Cottonwood Lakes Hike

Cottonwood Lakes Hike

In This Guide
  • Cottonwood Lakes Hike Directions & Video
  • Getting to the Cottonwood Lakes Campground Trailhead
  • Gear and Prep For the Hike
Total Distance (?)13 miles (20.9 km)
Hike Time6-7 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)1,350 feet (411m)
Highest Elevation11,200 feet (3414m)
Fees & PermitsNone
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Eastern Sierra Visitor Center
Park Phone760-876-6200
Monthly Newsetter

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.

Screen Shot 2019 11 17 At 06.56.49

You don’t need any parking permits for the lot!

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There’s a ton of parking between all of the parking lots but it is often busy, but I’ve never seen it full.

Camping at Cottonwood Lakes Walk-In Campground

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There’s a convent first-come, first-serve campground right at the trailhead. No reservations required (or possible).

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.

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The campsites spread around the parking lot and some include benches and fire pits.
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Bears are very active in this area because of all the food waste. Use the bear boxes at the campsite and don’t leave anything in your car that has a scent. Check out my guide to bear safety too.

Camping at Cottonwood Lakes

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There are dispersed campsites around the lake which are heaven. If you like to fish, the lakes are full of trout.

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.

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
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 Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.

Lone Peak 5

Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.

Latest Price on Women’s Shoe
REI | Amazon

Latest Price on Men’s Shoe
REI | Amazon

Black Diamond Ergo Poles 2

Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles
I’ve gone back and forth on trekking poles, but I think for most people they are a good investment. They help you dig in on the uphills, provide stability on loose downhills, act as a brace when crossing streams, and can probably poke away aggressive wildlife in a pinch. The Trail Ergo Cork poles are a good balance of light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use. If you want something ultralight and a little more pricey, I’ve had great luck with the Black Diamond Z Poles too.

Latest Price
REI | Amazon

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated October 2021.

My October 2021 Top Gear Picks

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 keep the website ad and promotion free. 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.

Click Here To View

Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.


How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 6. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Cottonwood Lakes Hike 3D Map

Cottonwood Lakes 3d Map
The hike winds it’s way from the bottom right up toward Cottonwood Lakes, avoiding any big climbs to find the gentlest route to the lakes.

Cottonwood Lakes Hike Landmarks

LandmarkDistance Elevation
South Fork Cottonwood Creek Crossing1.410030
Muir Wilderness2.910250
New Army Pass Trail310450
Muir Lake Junction4.511000
CDFG Cabin/Lakes5.211100
Lake #56.511200

Cottonwood Lakes Hike Elevation Profile

Cottonwood Lakes Hike Elevation
So there’s only around 1350 feet of climbing, but it might feel tougher because of the elevation. In general it’s pretty mellow with no steep sections.

Cottonwood Lake Hike Highlights

Golden Trout
Cottonwood Lakes are full of Golden Trout, only found natively in this area. Image Ray Found

How To Hike to Cottonwood Lakes

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn-by-Turn Directions

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The trailhead is at the end of the parking lot by the toilet.
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There’s a spigot at the trailhead where you can fill up with water.
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Look for the big sign pointing you toward the interpretive display and trail.
Cottonwood Lakes Hike Trailhead
Walk through the interpretive displays and trail notices.
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The trail is easy to spot and heads away from the parking area.
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Overall the trail is well marked and easy to follow. There are horses on the trails but no mountain bikes.
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There’s a pretty sweet Golden Trout Wilderness sign in the first few minutes on the trail. Keep going straight.

What exactly is a Wilderness Area?

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Keep going straight and avoid the trails to the left that head back to the equestrian campground.
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You’ll get some nice views to the left of Trail Peak. You can hike to the top of Trail Peak from the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead, close to where you parked.
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After a flat section you’ll start to descend down to the South Fork of the Cottonwood Creek.
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After a bit of descent you’ll join the creek on your right.
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The trial crosses the South Fork of the Cottonwood Creek shortly after joining it. The log on the left works well for me, but you can also hop across the rocks.
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The trail goes around this old pine. The landscape here is magical.
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The trail levels out and follows a nice meadow to the right. Cottonwood Creek flows down through the meadow.
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Go straight at the junction for the trail to Golden Trout Camp Trail (to the right).
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Soon you’ll see the sign for the John Muir Wilderness.
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And right after that you’ll cross Cottonwood Creek. The path on the right goes over an easy log crossing.
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The log is stable and easy to cross.
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From here you start to climb up toward the meadow where the Cottonwood Lakes are. The gradient is gentle and switchbacks help make short work of the climb.
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At the junction for New Army Pass, hike to the right to go to Cottonwood Lakes. The route to the left brings you into Sequoia National Park if you keep going straight. It’s also used to approach Mt Langley.
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Here’s a closeup of the sign at the junction.
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As you climb you’ll start getting glimpses of the high Sierras. including Cirque Peak.

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.

Cottonwood Lakes Map
This hike will take you past Frog Pond, Cottonwood Lake #3, then up to lakes #4 and #5.
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Soon you arrive at a junction for a trail to Muir Lake (to the right) continue straight into the meadow.The climbing is mostly done.
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There are some little stream crossings, all easy except in spring thaw.
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This area is incredibly beautiful. You have the trail, the meadow, and surrounding mountains.
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Continue straight on the trail, avoiding the trail to the left heading to Cottonwood Lakes #1 and #2.
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Soon you’ll pass a small tin hut. The hut was is by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for the restoration of Golden Trout to the lakes. The body of water on the left is actually not one of the Cottonwood Lakes, but instead is called Frog Pond.
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Soon you’ll see Cottonwood Lake #3 appear to your left.
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When you reach the shore at the lake, make the right and continue around the shore. There are some great boulders to take a rest on next to the lake. This is also a popular fishing spot.
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Continue on the trail along the lake toward the higher Cottonwood Lakes #4 and #5, just up the granite ridge in front.
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Take a look back on this section for some great photo opportunities.
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When you reach the end of the lake, the trail heads up a small rise. If you want to see a small waterfall, take the little side trail to the left.
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Here’s the waterfall where lake #4 spills into lake #3.
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Otherwise climb the last 100 feet or so to the next lakes.
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Okay, from here on out it’s a choose your own adventure. To the left is Lake #4, to the right, Lake #5. Check them both out, walk the shores, and enjoy. If you’re heading to Old Army Pass, you make the left here.

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.

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A sign marks the shores of Cottonwood Lake #5. You can hike around the lakes on the use-trails.
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There’s a little spillway connecting Lake #5 and Lake #4.
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From here you just head back the way you came. Have a great hike!

This guide last updated on October 9, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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