Hiking & Backpacking / Outdoor Adventures

Backpacking Through Little Lakes Valley

Backpacking through Little Lakes Valley

Why am I starting off a story about backpacking with a nearly nude picture of myself? Because when you’re in the middle of the wild with no one else around, skinny dipping in an alpine lake is something you have to check off the list at least once, if not every time. It is, quite indescribably, one of the highest peaks of life!

A few weeks ago we went on our first backpacking trip of the year, a three-day jaunt through the John Muir Wilderness in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.

I used to tell friends that if they wanted to witness the beauty, majesty and solitude of the Sierra, they had to work for it — hiking for miles to escape the crowds and reach the solace of stunning places they normally only saw in the movies. And for the most part, this is still true; the full experience of the mountains can only be found with a pack on your back and a little huffing and puffing to get there.


Just off Highway 395 from one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of towns, you can reach one of the most marvelous wildernesses the High Sierra has to offer in less than a mile with very little elevation gain.

In fact, it’s almost a sin how easily you can access the alpine grandeur of this area.

Little Lakes Valley has always been one of my favorite getaways in the Central California backcountry. It has some of the most well traveled and well loved trails in the Sierra but at the same time, I’m always surprised by how secluded it is.

In winter, we often stop for a cross-country ski tour along Rock Creek on a groomed trail flanked with Jeffrey and lodgepole pines.

In summer, the snow is cleared away to reveal a narrow road that winds up the canyon for 10 miles. Rock Creek Road starts in Crowley Lake at Tom’s Place (elevation 7,090 feet) and ends at Mosquito Flat trailhead (elevation 10,250 feet, the highest trailhead in the Sierra). That means you gain an astounding 3,210 feet in elevation as you drive!

From Mosquito Flat, a system of trails snakes through Little Lakes Valley and beyond. The gems of the valley are a string of scenic lakes carved by glaciers and fed by snowmelt. The sights are especially popular with fishermen and day hikers in the summer, but many of them never wander too far off the trail.

The most strenuous section was the first quarter-mile up the hill from the trailhead, but the views soon appeared before we could even catch our breath.

Views of snow-capped granite peaks from the trail

In the first three miles alone, we passed Rock Creek and its cascades several times, high country meadows filled with wildflowers, and 180-degree views of snow-capped high thirteeners. Mack Lake came into view, followed by Marsh Lake, Heart Lake, Box Lake, and Long Lake, each about 20 to 30 minutes apart from one another, and each being beautiful and special in its own right.

Hiking on Little Lakes Valley Trail

Hiking in Little Lakes Valley

Early summer wildflowers

Hiking in Little Lakes Valley

Little Lakes Valley

Creek crossing

We took a quick detour off Little Lakes Valley Trail and ended up at the next lake in the chain, Chickenfoot, which was just far enough in to be isolated from the throngs of day trippers.

Despite low snowfall in the Sierra this past winter, there were still mounds of snow to be found that late in the season. Snow that all melted into the very lakes we would be swimming in!

Chickenfoot Lake in Little Lakes Valley

Surrounded by a cirque of granite peaks, Chickenfoot Lake (elevation 10,761 feet) is a large, crystal clear lake with a mile of mostly rocky shoreline. Though we were just three-and-a-half miles in on a nearly flat trail, only one other camper had made it that far. The rest of the lake was ours to relish.

Chickenfoot Lake

Crystal clear water on Chickenfoot Lake

I always feel so at home in a backcountry camp. I love the process of picking out the perfect campsite, aligning the tent for the perfect view, finding the perfect rock to cook on and hang out next to.

No matter how fleeting the moments are, they always seem to move in slow-mo when I’m out in the backcountry. It’s out there, in the heart of the mountains, where I don’t think about anything else “at home” — because out there, I am home.

Camping on Chickenfoot Lake

Backcountry camp

Backcountry camp

A glassy Chickenfoot Lake

Reflection on Chickenfoot Lake

Morning brought beautiful reflections of granite on the glassy lake. I’m usually not a morning person, but there are times when I’ll wake up at dawn, take in the sunrise, then crawl back in my sleeping bag until the first rays of light start streaming through the tent.

Sunrise reflection on Chickenfoot Lake

Sunrise reflection on Chickenfoot Lake

We ventured out in search of more lakes, and we weren’t disappointed. Impressive views of the Sierra Crest, including Mount Dade, Mount Mills, and Mount Abbot, loomed in the distance. Swimming holes appeared along meandering streams.

We hiked cross country through alpine meadows, up the drainage, across the boulders and past potential climbing walls as we made our way toward Gem Lakes, the next set of lakes at the end of the valley.

Hiking along Upper Rock Creek

Upper Rock Creek

Backcountry hike

Day hike to Gem Lakes

Swimming hole in Upper Rock Creek

Alpine meadow in the Sierra backcountry

Potential climbing wall

We were temped to spend the afternoon at Lower Gem Lake, a small, shallow lake that was so clear, you could clearly see the beautiful mosaic of stones underwater.

Lower Gem Lake

Mosaic of stones in Lower Gem Lake

But we pushed up and ahead atop a granite bench and found Upper Gem Lake, the larger of the two.

The Gem Lakes are so called because of their brilliant color, especially the upper lake. Its piercing aqua blue comes from the high mineral content in the water, and its smaller size (compared to Chickenfoot Lake) meant it was also a few degrees warmer… if you can call 50°F water warm. (And that’s a conservative estimate.)

Summer at Upper Gem Lake

Upper Gem Lake

Aquamarine water at Upper Gem Lake

Upper Gem Lake   A glassy Gem Lake

Looking at these two — my hubby Will and my frequent backpack buddy Clint — you’d think we were in the tropics though. (But not tropical enough to repeat our previous alpine lake adventure in Yosemite!)

Swimming in Gem Lake

Swimming in Gem Lake

Floating in an alpine lake

Summer at Gem Lake

Summer at Gem Lake   Summer at Gem Lake

We swam and we snoozed on the hot slabs of granite, taking in the silence. And the bouts of laughter. And the cannonballs into the lake.

It was a quintessential summer day in the Sierra, sunny and slightly breezy with the occasional cheeseburger bird singing from the trees. In fact, not only was it my first backpack of the season, it was also my first cheeseburger bird of the season!

Granite slab at Gem Lake

Upper Gem Lake

Since we’d hiked cross country to Gem Lakes, we decided to take the trail back to camp and see what other treasures we’d missed the first time. There were many.

Hiking in the Sierra backcountry

Crossing a meandering stream

High Sierra meadow

Running creek through the meadow

Pond in a High Sierra meadow

High country meadow

Hiking toward the Sierra Crest

High country meadow

Crystal clear Rock Creek

Hiking back to camp

That evening, we found two more lakes near our campsite, smaller and shallower ones that were just a tad warmer and more suitable for a backcountry bath. And by bath, I mean splashing around in the water and getting out while I could still feel my toes.

Backcountry bathing

Packing up the next day felt all too soon, but I was satisfied with our little adventure. The physical challenge of a good hike and the breathtaking beauty of the granite skyline had me stoked for the rest of the season, as our summer definitely got off to a good start.

Hiking out of Chickenfoot Lake

Hiking out of Chickenfoot Lake

Hiking out of Chickenfoot Lake

Hiking out of Little Lakes Valley

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »