Hiking Big Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps

by John Soares on August 12, 2012

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 in the Trinity Alps.

Big Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps.

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
Difficulty: moderate
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.

Bear Creek and Mount Shasta below Big Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps.

Bear Creek and Mount Shasta below Big Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps.

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.

Beginning of cross-country route to Little Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps. Start by getting to the ridge at upper right of photo.

Beginning of cross-country route to Little Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps. Start by getting to the ridge at upper right of photo.

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.

Little Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps.

Little Bear Lake in the Trinity Alps. Great swimming and big fish!Granite cirques holding Big Bear Lake (right) and Little Bear Lake (left). Photo from Parks Creek Saddle.

Granite cirques holding Big Bear Lake (right) and Little Bear Lake (left). Photo from Parks Creek Saddle.

Granite cirques holding Big Bear Lake (right) and Little Bear Lake (left). Photo from Parks Creek Saddle.

Your Take

Been to these lakes? What did you think?

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Wayman August 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Wish I’d known you when I lived in northern California… I think I’ll gift my daughter your book come Christmas.

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Gambolin' Man August 14, 2012 at 9:54 am

Very nice, John! Looks like one I keep missing, but not for long!

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John Soares August 14, 2012 at 10:24 am

Also try to get to Little Bear Lake Tom. I prefer it to Big Bear.

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Matt "Swithback Swally" August 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm

John,

Had to write and say our Boy Scout Troop just completed a 50 mile hike (54.2 exactly) through the Trinity Alps, specifically Deer Creek, Swift Creek and Union Creek drainages. Thanks to an article in Backpacker Magazine from May 1999 and your trip description to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes from 2010, we spent 7 nights and 8 days at Big Flat, Snowslide Lake, Caribou Lake, Emerald Lake, Deer Creek Camp, Mumford Meadows and Union Lake. Caribou Scramble (Suicide Ridge) was something else. Elevation gain/loss was also intense but we all had a great time deep in the mountains, swimming and fishing the lakes, implementing Leave No Trace and taking in all the grandeur. Truly a trip of a lifetime. We hope to get back up there next year sometime. Thanks for the inspiration. And on a final note, I picked up a copy of your book, “100 Classic Hikes of Nor Cal” and look forward to reading it….many of the hikes you list I have previously have completed.

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Ike May 12, 2015 at 10:07 pm

Hi Matt,
Would please give me more details of your trip. I’m an ASM with Troop 259 and would like to take my scouts to Trinity.
Thanks!

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Matt June 28, 2015 at 10:43 am

I can provide as many details as you like. I can also scan and send some things. Just as my note to John states, we started at Big Flat, camped at Snowslide, Caribou and Emerald Lake (yes, up and over Caribou Scramble (aka suicide ridge) then headed east and looped back out of Union Lake.

Rather than me listed a bunch of items, let me know specifically what your questions are and I’ll answer them.

Matt

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John Soares August 18, 2012 at 6:53 am

Matt, thanks for writing. I’m so glad that you and your scout troop had such a good time in the Trinity Alps. That’s a major excursion y’all completed!

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OutdoorNut June 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm

John, thank you for sharing the post. I live in nor cal and am about 3-1/2 hours from trinity (chico/oroville). I have not had the chance to hike in that area yet as age (more being out of shape:) is getting the best of my lady and I but I have to say, after looking at those pictures I have to get up there. I always knew there was a reason I came to cali and that looks like it. Absolutely beautiful.

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Kevin Johnson June 26, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Hi John,
I live in Humboldt County and love to backpack in the Trinity Alps. I’m new to the game but everyone was new once. Just finished a three-day trip to Tangle Blue with a day trip up past the Marshy Lakes and up to the PCT. Crazy good time.
I am wondering if you have any information on how to get to Log lake north of Big Bear lake. I have looked all over and can’t seem to find any information. My girlfriend thinks I’m nuts for wanting to go there so badly but nuts or not, I do.
Any help would be great.
kbobert72@gmail.com
Thanks,
Kevin Johnson

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John Soares June 27, 2013 at 6:52 am

I’ve read that people have done it by leaving the Big Bear Lake trail a half-mile or so below the lake and hiking to a saddle just above Log Lake. There’s a lot of brush on that slope. Good luck with it!

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Richard Kitowski July 2, 2014 at 7:40 pm

John,
I know that you are an avid backpacker so I hope that this question is not too far fetched. My wife and I do a lot of hiking, mostly day hikes, 8miles to 14 miles. Can you recommend a good spot to set up camp where one can access a number of good day hikes? I plan to purchase your book of hikes in the Mt. Shasta and Mt Lassen area. Have been to the top of both of those mountains. Are there good day hikes on, around Mt Shasta? I will appreciate your reply. Thanks

Richard

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John Soares July 3, 2014 at 5:50 am

Richard, there are a dozen or more great day hikes in the Mount Shasta area. Most are on the mountain itself or in the Trinity Divide mountains to the immediate west, including Mount Eddy. Not in my book is the Lake Siskiyou Trail, which encircles the entire lake and can be accessed from many points.

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Kay September 16, 2014 at 6:13 pm

John
Do you know of any great Trinity Alps lake hikes for an overnight trip that are a little closer to Arcata?

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John Soares September 16, 2014 at 6:20 pm
jesse April 16, 2015 at 10:29 am

Can you have a campfire at bear lake?

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John Soares April 19, 2015 at 6:23 am

There is relatively little wood around the lake, so it is best that you don’t have a fire. It’s important for the ecosystem that whatever little wood remains is allowed to decompose naturally.

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Ike May 12, 2015 at 10:09 pm

Hi John,
Can you recommend a 50 mile or so hike in Trinity?
Thanks!

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John Soares May 29, 2015 at 5:35 am

Ike, it’s too difficult to recommend a 50 miler in the Trinity Alps. There’s no obvious one long trail. It’s possible to do, but I’d have to know a lot of info about you, your companions, your fitness level, your experience as hikers, how much time you have, how well you can find routes, etc.

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Chris June 10, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Hi John,

I too am looking for a 50 miler (and will consider what the scouts did a few years ago. I am very fit, good at route finding and open to most any challenge that doesn’t involve ropes. I will be going solo, so nothing too risky. I regularly run ultras in the mountains (30+ miles in a day with 5K+ elevation). One thought is to go in, set up base camp and then do some long day runs from a camp or two so I can see more ground.

I plan to go end of July and thinking mosquitoes will not be an issue, but hate to get caught with out bug netting in shelter, but leaving that behind will save me 2 lbs. Thoughts?

Any advice is appreciated.

Cheers,
Chris

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John Soares June 11, 2015 at 8:49 am

Chris, consider doing the Four Lakes Loop from the Stoney Ridge trail. Once there you’d have several options for day runs.

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Chris June 15, 2015 at 7:54 pm

Thanks John :)

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Janette Storer June 11, 2015 at 2:29 pm

I did this hike last weekend for my backpacking trip John, absolutely beautiful!!!

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John Soares June 12, 2015 at 6:12 am

I’m glad you liked it, Janette. Did you get to Little Bear?

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