Dog-Friendly Hike & Camping | Big Pine Lakes

Dog-Friendly Hike & Camping | Big Pine Lakes

Big Pine Lakes is THE dog friendly hike in California. If you and your dog are avid adventurers, this hike should absolutely be on your bucket list. Located in the John Muir Wilderness, in Inyo National Forest, dogs are actually permitted on hiking trails - something that is prohibited at most National Parks including Yosemite and Sequoia. This is easily one of the most scenic trails we have ever hiked; between the Eastern Sierras and turquoise glacial lakes, we found it very reminiscent of the Italian Dolomites. With that being said, be warned that this hike is no walk in the park. It is a steady uphill climb so if you are not an experienced hiker or you’re traveling with heavy gear as we did, you can expect to feel the elevation change. Just know that if you stick with it, the payoff at the end is spectacular. 

Note that there are actually seven lakes. For the purposes of this blog, we will be discussing our experience hiking to and camping at Second Lake. 


North Fork Trail to Second Lake Overview

Distance: 4.8 miles

Starting Elevation: 7,800 ft

Elevation at Second Lake: 10,050 ft

Total Elevation Gain: 2,250 ft

Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous



Overnight Camping Permit

If you decide to hike to Big Pine Lakes as a day trip, no permit is required. However, I strongly suggest making this into an overnight backpacking trip if possible. I find that this is the best way to make the most of your trip and really enjoy being immersed in nature before you have to return. This also affords an opportunity for you and your dog to catch up on some much needed rest after a rather strenuous hike. 

If you intend to stay overnight, you will need to obtain an Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit. You can make a reservation here; for Entry Point, select Big Pine Creek North Fork. Bear in mind that May 1st through November 1st is quota season when the number of people per day is limited. 60% of spaces are released 6 months in advance and the remaining 40% 2 weeks in advance. 

If there are no spots available for your desired date, you can try your luck with a walkup permit which is what we did. If someone doesn’t print or pick up their permit by 10am on their chosen date, it’s automatically cancelled and released back into the system at 11am. We got lucky and a few spots opened up at 11am so we were able to obtain our permit at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center which is on the way to Big Pine Lakes from Los Angeles. If you decide to go this route, I suggest arriving at the visitor center prior to 11am as a line was already beginning to form at 10:45am.

If you try your chances with a walkup permit, make sure that you have a backup plan in mind. Ours was to camp at Horton Creek in Bishop which is located about 1 hour from the Big Pine Lakes trailhead. Horton Creek is BLM land meaning that it is owned by The Bureau of Land Management and dispersed camping is permitted without a reservation. 



Prior to your trip

  • Make sure your dog is up to date on their flea and tick medicine
  • Know that you will have no cell service so plan accordingly
  • Make sure someone knows where you are going and when you plan to return in case of an emergency
  • Print or download a map that can be accessed offline
  • Check the weather forecast 
  • Manage the weight of your bag and try to keep it to a minimum. We traveled far too heavy and ended up taking much longer to complete our hike.


Packing list

  • Water Filter + Refillable Water Bottle - These are an absolute MUST HAVE. We burned through our bottled water quickly on the way up so this filter was a lifesaver. This allowed us to safely refill our water bottles at creeks and lakes by filtering out any bacteria, viruses or parasites. We chose a straw filter as they are more lightweight but you can also opt for a pump filter. 
  • Collapsible Food & Water Bowls - These are essential for your dog to stay hydrated and energized, even if you’re only taking a day trip. These bowls are incredibly lightweight and flatten so they barely take any space, making them perfect for hiking.
  • Sunscreen and Hat - Most of the trail is exposed with little to no shade on the way up so you will definitely want some sun protection. 
  • First Aid Kit + Ibuprofen - If you or your dog get ill or injured during the hike, it is a long way back to civilization so having a first aid kit is critical. I also suggest bringing ibuprofen if you are prone to altitude sickness. 
  • Mosquito Head Net + Bug Spray - When I initially began researching Big Pine Lakes, I read review after review noting how bad the mosquitos are so I suggest you go prepared. It seems that they are at their worst June - August; however, we did encounter a few swarms on our way up in September. 
  • Layered Clothing - The days can be brutally hot and the nights freezing cold so be sure to bring layers that you can easily remove or add. There was an icy wind at night during our trip so I suggest packing some thermal clothing.  
  • Food - We bought Peak Refuel freeze-dried meals for our trip; these are not only tasty but they are a great source of protein which your body needs to recover from a long day on the trail. Note that you will need boiling water for these. You should also bring some snacks such as energy bars, beef jerky and nuts for the trail. And of course be sure to bring plenty of food for your dog.
  • Camp Stove + Fuel Canister - No campfires are allowed at Big Pine Lakes so if you need boiling water for freeze-dried meals such as the one mentioned above, you will need a camp stove and fuel canister. We were able to buy a fairly small one from Amazon along with a stainless steel mug to boil the water in. 
  • Camping Gear - If you plan to stay overnight, be sure to bring a tent and sleeping bags at the bear minimum. It can get very windy and cold at night. 
  • Headlamp - Every outdoor adventurer should have one of these. Whether you need to navigate in the dark or take your dog for a late night walk, this is an important piece of gear.
  • Bear Canister - This is bear country so bear canisters are required to store food, trash and scented items. We were able to rent one from the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center for around $2 per night. With that being said, we were the only people that had one so it does not appear this rule is strictly followed or enforced. 



