After a difficult three day hike in the Hoover Wilderness, we decided we needed an easier paced outing with more time for relaxing. We chose to do an overnighter in the John Muir Wilderness to Hilton Lakes. There are a string of about ten lakes along the Hilton Creek drainage, starting with Hilton Lake #1 (aka Davis Lake), and are progressively numbered as you go up the glacially carved canyon. We chose Hilton Lake #3 as our destination, a hike of under five miles from the trailhead.
Along our three hour drive from Carson City to the trailhead, we stopped at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center to pick up our wilderness permit. We got the last 4 walk-in spots for the day, a reminder that it’s always a good idea to have a backup hike in mind. Just south of Crowley Lake is a turnoff to Tom’s Place Resort and Rock Creek Road. At the time of this writing, there is major construction happening on Rock Creek Road. We were eager to start hiking, but had to wait for the follow-me-car to lead us up to the top. Eventually it was our turn, and we made the 9 mile drive up the canyon to the trailhead.
Located just before the trailhead parking is Rock Creek Lakes Resort, home to the Pie in the Sky Cafe. Not certain what time we’d be hiking out, we decided to get our fill of pie before the hike. We ate $30 in pie between the four of us, but it proved to be good energy food for the hike.
Just past the resort is the Hilton Lakes Trailhead and parking area. There is ample parking and a restroom at the trailhead. Make sure not to leave any food items in your vehicle, as this is apparently a high bear activity area due to all the people at the resort. With the nearby pack station, this is also a popular trail for horseback riders. The trail is wide and sandy most of the way for the horses, and their destination is typically the lower Hilton Lakes, #1 and #2. We saw signs of horses along the trail, but did not encounter any in two days.
Although there is only a difference of about 465 feet between the trailhead and Hilton Lake #3, there is around 1,000 feet of climbing to get there along the trail. The trailhead is at 9,863 feet, climbs up to 10,037 in the first half mile, then begins to descend to 9,841 feet at mile 1.6. From there, the trail climbs steadily up to 10,380 ft at the 3.4 mile mark above Hilton Lakes. Then it’s back down to 10,105 feet at the trail junction at mile 4.0. The hike is finished with a steep climb of 223 feet up to 10,328 feet at Hilton Lake #3 at mile 4.3.
Although this area is surrounded by tall jagged peaks, most of this hike is in the shady woods. It occasionally opens up for some big views, but you’ll be enjoying the forest for much of this hike. We appreciated the extra shade on this hot summer day.
Right around the 4 mile mark is an intersection. To the right and downhill is Hilton Lake #1 (Davis Lake) and Hilton Lake #2. The other hikers we talked to on the way in were headed this direction. This seems to be the way the equestrians go as well, as the lakes are bigger and the trail maintains some width. To the left and uphill is the trail to the upper lakes. The lake only showed about 0.1 mile away on my GPS, but it was actually about .3 miles up the steep trail with all the switchbacks. Unfortunately we were no longer on pie-power, and had to put it in low gear to get up the final climb to Lake #3.
Just before reaching Lake #3, there is a good view of the lower two lakes as you approach the outlet stream. Just a few steps further you get your first sighting of Lake #3 and the towering granite peaks above it. After hiking in the woods most of the way, the view is quite striking, and the reason for making the long journey to this location is affirmed.
If you’re planning to stay the night at Lake #3, near the outlet is the best place. It has the best views of the lake, and has easy access to drinking water from the outlet stream. When we arrived, there were already a few tents in this area, so we continued to the northwest side of the lake. We found a nice campsite, but it was pretty high above the lake, and access to water from Hilton Creek to the west was somewhat difficult with the steep slope. In hindsight, we may have been better off looking for a campsite on the smaller east shore, but this is really nitpicking in such a beautiful place.
Hilton Creek flows to the west of the lake, but it bypasses Lake #3 on its way down the mountain. Lake #3 does not have an inlet stream, so it must be fed through water seeping through the ground above. I prefer stream water over lake water for drinking, so I found a safe approach down to Hilton Creek to the southwest of the lake. It wasn’t super easy to get to, but was closer than hiking back to the outlet stream from where we were camped.
The next morning we debated about what to do before hiking out. Lakes #4 and #5 are close by, but the extra hiking didn’t sound appealing when we still had to hike out in the afternoon. We really hadn’t even had a chance to enjoy the lake we were at, so we decided to spend a leisurely morning at Lake #3. We found granite slabs to enjoy the sun on as we watched the trout swim by. For a long time, we tried to muster the courage to join them in the water. Finally, after several countdowns from my hiking companions, I took the plunge into the icy waters. There was no snow visible around the lake, but still the water was freezing and my swim lasted shorter than 30 seconds. The boys only got in a couple times, so I know it wasn’t just me.
After a relaxing morning, we packed up and headed out. We stopped to filter water at the outlet for the hike back to the trailhead, and enjoyed the view a while longer before resuming the hike.
We descended the steep switchbacks down to the intersection, and then climbed the other side up several steps. Once over the top, we descended again until we reached the edge of the moraine. Then it was a long gradual climb to get to the final descent back to the trailhead. While it’s not overly difficult, this isn’t a hike where you can enjoy an all downhill day on the hike out.
We really enjoyed this trip, but to do it properly, an extra layover day to explore the upper lakes would’ve been better. With all the driving from Carson City, we felt a bit rushed for an overnighter. Still, to be able to spend the night in the John Muir Wilderness in the middle of a work week isn’t bad at all!
- More photos of this hike on Flickr.
- Inyo National Forest Hilton Lakes Page
- I used the National Geographic Mammoth Lakes / Mono Divide trail map for this hike. It has enough detail for trail hiking in the area.
- Two good guide books for this hike are Sierra South and Exploring Eastern Sierra Canyons.