At A Glance
The Bear Lakes Trail goes to the magnificent Bear Lakes, nestled in a stunning granite basin on the outskirts of the Trinity Alps.
Total Length: 9 miles (Big Bear Lake), 11.2 miles (Little Bear Lake)
Elevation Gain: 2,800 feet (Big Bear Lake), 3180 feet (Little Bear Lake)
Season: Summer, Fall
Cliffs And Lakes And Bears, Oh My!
There can be no doubt that the Trinity Alps’ Bear Lakes are among the most beautiful bodies of water in the range. High, white granite cliffs nearly encircle Big Bear Lake. Stone spires point their majestic gaze down on the lake’s deep blue waters. It is a striking scene and almost seems like a slice of the Sierra Nevada has been magically transported and deposited into the middle of what otherwise appears like a region dominated by serpentine and peridotite. As if Big Bear Lake was not enough, it is complimented by equally lovely Little Bear Lake and the underappreciated Wee Bear Lake. Both of these smaller lakes are tucked away in a secondary basin high above the main lake and are only accessed by a rugged, cross-country scramble over nearly 0.7 miles of granite slabs. The entire collection of lakes is encompassed in the large Bear Lakes Basin, a massive fortress of granite that makes up the eastern most outlier of the Trinity Alps. It is a stunning setting and one of the finest hiking destinations in the region.
The Bear Lakes Trail is one of the more popular trails in the Trinity Alps, though most of its use is focused on the weekends. It is quite possible to have the entire basin all to oneself during the week. Aside from the obvious attraction of spectacular scenery, the trail is popular for a couple of reasons. First, it has the most easily accessed trailhead in all of the Trinities. Even the Canyon Creek Trail, the only trailhead accessed entirely by a paved road is still 12 miles north of Highway 299. In contrast, the Bear Lakes Trail is only 1.5 miles off of Highway 3 and all but the last few hundred yards of the road are paved. The other reason the trail is popular is because it can easily be done as a dayhike or a backpacking trip. Most of the best destinations in the Trinity Alps are reserved only for those who are willing to venture into the wilderness and camp. Few of the best spots can be reached quickly enough to leave plenty of time for the return hike. Even if one hikes to Big Bear Lake and the scrambles up to Little Bear Lake, the distance is only about 5.5 miles. Of course, the popularity of a trail should not be deterrence from making the trip. The scenery at the lakes is superlative and no amount of people should spoil the beauty of this spot.
The beginning of the Bear Lakes Trail has been altered recently. In years past, the trailhead was right alongside the access road on the south side of a bridge that crossed over Bear Creek, just prior to its confluence with the Trinity River. Massive flooding a few years ago prompted the county authorities to remove the bridge, despite the fact that it was not damaged. This forced the Forest Service to establish a new trailhead on the north side of the creek (it is unclear why this was done, though this is the side of the creek accessed via the paved road) and then add new trail crossing the creek and connecting to the old trailhead. From the trailhead, it is possible to simply descend down to Bear Creek, cross it, and then climb up the other side and walk the 100 yards to the trailhead. The new trail is not as direct. Instead, it heads toward the Trinity River and curves around to an easy crossing of Bear Creek just above its confluence with the Trinity. From there it switchbacks up to the old road and trailhead. Either way is acceptable, especially after the spring runoff has subsided. However, the new route is preferable, if for no other reason than it gives the Bear Lakes Trail the distinction of being the only path in the Trinity Alps, let alone one to a premier destination, that comes close to the main fork of the Trinity River. It adds a nice touch to the trip and gives hikers the opportunity to follow Bear Creek for the entire course of the stream.
Once at the old trailhead, the path begins to climb in earnest, rocketing up a few switchbacks before finally settling in and establishing a parallel course alongside Bear Creek. Though the trail and the creek follow each other, the path generally does not get close enough to comfortably access the creek. Once exception is at the lone crossing of the creek, which comes about 1 mile from the old trailhead. A bridge provides access to the north side of the creek. An attractive series of cascades falls into a small pool just above the bridge. It is the pretties spot thus far on the trail. Many guide books reference a stock crossing below the bridge. Don’t bother looking for it as it has fallen into disuse and is no longer maintained by the Forest Service. Once across the creek, the Bear Lakes Trail the trail breaks hard to the east for a short distance and then begins a long series of switchbacks. The trail is ascending a ridge that separates the main branch of Bear Creek with one of its largest tributaries. As the trail climbs, listen for the sound of rushing water to the left and right of the trail.
Once the top of the ridge is achieved the switchbacks are left behind and a long, steady ascent of Bear Creek’s drainage begins. The path passes through mixed forest of oak, pine and cedar before climbing higher into forest where the oaks diminish and firs become more prevalent. Looking back to the east as one climbs, notice the ridge that was denuded by fire long ago. Snags still persist amidst the brush that has claimed the area. Soon the trail’s grade becomes a bit more moderate and nears the creek again. Look for a pair of enormous ponderosa pines on the south side of the trail. The area is filled with old-growth trees but even so, these two trees are gargantuan. It is unusual to find two so close together like these giants. Just beyond the trees is a fantastic campsite right next to a raucous portion of Bear Creek that includes a nice bench constructed of granite stones.
