Big Pine Lakes

From Adventure Issue 234 📖

While spending two months in America, Lauren and I wanted to do a few road trips and hikes to explore more of this amazing, huge, crazy and beautiful Country. One of our adventures that really stood out, and we would definitely recommend doing was, commonly referred to as the Big Pine Lakes trail, the technical trail name is Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail.


Big Pine Lakes is located in the heart of the Eastern Sierras of California. It is roughly 10 miles (yes miles cause we are in America now folks! About 16kms) west of Big Pine and around 15 miles (24kms) south of Bishop. It’s not far from the ski town, Mammoth.

We wanted to slowly make our way up and camp up there overnight but you need to get a permit for that. To get these you have to plan in advance, which we aren’t great at doing! So the only 25 permits per night were already booked out. With Lauren being a professional photographer, she wanted to make sure we were there for good lighting, which means either for sunrise or sunset. Either way, we would have to do a lot of the trail in the dark. Not my favourite thing to do, let alone add bears into the mix!


Because we felt like such innocent, naive little kiwi girls, we decided to double check at the Inyo National Park information centre as well as a hiking store nearby to see what the actual odds were like of coming across a bear and being attacked by one. The general answers from them felt a little bit like when people ask me “have you ever seen a shark when surfing?” and my answer is usually a slight laugh with something a long the lines of “yeah, but for the amount of surfing I’ve done, not that many times and you’re more likely to have a car accident”. One of their answers was “you’re more likely to get struck by lightening”. We also asked if we should buy some bear spray (yes, that’s an actual thing!), but again, we felt like they laughed at us two girls with funny accents. So on that note, we decided to hike up for sunrise.

Bishop is the closest town, about a 30min drive to the start of the trail, we were already needing to get up at 2am so decided to stay at the campground right by the trailhead to get that extra 30mins of sleep. We knew it would roughly take us 3 hours up to be safe and arrive with enough time to set up for sunrise. With no one else silly enough to get up at that time of the day, we headed off into the pitch black early hours of the morning with our head lights on and having turns at carrying a mini axe, because we had still scared ourselves about bears and somehow thought a mini axe would protect us (now that I’m writing this, I’m embarrassed and laughing at myself).


With our head lights on, a axe in hand, we were on our way and still very on edge. The first part of the trail was a steep rocky and sandy incline which we felt but coming back down it in daylight, we both agreed that seeing where we had to climb up would have been a lot more disheartening. I think it’s the first hike we have ever done where it took us the same amount of time climbing up as it did down (2.5hrs up and 2.5hrs down).

The only explanation we can think of, is that we were so wired from adrenaline walking up in the dark and thinking about bears. My neck actually got sore because I was looking all around the whole 2.5hrs up, even turning around and looking behind me every 100 metres to double check nothing was following us. We also talked the whole way up as it was a bear survival suggestion to help let the bears know that we were humans. It was like we had manifested encountering a bear. About halfway up I was trailing a few metres behind Lauren when I heard a fairly loud sound. We stopped in our tracks instantly and continued to hear the sound of a bear snoring, yes snoring! It sounded very deep and loud and like it was just a few metres off the track from us. We were standing frozen and whispering deciding whether to carry on or not. We decided to tip-toe past and for the next half an hour we were looking behind us more than ever. My shoelace came undone but we didn’t even want to stop for that, just wanted to get as far away as possible and not wake the sleeping bear.

About 30mins more into the hike, roughly just over half way, still pitch black, Lauren spotted two eyes up ahead shining in our head lights staring right back at us. I had just finally relaxed slightly after the last one, yet here we were again stopped in our tracks having a staring competition with a bear. I never in my life thought I would be able to say that. Luckily it was up in the distance but because it was so dark, we couldn’t tell if it was going to be on the track up ahead. We stood there for contemplating turning around. Since we were over halfway and closer to our destination, I really didn’t want to turn back in pitch black, walk past the sleeping bear and not see what we came here for. But I also didn’t want to get any closer to this bear staring at us. After what felt like an eternity, we made a bold decision to carry on a bit further to see where the track would take us. Thankfully the next turn was in the opposite direction of the beady-eyed bear.


I think that’s the most excited I’ve ever been about seeing the first light in the early hours of the morning. I said to Lauren several times “Look, look, it’s getting lighter”. You would not believe how relieved we were when we saw the first of the seven lakes up there. The first lake was beautiful but five minutes more and we made it to the second lake, the one more well known for it’s majestic beauty. As you can see in the photos, it almost looks fake and felt like we were on a movie set. Yes, the water colour really is that colour! We thought we were the only ones up there until the light started showing a few hidden tents around the lake. We decided to check out the third lake as it was only another 10 minute walk but it was safe to say the second lake is definitely the most magnificent. We would of liked to have traveled further into the hills but the adrenaline was wearing off and we still had at least another couple of hours to get back down, as well as the sun rising quickly to over 100 Fahrenheit (over 37 celcius).


With over an 11 mile round trip (18.5km) and an elevation of 786m, a total 5hours of walking, we slinked into the car, thankful for minimal bear encounters and the amazing scenery, and drove straight to starbucks for a well earned iced frappacino.

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