blue lake at sunrise below snow covered granite cliff mountains in California

Big Pine Lakes: 2024 Trail Guide + How to Get Camping Permits!

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Nestled in the Inyo National Forest, Big Pine Lakes quickly became one of my favorite hikes on a recent trip to the Sierras.

This trail is a challenging yet rewarding and doable hike in an amazing alpine wilderness. Plus one of the most beautiful and bluest lakes I’ve ever seen!

Seasoned hiker or a first-time adventurer? Doing this as a day hike or want to spend the night backpacking? This guide will provide you with essential information and tips to make the most out of your Big Pine Lakes hiking experience!

So get ready to lace up your boots and embark on an unforgettable journey through one of my favorite hikes ever!

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Planning your trip? Use my favorite resources!

Accommodation – Booking.com to find the best deals on hotels.
FlightsSkyscanner to look for the best prices and deals on flights.
Rental carsDiscoverCars to shop around at multiple car rental agencies.
Travel insurance Safety Wing; keep your trips insured to protect yourself while traveling.
Tours/experiences – Viator or Get Your Guide are excellent sources for tours.

selfie of a girl in front of big pine lakes in california
photo of a bright turquoise lake in front of glacier topped temple crag mountain in california

Big Pine Lakes Trail Guide

πŸ’¨ Big Pine Lakes Fast Facts:

  • Length: 15.4 miles roundtrip for the entire trail. If only going to Lake 2: 10 miles.
  • Elevation Gain: 3,450 feet for the entire trail. If only going to Lake 2: 2,250 feet.
  • Location: Big Pine Creek, near Bishop, California.
  • Permits: Only needed for overnight campers.
  • Dog Friendly: Dogs are allowed! During the day keep your dog on a leash no more than 6 feet long & at night keep your pup enclosed in your tent.

Location of Big Pine Lakes Trailhead

πŸ“ Big Pine Creek Trailhead

The closest major town to the trailhead is Bishop, California. It is a 15 mile drive to the trail that will take about 30 minutes from Bishop via the scenic Highway 395. The entirety of the drive is paved and in good condition.

I started my drive to the trailhead just before sunrise so I got to enjoy fantastic views of the Sierras lighting up on the way. But don’t forget a stop at the Looney Bean on the way to the trailhead and fuel up with a delicious bagel sandwich and coffee!

πŸ›£ Drive times from major nearby cities

  • Reno: 4 hours.
  • Las Vegas: 4.5 hours. This would make a great weekend trip from Las Vegas!
  • Los Angeles: 5 hours.
  • Sacramento: 5.5 hours.
  • San Francisco: 6.5 hours.

The night before your hike, stay in Bishop so you can head out early on the trail to beat the crowds. I recommend staying at the Creekside Inn or the Holiday Express while in Bishop.

If you’re on a tight budget like I was, then spend a night at the Hostel California. It’s a traditional hostel with dorm rooms and a few single rooms as well. I enjoyed my stay here, getting to know fellow travelers and those hiking the PCT!

πŸš— Before embarking on your hike, store all of your scented items (food, toiletries, drinks, etc.) in a metal bear box in the parking lot, even if you’re going on a day hike. Bears have been known to break windows at trailheads to get into cars if they see or smell something that resembles food!

tent in early morning sun in front of mountains and a bright blue lake in california
Second Lake in Big Pine Lakes.

Best Time to Hike Big Pine Lakes

The best time of year to hike Big Pine Lakes is late May through October. This is when the trail *should* be snow and ice free. You’ll have the best hiking conditions and get to see the lakes in the beautiful blue color instead of being frozen.

β˜€οΈ The most popular months for this trail are July and August. You’ll encounter more crowds, and the heat can be brutal on your first and last few miles of the trail since it so exposed in the sun with no shade.

If you hike during the summer months, starting early and wearing sun protection is crucial! Bring extra water, electrolytes, and salty snacks to refuel on the trail.

I went in late September (9/28 & 9/29) and lucked out with absolutely beautiful weather. The temps did drop into the 30s at night but during the day it was in the 70s and sunny. But- two days later there was an early snowstorm that came through, so coming during this shoulder season can be risky!

πŸƒ Overall, I’d recommend the month of September to hike Big Pine Lakes for less crowds, tolerable temps, and the chance to see beautiful fall colors along the trail!

view of a tent in front of the turqouise blue big pine lakes in california

Trail Overview, Stats, & Difficulty

πŸ₯Ύ The entirety of the Big Pine Lakes trail has 7 lakes you can hike to.

