Trip Type: Weekend Out and Back or incorporate with other lakes, or Mt. Langley to make this a 3, 4, or 5 day trip
Trailhead to Cottonwood Lake #3: 5.6 miles
Altitude Gain: 1,100 feet
Trail Difficulty: Moderate (only because the altitude, otherwise easy)
Trail Traffic: High, particularly on weekends. Proximity to Los Angeles makes Cottonwood a Southern Californian favorite.
WSH Trip Rating: 5 out of 5 stars: We can't think of a better way to get to the high country quickly - particularly for our SoCal friends. The plethora (yeah, we used that word!) of lakes and camping choices make Cottonwood Basin one of our favorites.
The Hike: This 5.6 mile hike is relatively flat/undulating in the first couple miles. The open trail makes this a nice time to catch up with fellow hikers. At the two mile mark you'll begin a slow even and constant ascent to the Cottonwood/South Fork Lakes trail junction (approximately 3 mile mark). (Trails and signage on the trip are excellent.) Take a right at this junction and ascend. Here the trail begins to steepen a bit. Also it becomes a bit more rocky, that along with a number of large steps, courtesy of the Forest Service trail crew, makes mile 4 the most challenging of the hike in. However at mile 5 you ascend to the Cottonwood Basin and are greeted with an EPIC view of Cottonwood Lake #1 and Cirque Peak. Simply awe inspiring!!! Have your camera read! We don't recommend camping at Lake #1 as it's mostly marsh around the lake. Instead continue on to Lake 2, 3, or 5.
Camping at Cottonwood Lakes: Cottonwood Lake #3 appears to have the most use and therefore the best camping however there are a few other spots to consider. There's a nice camping area on the Northeast side of Lake #2 which could provide a bit of solitude as Lake #3 does get a lot of traffic. Also, if you're really looking for solitude try heading up to East side of Lake #5. There is no suitable camping at Lake #1 (marshy) or Lake #4.