Continuing on the Bear Lakes Trail, the trail steepens a bit and soon passes through a series of clearings that are monuments to past avalanches. For the first time the craggy cliffs of the Bear Lakes Basin come into view. Though the full grandeur of the basin has not yet been revealed, it is still an inspiring sight after climbing for so long under the forest canopy. As the path progresses it eventually crosses numerous seeps that create small streams or murky areas along the trail. Though the roar of Bear Creek is audible it has passed into a large thicket of willow that renders the creek invisible. As if to compensate for the loss of the creek, the basin’s cliffs emerge into view with every step forward.
Finally the trail breaks out of the willow and brush and climbs onto a series of white, granite slabs below Big Bear Lake. Bear Creek tumbles down a series of cascades, pouring from one granite shelf to another and sliding over the smooth granite face. The cliffs of Big Bear Lake’s cirque loom overhead. To the east, Mount Eddy and mighty Mount Shasta dominate the horizon, reminders that the Bear Lakes, as awesome as they are, are still on the very outskirts of the Trinity Alps. At this point, all of the guidebooks note that the trail ends and one must simply scramble up the smooth granite to reach Big Bear Lake. This was once the case but in recent years trail crews have added a solidly constructed extension of the trail all the way to the lake. The new trail addition is located on the north side of the creek, on the fringe of the granite slabs. It is reminiscent of trails in Yosemite, with granite steps helping to soften the grade. Though not the final destination of the trail, the cascading creek is mesmerizing and entices hikers to pause and relax awhile amidst the playful water.
Just prior to reaching Big Bear Lake, the trail enters a brushy thicket and crosses Bear Creek one final time. A short distance later, one is deposited at the east end of the beautiful lake. At 28 acres and 73 feet deep, Big Bear Lake is one of the largest and prettiest lakes in the Trinity Alps. The granite cliffs, nearly 1,300 feet high, almost completely encircle the lake. Only at the far eastern end of the cirque are the magnificent cliffs breached and the lake permitted to drain. Sharp spires line the top of the cliffs, mighty monuments to the creative forces that shaped the basin. The only drawback to the serenity of the spot is the lack of campsites. Much is made of this in nearly every guidebook. The situation is not as dire as it sounds. There are two spots right at the lake and there are adequate spots further back along the granite slabs. There are also good, if unestablished, spots at the southeastern corner of the lake.
While Big Bear Lake is a spectacular destination on its own, its very name demands that more adventure must await. For those willing to make the cross-country scramble up to the smaller cirque in the Bear Lakes Basin, Little and Wee Bear Lakes await. Though they are smaller, in truth Little Bear Lake may be the prettier of the two main lakes. If time permits, the trip up is strongly recommended. To reach the lakes from Big Bear Lake, return back to the cascades over the granite slabs. About two thirds of the way up toward the lake from the base of the cascades (roughly parallel with where the trail firsts reaches the slab area) there is pair of tall pine trees growing next to the creek. Cross the creek and begin climbing up the ridge on the far side, make a gradual climbing traverse to the east. Cairns have been places to mark the route. Once the ridge has been climbed, a massive granite face is exposed to the south. This dramatic landmark is visible from Mount Shasta and throughout the Trinity Divide. Again, cairns mark the way along the traverse but they are not necessary at this point. Spy the notch to the south and climb towards it.
Upon reaching the notch, Wee Bear Lake is revealed, nestled into a tidy little granite bowl. This lake is quite underappreciated, given its dramatic location. Though small, it is an extremely scenic location, best appreciated from the small lake’s southern end. From here it is possible to look north, across the lake and across the canyon of Bear Creek towards a series of massive granite towers that rise above Big Bear Lake. If one has climbed up the traverse properly, one will arrive at the north end of Wee Bear. Drop down to the north end and then follow the use trail to the south, crossing over the outlet creek. From here, bend around the south end, passing through a small meadow through which flows the inlet. Be sure not to miss the great view across Wee Bear to the north.
Having crossed Wee Bear Lake’s inlet, a use trail continues up a hill to Little Bear Lake. There are numerous campsites throughout this area. Little Bear Lake is a smaller version of its larger sibling. Though smaller it is more intimate and may exceed Big Bear Lake in terms of beauty. Sheer granite cliffs rise directly out of the water and soars 800 feet overhead. The lake’s outlet is located at its northeast corner. Above the outlet is a large, house-sized rock that rises nearly 30 feet above the water. It is possible to jump off this rock into the deep waters just above the outlet. It is an amazingly beautiful and idyllic place.
From Mount Shasta City, drive north on Interstate 5, through the town of Weed. Exit at the Edgewood/Stewart Springs exit. Turn left and drive under the freeway, then turn right onto Old Stage/ Old 99. Continue north for a couple hundred yards and then turn left onto Stewart Springs Road. After 4 miles, Forest Service Road 17 splits off to the right. Continue on this road for 22.7 miles, passing PCT Parks Creek trailhead and descending down the canyon of the Trinity River. At the intersection with Highway 3, turn left and proceed 4 miles. Turn right onto Bear Creek Loop and drive 0.5 miles to the trailhead.