Backpacking North Fork of Big Pine


Five weeks after backpacking the South Fork of Big Pine Creek, I returned to the John Muir Wilderness to hike the North Fork. This would be my sixth time hiking this particular trail, but only the first overnight trip to the lakes. There was a large storm the weekend before my trip that brought in the first snow of the season, but it was really only noticeable above 11,000 feet. On Thursday night I stayed at Tuttle Creek campground in Lone Pine, then picked up my permit Monday morning and headed to Big Pine. The canyon was quiet with the recent seasonal closure of most campgrounds.

Trip Details:

Date Range – October 20-23
Campground – Wilderness Camping
Distance – 270 miles
Closest Town – Big Pine, CA

I started my hike in at 9:30, and had a pretty good pace going despite the steep elevation gain early on. Weather was nice with clear skies and temperatures in the mid sixties. I arrived at the lakes in about three and a half hours, and stopped to take a break at Second Lake. This lake remains one of my favorite in the Sierra, with the turquoise-colored water glowing in front of Temple Crag. The color of First Lake and Third Lake matches that of Second, though on this trip the Third lake was more green than turquoise.

Second Lake

Eight miles, 3,000 feet of elevation gain, and seven hours later, I set up camp near a creek along the trail to Sam Mack Meadow. The next morning my plan was to climb up to see the Palisade Glacier and the first three lakes from a few thousand feet above, then spend the rest of the day fishing in the upper lakes along the main trail.

Sam Mack Meadow

When I got to Sam Mack Meadow the next morning around 9:00, the creek was frozen over with a little trickle of water flowing beneath cracked ice. The trail crosses over the creek and heads up the nearest ridge, taking you towards the Palisade Glacier. I was excited to see all three lakes lined up, but even more excited to see the glacier. After climbing talus fields for about an hour, I reached the top of the ridge and was able to see the Glacier. The moraine looked mostly frozen, but still looked incredible.

Palisade Glacier

Climbing back down the talus field I missed the turn in for the trail and ended up getting lost for about two hours. The feeling of being lost by yourself on the side of an icy mountainside over 12,000 feet up is not a good one, but I was able to stay fairly calm about it. While scouting out my next moves, I heard the sound of what I thought was hikers about 200 yards away. I yelled out to them, and luckily someone poked their head out from behind some trees. A relaxing feeling of relief swept over me once I finally knew where the trail was. I headed straight for them and made it back to camp in less than an hour.

After a short break and some lunch back at camp, I headed up to do some fishing at Fourth Lake and Summit Lake. Fourth Lake was beautiful, and had some of the best camp sites I had seen all weekend. Just ahead, at the junction between Fourth Lake and Black Lake, was a great area for group camping on top of a plateau that overlooked Fourth Lake and Temple Crag. I kept going towards Summit Lake, where I would spend the rest of the day fishing for golden trout. After letting one get away, I finally caught a hybrid golden-rainbow trout.

Summit Lake

That night, the temperatures were in the low 40s but the wind picked up considerably. It was my second night of enjoying the sky full of stars since the moon wouldn’t be showing up until midnight. I had a great unobstructed view of a tiny little red dot (Mars) and the milky way, which seemed to take up the entire night sky. Strong wind gusts continued throughout the night, with temperatures reaching low 20’s in the early morning hours.

Before heading back to the trailhead the next morning, I hiked up to Fifth Lake and fished for a while. Fifth Lake ended up being my second favorite lake of the trip as Mt. Robinson which, like Temple Crag, complimented the lake nicely. The wind was still blowing like crazy, making for a challenging fishing experience. I had heard about a snow storm that was forecasted to hit my area sunday afternoon, so once I saw some darker clouds coming in I decided it was time to head back and pack up.

Fifth Lake

The hike back wasn’t too bad on the knees even though it was mostly downhill. I took a break at Second Lake and again at Lon Chaney’s Cabin, and otherwise made good time getting back. The wind was still blowing pretty strong the entire way back, making the shady sections a little cooler than they should have been. Overall, the trip went really well with minimal setbacks, and the weather was great. I’d like to go back and spend some more time at the upper lakes, as well as visit Sixth and Seventh. Fourth and Fifth Lakes had the best campsites, which is absolutely where I would stay next time.

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