Camping at Big Pine Creek Campground – Inyo, CA

Big Pine Creek Campground may be a long drive for those of us in Southern California, but it’s well worth the extra mileage. Stunning views, awesome camp-sites, a winding creek (more like a river to those of us from SoCal) and some pretty decent stream fishing are all on hand.

Big Pine Creek - The North Fork

Big Pine Creek – The North Fork

At around 4-5 hours from Los Angeles (depending on how fast you drive), Big Pine offers some spectacular scenery, the likes of which are rivaled perhaps only by much further destinations like Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, or Sequoia National Park. The scenery here certainly rivals those three bastions of beauty, leaving just about nothing to be desired. Oh- and did I mention that there’s a glacier?


The First Waterfall - Big Pine Creek's North Fork Trail

The First Waterfall – Big Pine Creek’s North Fork Trail

Directions to Big Pine Creek Campground from Orange County, CA:

Your five hour journey starts on the 55 North, which you’ll need to take to the 91 East. Try to travel in the middle of the night to avoid the typical 91 parking lot (or if you’re lucky like me, borrow your family’s Fast Track transponder and take the 133 N to the 241). Take the 91 E for 16.5 miles until exit 51 for the 15 North. Follow it for 43.3 miles and merge onto the US 395 North toward Bishop/Adelanto.

Big Pine Creek - Scenery Along the South Fork Trail

Big Pine Creek – Scenery Along the South Fork Trail

Strap in and put on some good music, because you’ll be riding the very slow 395 (criss-crossed with stop-lights for first 15 miles or so) for 107 long miles. Thankfully, once you get out into the middle of nowhere, you can really start to haul ass. I did 100+ mph for the longest sustained period of time in my life on this drive, though I was driving on an empty Highway in the middle of the night.

Big Pine Creek - Overlooking the Campground

Big Pine Creek – Overlooking the Campground

The 395 takes you directly through the tiny town of Big Pine, past Mom & Pop stores, local fishing spots, and an inviting saloon, until turning left at West Crocker Street. It’s tough to read the sign, so pay close attention. If the speed limit starts to go back up to 35, you’ll know you’ve gone too far. West Crocker winds through some country-houses before turning into Glacier Lodge Road, which you’ll follow 9.9 miles all the way up into the mountains. Big Pine Creek Campground is at the end of the road, just before the trailhead for the North and South Big Pine Creek Trails.

Keeping My Feet Cool with Glaciel Meltwater

Keeping My Feet Cool with Glaciel Meltwater

Big Pine Creek Campground Details:

The campground sits at an elevation of 7,700 feet and is surrounded by beautiful Sagebrush and Jeffrey Pines. Big Pine Creek winds its way right by some of the campsites, and there’s a beautiful pond stocked with fish near the general store. There are 30 total campsites here, each equipped with tent platforms, two parking spots, a picnic table, bear storage lockers, and a fire ring, but only one spot has it’s own gigantic brick and granite fireplace – Site #9.You’ll find National Forest standard chemical toilets, but the host keeps things immaculately clean. I didn’t see any showers.

Rugged Scenery Along the North Fork Trail

Rugged Scenery Along the North Fork Trail

It costs $20.00 per night to bring 2 tents, 6 people, and 2 cars, with a $7.00 extra cost per night for additional vehicles. I would certainly suggest making reservations ahead of time, both because of the long drive, and high demand, and because some campsites don’t offer a whole lot of shade. This is a quiet campground, inhabited mostly by families, fishermen, and explorers using the spot as base camp for further adventures along the nearby North Fork and South Fork Big Pine Creek Trails.

Looking Toward Second Falls - Near the 1.5 Mile Mark

Looking Toward Second Falls – Near the 1.5 Mile Mark

Friday, June 4th, 2010

I left Southern CA around 8pm, intent on arriving at the Big Pine Creek Campground for a weekend of hiking and dominoes with my buddy Chaz. Everyone else had other plans, though I’m sure they’ll be regretting their decision to skip this trip once they get the chance to check out our photos, as I can honestly say that this is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.

The Inyo National Forest Ranger Cabin

The Inyo National Forest Ranger Cabin

The drive up was a bit of a nightmare, taxing me both mentally and physically, especially during the slow first few miles along the 395 North, which is criss-crossed with stop-light after stop-light and slow driving locals. I grabbed a load of firewood from a gas station in Pearsonville and ended up standing in line for 20 minutes waiting for some drifters to finish their business. I never would have guessed that it could take so long to purchase a bottle of 99 Bananas and some cheap little California-themed statuettes.

