Backpacking the full loop of the Big Pine Lakes is a 16.2 mile trail that gains 4,051 in elevation. Many people choose to hike the 10 mile out-and-back trail to Second Lake, a picturesque setting with a proud Temple Crag grandly sitting in the background. The trail is rated as difficult on Alltrails.
Where Is The Big Pine Lakes Trail?
The Big Pine Lakes Trail is located in the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You will need to drive to the eastern side of the range, near Big Pine which is just south of Bishop, CA. The trailhead is a short drive into the mountains and parking can be a bit crazy on a busy day, but there is a separate area just for overnight parking near Big Pine Creek Campground.
Best Time Of Year To Backpack Big Pine Lakes
Snow can linger on this trail well into June, depending on the year. Make sure you are checking conditions and research trail conditions so you can decide the gear you need to bring. July – August tends to be the busiest season for the trail, and early summer tends to get high numbers of mosquitos.
This trail has also become more popular or day hikes in the winter time. Check road and trail conditions before going and make sure you are bringing the correct gear.
Permits For Backpacking
Permits are required to backpack and camp in this area and must be reserved in advance by visiting recreation.gov or obtained by first-come-first-served at the ranger station before you hit the trail. These trail permits fall under the Big Pine Creek North Fork name of the John Muir area. The number of permits given out is small, so if you can reserve them the day they are released, you will have the best chances. They are released on a rolling bases 6 months ahead, to the day. If you want permits for July 5th-7th, reserve them on the 5th of January for the entire trip at 7am.
Didn’t Get A Permit?
If you can’t get a permit in advance, you still have 2 options:
The first is to try and get a permit on a first-come-first-served basis, visit one of the Inyo National Forest permit issuing stations the day before you plan to leave, at 11am.
The second is to hike Big Pine Lakes as a day trip, and camp elsewhere. Although this option is obviously not as favorable, there are plenty of dispersed camping sites in the eastern Sierra’s that are beautiful:
↟ Alabama Hills Recreation Area, near Lone Pine
↟ Buttermilk Country, near Bishop
↟ Volcanic Tablelands, near Bishop
↟ And many more..
Important Trail Information
Regulations for this trail can be a bit confusing because it is part of the John Muir Wilderness and falls under regulations of the Inyo National Forest and JM Wilderness areas. Please see below for some key kits of information before backpacking the Big Pine Lakes Trail.
↟ Campfires are not allowed. Campfires are allowed in some parts of the John Muir Wilderness but are not allowed on this trail.
↟ Camp at least 100 feet from any trail or water source when terrain allows. Never camp within 25 feet of any trail nor 50 feet of any water source. This includes the lakes, do not camp next to the water.
↟ All food, trash and scented items must be stored in bear-proof containers, or counter balanced at least 15 feet above the ground, and 10 feet horizontally from a tree trunk.
↟ Groups cannot be larger than 15 people (includes day use).
↟ Do not dispose of bodily waste within 100 feet of any campsite, trail, or water source. Remember to dig a cat hole 6 inches deep and dispose of your toilet paper in a garbage can back at the trailhead.
↟ Bathrooms are located at the trailhead
↟ Dogs are allowed on the Big Pine Lakes Trail.
↟ Do not dispose of soap waste (including biodegradable soaps) within 100 feet of any water source.
↟ Pack it out and leave no trace. For extra brownie points from Mother Natch, leave it better than you found it by packing out trash you see on trail.
What To Pack On The Big Pine Lakes Trail
If you need some guidance on what you should pack for backpacking the Big Pine Lakes trail, head over to my blog post My Must-Have Backpacking Gear. Here I detail our backpacking kits in length and give you some insight into just about every item we bring on the trail.
Trail Notes from Our Backpacking Trip
↟ We backpacked to Second Lake in late May. Snow conditions at this time were not a problem up until Second Lake, and was much more prevalent on the trail going up to Third Lake.
↟ A lot of the trail is exposed, make sure you bring along some sun protection in the form of sunscreen, hats, and long-sleeves if that’s your hikin’-style.
↟ Luckily for us, mosquitos and bugs were not a problem and the weather was favorable. Temperatures did get fairly cold at night and in the early morning.
↟ My partner decided to day hike the rest of the loop without gear and said the trail conditions were fine unless you wanted to go up to Palisade Glacier.
↟ Difficulty of the trail was great. The hike is not too steep and the views on the trail up until the lakes are beautiful. You’ll pass by some beautiful waterfalls and great places to camp if you want to be further away from the lakes.
↟ Watch the sunset. Stay up to see the stars. Get up for sunrise. Just trust me.
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Backpacking the Big Pine Lakes Trail will leave you ready to go on your next adventure. Make sure this trail is on your backpacking bucket-list! You won’t regret it.