  • Length: 15.4 miles roundtrip for the entirety of the trail. If you plan to only go to Second Lake it will be 10 miles roundtrip.
  • Elevation gain: 3,450 feet for the entirety of the trail. If you plan to only go to Second Lake it will be 2,250 feet.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to hard, depending on your fitness level and hiking experience. I personally found this hike moderate. Note that backpacking will be more difficult since you carry more weight!

I only went to Second Lake while on my backpacking trip. I was pretty tired from my other backpacking adventures on my Sierras trip, so I just wanted to soak in the views and relax!

Plus, even people that have been to all of the lakes seem to think Second Lake is the most scenic. The way Temple Crag rises perfectly in the center of the bright turqouise lake- it’s easy to just stop here and unpack your things to spend the night!

πŸ—Ί Always be prepared with a downloaded map of the hike before you set off. I have the yearly subscription to AllTrails which allows me to download offline maps and follow along with GPS, this has proved to be so helpful many times!

photo of first lake, a beautiful blue lake on the big pine lakes trail near bishop california
First Lake.

Permits Needed for Big Pine Lakes

Permits are not needed for a day hike to Big Pine Lakes, but they are needed for an overnight stay to camp here year round.

May 1 – November 1 have a permit limit of 25 overnight visitors (campers) per day.

πŸ‘‰ Reservations for permits can only be made at Recreation.gov.

You will look under the Inyo National Forest- Wildnerness Permits section; and to spend the night at Big Pine Lakes it is Big Pine Creek North Fork or JM23.

πŸ’‘ To get permits, it’s a bit confusing but I’m gonna break it down for ya! FYI, this is the most updated and accurate information!

  • 60% of reservations are released 6 months in advance prior to your desired date.
  • Remaining 40% of spaces are released exactly 2 weeks in advance.
  • In that time between the 6 months and 2 weeks and onwards, you can continue to check the website & refresh the permits, because if someone cancels their reservations it will be listed.

For example, if you wanted to backpack in on August 1, go on the website exactly at 7am Pacific Time on February 1 (6 mos prior) for your overnight permit. If you weren’t lucky enough to get the permit the first time, continue to check for cancellations. If still not successful, go on the website again exactly at 7am Pacific Time on July 18 (2 wks prior) and try to snag them when they release the remainder of the permits. Still not successful? Stalk the Recreation.gov website and refresh a few times a day leading up to when you’d like to hike to see if someone cancels last minute!

⚠️ Note that fires are restricted in this area and you must have a bear canister for camping overnight! Carry a water filter for drinking water.

photo of bright turquoise lake, big pine lakes second lake, in the afternoon sun
photo of turquoise lake with last layer of sunlight going across half of the temple crag mountain behind the lake

πŸ“– Want more California travel ideas? Check out Anza Borrego & Joshua Tree, Camping in Channel Islands, and the Best Things to do in Mount Shasta!


Highlights of the Big Pine Lakes Trail

As mentioned above, your fast few miles on the trail will be exposed in the sun, so be sure to wear sun protection and drink plenty of water on the way up.

You will enjoy beautiful alpine mountain views along the switchbacks before entering John Muir Wilderness. A little over 2 miles into the hike you’ll reach a waterfall and flowing creek, one of the couple places you’ll be able to filter water along the trail.

Right around 3 miles into the hike you’ll reach Lon Chaney’s cabin. You can’t go in, but I found it to be a nice marker for myself that I was over halfway to the Second Lake where I would be camping. In this area you’ll also find a bit of shade that should provide a nice respite from the sun.

After this, there won’t be too much shade again while you make your final climbs to First and Second Lake.

🌳 Remember to leave no trace and pack out whatever you pack in, including food scraps and trash. Leave everything how you found it, and never deface rocks.

view of mountains ahead while on a hiking trail
photo along the trail going into the canyon brimmed with mountains and trees
photo along the trail in big pine california
photo of the John Muir Wildnerness sign on a trail in California going to Big Pine Lakes

Tips for a Successful Hike to Big Pine Lakes

  • ✍️ Be prepared. Above all else, be prepared with a trail map, plenty of water and salty snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray.
  • β›ˆ Check the weather. The Sierras can get afternoon thunderstorms often, so check the weather and start your hike early. Be aware if there are any wildfires in the area.
  • 🐻 Be bear aware. Make noise while on the trail, never have scented items or food in your tent and keep them in a bear canister, and never approach a bear.
  • 🌲 Acclimate. Try to do some shorter hikes to acclimate to the elevation a day prior to hiking the trail if you’re particularly sensitive to altitude. Hydrate properly and go slow!
  • ⛺️ Camp at least 200 feet away from a water source. This includes streams, rivers, and lakes.

