Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Lakes and the High Sierra
9 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The view of imposing, snowcapped granite spires and pinnacles and deep blue lakes from Kearsarge Pass is one of the most striking scenes of California's High Sierra. This high mountain pass, on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and on the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park with Inyo National Forest, has views usually reserved for intense backcountry hikes but can actually be accessed with relative ease. The hike to reach this high pass in the Eastern Sierra travels up scenic Onion Valley under the shadow of massive University Peak and passes numerous sparkling alpine lakes. This is an excellent hike and a good way for visitors to the Eastern Sierra to catch a glimpse of the vast wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park on a day hike.

The hike up Onion Valley can be easily adjusted to fit different schedules and levels of fitness: hikers looking for a shorter and less strenuous journey can opt for a 4.5 mile round trip hike to Gilbert Lake with 1200 feet of elevation gain, while backpackers and extremely fit day hikers can use Kearsarge Pass as an access point for the vast Kings Canyon backcountry. The entire hike is at a high elevation, with Kearsarge Pass itself at nearly 11,800 feet, so hikers should be prepared for potential altitude sickness.

I hiked Kearsarge Pass during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. I was initially unsure whether I'd be able to do this hike at all at such a late point in the year: although Onion Valley Road was still open to the trailhead, the first snowstorm of the season had swept through and I came with the expectation that snow might force me to turn back at some point on the hike. Luckily, I was able to make it all the way up the pass with microspikes; however, in most years, this hike becomes inaccessible by late October. 

The Onion Valley Trailhead is far from any major metropolitan area- hikers from Las Vegas, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles will have to drive hours to reach the Eastern Sierra. The closest town to Onion Valley is Independence, in Owens Valley just east of Kearsarge Pass. To reach Kearsarge Pass from Independence, I took the Onion Valley Road west and followed it uphill through many switchbacks to its end at the Onion Valley Trailhead. The drive up featured excellent views of Owens Valley and the soaring ramparts of the Eastern Sierra, including towering Mount Williamson, California's second tallest peak. White Mountain Peak, the third tallest mountain in the state, was also visible on the drive up on the opposite side of Owens Valley. During my return down this road, I spotted a set of well-formed lenticular clouds piling up on the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada.

Lenticular clouds over Owens Valley
From the hiker trailhead, the Onion Valley Trail made a long initial switchback to join up with the stock trail, passing a junction with the Golden Trout Lake Trail at the second switchback about a third of a mile into the hike. The grade of the trail was quite steady: the trail was well built and the elevation gain was generally fairly evenly-distributed over the course of the hike. The terrain around the trail was rocky and fairly open, with sparse tree cover at this elevation and on this side of the Sierra Crest. Continuing the moderate uphill along the trail, I entered the John Muir Wilderness at three-quarters of a mile. From here, the trail embarked on a set of switchbacks, from which I had nice views out into Owens Valley while also approaching the stream banks of Independence Creek. At 1.5 miles from and 800 feet above the trailhead, I emerged into the basin holding Little Pothole Lake, which had frozen by this point in the season. The granite ramparts of University Peak- a summit that would dominate the views on this hike- rose behind the lake.

Little Pothole Lake
The switchback ascent continued after Little Pothole Lake, the trail climbing moderately but relentlessly. Here, I started encountering more snow and ice on the trail during my November hike and I donned my microspikes for traction. The trail climbed another 400 feet from Little Pothole Lake before entering a large talus field. Here, the ascent started to level off as I was treated to excellent views of the mountain amphitheater at the head of Onion Valley. Looking back to the east, I also had a great view into the desert plains of Owens Valley, with the treeless Inyo Mountains rising across the valley marking the transition from the Sierra Nevada to the Basin and Range.

Looking down Onion Valley to Independence, Owens Valley, and the Inyo Mountains
The talus slope ended as I arrived on the shores of Gilbert Lake, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. The trail skirted the north shore of the lake and I had incredible views of massive University Peak rising to the south above the lake. The lake itself had frozen, although the ice in center of the lake was not particularly thick yet and displayed numerous delicate cracks. On the day of my visit, the handful of other hikers on the trail turned around here as most had not brought traction devices to deal with the snow further up the trail. Gilbert Lake was very pretty and would have made for a satisfying standalone day hike.

University Peak rises above Gilbert Lake
At the west end of Gilbert Lake, the trail passed a massive rock with a pretty view of Independence Peak and University Peak rising over the lake, with a peek of the distant Inyo Mountains. This was a pretty scene and any hikers to Gilbert Lake should at least make it out this far.

