Winter is here and no, I’m not talking on Game of Thrones (though let’s be real, I’d skip a hike for the last season to be out already… and now you know when this post was written.) Anyhow, back to the topic at hand. It’s winter and that means time for frozen lakes.
I’ve never seen Big Pine Lakes in the summer though I’m sure it’s quite stunning but winter… let me just say, stunning is an understatement. I’m talking giant peaks, frozen lakes obviously, icy shores, and miles away from anything remotely called civilization. It really does feel like something out of Game of Thrones (sorry, I’ll stop now… maybe.)
So, ready to add this one to your adventure list? Let’s dive in to the details.
Facilities: The Trailhead & What’s Around
Your adventure starts at the Big Pine Creek Trailhead, assuming it’s accessible. The parking lot is located about 7,700′ up so be sure to check conditions before heading out as you may be walking a few miles up the road once the snow level drops.
To get here, you’ll need to head down California’s highway 395 to the town of, you guessed it, Big Pine. It’s not a large city by any stretch but there are a few places to stay, eat and hang out. The gas station located on Glacier Lodge Road (which you’ll take up to the trailhead) is incredibly well stocked as a last place for provisions or a first place for a hot drink on the return. For more significant purchases and for hiking gear, Bishop is your closest bet that I know of.
Heading out of town, you’ll take Glacier Lodge Road all the way till its end. The views on the way up are pretty damn incredible and you will find a few turnoffs to enjoy them before the big inclines and even bigger turns that lead into the mountain.
Once at the trailhead, there’s a couple vault toilets, trash cans and an information sign but don’t expect water or food or cell signal.
Gearing Up: What You’ll Need
As I’m sure you know, you should always have plenty of supplies before heading out into the wilderness. The 10 essentials, the new 10 essentials, 20 essentials… pick your list but it really is important to have enough a day gone wrong.
Winter of course kicks things up a couple notches. Expect it to be cold, like real cold. Snowy, like real snowy. And you’ll be moving slower. As such, add more water, more snacks, more layers, better gloves, a nice hat, ideally a stove and more back up gear all around. Absolutely no cotton layers.
On top of that, you’ll almost certainly need snowshoes and depending on the conditions, may need more aggressive traction and potentially an ice axe. If people have been up before it’s easier for sure but don’t trust in a trail and certainly don’t trust it one to still be there on the descent.
About the Hike
Alright, you’ve made the long drive, filled up the HyrdoFlask with hot chocolate, strapped on the reasonable but just two waterbottle pack and it’s time to hit the trail, great.
Assuming you’re in the early or late season, you’ll probably find that most of the trail signs are accessible but the snow can cover a lot of the direction between that. This is important as there are all sorts of different options along the way and taking the wrong turn, well, who even knows where you’ll end up.
Almost all of the hike is through the forest, sometimes with open views and often without. The start of it is definitely the later as you pass the cabins at the lodge, cross the first of a few bridges, and quickly ascend a decent hill via some nice switchbacks before topping out on an access road.
Heading along the creek, you’ll cross a second bridge and hit a fork in the trail. Both ways get you to the top but taking the switchbacks to your right (and then junction left at the next sign) will carve out two-tenths of a mile for it. You’re welcome.
Either way, this is one of the more open parts of the trail with some nice views of the surrounding mountain ranges though the lakes are very much obscured by them and not visible until you’re literally right there.
Rejoining at the base of another large hill, it’s back to switchbacks with an increasingly great view below. As you turn the corner up top, you’ll enter the John Muir Wilderness and rejoin the stream which is likely to be half ice covered and spectacular.
From here to the first like, the stream is never all that far off with a few light crossings. In spring, these could be more of a challenge but early season, they were rather low and often covered up with snow bridges.
The further in you go, the more snow you should expect to build up so even if the snowshoes feel silly, keep lugging them along.
Finally, you head back into the forest and up a few steeper hill switchbacks until you step out over a ledge and see the first lake below you! It’s only a few tenths of a mile up to your right to stand above the second lake and from there the loop around the others. Congrats, enjoy!
For navigation purposes, you’ll be right around 10,000′ when you reach the lakes. So about 2,500′ total climbing with a few ups and downs on the way.
While the main trail stands above the lakes, plenty of people do head down to the shores and you’ll likely see some snow paths doing just that. Just mind where you step and the route less you end up at the side of a cliff!
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Moderate Plus
- Start point: Big Pine Creek Trailhead
- Distance: ~9 miles r/t
- Duration: 5-7+ hours
- Elevation Gain: >2,500′
- Facilities: Vault toilets at the TH
- Water: None
- Crowds: Light in winter
- Permits: None