Like the Kearsarge hike, this is the third time I’ve done this hike in some form. In 2005, Ray and I make it as far as Lake 2 before it started to rain and we turned back. Kelly and I made it close to Lake 4 before darkness turned us scrambling back as well. I had always wanted to do the full loop and see some of the side hikes, so back I came…
The trail head is a short drive from Big Pine, CA and offers parking, bathrooms, bear lockers, camping and the usual amenities.
Gear and Stuff
I did the Kearsarge / Charlotte lake hike the day before, and was training for a longer climb (that I didn’t end up doing as you’ll see below), so I packed more weight (again) than I needed. Not sure this was a good idea.
As before, my pack included extra cold weather and emergency gear that put my fully loaded pack weight over 30 pounds. This includes the same 2.5+ liters of water and trekking poles. I did leave out the snow pants and second fleece, as that seemed like overkill.
I didn’t bring the electrolytes or chews on this hike b/c I wanted to see if it made a difference, and was saving them for the longer hike. This is also a shorter and lower-altitude hike than the Kearsarge trek, so it was less important.
According to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parkstrail book, the baseline loop starts at 7,750′ at the trailhead, reaches 10,700′ or so at the highest point, and then returns, making it a pretty simple up-down hike.
Given the lollipop profile (loop with entry / exit path), it seems like most of the hike should be in the loop, but the lollipop stick is 3.9 miles, so it takes 7.8 miles r/t of a total 11.4, leaving only 3.6 for the loop itself. This makes the descent from the loop junction seem oddly long.
Trail head to Second Lake
Started off feeling pretty tired and achy. Took about an hour of solid walking to shake off the cobwebs, then felt great. Oddly, the higher I got in altitude, the faster I hiked and the better I felt.
The first part of the hike is a great set of shady switchbacks that zigzag alongside Big Pine Creek. The sound of the waterfalls if never far, and it’s very refreshing no matter what the temperature.
After a walk up a long dry valley, I reached the second set of switchbacks and the inevitable John Muir Wilderness sign — placed nicely so that you see the sign and hear the racing falls of Big Pine creek at almost the same instant. Good marketing.
Got to First Lake (4.1 miles) in almost exactly two hours at the usual 2mph clip. Always surprised by how beautiful the First Lake is with the Palisades rising in the background.
On the way, ran into quite a few climbers who were going up to the Palisades Glacier Trail to camp and climb for several days. Some of them seemed to be carrying their entire house in massive packs. More power to them, but it made my daypack seem nice and light.
Got to the Second Lake shortly thereafter, with its awesome view of Temple Crag. I looked at the towering spires and thought, “It would be great to climb that,” and then I remembered that I barely have time for surfing, skiing, mountainbiking and hiking. Need to get rich soon.
Took a little bio break here and realized that I hadn’t put any sunscreen on my calves today or the day before. They were nice and red and glowy. Come to think of it, I’d fried my face despite continual application of sunscreen and the floppy hat. Need to figure out a better system.
Second Lake to 4th Lake Junction
This part of the trail has some mild climbing and rocky switchbacks, along with ever-improving views of the Palisades and Third Lake. Didn’t see any people along this section of the trail.
At the Glacier Trail junction, I walked briefly down the GT to see where it went, but it looked to meander down the valley then up the other side without offering any quickly obvious views, so I turned back. Someday, I’d like to do this trail and camp up near the glaciers — or what’s left of them.
Wandering Around Fourth and Fifth Lakes
At the Fourth Lake junction, I was officially farther along the loop then I’d been before. I also somehow failed to notice that you can see Fourth Lake from the sign, so I tromped off to the left to Fifth Lake.
Fifth Lake was awesome. I was totally alone. The lake was still partially frozen over. I saw two large birds, possibly ducks, possibly geese (don’t ask) take off as I approached, and then it was very, very silent.
I ate lunch on a rock outcropping at the lake’s edge and relaxed for the first time on the hike. This is a sublimely beautiful place. When I was done with lunch, I tried to take a panoramic montage (see pictures), which utterly failed to capture this beauty.
