Little Lakes Valley

After spending the night at the Grandview Campground, I made my way toward Mosquito Flat Trailhead to begin my backpacking trip in Little Lakes Valley. While I could have made breakfast at the campground, I had a recommendation to stop at the Rock Creek Lakes Resort and have breakfast there instead. After enjoying some eggs, toast, and coffee out on their deck, I hopped back in the car and continued driving toward the trailhead. While it was just after 9:30, I got the last available parking spot. There were some available in the overflow section about ¼ mile back down the road. As a point of trivia, this parking lot is the highest paved trailhead in the US at 10,200 feet!

My basic plan was to saunter along the trail, soaking in the views until I reached Chickenfoot Lake, and then find a campsite. Once I had my camp set up, I would then continue exploring the valley up toward its end at Gem Lakes. After taking advantage of the pit toilets at the trailhead, I set off down the trail. The sounds of Rock Creek flowing past me filled my ears. The trail would take me past several lakes, each with its unique beauty. 

Since I was in no hurry, I made sure to keep my pace relaxed. This was in part to manage my foot, but also to remember the fact I am hiking at over 10,000 feet. The trail would gradually climb for a bit, then rise up a bit as it neared a lake, then it would mostly level out again as it passed by it, then repeat the cycle again.

After formally entering the John Muir Wilderness, the next milestone was the junction with the trail that could take you up to Ruby Lake and over Mono Pass. But that was for another adventure. Soon, my first lake, Mack Lake, would come into view. This lake sits down a bit from the trail, so I did not go exploring it. I could see some folks trying their luck in fishing. Over the two days out in Little Lakes Valley, I saw quite a few folks with fishing rods along the trail.

Continuing on, I soon came to my second lake, Marsh Lake. I left the main trail and followed a small spur trail to get an even better view of the lake. I had barely begun this hike and was already blown away by the beauty of the area. Once back on the main trail, and after a short climb, the next lake would open up before me. The trail now hugged the shoreline of Heart Lake. Here a string of Boy Scouts passed me, returning from their overnight adventures. 

Side streams would flow into the lakes. Some of them had real bridges, while others were just rock-hopping across. My next lake along the trail was Box Lake. Much like Mack Lake, this one sits slightly below the trail. Checking my tracker, I had covered about half of the planned 3-mile hike to the campsite.

So far, everything was feeling good as I made my way up toward Long Lake. The trail passes on the left side of the lake, along a rocky shoreline. I could start to see the landscape changing, transitioning from the forest into the alpine. I knew after Long Lake, I would reach the junction with the trail that would take me over to Chickenfoot Lake. 

One of the reasons for picking this lake to set up camp is that it sits off the main trail and is a bit more secluded from the main trail traffic. I worked my way up and over to the lake. While the gain is not much, being at altitude certainly has an effect on the effort needed. I passed several sites but wanted to survey my options before picking one. I found a nice one with a good view of one of the “toes” of Chickenfoot Lake and began to set things up. As I headed down to the lake to filter some water, a couple of hikers were nearby enjoying their lunch in the shade. It turns out one of them was the volunteer at the Bristlecone Forest Visitor Center and the one who swore me in as a “Junior Ranger”. Small world… I quickly filtered some water, as I was hungry as well. I tried a new method of filling my ‘dirty’ Sawyer bags by using a Ziploc bag to scoop the water from the lake, then transfer it into the Sawyer bags. This worked like a charm. No more struggling to fill them via their small openings. 

After stashing my bear canister, I tossed some items into my slack pack and set off to explore the rest of the valley. I rejoined the main trail and headed toward the Gem Lakes. Rising to my left was Morgan Pass. Apparently, there was an effort to have a road cross it and come into the valley from that direction. In fact, the frame of one of those cars sits rusting by the side of the trail. I gave serious thought to climbing up to the pass, but the desire to see the lakes won out.

Gem Lakes is a small collection of about 5 or so lakes at the end of the valley. The two main lakes sit almost next to one another at the actual end. A few wildflowers dotted the trail as I hiked toward it. The steep walls of the valley gave me a clear idea of how much further I had to go. I came up over the small rise, and the main lake spread out before me. Some snow still remained tucked against the rocky talus of the northside of the slope. Some folks had pitched their tents at some of the available spots along the shoreline. I followed the trail along it until I reached the western shore, then found a comfortable spot and just relaxed. 

I decided to head back to my camp. I kept eyeing the climb up Morgan Pass and gave it one last consideration at the junction, but I knew I needed to stay conservative as I still did need to hike out tomorrow. Once back at the camp, I gave my feet a nice soak in the cold lake. I figured they had earned that reward. I found some shade, kicked back, and listened to an audiobook for a while. 

As the sun began to set behind the mountains, I left the shore and began making dinner. I sat against some rocks, gazing at the water while eating my meal. The bugs started to come out, so I opted to retreat to my tent and continue my audiobook for a while. Soon, I could feel sleep coming on and I drifted off. Since it was one day after the full moon, I knew I was not going to have a dark sky to enjoy. Around midnight I woke up and poked my head out of the tent to be rewarded with a magical sight. The glow of the moon was lighting up the mountains and I hoped my phone’s camera captured it. Thankfully, it did.

I woke a bit before sunrise, which was fine as I had hoped to also capture some of the early morning aspenglow. I tried to have some breakfast, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I guess the altitude was getting to me a bit. As I was packing, I got the moon setting behind the pointed peaks to the west, and a few minutes later, I got my aspenglow.

Those pancakes back at the Rock Creek Lake Resort were sounding really good, so I set off. The air was calm as I neared Box Lake, and its smooth surface was a wonderful mirror of the majestic mountains behind it. While the hike out was going to be mostly downhill, I did have a few small bumps to cross over. Several of the other lakes also provide similar shots as I drew nearer to the trailhead. About halfway back, I started to encounter some other hikers, and quite a few dogs as well. I stopped and chatted with some, as they inquired about where I had camped, much like I had done the day before.

The sun finally rose above the high valley walls just before I reached the trailhead. With that my adventure in Little Lakes Valley was drawing to a close. As I made my way to the parking lot, a couple in a truck asked if I was leaving. I told them “yes, in a bit”. They swung around and politely waited for me to switch out of the hiking gear and clean up a bit before heading out. The parking lot was once again full. As I drove away, I saw several folks walking up from the overflow lot to begin their hike. I once again sat on the deck, enjoying a warm breakfast, scrolling through the hundreds of photos I took across the three days, being ever thankful for the opportunities to find peace and joy in this world.

The drive home was uneventful, just long. I made a quick stop at Erick Schat’s Bakery for some bread to bring home and picked up my other Junior Ranger badge at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center. Once home, I unloaded the car and gave it a good airing out as we needed it to pick up my daughter later that night from the airport. Another great trip was now in the books. And as an added bonus, my foot did ok. 


I am an avid peak bagger, sometimes backpacker, and former sea-kayaker living in San Diego. In 2019, I became the third person to complete the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge. Not stopping with that accomplishment, I set my sights on the harder San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list, which I completed in 2021. In addition, I have conquered several Six-Pack of Peaks challenges (SoCal, San Diego, and Arizona-Winter). Beyond attempting the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list a second time, I am looking forward to exploring new summits and new adventures across the southwest.