Took the unmaintained trail that branched off the trail ~1.2 miles from the trailhead. Turned out to be around 5 miles to South Forks Lake. When you're walking along the meadow, make sure to stay right along the creek. Beautiful lake, with golden meadows. Windy and VERY cold at night. Definitely end of Sierra season. Beautiful hike with lots of water available. Nice day hike over the hill to Cirque lake-has potential for amazing waterfront camping (100 feet from water!).
Relatively easy hike in and out, we camped near old army pass. A overnight permit is required, be at the ranger station by 11am for same day (free) walk in permit. They go quick! This is a very popular backpacking trail...be advised. Or you can reserve before hand and pick up your permit on your way there. The station also rents bear cans, I believe it was 5$ a night. It was extremely windy, and cold for July. Be prepared for a cold windy night if backpacking out! We did bring our dog, so we were only allowed in the cottonwood lakes loop. Really beautiful scenery, you will enjoy it :)
I left my house at 5am and got to the Ranger Station in Lone Pine by 915am. I had to be there by 10am to pick up my permit. They had a lot of black Garcia bear cannister's there to rent (next time). The ranger told me the weather would be great, no thunderstorms predicted. He also said there was trail maintenance being done on Old Army Pass. You then get back onto the 395, turn left on Whitney Portal Rd, pretty quickly turn left onto Horseshoe Meadow Rd and take that a ways into Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. There is a campground here, restrooms, water, and bear boxes. We camped 6.8 miles (1190 elevation gain) in on the northern side of Lake 4. Lake 4 and 5 are very exposed to wind, they are located up above lake 3, up a small ridge. They are not visible from Lake 3. Lake 3 seems to be the most popular place for camping. We found a site with a tree that helped block the wind. There were a few marmots patrolling this area. Our campsite was super close to Old Army Pass, it was fun watching people go up it. The first night was super windy and I did not get any sleep at all, it was quite horrible. The next day the wind was gone and the water was glassy. It was beautiful! Dave took Old Army Pass up to Mt. Langley. I knew I wasn't in good enough shape to do it so I decided to head home one night early because of the awful night before. On my hike out I took a different trail right along side Lake 3 and then between Lake 1 + 2 to New Army pass and then connected back up to Cottonwood Lakes trail. This was a beautiful loop, I'm really glad I took a different way out to see more of the lakes. Lake 2 was small, but Lake 1 was gorgeous. I wouldn't stay at it though because it had reed grass all around it, good bug place. If I go again I would stay at lake 3, and/or look at Long and High lake. Also South Lakes are an option too. I probably should have stayed the 2nd night and done more exploring but that first night of no sleep threw me off.
I just got done hiking cottonwood lakes loop this weekend in late June and believe-you-me, those mosquitoes were HUGE at lake 3. Don't forget the repellent. Other than that, the hike and views of multiple nearby lakes was spectacular. The hike is a great beginner trail for backpackers to do on a three day weekend. The trail doesn't have any steep inclines except for one area where the trail splits and you have the option of doing switchback or a stair climb.
Dogs allowed through the loop (only).
This is a great hike the Cottonwood Lakes are some of the most beautiful lakes in the Sierras, its real quiet and real nice when you go on a weekday-less people. The hike up to New Army Pass then down to ( Old ) Army Pass was a real good all day hike but get an early start, it will take you ALL day to do this.
Gorgeous trail- but stay away during mosquito season!! The mosquitoes were so bad we had to leave a day early, would have been PERFECT if not for them. Moderate difficulty, beautiful views, some of the bluest sky I have ever seen. Dogs are allowed as long as you don't head towards and take the New Army Pass trail.