BIG PINE — Hiking along Big Pine Creek to the base of the Palisades Glacier is arguably the best variation of scenery you can jam in on a per mile basis in the Eastern Sierra.
Taking the trail all the way to the base of Palisades Glacier and back to the trailhead is a 17.1 mile odyssey. The last half mile or so to the glacier is over a fairly steep rock field.
The base of the glacier — which is the largest in the Sierra — is at 12,000 feet. It descends from the eastern planks of four mountain peaks in excess of 14,000 feet. Nowhere else in California can you take in the view of that many 14,000 plus foot peaks.
There is a faint trail covering the last segment that you can find if you stay more toward the left of the rock field to the west. My last trip I couldn’t find it so I struck out on my own path and encountered a bit of trouble given my lack of well-developed rock scrambling skills. While I ended up turning around without going down to the actual glacier — I caught a glimpse at it with my head popping above a rocky ridge — others including a family with pre-teen hikers made it down and had come back after I got myself back to stable and safe ground.
In retrospect I probably could have finished the hike to the glacier but a close call I had plus my aching feet would still have to cover a mile of almost nothing but rocks to get from where the well beaten trail ended to reach the glacier and then return, I decided to head back down.
To be totally honest it gave me another excuse to tackle the trail and to make sure the next time I bring the SLR digital camera with me instead of relying on my iPhone. The hike really offers some of the most varied scenery I’ve seen on one route in the Sierra. I could probably spend hours wandering around Sam Mack Meadow at 11,100 feet taking photos. It is that breath-taking.
It can be a bit breath-taking even to reach Sam Mack Meadow. The hike is rated strenuous with an average grade of 10 percent.
The maximum grade is 51 percent if you stay on the trail but my error put me on unstable rock that was easily more around 60 percent which is a huge no-no with a klutz like me.
The hike to Sam Mack Meadow — a great spot to shoot for and use as a turnaround point — can be done in six or seven hours and has an elevation gain of 3,438 feet from the trailhead at 7,120 feet.
The last part of the trail takes you up past rushing water spilling over the meadow’s lip. It is a tad steep but not as much if you continue on to the glacier. The hike up to the meadow at this point takes you through heavy vegetation — shrubs, flowers, and trees — making for a somewhat magical experience.
It’s tough to describe Mack Meadow and do it justice. It has a large creek meandering through it that cascades downward at the southern end. The meadow grass seems 10 times more vibrant than in Tuolumne Meadow when the Yosemite icon is at its peak. The fact you are surrounded on three sides by towering mountains adds to its appeal.
Perhaps the fact you will only encounter a handful of people — if that — should you happen to linger there for an hour makes it even more enjoyable.
On my first trip there in 2014 with my nephew Garrison MacQueen we spent an hour soaking in the meadow.
It was incredible stretching out on a boulder on the creek’s edge as you were serenaded by flowing water making its way past lush greenery while soaking in the blue skies above with clouds making their way past the surrounding peaks.
Before the cut-off to Sam Meadow you will pass three of the seven glacier-fed lakes that have a stunning aqua color. The lakes are named First Lake, Second Lake, Third Lake, etc.
You hike past the other four lakes by opting to go to continue on the trail that takes you along the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.
It is easy to slip down from the trail and explore the three lakes you will pass before the cut-off.
The trail on the way up will also take you alongside a waterfall, past the historic Lon Chaney cabin completed in 1930 by the actor of the same name as well as varied woodlands and fauna.
It is a popular fishing area as you will see backpackers and hikers with rods as well as pass more than a few horses and pack mules.
The trail to Seventh Lake is fairly well traveled as opposed to the route to Sam Mack Meadow and then to glacier.