lake, Summit Lake, and Sixth Lake. We didn’t see anyone camping after Third Lake – unless they were just well hidden.
Second Lake is the “quintessential picture” that you’ve probably seen everywhere when looking into this hike with Temple Crag is the background. It’s absolutely jaw droppingly beautiful, but if you plan on camping here, you can also plan on reduced privacy as most of the camping spots around the lake are somewhat exposed with little tree cover. Also, because Second Lake is the “famous photo”, it can get a bit crowded. Most day hikers that we saw will go to Second Lake, have lunch here, take their photos here, go swimming here etc. before turning around and going back.
Third Lake is just as beautiful as Second Lake and still offers views of Temple Craig, just from a different angle. This is where we camped. A lot of the lake is still pretty exposed in terms of tree cover, but there are a few options for some good flat camping spots squeezed in between the rocks and under some trees. It’s less crowded by day hikers, but we did still have 1-2 other hiker groups coming past our campsite each of the days that we were there.
Summit Lake does not have the views of Temple Craig or the turquoise color to the lake that this area is known for, but it’s still amazingly beautiful and has several flat areas for camping. The main view here is the glacier which you can clearly see in the mountains above you and also the incredible clarity of the lake. It’s more remote since it’s not one of the 7 main lakes, which also means less people! We hung out at this lake for around an hour and only saw one other group of hikers. This lake is also full of fish! We saw so many swimming right along the shoreline and even jumping out of the lake!
Sixth Lake would be my first choice of places to camp if not for the distance and elevation of reaching this lake. This is a larger lake which again doesn’t have Temple Craig or as turquoise water as some of the other lakes, but it’s so beautiful and peaceful. It’s very remote with only a few backpackers visiting this lake during a day hike. There’s lots of trees, flat areas for camping, and a thriving wildlife ecosystem.
What to expect along the trail
A lot of this trail is pretty exposed until you get to the lakes. I’d definitely recommend avoiding hiking this in the heat of the day and also wearing sun protection. The trail follows along Big Pine Creek for pretty much the entirety of the trail, so there’s lots of options for getting water out of the creek if needed – so you can pack light on the water you bring and rely on creek to cut some weight.
From the trailhead, you’ll start off by crossing a bridge that runs above Big Pine Creek. The first set of waterfalls will be on your right, which is a really beautiful way to start the hike. The trail ahead of you will actually go to the South Fork, whereas the North Fork trail branches off to the right just after the bridge (there will be signs).
The Nork Fork trail starts immediately with a set of switchbacks right after the bridge, climbing up along the side of the falls. This switchback is shaded, covered with pines, so enjoy this shade while you have it!
You’ll soon come to another fork (with sign) pointing you in the direction of the North Fork Trail, and will again cross another bridge after roughly 1mi. After this bridge, the slight shade you’ve been experiencing thus far will be gone for the next few miles.
The trail enters an exposed valley (you can see the Upper Trail cutting along the ridge of the hill on your right) and continues for the length of the valley, following along the creek and heading towards the mountains. Even with the sun exposer, this is still a pretty part of the trail as you’ll pass by several wildflowers and can see the Second Falls cascading down the mountain in front of you.
At the end of the valley, you start climbing again through a series of long switchbacks, which then become shorter and steeper, bringing you to the top of the Second Falls. These switchbacks are fully sun exposed. At the top, there will be a sign for entering the Inyo National Forest, which is roughly the 2mi mark.
From here the trail continues to climb through the rocks of the mountains following the creek.
The trail will level out slightly as you get some shade and walk through a birch forest (which has unfortunately been tagged up with carvings) and past more wildflowers. Just after this, you’ll come to Lon Chaney’s Cabin, which is roughly a 2.75mi mark.
If you’re a horror film like this, this is an added bonus of this trip. Lon Chaney was a silent film actor known as the Man of a Thousand Faces. You might recognize him from his leading roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the Phantom of the Opera (1925).
He had the cabin built in the late 1920s noted architect Revere Williams (who was African American, which was unusual at the time) for $12,000. He only visited the cabin a few times before be passed away and eventually it was turned over to the Park Service.
From here the trail is exposed for the rest of the hike until you reach First Lake. Continuing along the trail as it consistently climbed upwards, heading further into the mountains in front of you. There will be lots more switchbacks and also some longer stretches which still have strong inclines.
You’ll come to another series of steep switchbacks (similar to the ones at the Second Falls), which feels like it’s the last push before First Lake, but this is a bit of a “false summit” – there’s more!
The trail evens out slightly again before continuing with one last final set of steep switchbacks just before you reach First Lake and also some much needed shade.
First and Second Lake are almost on top of each other, separately by… you guessed it- more switchbacks! While most of the good view-points of the lake are still open and exposed, at least the hike between them from here on usually has some bit of shade. Most of the day hikers seem to drop off at Second Lake, and honestly I can’t blame them.
Second Lake is one of the most picturesque lakes in this hike with it’s turquoise water and straight on view of Temple Craig. And if you’re not spending the night, there’s not much “more” you’re going to get out of the extra miles going to the other lakes.
From Second Lake to Third Lake, it’s now roughly .75mi. There’s a short set of switchbacks right when you leave Second Lake, and then the trail actually descends and crosses some streams (with wildflowers) a few times as you continue through the mountains.
I think Third Lake is just as beautiful as Second Lake, and you still get the turquoise color of the lake and great views of Temple Crag, just from a different angle.
From Third Lake, it’s another series of quick switchbacks climbing roughly 300ft in about .25mi. You’ll be able to look back over the top of Third Lake after this climb. The trail levels out over the next .25mi to the intersection with Glacier Trail.
