Gems of the eastern Sierra: Deer Lakes loop

Deer Lakes in Mammoth Lakes, California.

The Sierra Nevada mountains are essentially a large playground for those who enjoy being outdoors. The endless mountains, lakes, and valleys serve as a getaway to solitude for the most populous state in the world’s third most populous country.

While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy worldwide, it has had the contrary effect on the amount of people enjoying nature. The trails are teeming with people. I suppose the relatively lower risks of contracting the virus outdoors coupled with stimulus checks and an unemployment rate not seen since the 1930’s has led lots of people to look towards the mountains with the newfound free time they have on their hands.

Go online and try to buy a bear canister or reserve a campsite. The backlog on orders and fully booked recreation areas paint the picture well enough. Microeconomics can be quite fascinating.

Despite the swaths of humans heading to the mountains, there are still plenty of corners where solitude exists and crowds are not overwhelming. I recently found that sought-after solitude in the eastern Sierra at Deer Lakes with my girlfriend Madison, my brother Nik, and his girlfriend Carli.

We set out from coastal northern California to cross the Sierra Nevada and head towards the town of Mammoth Lakes, where we would spend two nights outdoors and complete a 14-mile loop.

Here’s the video summary for those who aren’t big on reading.

A thunderous journey to Deer Lakes

Our first of three days started out above Mammoth Lakes at Lake George — a popular tourist destination for recreational activities such as hiking and fishing.

Under a cloudless, cobalt sky, we ascended two thousand feet up to the top of Mammoth Crest — a prominent, high spine of mountains that tower above the lake basin below.

However, the clear morning skies soon gave way to dark, billowing clouds that blanketed the high elevations of the mountain range. In true Murphy’s Law fashion, the clouds’ downpour coincided exactly with when we reached the highest point on the ridge. Our hopes of a warm day spent around a lake quickly vanished.

While certainly strong enough to not be considered a drizzle, the rain could have been much worse. We put on our pack rain covers and took cover under the stunted, wind-warped trees of the upper mountain slopes.

Persistent thunder began to roar from the gloomy clouds, which were now parked at seemingly stationary positions overhead. Wind swirled and rain fell intermittently, but eventually we felt that we had a window to make a one-mile dash to Deer Lakes where we could put up our tents and brace for the next round of precipitation.

You could say that the rain came out of nowhere, but during monsoon season, such weather patterns are anything but abnormal. From July to November, tropical moisture escapes north from Mexico into the southern United States, which when coupled with the heating effects of sunlight, can often form particularly moist clouds come afternoon that eventually drop their loads of water. Those who have spent time in the tropics of the world are very familiar with this nearly daily occurrence during the wet season.

We arrived at Deer Lakes without incident and searched for a great spot to set up camp. We hurried in case the rain returned. Deer Lakes is a basin of three lakes and we found an ideal spot at the middle lake all to ourselves. We had relatively good protection from the wind and easy access to the side of the lake that had a gradually sloping sandy shore.

While the rain did return, it never fell hard enough to prompt the use of my rain jacket. We spent the rest of the day lounging in the still moody weather, watching Nik cast for fish, and admiring the views of the sheer granite cliffs that surrounded us.

Crystal Lake trailhead, Mammoth Lakes, California.
Getting the trip underway at Crystal Lake trailhead. ~9,300 feet elevation.
Mammoth Crest views.
Climbing up to Mammoth Crest and getting some better views of the surrounding mountains.
Hiking Mammoth Crest Mt. Ritter in background.
After a steep climb the trail flattens out. The 13,000-foot Mt. Ritter looms in the background.
Hiking Mammoth Crest.
Reaching the high point of the Mammoth Crest and admiring the vertical granite faces that lead down into the lake basin below.
Hiking Mammoth Crest.
Being up here gave me queasy knees.
Hiking Mammoth Crest.
Rainclouds on the Mammoth Crest, less than a mile from Deer Lakes.
Marmot at Deer Lakes, Mammoth Lakes.
As I was searching for a campsite, I stumbled upon this creature — a marmot. It looks like a squirrel on steroids, bigger than most lap dogs. It wasn’t the last one I saw on this trip either.
Camp at Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
We got the middle lake at Deer Lakes all to ourselves.
Fishing at Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
Nik looking for fish near camp.
Fishing at Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
We ventured down to the lower lake where Nik had better luck with the fishing.
Deer Lakes sunset, Mammoth.
After hours of grey skies, the sun poked through right before sunset, illuminating this granite monolith for a very brief moment, just long enough to find a position to grab this photo.
Drinking tea at Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
Nighttime tea before bed.

Over the Pass to Pika Lake

With only about four miles to hike for our second day on the trail, we had a slow morning at Deer Lakes, enjoying our exceptional campsite.

Instead of rushing to Pika Lake, our next destination, we enjoyed Deer Lakes while the sun was out, assuming that the thunderous clouds would return in the afternoon.

There was probably about a 45-minute window where the sun was warm enough to get in the lake. Soon thereafter, the rainclouds reappeared, snuffing out the sun and bringing temperatures down. We took advantage of our narrow moment of warmth and jumped in the chilly alpine waters.

As the clouds once again enveloped the mountains, we packed our bags and set off, climbing out of the Deer Lakes basin, up and over a saddle, and down into the Duck Lake basin.

