This trip was the two year anniversary of Callie’s first backpacking trip and the launch of CaliTrails. We celebrated the occasion by taking our first backpacking trip of the year on one of the Sierra’s best dog friendly trails.
Mileage: 20 Miles
Day(s) Hiked: 5/24/14 > 5/26/14
Dog Friendly: Yes
Our trip began at the permit office in Lone Pine, with the hope of grabbing a walk in permit on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. This is not advisable if you are going to be disappointed to find your trail of choice is full, but I was willing to be flexible. The visitor center was crowded as expected, and after a half hour wait I scored the last available spot for a walk in permit up the North Fork of Big Pine, which was my first choice. I had a few backup trips in mind but it’s always nice when a plan works out.
We headed out from Lone Pine at 10 and by the time we hit the trail up the road from Big Pine it was already 11:30. The trailhead here is lower than usual for the Eastern Sierra, at a little under 8,000 feet high, which means that it can become pretty hot on sunny summer days. The temperatures in Owens Valley were in the mid-nineties, but the clouds in the upper elevations helped keep things relatively cool.
Speaking of clouds, the area had recently received an early season snow storm that blanketed the upper areas with close to a foot of wet snow. The forecast for the weekend predicted the slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms, so we tried to maintain a good pace to make sure we reached camp at an adequate time.
The initial views from the trail are of the South Fork of Big Pine, where Callie and I got accosted by mosquitoes last June. The recent dusting of snow highlighted the contours of the rugged peaks which resulted in a fantastic view of the range.
After close to a mile, the trail branches off into the valley containing the North Fork. The views are initially less impressive than those looking up the South Fork, and there continues to be very little shade along the trail. Honestly, this is one of my least favorite stretches of trail in the High Sierra, but the eventual payoff makes it well worth the effort.
Around the two mile mark, about a thousand feet above the trailhead, the trail begins running alongside Big Pine creek, and things become much nicer.
For one, the sun scorched dusty trail is replaced by more traditional Sierra scenes, as the trail meanders through a forest of Cottonwoods and Pines.
On top of that, views of the Palisades begin to open as well, whenever the forest allows it.
As the trail begins to get close to the chain of Big Pine lakes, the humongous Temple Crag begins to loom over each scene providing a glimpse of what is to come.
After five miles of hiking and two thousand feet of elevation gain, the trail reaches a junction right before First Lake. The trail towards lakes 1-7 is far more popular and crowded, but it covers some incredible Sierra lakes so there is a good reason for that. The trail towards Black Lake provides some nice overviews of the area, but it doesn’t have the same wow factor. We were planning on making a loop out of both trails though, so we ascended up the Black Lake trail to help arrive at our intended campsite at Fifth Lake a little earlier.
The trail up towards Black Lake ascends up the northern side of the valley pretty aggressively which quickly yields open views of the Palisade Crest and First and Second Lake down below.
On the way to Black Lake, the trail reaches a plateau where the majority of the surrounding views are blocked by trees. This means you are getting close to the lake at least.
Around this point is when we began hitting our first patches of snow. Some of these patches were a couple feet deep and extremely soft, which unfortunately made them ideal for postholing. Poor Callie had never experienced snow like this and thus learned the hard way what postholing is like. Fortunately, the patches were intermittent and easy enough to walk around when needed.
We reached Black Lake and snapped a few pictures from the shoreline. This lake doesn’t match the beauty of the other lakes in this area, and we were still trying to set up camp at a reasonable hour so we did not linger for very long.
Soon, the trail reaches Fourth Lake. We were planning on exploring this lake more the following day, so we passed along its snowy southern shore on our way to Fifth Lake. As we traversed alongside the lake, I noticed a group of about twenty people camping on the cliffs on the opposing shore of the lake. I was quite happy they had chosen to camp there instead of finding them at our intended destination when we arrived.
Fifth Lake turned out to be the perfect spot for the weekend. It was just off the beaten path enough to receive only a few day hikers, and we only had to share the lake with one other small group for each night. The lake had recently thawed out on its outer edges while the interior of the lake retained a layer of ice on top which contrasted brilliantly with the emerald blue color of the lake surface.