A Slow Spot Along The North Fork of Big Pine Creek

A Slow Spot Along The North Fork of Big Pine Creek

It was well into the night, something like 1:30, by the time I arrived at the campground. I was surprised to find multiple people still awake at their sites, standing around their campfires, and hadn’t expected Chaz to still be awake either. I set up my tent and unpacked some of my gear while Chaz stoked the fire in our huge brick-lined chimney, then soon retired for a short, but restful night of sleep in my new tent (the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2).

First ... Pond? Gorgeous Scenery Just Before First Lake

First … Pond? Gorgeous Scenery Just Before First Lake

We’d gotten lucky (there goes the sarcasm alarm) and booked our trip for the same weekend that Big Pine experienced some of the highest temperatures in recent history, in the high 90’s and low 100’s down at the valley floor, lingering in the low 80’s even up around 8000 feet. The good news is that after a heavy snow year, there was still a ton of the white stuff carpeting the high peaks, and even along the Big Pine Creek trails, providing some incredible scenery.

Overlooking First Lake - Debut of the Red Shirt & Straw Hat Series

Overlooking First Lake – Debut of the Red Shirt & Straw Hat Series

Saturday morning we started off along the North Fork of Big Pine Creek toward the set of seven lakes in the 10,000 – 11,000 foot elevation range. We figured it’d be an easy hike, considering the aptly, but boringly naked “First Lake” sat at just 4 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. But the temperatures, and general ruggedness of the country caused the trip to take considerably longer than we had planned.

First Lake on Big Pine Creek's North Fork Trail

First Lake on Big Pine Creek’s North Fork Trail

I was quite pleased to find that the North Fork Trail winds its way up through the mountains right alongside the “Creek” (where I’m from we’d call it a “River”), which allowed me to keep my feet cool the entire way. My boots are about a size too small and I recently realized that the 3-4 mile mark is when their swelling turns things into a total drag, so I stopped to stand in the creek every twenty minutes or so, allowing the frigid glacial-melt water to essentially ice my tired stubs. I had no trouble at all keeping comfortable thanks to this technique, but my feet sure were pruny by the time we de-booted at Second Lake.

Another Shot of Me at First Lake

Another Shot of Me at First Lake

It was just before 2 when we made our way through a patch of snow a couple feet deep and caught our first glimpse of the turquoise waters of First Lake. Chaz made his way down to the shore while I headed higher for some birds-eye-style views. I made good use of the tripod that I’d been lugging along on my camelbak, taking a couple self-portraits of myself, and my new favorite piece of gear- the $6 straw hat. This thing keeps the sun off my head and neck, and more than 50% of the time even protects my hands and arms! I’m shocked they’re so cheap, because in terms of utility, it’s already returned my original investment in spades.

Second Lake - Big Pine Creek's North Fork Trail

Second Lake – From the North Fork Trail at Big Pine Creek

Just half a mile further North we found Second Lake even more captivating than First, mostly due to the fact that it was nearly completely frozen over! I’ve never seen a lake covered by so much ice, and I could hardly believe the scenery in front of me considering it’s June (and 80+ degrees!).

Another Shot of Second Lake

Another Shot of Second Lake

It took me a few tries to get the shots that I wanted since even my 16mm lens wasn’t quite wide enough to capture the entire view. At one point two old guys came by heading South along the trail and one hilariously teased that he didn’t think that the shot I was setting up would come out very good (he was wrong!). I sat down on top the highest pile of rocks I could find, chomped down some grapes and bread, then fell deeply asleep.

An Interesting Cloud Hovers in Deep Blue Alpine Skies

An Interesting Cloud Hovers in Deep Blue Alpine Skies

I woke up nearly 2 hours later and found that Chaz seemed to be already on his way back down the mountain. I quickly geared up and joined him on the trail. I snapped some parting shots of Second Lake, knowing I’d be back at some point this Summer (once the snow melts and the trail isn’t such a slog), but still regretting that we hadn’t made it to Third Lake. I would have loved to see the view from up above it, especially with all the snow on the mountainsides, but alas, it just wasn’t meant to be!

