Hiking/backpacking to Big Bear Lake and Little Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps is one of my favorite far northern California excursions. Trailhead access is easy, and I quickly get into beautiful sub-alpine granite wilderness. Note that the hike itself is relatively steep — you need to be in decent shape.
(This post is based on chapter 56 of my book 100 Classic Hikes in Northern California, third edition.)
Big Bear Lake Trail
Length: 10 miles round-trip
Hiking time: 8 hours or overnight
High point: 5,850 feet
Total elevation gain: 2,800 feet
Season: mid-June through mid-October
Water: plentiful along most of the route (purify first)
Maps: USGS 7.5′ Tangle Blue Lake, USFS Trinity Alps Wilderness
Information: Weaverville Ranger District, Shasta–Trinity National Forest
Granite-ringed Big Bear Lake makes a good overnight backpacking trip: A variety of plants line the trail on the way up, you’ll love the lake’s clear waters and steep glacial cirque, and it’s easily accessible from Highway 3.
If you are staying overnight, you’ll need a wilderness permit. Get one 24/7 at the Weaverville Ranger Station, Scott River Ranger Station, Big Bar Ranger Station, or the Coffee Creek Ranger Station.
From the west side of Highway 3 about 16 miles north of Trinity Center and 1.2 miles south of Scenic Route 17, turn on Bear Creek Loop Road. Pass Sunflower Flat Cabins and proceed a little over a mile to the obvious parking area and the signed trailhead.
After a crossing Bear Creek, the trail begins the long climb to Big Bear Lake in a forest of cedar, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine and travels close to Bear Creek for the first mile. At 1.0 mile you’ll reach a footbridge across the creek. The trail then switchbacks steeply up a ridge between Bear Creek and a smaller stream. Manzanita and huckleberry oak, two common chaparral shrubs, line and occasionally intrude onto the path, while numerous black oak and an occasional stand of knobcone pine provide some shade.
Approach the creek again at 2.1 miles and begin alternating between a mixed white fir and western white pine forest and lush open patches with numerous ferns. The first open views of the glacial granite cirques harboring Big Bear Lake, your destination, and cousins Little Bear Lake and Wee Bear Lake, appear at 3.1 miles.
From here, the occasionally steep route passes through numerous moist areas inhabited by mountain alder, fern, and some western azalea. At 4.6 miles the trail crosses granite outcrops, where rock ducks (cairns) guide you. Be sure to look back for an exquisite eastward view of Mount Shasta.
At 5 miles you finally reach Big Bear Lake, where steep granite walls tower over 1,000 feet on the south, west, and north sides. You’ll find good deep spots for swimming by walking to the steep granite on the east shore. Several adequate campsites, most shaded by mountain hemlock, western white pine, and red fir, sit above the lake on both sides of the outlet creek.
Cross-Country Hike to Little Bear Lake
If you have decent cross-country hiking and route-finding skills, you’ll want to make the trek to Little Bear Lake. Head a few hundred feet down the trail from Big Bear Lake to where Bear Creek tumbles down open granite and is easy to cross. Look across the creek at the ridge just on the creek’s other side. Pick the easiest route to get on that ridge. From there, you need to angle east by southeast up about 400 vertical feet and over about .8 mile. Let your eyes and instinct guide you, although you may also see a few rock ducks. Get the Trinity Alps Wilderness topographic map to help guide you, or the USGS Tangle Blue Lake topographic map.
Little Bear Lake has good campsites on the east side, and you’ll love the granite glacial cirque and the easy access to the clear and deep waters. (Also see my Little Bear Lake video.) Small and shallow Wee Bear Lake is a couple hundred yards downstream via a faint path.
Been to these lakes? What did you think?