Moonlight Falls

Inyo National Forest / Bishop, California, USA

About Moonlight Falls


Hiking Distance: 13.2-16 miles round trip
Suggested Time: overnight backpack

Date first visited: 2011-08-13
Date last visited: 2011-08-13

Waterfall Latitude: 37.16576
Waterfall Longitude: -118.63561

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Moonlight Falls is one of those backcountry waterfalls that’s really more of an incidental attraction in an area better known for 14,000ft peaks and alpine lakes.

But then again, I guess that’s kind of what makes this waterfall stand out on its own compared to other waterfalling hikes that I’ve done.

Sabrina_BP_299_08132011 - Moonlight Falls backed by granite peaks
Moonlight Falls backed by granite peaks

Even though the falls itself isn’t big (I’m guessing only 30ft or so), nor is it wide and powerful, it does have gorgeous granite peaks as a backdrop (especially those surrounding Hungry Packer Lake).

Besides, it allows for hardy backcountry backpackers an opportunity to enjoy a refreshing (and well-earned) swim after caryying so much weight and hiking in the thin air of the Eastern Sierras.

Now since I’ve talked about Moonlight Falls in terms of the backcountry, you’ve probably guessed by now that this isn’t a day hike waterfall.

That said, there’s nothing to stop you from doing it as a day hike, but it would be a very long day hike.

Sabrina_BP_353_08132011 - Context of Hungry Packer Lake and some cascades spilling into it
Context of Hungry Packer Lake and some cascades spilling into it

Moreover, the altitude will make it even more strenuous than the modest hiking distance might indicate.

According to my GPS trip log it’s about 6.6 miles one-way from the Lake Sabrina trailhead to the base of Moonlight Falls.

In addition to the distance, we had to go from 9000ft to 11,000ft in elevation.

Therefore, it is conceivable that the GPS trip log underestimated the overall distance thanks to the numerous switchbacks during climbs combined with cumulative inaccuracies concerning elevation on the receiver (so it could be another mile or so each way).

Add it all up and it’s a difficult hike either way.

Logistics of Hiking to Moonlight Falls and beyond

Sabrina_BP_151_08132011 - Our backpacking campsite near Dingleberry Lake, which broke up our hike to Moonlight Falls and Hungry Packer Lake
Our backpacking campsite near Dingleberry Lake, which broke up our hike to Moonlight Falls and Hungry Packer Lake

I visited Moonlight Falls as part of a three-day two-night overnight backpack.

That said, I found that even splitting up the distance over three days (since we were carrying extra pack weight) was still difficult, especially when you factor in the oxygen-sparse elevation.

The swarms of mosquitoes also didn’t make the hike any easier.

But considering all the physical exertion required at high altitude for accessing Moonlight Falls, the real reason we went out here was for the pretty glacial lakes and the impressive peaks.

In fact, these mountains still had lots of snow on them during our trip in mid-August 2011 (which was a wet year in California)!

Sabrina_BP_066_08122011 - The crew ascending in high elevation with heavy packs on as we made our way deeper into the John Muir Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest
The crew ascending in high elevation with heavy packs on as we made our way deeper into the John Muir Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest

And I don’t think we were alone in this thought as we saw plenty of other hikers and backpackers doing this trail as well.

Hiking to our backpacking camp at Dingleberry Lake

From the trailhead near the shores of Lake Sabrina, we hiked gradually uphill along the southeastern shores of the manmade lake.

In the morning, the lake was calm enough to produce attractive reflections.

After about a mile of hiking, the trail diverged from from the lake and started climbing more steeply.

At nearly 2 miles from the trailhead, we encountered steep switchbacks, which were very taxing with packs on.

Sabrina_BP_019_08122011 - Lake Sabrina as seen early on in our backpack
Lake Sabrina as seen early on in our backpack

After the switchbacks, the trail still climbed, but it did so more gradually.

At nearly another mile, the trail eventually reached the northernmost shore of Blue Lake.

