Big Pine Lakes

First Lake, Temple Craig, big pine lakes, ca

The moon rises above Temple Craig and Mount Alice near camp…

If Disney made a “SierraLand” it might look a lot like the Big Pine Lakes Basin, which lies tucked away in the John Muir Wilderness. The Big Pine Lakes present the very best of classic high-sierra scenery: photogenic mountain peaks, mineral-tinged emerald lakes, sweeping pine-studded vistas, glacial access, and alpine meadows – all compressed into a manageable area with straightforward access that can be toured in a lollipop loop. It is perfect for a first-time backpacking trip, or a one-hundredth, and indeed it was one of my first in the high sierra. The opportunities for photography are among the best around and after reaching the first Lake, almost every turn of the trail offers a stunning vista…

Above Fourth Lake, big pine lakes, ca

View of Fourth Lake from near camp…

View from Black Lake, big pine lakes, ca

Looking down towards the lower lakes from the upper trail near Black Lake…

The trail to the Big Pine Lakes follows the north fork of Big Pine Creek into the Big Pine Lakes Basin which is bounded on the west by the Palisades Range. Once in the basin you can explore the eponymous series of numbered lakes as you gain elevation all the way up to Seventh Lake or access the Palisade Glacier to the south before exiting out the way you came in.

Passing Time, big pine lakes

Second Lake Camp

Fifth Lake, big pine lakes, ca

Fifth Lake

Upper Sage CG, big pine lakes, ca

Camp at Upper Sage before setting out…

When planning a trip to the Big Pine Lakes I like to stay at the Upper Sage Campground just down the road from the trailhead before embarking on a backpacking trip to the Lakes. It is a lovely campground and a nice place to acclimate before an early start. I find the sites on the southern edge to be the best as they sit right next to Big Pine Creek and you can fall asleep to the sound of running water. The site in the southwest corner of the campground is only a few yards from the creek itself. The campground also makes for a great basecamp if you are not interested in a full-on backpacking trip to the Lakes. You could easily day-hike to the photogenic lower lakes and be back at camp in the evening.

View down South Fork

Looking down the South Fork towards the Palisades on the hike in…

near First lake, big pine lakes, ca

The trail heads up towards First Lake…

The first lake is about four miles from the trailhead at an elevation of around 10,000 feet, and Seventh Lake lies up near 11,300 feet. The hike is a pretty sustained ascent and can feel like a slog depending on your fitness level. Along the way, and before reaching the first lake, you will pass the Lon Chaney Cabin on your left, which directly faces Big Pine Creek. Built as a personal getaway for the silent film star, the cabin now holds national historic register status. It is currently boarded up but is a perfect spot to rest and explore.

You will soon reach the first lake and on my most recent trip to the area I spent the first night out camped on an outcropping above Second Lake before working my way up past Third the following day to explore the upper lakes. Setting up a base camp around Fourth or Fifth Lake allows you to hike up to Seventh Lake or Summit Lake or go south and visit the Palisade Glacier. You could just as well stick to the lower lakes, and I personally find that area to be the most photogenic.

Temple Craig, big pine lakes, ca

Temple Craig over Second Lake

If you do continue up the trail, there is a fantastic secluded, yet tiny, campsite hidden away on a bluff above Fifth Lake which offers a tremendous view of the basin to the south. Otherwise there is a very large base-camp area above Fourth Lake that is nice and level although less charming.

Fourth Lake Camp, big pine lakes

Camp above Fourth Lake, looking south…

Overlook from Fifth Lake Camp, big pine lakes

Overlook by Fifth Lake Site…

My favorite camping spot in the region, however, is on the northern edge of First Lake on a level bluff framed by Temple Craig and Mount Alice. The view from here is hard to beat with your campsite situated against an amphitheater of alpine scenery laid out to your southwest. The sunrise and sunset vistas from this point are absolutely phenomenal and in the evenings you can often make out the headlamps of other backpackers across the lakes.

Afternoon Light, big pine lakes

Evening view near camp above First Lake…

Making Camp, big pine lakes

My Favorite spot north of First Lake…

For photography, I find the upper trail between Fourth Lake and Black Lake less photogenic than the lower trail but it makes for a good loop on your way out if you set up camp higher up and it does have nice overall views of the basin and the Palisades beyond.

Overall I think the reward-to-effort ratio for a trip to the Big Pine Lakes is one of the best in the area. It has been one of my favorite places to visit in the Sierras – although I may be biased because it was also one of the first high-sierra spots that I backpacked into. The area tailors itself to both overnights or multi-day trips and you get tremendous views right from the start. I should mention that it is also pretty popular with fisherman so it has that going for it as well. I only recently began to fish so I may have to head back there soon with a rod and reel 🙂

To access the trailhead to the Big Pine Lakes take W Crocker Ave west out of the northern end of the town of Big Pine. The road soon becomes Glacier Lodge Road and heads up Big Pine Canyon past several fantastic campgrounds on the south side of the road – which are great places to stay the night before a backpacking trip to the lakes. Just after passing the last campground there is a parking area on the right side of the road which is the trailhead.

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Rating: ★★★★☆
Distance: 16.5 Miles as shown…
Time Needed: 1-3 Days depending on your plan…
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Special Considerations: Nothing out of the ordinary here besides elevation. There is plenty of water from creeks and streams that connect the lakes (obviously be sure to treat it) and the trails are fairly well-marked and easy to find. Even cross-country travel is straightforward in the basin. It is probably a good idea to acclimate beforehand if you are prone to altitude sickness.

Photo Tips: Temple Craig is arguably the star of the show here. It is best photographed over First or Second Lake from the northeast side at sunrise and sunset. I tend to think the best photographic opportunities are close to the first three lakes. You’ll want a wide lens in the 16-35 range and maybe a longer telephoto to isolate landscape elements. A polarizer is also highly recommended.

Logistics: A permit is required for overnight trips into the John Muir Wilderness – this can be reserved ahead of time via or picked up in-person at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center outside of Lone Pine.

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