Big Pine Creek

  • Date: September 30 – October 1, 2017
  • Location: Eastern Sierras
  • Start: Big Pine Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 21.44 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back (for both routes)
  • References: High Sierra Trails

Big Pine Creek Trailhead is located just over 750 miles (13-14 hour drive) away from our home. To say it’s an unlikely place to attempt a weekend adventure is probably an understatement. We did consider several other places (in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California), but many were still closed due to forest fires or they didn’t allow dogs. As I continued my search for an adventurous Fall running route (that allowed dogs, wasn’t covered in snow yet, and had mountain views, Fall foliage, and alpine lakes) I kept coming back to Big Pine Creek. I convinced myself it was a crazy idea, but I pitched it to Mack anyways. To my surprise, he was actually on board with the idea! Two days later we were on the road, heading towards a mountain range I’d only ever seen from a car window as a teenager.


Day 1: Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail (8.24 miles; 2 hours 41 minutes, breaks not included)

After nearly 14 hours on the road, we finally pulled up to the trailhead sometime after 3 pm. Although our initial plan was to only run Sunday (the following morning), it seemed ridiculous to let the rest of the afternoon go to waste, especially since our entire trip would be less than 24 hours. We threw on our running gear and started up the South Fork Trail around 4 pm. It was just what we (especially Cassie!) needed after being cooped up in the car all day. The first stretch of the route climbs through a U-shaped valley covered in high desert vegetation and clumps of cottonwood and aspen trees closer to the creek. The jagged peaks of the Palisades to the southwest beckoned us onward.

Beautiful view of the Palisades in the distance

Crossing South Fork Big Pine Creek

Following the crossing of South Fork Big Pine Creek, we arrived at the base of a steep, rocky slope. Our run turned into more of a power hike as we climbed the switchbacks, tiptoeing quickly, but carefully, over the technical terrain. Looking up at the pass, which always seemed close but continued to feel further away as the switchbacks continued, brought back memories of climbing Aasgard Pass up to the Core Zone of the Enchantments nearly a year ago. At least the climb we were doing now was a lot less steep.

Once we topped out, we finally got to gaze upon the granite peaks that had been mostly tucked away from our view down in the valley. If only we’d had more time to explore! From the pass, we began a gradual descent into a totally different environment. Gone were the desert plants. Now we were running through a marshy pine forest headed for Brainerd Lake, our goal for the afternoon. As the minutes passed though, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer and the sun was sinking lower. I was under the impression that Brainerd was only four miles from the trailhead! (I guess it’s actually somewhere between five and six miles away) Once Mack’s Garmin read over four miles, we decided to call it quits and get back down into the valley so we weren’t descending technical terrain in the dark. I was a little disappointed, but I knew I’d get my fill of gorgeous alpine lakes the following day. At least I got a small taste of the surrounding peaks on this run!

Start of the climb
Almost there!
Looking out at the pass
So many peaks!

We made it back down into the valley with some remaining daylight. It looked so different! The red, yellow, and orange hues of the foliage shone deep and rich now that the sun had dipped below the horizon. We were able to cross the creek again before getting overcome by darkness. I pulled out my headlamp and led the way through the pitch black landscape for the final mile and a half or so. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of racing the setting sun and ending up in darkness at the end of a run but it was kind of exhilarating this time around for some reason. Our car was the only one remaining in the day use parking area when we returned. Such an odd sight after driving into a completely packed lot just a few hours earlier. We drove back a short ways down the road to the North Fork Trailhead where you’re allowed to park overnight. After a long day on the road and running at altitude immediately following our crazy commute, we had no trouble falling into a deep sleep.

Racing the setting sun
Heading back over the pass
Admiring Fall foliage in the valley
One last look before the sun completely disappeared


Day 2: Big Pine Creek North Fork Trailhead to Fifth Lake (13.2 miles; 3 hours 41 minutes, breaks not included)

We awoke to the sound of Cassie barking at a hiker with a headlamp. It was still pitch black outside, but my watch indicated that early morning was upon us and we’d need to start getting ready within the hour. After a few more minutes of shut-eye, we forced ourselves up. Sunrise wasn’t scheduled until after 7 am, but the sky was light enough to run by 6:45. We took off as other hikers (who’d slept in their car the night before too) were waking up.

The trail starts out climbing gradually along an open hillside that looks down into a valley containing the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. There’s no shade through this section, so I was happy we started as early as we did to beat the inevitable heat. The trail eventually switchbacks up and after around two miles we were running alongside the creek through a forest of pine, aspen, and cottonwood trees. The seasonal change of green to gold on the aspen trees is one of the main perks of visiting this area in the Fall.

