Hiking Trails

The Palisade Glacier is the southernmost glacier in America. How long will it last?

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Above the beautiful glacial lakes of the Big Pine Lakes Basin lies a gem that one day will no longer exist. Surrounded on many sides by the Eastern 14ers of the California Sierra, the Palisade Glacier holds a title that no other glacier can: it is the southernmost glacier in North America. But as glaciers around the world continue to melt due to global warming, who knows how long this status will last?

This fleeting beauty is what drew me to this hike. After spending three weeks exploring the vast glaciers of Alaska’s Last Frontier, I knew I had to see the Palisade Glacier while I still could.

This is one of the most desirable areas in the Eastern Sierra, so if you want to spend time there, you need to plan ahead. You can day hike Big Pine Lakes and Palisade Glacier with no problem, but backpacking requires permits. Luckily I was going alone and came across the last remaining hiking permit.

Glacial ice contains three quarters of the world’s fresh water. If all of the land’s ice melted, sea levels would rise 230 feet worldwide. (Photo: Alec Sills-Trausch)

The hike to Big Pine Lakes doesn’t have a lot of technical sections. From the parking lot, it’s just under 5 miles with 2,400 feet of elevation gain to Second Lake, well worth a photo stop to say the least.

As with many hikes, you’ll want to start early. The first 2 miles are exposed (thanks to my midday start, I felt like I was baking in an oven). To get to Palisade Glacier, continue past the second and third lakes. Almost precisely at the 6 mile mark (1.5 miles past the main Second Lake photo spot) you will see a sign directing you to the glacier. The first few kilometers are quite simple. I was hoping it would continue like this as we climbed.

Thirty-five minutes later, I entered a miraculous glacial valley. It’s almost as if someone took a giant cheese knife and cut a piece of rock. A milky blue stream flowed through the valley, surrounded by green grass and flowers. I have been blessed with many magnificent sights in my life, but this moment was one I would think about long after. In an otherwise rocky and desolate area, life flourished.

A short climb later the trail ends and the type 2 fun begins. In classic Eastern Sierra fashion, the trail becomes a boulder field and hikers must rely on their route-finding skills to get to the 12,600-foot glacier viewpoint. About the last 0.8 miles are off-road. Even though it is not a long distance, the progress is slow as you climb, descend and go around different natural obstacles.

overlooking the lake
Can we drink glacier water without filtering? No, it’s not as pure as it looks. Glaciers can carry bacteria, heavy metals, atmospheric dust, etc. (Photo: Alec Sills-Trausch)

The climb was exhausting. Even though I had slept the night before at 10,000 feet, my body constantly reminded me that I was spending most of my time at sea level. When I reached 12,000 feet, I had to take more breaks , partly because of exhaustion and partly because I had to find my way to the glacier.

But the views on the way up were stunning: while crossing the entire rock field, I could see lakes one through three, shimmering in the most stunning blue-green I’ve ever seen. As the clouds darkened to the north, I reached the viewpoint, from where I could see the glacier and glacial lake below.

As the clouds darkened and thunder began to echo off the nearby rock faces, I began the descent, taking one last look at a glacier I’ll probably never see again.

I am not the only one to turn my back on glaciers. The world does this every day, as we fail to reverse the cumulative effect of rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. As a result, glaciers around the world continue to shrink until they are nothing more than an annual snowfield. At the end of the Palisade Glacier run, there will be a new southernmost glacier. And when that one melts, a new one after that. I now look at my photos, knowing that one day they will probably join the black and white ones we now use to remember all the ice that’s gone in the world.


Permit : Not necessary for day hikes. Needed only for backpacking or camping trips. Find overnight permits for Big Pine Creek North Fork here.

Length: 16 miles round trip to glacier, 10 to second lake classic photo spot

Elevation gain: 4,800 feet from Glacier Viewpoint