Independence Peak over Gilbert Lake
Leaving Gilbert Lake, the trail reentered a sparse forest and made a short, gentle ascent to arrive at the junction with a spur trail to Matlock Lake. I ignored this spur trail and continued forward on the main trail, but I kept my eyes peeled for a social path to the left of the main trail just past this junction that led to Flower Lake. Flower Lake was a short distance from the main trail but was worth the brief detour to visit; it was not as spectacular as Gilbert Lake but still had a pretty setting at the foot of a tall granite peak, surrounded by forest. During my visit, the lake was frozen solid. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, this could also make for a nice day hike destination.

Frozen Flower Lake
The trail resumed the moderate but steady climb after passing Flower Lake. After a few switchbacks through the forest, the trail emerged on rockier, more open slopes. After traversing the side of a small, rocky basin, the trail emerged onto a ridge above Heart Lake about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. Nestled beneath soaring granite walls far below the trail, Heart Lake was a striking scene, one of the most wild and beautiful views on the hike to that point. Its dark, deep blue waters remained unfrozen well into November, even as its shores were coated in snow.

Heart Lake
As the trail embarked on another switchback ascent above Heart Lake, views from the trail continued to widen. Gilbert Lake and Flower Lake became visible back down Onion Valley. This set of switchbacks ended as the trail entered the highest of the many small basins in Onion Valley. Here, massive Mount Gould rose ahead and Kearsarge Pass itself, a high saddle on the jagged crest of the Sierra, finally came into view. I could see the final stretch of trail, which cut across the slopes of Mount Gould to reach the pass. I passed the last few stunted trees around the trail as I emerged into the barren alpine world above the timberline.

Looking past Gilbert Lake out Onion Valley
Mount Gould
As I started this final ascent to Kearsarge Pass, Big Pothole Lake appeared in the high basin to the south. Big Pothole Lake was the most dramatic of the five lakes that I saw in Onion Valley: its nearly perfectly round form was set in a rugged granite bowl, with soaring granite peaks rising directly behind it. Although at a high elevation, Pothole Lake had not yet become fully frozen.

Big Pothole Lake
The trail made a long final switchback on the last stretch of the ascent, which crossed rocky terrain on Mount Gould's slopes. As I approached the pass, a number of jagged peaks began to appear to the west on the other side of the pass, joining the views of University Peak that I had enjoyed for the past few hours.

University Peak rises above Big Pothole Lake
At last I arrived at Kearsarge Pass, 11,760 feet above sea level. I was welcomed by a sign informing me of my arrival at Kings Canyon National Park and by blasts of tropical storm-force winds that were blowing over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Challenging the wind and taking a few ginger steps onto the Kings Canyon side of the pass, I found a spectacular alpine landscape of snow, granite, and lakes laid before me. Just below the pass lay the Kearsarge Lakes, a series of treeline lakes in varying states of freezing, at the foot of a row of granite spires known as the Kearsarge Pinnacles. Further to the west was the lower elevation Bullfrog Lake. Behind the Kearsarge Pinnacles rose the great granite pyramids of Mount Brewer, North Guard Peak, and Mount Farquhar, which are the northernmost summits of the Great Western Divide. To the south, the wildest part of the view encompassed the Kings-Kern Divide, a fearsome wall of granite spires that included Mount Ericsson and Mount Stanford. As I could also see Big Pothole Lake and Matlock Lake on the other side of the Sierra Crest in Onion Valley, there were no fewer than seven lakes in my view from the pass. This was an extraordinarily grand view and an incredible reward for a reasonably moderate day hike.

View to Kearsarge Lakes and Kings Canyon National Park from Kearsarge Pass
Big Pothole Lake from Kearsarge Pass
From Kearsarge Pass, it is about another 16 miles of hiking to reach Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. At just over 20 miles hiking from Onion Valley to Cedar Grove, this is the shortest trailhead-to-trailhead crossing over the High Sierra. In fact, Kearsarge Pass was once the intended route for California Highway 180 to cross the Sierra Nevada and Onion Valley Road was once signed as the eastern stretch of Highway 180. However, the establishment of the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness ended plans to extend roads over the Sierra Nevada both here and further north at Minaret Summit, leaving us today with one of the largest stretches of wilderness in the contiguous United States.

The name Kearsarge is actually derived from a name that the native Pennacook people of what is now New Hampshire bestowed upon a mountain in that state: a successful Union Navy ship in the Civil War was named Kearsarge after the New Hampshire peak, which in turn was the namesake of an Eastern Sierra mine and this alpine pass.

