Believe it or not, the beautiful glacial lake you see pictured above is NOT located in Canada…. That’s right, people. The stunning 7 Big Pine Lakes are located right here in the Eastern Sierras of Northern California, just a 4 hour drive from Los Angeles! I had been dreaming of taking a trip to Canada (and it’s on my list to do in the near future), but this hike definitely helped temporarily satisfy my need to see turquoise lakes in person.
This trail, called North Fork Trail Big Pine Creek, can be tackled as a day hike or as an overnight backpacking adventure. We have done both. This post will cover all you need to know about day hiking. If you only go to Third Lake like we did, hiking this trail in a day is very doable, even with a nice break for lunch at the top.
- Difficulty: Moderate (Beware: the altitude makes it more strenuous)
- Length: 11 miles roundtrip to Third Lake and back
- Elevation gain: 7,800 ft – 10,150 ft (about 2,500 ft gain)
- Dog Friendly: Yes
- Trailhead: 4024 Glacier Lodge Rd, Bishop, CA 93514
- Parking is free but very limited so get there early!
- Restrooms available at the trailhead
- Permit is NOT required for day hiking, but IS required for backpacking overnight
We slept in Utah the truck the night before our hike and parked in the overnight parking lot, which is located right before the trailhead parking. This made it easy to move the truck and set out to hike the beautiful North Fork Trail at around 7:30 am October 29, 2017. It was around 35 degrees out when we started, so we put on a few layers before heading out. I didn’t have any gloves and my hands were freezing, so make sure to bring them if you have some!
The hike starts right next to the parking lot and quickly ascends with quite a few switchbacks. We all felt the altitude right away and had to stop and catch our breath more than once.
The first memorable place you will reach is a bridge that takes you over First Falls. The falls were gushing and would be a great place to practice long exposure photography!
Since we went towards the end of fall, the trail was littered with fallen leaves. I SO wish we had gone a few weeks earlier because the fall foliage in this area is gorgeous!
After hiking a little further, we came across a few different trail options. Two of them led to the overnight parking lot, and the third had the N. Fork Trail sign, which is where we headed.
The trail flattened out for a bit and the sun was starting to peek out. *During warmer months and in the middle of the day, this stretch of the trail offers no shade and can get hot, so be prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat etc.
After a while, the trail started to become more of a climb and the switchbacks began again. As you can see above, there is a creek flowing next to the trail throughout most of the hike. You can always bring a water filtration system to refill your water supply with refreshing, ice cold water if needed.
We took a small break at Second Falls, which is just past a John Muir Wilderness sign at the top of the unshaded switchbacks (a little over 2 miles in). At this point, you’re a little more than halfway to First Lake.
We kept trekking along until about 10:30 am when we hit mile 4.75 and got our first glimpse of the sparkling turquoise water.
There was a great lookout spot on the left side of the trail and we stopped to snap some photos and take in the beauty of First Lake.
We decided to venture off trail and hike down to the shimmering blue water. It was so clear we could see the rocks on the bottom and fish swimming around. There was also a tree that still had its fall colors on it and made for the perfect contrast of scenery.
After spending a little time there watching some fisherman fish, we decided to head to Second Lake.
This was by far my favorite spot to get a perfect view of Second Lake and Temple Crag in the background. We saw quite a few tents in this area, and I can see why!
The last lake we made it to was Third Lake. It was not as colorful as the two before, but it was a good spot to hike down to and hang out. Cosmo even decided to go for a swim in the ice cold water and wouldn’t stop digging and fetching sticks! We ate some lunch here and enjoyed the scenery before heading back down the mountain.
We hiked back the same way we came and it took us about 3 hours to get back to the trailhead (with some stops along the way for photo opportunities of course).
So, what are you waiting for?! If you’re up for a little challenge and some lake hunting, plan a hike at Big Pine!
- Go when the weather is cool, since about half of the trail is not shaded.
- Get acclimated to altitude before you hike. This hike starts at 7,000′ and gains elevation very quickly. Sleep at altitude the night before so you don’t get a headache or nausea. Altitude sickness is real and not fun!
- Bring trekking poles. That way your upper body gets a workout, too, and they save your knees on the way down!
- Download All Trails and look up Big Pine Lakes hike. Download the trail map because cell reception on the hike is spotty. That way, even if you have your phone on airplane mode, you can still view the trail map to see where you are.
HAPPY HIKING ❤