Couple’s Backpacking to Big Pine
About this Area: Reaching Big Pine lakes via the North Fork trail is about a 6-mile endeavor to get to the second lake, where the majority of campers decide to set up camp. This area is home to the majestic Temple Crag Peak, standing at 12,982 feet high in elevation! Temple Crag offers some amazing multi-pitch rock climbing, both traditional and sport. If you decide to go for the summit by peak bagging, there is some class 3 climbing involved, especially as you reach the summit. There are lots of opportunities for day hikes to the other higher up lakes and up to the Palisades Glacier (as long as it’s not frozen over). Enjoy our Couple’s Backpacking to Big Pine Guide!
The biggest appeal about couple’s backpacking to Big Pine for us was its beauty. It has some beautiful glacial lakes surrounded by scenic snow-covered peaks, even when backpacking in July! You have to stop at the Ranger Station in Lone Pine to get the proper wilderness permits needed for this serene area. You can usually reserve them online for a deposit. However, when you take your chances with permits in person they are free. The only downside of doing that is that it’s not guaranteed that you will get the permits you want.
We arrived at the ranger station on a Thursday before we planned on hiking out. We waited for the 11 am next day permits to be released and got lucky that our group of 4 all got permits for the North Fork! Make sure to get to the station early to aid your chances of getting permits.
Optional Trip Add On: Chickenfoot Lake! Before we backpacked into Big Pine, we decided to check out Tom’s Place to check out the incredible beauty. The trailhead is at 10,250 feet in elevation, but the trail is fairly gentle the entire way. You will climb about 500 feet gradually over the 3-mile hike so it’s very spread out. You pass by several lakes on the way to Chickenfoot Lake. They are all insanely gorgeous and great for fishing if you are into that! Definitely a great quick day hike that we would recommend if you happen to be in the area!
Know Before You Go:
Food & Equipment
FOOD & WATER: You can find freshwater streams from snowmelt depending on the time of year. Otherwise, you will have to filter water! Additionally, you will need to purchase or use a bear canister for overnight trips in this area! Make sure to check out our Outdoor Gear Guide for everything else you need for backpacking.
CLIMBING: If you plan to do some rock climbing on Temple Crag, make sure to print out your route descriptions. We packed in all of our climbing gear at the top of our packs as well. We brought 2 ropes and racks on top of our harnesses, belay devices, and shoes. Some of the people we encountered climbed without any equipment, so it’s really up to your comfort and desired safety levels!
Depending on the time of year you are visiting, we’d also highly recommend bringing an ice ax for some GLISSADING!!! What is glissading, you may ask? Basically, it is sliding on your butt down a mountain using an ice ax as a steering wheel. It’s SO MUCH FUN and saves SO MUCH TIME coming down from a peak. Ladies, make sure to wear some waterproof or resistant pants. I wore two pairs of leggings and was totally drenched afterward.
Miscellaneous Things to Remember
BATHROOM: No bathrooms or outhouses out in this wilderness once you get off the trailhead! Make sure to bring a shovel, baby wipes, and empty plastic bags for when you have to dig a hole. You have to pack out what you pack in. This includes your bathroom wipes, which is why we like to have a separate bag of trash for toiletries. That way it doesn’t stink up our food trash every time we open it. Ladies also make sure to accommodate for that time of the month if your trip dates do overlap.
***MOSQUITOS***: If you are like me and happen to be a mosquito magnet, Big Pine does come with the risk of several mosquito bites. I came back with around 40 bites (no, not an exaggeration) after a 4 -day trip. This was even though she was using insect repellent (without DEET; clearly didn’t work so buying one with DEET next time). Stephen was totally fine though! I wore layers but those bugs are persistent. Make sure to look at investing in slightly thicker outdoors pants if you’re a bug magnet. It helps to prepare and take some strong bug repellent with you.
