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Kearsarge Lakes Trail to Charlotte Lake, CA

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Guide 7 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List CA > Sierra Nevada
4 of 5 by 3
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Difficulty 3 of 5
Route Finding 1 of 5
Distance One Way 8.2 miles
Trailhead Elevation 9,175 feet
Elevation Gain 2,623 feet
Accumulated Gain 5,246 feet
Avg Time One Way 5 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 25.68
Interest Seasonal Waterfall, Perennial Waterfall, Seasonal Creek & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes & Connecting
Dogs not allowed
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
571  2017-08-08
Onion Valley to Happy Isles
81  2016-07-01
Rae Lakes Loop Trail
24  2014-10-08 Oregon_Hiker
20  2014-09-14
Charlotte Lake and Rae Lakes Basin
28  2014-09-14
Charlotte Lake and Rae Lakes Basin
75  2010-07-03 writelots
Author writelots
author avatar Guides 19
Routes 39
Photos 5,577
Trips 337 map ( 3,894 miles )
Age 46 Female Gender
Location Tucson, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Jul, Aug, Jun, Sep
Seasons   Summer to Autumn
Sun  5:40am - 5:52pm
3 Alternative
Flora Nearby
Geology Nearby
Meteorology Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
Not a peak bagger's paradise
by writelots

Likely In-Season!
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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2010-07-12 writelots

    One-Way Notice
    This hike is listed as One-Way.

    When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent Triplog Reviews
    Kearsarge Lakes Trail to Charlotte Lake
    rating optionrating optionrated 3rated 3rated 3
    Onion Valley to Happy Isles
    This was my solo northbound journey from Onion Valley to Mammoth Lakes, CA and then from Tuolumne Meadows to Happy Isles northern in Yosemite Valley to complete my final 160 miles of the John Muir Trail. I hiked for 172 total miles over 14 days which included the entrance in from Onion Valley, 8 alpine passes, and some side trail mileage done at Muir Trail Ranch, Red's Meadow, Devil's Postpile, and Tuolumne Meadows.

    The original plan was to hike for 18 days straight, meeting up with a friend on day 11 who would join me for the last 7 days. Part of that final week would be spent covering 4 days of trail that I had already completed back in 2015. When my friend had to cancel after I was already on the trail, I chose to take 4 zero days in Mammoth Lakes to heal my feet and enjoy some luxuries. I reconvened with the JMT for the final 3 days of trail that I had yet to complete, making this a 2-section adventure all in one trip to close the gaps of the remaining miles of this amazing trail.
    Kearsarge Lakes Trail to Charlotte Lake
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    4 day backpacking trip on JMT/PCT trails from Onion Valley to Rae Lakes and back via Kearsarge Pass and Kearsarge Lakes

    Day 1: Onion Valley to Kearsarge Lakes
    Day 2: Kearsarge Lakes to Rae Lakes
    Day 3: Dayhike to 60 Lakes Basin and Dollar Lake
    Day 4: Rae Lakes to Onion Valley
    Kearsarge Lakes Trail to Charlotte Lake
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Charlotte Lake and Rae Lakes Basin
    john and denny had planned a quick trip to the sierras for a two night backpack and invited me to join them

    day 1
    on the road early sunday morning, arriving at onion lakes trailhead after a stop at the visitor's center to pick up permits
    there is quite a list of rules to follow :?
    forecast looked good and the ranger dismissed the dark clouds gathering over mt. whitney
    hit the trail around 11:30
    my first trip to the sierras
    fresh pine-scented air, big views and a waterfall just to get started with
    we had a good 2600 feet to gain kearsarge pass
    i was thankful that i had trained with a pack and had a weekend of hiking in flagstaff to prepare
    even so, it was not easy ascending kearsarge trail
    we passed several lakes (gilbert, flower, pothole) and waterfalls along the way
    the views at the pass were outstanding, especially of kearsarge lakes and pinnacles
    we took the lower lake trail to the john muir cutoff to charlotte lake
    the trail winds along bullfrog lake through forest
    the terrain reminded me of certain parts of mt. lemmon, glacier national park, and colorado, but the overall effect was unique
    had to climb up a ways to drop into charlotte lake, and ran into the remains of a steady rainfall
    charlotte lake and rae lakes got quite a bit of rain sunday afternoon
    we were all hoping we wouldn't have to deal with that
    found a nice campsite, explored, took pics, cooked dinner and turned in early
    it rained for awhile during the night
    denny and i had tents, but john was in a bivy and didn't even notice :o
    didn't get that cold, maybe upper 30s

    day 2
    took a couple hours to get breakfast and packed up, but soon enough went back to the JMT junction and up to glen pass
    this side isn't bad with more gradual switchbacks and we were on the pass well before noon
    tremendous views of charlotte lake along the way, and surrounding peaks and the the entire rae lakes basin at the pass
    a steeper hike down to the first lake, then cutting across an isthmus to camp on the east side
    found many nice campsites, selecting one with a lake view
    set up camp, had lunch and coffee and relaxed, then took off on our planned day hike to sixty lakes basin
    i'll have a separate triplog for that one, but for now i'll just say it was an adventure, putting us back at camp well past dark for dinner
    got up in the night to see a half moon lighting up the surrounding cirque and reflecting off the lake, yet dark enough to see stars
    had it been just a bit warmer, i would have sat up to enjoy it
    i never sleep well backpacking or camping, hyper-alert to odd noises
    it was very quiet both nights with only a handful of other campers and no bugs whatsoever :)
    weather was good all day, and maybe low 30s that night

    day 3
    didn't get a real early start today, either
    packed up while having coffee and breakfast and took off around 8:30 or so
    we all knew the climb up to glen pass would be steep
    packs might have been a couple pounds lighter by now
    a tough ascent but a more gradual descent to the junction with kearsarge pass trail, where we took a break
    this time we stayed on the upper trail, and got nice views of bullfrog and kearsarge lakes
    the last half mile of this was demanding, and we took another break at the pass to admire the scenery up high one last time
    another four and a half miles back to the trailhead, which we took at our own pace
    denny's knee was bothering him, and i hope it's nothing major
    burger and fries in lone pine and the long drive back

    random thoughts:
    this two night sampler just whetted my appetite for more
    cactus to clouds and mt. whitney go on the list
    it's a long drive, and kudos to denny for doing all of it
    we all had the right basics for two nights, although had it rained more, it would not have been nearly as much fun
    this is a good time of year to go with fewer crowds and no bugs
    the bear vault wasn't as annoying as i thought it might be, although it certainly adds weight
    i need to pare my pack weight down to about 25 pounds
    brought a few things i didn't need, and too much food
    breakfast and dinner and snacks - no need for lunch
    my sawyer squeeze worked well with water so abundant
    i'm still new at backpacking, as i've only been on 5-6 trips
    learn something every time
    john and denny were great partners and good company, and i really appreciate you boys including me on this trip
    it was an awesome one!

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    Paved - Car Okay

    To hike
    The ONION VALLEY TRAILHEAD is 15 miles west of Independence. From State Highway 395, turn west on Onion Valley Road at the traffic light in downtown Independence. The road is usually open from May through November. Begin hiking at the trailhead sign on the north end of the parking lot.
    page created by writelots on Jul 12 2010 4:05 pm
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