After crossing a stream draining the lake then proceeding briefly along the lake’s northwestern shore (about 0.5 miles from when we first sighted Blue Lake), the trail then reached a 3-way junction where we turned right towards Dingleberry Lake.

The other path straight ahead went towards the Baboon Lakes and Donkey Lake, which didn’t lead to Moonlight Falls (so we didn’t go there).

Sabrina_BP_074_08122011 - Looking back towards an attractive cascade near the head of Lake Sabrina
Looking back towards an attractive cascade near the head of Lake Sabrina

After another 1.3 miles or so, the trail (which continued climbing albeit somewhat gradually) eventually reached the diminutive Dingleberry Lake.

We actually set up our camping spot another 1/4-mile south of Dingleberry Lake just above a long and potentially wet creek crossing of Bishop Creek.

Once we had set up our camp, we ceased any additional hiking activity and called it a day.

The continuation towards Moonlight Falls and beyond would be done as a day hike from our backpacking camp by Dingleberry Lake.

Hiking from Dingleberry Lake to Moonlight Falls

Sabrina_BP_093_08122011 - Looking across Blue Lake before we cut towards Dingleberry Lake to set up our camp
Looking across Blue Lake before we cut towards Dingleberry Lake to set up our camp

Once we resumed our hike from our camp near Dingleberry Lake, we had to traverse a very wet crossing of Bishop Creek.

At around 1/4 mile beyond the long crossing of Bishop Creek, there was a very easy-to-miss spur trail on the left leading to Topsy Turvy Lake.

This spur was significant only in that I spotted an interesting cascade on the opposite side of Bishop Creek that appeared to be draining Topsy Turvy Lake.

After going about 0.1-mile on this detour towards Topsy Turvy Lake, I found perhaps the best view of the falls after leaving the trail and climbing up a rocky bluff where I managed to see the fairly significant cascade between trees.

Sabrina_BP_201_08132011 - The long and wet crossing of Bishop Creek near our backpacker camp around Dingleberry Lake
The long and wet crossing of Bishop Creek near our backpacker camp around Dingleberry Lake

Continuing back on the main trail for another 0.4 miles, we’d hit another trail junction.

This time, we stayed to the left to continue climbing towards Sailor Lake, Moonlight Lake, and Hungry Packer Lake.

The path straight ahead went towards the enclosed bowl of Midnight Lake (which we didn’t have the energy to do).

As we hiked another 0.3 miles (including another creek crossing just past the Midnight Lake junction), we’d eventually get attractive top-down views Topsy Turvy Lake, which made for a nice quick break before continuing on.

Sabrina_BP_393_08132011 - Looking towards an attractive waterfall that I think drained Topsy Turvy Lake as we made our way to Moonlight Falls
Looking towards an attractive waterfall that I think drained Topsy Turvy Lake as we made our way to Moonlight Falls

In another 1/3 mile, we reached another trail junction.

Since we were finally able to see Moonlight Falls in the distance en route to this junction, we knew that this junction led closer to the waterfall highlight of this trip.

Sure enough, we descended a half-scramble on a faint trail passing by a pair of small cascades before reaching the plunge pool fronting Moonlight Falls in about 1/4-mile.

Although the Topo Map labeled Sailor Lake very close to the actual location of Moonlight Falls, the waterfall actually drained Moonlight Lake.

Sabrina_BP_261_08132011 - Taking a dip in the pool before Moonlight Falls
Taking a dip in the pool before Moonlight Falls

Sailor Lake appeared to be a swampy multitude of smaller lakes that might also partially contribute to the creek draining Moonlight Lake and hence augment the falls (and perhaps making it last longer as well).

But regardless of its source, we could see attractive mountain peaks circling Hungry Packer Lake (further along the main trail) while also defining the boundary between Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park.

In my mind, those peaks were what gave Moonlight Falls its scenic allure though the ability to cool off in front of it was also pretty neat.