Surely enough, the thunder and rain returned, but never strong enough to deter us from our hike. We arrived at Pika Lake a few hours later, staked out a nice campsite with tree protection from the wind, and enjoyed another mellow day beside the lake. It was a nice change of pace compared to the muscle burning backpacking treks that I usually arrange.

We didn’t have Pika Lake to ourselves as we did at Deer Lakes, but there were only four other visitors, a very manageable amount.

We cooked meals, went for a quick dip in the lake, watched Nik catch another fish, and stayed up late to get a glimpse of Comet Neowise on its journey out of the solar system.

Swimming in Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
Testing out the water at Deer Lakes. Photo: Madison
Hiking at Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
Getting on the trail, enjoying the views of Deer Lakes basin one last time.
Hiking at Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
Climbing out of the Deer Lakes requires some steep switchbacks over this boulder pile.
Hiking Deer Lakes, Mammoth.
Just a mile or so into our hike, the rainclouds began to cover the sky once again as they did the previous afternoon.
Hiking Duck Lake, Mammoth.
Entering the Duck Lake basin with views of its nearly 12,000 foot peaks.
Vlog at Duck Lake, Mammoth.
Giving this whole vlog thing a try.
Camping at Pika Lake, Mammoth.
Camp at Pika Lake, with some nice tree coverage to protect from the wind and rain.
Camping at Pika Lake, Mammoth.
The wind was variable, but during the down times Pika Lake turned into smooth sheet glass.
Camping at Pika Lake, Mammoth.
Lounging around Pika Lake.
Chipmunk at Pika Lake, Mammoth.
Our chipmunk neighbors came out to investigate.
Sierra Daisies at Pika Lake, Mammoth.
Sierra Daisies lined the damp soil surrounding Pika Lake.
Comet Neowise seen from Pika Lake, Mammoth.
Nik got some nice shots of Comet Neowise passing through our neck of the Milky Way.

The finish line over Duck Pass

For our third and final day, we had a short climb over Duck Pass and then a long descent into the basin of lakes below.

The closer we got to the parking lot at the Duck Pass trailhead, naturally, the more crowded the trail got. I could gauge how far we were from our destination based on the hikers with whom we began to cross paths.

We probably didn’t have much longer to go when we started seeing people hauling their babies up the trail, or people walking their miniature dogs.

It was a bit of a zoo at Lake Mary and Lake George in the lower elevations. Thousands of visitors were launching boats, going out on StandUp Paddleboards, and frantically searching for parking. It was quite the contrast compared to the terrain that we had explored just a handful of miles on the other side of the crest.

We regrouped for a fresh meal, which everyone craves after days of eating dehydrated food, and set off in our separate directions across the state — Madison and I south to San Diego, and Nik and Carli west to San Francisco.

It was another sliver of the Sierra Nevada checked off the list.

Duck Lake, Mammoth.
Views of Duck Lake on our way out.
Duck Pass Mammoth.
Crossing over Duck Pass with views of Barney Lake in the foreground, and Mammoth Mountain in the background.
Duck Pass trailhead, Mammoth.
Happy campers back at the car.
We left some extra food in this bag in a bear box at the trailhead, only to find that most of it had been taken.

12 thoughts on “Gems of the eastern Sierra: Deer Lakes loop

  1. This is the exact loop I’ve been wanting to do for awhile now including a night at Pika Lake before exiting at Coldwater Campground. The part I’m uncertain about is the climb out of Deer Lakes over the steep talus/scree field. Judging from your pictures it appears I can make out a faint use trail. How easy was it to find at the bottom where you start and was it tramped enough to be able to follow it?


    1. Hello, the trail does get quite faint / disappear going from Deer Lakes to Duck Lake, but basic navigation skills and common sense will lead you in the right direction no problem. I wouldn’t stress it.


    1. I realized your video states what each hike was each day. The first day was 5 miles, but what were the mileage breakdown for the other days? Also, which month did you go in? Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello, happy to help, but a GPS app like Gaia GPS would do wonders to help answer these questions for you. Also, note that you need to leave a car at the Duck Pass trailhead or have to walk a couple of miles on paved roads between the two parking lots. First day was 5 or so miles, but a couple thousand feet elevation gain. Second day was a quick burst of a climb and then downhill, probably less than 5 miles. Third day from Pika Lake to Duck Pass trailhead was again, maybe 5-6 miles, just going off memory.

        I went in July during a low snow year.


  2. Did you see any deer while around deer lakes. Just curious as to why they call them deer lakes hahaha.


  3. Out of curiosity, do you think it is possible to head to east-northeast from Pika to cut over to Ram Lakes to the east? That would avoid the long walk around Duck to Purple and then north.


  4. Dear Evan,

    It’s hard to get enough of this! Thanks for taking us along and bringing a literal breath of fresh air and vista. I can feel the vicarious delights in my soul.

    Beautifully written, too!




  5. How was the fishing at Deer Lake? I did this day hike last fall on the windiest day ever ( I swear the gusts were like 70 MPH at the crest) One of my favorite hikes in the Mammoth area. Next time I want to bring the fishing pole but do you think there are enough fish in Deer Lake to warrant that? And the amount of people going up Duck’s Pass are JUST insane,


    1. Hello Amber. Yes there were many fish in upper and lower deer lakes. Seemed like the middle lake had less. Around dusk there were dozens of them jumping. I don’t fish by my brother caught and released 2 in the lower lake.


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