Little Lakes Basin

Distance: 4.2 - 7.7 miles (round trip)

John Muir Wilderness Area, Inyo National Forest, near Mammoth Lakes in California's Southeastern Sierra

Introduction

Beautiful reflections of the peaks in Long Lake

The Little Lakes Basin is truly an extraordinary place. An easy trail ascends along a succession of gorgeous glacial carved lakes set amid pretty meadows framed by the spectacular 13,000-ft peaks of Bear Creek Spire, Mt. Dade, Mt. Abbot, Mt. Mills and Mt. Morgan. Along the way spur trails and routes leading to unseen lakes and two major passes invite further exploration.

Starting at 10,200-ft., this high elevation trail requires minor effort and elevation gain to access it’s amazing views, shimmering lakes and lofty granite peaks, making the area a popular destination for hikers, backpackers and fishermen. Due to its popularity the small trailhead parking lot fills early in the day, typically before 9am during the height of the summer. The closest overflow parking area is located 0.3 miles back down the road. My advice is to get an early start or plan on extending you hike with a walk up the road.

Trailhead to Long Lake

Looking south up the Little Lake valley shortly after passing the turnoff to Mono Pass.

Distance from Trailhead: 4.2 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 10,560-ft.

Elevation Gain: 360-ft.

From the Mosquito Flats parking area head south, ascending on gentle grades along the west side of Rock Creek. In a short distance the grade steepens as the trail climbs a small hill above Mack Lake. The lake is tucked below the trail in a gully and is difficult to see from the trail.

At the top of the hill reach a trail junction at 0.5 miles. Veer left in the direction of Morgan Pass to reach the Little Lake Valley. The trail to the right (west) climbs to Mono Pass.

Just beyond the junction the trail crests the top of the hill and starts a moderate descent to the south end of Mack Lake. Along the way great views open to the high peaks ringing the Little Lakes Valley, including Mt. Morgan (13,748-ft.), Pyramid Peak (12,866-ft.), Bear Creek Spire (13,740-ft.), Mt. Dade(13,600-ft.), Mt. Abbot (13,704-ft.) and Mt. Starr (12,835-ft.).

For the next 0.7 miles the trail wanders through a gentle rolling landscape of meadows and scattered pine forest past the distant shores of Marsh Lake at 1.0 mile and the glistening waters of Heart Lake at 1.3 miles. As you progress up the valley enjoy every improving views of the stunning granite peaks towering above the head of the valley. Mt. Starr rises above the trail to the west while Mt. Morgan dominates the skyline to the east.

Beyond the south end of Heart Lake the trail ascends a hillside paralleling the western shore of Box Lake and arrives at a scenic overlook at 1.6 miles. Pyramid Peak, Bear Creek Spire and Mt. Dade tower above the cirque at the head of the valley. After a brief descent the trail resumes its gentle climb up the valley, crosses Rock Creek at 1.9 miles and arrives at the northern end of photogenic Long Lake at 2.1 miles.

From the north shore of the aptly named Long Lake, the jagged profiles of Mt Abbot and Bear Creek Spire fill the skyline to the southwest. Follow the trail as it traverses the lake’s eastern shoreline for 0.4 miles. Be sure to turn around for great views of Mt. Starr.

To Morgan Pass

View of the peaks rising above Gem Lake from slightly below Morgan Pass

Distance from Trailhead: 7.4 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 11,110-ft.

Elevation Gain: 900-ft.

At the south end of Long Lake the trail ascends a granite bench on moderate grades, gaining 320-ft. over 0.7 miles. Along the way the trail passes a spur trail to Chicken Foot Lake at 2.75 miles and crosses a draw. The grade abates at 3.1 miles. If you look carefully through the trees to the southeast you will see the trail climbing to Morgan Pass. Rock hop across the outlet stream for the Gem Lakes and reach a trail junction at 3.4 miles. The trail to the right (southwest) heads to the Gem Lakes while the trail to the left (east) ascends to Morgan Pass.

If you have the time and energy I suggest visiting both destinations. The broad rocky trail to the pass ascends on moderately steep switchbacks, gaining 200-ft in 0.3 miles. As you climb look to the northwest toward the amazing sheer granite ridge extending north from Mt. Mills (13,451-ft.).

Morgan Pass (11,110-ft.), reached 3.7 miles from the trailhead, enjoys stunning views of Mount Dade, Mt Abbot and Treasure Mountain towering above the Gem Lakes basin. Steep scree covered slopes rise above a narrow valley to the east of the pass where the trail descends through a massive boulder field to Upper Morgan Lake (10,940-ft.) in half a mile and Lower Morgan Lake (10,700-ft.) in a mile. The trail eventually leads to the Pine Creek trailhead.

To Gem Lakes

The largest of the Gem Lakes

Distance from Trailhead: 7.7 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 10,930-ft.

Elevation Gain: 730-ft.

After taking in the views from the pass return to the trail junction and turn left (southwest) on the Gem Lakes trail. The trail heads west, passing through a pretty meadow along the south shore of one of the small Gems. Mount Dade, Mt Abbot and Treasure Mountain rises above the headwall at the west end of the basin. Mt. Starr rises in the distance to the north.

Beyond the small tarn the trail wanders through scattered pines, scrub growth and granite outcroppings to the east shore of the largest Gem Lake. This beautiful alpine jewel lies cradled in a granite bowl surrounded on three sides by steep granite cliffs. The tops of Mount Dade, Mt Abbot and Treasure Mountain peak above the granite ridge to the west.

After taking in the views return to the trail junction and retrace your steps down the Little Lakes Valley, enjoying a different perspective on the spectacular scenery during the hike back to the trailhead.

Hike Facts

 

Elevation Profile

Little Lakes Elevation Profile

 

 

Driving Directions

From Mammoth Lakes: Drive east on Main Street / CA 203 E for 3.1 miles and turn right onto the entrance ramp for Highway 395 S. Follow Highway 395 S for 15 miles to Tom’s Pace (aka Rock Creek Road). Turn right (south) on Rock Creek Road and drive 10.5 miles up the canyon to the Mosquito Flats Parking area at the end of the road. The final 1.25 miles of the road is single lane with occasional pullouts. The trailhead is located at the south end of the parking lot.

From Bishop: Follow Highway 395 N north for 24 miles to Tom’s Place (aka Rock Creek Road). Turn left (south) on Rock Creek Road and drive 10.5 miles up the canyon to the Mosquito Flats Parking area at the end of the road. The final 1.25 miles of the road is single lane with occasional pullouts. The trailhead is located at the south end of the parking lot.

This trailhead is extremely popular and the parking area fills early in the morning (8:30am-9am). Overflow parking is available 0.3 miles back down the road. On busy weekends you may need to drive much further back on the road to find an empty parking space.

 

Trail Resources