Backpacking South Fork of Big Pine


This was my second backpacking trip and Will’s first. Our plan was to hike the South Fork of Big Pine Creek towards Willow, Brainerd, and Finger Lakes. We’d both done this trail once before – on accident – exactly a year go on Labor Day weekend and found it to be a much tougher hike than the North Fork. This would be a much more challenging hike than my previous one to Hilton Lakes, with more switchbacks and a much greater elevation gain.

Trip Details:

Date Range – September 1-4
Campground – Wilderness Camping
Distance – 270 miles
Closest Town – Big Pine, CA

I took off work a day early and spent Thursday night in Sabrina Campground, west of Bishop, CA. I was surprised to see how many sites were still available considering it was Labor Day weekend. My plan for Friday was to hike up to and past Blue Lake while waiting on Will to meet up with me in Bishop later that night. I made it up to Blue Lake in about two hours, and continued on to Emerald Lakes Basin. I stopped at a smaller lake for a short break, then headed back to camp and later on to Bishop. We stayed in Sabrina Campground Friday night, and then headed down to Big Pine in the morning to begin our backpacking trip.

Blue Lake, about 4 miles from the trailhead at Lake Sabrina

The overnight parking for Big Pine Creek is about a half mile away from the day hiking trailhead, so we took the alternate trail from our parking lot for some unnecessary elevation gain and loss before getting back to the main trail. We made pretty good time on the trail, hiking around six miles and gaining 2,000 feet of elevation in roughly three and a half hours. We found an excellent campsite near Willow Lake, where we’d start our day hike in the morning. The campsite was nestled between 15 foot tall boulders and a creek on one side with a grove of pine trees on the other. The fish at Willow Lake seemed to be hyper-aware of our presence, as just walking within 10 feet of the lake would scare them all off.

View of Willow Lake(left) and Brainerd Lake(right) from above Finger Lake

The next morning we started our trek towards Brainerd and Finger Lakes just before 10am. With a few stops along the way to climb rocks and take pictures, we made it to Brainerd Lake in about 90 minutes. The trip up to Finger Lake looked like it could take a while since it was just climbing a talus slope, so we moved on after a quick break. We made it up much quicker than I anticipated, and spent quite a while there. Finger Lake provided amazing views of the turquoise lake perfectly placed in front of Middle Palisade Glacier. From a peak near Finger Lake I was able to get the picture above, looking down on our morning climb from Willow Lake.

Beautiful turquoise Finger Lake with Middle Palisade Glacier tucked away in the back

We hiked back down the steep slope towards the south end of Brainerd Lake, where I could fish for trout in some deeper water. I caught three, but only two made it back to camp after the first had a late but successful scramble off the hook. I fished for about an hour, and once the sun started to go down the fish began to jump like crazy. It seemed like nearly 20 could be out of the water on any given second. I’m not sure if there were any other kinds in Brainerd Lake, but the only fish I saw or caught were brook trout.

Back at Willow Lake, I cooked up the fish along with some dried pasta. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped in the open area by lake, but the boulders and trees did a great job of shielding the wind from our tents. The slice of moon that was in the sky disappeared early, and the stars were out with the milky way shining bright. The nights weren’t too cold, and the temperatures only reach the upper 40s.

Middle Palisade Glacier from about 11,000 feet elevation at Finger Lake

Our trip back in the morning was off to a good start, as we were able to quickly make it to the top of our only uphill climb of the day. The entire trip was downhill from there, and we made it back to the trailhead in about two hours. The ensuing hamburger and fries back in Bishop never had a chance.

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