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Little Lakes Valley

John Muir Wilderness

October 12th, 2019

9.2 miles
1360 vertical feet
Total Time: 5:40

Starting elevation
9853 feet
Max elevation
10932 feet

Rating: 9/10

Directions: From Tom's Place on Highway 395, take Rock Creek Road west. Note that the exit from Highway 395 is signed for Rock Creek Lake. Follow the road for about 9 miles as it climbs into the mountains. After that it becomes a 1-lane road, though still paved, for the last 1.2 miles to the large parking area for Mosquito Flat at the end of the road.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

We reached the Mosquito Flat overflow parking area around 11am to find 3 spots left. Rather than continue on up to the main lot, we decided to just park there. Someone else confirmed that there were no free spaces up there, and we constantly saw cars turning back.

After prepping, we walked up the road about 7-10 minutes to reach the main parking area, which was completely full. From there, we started on the Little Lakes Valley trail. We'd been on this trail twice before - once in 2009 to hike to Heart Lake, and again in 2011 in the snow (in early October) on a hike to Ruby Lake.

The trail starts out next to Rock Creek, then starts to climb up into the John Muir Wilderness (there's a sign). It's a relatively short and not too steep climb. We soon reached an intersection. To the right is the trail to Ruby Lake and beyond to Mono Pass. We stayed on the left fork toward the Little Lakes Valley. We shared the trail with many people (and dogs), including a few backpackers (despite the cold nights).

Hike along Rock Creek

There were a couple small lakes (Marsh Lake and Mack Lake) visible to the left of trail before we descended briefly toward Heart Lake. We could now see the mountains looming to the southwest, framing the entire scene. I have to say that after visiting Tasmania and Iceland recently, there was something refreshing, soothing to the soul, about returning to the Sierra. The trees, the grasses, the lakes, the mountain views, and even the rocks underfoot - it was all familiar and beautiful.

Mack Lake

Heart Lake was where we had stopped and turned around back in 2009, back when the kids were small. But today we would be continuing on all the way to Gem Lakes. After a brief stop at Heart Lake for some pictures, we continued along the trail hugging its eastern shore, then followed the trail as it climbed to an overlook above the next lake, Box Lake.

Approaching Heart Lake

Heart Lake

We didn't descend to the shore, but enjoyed the views from the rocks above Box Lake. We saw one tent nearby, so someone was camping here despite the relative closeness to the trailhead. This whole area seems like a good choice for a short backpacking trip, as there are several lakes to choose from.

Box Lake

Box Lake

We left Box Lake behind and soon reached the edge of Long Lake. This lake lives up to its name. There are some forested areas to the right of the outlet stream, but the left shore (where the trail goes) is mostly rocky and rises up sharply. We followed this trail as it skirts the edge of the lake. At the far end of the lake there are grassy areas and a forested area beyond that, with good views of the lake. A use trail leads to nice picnic areas (and possibly camping areas as well, though we didn't venture far enough to see). We settled on a spot in the shade overlooking the lake and enjoyed a nice lunch.

Long Lake

Long Lake

Southern end of Long Lake

While it had been short-sleeve weather on the way up here, it grew quite chilly in the shade. After lunch we returned to the main trail and turned right to head up to Gem Lakes. The trail starts to climb more seriously than before, passing a spur trail to Chickenfoot Lake along the way. We didn't stop to look, but I'd take a detour on the way back.

First Gem Lake

We reached a trail intersection, with the left fork heading on to Morgan Pass. We took the right turn to Gem Lakes. Soon enough we could see one of the smallest of the lakes (more of a pond, really). But continuing on, we reached the lake proper, backed by granite mountains. The left side was mostly talus, but the right side was a forested area where many people were hanging out, fishing, or perhaps getting ready to camp here for the night. After a long stop here for pictures, we turned to the main trail to start the trip back to the trailhead.

Gem Lake

Gem Lake

Reflections in Gem Lake

Reflections in Gem Lake

Gem Lake

Gem Lake shore

At the Chickenfoot junction, I decided to take the 5 minute trail to the lake while the rest of my family continued on. I saw many good camping spots here before I reached the lake itself. Someone in fact was camping up on a hill overlooking the lake. It looks like it would probably be a better camping spot than Gem Lakes, which is surrounded by steep mountains and probably doesn't have as many good camping spots (though I don't know that for sure). Chickenfoot Lake itself is pretty nice, with a forested area on one side, and talus-strewn mountains on the other. But I think I probably like Long Lake the most of the lakes we saw today.

Chickenfoot Lake

I returned to the main trail, then rejoined my family at the far end of Long Lake before we continued the trip back. Despite it growing later in the afternoon, the trail was still busy. When we reached the Mosquito Flat trailhead, we even saw a couple of backpackers starting out on the trail (at 5:15pm!). The main parking area was still about 75% full. We continued along to the overflow lot, which was now mostly empty.

Heart Lake

In summary, this was a great and popular trail. The lack of more parking probably prevents it from being overrun more than it already is. It's still well worth visiting, though, despite the crowds.

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