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Top Sierra Nevada Lakes

December 30, 2019

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Sierra Nevada over the past five years. Most of my hiking has been to beautiful water features, such as lakes or waterfalls. There are over 4,000 pristine lakes and reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada, with the vast majority at a high elevation.

My six favorite lakes in the Sierra all sit above 9,000 feet in elevation. They’re spread out between the National Parks – Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite – and Inyo National Forest. Some lakes, such as Convict Lake or Yosemite’s Lake Tenaya, are easy to visit by car. While those lakes are amazing, I’m more interested in the seclusion of backcountry lakes.

Thousand Island Lake

Thousand Island Lake

After I saw Thousand Island Lake in a video online, I immediately started planning my trip. It jumped to the top of my hiking list, and did not disappoint. Sitting just below 10,000 feet in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Thousand Island Lake has become a popular backpacking destination from the Eastern Sierra.

Thousand Island Lake Sunrise
Early Morning Hours
Thousand Island Lake
From the JMT/PCT

Thousand Island Lake is 9 miles from June Lake on the Rush Creek Trail, or 8 miles from Agnew Meadows Campground near Mammoth. I made it the destination for my first night out of Rush Creek. Mosquitoes were brutal, but fiery clouds at sunset were worth it. The picturesque reflections of Banner Peak in the morning were also astounding.

Hungry Packer Lake

Hungry Packer Lake

Hungry Packer Lake lies below Picture Peak, just opposite the ridge that separates the John Muir Trail from the Sabrina Basin. I came across this lake while doing research on an overnight trip to Moonlight Falls. Its deep blue shade and steep granite cliffs is one of my favorite features of Sierra Nevada lakes.

Hungry Packer Lake at Dusk
Hungry Packer Lake at Dusk
Hungry Packer Lake Campsite
Hungry Packer Lake Campsite

There are a ton of lakes to explore in this region of the mountains. This middle fork of Bishop Creek alone has over 15 lakes to see. The initial hike is easy and the trail forks at Blue Lake towards either Donkey Lake or Dingleberry Lake. It’s only a total of 6.5 miles to get out there, and is typically immune to the larger crowds.

Second Lake

Second Lake

Deep in the Big Pine Creek drainage off Highway 395 lies a hidden gem of the Sierra Nevada. Five miles of hiking and twenty-five hundred feet of elevation gain puts you into one of the most stunning lakes basins in the world. It’s turquoise Lakes get their hue from glacial silt runoff. The Big Pine Lakes are also home to the mountain yellow-legged frog, a species that dominated the area before non-native trout were introduced.

Second Lake
Turquoise Water from Glacial Silt
Second Lake
Snow Covered Temple Crag

I’ve hiked into this canyon twelve times, including two overnight backpacking trips. Second Lake remains my favorite because of it’s proximity in relation to Temple Crag, my favorite peak. I’ve enjoyed many afternoons at Second Lake, just lying around and enjoying the views. For a good day of hiking, I recommend the Big Pine Lakes loop that takes you past the first four lakes and Black Lake.

Rae Lakes

Rae Lakes

Located on the eastern side of Kings Canyon National Park, Rae Lakes are one of the most popular overnight destinations in the Eastern Sierra. These lakes are usually either accessed via Kearsarge Pass from the east or Bubbs Creek Trail from the west. Both paths meet along the John Muir Trial and head north over Glen Pass. The lakes are surrounded by massive granite peaks such as Fin Dome, making it a destination for climbers as well as hikers.

Rae Lakes - Descending Glen Pass
Descending Glen Pass
Rae Lakes - From the John Muir Trail
From the JMT

This was my favorite lake on the John Muir Trail. Hiking up the south side of Glen Pass was brutal, and the sun wasn’t making it any easier. Being able to look down at Rae Lakes from the top made it that much sweeter of a pass. Taking a break to swim in the cold water down below wasn’t the worst idea either.

Guitar Lake

Guitar Lake

Guitar Lake lies in the southeastern corner of Sequoia National Park, just west of Mount Whitney. This lake is widely known to John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers as a final place to fill up water before approaching Mount Whitney from the west.

Guitar Lake outlet
Lake Outlet
Guitar Lake from Mt. Whitney Junction
From Mt. Whitney Junction

Though it looks just like any other lake when you stand next to it, it’s name comes from view above. Very aptly named, Guitar Lake takes the shape of an acoustic guitar when seen from higher elevations.

Upper Cathedral Lake

Upper Cathedral Lake

Yosemite National Park is probably my favorite part of the Sierra. But like many other hikers, I try and avoid the valley. There’s almost always too many cars and tourists, bringing unwanted feelings of anxiety for those trying to escape the big city rush. But Yosemite Valley only makes up around 1% of Yosemite’s actual acreage, making the backcountry seem unfathomably vast.

Upper Cathedral Lake
Lush Lakeshore
Upper Cathedral Lake
Upper Cathedral Lake

Upper Cathedral Lake lies along the John Muir Trail between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. I took a break to fish and rest when I hike through a few years back. From a peninsula that jets into the lake, you feel as if you’re in a massive granite bowl surround by a thousand feet of white on every side. It’s a very humbling feeling, one that I’ll never forget.

Most Importantly, there are no crowds. Just the sounds of fish jumping in the water and wind blowing through the trees. It’s hard to imagine you’re just a few miles from the madness of Yosemite Valley. That’s what separates the best Sierra Nevada lakes from those you can drive to.