North Fork of Big Pine: Backpacking to the Glacial Lakes

When researching spots to explore, my friend Chris from Last Adventurer told me about the North Fork of Big Pine and it’s blue glacial lakes (not unlike those in Banff). I was immediately excited as I had never seen this area before, so we grabbed a permit and set out to backpack the area in late September. This ended up being the perfect time, as there were fewer people and the colors were starting to change; but honestly, any chance you get to explore this fantastic place you should for sure take. Here is all the info.

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Details

  • 13 miles round trip to get to Second / Third Lake. Another 7 to make it to the glacier
  • 2,000 feet of elevation gain to Second Lake, 4,500 to Palisades Glacier
  • Must get permits for overnight
  • Must have a bear cannister here and be prepared to filter water

Permits

Permits are requested via recreation.gov, and I just went on and grabbed the first I was able to get, which ended up being a month and a half from when I planned on going. For weekends and for the summer, plan booking far in advance as this is quickly becoming one of the most popular trails in the area, behind Mt Whitney of course.

Getting There

After picking up your permits in Lone Pine, proceed north to the town of Big Pine. The trail is located 11 miles outside of Big Pine to the west. You can look up the Glacier Lodge, and that is where you will be heading.

Video

The Trail

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After getting to the trail make sure to leave any food in the bear canisters and take advantage of the pit toilets since these will be the last you see till you complete the trail.

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Setting out from the trail you will almost immediately start heading up on some switchbacks. This area is pretty though as you are looking down the South Fork, not where you are going.

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The trail splits with South Fork and it continues to head up while following a small creek. This part of the trail is nice as it is shaded from the sun.

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You gain elevation fast so if you came from sea level, prepare to be winded here. There are a couple of small bridges which help you cross the water that was high when we went.

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Eventually, the trail will flatten out and meet with the trail from the overnight hiker’s area. We paid $5 a day to park near the lodge.

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From here you will be walking on a single track in a big canyon. This area is not shaded so it can be hot.

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The trail is also looking at Second Falls in front of you which is a nice cascading waterfall.

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Eventually, it heads up again on a series of long switchbacks. The views get better and better as you head up though.

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You will then reach the top of the falls and will meet up with the creek you are following again. There are lots of great opportunities to filter water on this trail which is nice.

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Because of the time of year we went, the trail started becoming absolutely beautiful here with the fall colors.

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I was blown away by the oranges and yellows, and it made for some spectacular photos.

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If you have a choice, the fall is a pretty great time to do this hike.

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At around the 3 mile make you will make it to Lon Chaney’s cabin. This historic structure was built by the famous old time actor but unfortunately he didn’t get to use it much before passing away.

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You can’t go in the cabin but it is an awesome and historic spot to see. There is a nice brook that runs by it so make sure to take a break here.

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The trail continues in and out of shaded areas as you wander on for the next mile.

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From here the trail climbs again and you start getting views of Temple Crag in front of you.

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You will then reach a split in the road that lets you proceed on to lakes 1-7 or up to Black Lake.

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After another quarter mile and more elevation, you will eventually make it to the hillside that looks down on the first glacial lake, aptly named First Lake.

First Lake

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The trail ends up being higher than the lake, but after you start seeing it through the trees, you will get to a rocky overlook that shows you the beautiful lake from above.

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You can grab a camp spot here or continue to Second Lake like we did.

Second Lake

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Second Lake is the most beautiful of the lakes in this area, in my opinion.

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Once you see it with Temple Crag in the background, it is impossible not to be wowed.

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We continued to climb until we saw a spot which looked like it might be suitable for a tent and headed off the trail.

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We ended up being rewarded with a fantastic spot that overlooked the lake from a high vantage point. I recommend checking it out if you make the trek.

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After setting up our tents, we headed out to explore First and Second lake a little more.

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In between the two, there is an old dam, so we headed there first.

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The dam was pretty cool to see, but there wasn’t any information about it. There are pieces of wood from the old dam right on the side of the hill here which makes for a unique photo.

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We walked all around it and got a good view of First Lake and a waterfall from the top.

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Also, if you hike to the top of the small rock near the dam, you can even see an old gear and shaft used by the dam. It is strange to see these human touches in such a remote location.

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After exploring, we headed back to camp, made dinner, watched the sun go down, took some star pictures then just went to bed. For day two we were headed to the Palisades Glacier.

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The Palisades Glacier is an amazing hike from this area to see the Southernmost glacier in North America. It is pretty difficult though so be warned of that. You can read all about it here.

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After finishing our hike to the glacier, we made it back down to camp, packed up our stuff and headed out.

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All in all this is an incredibly special place in California. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in recent memory. Be sure to check it out if you get the chance and let me know what you think in the comments.

More good articles about the area:

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About JoshMc

Thanks for checking out the blog, I am happy to be sharing my adventures with you! You can get to know me by reading my about me, which includes a video and additional information on the site, myself and my full disclosure. Also, follow along on Twitter here or read all of my posts on this blog here.

  • mtnsicl

    Great article. The Palisades Glacier link isn’t there. At least, it’s not there for me.

    • Thanks for the comment, this should be updated now!