Deer staring us down
Entering the forest

Running through forests is pretty typical for us as frequent visitors of Forest Park in Portland, as well as a few nearby National Forests. However, we’re far more used to seeing fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar, and maple trees in Northwest Oregon. It was quite a treat to be exploring an entirely different type of forest that is, in my opinion, equally magical.

About three miles into the route, we spotted Lon Chaney’s mountain cabin (now a wilderness ranger camp closed to the public) tucked away within a grove of pine trees and situated a few yards away from the creek. It’s beautifully constructed and appears to be holding up well despite it’s age (it was built in 1929). Aside from being too close to a popular hiking trail, it’s definitely in one of the most idyllic settings imaginable, too. Back on the main trail, Mack and I talked about how cool it would be to have our own mountain cabin somewhere (like Mount Hood or the Wallowas) with just enough property to build our own little trail system. A girl can dream…

The trail leaves the forest for the most part shortly after the cabin. As we ran through a meadow section, we got our first clear view of Temple Crag, the most iconic peak on this route. It signaled that we were now very close to the lakes basin we’d driven all the way out here to see.

Running through a golden tunnel
Lon Chaney cabin

First view of Temple Crag

From the meadow, the trail gradually climbs up to the rocky basin containing the first three lakes. After passing the side trail that leads down to the shore of First Lake and rock hopping over the granite terrain, we finally stood above First Lake. The sun’s location made it difficult to look right at it and get a decent photo,  but it was nonetheless an incredible sight, one that already made the long drive worth it. The first three lakes are all very close to each other. We came upon Second Lake within a couple of minutes. This one is by far the most stunning of the lakes in my opinion. It’s bright turquoise color and proximity to Temple Crag is unmatched by any of the other lakes. We enjoyed lounging on the granite cliffs above for a few minutes before continuing on.

Although only a short ways away, Third Lake is an entirely different color compared to First and Second Lake! It’s got more of a milky green hue to it. It was very refreshing to see so much variety between the lakes. The picture of Mack and Cassie at the beginning of this post was taken at Third Lake. It’s one of my favorites of the entire trip. Fourth and Fifth Lakes were another mile/mile and a half away and situated higher up. We power hiked up the switchbacks, stopping for a snack break near the top and admiring the view of Third Lake down below.

First Lake
Second Lake
Leaving Second Lake
Third Lake
Looking down on Third Lake from the switchbacks above

Fourth and Fifth Lakes weren’t quite as magnificent as the first three lakes, but they did offer more solitude since most visitors were down by the other lakes. Between the two, Fifth Lake was the more picturesque. We’d set a goal of getting back to the car between 12 and 1 pm so we’d make it home in time to catch a few hours of sleep before work. I think it was already past 10 am at Fourth Lake, so we decided to turn around rather than head toward Sixth and Seventh Lake. Additionally, we decided to go back the way we came rather than do the loop that goes along Black Lake. I wanted one more look at those first three lakes before we left.

Fifth Lake
Fifth Lake
Still Fifth Lake

Fourth Lake

The way back was of course much faster now that we were going downhill. We could finally stretch our legs and run! We got in a few more pictures as we stopped by the lakes again. I was able to get a much better shot of First Lake now that the sun had moved. I was amazed at its tropical looking waters! Although Second Lake was still my favorite of the bunch, I think First Lake might have it beat in the color department.

Running back down the switchbacks
Second Lake again
Still Second Lake

Improved view of First Lake

As we descended out of the lakes basin, the temps became warmer. Mack had already shed his long sleeve layer by this point. I was too lazy and just kept everything on. Before leaving Portland, the forecast for this area called for temps to be in the low 40s, with a high of about 50. Maybe it actually was that cool, but the combination of running and being in the sun cancelled it out. Despite being warmer than I wanted due to sun exposure, the increased sunlight made the golden leaves of the aspens even more dazzling than when we’d passed by them a few hours earlier!

The run back out was going by even faster than I’d anticipated. The run-hike up to the lakes must’ve been ridiculously slow then. Once the forest opened up and we reentered the valley, we knew our mini run-cation was almost over. Within 10-15 minutes we were back at the car and getting packed up for another 14 hour commute.

Water on the trail

Back in the valley

It was strange going back to California for an entirely different reason than to visit family and friends. I don’t think I ever got the opportunity to truly appreciate all that California has to offer while I lived there. My family didn’t make it a priority to get out there and visit the numerous natural wonders and wild spaces. Now that the outdoors has become such an important part of my adult life, I look forward to returning to this state I once resented to see everything in a different light and make new memories filled with exploration and adventure.

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