Chaz Hiking on the North Fork Trail at Big Pine Creek

Chaz Hiking on the North Fork Trail at Big Pine Creek

Our hike back to camp took far less time than the way up into the mountains, thanks to it being entirely downhill. My feet were exhausted by the time we reached the campground, and I couldn’t wait to strap on my sandals and get them some rest. We ate a bit, then headed over to the campgrounds general store, hoping to borrow a wine bottle opener since I’d forgotten mine. Along the way we ran into a friendly fisherman who let me borrow his Swiss Army Knife (complete with corkscrew!), and told us to “Get back to work!” as soon as I’d gotten into it.

My Solo Hike Along the South Fork - Looking Back Over the Valley

My Solo Hike Along the South Fork – Looking Back Over the Valley

Perhaps an hour or two later, after pounding 3/4 of the bottle, I had run completely out of energy and told Chaz that I’d have to retire for the evening. I must have drank a gallon of water before turning in, hoping to resist any potential dehydration, and as a result I spent much of the night stumbling around in the dark. I slept like a baby though, and was up at dawn to cook my usual omelette (four eggs, bell peppers, cheese, and tomato). I added a kiwi, a handful of blueberries, and some blackberries for good measure.

Snow Covers the Switchbacks on the South Fork Trail

Snow Obscures the Switchbacks on the South Fork Trail

Chaz soon got up and let me know that his knees were too busted up for another adventure, but said that I was more than welcome to set out on my own. I put together my stuff, choosing to use my old Granite Gear Backpack instead of the Camelbak (which had made my armpits sore the day before), and my brand new boots – Lowa Renegade II GTX Mid-Tops. I was slightly concerned that the boots would thrash up my feet, considering I’d never worn them before, but they seemed comfortable enough that I felt like it’d be worth the test. I tossed my running shoes in the pack just in case it turned disastrous.

Our Campsite at Big Pine Creek Campground

Our Campsite at Big Pine Creek Campground

I hadn’t made up my mind about which trail to take, the North Fork back up to the lakes, or the South Fork out to Willow and Brainard Lakes, so I stopped in the store and asked the lady for advice. She said that the South Fork Trail was still completely snowed over, but encouraged me to “Go as far as you can”.

Long Shadows on the Road to Big Pine Creek Campground

Long Shadows on the Road to Big Pine Creek Campground

Along the way out there, I ran into a group of four backpackers at First Falls (a big waterfall near the trailhead) who reported that they’d come all the way from Mount Sil – way up past Seventh Lake – which made me feel like a chump for only having made it to Second Lake the day before.

Drinking and Dominoes - Wasting the Night Away

Drinking and Dominoes

About half way to the switchbacks up the steep face along the South Fork Trail I met a couple who looked dismayed and let me know that it was completely snowed over. They said it wasn’t even possible to find the beginning of the trail, but as they turned to walk away the guy told me it “Might be an adventure…” trying to make it to the top. I immediately decided to go as far as I could.

Our Tent Platform & View From Big Pine Creek Campground

Our Tent Platform & View From Big Pine Creek Campground

I stopped to do carry-out blister preventing measures on my left ankle just at the bottom of the switchbacks, then heard some rockfall sounds coming from high up the hillside. I looked up to find two backpackers making their way down from the top of the saddle. When they got to me I assaulted them with questions about trail conditions, finding out that it was essentially a “wet, slushy mess”, and receiving very little in the way of positive assurances that it would be worth the effort required to reach Willow Lake. They said the snow was soft enough that I could kick in foot holds, but that I’d better be super careful on my way down since I didn’t have any poles. And boy were they right!

A View From The Pond at Big Pine Creek Campground

A View From The Pond at Big Pine Creek Campground

I got about half way up the hillside – moving quite slowly – kicking in foot placements with each and every step, being careful not to lose my footing and go sliding back down the mountain. It was tough, tedious, and exhausting work just getting to the half-way point, where I decided to give up the attempt once I realized just how dangerous the way back down would be. I was on a precipitous slope, in a blazing sun, hiking essentially in slush, without any poles or even gloves for my hands- and I was entirely by myself.

