Distance (round-trip)

9.2 mi

Time

5 hrs

Elevation Gain

3000 ft

Season

Summer
Fall

Weather

If you want to glimpse fall color, but you are also looking for an epic adventure up glacially carved canyons, past cascading waterfalls, through dense thickets of aspen and pine, and into an alpine lake basin full of shimmering, aquamarine lakes fed directly by one of the largest glaciers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then the North Fork of Big Pine Creek will be your dream come true. This moderately challenging 9.2 mile trip will deliver all of those things in one of the most satisfying day hikes you are likely to find in the Eastern Sierra.

IMG_0910

Both forks of Big Pine Creek Canyon tumble down from glacial sources on the northeast side of the Palisades, a group of 14,000’+ peaks on the Sierra Crest. The north faces of these peaks remain sufficiently cold and shaded to hold onto the remnants of what was once a much more expansive system of glaciers. These glaciers, like many other glaciers around the world, are currently retreating as the climate warms. Palisade Glacier can be reached using a continuation of this route, which would add another 5 miles and 2,000’+ of climbing, approximately. If you wish to visit Palisade Glacier, I recommend overnight camping at one of the many lakes in the basin below, as 19 miles and 5,000’ is a very ambitious day hike.

IMG_0801

The North Fork of Big Pine Creek Canyon is a very popular spot for backpacking. The aforementioned scenery plus the variety of spectacular lakes are a magnet for backcountry campers and fishermen alike. As this hike occurs largely within the John Muir Wilderness, the usual permit requirements and leave-no-trace principles apply. If you wish to backpack here, you will want to reserve your permit through Inyo National Forest and obtain your reservations as early as possible. Permits can be reserved up to six months in advance.

IMG_0951

The trail begins at a trailhead adjacent to Glacier Lodge at the end of Glacier Lodge Road. There is another trailhead slightly down the road before the lodge, but this alternative trailhead accesses the canyon via a long hike over exposed terrain, making it much less pleasant. Pass through the gate to enter the access road and follow along the bank of Big Pine Creek. This access road reaches the handful of cabins you’ll see above on the right, but you will reach the proper trail long before reaching the cabins.

IMG_0954

First Falls

IMG_0948

South Fork of Big Pine Creek Canyon

Turn left onto the main trail, cross a bridge over the cascading north fork of the creek, and commence climbing up switchbacks shaded by mountains birches and Jeffrey pines. The birches are one of the four trees on this trail that will provide a fall color show, which includes willows, cottonwoods, and aspens. Spectacular views up the South Fork Big Pine Canyon toward the Palisades will emerge on the left as you climb.

IMG_0679

Aspen

IMG_0684

Mountain birch

When the trail comes to an old road bed, turn right while admiring a small grove of aspen trees on the left. Next you will climb gradually along the right bank of the creek, occasionally passing beneath cool cottonwoods and birches. Two striking views will begin to emerge. Behind you, the ramparts of the canyon’s south wall tower above you, while a fiery patch of birches and cottonwoods mark the spot where the second set of cascading falls tumble out of a hanging valley. The trail will switchback up the dry slope to your right to eventually reach these falls.

IMG_0692

Second Falls

IMG_0694

IMG_0933

Once at the falls, enjoy a well-earned break in the shade after a long, exposed climb while perhaps splashing some water over your face to cool off. The next section of the hike between the falls and the lake will feature the best of the canyon’s fall colors. You will soon enter a grove of aspens intermixed with lodgepole and Jeffrey pine. This dense grove will turn gorgeous shades of lime green, yellow, orange, and red during the first week of October or last week of September. As the aspens over the next 1.5 miles sit above 8,000’, they are likely to turn earlier than in some of the lower spots, but if you time it right, you will see some spectacular color.

IMG_0722

IMG_0734

The fall color in this canyon tends to be overshadowed by the more accessible and famous locations at the nearby June Lakes Loop, Bishop Creek Canyon, McGee Creek Canyon, and the nearby Mammoth Lakes Basin. However, there is nothing lacking in the handful of aspen groves, which when combined with the other attractions of the area, make for a stunning leaf peeping experience.

IMG_0760

Lon Chaney’s cabin

IMG_0764

After passing through the flat section through the aspens, the trail will commence its climb through a patchwork of dense forest, spring-fed patches of willows and aspens, and open areas from which to view streaks of orange and yellow deciduous leaves streaking up the canyon walls. You will come to an old cabin built by the Man of a Thousand Faces – actor Lon Chaney. A Forest Service sign identifies it as an old ranger cabin, but Chaney built this structure as a getaway from the bustle of Hollywood. Chaney and his wife would stay up here for weeks cooking fish caught in the creek and attempting to climb high enough to reach the nearby glaciers. Lon Chaney was a smart guy.