What to Pack for a Day Hike to Big Pine Lakes

  • πŸ’§ 2 liters of water per person, especially if you hike midday in the summer.
  • 🍎 Snacks, especially salty snacks to replenish salt lost in sweat if it’s hot out.
  • πŸ‘• Layers of clothes as it can get chillier at higher elevations near the lakes. Try to stay away from cotton as it absorbs sweat and doesn’t dry quickly.
  • πŸ“· Camera because you’re gonna want to take lots of photos of this gem!

What to Pack for an Overnight Backpacking Trip to Big Pine Lakes

  • πŸ• Tent, sleeping pad, & sleeping bag.
  • πŸ’§ Water filter and water purification tablets justtt in case my filter breaks!
  • β˜•οΈ Jet boil or small camping stove for heating water to reheat dehydrated meals and coffee (of course!)
  • 🐻 Bear canister for food storage at camp- always keep your bear canister with all your food and toiletries in it at least 100 feet from your tent on flat, level ground!
  • πŸ“± Communication device such as a Garmin inReach. I use a Zoleo, a cheaper option, but still works very well!
  • πŸ’© Trowel to dig a cathole at least 6 inches deep for going number 2, or a portable toilet bag if you prefer to pack out your waste.
  • 🩹 First Aid Kit.

πŸ₯Ά Cold Weather Camping Tip: Boil water and put it in a Nalgene right before you go to sleep. Put the Nalgene in your sleeping bag between your legs or next to you and it should stay really warm for at least half the night. It’s like a personal heater! And invest in a high R value sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground.

photo of backpacking gear

Backpacking Big Pine Lakes Day One

On the first day I woke up at 6am to get an early start to the trail so I could beat the heat and score the best campsite at the lake!

I got a big coffee and a bagel breakfast sandwich at the Looney Bean before starting my drive, which I totally recommend.

After parking at the designated Overnight Backpacker’s Trailhead and making sure I had my printed out overnight pass with me, I put the remainder of my belongings in the trunk and any extra food and scented items in the metal latched bear boxes in the parking lot.

It took me about 3 hours to hike from the parking lot to Second Lake. After I arrived, I picked out a great tent site and set up camp!

I ate lunch and then walked down to the shore of the lake to jump in. Since it was so hot in the sun, the cold plunge of the lake actually felt amazing and super refreshing!

After my swim, I leisurely enjoyed camp and waited for the sun to go down. Just before sunset and just after sunrise the next morning was personally my favorite lighting of the lake!

I ate dinner and crawled into my tent shortly after. I couldn’t see anyone from my tent which is nice if you’re craving solitude. But as a solo hiker that is a bit afraid of the dark.. I didn’t get the best sleep that night! Haha.

selfie of a girl in front of big. pine lakes in California

Backpacking Big Pine Lakes Day Two

The next morning I rose a little earlier than the sun so I could set up my camp nicely to take photos of the sunrise. And of course make some coffee! One of my favorite things about camping is waking up early to enjoy the sunrise with freshly made coffee. I absolutely love these Kuju Pourover Coffee Singles!

selfie of a girl in front of big pine lakes in the eastern sierras drinking coffee at sunrise after a night of camping

There was a bit of condensation on my tent so I had to wait a while for everything to be dried off and air out in the sun.

I packed up camp and set off to hit the trail back to the car around 9am and made it down by noon.

selfie of a girl in front of big pine lakes in full sun

Wrap Up: Big Pine Lakes

In conclusion, the Big Pine Lakes hiking trail is a remarkable adventure that offers breathtaking views and a sense of tranquility amidst nature’s grandeur.

With its diverse landscapes, pristine alpine lakes, and towering peaks, this trail promises an unforgettable experience for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Whether you are seeking a challenging hike or simply wish to immerse yourself in the beauty of the Eastern Sierra Nevada region, Big Pine Lakes will not disappoint.

So grab your backpack and camera, lace up your boots, and embark on this incredible journey to discover the wonders that await along the Big Pine Lakes hiking trail.

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