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Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail

Yosemite + Central Sierra, California

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Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail

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  • The trail starts off at 7,800 feet, curving through fragrant shrubs as it hugs Big Pine Creek.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • Striking rock faces jut up out of the ground as you approach the first switchbacks.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • A gently graded set of switchbacks gives you a stunning view of the trail you've just covered.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • Toward the top of the switchbacks, a true alpine environment appears, full of boulders and even a few Bristlecone Pines!- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • This is the first view the trail offers of the enormous Palisade Crest and her many spires.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • Stop for lunch on the granite slabs and try to spot the back side of the famous Temple Crag, accessible via the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • After a brief descent, alpine meadows full of fragrant wildflowers appear. Colorful mushrooms abound here, due to the higher moisture content.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • The official USFS trail ends at Brainerd Lake, a striking blue body of water. Scramble south, following a use trail, and up the boulder field if you're heading to Finger Lake.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • Sierra shooting star flowers abound on the shores of Finger Lake.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • If rock scrambling is of interest, there are many choose-your-own-adventure routes, even if you're not venturing on to climb Middle Palisade.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • A short scramble of 500 feet will earn a wonderful view of glacial blue Finger Lake and the surrounding cirque.- Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
  • - Finger Lake via Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Incredible views. Solitude. Wildflowers.
Cons: 
Lake is freezing. High altitude. Tricky creek crossing.
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Region:
Yosemite + Central Sierra, CA
Congestion: 
Low
Pets allowed: 
Yes
Net Elevation Gain: 
3,000.00 ft (914.40 m)
Parking Pass: 
Sometimes
Preferable Season(s):
Summer, Fall
Total Distance: 
12.00 mi (19.31 km)
Trail type: 
There-and-back
Trailhead Elevation: 
7,850.00 ft (2,392.68 m)
Current Local Weather:
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Hike Description

Hike Description

Pro Contributor

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.

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