Magnificent Mammoth Lakes’ Duck Lake Trail, John Muir Wilderness

If you like pristine wilderness and glimmering, translucent alpine lakes, you’ll love this hike in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth Lakes, CA. You’ll be rewarded every couple miles of effort with one of the 6 refreshing gems along the route.  (If you’re into trout fishing, you’ll definitely want to bring your pole. They say the higher you go, the bigger the trout.)


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You’ll come upon the first lake, Heart Lake, at mile 1. While you might feel a little silly stopping so soon after embarking, you won’t want to miss this little gem. And given the altitude and incline, you find that you’d like to enjoy the view for a minute or two. Arrowhead Lake is next at mile 1.2 (9,680 ft) followed by Skeleton Lake and Barney Lake (10,022 ft) at 2.5. Once you tear yourself away from Barney, you’ll hit some switchbacks. Spectacular Duck Lake (10,850 ft) will reveal herself to you around mile 4. While you’re there you can visit her adjacent,charming  little sister, Pika Lake. If you continue on, the pines close in on the narrow trail as you continue climbing, descending, climbing  and traversing to Purple Lake (8 miles). (You can camp anywhere along the way as long as you are at least a 100 feet from lakes or streams.) We camped above Purple Lake, which was a bit anti-climatic after Duck Lake. Purple Lake has its own more subtle, woodsy allure, but the outstanding beauty of Duck Lake was mesmerizing and where I found my bliss.

For a quick overnighter, I pack some luxuries. For this trip that included the cozy, warm pants and fuzzy top you see in the picture. I also like to forgo a tent and just enjoy the night sky and wilderness. The gloves and the hat were necessities. It gets cold at night at altitude even when temps have been in the high 70s during the day. Despite my suggestion, my boyfriend did not bring a hat or gloves. He said. “It won’t get that cold.” I should have snapped a pic of him with his mummy back zipped all the way up with only the tip of his red nose sticking out. In the morning as our boots crunched along on the ice slicked trail, he conceded, “I guess it did get cold last night.” (Yes, we’re at altitude in the Eastern Sierra’s so even in late August, it can get quite chilly at night or when a storm front comes through.)

This trail is doable for a day hike, trail run or an overnighter. And it connects to the Pacific Crest Trail so there’s ample opportunity to just keep going.  Kind of wish I could have, but I’ll be back.


Scenery: AWESOME

Difficulty: Somewhat strenuous given the altitude and fairly continuous climb

Access:  Via Coldwater  Campground 

Starting  elevation: 8,900 feet

Permit required. Pick it up with your bear canister (if you’re over-nighting with food) at the local Forest Ranger Station.

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