Pets allowed
Not Allowed
Elevation Gain
1,399.00 ft (426.42 m)
Trail type
10.80 mi (17.38 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

The route to Cirque Lake and back is a meandering, 10.8-mile loop in the southern Sierra. It connects Cottonwood Lakes Trail to Cirque Lake, and finishes by completing the loop around Flat Top Peak, just for kicks. The route passes through both the Golden Trout Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness in Inyo National Forest, and it does not cross the Sierra crest. There are excellent views of the crest, however, from Trailmaster Peak on the southern end to Mt. Langley on the northern end. 

Begin from Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead in the Horseshoe Meadows area. After 1.5 miles on Cottonwood Lakes Trail, turn left onto South Fork of Cottonwood Creek Trail. Follow the South Fork for 2.8 miles and then take the left at the junction with Cirque Lake Trail. You’ll pass the very nice South Fork Lakes, and after 0.8 miles, Cirque Lake. The lake sits right under Cirque Peak (12,900ft.) and just to the south sits Trailmaster Peak (12,336ft.). Cirque Lake is a fine place for camp (in a previously used spot). When you’ve had your fill, head back via Cirque Lake Trail. The option is of course open to return the way you came (via South Fork), but for our purposes, continue on Cirque Lake Trail until the junction with Cottonwood Lakes Trail. Turn right here, where the trail circles around Flat Top Peak (11,405ft.) before heading back to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. 

Wilderness permits are required for backcountry camping, which can be found at For more information regarding advisories, weather, road conditions, campgrounds and more, check out the Inyo National Forest website at Practice the principles of leave no trace, and take action to defend threatened wilderness areas (

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)




Parking Pass


Open Year-round



Granite mountains. Mountain lake. Flowing water.


Mosquitoes in summer.

Trailhead Elevation

10,067.00 ft (3,068.42 m)

Highest point

11,190.00 ft (3,410.71 m)


Near lake or river
Backcountry camping
Geologically significant
Big vistas
Bird watching

Typically multi-day


Permit required



Nearby Lodging + Camping

Eastern Sierra + White Mountains Area, California
Eastern Sierra + White Mountains Area, California


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