The basin is surrounded by some of the most prominent peaks in California. Directly to the south stands Mount Robinson which towers above the lake at an elevation of almost 13,000 feet.
Towards the Southeast, Mount Gayley and Mount Sill define the ridgeline seen above the Palisade Glacier. Mount Sill is over 14,000 feet high and thus caught the last rays of light for the day, which made it the focus of most of my photographs from this spot. The view was so picture perfect that I could not keep my eyes off of it. Having the view all to ourselves made it all the more special.
Even Callie was transfixed on the gorgeous scene for a moment as we watched the last light of the day retreat off the cliff face.
The following day started with a sunrise over Fifth Lake. I got up around 5:30 and was happily surprised with how warm the morning was. Normally, predawn at 11,000 feet in May can be pretty cold. I remember Callie’s water bowl being frozen solid when we awoke on our Memorial Day trip in 2012, but in this case, I was able to stand out in the morning air without having to bundle up much.
There are so many peaks around Fifth Lake that you can see the alpenglow during both sunrise and sunset, depending on where you focus your attention. Mount Robinson received the brunt of our attention, but the view towards the west with Two Eagle Peak and Cloudripper was mighty fine as well.
After soaking in the beautiful sunrise and enjoying a relaxing morning at camp, we set out for the day. We kept our camp at Fifth Lake, which allowed us to check out the surrounding area without carrying too much weight. Getting to explore the High Sierra backcountry without carrying a full backpack is always a treat, and this area is perfect for it. All of the lakes and trails are in close vicinity to each other up here which makes it easy to piece together a short dayhike with lots of destinations.
Our adventure started by heading down the trail towards Third Lake, towards the junction with the Glacier Trail.
Once we reached the glacier trail, we headed down it towards the Sam Mack meadow. The trail crosses the North Fork here in the middle of a meadow with a fantastic view of Temple Crag. This is a nice spot to stop and relax a bit, which ended up being exactly what we did once we saw what the remainder of the Glacier Trail was like.
Once the Glacier Trail began to ascend the northern facing slope towards Sam Mack Meadow, it was immediately covered by a few feet of snow. Unlike our previous encounters with snow on the trip, there was no avoiding it here, and the prospect of postholing up a thousand feet up the slope changed our plans immediately. The Glacier Trail will have to wait for another day.
Instead of immediately retreating from the snowbank, I decided that it was a worth break spot for me and Callie, so I took off her pack and snapped some shots of her as she tromped around the snowy landscape.
After Callie thoroughly dogged it, we retraced our steps back up the trail and went to Fourth Lake. From the southern shore of the lake, you can see some prominent cliffs on the opposite side of the lake. This is where the large group of people were camping on the lake the previous day. Later on I would discover how nice of a camping spot that is.
Most of the nearby peaks are obscured from the south side of Forth Lake, but Robinson Peak remains within clear view. Still, if you are going to linger at Fourth Lake, I highly encourage spending time on its northern side, which has much more impressive views. More on that in a bit.
After a brief stop at Fourth Lake, we continued up the trail towards Sixth and Seventh Lake. This stretch of trail seemed to be the steepest of the entire hike, and at 11,000 feet it got my heart racing as we pushed upwards.
The effort feels well worth it once you reach Sixth Lake though. The lake shares similar views of the Palisades from its northern shore, and it was also mostly frozen over. The area around the lake’s inlet stream was the only section of it that had thawed out.
Near the edges, the layer of ice covering the lake was thinning out to create some interesting textures on the lake surface. There wasn’t a soul to be found at these higher lakes, and as I sat there on a brilliant summer day, I was overcome with an intense feeling of relaxation. We laid on the lake shore, listening to nothing but the occasional chirp from a visiting bird, and all of the stresses of normal life vanished from existence. Forget beaches or resorts, I’ll take a high alpine lake on a sunny day over anything else for pure relaxation. I became so overcome with the mood that I ended up taking a nap on the lake shore for about an hour as I absorbed the sun’s rays. It was heavenly.
All good things must pass, and so our soothing rest stop came to an end. We packed up our bags and headed further up the mountain towards Seventh Lake. The official trail ends at Sixth Lake, but it’s quite easy to move offtrail up to Seventh Lake. Just stay to the north side of the lake’s outlet creek you’ll find plenty of open space.