Editor’s Note: the architect of Chaney’s cabin was none-other than Paul Revere Williams, a prolific and renowned African-American architect who more than left his mark on Southern California. He designed more than 2,000 homes and many more public buildings, including homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as the Los Angeles County Courthouse, the Hollywood YMCA, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in San Bernardino, and a redesign and remodel of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He also designed the Tropical Terrace House in Solstice Canyon.

IMG_0779

IMG_0811

First Lake

After the cabin, the trail will resume switchbacking through the upper limits of the aspen and willow groves along the moraine that contains First Lake. This lake is the first of seven lakes, which are named according to their order in the sequence moving clockwise along the trail. When the trail gains the top of the moraine, you will find that you actually came out above the lake, which will sparkle a few hundred feet below. You will then reach a junction with two trails that loop together to visit the majority of the lakes in this basin. Turn left to get to Second Lake.

IMG_0815

Second Lake with Temple Crag in the background

The main trail will pass to the right of Second Lake, but this track will follow an unsigned use trail that descends through lodgepole pines toward the outlet of the lake. Cross over the steel bridge and climb up onto the old stone dam that holds in the eastern end of Second Lake. Once you gain the top of the dam, a spectacular scene reveals itself. towering Temple Crag looms high above a large, glacial basin, inviting rock climbing enthusiasts to try their luck. To the right, the Sierra Crest’s jagged peaks scrape at the sky, while the milky aquamarine waters of Second Lake shimmer below.

IMG_0818

Most lakes in the Sierra Nevada mountains are a deep, transparent blue. Second Lake’s clouded appearance is due to the large amount of glacial silt suspended in the water. As Palisade Glacier continues to melt it sheds its water, which bears a large concentration of glacial particles, into the lake, creating the cloudy turquoise color. It is a stunning shade that contrasts nicely against the fiery hues of the aspens down canyon.

IMG_0836

The presence of the dam here, along with the abandoned, rusted out equipment atop a large boulder pile, invites curiosity as to its origins. Unfortunately, I could not find any information that explains the function, purpose, and year of construction for the dam, although it appears to have been here for some time. Regardless of that information, the dam makes a fine place to sit and admire the scene, which is as dramatic as any glacial basin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

IMG_0896

If you are coming here for an overnight camping trip, you will probably have to engage in further exploration to find a suitable campsite. The dam is not suitable, even though it is flat – remember that you must camp 100 feet away from water sources. I do not have any specific recommendations for good sites in the area, as I turned back at this point for the return journey. A little exploration on your own of the area around the trail leading to the dam should yield good results.

IMG_0698

From this point, you will return to the main trail by way of the use trail you hiked in on. You have the option of turning left for further exploration, which can either include the loop reaching the other lakes in the basin or the continuation of the out-and-back trail up to Palisade Glacier. The loop is about another 5 miles plus at least another 1,000’ (probably more) of climbing, which is doable as an ambitious day hike. The glacier is even further and is probably best attempted during an overnight trip.

If you are only attempting to visit Second Lake, this is your turnaround point. Backtrack your way down the canyon, and make sure to stop and enjoy the effect of the later afternoon light backlighting the aspens on your way down. This change in the light will cause the leaves to glow more brightly, causing the already spectacular color to intensify. Eventually, you will return to your car after stopping frequently to admire the changing views in the opposite direction.

 

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.





Camping

Dog-Friendly

Historical Interest

Multi-Use Trail

Views / Vista

Water Features

Waterfall

Trail Map

20 Comments

Trip Ideas: The Golden State – nowhere nelson

Trip Ideas: The Golden State – nowhere nelson Nov 15, 2018 22:11

[…] talk about visiting the Sierra Nevada area in the fall. The hike I want to do in particular is the Big Pine Lakes via the North Fork trail which features seven alpine […]

Leave a Reply to Trip Ideas: The Golden State – nowhere nelson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

John A Jun 18, 2018 14:06

Sorry,but I didn't realize it was a very strenuous hike, I died after 4 miles and turned around because legs died and I could not breath,i'll try again in 2019.

Leave a Reply to John A Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner

Scott Turner Apr 14, 2018 11:04In reply to: Joanna

July to October are the best months. As for the glaciers, since they are actually made of ice, I’m not sure how to answer your question about them being covered in ice.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Joanna Apr 14, 2018 11:04

What is the best time time of year to visit the Big Pine campground and are the glaciers present and covered in ice all year long?

