Big Bear Lake Loop in the Lakes Basin Recreational Area of Plumas County
Late October hiking can be so spectacular in the Sierra Nevada. October is my & my son’s favorite hiking month, sometimes because of the fall colors, but often just because we enjoy that cold air on the lungs when climbing in the mountains.
This past Saturday, we headed north to the Lakes Basin out of Graeagle, California, for a new adventure on a lake loop that we had never experienced before. As we turned off 395 at Hallelujah Junction, north of Reno and drove towards the Sierra, we laughed at the 28-degree mark displayed on the dashboard. A little colder than expected for our morning trek. Also, up in front of us as we approached Portola, we could see a lot of snow covering the mountains near Mt. Elwell where we were headed.
Pulling through Graeagle, the temperature stayed a steady 30 degrees but quickly returned to the 28-degree mark as we started to climb up into the Lakes Basin Recreation Area off the Gold Lakes Highway. The Gold Lakes Highway will close soon for the winter recreation season, but in the fall season, we found it not so busy and immediately knew we had chosen a great place to enjoy the Sierra today.
Big Bear Lake Loop was our destination today, A easy to moderate trail lop that includes 4-7 lakes depending on the route you choose and the opportunity to climb Mt Elwell if you desire. Most of the hike keeps hikers in the 6000 to 6500-foot level, and the well-maintained and constructed trail crosses through forested granite hillsides.
After visiting Big Bear Lake and letting the astonishment of all the snow we were going to travel through today sink in, we made a plan to see Six lakes today and be back early enough that we could stop in town for a late lunch and brew at the Brewers Lair.
Big Bear Lake was stunning, with a white-covered granite shelf as our backdrop. Its crystal clear waters made us feel like this would be a perfect destination for any day in the mountains, except that it was less than a mile from the trailhead, and we came to hike. Still, hauling in a Paddleboard to this lake is definitely within reason for future trips.
Carrying on with our hike goal for the day, we passed Little Bear Lake and Cub Lake and then hit our first trail junction on the South side of Long Lake.
This trail is relatively easy with a quick payoff if you’re someone who likes to see lots of lake options for an excellent day hiking, hanging a hammock or just enjoying a picnic alone in the mountains.
Long Lake was an absolute stunner, as its blue waters contrasted with the granite and clay looks of Mt.Elwell behind the lake shore. By now, we were walking in 1.5 -3. inches of snow and ice and made plans to head up to the south so see Silver lake and Round Lake before backtracking to Long Lake and looping back for the day.
Another mile and we captured views of Silver Lake and stopped at Round Lake for lunch. These beautiful lakes would rank well in anyone’s hike to a scenic lake destination for the day. It was interesting to learn that backpacking is not allowed at these lakes. They would probably be way too popular if they were, especially for first-time packers or weekend warriors, because the short distance and relatively easy climb to these beautiful lake locations.
From Round Lake, you could loop back to Big Bear Lake and back to the car for a loop option, but for us, it was still early, and we felt like we had several miles still in our energy storage today. So after a great lunch, stop sitting in the warm sun on a cold crisp day by the lake. We headed back down to Silver Lake and then to Long Lake Trail Junction. At this point, we have yet to cover four miles and have already visited six lakes. This loop is a catch for any hiker in the region.
Stepping out towards the loop that would take us along the Eastern Shore of Long Lake, we were a little disappointed that the trail didn’t travel closer to the water and keep the lake in view. The trail is still very well-maintained and beautiful, but since we already knew how stunning Long Lake was, it just left you wanting more.
Half a mile later, we reached another decision point. We could cut back to the car and complete the loop, or we could continue along Long Lake, then drop down Gray Eagle Creek Canyon to Grassy Lake trailhead before walking back along the road to the trailhead next to Elwell Lodge. We decided on the longer route and were pleased to see the trail meander back up to the great view of Long Lake from the Northern edge near the dam before we crossed over the dam and headed down Gray Creek past a lovely waterfall before looping back to Grass Lake and the lower Lakes basin region. The Grassy Lake area looked like it would have been stunning two weeks earlier, as we missed the peak leaf season.
Overall, for the day, our loop was about 6.5 miles, and we enjoyed a quick visit to Elwell Lodge before returning to the car. Next, Stop at the Frostee in Graeagle for burgers, then the Brewers Lair for a brew before heading home.
Another fantastic day trip and hike for our crew from the Carson Valley into the Sierra to Plumas Country. This loop trail I will revisit this in the summer when I look forward to a swim or two and hanging my hammock with the dag for a day at the lake.