Best Time to Visit

The best time of year to visit Big Pine Lakes is late Spring after the snowmelt through early fall before the first snow - usually May through October. I may be biased but we visited in September and felt that it was the perfect time. Both the heat during the day and the cold at night were manageable. Not to mention most of the mosquitos had dissipated and the trails weren’t crowded. If you are able to, I recommend starting your hike at sunrise as much of the trail is exposed and it can get very hot - especially during the summertime. 


Length of Hike to Second Lake

This depends on many factors including your physical ability, how light/heavy you’re traveling and how well you can tolerate the altitude. If you are an avid hiker and you’re traveling light, you may be able to reach Second Lake in about 4 hours. We traveled very heavy and took frequent breaks so it ended up taking us closer to 7 hours. 


Where to Park 

If you’re only taking a day trip, you may park in the parking lot next to the Big Pine Creek Trailhead. If you are staying overnight you will have to park in the Big Pine Creek Overnight Parking. The overnight parking lot is approximately .9 miles down the road from the trailhead. There is an “Upper Trail” which begins directly from the overnight parking lot; however, it is very exposed and takes about 1.5 miles to intersect with the North Fork Trail. With that in mind, we elected to drop one of us off with our bags and Buttercup at the day use trailhead and wait while the other parked in the overnight parking lot. 


Day One

The hike begins past the metal gate where the asphalt ends. Beyond the gate, there are some cabins on your right; continue straight. Shortly thereafter you will cross a bridge and come to the junction of the South Fork and North Fork trails. Be sure to turn right towards “NF Big Pine Lakes 1-6”. 



This part of the trail is composed of frequent switchbacks but offers some shade. About .7 miles in, you’ll see some wooden posts in the ground and another junction. Make a right turn here towards the North Fork trail. This will lead you to First Falls where you will cross a bridge. Make a left at the sign towards “Lower Trail”.



This is a good place to stop and take a break as it will be a while before you find shade again. Past this point, a set of long and exposed switchbacks begin. At around the 2 mile mark, you’ll reach a sign indicating that you are entering the John Muir Wilderness. You'll come across Second Falls shortly thereafter.



This portion of the trail is still a steady climb uphill but there is much more shade. The mosquitos can get bad at this part since you’ll be hiking along the creek so I recommend putting on a mosquito head net if you have one. At about 2.7 miles in, you’ll reach the Big Pine Creek Wilderness Ranger Camp, also known as Lon Chaney’s Cabin. This means you’re halfway!



Eventually you’ll reach a sign indicating Lakes 1-3 or Black Lake. Turn left here towards Lakes 1-3. About 4.8 miles into your hike you will begin to see First Lake. From there it’s around another 10 minutes to Second Lake. We found a spot with clear, level ground on the north side of the lake to set up camp. 



Our campsite overlooked Second Lake and had the most spectacular view of Temple Crag. However, there is a trade off to consider. If you choose to camp here, you will be exposed to the elements; there are often strong gusts of wind and no shade during the day. There was a nearby couple that set up camp around 30 yards inland and what they sacrificed in view, they made up for in protection from the sun and wind. Just some food for thought.



Day Two

Although we had originally planned to spend our second day hiking to the other lakes, we were still exhausted from the previous day and were feeling the effects of the altitude so we decided to relax and enjoy our time at Second Lake instead. Just north of our campsite, there was a trail that led to a small beach. From there we were able to refill our water bottles at the lake and soak in the incredible view. We even saw a couple of people jump in the water but be warned that it is icy cold. This is also a great spot if you enjoy fishing! 



After a nice day of relaxation by the lake and some photography, we headed back to our campsite. For dinner, we boiled some water using our camp stove and added it to our Peak Refuel freeze-dried meals. Let me preface by saying we are not sponsored by Peak Refuel but we were pleasantly surprised to find that these meals were pretty tasty and filling. They are also a good source of protein which aids muscle recovery.



Something that doesn’t get talked about enough is how amazing Big Pine Lakes is for stargazing. There is virtually no light pollution so the stars are much more visible here than they are in the city. You can even see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Highly recommend taking some time to lay down and look up at the stars during your visit! 



Day Three 

We got up at sunrise on our final day to pack our bags and hit the trail early. The hike back was significantly faster and less strenuous as it is all downhill. Keeping a steady pace and stopping for a few breaks along the way, we made it to the trailhead in just under 4 hours. 



In Conclusion

Big Pine Lakes is easily the best dog-friendly backpacking destination we have experienced in California. If you and your dog enjoy a good outdoor adventure, you won’t regret checking it out. The sense of accomplishment when you reach your goal coupled with the spectacular view make the journey worth it. I hope you found this guide helpful! Please subscribe and follow along on social media for more dog-friendly activities and travel guides.

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