Leave a Reply to Joanna Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Big Pine Lakes | The Pink Hat Hiker Oct 24, 2017 08:10

[…] Planning a trip to Big Pine? Been there too? Let us know in the comments below. Looking for a full trail guide? Check out our favorite site for guides: Modern Hiker. […]

Leave a Reply to Big Pine Lakes | The Pink Hat Hiker Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner

Scott Turner Sep 3, 2017 09:09In reply to: Jordan

Possibly, but the weather is hard to predict in November. It could be snowing, in which case you would want to be prepared. It's possible they'd even close the road.

October is a much better time.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jordan Sep 3, 2017 08:09

Is November an okay time to go?

Leave a Reply to Jordan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Erin Jul 30, 2017 18:07

Beautiful!
Is it 9.2 miles just the the 2nd lake and back?

Leave a Reply to Erin Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner

Scott Turner Jun 20, 2017 18:06In reply to: Stefanie

Nope!

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stefanie Jun 20, 2017 17:06

Do you need a permit for a day hike?

Leave a Reply to Stefanie Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Big Pine Lakes and Palisade Glacier via Sam Mack Meadow | Modern Hiker Aug 3, 2016 18:08

[…] Creek is a solid bet. In the fall, it’s an amazing place for California fall foliage (Scott wrote an excellent description of the lower portions of this hike during peak foliage). And in the summer, adventurous types can venture farther up the trails past […]

Leave a Reply to Big Pine Lakes and Palisade Glacier via Sam Mack Meadow | Modern Hiker Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Chantel May 31, 2016 21:05In reply to: Anthony Garcia

It's my understanding that you only need permits to camp there. We didn't obtain any permits to day hike in and out from the Lodge.

Leave a Reply to Chantel Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anthony Garcia May 31, 2016 21:05In reply to: Chantel

Do you need permits just to day hike?

Leave a Reply to Anthony Garcia Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

California Fall Color » Blog Archive » Hike of the Week: Big Pine Creek Oct 13, 2015 00:10

[…] North Fork hike is not for the feint hearted.  Modern Hiker describes it as a difficult trek that gains 3,000′ in 9.2 miles. […]

Leave a Reply to California Fall Color » Blog Archive » Hike of the Week: Big Pine Creek Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Chantel Jul 8, 2015 15:07

Gorgeous hike! We went over Fourth of July, stayed at Glacier Lodge and day hiked the North Fork two days in a row with our 6 month old. We will be back (and also hope to backpack it soon)!

Leave a Reply to Chantel Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner

Scott Turner Jul 2, 2015 10:07In reply to: Marcus Coy

Hi Marcus,
It's a beautiful area. I am anxious to get back here and do some backpacking in order to really let the area soak in. I hope you have a great time up there.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Marcus Coy Jun 24, 2015 16:06

Hi Scott,
I'm thrilled to visit big Pine this Fall and thanks for your web site! I will only day hike but it looks fantastic! I've been visiting the area for about 4 consecutive years now but never as far south as Big Pine. I will make it a very early day to finish by dark thanks to your recommendations!
Best,
Marcus

Leave a Reply to Marcus Coy Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hike Solstice Canyon | Modern Hiker May 21, 2015 14:05

[…] The Tropical Terrace house was built in 1952 by the renowned African-American architect Paul Revere Williams, who more than left his mark on Southern California. He designed more than 2,000 homes and many more public buildings, including homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as the Los Angeles County Courthouse, the Hollywood YMCA, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in San Bernardino, and a redesign and remodel of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He assisted in the design of the iconic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport and the Shrine Auditorium. Hikers in the Eastern Sierra can also visit a cabin he built for “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney on the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. […]

Leave a Reply to Hike Solstice Canyon | Modern Hiker Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Oct 7, 2014 21:10In reply to: Beth Mc

Hi Beth,

Yes, I think you'll still be able to catch some fall color. The color above 9,000' may be past peak by that point, but there's a good chance that everything below that will still be at or near peak. This is unless there's a snowstorm or heavy winds between now and then, but that's not in the forecast. But even if there is no fall color, you are still in for a spectacular hike.

Leave a Reply to Scott Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Beth Mc Oct 7, 2014 15:10

This hike looks amazing, and I am planning to check it out on Sunday morning (10/9). Do you think I'll still be able to catch a significant amount of fall color, or will most of the trail be too far past peak by then?

Leave a Reply to Beth Mc Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *