Epic mountain views? Check. A pristine emerald lake? Check. The biggest glaciers in the Sierra? Check. All of the crowds that you think would accompany such a magical spot? Not so much. Finger Lake is the type of hidden gem that showcases the breadth of amazing locations that California has to offer for those willing to explore off the beaten path.
Mileage: 6 Miles (One Way)
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3400 feet
Day(s) Hiked: 10/04/14 > 10/05/14
Dog Friendly: Yes
Red Tape: Overnight camping requires a permit from Inyo NF.
Owens Valley is a special place any time of year, and during the peak of fall color around the start of October, it is one of the best places on the west coast to see the leafs turn. Specifically, the stretch between Big Pine and Lee Vining showcases many trailheads that feature decent to great fall color viewing. Most tourists and photographers flock to the most prominent locations, such as North Lake, Convict Lake, and Rock Creek, which leaves the rest of the locations surprisingly empty despite their fantastic appearance.
Armed with this knowledge, and a favorable weather forecast with highs and lows that resembled August more than October, Callie and I headed up to the Sierra for a quick one night backpacking trip to get a taste of fall and visit a classic Sierra lake that had alluded us on a previous trip. We hit the trail on a Saturday morning early enough to catch first light on the mountains and have the trail all to ourselves.
The trailhead at Big Pine is around 8,000 feet, and the area is a typically dry eastern Sierra landscape dominated by sagebrush and manzanita. The occasional jeffrey pine dots the landscape and helps remind you that you are actually in National Forest.
The nearby creek is lined with mountain birch, which is one of the few trees in the area that showcases fall color. There are a few spots where one can combine a view of the trees with the surrounding peaks to create some especially satisfying vistas.
After about a mile and half up the canyon, the trail crosses the creek, and begins a steeper ascent towards Brainerd Lake. The upper section of this hike doesn’t show much in the way of fall color, so our interest quickly turned to Finger Lake a couple thousand feet above. We have covered this section of trail more extensively already on a trip where we failed to reach Finger Lake, so that increased our incentive to move forward into uncharted territory.
By noon we were at Brainard Lake without the altitude sickness and swarms of mosquitoes that had accompanied us on our previous visit. This is a perfectly beautiful lake, but just a sampler of what lies ahead.
As the south fork trail approaches Brainerd Lake, it becomes a bit more faint and there are a few spots where it is easy to lose. Once you reach the lake, you are on your own if you want to move on to Finger Lake, so some confidence in off trail navigation is key.
No matter which way you take, you will have to deal with slogging through a few hundred vertical feet of boulder fields, which is never fun, nor particularly easy when carrying enough gear for backpacking. This is most likely why Finger Lake does not get more crowded, so keep that silver lining in mind if you find yourself cursing during the last push towards the lake.
By the time we reached the lake, I was wiped out from the last stretch of boulder hopping. Make no mistake, capping out over 11,000 feet high with 3400 feet of elevation gain is a tough hike, especially if you are coming from sea level and have had no time to acclimate. Carrying backpacking and photography gear only makes the ascent more difficult, but who wants to leave such amazing places so soon after arriving?
It’s a pretty wonderful place to have all to yourself for a night too.
There were a few other spots around the lake’s outlet that could have supported additional visitors, but overall, camping around the lake appeared to be pretty sparse. One potential downside of the lake is that you might have to make friends with your neighbors if you camp here on an unusually busy weekend.
Heading down, the first hundred feet of descent is easy off trail with a nice open view of the middle of the south fork basin. Then, you get to pick your poison as you descend the boulder field above Brainerd Lake.
On the descent, we chose a route further to the south than our ascent route. I think this route was close to the “official” route, as I saw a few cairns along the way. It didn’t really matter though. In fact, I think that our ascent route was probably easier. No matter what way you go, the elevation gain is the same and the boulders are relatively the same size.
Once back at the lake, the next 3000 feet of descent to the trailhead felt quite easy in comparison to the start of our day. At first, splashes of fall color occasionally dotted the trail as we walked through the higher elevation alpine forests.
Then, as we reached an outlook over the lower section of the canyon, the full splendor of fall came into view. Seeing this magnificent display shortly after waking up next to a spectacular glacial lake was not a bad way to start a Sunday.
As we retread our steps back to the trailhead, we were surrounded by the wonder of fall color in the Sierra, and we had it all to ourselves. The only downside to a weekend like this, is that it can be really difficult to accept reality again on Monday.