Wild Lupine Overlooking Big Pine Creek

Wild Lupine Overlooking Big Pine Creek

I sat on a rock to eat lunch, snapped some more self-portraits, and just generally enjoyed the view of the valley and the sounds of the waterfalls now tricking down the hillside all around me while pondering a return trip to the area. I had really wanted to see Willow Lake (even though the storekeeper told me it was a mosquito infested mess), and especially Brainard (which she said was beautiful), and I absolutely hate giving up on a mission like this, but after setting off an old High School football injury by banging my left elbow on my camera, then losing my remote control, I decided to cut my losses while I was still ahead.

Fields of Lupine and Indian Paintbrush in Full Bloom

Chaz & I Stopped to Shoot the Flowers

I took a final look at the view beneath me, then started what I figured would be a slow descent back down the mountain. Within 20 feet I found myself slipping, landing on my butt and sliding full speed down the slope. I put my hands out to my sides and buried them inches into the slushy snow, hoping to slow my fall, but it didn’t seem to help and I continued to slide around 50 more feet, just about completely out of control.

Beatiful Fields of Lupine near Big Pine Creek

Beatiful Fields of Lupine at Big Pine Creek

Finally, I managed to roll over onto my right side and get my arm buried a couple feet into the snow, creating enough drag to slow me down to stop. My fingers had already nearly frozen solid and as I pulled them back into the sunlight they burned with the massive temperature fluctuation. I did my best to avoid the patches of snow the rest of the way down, refusing to follow the foot steps of the backpackers and instead taking my own off-road route through hard scrabble loose talus, which wasn’t a whole lot of fun either!

Incredible Wild Indian Paintbrush at Big Pine Creek

Incredible Wild Indian Paintbrush at Big Pine Creek

Arriving back at camp, Chaz was shocked to see me so early. We ended up spending much of the rest of the afternoon reading, when I realized that I’d better head down the mountain and into town to get some headache medicine and additional supplies. I also needed to send an email to coworkers so they didn’t wonder where I was when I didn’t show up the next morning (Monday), as I’d only told a few of the people from my company about my plan to take the day off.

Fields Brimming with Wildflowers Near Big Pine Creek

A Field of Lupine & Indian Paintbrush

We stopped along the way and shot some photos of the biggest field of Lupine that I’ve ever seen, catching a few glimpses too of Indian Paintbrush, then hit up the local gas station and snagged some of the best beer I’ve ever had in my entire life. I don’t know what it is about Northern CA, but they seem to just about everything better than us, and apparently beer is no exception to that rule! The Mammoth Brewing Company’s Floating Rock Hefeweizen is perhaps the best Hef I’ve ever had, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a local source for it down here. If you happen across it, don’t hesitate to snatch it up, but just remember to turn it upside down and read all the directions before consuming (as the friendly, sunburned, and barefoot fisherman inside the Gas Station Store instructed me to do).

My Last View of the Mountains Overlooking Big Pine Creek

My Last View of the Mountains Overlooking Big Pine Creek

We played dominoes and enjoyed the glow of the campfire well into the night, far later than I had thought I’d be able to stay up, before finally getting to sleep around 12 am. I again slept like a baby, and managed to get up just after dawn on Monday morning. Chaz was ready to head home, but I had other plans in mind, having noticed that the famous Mono Lake (of Pink Floyd fame) was just an hour and forty-five minutes North along the 395. But I’ll leave that story for my next post.

This entry was posted in California, Camping, Featured Posts, Inyo National Forest, National Forests, Northern California, South West, Trip Reports, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Camping at Big Pine Creek Campground – Inyo, CA

  1. Cloudy McNoggin says:

    I really enjoyed reading that and the photos were off the hook.

    I ran across this doing some research on Big Pine Creek Campground. If you don’t work for the Forest Service…you should. It was a great commercial. I’m reserving right now.

    But just to toss this out there you may want to break in shoes before you get on a trail, you know? And dude..easy does it out there. Seems like you might not have been thinking things through too much. When you’re alone out there a lot of stuff can happen, you know?

    Great story and great pics. Thanks very much for sharing.

  2. Tim says:

    Thanks Cloudy! You’re 100% right about breaking in your footwear. I didn’t figure I’d make it too far so I went ahead and risked it anyway. Funny thing is, the next time I wore those boots I took them straight up to the top of Mt. Whitney and back. And the third time I did 40 miles in 4 days on the John Muir Trail. I got VERY lucky each time! These things fit me just right =)

    Thanks for stopping by, and I hope your trip to Big Pine was every bit as awesome as mine was. I’ve been back in the area three times since then (to Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, and Mt Whitney) and am returning for another weekender to Onion Valley this weekend. Happy Trails!