Mount Ericsson rising amidst the granite crags of the High Sierra
Kearsarge Pinnacles
I saw just a handful of other hikers on the trail on a November weekday, but you should expect Onion Valley to be quite popular on a summer weekend. The scenic delights of this hike are no secret and plenty of day hikers and backpackers alike head up this trail to access the stunning High Sierra when the snow has melted and the weather is nice. I can confirm that this hike deserves every ounce of attention it receives: Kearsarge Pass is a stunning spot that is worth putting up with crowds.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Cottonwood Lakes

Mount Langley rises above Cottonwood Lake No. 5
12.5 miles round trip, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required, permit quota for overnight hikes

The many lakes of the Cottonwood Lakes lie beneath the gleaming white granite of Mount Langley, marking the southern end of California's famed High Sierra. This is an enjoyable if slightly long day hike to visit four lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, a starkly beautiful region that can be accessed by a fairly easy paved drive and then a fairly easy hike. While many hikers choose to make overnight trips to the lakes and use them as a base camp for climbing Mount Langley or exploring other High Sierra destinations, this makes an excellent day hike for visitors to Lone Pine hoping to sample a bit of what makes the High Sierra so magical. The hike visits both the Golden Trout and John Muir Wildernesses in Inyo National Forest.

I hiked to Cottonwood Lakes during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. It's easy to reach the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead from Lone Pine, although the area is a long drive from either the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. From Lone Pine, I took the Whitney Portal Road uphill for three miles and then turned left onto the Horseshoe Meadows Road. I then followed the paved Horseshoe Meadows Road for about 20 miles. This road is one of the most extraordinary in the Sierra Nevada, cutting wide, sweeping switchbacks up the slopes of Wonoga Peak. As I drove up this road, incredible panoramas of Owens Valley and the great front of the Eastern Sierra provided constant wonderment; I also spotted distant Great Basin summits like White Mountain Peak and Telescope Peak, as well as a view at one point of Mount San Gorgonio far to the south. The dry lakebed of Owens Lake filled the valley below. 

Owens Lake and Telescope Peak from the Horseshoe Meadows Road
The Horseshoe Meadows Road then delved into the mountains and arrived at an intersection once it came to the Cottonwood Campground; here, I turned right at the junction for the Cottonwood Lakes and New Army Pass trailhead. I followed this road to its dead end at the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. There's no fee or permit necessary for day use here but overnight campers must reserve or claim in-person one of the quota-limited camping permits for staying in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin.

Leaving the trailhead, I started the hike with a gentle ascent through the forest, joining up with a stock trail from the Equestrian Camp 0.3 miles into the hike. The trail soon entered the Golden Trout Wilderness, which is named for the spectacularly colored trout endemic to the watershed of the Kern River, the now-threatened species that is the state freshwater fish of California. At a half mile, the trail crossed a nearly imperceptible saddle and then descended gently through the forest for the next mile to reach a crossing over South Fork Cottonwood Creek at 1.5 miles into the hike.

Illuminated tree husk along the trail
On this cold mid-November day, South Fork Cottonwood Creek had frozen solid. I rockhopped across the creek and then continued along the trail to Cottonwood Lakes. The trail was sandy at times and slightly rocky at times over the next mile and a half as it ascended very gently through the valley of North Fork Cottonwood Creek; at times, the tree cover would break enough for partial views of the granite ramparts of nearby Flattop Mountain.

About 1.2 miles after the creek crossing and about 2.7 miles into the hike, I came to the first open views of the hike as the trail skirted the edge of a pretty meadow along Cottonwood Creek. Soon afterwards, around 3 miles into the hike, the trail entered the John Muir Wilderness and then crossed the north fork of Cottonwood Creek. 

Meadow along Cottonwood Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb a bit more steadily as it passed another meadow, this one with a nice view of Flattop Mountain. In November, the meadow grasses had turned yellow for the winter, but visitors in July are likely to find lush green meadows with blooming wildflowers here.

Flattop Mountain rises over meadows
As the trail began to climb more aggressively, it passed a junction with the trail to New Army Pass at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. I took the right fork at this junction and followed the Cottonwood Lakes Trail up its steepest stretch, in which it ascended nearly 600 feet in a mile. This was still a fairly moderate grade: the trail was almost never truly steep. The trail generally ascended through the forest but there were frequent breaks in the trees that yielded partial views of nearby Flattop Mountain and the impressive pyramid of Cirque Peak. A number of foxtail pines dotted the trailside; upon death, the foxtails leave behind gnarled, twisted trunks with rich, golden wood.

