Just four hours from Los Angeles and a few miles in by trail lies a stunning landscape of 14,000-foot mountains, milky-turquoise lakes, and the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada. We visited in mid-September and were at once humbled by the beauty, enormity and variety of features within easy reach for even a beginning backpacker.
Here's how we did it:
- Thursday afternoon: we drove to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Center in Lone Pine for a permit for the Big Pine North Creek trailhead. As with other hikes in the Inyo National Forest, 60% are reservable in advance through recreation.gov; 40% are on a walk-in basis and are made available at 11am the day prior to the hike's start.
- Thursday night: after a late afternoon snack at the Tacos Los Hermanos taco truck in Lone Pine, we drove up to Big Pine and followed Glacier Lodge Road nearly to its end. We camped at Sage Flat Campground, one of several front-country campgrounds in the area that operate April to October.
- Friday: from the Big Pine North Creek trailhead (7,800'), we hiked in about 6 miles to Third Lake (10,249'). We set up camp on a ridge on the lake's eastern edge, with a view of Second Lake. The imposing, near-vertical Temple Crag rises above Third Lake, making for a spectacular sunset as the light changes on its sheer rock face.
- Saturday: we considered moving camp to one of the lakes deeper in the basin (likely Fifth or Sixth lake), but opted to stay at Third Lake since the distances along this route are short. We day hiked about seven miles roundtrip to Palisade Glacier, spending an afternoon soaking in the views and watching rocks and boulders detaching from the glacier and sliding down hundreds of feet into the lake below. To reach the glacier from the main trail, we took the junction leading south to Sam Mack Meadow; the trail is clear and easy to follow until the meadow. From the meadow, we crossed the glacial melt and headed east to join a southeast-facing ridge for another mile or so. The last half to three-quarter mile requires class 2 scrambling, topping out at 12,300' at a cirque (a glacially eroded "valley"), with Palisade Glacier flanked by North Palisade (14,242'), Thunderbolt Peak (14,003') and Mt. Sill (14,153').
- Sunday: we day hiked to Fourth, Fifth and Sixth lakes and spent a long, quiet lunch at the latter, taking in views of the glacier and the Palisade peaks from a different perspective than the day before. We hiked back to Third Lake, packed up and hiked out by the early evening, stopping for dinner at Still Life Cafe in Independence.
Packed with awe-inspiring features, the Big Pine Lakes/Palisades loop makes for one of the Sierras' shortest yet deeply satisfying treks. It's easily doable as a one or two-nighter, or even as a long day hike; and for those of you with four-legged pals, dogs are allowed.