Brown and Green Lakes

Description: Summer is coming and with it the heat; when the Valley heats up there’s no better way to cool off than a hike to a mountain lake, and maybe even a dip. A cul-de-sac of sorts, the trail to Brown Lake is off the beaten path, and nearby South Lake and the alpine lakes above it getting most of the attention from hikers. But if you are willing to brave the initial switchbacks the reward that awaits visitors to Brown, and higher Green Lake is a less-visited alpine basin, wide open vistas, scenic lakes, and nearby peaks just waiting to be climbed or admired from a comfortable alpine beach.

Logistics: From Bishop, find your way up 168/Line Street to Parchers Resort, near South Lake. Park at the picnic and day use area just uphill from the resort. On the other side of the road from the parking area is a rocky hill. There is a use trail near the parking area that heads over the rocky hill and down to the obvious main trail. Alternatively, one can walk into Parcher’s driveway and down towards Rainbow Pack Station, at the bottom of the driveway, and find the trail there. In either case, head up the main trail a third of a mile or so to the signed junction to the Green Lake Trail at 9,600′. It is easy to miss this turn so stay aware! The trail to Brown and Green Lakes zig zags up this steep hill in a business-like way but the views into the basins above South Lake get better with each step and help distract from the work of the climb. The trip to brown lake is about four miles in total; if you continue on to Green Lake plan on an additional two miles to the trip. Numerous options exist including even some options for overnight trips. The map shows the main route in red and some options in other colors.

Threats and Wilderness status: Campfires and corresponding depletion of wood in the Green Lake basin are serious threats, and there are numerous campsites in sensitive riparian areas near the main lakes. OHVs sometimes illegally enter the fragile alpine plateau above Green Lake, leaving ugly tracks and lasting damage. The fact that the timberline forest here is Whitebark Pine should be evidence enough that campfires are a bad idea – Whitebark pines, especially when at treeline, grow famously slow and cannot support much use as a fuel wood. When nutrients from decaying wood that would otherwise be returned to the environment are burned rather than allowed to decompose a critical link in the ecosystem is removed and the whole forest suffers. Interestingly, in nearby John Muir Wilderness fires are forbidden above 9,600′; Green and Brown Lakes lack Wilderness designation and thus are not subject to the same regulations as nearby Wilderness areas.

Wrinkles: From Green Lake the trail continues in a giant zig zag, onto the “Grunion Plateau”. I have not been able to find anyone who can tell me the origin of the name… To the east of the Grunion Plateau is a neat little peak called The Hunchback on the map. It’s an additional hour and half or so from Green Lake to this peak but the view is excellent, with vistas down to Bishop, and the peaks of the Palisades and Mt. Humphreys area towering above. Nearby Thunder and Lightening Peak, AKA “The Vagabond”; el 13,374′ has great views and good spring skiing.

An alternate start to the hike, recommended only for the adventurous and fleet of foot, is to park at the main Bishop Pass Trailhead parking lot, by South Lake. (If only out for a day hike please be sure to park in the day use spots and save the overnight spots for backpackers). At the highest end of the overnight parking lot is a green gate. Pass through the gate, past the gauging station and notice on your right a large brown pipe. It is possible to walk up hill up the pipe, mostly on a trail but sometimes on the pipe, to the intersection of the Brown Lake Trail. This saves some 500′ elevation but does require some tricky footing on the pipe. Also, on the return trip it is surprisingly easy to miss the left turn at the pipe and wind up back at Parchers!

Season: I once thought I’d try and hike to Green Lake every month of the year. When the snow started early that year, extending the hike by twelve miles, I decided that I would be satisfied doing the hike in the snow free months. However Green and Brown Lakes, in ideal late fall conditions, can be good for ice skating!