Hiking beyond Moonlight Falls

Now even though Moonlight Falls was the waterfall goal of our trip, we did continue the extra 1/2-mile beyond the Moonlight Falls detour to Hungry Packer Lake.

Sabrina_BP_375_08132011 - Looking over what I think was Sailor Lake, which along with Moonlight Lake drained towards the Moonlight Falls
Looking over what I think was Sailor Lake, which along with Moonlight Lake drained towards the Moonlight Falls

This lake was the last of the significant lakes we encountered on this backpacking trip.

There was also a rocky spur deviating from this trail towards a view of Moonlight Lake, which was a large lake backed by tall peaks though not quite in an enclosed bowl like Hungry Packer.

However, the kicker was that we found another attractive cascade spilling into Hungry Packer Lake.

So really, a visit to Moonlight Falls and the achievable extension towards Hungry Packer Lake yielded multiple surprise waterfalls.

In other words, don’t let Moonlight Falls be the goal.

Sabrina_BP_399_08132011 - Context of our backpacking campsite flanked by a pair of lakes (one of them was Dingleberry Lake)
Context of our backpacking campsite flanked by a pair of lakes (one of them was Dingleberry Lake)

It’s just one scenic attraction in a myriad of Eastern Sierra backcountry that was worth checking out, which included more waterfalls as well as the lakes and the peaks.

Even though I’ve claimed that an out-and-back hike focusing only on Moonlight Falls would be 13.2 miles round trip (give or take), we really logged about 16 miles round trip.

That was because our entire backpack encompassed all the aforementioned lakes in this writeup plus some of the side scrambles and detours to other cascades or lakes begging for a better view.

Authorities

Moonlight Falls resides in the Inyo National Forest near Bishop in Inyo County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Sabrina_BP_009_08122011 - The backpacking crew getting an early start as we skirted around Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_012_08122011 - Looking back at the dam holding up Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_027_08122011 - Some wildflowers blooming by the trail near Lake Sabrina as part of our Hungry Packer Lake and Moonlight Falls backpack
Sabrina_BP_036_08122011 - Entering the John Muir Wilderness
Sabrina_BP_051_08122011 - Context of some cascade spilling towards the head of Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_055_08122011 - Context of the trail beyond Lake Sabrina as we were on our way to do some serious climbing up to the lakes up where the sun had penetrated in this photo at this time of the morning
Sabrina_BP_056_08122011 - A cascade spilling towards Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_058_08122011 - Looking back at Lake Sabrina after we were pretty much past it at this point
Sabrina_BP_060_08122011 - Looking back at iron-rusted mountains perched well above Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_063_08122011 - Thin cascade near headwaters of Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_068_08122011 - After a good deal of climbing, the trail started to get up to where trees were more sparse and granite peak skylines were more prevalent en route to Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_072_08122011 - A classic Eastern Sierra panorama as seen along our backpacking route well upstream from Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_078_08122011 - The backpacking crew about to get up to the next tiring climb on our way up to Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_082_08122011 - Looking down at the cascade spilling into Lake Sabrina
Sabrina_BP_086_08122011 - The switchbacks that took a lot out of us between Lake Sabrina and Blue Lake
Sabrina_BP_089_08122011 - Finally above the switchbacks and making it up to Blue Lake
Sabrina_BP_096_08122011 - Further up around Blue Lake as we were nearing a junction where we'd veer to the right towards Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_112_08122011 - Sign by a trail junction where we went right towards Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_116_08122011 - Looking down towards a rocky part of the backpacking trail, where it's hard enough for day hikers, but we had to do this with a heavy pack
Sabrina_BP_119_08122011 - Passing by some surprising remnant snow this late in the Summer on our way to Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_124_08122011 - Looking back at Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_136_08122011 - Cindy enjoying the view from our backpacking camp near Bishop Creek and Dingleberry Lake
Sabrina_BP_141_08122011 - Our campsite between Dingleberry Lake and Bishop Creek
Sabrina_BP_204_08132011 - The backpacking crew at it again, but this time we started day-hiking from our camp by Dingleberry Lake towards Moonlight Falls and Hungry Packer Lake among others
Sabrina_BP_207_08132011 - Waterfall near the hidden trail to Topsy Turvy Lake
Sabrina_BP_214_08132011 - Stream crossing beyond the Midnight Lake junction
Sabrina_BP_215_08132011 - During our day-hike to Moonlight Falls, we noticed this deer who also noticed us
Sabrina_BP_220_08132011 - Looking along some pond on our way up to the granite terrain accessing Moonlight Falls and other high country lakes
Sabrina_BP_234_08132011 - Checking out Topsy Turvy Lake from the top
Sabrina_BP_240_08132011 - Context of Moonlight Falls backed by snowy mountains
Sabrina_BP_245_08132011 - The crew descending towards the Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_247_08132011 - Cascades along the detour to Moonlight Falls backed by peaks above Hungry Packer Lake (not shown)
Sabrina_BP_248_08132011 - The crew continuing to approach the Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_253_08132011 - Another series of cascades along the detour to Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_264_08132011 - Broad view of the front of Moonlight Falls and mountains in the distance
Sabrina_BP_278_08132011 - The crystal clear plunge pool of Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_312_08132011 - Closer look at some of the segments flanking Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_324_08132011 - Continuing the hike towards Hungry Packer Lake after having our fill of the Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_329_08132011 - Cascade spilling into Sailor Lake
Sabrina_BP_336_08132011 - A little stream crossing obstacle near the mouth of Hungry Packer Lake
Sabrina_BP_359_08132011 - Hungry Packer Lake
Sabrina_BP_352_08132011 - Cascade spilling into Hungry Packer Lake with some people for scale
Sabrina_BP_360_08132011 - Another look at the cascade spilling near the head of Hungry Packer Lake
Sabrina_BP_382_08132011 - In case you're curious, this is Moonlight Lake, which is the source of Moonlight Falls
Sabrina_BP_391_08132011 - Leaving Moonlight Lake and looking towards Sailor Lake
Sabrina_BP_404_08142011 - Alpenglow at sunrise of the day we had to pack up and hike back down to the trailhead to end our Moonlight Falls and Hungry Packer backpacking weekend

