Hiking the Pika Lake & Duck Pass Trail | John Muir Wilderness
Duck Pass Trail| Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Hiking the Pika Lake & Duck Pass Trail: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 9,100 ft.
Distance: 12 miles (including stops at all 6 lakes)
Elevation Gain: 2,400
Hike Type: Day-hike
Difficulty Level: Difficult
Food Storage: Bear boxes are available at the trailhead for all scented food you aren’t taking with you on the trail.
Restrooms: Flush toilets and a sink are available at the trailhead, but there is no soap or paper towels.
Cell Service: None
Crowd Factor: High. This is one of the more popular trails in the Mammoth area and we saw plenty of day-hikers and backpackers on our trip.
Permit: None required for day-hikes
Date Hiked: 6/5/2021
Hiking the Pika Lake & Duck Pass Trail
The Duck Pass trail begins just past the Coldwater Creek campground. Make sure you go all the way to the end of the road, as we stopped a little early near the trailhead for Emerald Lake. Your hike begins to climb right away, as you head through a forested trail. At about the 1/4 mile mark, you’ll officially enter the John Muir Wilderness. What’s nice about this first part of the hike is that the trees keep you mostly shaded from the sun.
At 1.15 miles, you’ll reach the short junction for Arrow Head Lake. It’s a short walk to the lakeshore with calm, green water.
Following Arrow Head Lake, the trail levels out for a bit, which is a welcome change after gaining over 700 feet to that point. Once you head into a rocky section of trail, stay to the right. Another trail intersects here for Emerald Lake, but continue ahead. Just before you reach Skelton Lake, there’s a small seasonal pond on the right side of the trail. You’ll arrive to Skelton Lake at about 2 miles. We took a left at an unmarked junction to head down to a small, sandy beach for the lake. There are several easy ways down to the lake, but we opted for the first one, for a wider perspective. No matter which route you take, it’s a beautiful place to spend some time relaxing and enjoying the views.
Saying goodbye to Skelton Lake, the trail begins to climb along its southern shore. This next section rolls a bit, with some up, down and even flat portions of the trail.
A short and easy creek crossing comes at 2.5 miles. This is another insanely beautiful area with the creek, meadow, and mountain backdrop. After some more up and down, we reached Barney Lake at 3.2 miles, which was yet another stunner. The trail continues, crossing a small outlet of the lake before heading towards the pass. We could see tiny hikers making their way across in the distance.
After passing Barney Lake, the trail becomes rocky as you make your way up towards Duck Pass. Looking back down across Barney Lake as you climb the pass is one of the best views in the area, without a doubt. The next section gets a little tricky to follow the trail with early season snow. We did our best to stay on trail when we could, followed the outflow of water at other times. You gain a little over 500 feet of elevation between Barney Lake and the top of Duck Pass, at 10,700 feet.
You’ll be rewarded at 4.8 miles, for you efforts with an incredible vista overlooking Duck Lake. It’s easily one of the bigger alpine lakes we’ve visited and extremely impressive. We soaked in the views for a few minutes before continuing on to Pika Lake. Although you have to descend quite a bit to get to the shores of Duck Lake and further on to Pika Lake, it’s worth it. The trail to Pika Lake is mostly flat and around the far side of Duck Lake.
When we arrived at Pika Lake, we were at just over 6 miles and right around 1,900 feet of elevation gain. I feel as though I am losing adjectives to describe how beautiful the lakes on this hike are, but rest assured that Pika Lake is another stunner. We found a couple of rocks on the lakeshore and ate our lunches with a view. After about an a hour and a half of relaxation and plenty of photos of Pika Lake, we started our return hike. We passed the outlet of water flowing from Pika Lake into Duck Lake and then made the slow climb back up to Duck Pass.
From the top of Duck Pass, the rest of the hike was mostly downhill. We made a quick stop at Red Lake, which we had missed on the way up, before continuing back to the trailhead.
Final Thoughts on Hiking Duck Pass & Pika Lake
This quickly became one of our favorite hikes in the Eastern Sierra. We saw a number of backpackers camped near Barney, Duck, and Pika lakes and it’s easy to see why. The lakes are simply incredible and well worth the effort to reach them. We were especially impressed with the size of Duck Lake which felt like one of the larger backcountry lakes we’ve visited so far. If you’re looking for an adventure in the Mammoth Lakes area, be sure to add this one to your list. You won’t be disappointed!
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