High up in a Californian wilderness of the Eastern Sierra Nevada lies a gorgeous, glacial-carved valley that is a home to a series of beautiful lakes. If you could only do one hike in the Eastern Sierra, the Little Lakes Valley hike is the one. Be warned that although the trail isn’t steep and is mostly on rolling terrains, the elevation of the entire hike is above 10,000 ft. So the air is pretty thin and the high altitude may pose a problem for some.

Back when David and I lived in Virginia, we traveled to the West whenever I could get away from work. Being in the mountains and hiking in the nature was the way for me to recharge and stay sane in a high-pressure corporate world. So glad those days of short vacations were over.

In September 2012, we did a 2-week trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Eastern Sierra Nevada. We stayed in Bishop while exploring the Eastern Sierra. Having hiked in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park to Franklin Lakes (elevation 10,400 ft) a few days earlier, the 10,000+ ft elevation of the Little Lakes Valley should be manageable.

Trailhead for the Little Lakes Valley is at Mosquito Flat at the end of Rock Creek Road (see directions to the trailhead at the bottom). Although I didn’t remember that mosquitoes were a problem when we hiked in late September, several reviewers of the hike warned about them. Be sure to bring insect repellent, especially in the spring and summer.

Little Lakes Valley Trail. Click map to enlarge

The Little Lakes Valley Trail follows Rock Creek upstream for most of the way. The trail is on rolling terrains and not particularly steep except for the final section after a junction of Gem Lakes to head up Morgan Pass. We arrived at the trailhead at 11 am on weekday. The parking lot was busy but not full.

Rock Creek at the start of the hike

Shortly into the hike, we entered the John Muir Wilderness boundary, then came to a junction of Mono Pass Trail. Staying on the Little Lakes Valley Trail toward Morgan Pass, we soon arrived at Mack Lake. There was no official trail down to the shore of Mack Lake, but the view of Mack Lake from the main trail provided a good sample of this beautiful hike. After a brief stop, we continued.

Mack Lake
I love the contrast of the fall colors against blue sky.

After Mack Lake and before arriving at Heart Lake, the trail passed by Marsh Lake in a distance. From the trail, Marsh Lake was unremarkable so we headed on to Heart Lake. Heart Lake was quite pretty and you could get to the lake shore or explore several inlet streams. We continued on and soon arrived at Box Lake. Similar to Mack Lake, the trail didn’t get to the shore of Box Lake. However, the view of Box Lake from an overlook just off the trail was stunning.

Approaching Heart Lake from one of the inlet streams
Exploring the shore of Heart Lake
After Heart Lake, we continued to Box Lake. There was a good spot just off the trail that provided a nice view of Box Lake against a beautiful backdrop.
Box Lake. You can see the trail on the right side of this picture.
Hikers on the trail as we left Box Lake behind.
The brilliant color of wetland meadows along the trail

About 0.5 mi after Box Lake overlook, we arrived at Long Lake. Long Lake is larger than most lakes in this valley. The trail followed an entire length of the lake. Hikers were letting their dog swim in the lake. It’s a nice way to stay cool in this warm day.

Long Lake, looking from the outlet end
Not a bad place for a doggie swim
The trail followed an entire east side of Long Lake.
As we walked along Long Lake, we could see a jagged mountain and fascinating striations on the rock cliff.

Next was Chickenfoot Lake. The trail to Chickenfoot Lake was a spur trail that got us crossing the inlet stream of the lake to granite rock piles overlooking the lake. We had our lunch here, then returned to the main trail and continued on to Gem Lakes.

Taking a spur trail to Chickenfoot Lake
The inlet of Chickenfoot Lake, so breathtaking!
It’s late September. The Inlet stream of Chickenfoot Lake had little water making it easy to cross.
During spring melt, this creek bed must have been under water. Might be a good place for rock hopping in early summer.
Chickenfoot Lake. Between a talus slope above the lake and the peak in the middle of this picture is Morgan Pass.
Gem Lakes junction

We took a quick break at Lower Gem Lakes, but didn’t go all the way to Upper Gem Lakes. From what I read while putting together this post, many considered Upper Gem Lakes to be the gem of the valley. Darn it.

After Gem Lakes, it’s a short, final ascent to Morgan Pass, our turnaround point. On the other side of Morgan Pass, one could extend the hike to Upper and Lower Morgan Lakes. It would have added another 1 to 1.5 hours to the hike. Both lakes weren’t visible from our turnaround spot.

Gem Lakes
Hiking up Morgan Pass
The golden color of this bristlecone pine was quite striking.
The trail switchbacking up Morgan Pass
Looking toward the other side of Morgan Pass

The return hike to the trailhead was relatively easy. We got back to the trailhead around 5 pm. It took us about 6 hours of a leisurely pace to complete the hike. The best thing about the Little Lakes Valley hike is that it could be done by folks with various fitness levels as long as the altitude isn’t an issue. There are plenty of gorgeous views everywhere. You can turnaround at Heart Lake and still have a very nice day-hike.

View of Owens Valley as we headed back to Bishop

Directions to trailhead: From US Hwy 395, drive south from Mammoth Lakes or drive north from Bishop to Tom’s Place. Turn west on Rock Creek Road and drive 10.5 miles to the end of the road at the Mosquito Flat parking lot.

  • Date hiked: September 25, 2012
  • Hiking time: Approx. 6h
  • Distance: Approx. 9 mi round-trip (out and back)
  • Elevation change: Approx. total 1,200 ft gain (elevation at trailhead: 10,200 ft; elevation at Morgan Pass: 11,100 ft)

12 thoughts

  1. Great post guys! I absolutely love the Sierras, and I agree -the fall colors shown in your post looked amazing against the blue sky. I gotta get back out there!

    Liked by 1 person

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