Foxtail pine on the ascent
The ascent ended at 4.5 miles from the trailhead as I passed the turnoff on the right side of the trail for Muir Lake: at the junction, I emerged into a beautiful, flat subalpine meadow set at the base of a collection of mighty High Sierra peaks. The most renowned of these peaks was Mount Langley, one of California's rare 14,000-foot peaks, but Cirque Peak to the southwest struck a remarkably symmetric and beautiful profile, a fitting form for the mountain that anchors the southern end of the High Sierra.

Cirque Peak and Army Pass Point rising over the meadows on Cottonwood Creek
I crossed another fork of Cottonwood Creek as I entered the broad meadow. Looking back to the east, I had a great view out of the Sierra Nevada to mighty Telescope Peak, an ultraprominent peak that is the highest point of both the desert Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park.

Telescope Peak from the meadows
The meadows were a fulfilling reward after 4.5 miles of fairly uneventful (almost boring!) hiking. I soaked in the views of Cirque Peak as I continued along the trail through the meadows. Although I was the only person on the trail on that cold weekday, I realized I wasn't alone in these meadows: a coyote was wandering about nearby but bolted when it noted my presence. I spotted the first of the Cottonwood Lakes off to the left of the trail; the lake was small and frozen, so I chose to bypass it and continue on to the later lakes.

Coyote near Cottonwood Lake No. 1
Cirque Peak

The trail stayed flat for about a mile after entering the meadows. After leaving the main meadow, I passed through a patch of trees before emerging into a second meadow with great views of Mount Langley ahead. Here, the trail passed a small cabin and skirted the west side of a shallow, unnamed lake that filled the center of the meadow.

Mount Langley
Frozen unnamed lake
At 5.7 miles into the hike, the trail passed the north end of the unnamed lake, skirted a forest, and then made a short descent to the shores of Cottonwood Lake No. 3. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 was quite long and unfortunately the trail skipped over most of its shoreline; however, as the trail wrapped around the northern end of the lake and began to ascend, I had a magnificent view down the length of Lake No. 3 with Flattop Mountain rising behind it. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 had frozen as well, but not to the same extent as the previous lakes; the result was a mostly clear surface to the lake that was decorated by a beautiful lattice of cracks.

Frozen Cottonwood Lake No. 3
Leaving Cottonwood Lake No. 3, the trail made a brief final ascent, pushing uphill a bit to reach a slightly higher level of the Cottonwood Lakes basin. After the trail flattened out again, this time in a basin right below the granite walls of Mount Langley, I followed the trail a hundred meters and then bore left at an unmarked junction to reach the shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. Nestled in a bowl beneath high granite cliffs, Cottonwood Lake No. 4 had a stark, alpine feel. This lake had frozen over as well and the nearby granite cliffs still retained their recent dusting of snow. Old Army Pass rose above the far end of the lake; an unmaintained trail continued along Cottonwood Lake No. 4 and then climbed precipitously up to the pass, providing access to the main summit route up Mount Langley. Old Army Pass lies atop nearly vertical granite walls and it amazed me that this was considered a pass at all: the trail to reach the pass was visible from across the lake and was clearly both very steep and very precarious.

Old Army Pass above Cottonwood Lake No. 4
I enjoyed lunch and a brief nap on a set of large rocks on the northeast shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. After my siesta, I moseyed over on a social path over to Cottonwood Lake No. 5, which was right next to Cottonwood Lake No. 4, separated only by a low isthmus about 50 meters wide. This was the end of the hike, 6.2 miles from the trailhead.

Cottonwood Lake No. 5
The southeast face of Mount Langley rises vertically above Cottonwood Lake No. 5, an impressive sight. The high pinnacles on the cliff are not the true summit of Mount Langley, which is set slightly back from this massive wall of white granite. At 14,032 feet tall, Mount Langley is the ninth-tallest peak in California and the last fourteener of the High Sierra when counting from the north; it also has the distinction of being the southernmost fourteener in the United States. While the other lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin had frozen for the winter, Cottonwood Lake No. 5 was just beginning to freeze, so I was still able to see into its waters to the rocks below the surface. This was my favorite of the lakes along the hike and a fitting coda to an enjoyable hike to this alpine lake basin.

Mount Langley rising over Cottonwood Lake No. 5