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The Ultimate Trail Guide to Backpacking Loon Lake to Buck Island Lake in 2 Days

This 2 day, 1 night backpacking trip has everything—it’s really beautiful, easy-to-organize, full of lakes to jump into, and there are loads of campsites to choose from. Here’s everything you need to know before going backpacking from Loon Lake to Buck Island Lake.

Loon Lake to Buck Island lake Trail Key Information

Trailhead: Loon Lake

Hike End: Loon Lake

Hike Type: Out & Back

Length: 12.1 miles out & back

Time: 3.5-4 hours

Ascent:  1407 ft

Difficulty: Intermediate—it’s nothing too challenging but is quite long.

What permits do I need for backpacking Loon Lake to Buck Island Lake?

This is the best news to share—you don’t need permits to backpack here! Buck Island Lake is just on the border of Desolation Wilderness, but is in Eldorado National Forest, so if you’re just doing this route and not extending further into Desolation, you can just gather a group and go! I think there were about 12 of us.

Logistics behind Loon Lake to Buck Island Lake backpacking

Here’s some helpful information I wish I knew before heading on this backpacking trip.

Parking

Arrive relatively early, as there are lots of day-hikers and day-users that will take up parking spots. The lot was actually full when we arrived and we asked the attendant what we should be doing—he told us to park along any shoulder as long as we were out of the way. Parking costs $10.

Mosquitos

This area can be extremely buggy. We got the most unlucky and visited during what we later found out was nicknamed mosquitogeddon. We went 1) in a bad year for mosquitos to begin with, and 2) right as the mosquitos were hatching (the exact weekend) and there were swarms and swarms of them come twilight. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of the area, but I highly recommend double checking that you aren’t going right as the mosquitos are hatching.

Backpacking from Loon Lake to Buck Island Lake: our experience!

After driving up to Loon Lake from San Francisco (side note: there isn’t service up at Loon Lake so download directions!), and paying for parking, we parked on the shoulder near the parking lot for Loon Lake and geared up!

This backpacking trip starts by following the shore of Loon Lake. It’s pretty flat for the majority of this section and it is beauuuutiful. When you’re close to the lake, you can find some good lunch and swimming spots. I didn’t jump in when we were hiking in, but the lake is gorgeous and I’d recommend it.

At the end of Loon Lake, between it and Buck Island Lake, is where you’ll start ascending. The ascent isn’t horrible but there isn’t too much shade coverage so it can get quite hot.

Descend towards Buck Island Lake—there are looooads of places to camp. We ended up hanging out by the lake until it was time to start setting up camp but there were very few other groups so you should have plenty of spots to choose from!

As the sun set, the mosquitos came out and swarmed. You’d see black clouds of mosquitos and this was, of course, worse near the trees. I only had DEET that you sprayed, which took too long to apply and I was saved by a friend with the misty aerosol mosquito spray.

We cooked and ate on a rock over the water, which was a necessity to escape from mosquitos. I did end up jumping into the water, as there weren’t any mosquitos out there. The water at Buck Island Lake is COLD.

As soon as we were done eating, we set up bear bags away from camp and then ran into our tents.

I cannot stress enough that this would be a fantastic backpacking trip any other weekend. Expect some mosquitos but definitely do research to avoid the hatching weekend.

Luckily, mosquitos were gone by morning and we were able to have a great time packing up camp and hiking out. We stopped once again at Loon Lake to jump into the water (I got in this time!) and it was refreshing and wonderful—it’s warmer at Loon Lake than Buck Island Lake.

Retrace your steps back to the parking lot and you’re done!

What to pack for this trip

Pack for a standard backpacking trip—here’s a full post with recommendations and what I carry.

  • tent
  • sleeping bag
  • sleeping pad
  • pillow
  • bear bag/bear box (if you’re going into Desolation Wilderness, you must carry a bear box; if you’re stopping at Buck Island Lake, you can carry a bear bag)
  • stove and pot
  • backpacking meal
  • snacks
  • sunscreen
  • mosquito repellent
  • hiking boots
  • camp shoes
  • sun shirt
  • jacket
  • pants
  • comfortable backpack
  • swimsuit

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