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South Lake to Long Lake

John Muir Wilderness

October 9th, 2011

4.2 miles
1060 vertical feet
Total Time: 4:55

Starting elevation
9790 feet
Max elevation
10794 feet

Rating: 9/10

Directions: From Mammoth Lakes, take Highway 395 south to Bishop. Turn right onto Highway 168 up into the mountains. After a few miles, turn left onto South Lake Road and follow it all the way to the day use parking lot at the end. Also note that if you're coming from the north, you can save yourself some time by turning right onto Ed Powers Road from Highway 395, taking it for a few miles before turning right onto Highway 168. This will save you some distance and avoid the traffic of Bishop.   View Driving Map

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We made the drive to South Lake, passing the Four Jeffrey and Table Mountain campgrounds along the way. There were some nice yellow aspens along the way, especially near the Table Mountain campground. Normally, I might have stopped to take some pictures, but I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to finish today's hike, especially considering how long it took us the day before. So I kept going. The road was in great condition compared to the top of Rock Creek Road. It was snow-free all the way to the trailhead parking lot, at which we arrived at 11:10am.

The lower lot in which we parked was mostly full, but there appeared to be ample space in the larger higher lot. While we prepped, we saw lots of people stop, take a quick look at South Lake, then turn around and leave. So, despite all the cars in the lot, it would not be a crowded hike at all.

This time, based on what we had learned the previous day, we decided against even bringing our snowshoes. Our winter boots would be fine. We started off on the trail, which initially heads slightly downhill toward the lake shore. It then climbs steadily uphill, roughly parallel to South Lake's northeastern shore. This part of the trail was icy, so it was good to have our trekking poles here. I worried a bit that it would still be icy when we returned heading downhill.

Heading up the icy trail

It wasn't long before we got our first good look at South Lake, backed by Mt. Thompson, Mt. Gilbert, Mt. Johnson, and Mt. Goode. Snow covered the area. More impressive, though, was the sight of yellow, orange, and green aspens lining the trail. It wasn't a huge grove, but it was a very pretty sight. After about a quarter mile, we passed a sign saying we were entering the John Muir Wilderness. The trail heads inland, away from the lake, and levels off very briefly.

South Lake

South Lake

Aspen-lined trail next to South Lake

South Lake

Aspen-lined trail next to South Lake

South Lake

After about 0.6 miles (according to my GPS; the map says 0.8 miles), we reached a trail intersection at a large boulder. To the right is the path toward Treasure Lakes, south of South Lake. We'd be continuing on the left fork, toward Bishop Pass. But first we enjoyed a brief break and I went a bit off trail to an overlook of South Lake, one last time before the trail turned away for good.

Snowy forest near the first intersection

South Lake from above

Southern end of South Lake

Taking a break at the first trail intersection

Back on the trail, the climbing continued. A couple of fishermen passed us around this time, asking us how far it was to the lake. I told them we were about halfway. The trail flattened out briefly again and we passed another trail intersection. To our left was the trail to Marie Louise Lakes. There were some bootprints heading that way, but we stuck to the main trail, continuing toward Long Lake.

Small puddles started appearing on the trail in front of us, and we had to maneuver around some of them. The trail was still hard-packed, a welcome change from the deeper snow we had to navigate the previous day. The trail now starts to climb somewhat steeply, up narrow switchbacks. I believe near the top of these switchbacks is the side path to the Chocolate Lakes, but I never saw the trail. I suspect that no one had yet ventured that way since the snow fell a few days ago, and that somehow the trail sign was obscured. In any case, we just stayed on the main trail.

Heading up some narrow, icy switchbacks

We took another short break on the uphill. As we did so, a couple of photographers walked up past us. We'd see them again shortly.

After our break, we climbed a bit more before the trail leveled off and even descended a bit. Suddenly, we saw a small body of water in front of us, and then the bulk of Long Lake itself. Since I hadn't seen the trail intersection for the Chocolate Lakes that I had expected to see, and my GPS read only 1.7 miles, I had to double check the map. But there was no mistaking it, we'd already reached Long Lake. We noticed the two photographers here, but after taking a few pictures they turned around and headed back toward the trailhead. That's too bad for them, because the best was yet to come, and not all that much further away.

The northern end of Long Lake

Looking south from near the end of Long Lake

Looking south up Long Lake

We crossed the lake's outlet stream on some well-placed rocks, then picked up the trail on the other side. The trail basically follows the eastern shore of the lake. After about 0.3 miles (the lake is about 0.9 miles long), we found a great rocky area overlooking the lake. It was the perfect spot for a lunch break.

Hurd Peak above Long Lake

Chocolate Peak above Long Lake

From our lunch perch, we had a panoramic view of the area. Facing south, to our left (east) was Chocolate Peak, noticeably orange in comparison to the other mountains in the area. Below us to the left, a fisherman casted into the water, hoping for a bite. To the right, Hurd Peak dominated the view. In front of us was the remainder of Long Lake, backed by majestic mountains at Bishop Pass. Behind us, to our right, a small island sat in the lake, topped by a handful of trees and some snow.

Panoramic of Long Lake
(Click image to view full size)

Looking south across Long Lake from our lunch spot

Small island in Long Lake

Perfect spot for a lunch break

After lunch, it started to get noticeably cooler, so we decided against the usual snowman building. Instead, we started back (it was a bit past 3pm by this time). We had an easy return trip. It was notable for one thing, though -- much of the snow and ice on the trail was melting away, forming large puddles, much worse than when we had walked toward Long Lake. It was a good thing we had our winter boots to keep us mostly dry.

Heading back next to Long Lake

Sun sparkling in Long Lake

Reflections in northern end of Long Lake

By the time we reached the aspens near the start of the hike, the icy portion of trail was instead mostly slushy or even bare dirt. We returned to the parking lot before 5pm after a great hike. I'm already in the planning stages for next year's long backpacking trip. One of the potential hikes I'm looking at is a popular trek from South Lake to North Lake. It may be a bit longer than what I'm looking for right now, but if this hike was any indication, the scenery is definitely enticing.

Heading back down the mostly dry trail

Aspens near the start of the trail

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