Beginner-Friendly Bull Run Lake

Learn more about California’s Bull Run Lake, above Arnold off Highway 4.

I’m a huge new fan of Bull Run Lake and I’d highly recommend it as a great intro to camping and overnight backpacking for friends and families looking to get slightly off the beaten track.

I first heard of the lake three years ago while giving a presentation at REI Stockton. It was proudly recommended by an audience member as one of the best “local” hikes in the area, and it lived up to the billing.

Bull Run Lake is located in the high Sierra just off Highway 4, about 3.5 hours from the Bay Area. You’ll pass Murphy’s, Arnold, and Lake Alpine as the highway becomes a narrow, unpainted mountain road. At the Stanislaus Meadow turnout, you’ll find a parking area, and a dirt road that takes you a half mile or so south to the trailhead. Four-wheel drive is recommended for the dirt road, although an experienced driver in a two-wheel drive pickup should be able to make the drive without any trouble (as was our case).

My son Brooks (who just turned 4 in September) and I, drove up early Saturday morning and hiked the roughly 3.5 miles to the lake. It was his first backpacking and overnight camping trip, EVER!… and my first time to Bull Run Lake.

While it took us a full 3.5 hours, taking into account plenty of breaks, lunch, and some time for play, the trail was perfect for a beginner. The trail had a rugged feel, but a very moderate grade. There was a gradual 500-foot elevation gain the last half mile as we approached the lake. However, we could sense we were getting close, so we didn’t really “feel” the climb all that much.

The trail is well established, with plenty of markers to help with navigation over rocky granite areas. At times it felt like there were maybe too many trail markers… possibly created by junior hikers – I know my son left a few new ones behind. Keep your eyes peeled if you feel you’re veering off course.

The lake was absolutely beautiful. I believe this is a popular destination for people who know the area, but I wouldn’t have guessed it judging by the condition of the trail or campsites around the lake. Both were remarkably clean and pristine. The water and shorelines were clear and clean. It felt like we were 20 miles into the Sierra.

There are plenty of good campsites around the lake with great views and easy access to the waterfront. We camped in the trees on a slight granite ledge near the lake’s south shore, opposite some larger campsites on the north shore near the trail’s end.

It was mid-October, but the lake was still warm enough for swimming. And we had some success with fishing – Brooks was excited to catch his first fish!

We made the return trip back to the car in only 2.5 hours the following morning. For most “average” hikers, I’d plan for 2 hours of hiking each way.

So, if you’re looking for a kid-friendly, or beginning backpacker hike slightly off the beaten track, give Bull Run Lake lake a try. It won’t disappoint!

Summary with numbers

Hike to Bull Run Lake
Stanislaus Meadow trailhead (7,750 ft) to Bull Run Lake (8,350 ft): 3.5 mi
Total mileage: 7.0 mi (round trip)

Notes and resources

A permit is required for overnight backpacking. There is no fee. You can reserve two days in advance or pick up the day of. Contact the Calaveras Ranger District for trail conditions an additional information.