.......... .. .. ........... "Once In A While You Get Shown The Light In The Strangest Of Places If You Look At It Right" :Robert Hunter

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Backpacking Big Pine Creek, Eastern High Sierra

I know this blog is called Arizona Jones and much of the outdoor stuff is from Arizona. But Arizona Jones is me and not a place so I will give you outdoor adventures that impacted me. Such as the Lake Ediza backpack story. So here is another Eastern Sierra trip that I found to be amazing. It is to The North Fork of Big Pine Creek in the John Muir Wilderness.
This trip is to a valley nestled high in the Eastern Sierras at the base of some of the highest peaks in the entire Sierra Nevada range. These peaks are just shy of the height of Mt. Whitney. The basin contains at least eight lakes and some fantastic scenery and is also the site of the southern most glacier in the United States, the Palisade Glacier. This trip starts at a parking area just 1/2 mile east of Glacier Lodge (a good place to get a shower once you return). The trailhead that you start at is at 7,750 feet and you take the North Fork Trail from there. The trail at first heads west along a south facing ridge with sage brush, and bitter brush with just a few pines. There is heavy exposure to the sun and little shade so get an early start. The climb at first is moderate and the trail is well maintained. As you climb you have great views across the valley to the Middle Palisades (14,040) and the valley of the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. After only a mile the trail turns northwest and you come to a nice sized waterfall called First Falls. At 1.6 miles from the trailhead there is a trail intersection. The right or northeast direction takes you steeply up to Baker Creek, the left trail descends down to a picnic area at the end of the road, and the middle is the North Fork Trail and what you want. Soon after you will pass a second water fall called Second Falls.
The trail does a few switch backs and then parallels the North Fork and you start having more abundant tree cover. This is a welcome relief from the sun exposure. Soon you reach an more lushly vegetated area with some aspens called Cienega Mirth where you will see a stone cabin that was built by the movie star Lon Chaney three miles from the trailhead. You are now at 9,220 ft. elevation and have climbed 1420 feet in three miles. After this the trail climbs some more and First Lake comes into view along with towering and rugged looking Temple Crag. First Lake is around 4.5 miles from the trailhead and is at 9,900 ft elevation. Near here, there is a trail junction and a trail cuts off to the right and steeply climbs switchbacks up an exposed ridge to Black Lake at 10,625 foot elevation. I took this route and returned back down the North Fork Trail making a loop trip. As you climb up the Black Lake trail you have amazing views across the valley at First and Second lakes and the Palisade Crest.
We camped at Black Lake our first night and were pretty happy. We had this lake all to our selves and the view across the lake to the Palisade Crest is great. Trout are abundant in this lake and the water comes alive with jumping fish at twilight. We thought this lake was pretty nice and would have been happy if this was our destination. But the next day we found that this valley has so much more to offer. The next day we headed farther west and climbed over a ridge and after about a mile or so we came to beautiful Fourth Lake (10,750 ft). Fourth Lake has really great views of the very impressive Palisade Crest mountain group of Temple Crag (13,000), Mount Sill (14,162), North Palisade (14,242) Thunderbolt Peak (14,000), Mount Winchell(13,768), and Mount Agassiz (13,891), The lake is a centrally located lake and and there is a four way trail junction near it that leads north to Sixth Lake (11,090 ft.)and Seventh Lake (11,210 ft.) or West to Fifth Lake (10,750 ft.), south back down North Fork Trail to Third Lake (10,400 ft.), Second Lake (10,000 ft.), and First Lake or back east to Black Lake. We took the north pointing trail around the west side of Fourth Lake up to Sixth and Seventh Lakes and explored for the day. Sixth and Seventh Lakes are up high in a bowl at the end of the valley. And the trees are smaller and stunted as you are above 11,000 feet and almost above tree line. and just west of them are some impressive mountains. One is called Cloud Ripper and is 13,501 feet tall. After exploring these two lakes we ending up finding our way back down an unnamed trail to Fifth Lake were we camped for the night. This lake is magnificent with an amazing blue color. This photo below is as we were coming down to Fifth Lake from Sixth Lake
Fifth lake is 6.5 miles from the trailhead if you come directly up North Fork Trail. Seventh Lake is about 8 miles from the trailhead. That evening we saw this amazing spectacle as the sun went down some of the peaks were just glowing. I think the term for this phenomena is "alpenglow". I knew then why Ansel Adams called the Sierra Nevada the "Range of Light".
The next morning we woke early to explore some more and found that on the trail between Fourth Lake and Third Lake (about a half mile above Third Lake) is a trail that takes you south and up steep switchbacks to a meadow called Sam Mack Meadow (seen below). This was amazing place above the tree line where there was only short grass. Here the water was coming right out of snow pack and waterfalls were numerous forming a beautiful blue stream. This trail continues to climb even higher over a bare rock ridge up to the Palisade Glacier. This glacier photo is the only one that I did not take but I felt you should get a good glimpse of it so I tracked this photo down. The Palisade Glacier is at 12,400 feet and is around 9.0 miles from the trail head. I could have spent several more days exploring this valley and not ever tired of the spectacular scenery. On our return we went back by the route of the North Fork Trail and took our time stopping at Third Lake, then Second Lake, and finally First lake as we traveled back down the valley.
Whoever named these lakes was not very creative. These three lakes below the glacier have amazing colored water from the glacier melt and great vistas of rugged Temple Crag and the Palisade Crest. This lake basin is just a great place to explore yet it is relatively easy to get to and a short hike for Sierra Nevada standards with very big payoffs. And if you want more and are an experienced outdoors type there is a faint trail above Seventh Lake that climbs north above the lake to a gap and then drops you down into Thunder and Lightning Lake and you could return by the Baker Creek Trail making a close to 20 mile loop trip. If you like to fish, most of the lakes in this basin have trout and the upper ones are said to have Goldens.
To camp overnight you need to obtain permits that I you can obtain on line from the forest service. Entry to the North Fork of Big Pine Creek is limited to twenty five people per day. Wilderness permits may be reserved or obtained on a walk-in basis also. In most areas, 60% of the space may be reserved in advance; the remaining 40% of space is set aside for visitors who come to the area without reservations. When traveling overnight in the Sierras you should store all your food in bear canisters for safety. I never saw any bears however.
For More Information
White Mountain Ranger Station,
798 N. Main St. Bishop CA, 93514
(760) 873 2400
or go online to:
Big Pine Creek is located near Big Pine, California. To get to the trail headtrailhead you turn off of HWY. 395, west on Crocker Street in Big Pine and continue about 11 miles up into the mountains to the trailhead parking lot on the right. If you get to Glacier Lodge you passed it by a half mile.


  1. I know that country well. The Southern Sierras are still the finest place on the planet.

  2. Great Blog, Beautiful photos and the perfect musical soundtrack! Thanks for the labor of love! Always Love the Jerry/Bluegrass stuff!

    Saw the Moab pics, thinking of heading to Utah in the fall, any further suggestions from your travels there? Thanks again.


  3. Moab has it all. So it depends on what your thing is. Porcupine Rim Trail is great Mountain Biking. Needles District in Canyon Lands great hikes. Day hikes in arches you can't go wrong. River trips are fun there too. Mill Creek has nice swimming holes if it's still hot out.

  4. Thanks for the info, it is much appreciated and will help me in my escape from the Big City. Nice to get tips from an expert.
    Some of your tunes on the ipod will definitely be accompanying me as well!