Cottonwood Lakes Hike
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance||13 miles (20.9 km)|
|Hike Time||6-7 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||1,350 feet (411m)|
|Highest Elevation||11,200 feet (3414m)|
|Fees & Permits||None|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Eastern Sierra Visitor Center|
The Cottonwood Lakes hike probably gives you the most bang-for-your-buck in the Eastern Sierra. The hike starts from the Cottonwood Lakes Campground, already at 10,000 feet, so your car does most of the legwork to get you to altitude. From there, the Cottonwood Lakes Trail gently makes its way through pristine alpine terrain to a series of several crystal-clear alpine lakes, all in the shadow of the high Sierra peaks like Mt Langley. Every step of this must-do hike is spectacular, so give it a try.
Getting to the Cottonwood Lakes Campground Trailhead
The drive to the Cottonwood Lakes Campground is pretty spectacular. Just south of Lone Pine, the gateway to Mt Whitney, you leave Rt 395 and climb 6,000 feet up Horseshoe Meadow Road, a long windy road up the side of the mountain. If you have a fear of heights, it’s probably not a drive for you.
Horseshoe Meadow Road is generally closed for the winter (May-October). Call the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center to confirm if in doubt.
Use this address for the trailhead:
Cottonwood Lakes Walk in Campground, Lone Pine, CA, 93545
It can get confusing when you get up to the camp and trailhead area. There are signs but to give you an overview, here’s a map. You’re heading to the parking lot of the Cottonwood Lakes Walk-In Campground, not Horseshoe Meadow.
You don’t need any parking permits for the lot!
Camping at Cottonwood Lakes Walk-In Campground
If you want to stay overnight at the trailhead, there’s a great option, the Cottonwood Lakes Walk-In Campground. There are 13 campsites right next to the parking lot and trailhead. You just walk your tent and gear 100 feet or so in from the lot; there’s no hiking or backpacking needed. There’s a small fee to use the campground. Fill out the form on the envelope, put your cash in it, and then drop it in the box. It helps to have singles and cash for the fee. The campsite area (and trailhead) have vault toilets, piped potable water, and trash cans.
It’s a really mellow campground even though it’s close to the lot. I’ll often come up to Cottonwood Lakes Walk-In Campground the night before, sleep at altitude, then do this hike in the morning. It’s also a great way to acclimatize and warm-up for a hike to Mt Whitney the following day.
If you can’t find a campsite, try the nearby Cottonwood Pass Trailhead Campsite or even the Horseshoe Meadow Equestrian Campsite (although this is technically only for equestrians).
There’s a one-night maximum stay at each campground.
Camping at Cottonwood Lakes
The area around the actual Cottonwood Lakes is a favorite among backcountry campers. There are no official sites; all the camping is dispersed, but the area is popular and you can find some nice nooks around the lakes where people have been before. Lakes #4 and #5 are particularly popular.
You do need a wilderness permit to camp overnight, and there is a quota, and while it’s popular, it’s not as crazy as the Mt Whitney lottery. Just reserve a permit in advance and do your thing.
Gear For the Hike
Even though this isn’t a crazy mountain climb, you are in the middle of the Eastern Sierras, and I recommend real hiking gear. Be prepared for alpine conditions and rapidly changing weather. It will probably be at least 20F cooler here than in Lone Pine, prepare accordingly.
There is plenty of water along the hike that’s pretty reliable except in extreme drought conditions. In the summer mosquitos can be bad, so bring a head net and repellant. There are some small stream crossings that are doable without trekking poles, but if you have them it can’t hurt.
If you go to the bathroom on the hike, please go away from the trail and water sources. The bathroom at the trailhead is the only “toilet toilet.”
If you camp, Iit gets cold up around the lakes overnight so plan accordingly (you can check out my camping gear recommendations on my gear page). There are also bears and rodents looking for unattended food, so use a bear canister.
I try a lot of hiking boots and shoes, and there are some great options out there, but the La Sportiva Spire is the best combination of comfort, protection, low-weight, and durability. They are waterproof, and the high cuff keeps debris out without the need for a gaiter. Time tested over thousands of miles. Use them with a two-layer sock system to end blisters for good.
Reviews & Lowest Prices: Women – Men
On a medium or longer hike I recommend a pack like the Osprey Talon 33 (men) or Osprey Sirrus 36 (women) which is a little bit larger. These packs are on the upper end of the (35L) daypack range, but they only weigh a small fraction more than a pack with less capacity. Having the extra space gives you more flexibility and means you don’t have to jam things in there. I use the space for things like extra layers in the winter, extra water on desert hikes, and even a tent & sleeping bag on overnights.
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Mini fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing. Read my review and see the lowest prices and reviews at REI (or Amazon).
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated September 2020.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps offset website expenses. There is no cost to you.
Cottonwood Lakes Trail Maps
Overall the trail from the campground to Cottonwood Lakes is easy to follow and in great condition. There are some side trails and trails listed on Open Street Maps (OSM) that are very primitive, so if you are going to plan your own hike off this trail, make sure you have a GPX file loaded on your GPS.
Download the Hike GPX FileView a Printable PDF Hike Map
Your best move to navigate this hike is to take a paper map, compass, and a GPS device. Load the GPX track from this hike onto your GPS to ensure that you’re on the trail. I’m a big fan of GPS watches; I just glance down at it to cross-check my position and use paper when I want a deeper dive. The GPS watch that I’m using now is the Fenix 6 Pro Solar (price: REI or Amazon). It’s pricey but has a great battery, accurate GPS, and tons of other wellness, fitness, and smart-watch applications. For a more affordable option, check out the value-packed Garmin Instinct (price: REI or Amazon), a similar watch without some of the features. There are also great smartphone GPS apps like GaiaGPS. If you end up getting GaiaGPS premium, I’ve arranged for a 20-40% discount for my readers.
Cottonwood Lakes Hike 3D Map
Cottonwood Lakes Hike Landmarks
|South Fork Cottonwood Creek Crossing||1.4||10030|
|New Army Pass Trail||3||10450|
|Muir Lake Junction||4.5||11000|
Cottonwood Lakes Hike Elevation Profile
Cottonwood Lake Hike Highlights
- The hike starts in the Golden Trout Wilderness, named after the California state fish. The area was formed in 1978 and encompasses 304,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada.
- The Golden Trout is only native to the waters of this area and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful trout in the world. They formed into their own species of trout by becoming isolated in these mountain lakes thousands of years ago by volcanic activity. They were overfished, but the California Department of Fish and Game has restored their habitat in Cottonwood Lakes. When you get to the lakes, be sure to spend some time gazing into the clear water. You could see a trout or two.
- If you want to fish for trout at Cottonwood Lakes, you just need a fishing license.
How To Hike to Cottonwood Lakes
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Before we start hiking through the lakes, it helps to acquaint yourself with the layout and numbers of the lakes, some of which are incorrect or not marked on official Forest Service maps.
Although it looks like a nice big line on some maps, the actual trail from here up to Old Army Pass is usually in bad condition with sections washed out. If you’re looking to gain the ridge, I highly recommend taking New Army Pass instead.
Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.