If there’s only one hike that you do in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California, make it this one. You’ll walk through forests of sweetly scented Ponderosa pines, boulder hop over rushing mountain creeks, cross meadows while gazing up at 13,000-foot mountain peaks, and meander past no less than seven glacial-carved lakes reflecting the surrounding landscape.
The Little Lakes Valley trail—at just under eight miles round trip, including side trips to various lakes—is the quintessential Sierra Nevada hike. Here, you can enjoy an adventure in the high Sierra Nevada mountains without: 1) the rigors of a multi-day backpacking trip, and 2) suffering through a painfully steep high elevation climb. This spectacular hike is so easy (we’re grading on the Sierra curve, mind you) that it almost seems like cheating. Views this grand generally require much more effort.
The trailhead—unappealingly named Mosquito Flat—is the loftiest in the Sierras at 10,250 feet, thus the relative ease of getting high into the mountains. Despite the name, the trail was mosquito-free in late October. The fall is also a good time to enjoy this popular trail sans crowds—we hiked for long stretches without seeing another soul. The chilly temperatures and snowfall from the previous day likely had something to do with keeping people away.
From Mosquito Flat, the trail began with a steep uphill rocky climb, but that soon leveled out and opened up to the first magnificent view of a burbling creek and jewel-like lake fed by glacial melt. Along the gently rolling terrain, one after another lake appeared every 20 or 30 minutes, seductively luring us along. All the while we were captivated by the snow-capped mountain peaks fading in and out of the clouds, and entertained by Clark’s nutcrackers calling raucously from high in the ponderosas.
Don’t miss going all the way to the end of the trail: Lovely Upper Gem Lake is an aquamarine jewel set in a granite bowl, bordered on three sides by mountain peaks. It was the perfect spot for lunch and relaxing by the water. We found the return hike just as magnificent, offering a different perspective of the lakes and mountains. (Many thanks to our dear friends LuAnn and Terry, who highly recommended this hike.)
About the campground: We stayed for two nights at Brown’s Town Campground in Bishop, specifically to hike the Little Lake Valley trail (30 miles away). After a week of dry camping in our travels along 395, we were ready for a couple of nights with water and electric hookups. It was a peaceful stay, Verizon coverage was good, and as a bonus, we got to meet up with fellow full-time travelers Jodee, Bill, and their sweet dog Tessa at the Mountain Rambler Brewery for dinner, excellent local beer, and fun conversation. It was a great reward at the end of our long hiking day.
Next up: Tips for High Altitude Hiking