At the north end of the Trinity Alps at the headwaters of Bear Creek lies a small slice of the much larger “White Trinities” to the southwest. This relatively small area contains the same distinctively white glacier-polished granite landscape as the much larger White Trinities region. If one didn’t know that 20 air miles separated these areas it would be understandable if one would guess that the Bear Lakes were somewhere right in the middle of the White Trinities (like next to Grizzly lake 🙂 ). Unlike the terrain to the south where there are ample ridgelines and named summits for exploration, the Bear Creek Lakes granitic region is largely contained to the lake basin with no named peaks. Exploration may include ascending to the ridgeline that cradles the lakes but far and away the most impressive and inspiring features in this basin are the lakes themselves. The Bear Creek Trail ends at the expansive and spectacular Big Bear Lake. An off-trail route utilizes granite slabs to reach Wee Bear Lake and Little Bear Lake, both equally beautiful and a worthy adventure. Full photo album here. Map of route here.
Take the north end of the Bear Creek “Loop” Road for a couple miles off Highway 3 to find the trailhead. This road starts out paved but becomes a mix of old pavement, dirt and washed out storm channels creating some bumpy sections. The Bear Creek “Loop” is no longer a loop after the bridge crossing Bear Creek washed away and the south end of the loop is closed. The new trailhead parking is on the north side of Bear Creek and a new trail descends toward the Trinity River before crossing Bear Creek and ascending back to the old trailhead. This adds about 0.25 miles each way and one may chose to cross Bear Creek directly where the bridge once stood but the new trail is pleasant enough. The trail begins climbing almost immediately and continues climbing almost continuously for virtually the entire journey to Big Bear Lake. In all, the trail will gain around 3,000 feet in about 4.25 miles to reach Big Bear Lake. The trail is largely under forest canopy and includes Douglas fir and oak woodland forest in the lower part, transitioning to a more alpine mix of incense cedar, red fir and ponderosa pine higher up. Along the way look out for two giant Ponderosa pines that are slightly to climbers left of the trail that are truly impressive in girth and height. These “twin towers” are a highlight feature of the hike. Also pay attention to some very large incense cedars that are located near the trail. The montane forest transitions to mountain chaparral and avalanche slide paths filled with willows that turn a wonderful gold during the fall. Eventually the granite wonderland of the Bear Lakes basin appears and after some more gradual climbing reach the spectacular Big Bear Lake at 5884 ft. Mountain hemlock, western white pine and red fir are present around the lake, which is almost entirely flanked by granite slabs and cliffs. Please avoid making fires here anytime as the source for firewood is very sparse. A use path on the east side of the lake leads to some granite benches with wonderful views of the lake from above. Here the wonderful blue-turquoise color and substantial depth of Big Bear Lake become very apparent. The northwest and west sides of the lake are choked with thick brush that comes right down to the lake shore so it seems a lake circumnavigation is best reserved for very late season when lake levels are lower.
To continue to Little Bear Lake retrace steps down the trail about a quarter mile and then split from the trail and cross Bear Creek in an area of flatter granite slabs at ~5700 ft. After crossing the creek begin making an ascending traverse across the granite slopes. Occasional rock cairns help guide the way, but the general idea is to head for a notch that marks the outlet of Wee Bear Lake via an ascending traverse across the wide expanse of granite slabs. It is recommended that this traverse be done in dry conditions as the granite slabs, moderately steep in some spots, may become slippery when wet. In all, it’s a little under a mile each direction from the Bear Creek Trail to Little Bear Lake. Before reaching Little Bear Lake one reaches the pleasant Wee Bear Lake, which is more like a large tarn than a lake. This picturesque tarn is nestled among mountain hemlock and smooth granite cliffs on the opposite side. Here a more defined use path passes Wee Bear Lake on its north and east sides. From Wee Bear Lake it’s a short climb among mountain hemlock to reach Little Bear Lake, a gem of the Trinity Alps. Little Bear Lake has a sublime granitic shoreline with towering cliffs above. Granite benches provide opportunities for a lunch break or jump in for a swim! For the exit, retrace steps back to Wee Bear Lake and the traverse across the granite slope back to the Bear Creek Trail. The descent is virtually all downhill from here. A nice reward for visiting the Bear Lakes is Trailhead Pizza at Coffee Creek with its delicious wood fired pizza. If the weather is nice they also have a wonderful outdoor seating area.