• Activities:

    Camping, Photography, Swimming, Backpacking, Hiking

  • Skill Level:


  • Season:

    Spring, Summer, Autumn

  • Trail Type:


  • RT Distance:

    8 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    1362 Feet

Dog Friendly
Swimming Hole

Backpacking to Duck Lake offers amazing lakeside camping and stunning, expansive peak views.

The Duck Pass trail in the John Muir Wilderness combines breathtaking views, wildflowers and plenty of icy mountain lakes for swimming into a trail that is moderate in both difficulty and distance. With multiple lakes along the way to pitch your tent and plenty of day hike options from a base camp, this trail makes a perfect weekend getaway or offers opportunities for longer expeditions into the Sierras.

Duck Pass Trail begins at a parking lot near the far end of Cold Water Campground and is well marked. The climb is steady but mild, zigzagging through the forest. After 0.9 miles you will reach a fork in the trail where a short detour will take you down to Arrowhead Lake. Just over a half mile past this fork you will pass Skeleton Lake. The lake shore offers small beaches for picnics lunches in the shade beneath the pines and shallows for wading in. As you climb above Skeleton Lake the trail goes through less dense patches of forest and meadows for about a mile. Be sure to turn around once and awhile to get glimpses down the canyon as the views to begin to open.

Barney Lake lays nestled below Duck pass, standing behind the clear waters in a conglomeration of rock slab. The pass is hot, so consider filling your water bottles, soaking your hat or taking a plunge into the clears alpine waters (though cold, I highly recommend swimming on a hot day, half way up the pass you’ll be wishing you were back in that water).

The pass itself is abrupt: not long but steep, made less so by a series of switchbacks. The path is rocky and requires watching, especially for anyone with weak ankles. It’s rocky nature leaves it void of shade and hot, but this is countered by unblocked views of the valley and lakes behind that require stopping to enjoy, even if you don’t need to catch your breath. You can see Mammoth Mountain to the northwest and near the top of the pass you can see the top of the Minarets above the ridge to the west.

From Barney Lake you will climb a little over a mile to the top of the pass. Upon reaching the top of Duck Pass you are rewarded with another, equally spectacular vista: that of Duck Lake in all of its breadth and depth of color. Bloody mountain stands tall over the far side. In summer wildflowers dot the sloping meadows around the lake.

Duck Lake lies in a glacial cirque, surrounded on three sides by peaks with its outlet on the far side. As a result, camping around Duck Lake is limited. A side trail on your left will take you around the head of Duck Lake over to Pika Lake which offers ample camp spots in the trees around the lake. The water in the smaller, shallower Pika lake is slightly less cold than Duck lake and nicer for swimming (or rather quick, artic plunges).

Do check both lakes for reflections in the late evening and early morning when the wind is calm. Reflections across the expanse of Duck Lake are mesmerizing when they happen. You can continue backpacking from here by heading towards Purple Lake and Lake Virginia, or you can day hike around the area or simply enjoy being lakeside in the wilderness for awhile.

Notes:To stay overnight you will need a backcountry permit, which can be booked in advance and picked up at the visitors center in Mammoth Lakes.

For people with less time, you can easily day hike up to Arrowhead, Skeleton or Barney Lake, or stay overnight around Skeleton or Barney Lake for an easier backpacking adventure. If you want to day hike all the way to Duck Lake be sure to leave early and take plenty of food and water, it will be easier without a pack, but plan for a full day.

Pack List

  • Sunscreen Water bottles
  • Hiking boots
  • Pack
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag/pad
  • Rain gear (just in case)
  • Hiking clothes
  • Warm layers
  • Water purifier
  • Food
  • Stove/Fuel
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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One of *the* best places to hike in the Sierra's.

almost 3 years ago
almost 3 years ago

Sierra Joy

Ecologist. Writer. Photographer. Inflicted by a serious Travel Bug, no cure found to date. Currently writing a book about the American West while living life on the road, working with wildlife biologists and exploring our public lands. I might be your spirit animal.

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