Didn’t get that Whitney Zone permit that you woke up for? Not to worry! Inyo National Forest has dozens of other incredible and less crowded options for a high-altitude backpacking or mountaineering adventure, and Finger Lake is one of the most picturesque. Sitting at the base of the massive Palisade Crest, it’s surrounded by 14,000-foot rock spires and the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada.
After a curvy 10-mile mountain drive out of Big Pine, California, park at the end of Glacier Lodge Road. There are vault toilets, bear boxes, and trash cans at the trailhead. Overnight backpackers must be sure to grab a wilderness permit on their way in from one of the ranger stations—they’re free! The trail quickly ascends two easy switchbacks before crossing a wooden bridge over a rushing waterfall. It then turns due south and splits off from its more famous neighbor, the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail.
As the trail climbs up and out of a valley full of fragrant chaparral, hikers will realize that this area of the Inyo National Forest truly does have it all. A lively creek babbles to the left of the trail as massive peaks and towering rock faces covered in jade-colored moss come into view. Carefully cross the stream during high snowmelt months; during this season, the stream is deep and moves swiftly. Once past the John Muir Wilderness sign, ascend a dozen or so switchbacks through different ecosystems. The trail meanders through alpine meadows, towering foxtail pine, and huge granite boulders before reaching the end of the switchbacks between a few ancient bristlecone pines.
From here the path opens up to a truly gasp-inducing view of the Palisade Crest. The immense wall of rock and glacier soars above 14,000 feet with dagger-edged spires erupting out of the earth. When summer thunderstorm clouds roll by in the afternoon, the mountains can take on a magical and almost sinister feel, as though they are housing the gates to Mordor or withholding some wizardly wisdom. This is a fantastic spot for photos or a lunch/snack break on the nearby granite slabs.
The trail descends into an alpine meadow and pine forest dotted with tiny lakes and wildflowers. Corn lilies, lupine, and Indian paintbrush runs rampant here. Due to the high moisture in this area, rare mushrooms can be spotted here and there along the trail. Have mosquito spray handy in this section of the hike; they swarm heavily all afternoon.
Continue following the trail as it rises to the banks of Brainerd Lake and its deep indigo water. From here, either set up camp or, if you’re feeling frisky, head down the southwest shore of the lake on a faint trail and begin scrambling up the rocky moraine. It is easy to keep this section at a Class 2 scramble, though Class 3 slabs are nearby for practice. After about a 450 foot climb, turn slightly left to reach the cool blue edge of Finger Lake. Norman Clyde, Disappointment Peak, and Middle Palisade dominate the landscape with a great view of the Palisade Glacier and her many striations.
The best campsites are on the south side of the lake on rock ledges. They feature a lovely view of the entire mountain range, the valley below, and are secluded enough from the trees for epic stargazing sessions after dark. No campfires are allowed here because it is too high in elevation. This gives the area a relaxed, nature-focused energy. Swimming is permitted in Finger Lake, though the water remains near freezing for the entire year!
When you are ready to leave, carefully traverse the moraine back down to Brainerd Lake and intersect the incoming trail. Follow it back down the switchbacks and all the way to your car.
For the road less traveled and the best wilderness the Sierra has to offer, grab your wanderlust by the hand and ramble over to Big Pine Creek and Finger Lake. It’s an excellent base camp for bigger mountaineering objectives or a pristine alpine lake for a mellow backpacking weekend.