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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.