John Muir once said, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail gives life to these words. From the moment your car leaves the 395 at Big Pine, California and heads into Big Pine Canyon, it’s clear another world awaits. The further into the canyon, the clearer the vision. The road ends at the parking area for Inyo National Forest; however, a left turn at the park’s sign takes you across a bridge over Big Pine Creek and to Glacier Lodge, a historic set of truly rustic cabins nestled along the river. The lodge acts as an excellent “base camp” for excursions into the surrounding wilderness, unless you prefer to camp at one of the campgrounds further back on the road. (Side note: Save the camping for on the trail, and enjoy a unique stay at this rural getaway.)
Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail is a hiker’s promised land, offering spectacular views of numerous lakes, 14,000 ft. mountain peaks, and access to the southernmost glacier in the United States and the largest in the Sierra Nevada, Palisade Glacier. There are flowing rivers and waterfalls, rocky switchbacks, Golden Trout, Jeffrey and Lodgepole pines, Aspens, a gorgeous rock cabin built by Lon Chaney Sr., and glacier-fed lakes. Glacier melt from the Palisade Glacier directly fills Third Lake which spills into Second and First Lakes, giving them their unique milky turquoise hues. The trail follows the north fork of the Big Pine Creek, hence its name.
The trail may be accessed from several easily identified points, and remains well defined throughout its approximate 19 miles, except one mile in from the Glacier Lodge trailhead where signage is missing (Read more on Finding the Trail). As the trail winds up Big Pine Canyon glimpses of a possible destination, Palisade Glacier, are seen through the trees and past the overlooks. The trail to the glacier gains more than 4,000 feet in elevation with intervals of steep narrow rocky switchbacks and sharp drop-offs, yet the destination beckons an enticement of wonder and untouched natural landscape. Many hikers do not reach Palisade Glacier as it requires extensive hiking and possibly an overnight stay in this rugged wilderness. Regardless of whether the hiker follows the loop past seven lakes on a day excursion or ventures further overnight to the glacier, the scenery will not disappoint.
Around 4 miles into the trail Temple Crag comes into view, signaling the proximity of the first three lakes: First, Second and Third Lakes. Here are many opportunities to observe the effects of glacial activity including moraines, cirques, tarns and glaciated granite. Less than half a mile before First Lake, a side trail loops to Black Lake, offering further views of glaciers and the Sierra Nevadas, and access to Summit, Fifth, Six and Seventh Lakes, before rejoining the main trail near Fourth Lake. From Fourth Lake, the Palisade Glacier is another 2.5 miles; it lies approximately 9 miles from the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trailhead at Glacier Lodge.
Wilderness permits are not required for day trips into Inyo National Forest, but are mandatory for overnight stays in the designated areas. For Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail, these permits may be obtained online at Recreation.gov, or further information is available through the USDA Forest Service. (Note: there is no cell phone reception or Wi-Fi in Big Pine Canyon, so reservations must be made in advance of the trip. For wilderness permit information call 760-873-2483; or for area information call the White Mt. Ranger Station 760-873-2500.) Keep in mind wilderness permits for certain areas are under quota, meaning a limited number of people per day may use the trail therefore visitors are urged to schedule trips well in advance.
Want to get more firsthand insights and see stunning photography from this incredible location? Check out XplorMor Founder Julia’s Xplorer Journals: Glacier Lodge: A Gem of the Sierras, Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail: A Hiker’s Promised Land.
Inspired? Contact us for a future expedition. No project is too big or too small… we enjoy them all! It’s about getting out there and appreciating our world and feeling the impact on our spirit from exposure to the magnificent world around us.