  3. Steve says:

    Great story. Unfortunately, you’ve discovered our family’s favorite getaway for nearly 20 years! FYI, the Forest Service cabin you photographed was built by early movie actor Lon Chaney in 1929-30.

  4. Tim says:

    Thanks for the info Steve! I had heard he built a cabin in that area, but wasn’t sure if that was the right one. I apologize for publishing a story about your favorite spot – I’ve since taken to keeping my travels just a bit more secret in an effort to keep awesome places like Big Pine from being overrun by people. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. june says:

    Hi, we were thinking about camping here this summer.
    I was wondering how hot it was in the summer?
    It really sounds like you had a wonderful time, thanks
    for all the great details

  6. Andrew says:

    Hi Tim,

    I came across your site today and I wanted to reach out and see if you might want to share some of these adventures with us at yourLUME. We are young startup located just outside of Portland, Oregon with a passion of the outdoors. Our focus is about building a devoted community of adventure-seeking individuals, providing a place to engage in conversation, a forum to share your adventure experiences, learn about other people’s adventures and directly connect to brands to learn about and buy the latest gear.

    We are on a mission to connect with individuals like you as we build out a library of outdoor adventures. Please take a look at what we are up to and let me know if you would allow us to share some of your adventures us with our community.


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  7. dave says:

    it took me 2or 3 tries before i made it to willow lake and boy,it is spectacular scenery once you get there.Iwas there the same time you tried-mid june2010.I had poles and running shoes but only had one snow gully to cross so i am surprised by your account?

  8. Anonymous says:

    This one is really one of the best looking place. The pics of The Inyo National forest is so cool. And the Creek camp round is really looking so cool in those pics. This one is really lovely and amazing for all time.

  9. Stevejohsz says:

    If you are talking about car camping, the three camp grounds are at about the 8,000′ elevation (Sage Flat, Upper Sage Flat and Big Pine Creek Campgrounds). Between June and August, high temperatures are usually in the 70’s-80’s, with lows in the 50’s-60’s. Later in summer there is always a chance for afternoon thunderstorms, but they blow through pretty quickly.

  10. Kenlsenter says:

    My brothers and I are going on a trip and staying here at big pine for just a couple nights im so excited and your pictures are holding me over till we go! any advice or suggestions before I go?

  11. Chayacitra says:

    Hike as far as you can and try to make it to the highest lake that isn’t buried in snow! I doubt you can even get to the first one without snow-shoes, but it should be beautiful out anyway =)

  12. Chayacitra says:

    I was at Big Pine Creek and it was beautiful!

  13. Chayacitra says:

    It was deep snow still when I was there. The trail was snowed over even at the base of the mountain and two dudes who came down with snow shoes and poles told me that it would be too tough to get up there. Nice work on reaching the lake!

  14. Chayacitra says:

    If I share an adventure on yourLUME does it just post the text to your site, or does it post a link to my Blog? I’d be happy to let you guys post links to me, but I’m not about to let anyone scrape all my content!

  15. Kenlsenter says:

    So went camping here at upper sage flats last month, it was truly amazing to say the least!  We camped next to the first bridge which made for great fishing. We hiked as far as we could but eventually the snow covered everything and the lakes were frozen over. I will say the weather was pretty intense, got rained out one night and woke up to a snow blizzard the next and not to mention the wind!!! overall It was by far the most beautiful landscape and best camping trip I have ever been on.

  16. Christiann282 says:

    Great photos!  I will be going here with a group of 15 people in August, but we only reserved three campsite.  Will this be enough or should I start looking for more sites? Thanks!

  17. Sean says:

    Tim, we must plan a return trip!

  18. Wanmun says:

    once a year I like to travel from los angeles

  19. Pam says:

    To add to the Lon Chaney story – the cabin was built by Italian stone masons who immigrated to the valley. Their presence is still around in Lone Pine; Rossi Steak House.

  20. Pingback: North Fork Big Pine Creek – Inyo NF, CA | Humbled by Nature

  21. Pingback: North Fork Big Pine Creek (Summer) – Inyo NF, CA | Humbled by Nature

  22. Joyce says:

    Were you able to reserve the campsite ahead of time? I going the first weekend of October and might try to do the late drive and set up camp, but unsure if I’ll be able to obtain 2 campsites since I have a big group.

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