Seventh Lake was almost completely frozen over except for a small area around its outlet. I find this lake to be less impressive than the other ones in the area but it’s still worthy of a visit if you make it up to Sixth Lake. The two lakes are within very close proximity.
This is the end of the line, unless you are interested in doing some ambitious offtrail travelling. Soon, we were retracing our steps down the mountain back towards Fourth Lake.
On the trail between Fourth Lake and Sixth Lake, there are a couple of unmarked junctions. The first one that you run into on your descent (the one that is higher up) will take you to Summit Lake. This lake feels like the least frequently visited lake in the whole area, primarily because it is fairly high up the mountain on its own unmarked side trail. One thing is for sure, the lake’s lack of visitors is not due to it lacking any good views.
Standing on the northern side of the lake, visitors are given a spectacular view of the Palisade Glacier and surrounding peaks framed perfectly right above the lake. This was one of my favorite views of the whole area and I was surprised by how easy it would have been to skip over. Summit Lake is definitely worth the little bit of extra effort that it takes to reach.
Heading down the trail once again, we took the other unmarked sidetrail to see where it would take us. It turns out that this trail goes directly to the cliffs on the northern side of Fourth Lake. Upon exploring that area, I was amazed to see room for a ton of campsites. Now, it made sense why the big group of backpackers had congregated at this spot. The view towards the Palisades from the cliff was specacular as well. Even better than the one from Summit Lake, amazingly enough.
After soaking in yet another jaw dropping view, we retreated back to our camp at Fifth Lake. We had explored all of the trails that were accessible, and there was still plenty of daylight left. We took advantage of the opportunity to explore new vistas near our campsite and struck gold after scrambling on top of one rock outcropping. A dazzling view of Fifth Lake opened up beneath us, complete with a perfect perspective of the receding ice on the outer edge of the lake. With nowhere better to be, we lingered in this incredible spot for awhile. Callie took a powernap while I alternated between reading a book and pinching myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming.
As sunset approached, we made our way down to the lake to take more variations of the shot I had taken the day before. I normally try to not repeat my photography too much, but this scene was so spellbinding that I couldn’t help but keep trying out different variations of it.
The following morning I chose to skip photographing the same scene for sunrise, and instead opted to “sleep in” until 7AM and enjoy the peaceful stillness that accompanies backcountry camping. This was a vacation after all.
After packing up our site, we began our retreat back to the car via the lakes trail. Shortly after the trail passes the junction to the Glacier Trail, our first view of Third Lake opened up. The lake had a shade of green to it, but it was nowhere near turquoise color that it can take on later in the season as it receives more glacial runoff. That is the one downside of going here early in the season.
The trail goes straight down a series of switchbacks directly to the lake, and of course we took a short stop there to enjoy a closer view.
Heading down, the stretch between Third and Second Lake is short but surprisingly varied and scenic.
Second Lake is my favorite lake in the area and one of my favorite lakes in the Sierra. The combination of its glacial coloring and the immense scale of Temple Crag looming behind creates a lasting impression. We made sure to take a stop here and even managed to squeeze in a selfie.
Moving along, First Lake is another short stroll over a hill to even more beautiful lake scenes.
Leaving First Lake was bittersweet, knowing that the trip was almost over and the best was already behind us. Fortunately, the stretch starts with some nice forest and river sections before drying out too much.
The exposed stretch at the end of the hike was particularly brutal on a warm summer afternoon. We powered down the end of the trail as quickly as possible towards the promised land of air conditioning, fried foods, and cold beverages.
This trip was a smashing success, primarily due to the conditions, which are close to perfect up there right now. We’ll be back in a few days. See you there?
Some Additional Notes on Current Conditions
- I did not get bit by any mosquitoes on this trip, but on the second night of the trip we began to get buzzed by the occasional mosquito. I killed over a dozen by the end of the trip. Mosquito season is coming very soon.
- There is still a lot of snow on northern facing slopes, which is clearly shown by our look at the Glacier Trail leading to Sam Mack Meadow. Plan your trip accordingly.
- Some of the High Sierra Passes still have a lot of snow and ice on them and should not be traversed without the proper gear and experience.