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.

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