If you want to visit Sam Mack Meadow or the Palisade Glacier, follow the Glacier Trail to the left here (more on this below). To get to Fourth Lake, continue on for another .5mi or so and you’ll come to a 4 way intersection. Straight ahead is Fourth Lake, Black Lake is to the right, and Fifth Lake is to the left (there are signs with directions).
Fourth Lake was my least favorite of the lakes. It lacks the turquoise color and also the mountain backdrop. Much of the surrounding area is rather marshy, but there’s a nice peninsula into the lake with pine trees that would make for a nice camping spot.
From Fourth Lake to Fifth Lake, go back to the four way intersection and follow the signs for Fifth Lake. Much like First and Second, Fourth and Fifth Lakes are also right next to each other. The trail from Fourth Lake climbs a little as you get closer to Fifth Lake, but it’s just a stead incline without any switchbacks.
Fifth Lake is another beautiful lake, though not as remarkable as the first three. There’s more tree cover around this lake and less cliffs, which offers several options for camping.
Continuing on to Sixth Lake (and Summit Lake), either go back to the four way intersection and continue on the trail that goes past Fourth Lake, or you can follow a short and steep “make shift” trail which leaves Fifth Lake and climbs quickly over the ridge to join the Fourth Lake trail. This short “make shift” trail from Fourth to Fifth is extremely steep at first and then dips down into a meadow. It’s clearly an “unofficial” trail, but also easy enough to follow.
Back on the trail around Fourth Lake, you again continue to climb to an intersection with the trail to Summit Lake. Here again are clearly marked signs.
If going to Summit Lake, you’ll go up another series of switch backs and then the trail descends again as you arrive at Summit Lake. The trail to Summit Lake is roughly .25mi off of the main trail (one way) and I’d definitely recommend taking a look.
Summit Lake isn’t the same turquoise color, but it’s a pristinely clear and beautiful lake with great mountain views. There are a lot of fish in Summit Lake, swimming along the shore line and even jumping out of the lake for bugs. The opposite side of the lake has several flat shaded spots for camping.
Back on the main trail, continuing on to Sixth Lake are again more long switch backs. While this trail from is only 1 mile, it feels much longer. You’ll pass through a small meadow along the way before enter a rock-fall area which is very exposed. You’re now up over 11,000′ elevation as you cross on top of the ridge.
If you look out to the left, you can see the Palisade Glacier up in the mountains across the valley. The trail goes through almost what looks like a crater – a divot in the earth with no trees, grasses, or large rocks, and then it’s one final push up.
From here you can now see the lake to your left through the trees. The trail descends through some rock-fall and the trail gets harder to find as you get closer to the lake before arriving at a view point above the lake.
Sixth Lake is not turquoise either, but it is pressed against several impressive mountains. We saw several families ducks swimming in the lake. The shore of the lake is partially grassy and partial trees, which also offers good opportunities for camping.
From Sixth Lake to Seventh Lake is another .5miles. The trail from Sixth Lake to Seventh Lake is not clearly marked or well maintained. We weren’t able to pick up on the trail and didn’t make it to Seventh Lake. There was what looked like a rock carne piled on top of a large boulder shortly past the end of what could be made out as the trail, but after that, we couldn’t see any other markings.
In looking at a map, Seventh Lake is basically just “straight” past Sixth Lake. If you’re looking to visit and find Seventh Lake, it will take some route finding and I’d recommend getting the coordinates and putting it into a GPS to make the process faster.
Sam Mack Meadow & Palisade Glacier
The trail to Sam Mack Meadow and the Palisade Glacier turns off of the main trail about .5mi past Third Lake. After the intersection, the trail descends slightly into a beautiful smaller meadow. This meadow is full of wildflowers and a rock foot path has been placed through the meadow so that you can cross it even if water levels are high.
On the other sides of the meadow starts more switchbacks. First they go through the trees, then trees give way to rock fall where you pick your way carefully through the fallen rocks as you continue to climb on the trail.
You can hear the river flowering just past you. Through these switchbacks, you’ll climb 1k feet through the rock fall going further back into the mountains. The trail levels out as you arrive at the meadow.
Sam Mack Meadow is much larger than the one below, but has less wildflowers. The river flows through the length of the meadow and is incredibly clear with red rocks speckled throughout the river. These red rocks aren’t seen anywhere else in this area. The river is fed by melting snow and glaciers via waterfalls at the end of the meadow.
The further into the meadow you go, the more waterfalls you’ll notice as the melt cascades over the rim rocks at the end of the meadow. There were lots of frogs in the river and pools in the meadow and several tree spots which provide shade.
To get to the Palisade Glacier, there’s a sign which will point you to cross the river by jumping across the rocks. From here it’s another long accent of just less than 2mi and another 1,400′ elevation up the side of the mountain to get to the Glacier. We didn’t have time to visit the Glacier, but here’s a great post on how to get the rest of the way.
In addition to our:
These are the items that you’re gonna need on your trip:
Trekking Poles: Adjustable Trekking Poles
I personally don’t usually use trekking poles since I like to have my hands free, though I know many do. Trekking poles are very handy for this hike though since the incline is so steep in several sections of the trail. They really do make a difference in taking some pressure off of your legs and knees (especially when coming back down). The above linked poles are just $20 – not the lightest or the best, but they’re cheep and will get the job done.
Gravity Water Filter: Platupus 4Liter (or similar)
This is such a time saver! When hiking at high altitudes, you have to drink a lot of water to not get altitude sickness. Since you have to be 100ft away from water sources as per the conditions of the permit, being able to clean and have 4Liters of water “on tap” is really helpful and reduces time going back and forth to the lake to get more water.
LifeStraw filter water bottle
You’re hiking right next to a creek full of cold glacier water for basically the entire hike. To cut weight in your pack, you can instead just use a water bottle like this one to fill up small amounts of water at a time as you want it directly from the creek.