Hiking in & camp
Getting there: If you choose to backpack in instead of day-hiking the North Fork trail, make sure to park in the overnight parking lot and store perishables in the bear lockers to avoid getting a ticket. We just set up our sleeping bags next to our car and fell asleep watching the stars (it was so clear that there were some pretty incredible shooting stars) so we could be at the trailhead right when the sun rose the next morning. Start at the Big Pine trailhead. There are plenty of signs along the way and it’s a pretty maintained trail along the way! When you start off, be prepared for 2 miles of uphill switchbacks. Also make sure to take the North Fork trail, not the South Fork when couple’s backpacking to Big Pine. Afterward, the elevation increase is pretty gradual over the next couple of miles and there are plenty of nice, shaded places to take breaks. We averaged about 2 miles an hour heading up.
We chose to camp at the second lake, which took us approximately 6 miles to reach and found a nice flat spot to set up camp that had a glorious view of Temple Crag after climbing up some rocks. After dropping our stuff and setting up camp, we decided to continue hiking up to the next couple of lakes which offered some more amazing views of the area; and found some fresh snowmelt where we were able to fill up our waters for the next couple of days.
CLIMBING TEMPLE CRAG
My Disclaimer if you’ve never gone peak-bagging: Climbing Temple Crag was definitely one of the hardest things that I have ever done. I had never gone peak-bagging before. I didn’t know we were going to be peak-bagging during our couple’s backpacking to big pine trip. It really forces you to push yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally; especially class 3 & 4 climbing. Peak bagging is not for the faint of heart. Many people do this trail without stepping foot near Temple Crag and if it is too far out of your comfort zone there is still plenty of day hikes to occupy your time within Big Pine.
For those of you with peak bagging experience: Stephen has gone peak-bagging several times and would definitely recommend this one. It’s insanely fun because it has a bit of everything: rappelling, rock climbing, glissading, and an especially nice ridge to go up. Nice and easy if you have any experience and are comfortable with heights.
Was it worth it? YES. 100% would do it again. Despite the exposure over the cliffs, we felt super safe doing it thanks to the amazingly experienced crew we went with and the climbing safety equipment we brought along; but, we also have a little bit more experience rock climbing and climbing along ridges than the average person. When you reach the summit, the feeling of accomplishment you get is overwhelming and it really makes you feel like you can conquer anything. Looking back at all the land we covered & climbed to get there was a great feeling. It was a little windy but we felt comfortable by grabbing onto the rocks on the summit.
Logistics & How To Reach the Summit
We headed up past the third lake towards Contact Pass after hiking up through snow and talus. I had borrowed some strap-on crampons which made her time going up much easier, however, everyone else was totally fine in their normal hiking shoes and ice axes. Once we finally got to the top of the pass, we harnessed in and climbed up Contact Crack. This is on your immediate right when you reach the top. We decided to bring our equipment just to have a better sense of safety since it was both Chris’s & my first time doing this sort of thing. We saw a few other people do the same climb without any equipment, so it really just depends on your comfort level climbing in the outdoors and your willingness to haul your climbing bag with you.
After that, the rest of the elevation gain comes with scrambling up the ridge. For a more detailed route description check out this link! Overall, I would highly recommend trying out this amazing peak if you have some climbing experience and aren’t too afraid of heights. For reference, at the top, you have 1000 foot drops on either side of you. Even so, if you are wanting to push yourself, this could be an adventure for you! Otherwise, we’d recommend spending your day climbing up to the Palisades Glacier or some of the other lakes if you wanted a more active day away from camp without involving Temple Crag.
Hiking out of Big Pine
Hiking out was a piece of cake since it is 99% downhill. You are on the trail the entirety of the way down and your backpack is lighter because you’ve lightened up your bear canister. It took us about 4 hours to do 6 miles. We left right after sunrise since we had a long drive ahead of us when we got down. It was also perfect timing since it didn’t get too hot! We ran into a bunch of day hikers on the way down, as it is quite a popular trail in the Sierra region. If you choose to do the day hike in (12-ish miles round trip), you don’t have to get a wilderness permit. You also aren’t carrying as much poundage which can be appealing. Couple’s backpacking to Big Pine is not for everyone, so couple’s hiking is an easier alternative.
Whether you desire some thrill-seeking climbing/peak bagging or just a chill couple of camping days relaxing by the lakes, couple’s backpacking to big pine via the North Fork Trail has something for you! We know we’ll be back soon!
All picture credit to Mark Jiroch & Chris Meugniot Photography! Make sure to check out his insane adventure photographs!