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Backpacking Big Pine Lakes – An Epic California Weekend Adventure

If you’re searching for an adventurous and amazing California weekend getaway, check out Big Pine Lakes. This hike in the Eastern Sierras is just about a 4 hour drive from LA, but seriously looks like you’ve stepped into Banff, Canada!

On this hike, you’re able to visit 7 beautiful, glacier-fed lakes (I only made it to the first 4), and even a glacier if you’re feeling extra adventurous. Keep reading for my overview/tips on hiking and camping Big Pine Lakes.

big pine lakes

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Big Pine Lakes Camping Overview

  • PTO/Vacation Days Needed: 0
  • Nights: 1
  • Cost: $
  • Permit Required? Yes (for overnight), but not for day-hiking

Big Pine Lakes Camping Packing List

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Want a more detailed guide on my favorite gear for backpacking? Check out my Backpacking for Beginners Packing List!

Big Pine Lakes Permit

backpacking big pine lakes

This hike is possible to do as a day-hike, in which case you do NOT need a permit. However, if you want to camp overnight at Big Pine Lakes, you will need to obtain a permit from Recreation.gov.

Search for “Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits”, put in your dates and number of people, and search for permits for “Big Pine Creek North Fork”. They open up 6 months in advance and if you want the permits for a weekend, you need to be online to reserve them right when they open up!

When to Go To Big Pine Lakes

The best time to go to Big Pine Lakes is July to mid-October, when the snow has melted from the season but it hasn’t quite started snowing again yet. If you go in October, like I did, you have the chance to see beautiful fall colors!

I was there October 12th weekend. The weather in the daytime for hiking was great (sunny and in the 50’s), but at night it gets super cold! It dropped below 20 degrees. Make sure you have a warm sleeping bag and lots of layers!

How to Get to Big Pine Lakes

We drove Friday evening from Los Angeles. If you also plan to do this, I recommend getting a hotel in either Lone Pine or Big Pine so that you can be well-rested for an early start to the trailhead the next morning. It’s about a 3 hour drive to Lone Pine (this is where the permit pick-up office is too) or about a 4 hour drive to Big Pine.

Where to Stay the Night Prior to Big Pine Lakes Camping

So along the 395 in Lone Pine and Big Pine, there aren’t a ton of options for places to stay besides motels. We stayed in Olancha (a few miles before Lone Pine) in a glamping teepee at Olancha RV Park and Motel, and it was actually really cute! There were 3 queen/full beds inside, outlets, and heated blankets. It’s a fun option for the first night of your weekend adventure!

olancha rv park and resort

If you are able to get there earlier in the day on Friday, a great option would be to stay at Glacier Lodge, located right at the trailhead. They have either rental cabins or campsites!

Photo: VRBO.com

Another option is to book a VRBO nearby for the night before, like this cute cabin near Lone Pine with an epic view of Mt Whitney from the back porch!

If you aren’t able to book anywhere, download the Dyrt Pro app for a map of all the free campsites in the surrounding area!

Big Pine Lakes TIP: Arrange for Late Permit Pick-Up

The permit offices to pick up your permit are inconveniently NOT located close to the trailhead. If you’re coming from LA, the only one on your way will be at Lone Pine, which is 1.5 hours from the trailhead. Make sure you CALL AHEAD (2-3 days ahead) to the permit office to arrange a late-pickup of your permits if you will be getting there after business hours. They will leave your Big Pine Lakes permit in a lockbox outside for you to pick up!

Big Pine Lakes Hiking Overview and Tips

big pine lakes tips
  • Distance: ~14 miles
  • Dog Friendly? Yes
  • Trailhead: Big Pine Creek Campground
  • Parking: PRO TIP: Pay $5 to park overnight at Glacier Lodge to shave about 0.6 miles off of your hike
  • Elevation Gain: ~3,000 feet
  • Starting Elevation: 7,814
  • Trail Condition: Steep and rocky. Lots of switchbacks. A few small creek crossings. First half is exposed, so make sure to wear sunscreen
hiking big pine lakes

The hike up is pretty steep and rocky, however it is still very scenic! If you go in the fall, the colorful leaves make it especially beautiful. You’ll also encounter lots of cute dogs on the trail which can help to distract you from the brutal incline hike with your 30-pound pack on.

lake 1 big pine lakes

Once you reach late actor Lon Chaney’s famous cabin, know that you are half-way there! You’ll reach the first lake at about 5 miles in.

The first 3 lakes are known to be the most scenic, and they are all very close together (about 0.5 mile away from each other). Lake 2 was my favorite and is where we set up camp, as it has the iconic Temple Crag in the background! Don’t settle on the first campsite you find – keep walking around and you will find quite a few stellar options. We found a campsite with an awesome view with trees to put our hammocks on. This site was also close to a trail leading to the base of the lake – our own little “private beach” if you will! It was amazing!

Once we set up camp, we hiked to the 3rd lake. This lake was also beautiful, and quite different in color and scenery than the first two lakes. There was also NO ONE there! We had the place to ourselves.

big pine lakes camping

At this point, we were debating if we should hike the full loop or not. We ended up hiking to lake 4, and found that it was very underwhelming compared to the first 3 lakes (and also we were getting altitude headaches) so we ended up coming back the way we came after that, and enjoying our amazing scenery at our campsite at Lake #2!

big pine lakes camping

I’ve heard great things about Lake #5, which is a bit of a side-track off of the loop. If you’re up for it, I recommend checking that one out as well!

If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can hike to the Palisade Glacier – the southernmost glacier in North America. It requires some intense rock scrambling up a steep incline, which we didn’t feel was worth it at the time (especially since I already did a glacier hike in Iceland last year).

Honestly though, just admiring the view at Lake #2 was incredible. We couldn’t stop taking pictures and just staring at it! It’s quite the epic view to wake up to at sunrise from your tent too when camping at Big Pine Lakes.

I still can’t believe that Big Pine Lakes, with its picture-perfect bright-blue glacier lakes, is just a few hours drive from the beaches of LA! California never ceases to amaze me.

Pin it!

hiking big pine lakes


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Steve

    Lauren, your reviews and pics are nothing short of informative and awesome. You definitely leverage the best of California which is pretty impressive. Keep it up!

  2. Carrie

    Very informative! Great info for others headed there.
    Thank you.

  3. Isabela

    Thank you so much for the post. You are helping me prepare for my trip and straight away no permits 🙁

    I`ll try my luck later again!
    It feels like it`s so hard to find last minute hiking trips in California, I guess I really have to prepare myself.

    1. Lauren Wilson

      Glad my post was helpful! Yes, getting permits in California is super tough. If you’re looking for last minute camping spots, you have to try dispersed camping on BLM land! no reservations/permits needed.

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