I headed back to Fourth Lake, actually saw the lake, and then the trail vanished in the snow several times. I thought about going back down toward Black Lake and finishing the basic loop, without going to see Sixth Lake, Seventh Lake or Summit Lake. This was partially due to the snow, and partially due to the fact that I hdan’t seen anyone in hours. If I wandered off and hurt myself further up, it didn’t look like anyone would find me for days.
As I was mid-dither, a man showed up with four boys, one of which had run out of water, and I realized I wasn’t nearly as isolated as I had suspected. So I got out the trekking poles and plowed through the snowbanks and off toward the other lakes.
Sixth and Seventh Lakes (Not) and Summit Lake
The trail toward the higher lakes takes you around Fourth Lake to an awesome if exposed campground with gorgeous views of the lake and mountains behind it. After checking this area out for future reference, I headed up toward Sixth Lake.
I passed the Summit lake junction and headed up into beautiful meadow where the snow all but covered the entire trail. For the next half-hour, I went up and down snowbanks on the switchbacks until coming up to a ridge where I expected to see Sixth Lake. Instead, I saw an intermediary valley, but the trail just vanished. It wouldn’t have been too hard to find, but I decided that I’d gone far enough in the snow and turned around. Something to see when I come back with Ray or somebody else. Mom would love this place.
On the way back toward Fourth Lake, I turned up the trail junction to Summit Lake and climbed up to, well, the summit. Summit Lake offered another angle on the beautiful mountains and some nicely sheltered camping along the lake. This place must be packed in the summer once the snow melts.
A short walk down took me back to the trail junction and Fourth Lake. I was going to tell the man and boys (sons?) about the campground above Fourth Lake, but I suspect they had gone over to camp by Fifth on my earlier suggestion. Hope they liked it as much as I did.
Fourth Lake Back to Black Lake and Loop Junction
On the trail down along the south side of Fourth Lake, I ran into two hikers who were post-holing there way through the snow. I quickly followed, and though I don’t remember anything at the item I suspect that it was here or in some of the next snow crossings that I broke the tip off my trekking pole and strained my right patellar tendon. Just a guess though; I wouldn’t notice either until later.
The two hikers had both climbed Whitney and gave me some good advice re: crampons and ice axes (I was planning to climb Whitney on Saturday) and wished me luck. With that, I basically started running down the trail, periodically interrupted by small snowbanks.
Black Lake, which seems much maligned in having been left out of the numbered lakes, was beautiful in a more tree-lined and less dramatic way than the other lakes. But it was certainly not black.
Felt a bit of a headache coming on during this part ofr the trip, along with a bit of nausea. Same thing happened the day before at about the same time. It wasn’t clearly altitude (especially since I was heading down), and I felt hungry/drained at the same time in both cases, so not sure.
Also, just like the day before, this is where I ran out of water. That means two-point-five liters of water and Gatorade. Definitely need the filter for any longer hikes. And need to figure out better diet / food. My muscles felt fine. I wasn’t breathing hard. Just really tired — a feeling that I couldn’t shake the rest of the way down.
Loop Junction to the Trail head
At the loop junction (where the lollipop stick hits the sweet, delicious loop itself), I ran into a team of kids from CalTech, Santa Clara University and White Mountain College (I think) who were hauling weather monitoring equipment up to Second Lake. They looked very excited to be there. Or maybe they were just pale from hauling the giant metal tubes all the way up the valley.
From there, it was the always surprisingly long traipse through meadows and rockfalls and treelined dells and blah, blah, beauty, beauty, etc. toward the trail head.
Just as I approached the switchbacks below First Lake, my knees both started hurting. It wasn’t the knees themselves, but all the connective stuff and tendons around them; mostly in the patellar tendon area. The pain remained all the way down.
At first, I thought it was just the usual end-of-day aches, but by the time I got to the car, I realized my right knee was slightly injured. Bummer. I spent the night in Lone Pine to see if the knee would heal up and I could still do Whitney on Saturday, but no such luck. So it was back to San Diego.
Whitney, next time…
I am about as amateur a hiker as you can get. This is really just a journal for me and shouldn’t be treated as expert advice on anything.