Most visitors to the Big Pine Creek Recreation Area arrive seeking the Big Pine Lakes, a magnificent chain of lakes turned milky blue by glacial run-off from the Palisade Glacier. On any given summer day, dozens of day hikers and backpackers work their way uphill along the North Fork Trail to reach the seven lakes and adjacent Black and Summit Lakes. Spectacular though this area is, nobody will accuse this busy footpath of being too quiet. Solitude lies elsewhere – specifically along the less-traveled South Fork of Big Pine Creek.
The South Fork Trail explores the dramatic canyon and spectacular high country of the South Fork Big Pine Creek watershed, which also comes with its own lakes and glaciers. Because the South Fork Trail is more challenging due to steepness, rugged terrain, and occasional indistinct trail treads, and possibly because it lacks the accessible beauty of the North Fork, a smaller percentage of hikers come this way. If you are prepared to tackle some challenging hiking, a bit of cross-country travel, and an unimproved creek crossing that can prove problematic during high water, you will enjoy not only the solitude but a gorgeous set of lakes and a beautiful subalpine forest.
One bit of advice for summer hikers on this route: it is crucial, perhaps even imperative, that you get an early start. The opening stretch of the route occurs entirely out in the open, and the summer heat can become oppressive even at this altitude. If you begin early, you beat the heat while also enjoying shade through nearly the first two hours of the trail thanks largely to the south wall of the canyon blocking out the early morning sun. On a warm summer day, this reprieve from the relentless Sierra sunshine will be a wonderful relief.
The South Fork Trail functions equally well as a challenging day hike or an overnight hike. Two separate trails serve the respective activities, which leads to a few navigational quirks. Backpackers will have to park further away in the overnight lot east of the day-use lot near Glacier Lodge. From the backpacker lot, the trail crosses a scrubby, south-facing slope before bending north along the North Fork Trail. A quick drop down one of two informal trails leads through a picnic area and then across the North Fork before arriving at a disused dirt road that descends to the South Fork Trail. This trail alignment requires gaining a bunch of elevation on the way out while hiking along a sun-blasted slope. The total distance for the backpacking route is 11.5 miles. The total distance for the day-hiking route is 10 miles, with about 300 fewer feet of elevation gain and loss.
Obtaining permits for the hike can be done by using Recreation.gov to reserve a backcountry permit through Inyo National Forest. Simply select South Fork Big Pine Creek and search for your desired date. After reserving and paying for the permit, you will need to pick your permit up from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center.
Day hikers will follow the dirt access road west from the day-use parking lot. This wide trail parallels the North Fork Big Pine Creek past a few private cabins before switchbacking up to a bridge crossing an impressive cascade. After a few switchbacks, you reach a junction with the South Fork Trail at 0.6 mile. Turn left here to split away from the North Fork Trail to travel south through open sagebrush habitat. The formidable headwall of the South Fork’s canyon surrounded by granite spires and crags awaits ahead with the promise of sincere, sustained effort.
Before reaching this headwall, you will have to contend with an unimproved creek crossing. In drier times (late summer and fall), this crossing is an easy rock-hop or possibly even a ford. If the water is high, you may want to scrap the hike since the current is swift and cascades lies just below the crossing. If you are determined and it is safe to do so, you can boulder hop 50 yards upstream to find a deep, but less dangerous stretch of creek that you can ford.
Beyond the crossing, you enter the John Muir Wilderness just before commencing a prolonged climb along switchbacks over rocky terrain with only sporadic tree cover. A cascading waterfall where the South Fork spills over the headwall rumbles away to the north. At 3.6 miles, the trail enters a narrow draw and works its way up through a rocky stretch that can hold snow late into the season. After cresting the headwall, the trail then descends through an avalanche-prone section of marshy forest. Be prepared for mosquitoes, which can be a nightmare under the right conditions.
The trail reaches a junction with an informal path descending to Willow Lake (more a submerged meadow than proper lake). From here, the trail climbs in a somewhat circuitous fashion over switchbacks, soon crossing a branch of the South Fork (4.6 miles) over a pair of beveled logs. After progressing due south along more switchbacks through dense forest cover, the trail passes a small lake hemmed in by a granite cliff before climbing out into sparser forest.
At 5.3 miles, the trail reaches Brainerd Lake. Brainerd Lake is a fine destination, and if you were to stop here you would still have enjoyed a wonderful hike. However, nearby Finger Lake makes Brainerd Lake seem average and unremarkable owing to its outstanding beauty. Although small, Finger Lake lies within a narrow cleft hemmed in by two walls of granite. Translucent blue water fills in this tiny basin. Despite its diminutive size, Finger Lake may be the most memorable and beautiful of all the lakes in the Big Pine Creek region.