Best Places to Camp in California

Sonja, The National Parks Girl

In January I planned nearly all of my trips for the year. I knew in early 2017 that permits for some of the places I wanted to visit would be tough to come by so I made sure to secure them the moment they became available. For the long July 4th weekend I had (barely) snagged a couple of permits for a 4 day/3 night backpacking trip through the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The trip would take Alex and I to scenic alpine lakes and give us a taste of the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails and I was so excited for it! However, due to the beast of a winter the Sierra had that trip was no longer feasible so we were forced to explore other places to camp in California.

I saw on AllTrails that the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail was clear until Fourth Lake. The stunning Big Pine Lakes have been on my to-see list for awhile now so we decided to try to get a first-come, first-serve permit for Second Lake.

No Permit at the Ranger Station

Since most of the other lakes and trails in the Sierra were still snow-covered I knew that there would be some stiff competition for those permits. I called the ranger station before we even left Wisconsin and the ranger I spoke to informed me that in order to receive the permit I would have to show up at 8am the day before my trip. So after we landed in Las Vegas on 6/30 we woke up at 4am and hit the road, hoping to make it to the ranger station just after 8am on 7/1.

We ended up arriving just after 9am and there was already 15 people on the list for Big Pines (there are 12 spaces available) and there were still three other ranger stations that also had lists. So we left the ranger station empty-handed and disappointed and I vowed to show up as early as possible the following day.

Four Hours of Waiting Pays Off

Mono Lake Sierra Nevada Mountains

Alex and I still made the most of that day, though! We spent most of the day attempting to hike to Duck Lake but a completely blanketed Duck Pass thwarted our efforts and we turned back at Barney Lake. We shot sunset at Mono Lake and then headed to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to shoot some night photos.

After our night photography mission we decided to just head straight to the ranger station to ensure that we would definitely be the first to arrive. At 4am we pulled into the ranger station and I got out and sat at the front door for four hours, feeling absolutely crazy. But, my efforts paid off as I was the first to put my name down for Big Pine Lakes and the first to get a first-come, first-serve permit!!

I was ecstatic and also exhausted so we headed straight to our hotel in Mammoth and I slept for the remainder of the day!

Places to Camp in California: Big Pine Lakes

Second Lake in Inyo National Forest

On the morning of 7/3 we drove to the Big Pine Creek Trailhead, loaded up our packs, and were on the trail by 11am. It was a 5-mile hike with 2,200′ elevation gain to Second Lake and most of that was exposed. I felt like I was being cooked by the sun for most of the way and I regretted starting our hike so late.

We made it to Second Lake in two hours and quickly found a nice flat rock where we set up camp. As we were setting up camp I noticed all the fire pits; I counted at least five in just our vicinity and this was deeply disappointing. There are prominent signs along the trail clearly stating “No Fires” in the Big Pine Lakes so I was frankly appalled to see just how many pits there were. Not only is it a huge risk because fire danger in Inyo National Forest is at a “Very High” right now but it also takes away from the beauty of the experience.

After we set up and explored the area a bit we retreated back to the tent to escape the harsh sun. When the sun finally began to set we ventured back outside to make dinner.

As we were powering up our JetBoil our neighbors’ adorable dog came over to greet us and so we subsequently met her owners, Alisha and Sean, who happened to be an awesome couple from San Diego. We spent the entire evening talking with them and found that we had a lot in common! We exchanged stories and tips on new places to visit with them.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m nervous about going out into the backcountry, implying we might meet some sketchy characters and while I’m sure there are some sketchy individuals in the backcountry thus far I’ve only met and connected with kind, like-minded people. There is nothing like standing in awe of Mother Nature to turn strangers into friends!

Places to Camp in California Big Pine Creek

After the sun disappeared below the horizon and a chill settled in we all returned to our tents with alarms set for the middle of the night so we could take night photos. Too soon my alarm was going off and I headed out into the still night air. The sky was perfectly clear and it was so dark that we could see the Milky Way just above Temple Crag. Alex set up a couple of timelapses and I captured a few stills before I called it a night and headed back to bed. Alex left his camera outside the tent and it captured the entire night, making a beautiful timelapse you can check out here!

Temple Crag Best Places to Camp in California

Just a few brief hours later the sun began to rise and Temple Crag was illuminated by alpenglow. This sunrise was by far my favorite part of the entire trip! Alex and I sat and watched the landscape glow and change color as the sun crept higher into the sky.

Big Pine Lakes Places to Camp in California

After the sun had properly risen we ate breakfast and began breaking down our camp. I would have loved to spend two or even three nights at Big Pine Lakes but we had to be back in Las Vegas for our flight early the next morning. Second Lake is stunning but the entire area of Big Pine Lakes is dotted with beautiful, aquamarine alpine lakes and I plan on returning to visit them all!

Article initially appeared on The National Parks Girl