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To get to the trailhead leading to Moonlight Falls and the lakes around it, we had to drive west from Bishop leaving Hwy 395 at Line Street.

We drove about 19 miles west on Line Street, which was also State Hwy 168.

Sabrina_BP_007_08122011 - The actual trailhead around Lake Sabrina for the hike that led up to Moonlight Falls and beyond
The actual trailhead around Lake Sabrina for the hike that led up to Moonlight Falls and beyond

The road climbed towards Sabrina Camp, and it was at the campground vicinity where we could overnight park on the side of the road.

The road actually continued to its end at the Lake Sabrina Dam, but the parking lots there were for the neighboring bait and tackle shop, and they did not appreciate overnight backpackers hijacking their parking spaces.

The trailhead left the road about a 1/4-mile west of the Lake Sabrina Campground.

There were some pullouts by the trailhead for drop-offs or pick-ups, but no overnight parking was allowed there as well.

Sabrina_BP_412_08142011 - We spotted this attractive cascade while driving between Lake Sabrina and Bishop near Aspendell
We spotted this attractive cascade while driving between Lake Sabrina and Bishop near Aspendell

But no matter what, at least one person in the group (usually the driver) can walk the extra 1/4-mile to traverse the distance between the car and the trailhead to save everyone else from the extra hiking.

For overall context, Bishop was about 42 miles (about 45 minutes drive) south of Mammoth Lakes and 266 miles (over 4 hours drive) north of Los Angeles.

Fixated on the falls and the neighboring peaks overlooking Hungry Packer Lake (not seen)


Right to left sweep starting from granite peaks, then focusing on Moonlight Falls, and finally a brief look at an ideal place to have a backcountry campsite here

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Tagged with: inyo, national forest, bishop, john muir wilderness, eastern sierra, owens valley, california, waterfall, 395, sabrina, hungry packer



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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