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Kearsarge Pass Trail

Features: The Kearsarge Pass trailhead begins at Onion Valley (9,200 feet) and travels to Kearsarge Pass (11,800 feet). Kearsarge Pass is a popular destination for day hikers. Beyond Kearsarge Pass, the trail enters Kings Canyon National Park, where it joins the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trail.

Along the trail, you will be treated to spectacular panoramic views, majestic pine forests, roaring waterfalls and several sparkling alpine lakes. If you plan your hike for the right time during the summer, the trail will be surrounded by beautiful and interesting wildflowers including the corn lily, Crimson Columbine, Sphenosciadium, and Kelley’s lily.

You can make this in-and-out hike as long or as short as you would like. For example, you may choose to hike to one of the lakes and then return. The one-way mileage to Little Pothole Lake is 1.5, 2.2 miles to Gilbert Lake, and 2.5 miles to Flower Lake. If you choose to hike all the way to Kearsarge Pass, the mileage is 4.8 miles one way. If you plan to make this hike an overnight trip, you will need to obtain a permit at an Inyo National Forest ranger station or visitor center. Between May 1 and November 1, overnight use is limited to 60 people per day. Permits may be reserved up to six months in advance at www.recreation.gov.

Trail Directions: The trail to Kearsarge Pass starts at the west end of the parking area, where you will see a bulletin board. The trail begins climbing switchbacks on moderate grades through sagebrush and manzanita. At about 0.3 miles you will see a wooden sign that indicates that the Golden Trout Lakes trail is to the right and the Kearsarge Pass trail is to the left. Stay left at this sign. You will soon see a sign marking the boundary of the John Muir Wilderness. Beyond the wilderness boundary the trail curves to the northwest and climbs switchbacks to the basin holding Little Pothole Lake.

The trail then switchbacks up the rocky slope to the north of Little Pothole Lake (10,043 feet). At the top of the switchbacks the trail traverses a boulder field and arrives at Gilbert Lake (10,417 feet). From here you can see nearby University Peak (13,589 feet). The rocky hillsides around the lake shore, lined with willows and pines, are often used as campsites.

Once you pass Gilbert Lake, the trail begins to climb again. At 2.5 miles you will arrive at Flower Lake (10,531 feet) where a small trail crosses Independence Creek and heads south toward Matlock and Bench Lakes. Popular campsites are located to the north and east of Flower Lake.

At Flower Lake the trail curves to the north, ascending on moderate grades through scattered pines before turning northwest again and climbing along the base of the steep talus slopes to the north of the trail. At 3.2 miles the trail briefly turns to the southwest, arriving at a great overlook above Heart Lake, 3.5 miles from the trailhead.

The trail then climbs a series of switchbacks to the basin below Kearsarge Pass and then ascends on long switchbacks across more talus-covered slopes along the north side of the basin.

After one long, final switchback, you will arrive at the top of Kearsarge Pass (11,823-feet), 4.8 miles from the trailhead, where signs mark the border of Kings Canyon National Park. From the pass, you will have spectacular views of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, Kearsage Lakes and Bull Frog Lake to the west.

The hiking season for this trail is approximately June through October, depending on snow. The road to Onion Valley is closed due to snow from about November to April.

Keep in mind that this area is an active bear area. All food, trash, and scented items must be stored in the bear-resistant lockers that are available around the parking area. If you are making this an overnight trip, be sure to bring a bear canister to carry those items with you.

If you are traveling to the trailhead from a low-elevation area, please also keep in mind that you should acclimate to the high elevation before hiking to the Pass, perhaps by camping at the developed campground (Onion Valley Campground), located about 100 yards from the trailhead, the night before your hike.

Driving Directions: From Highway 395, in Independence, CA: Turn west on Market Street (which seamlessly turns into Onion Valley Road). Onion Valley is about 15 miles west of downtown Independence, at the end of Onion Valley Road.

 

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Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.