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Not a peak bagger's paradise
Overview: Kearsarge Pass, via Onion Valley Campground, is one of the most popular access points for the Southern Sierra because you can drive to over 9,000 before you have to start hiking, and it is home to some of the most sparkling, amazing alpine lakes anywhere. Although the Ray Lakes are the popular shortish-backpack destination from this departure point, the entire area is (in the words of my companion) dripping with majesty, and worthy of exploration on any level. The beauty of this area can be enjoyed in as little as 3 miles, or continuously for days of tough hiking.
Onion Valley is also a popular pull-out point for through hikers on both the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, and you will often find grizzled trail veterans hitching a down the mountain to resupply and take a well-needed shower. This means you will also often find them in the town of Independence, looking for a ride back up to the trail as well. It's good karma to help out when you can.
Warning: Charlotte Lake makes an excellent destination for a weekend backpack in this area, though it is highly recommended that you spend a night prior to the hike at Onion Valley to begin to acclimate your body to the extreme altitude. The hike out to Charlotte may be only a little over eight miles, but over the course of that trip, you will climb to nearly 12k feet above sea level, and the air up there starts to get thin enough to cause symptoms of altitude sickness, including nausea, vertigo and headaches.
Backpackers who plan to travel beyond Kearsarge Pass will need a permit and a bear-proof food vault. Bear activity in this area is reportedly heavy.
Hike: The trail begins at the end of the parking lot at Onion Valley Campground. Dayhikers are allowed to park closest to the trailhead, as per normal, and backpackers must squeeze into the dirt lot and spaces as they may. On a busy holiday weekend, this can actually present something of a challenge, so come prepared.
The trail begins by heading up a set of very nicely graded switchbacks through scrubby manzanita and pines, with a smattering of the trademark sequoias beginning to appear. After about a mile of climbing, the trail approaches the banks of Independence Creek - though it doesn't actually cross it. About another half a mile of climbing brings you to the banks of Little Pothole Lake. This tiny gem is just a hint of the wonders to come, and in the spring thaw is crowned by two twin waterfalls plunging into it's clear blue pool. There are signs of campers here, but there is better to come if you have the patience and the lungs.
The trail continues to follow the creek up, with alternating sections of easy switchbacks and flat traverses long the shores of small lakes along the creek, including Gilbert Lake, Flower Lake and Heart Lake. There are camping opportunities at most of these as well, though some of them look a little over-loved. Just when you think you've got that pass in your sites, however, you come around another flat corner to an overlook of Big Pothole Lake and the actual Kearsarge Pass above you. It's still nearly 2 miles to the high point of the trail, you're already above 11,000' elevation, and you can see you've got some climbing yet to do. Luckily, the trail is kind and well designed, and it gains on the pass with steady, slow slopes which don't make you work so hard you pass out. The views along the final stretch of bare rock and scree are amazing, and give you ample reason to stop and catch your breath.
The sign at the pass tells you you're entering Kings Canyon National Park, and outlines the rules (though the rules in the adjoining Inyo National Forest are essentially the same). The pass, which is little more than a notch on a high ridge, affords breathtaking views east to the Panamint Mountains at the edge of Death Valley National Park, the expanse of Owens Valley, and the secluded lakes along Independence Creek. To the west, however, is the real magic of Kings Canyon - sparkling Alpine lakes, one after another, and granite peaks reaching as far as the eye can see. To the left is University peak and the Kearsarge Pincales, and to the right is Mt. Gould at over 12,000'. Below you can see the Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake, as well as a steep talus slope cut with a wide, easy to negotiate trail.
The trail descends a quick 800' or so in the first mile below the pass. A well signed trail junction tells you to choose between Kearsarge Lakes and the route to Charlotte Lake and the Rae Lakes. There is excellent camping on the banks of the Kearsarge Lakes, and plenty of wonders to explore in those environs. There are two trails leading to Charlotte Lake, a high route which affords views down into the Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake, and the low route which skirts the shores of the lakes. Both are amazing, and offer a good opportunity to turn the hike into something of a loop. On either course, it is approximately 3 miles to Charlotte Lake and the next ideal camping location (camping is prohibited at Bullfrog Lake as of this writing).
By the time you reach Charlotte Lake, you've descended back down to about 10,300'. The air is a little kinder, though the warmer temps mean (as always) more bugs. Charlotte is a very popular camping destination for through-hikers as well. There are metal bear boxes here, but they are intended for use by the through-hikers, so please use your own bear vault and leave that space to them.
From Charlotte there are a myriad of other destinations you can set your sites upon. Glen Pass, at 11,998' is one of the epic passes along this part of the PCT/JMT. Unlike Kearsarge which is oriented east/west, Glen faces north/south, and it's northern slopes can be covered in snow year around. Charlotte's Dome is a popular climbing destination, and it's landmark face makes a fun day-hike destination. Further downhill you can visit Vidette Meadows and the lakes in that canyon as well. The possibilities are as endless as your energy...
Labor up a set of well graded switchbacks through manzanita and pines, reaching the waters of Independence Creek at 1 mile. Continue beside the creek to reach Little Pothole Lake 1/2 mile later. Another set of switchbacks lead to Gilbert Lake at 2.2 miles. Keep with the main trail to reach Flower Lake a short distance later. The trail then ascends up steep, rocky switchbacks gaining sight of aptly named Heart Lake at 3.5 miles. More switchbacks lead to Big Pothole Lake at 4.2 miles, and your first look at the pass ahead, at 4.8 miles. The view from the pass is spectacular, looking down upon Bullfrog, and Kearsarge Lakes. University Peak is to your left and Mt. Gould to your right. Continue on over the pass for good camping and fishing at Charlotte Lake, just over 3 miles further in Sequoia / Kings National Park.
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