On paper, Sword Lake does not fit my definition of a great destination. It is a popular lake, not a place to go for solitude. It’s not above treeline or filled with pristine glacier-fed waters. It is surrounded by forest so the views are minimal. There are mosquitoes and noisy boyscouts. There are no fish. The drive to the trailhead is dusty. The hike is short and unchallenging.

Nevertheless, this is one of the best lakes I’ve backpacked to in the Sierra.

What Sword Lake does have is the best swimming conditions I’ve found. If I’d discovered this lake unspoiled and rarely visited, I’d keep it a secret. However, this is a well known place and there is a lot of information out there (including several YouTube videos and a few mainstream media profiles) so I have no qualms in sharing the details here.

Trip Report

I had originally planned on starting a big week long trip out of Pine Creek this weekend, but the late snow melt led to a postponement. Therefore I was looking for something else to do and at the last minute I jumped in on this trip to Sword Lake that Laurent was busy planning. Simply along for the ride, I wasn’t sure what to expect – I just was hoping for a nice weekend in the mountains with some friends.

Swimming in Sword Lake

After picking up the permit in Pine Crest, we headed to the trailhead off of the Clark Fork turnoff from 108. The six dirt miles lasted a dusty eternity thanks to the horse trailers and parade of other vehicles heading up the road ahead of us, but we eventually reached the County Line trail head. The hike to the lake was a short jaunt through the wildflower strewn meadows and forest and we arrived quickly. Upon reaching the lake I let my campsite mojo take the lead and found us a great site above the lake that would keep us as free from mosquitoes as possible. Though they were bad in the evening they would have been worse closer to the lake.

I had originally planned to spend the afternoon exploring the area and possibly heading down to Spicer Reservoir to fish, but my plans were quickly squashed when I sighted our private ‘beach’. On the shore of Sword Lake, just below our campsite, there was the most wonderful little spot where the granite sloped gently into the water, providing a perfect place to lounge around and have easy access to the water. Just next to this ramp was a nice cliff with enough height to allow for some fun jumping into the deep cool water.

Interested in this hike? Get the details here.

Our private 'beach'

Our private ‘beach’

The water was an absolutely perfect temperature for swimming. We spent all afternoon in and out of the lake. Jump in, swim around, crawl out an lay in the sun, lather, rinse, repeat. Across the lake, a group of teenagers (boyscout troop?) had camped and were jumping off the ~25 foot cliff into the deep water below. All around the lake people were swimming, jumping, and having a great time.

Cliff Jumping Sword Lake

After several hours of swimming and sun we took a walk around Lost Lake, Sword Lake’s neighbor. A bit of bushwhacking and scrambling kept things interesting and we got a good picture of the campsite locations around the lakes. Although both lakes were busy, our campsite was quiet and pretty much out of sight from other campsites. A relaxing and warm evening in camp was followed by one of the hottest nights I’ve had in the Sierra – I barely needed even my 40 degree sleeping bag.

Sword Lake sunset

Sunday started off hot and sunny, so before hiking out I got in several more jumps and a bit of swimming. I could have stayed there for days! Sword Lake will definitely be my ‘go-to’ destination in the future when I’m looking for a place to spend a hot summer weekend. I was already ready to turn around and go back once we reached the 110 degree central valley heat on the drive home.

One of the many wildflowers on the trail

One of the many wildflowers on the trail


In and Out Dayhike or Backpack.


2 miles one way to the lake. The track below is 7.6 miles and includes both directions as well as a walk around Lost Lake.

Elevation Gain:

+/- 1400 ft

Trailhead and Permit Notes:

Sword Lake is most accessible from the County Line Trailhead in Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. Access to this trailhead is on rough dirt road, though we saw plenty of horse trailers make the trip. It is a busy destination on summer weekends so arrive early for parking and prime campsite choice if backpacking.

Camping Tips:

Wilderness Permits are required but free and not limited to quotas as of this writing. Sword Lake is a very popular destination, so if you want a good campsite choice I would recommend going mid-week or in the off season. The busiest parts of the lake are closest to the main cliff jumping rock, but you can find other spots around the entire lake.

Useful Guides and Gear:

Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd

Mountain sports addict. Dog Mom. Craft beer drinker. Tech nerd. The best days are those spent above 10k ft. Meet me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google +


Frank - Our Hiking Blog · July 19, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Lovely, just reads like a fantastic weekend! Freezing cold and raining here (it’s our winter)

John Soares · July 22, 2010 at 6:00 am

Rebecca, what a great trip. I love finding alpine lakes that are great for swimming and lounging. I’m lucky to live near Castle Lake just outside of Mount Shasta; just spent the afternoon yesterday hiking and swimming there.

I put Sword Lake on my high-priority list.

Randy · July 26, 2010 at 10:01 am

That’s not far from where I canoe camped with my wife a few weeks ago at Utica Reservoir. I try not to discount places simply because people go there. I sometimes find I meet the most interesting people at lakes such as these; sometimes even swapping email addresses to keep in touch. I also find the tree lined lakes to be the most beautiful. I’m more of a below the trail line type though. I guess different strokes for different folks huh? 🙂

Nice trip BTW!


Randy · July 26, 2010 at 10:02 am

Errr…Below the tree line even…I really need to start reading what I type before I submit.

MattK · July 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I love this area of the Stan. There are some nice streams in the area for fly fishing too. Thanks for the great post.

Gretchen I Walter · June 22, 2017 at 10:59 am

Have you been since this post? I wonder why there are no fish? We have hiked there often and wanted to bring the kids to camp and fish.

Nathan · July 30, 2017 at 10:21 pm

Just was there this weekend, The Hike is harder then most people review it as. We ran into more then a few people on the trail that had the same comment. Harder then described. It is about 3 miles each way. Lots of uphill (both directions) and lots of debris on the trail. BUT once you do get there, the view is awesome, the water is refreshing and lots of nice people. There was a good 10-12 other groups there camping. As to the fishing, the Rangers said it has been a good 15-20 yrs since the lake was stocked and with the amount of ‘diving’ and swimming any fish left would be hard to come by. There was a couple we ran into that said its been about 10 yrs since he has seen anyone pull a fish out of the lake.
Overall, it was a fun weekend, but plan for a more intermediate hike vs easy like most people say. I am not 100% sure it we will return, maybe again when my son is old enough to hike.

Jacob · August 29, 2018 at 4:40 pm

THAAAAAAAANKS!!!! I’m going to use this to persuade my dad to take me!!!

    Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd · August 30, 2018 at 7:39 am

    This area is being affected by the Donnell Wildfire this year so there might be closures now and in following summers – check with the national forest service before visiting!

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