Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail, California

Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail

Campsite name: Chickenfoot Lake in Little Lakes Valley, California

Located in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas’ of California the Pine Creek Trail is one not to miss. It is in the John Muir Wilderness area and is a tough hike that takes you deep into the mountains. The views of the turquoise lakes are worth every step.

The trailhead is relatively remote and is only accessible by car. It is located at the end of Glacier Lodge Road roughly 10 miles from the small town of Big Pine, California.

The entire loop in the Inyo National Forest is 16.2 miles long however depending on which lake you decide to camp at the trail may be shorter.

Camping type: Backcountry Campground

time icon
Campsite opening hours: There are no official opening hours as the campsite is technically always open and is unstaffed.

contact icon
Booking Link: You do need a wilderness permit to camp in the backcountry at Big Pines Lake. They can be hard to come by so it is recommended to book as early as possible.

For further information check out recreation.gov. Bookings become available 6 months in advance. Only 60% of the quota is available this early and the remaining 40% is available for reservation 2 weeks prior to your trip.

However, if you are just day hiking then you do not need a permit.

Cost icon
Fees: $6 for the wilderness permit + $5 per person

facility icon
Facilities: As this is a backcountry campground there are no amenities available. There is a vault toilet at the trailhead however after this there are no facilities.

booking icon
Camping Month: It is recommended to camp at Big Pines between May to September. However, pay close attention to the snowfall in both late spring and early fall. Summer can be the best time to visit however it can get very busy and be very hot. The trail contains very little shade and is exposed so hiking on a scorching hot day is not recommended.

If you are able to visit the area during the weekdays the crowds will be a lot more manageable without the weekend warriors taking over the trail.

gear icon
Gear: Typical backcountry hiking gear and equipment is required for this trail. The most important gear to bring is a tent or sleeping structure, water purification or filtration method, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, bear canister and food.

Bug spray or repellent and sunscreen are both very important for this trip. This trail is very exposed and can be extremely hot with the steep elevation gain. The bugs are intense when hanging out next to the lakes so be prepared with your bug spray in your pack.

 food icon
Food: There are no potable water taps along the trail. You can collect water from the lakes where you are camping however it is always recommended to filter or purify the water before consuming.

You must travel with a bear canister in this region. This is not only for your safety but also for the bears. Chipmunks like to get into your food as well so at least your food will be protected from all creatures. All scented items must be stored in your canister at all times and includes toiletries and any trash. Remember to store your canister at least 100 feet away from your tent to discourage any creatures from rummaging around your tent at night.

lookout icon
Lookout Spot: If you have extra energy after setting up camp at one of the lakes continue the adventure onto the Sam Mack Meadows. This stunning meadow looks similar to Switzerland. A glacier blue river runs through the green fields filled with fish and frogs. It is a truly magical and peaceful place. From here you can head up to the Palisade Glacier.

activity icon
Activities: Alpine swimming - Only the brave (or crazy) will decide to jump into the cold temperatures of the alpine lakes. Be warned that cold temperatures can cause hypothermia. However, on a scorching hot summer day, a refreshing dip will be just what you need.

Backcountry fishing - This is a popular location for fishing. You do need to hold a sport fishing license to legally fish in this area. However, children under 16 are not required to hold on. You can obtain your fishing license here from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Highlight: After a tough 2 miles at the start of the trail you will find an infamous John Muir Wilderness trail sign. This is a must-place to take your photo with. You will also pass by the first waterfall this is a great spot to have a break and cool down.

The trail mostly flattens out from here and you will come across a Ranger's cabin called the Lon Chaney’s cabin. This is the halfway point and a great spot for lunch if you are feeling so inclined.

After your halfway break, the trail wanders through fields, forests, streams and wildflowers in the summer months. After about 5 miles you will reach the first lake. The beauty of the First Lake will take your breath away.

We recommend continuing the hike until you reach Lake Two. This is where there is a little beach that you can access the water from. In our opinion, the first three lakes are the most beautiful. The fourth lake is not as bright blue as the others and the fifth one is beautiful but just a further walk.  

Tips: The starting elevation for this traill is roughly 7,600 feet high. From the trailhead to lake three you will gain roughly 3,400 feet. If you decide to continue onto the Palisade Glacier which is beyond the Sam Mack Meadow you will gain 4,400 feet.

You cannot set up your camp closer than 300 feet from the water

If you want to stay at the trailhead the night before the start of your adventure you can front-country camp at the Big Pine Creek Campground or the Big Pine Canyon Campground. You can even walk to the trailhead in the morning and beat the crowds.

Some hikers decide to complete this hike as a day hike instead of a multi-day trip. There are benefits to both options however there is something so special about watching the sunrise over the alpine lakes with no one else around that makes me think that a backcountry trip may be the way to go.

You can pay $5 to park overnight at the nearby Glacier Lodge. By doing this you will cut 0.6 miles off your hike. Now that is a win-win.