Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hiking The Big Pine - North Fork Trail to First, Second and Third Lake


Pano view of First Lake with a peek at Temple Crag on the right.

  • Miles: 11 miles round trip (First Lake)
  • Elevation: 2,100 ft (gain/ loss)
  • Type: Out and back
  • Location: John Muir Wilderness - Big Pine, CA
  • Note: Backpacking, Day Hike
  • Permit: Required for overnight trips only; Not required for day hiking
  • Permit Issuer: White Mountain Ranger Station - 798 N. Main St., Bishop, CA; (760) 873-2500
  • Notes: Primitive campsites; No bear boxes at campsites; Also a horse-pack trail (watch your step!)

When in need for a quick fix of some sublime nature extravaganza, but short on time. This trip is a good cure. It has the promise of greenery, a good workout, mountain air and lakes! Lakes, that I think the people who are assigned to name lakes ran out of names for them.. or as I'd like to sometimes think that they just got awed by its beauty that no words to name them came out and they've just numbered them from First Lake, Second Lake, Third Lake.. and so on. Either way works out for me. 

For an overnight trip a permit is needed, day hikers need not worry about this part but feel free to visit the ranger station still for some trail conditions, weather updates and alerts. A permit can also be reserved online at Recreation.gov - trail code: Big Pine Creek North Fork J23. Fill out the necessary information, including names of alternate leaders from within the group, who can pick up the permit if you are unable to. The following are the permit fees:


  •  $5 fee per person entering the wilderness
  • $6 fee (not per person) for reservation
  • Example: For a 6 person trip, reservation will be a grand total of $36.00 (no other additional $$ like taxes and such)

You'll receive a confirmation email but this, however, will not be your permit. Drop by the White Mountain Ranger Station to pick up the actual permit, confirm the number of people reserved, leave car information and get some last minute alerts & chit chats. This is best done before 10:00 a.m. on the entry date, else the reservation will be cancelled and deemed a "no show". Also, if lacking the required bear canister for the overnight trip, the ranger station rents them out at $5 per day.

Getting to the trail head, when coming from the ranger station in Bishop - head south on Main St., that will eventually turn into US Route 395, you'll know the change when the speed limits change. It is about a 20-30 minute drive to the town of Big Pine. Once at Big Pine, turn right on to Crocker St. As of this writing (2013), its structure landmarks are a gas station and a general store on each corner. Continue driving past the cute, sometimes western themed, houses until the road turns into Glacier Lodge Road. This would be about a 12 mile drive to the trail head passing several car camping areas, including the Big Pine Campground. You'll eventually see a sign on your right directing you towards the hiker's parking lot where the trail head is and an outhouse is located. There are 2 bear boxes located at the parking area to store all your smelly stuff so you don't leave them in your car:



  • One by the restroom
  • Another by the last parking space going towards west of the "trail" sign

If day hiking, there is an optional limited parking area at the end of the road continuing past the hiker's parking lot sign, with a restroom as well. Leaving your car on this spot would free you of about an extra mile of hiking. But remember, it has limited space and no overnight parking.


Dark clouds looming at our destination.

The trail starts, just left of the signs (trail info and the usual not to scale trail maps) and restroom. It climbs up to the side of the hill following along the road that continues to the road's end. You'll start to notice the cars passing on the road grow smaller and smaller as you continue your way up. You'll soon pass a horse pack structure on your left. Then about almost a mile of hiking, you'll see a few picnic tables and a restroom structure below you on your left. You have arrived at the junction where the trail splits to the South Fork Trail and the North Fork Trail. Walk a little further and you'll find a trail that leads down to it, camping spots with picnic tables and a restroom.

Photo taken on a separate trip by me; cam owned by Cathe (photo)


Continuing on the trail opens up to a beautiful valley before starting the climb up again. Up and out the valley you'll see trail signs keeping you on check on the North Fork Trail and then a perfect photo op (proof to your friend where you're at! lol) with the John Muir Wilderness sign. Just a little pass the sign, you'll see Second Falls (yes, even the falls are just numbered). A bit rocky climbing down closer to it, but excellent spot to refill your water bottles and freshen up a bit if you've had quite a sun exposed last mile. The next stretch of the trail runs alongside the creek with welcoming shades from the trees and not long after you'll arrive at Lon Chaney Cabin. A good place to take a quick break and enjoy the creek by the porch, after your 3 mile hike.
Cabin commissioned to be built by the late movie actor, Lon Chaney, Sr.
You'll eventually start to have a glimpse of the beautiful milky blue waters you'll get to see at the lakes above, notice the colors on the creek you've been trudging along on. About a  mile.. a mile and half more you'll arrive at a junction, taking the left fork will take you to First Lake. You are just about a hop, skip and a jump from here for your first grand view of First Lake. Camp sites on First Lake can be found just below the trail, before you emerge on top of the rocks with that grand view of the lake. The area is a small wooded basin and has pretty good access to the lake with lots of sunken rocks to perch on if you get camp water duty.

We decided to set-up camp out here on our September trip and get an early dinner on since the clouds did not look like they wanted to share the sun anymore. And sure enough, after meal and washing up, the rest of the late afternoon till we fell asleep were spent playing cards and reading inside our tent while we listened to the rhythmic sounds of rain falling on our tent fly. The following day has been decided as a day exploration instead of our original plan to camp at Third Lake.


There is but very little elevation to gain from this point on to Third Lake. All that is left is but a quick 2 mile traipse in the forest absorbing all of nature. You'll find several more good choices of camp areas in between the 3 lakes with equal gorgeous views of the lakes.

Wildlife found! They're such troopers. No bad weather will turn them away from this place.
Clouds trying to conceal Temple Crag from us at Third Lake.
Chris contemplating another cold water jump.
Temple Crag can be viewed closer and more front and center at Third Lake. We've set-up our luncheon feast by Third Lake. Climbing down from the trail, closer to the edge of the lake, we picked a perfect spot to plop ourselves down for the day. And as Chris's tradition, a trip with a lake is not complete without plunging into the water, ice cold or not - us, ladies, were not so brave on that aspect, especially with the wind blowing every so often and the clouds trying to hide the sun from us again. We're just content to take photos as proof of his wet 'n wild shenanigans and happy to cheer him on.


The winds started picking up, and more & more people seem to have found our little spot by the lake when large groups of day hikers started settling in for their picnic, we decided to head back to camp. Guess, we got to our lunch spot for the day just in time to miss the lunch rush! We were covering good time on our way back to camp that we've decided to stop by some spots and enjoy some more spectacular views. The clouds did not succeed this day and the skies showed us an abundance of blue.



Arriving back at our tent, it was time to break camp and head on out. Back to the parking lot.. back to the car.. and back to the norm.





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