Backpacking North Fork Big Pine Creek/ Big Pine Lakes 4/30-5/1

Posted by Adventure 16 | 05.07.2018
by Michael O'Dell,Assistant Manager and Shannon Clair, Sales Associate
 A16 West Los Angeles store
Temple Crag
Temple Crag


MICHAEL:  On the morning of April 30th we hiked out of the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail head into the John Muir Wilderness. After About four miles of hiking we got to snow and the first of the glacial lakes. The lakes we're partially frozen over, Temple Crag and The Palisade Glacier sat in the distance.

frozen lake
Second lake, frozen over

During the day the temperatures stayed pretty steady around 30 degrees, though that night camping by Third Lake at 10,249 feet, it dipped down to around 18 degrees and snowed three inches on us.

tent in the snow
Our tent after the snow

The early season is a great time to get out here, the trail is relatively empty and easy to follow even with a few inches of snow. Despite carrying snow shoes (available for rental) all the way in, we didn't get the chance to use them.

On the way out
On the way out


We turned around the next morning and left the remainder of the loop for another time, it seemed wise to avoid going higher up and further in as the snow continued the dump on us.


My favorite pieces of gear on this snow adventure were my Therm-a-rest Z-lite, which makes an excellent sit pad to keep warm and pairs great with an inflatable sleep pad in the colder months, also my homemade pot cozy--great for keeping food hot as it re-hydrates. 




SHANNON: When I was first planning this trip, the weather looked like it would be cold but sunny. However, as the dates approached, the predictions became progressively windier and snowier. I’ll admit I was a little nervous, especially when high wind warnings came out for the weekend right before our departure. And we did get some extremely high winds during our drive up. It felt like driving through a river of wind.

But the hike itself turned out to be perfect. We had sun for most of the way in, and the past week of warmer weather had melted much of the snow I’d heard about in the snow report for the area. I quickly realized I didn’t need to be wearing the gaiters that were making my feet especially hot.

We met one fellow hiker on the way in. She’d been as far as the cabin (a cabin along the route that used to, according to many blogs, belong to Lon Chaney). She said she’d met some backpackers who described post-holing along the back of the lakes loop, but easy terrain and just occasional snow patches until Fourth Lake.

trail with no snow
The valley climb up to the waterfall.

Past the waterfall, the middle three miles of the hike were delightful. Treed and following the fast-flowing North Fork of Big Pine Creek, the trail was gentle and picturesque.

A little further along, we got our first clouds and stopped for lunch at First Lake, which was still largely frozen. Our plan had been to camp at Second Lake, but we were making such good time we decided to go on to Third at 10,249 ft. We cut ourselves off there, because going higher didn’t seem like a good idea given the cold weather.

Surprisingly, Third Lake was less frozen than either First or Second had been. Probably because it got more consistent sun, given the arrangement of the surrounding mountains. And, boy, what mountains! The lakes are surrounded by  a ring of awe-inspiring peaks, more than a couple over 14000 ft.

View of temple crag

A view of Temple Crag from the stroll around Third Lake


The sun came out again as soon as we found a spot and set up camp. So, we took a stroll around our side of the lake and had a half-serious picture contest, in which Michael got all the good lighting, and I tried to beat him out for composition. However, he definitely won for sheer quantity of photos taken.

The night temps dropped to 18 degrees, but I was never cold in the zero degree bag from our store’s rental program (I didn’t trust I’d be warm in my own 20 degree bag, given that its women’s EN rating was 28 degrees).

The trip out was truly the best. Everything had transformed overnight. We’d gotten three inches of snow, and it kept coming down. By the time we broke camp in the morning, after some very satisfying coffee, the flakes at Third Lake were huge – like frozen tufts of down.

snowy trail

The very same valley covered in snow.

We elected not to take the back side of the loop, because the trail is not marked with blazes or tags on the trees, and we didn’t want to spend time losing and looking for the trail. So, we got to resvisit the way we’d come in, and see it in a completely new light.

We ran into one couple on the way out, asking how far to First Lake. They were very sweet and seemed mostly prepared, but we both secretly hoped the man’s blue jeans didn’t get soaked in the continuing snow.

I was trying out my Osprey Exos 58 for the first time on the trip and couldn’t have been more pleased with its capacity for my warm gear and its carry on my back. I was also very glad to see how well my Big Agnes Fly Creek tent stood up to the weight of snow (though at least we didn’t get the high winds that came over the weekend).

shannon clair holding water bottle

Near Lon Chaney's cabin, with the insulated A16 water bottle that kept my water from freezing.

If you’ve got a warm sleeping bag and a good sense of how you do with weather, I highly recommend early-season hiking and backpacking in the Sierras. You’ll have a lot of areas to yourself, and you might get to witness the transformative powers of freshly fallen snow.