Trail Report: Onion Valley to Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Pass Hike // tahoefabulous.com

This weekend I set my feet on my highest ever point: 11,760 at Kearsarge Pass in Kings Canyon National Park.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
At the top!

The Kearsarge Pass trail is a popular re-supply route for Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail through hikers. The trail wanders uphill through the John Muir Wilderness on the way to Kings Canyon National Park with sweeping vistas of the high Sierra in every direction. The trailhead begins at the Onion Valley campground about 15 miles outside of Independence, California in the Eastern Sierra. To get to Onion Valley Campground, head towards Independence (about 42 miles south of Bishop) on Highway 395. Once in Independence, turn onto West Market Street, which quickly turns into Onion Valley Road. There are several campgrounds along Onion Valley Road or you could stay in Independence, as there is non-campground parking near the trailhead. We stayed in one of the walk-in camping spots at Onion Valley Campground, which makes for an easy and convenient early start. Note: Onion Valley Campground is high (above 9,000 feet!) – so pack accordingly. You’ll want more warm layers than the temperature in much lower, hotter Independence seems to indicate.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Trail Map via Strava

The entire Kearsage Pass trail is a steady climb from about 9,200 feet up to a maximum of 11,760 feet at the top of Kearsarge Pass over 4.8 miles. While the trail is never extremely steep, be aware that you are at high elevation. The going is much more difficult than a steeper, lower elevation climb. I live at 6,200 feet and I was really feeling the difficulty when I got about 10,500. Be prepared to go more slowly and take lots of breaks, especially if you are new to high elevation hiking. We hiked the 4.8 miles and climbed just over 2,500 feet with a moving time of 2:05:40, however our elapsed time was 3:20:20 which means we took nearly 1:15 in breaks across the nearly 5 miles.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Entering John Muir Wilderness, no dogs or bikes

Kearsarge Pass trail closely passes several gorgeous alpine lakes, with Flower and Gilbert Lakes close enough for a refreshing dip or quick fishing pit stop. Warning: these lakes can be extremely mosquito-y! We were chased off before doing more than dipping our toes in, but there were a number of other hikers and fishermen that braved the swarms (probably armed with bug spray). The stunning views of the hike begin almost immediately, and we were frequently stopping to admire the vistas and take pictures.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com

The whole trail is incredibly well built and maintained. There aren’t too many tripping hazards and the switchbacks are gradual, allowing you to soak in your surroundings and concentrate less on your feet. The rocks surrounding the trail and making up the nearby peaks are interesting enough to catch the eye of the geology inclined in your group. You’ll see a bunch of California’s state rock, serpentine (hint: it’s the greasy looking, greenish one). I’d also recommend bringing along a field guide with a good wildflower section (like the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada or Wildflowers of California). We saw at least a dozen different varieties of wildflowers during our hike.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Looking east into the Owens Valley

The trail climbs at a fairly steady 500 feet per mile, and I started really feeling the exertion of hiking at high altitude at about 2.5 miles and 10,500 feet. Luckily, the gorgeous views help distract from the hard work.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
A tiny bit of snow is still left in the high Sierra

At about 4 miles, you’ll come to your last couple switch backs and the end is in sight! You might see people up at the top of the pass that seem very far away, but the final push wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. There are only a couple of switch backs, and you’ll mostly be headed straight toward your goal. The vistas are even more incredible in this section. Keep your eyes out for a very steep summit to the south that only gets more interesting as the trail climbs higher.

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Steep summit

When you finally reach the top of Kearsarge Pass, take your time to soak in the views and rest for the trip back down. Check out these amazing views!

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Kearsarge Pinnacles rise above Kearsarge Lakes

At the pass, you’ll enter Kings Canyon National Park, and could continue your hike onto the John Muir Trail and down to Kearsarge and Bullfrog Lakes, and even further to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail. We decided the top of Kearsarge Pass was enough of a climb for us. Unfortunately, I had a user-related Strava malfunction on our trip down, so I’m not sure how long it took. I paused Strava when we stopped to check out one of the lakes. Mosquito swarms descended, and, in the panic of our escape, I forgot to re-start it! It took us about an hour to do the first 2.4 miles, and I imagine the second half took about the same time. So we’ll say the descent took about 2 hours.

This was a difficult and rewarding hikes with some of the best views I’ve encountered in the Sierra. If you are looking for a high Sierra hike or backpacking trip (permits needed) that’s challenging but completely doable for an in-shape individual, I would highly recommend the Kearsarge Pass trail.

Trail Stats:

Length: 4.8 miles to the top, 9.6 round trip

Elevation: 2,500 feet of elevation gain

Duration: ~5:20 total, for reasonably in-shape hikers that live at 6,500 feet

And here are two more photos, just because I like them:

Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Looking up Onion Valley Rd. into the High Sierra
Kearsarge Pass // tahoefabulous.com
Photo by Becky Wright

Trail Report: Hiking Winnemucca Lake via the Pacific Crest Trail on National Trails Day

I spent National Trails Day hiking from Carson Pass to Winnemucca Lake and Round Top Peak via the Pacific Crest Trail. The hike is a fairly easy, 5 mile round trip jaunt to a gorgeous glacial lake.

The fairly easy hike up can be exposed and buggy (especially when passing Frog Lake!), so don’t forget sunscreen, a hat, and bug spray. You’re rewarded with gorgeous views of the surrounding peaks, valleys and lakes during the whole hike.

Winnemucca Lake Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Round Top “peaks” through the trees less than a mile into the hike.

About 1.3 miles into the trail, the Pacific Crest Trail spurs off to the left. Be sure to follow the trail to right to arrive at Winnemucca Lake. This early in the summer, it’s still a little snowy, and we had to cross a few snow patches. None were longer that 200 yards or so and on flat trail, so not too difficult to navigate. This hike is famous for incredible displays of wildflowers. Unfortunately, we were a little early for the fields of color, but we found a few patches of wildflowers that we tried to identify.

Winnemucca Lake Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Greyson references the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.

It was a perfect sunny day for sitting on the shore of Winnemucca Lake, soaking in the view.

Winnemucca Lake Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Winnemucca Lake panorama.

I’ve heard this trail can get pretty busy during the height of the wildflower season, but we ran into very few other hikers. From Winnemucca Lake, you can continue on to other beautiful spots, like Fourth of July Lake and a couple of campgrounds. We didn’t end up going any further due to the snow and a high-ish creek crossing, but I’m looking forward to coming back to this spot later in the summer.

Winnemucca Lake Hike // tahoefabulous.com
Trail Map via Strava

Hike Totals:

5.2 miles, 532 feet of elevation gain in 1:53

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Trail Report: Donner Peak Hike

I had a little incident at the climbing gym on Wednesday:

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Luckily, it’s just a strained tendon.

I wanted to take it fairly easy on my hand this weekend (no biking or climbing), so I went on a hike! Since I started mountain biking three years ago, I haven’t tended to do a lot of hiking, as I’d generally rather be on a bike. I’ve been doing more hiking recently, and I was reminded how awesome it can be.

Greyson, Sylas and I decided to climb to the top of Donner Peak, a hike they’ve both done many times.

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Greyson and Sylas enjoy the view from the top.

The hike starts on the Pacific Crest Trail, just off Highway 20 in Truckee. It’s just under 4 miles, with 1.8 ish mile climb up. You take the PCT up for about a mile, then turn left onto the Judah Loop. The last part is an off-trail scramble to the top of the peak.

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Donner Peak boasts incredible views.

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Some overly friendly wildlife.

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Bring binoculars. We spotted a couple of waterfalls rushing in the distance.

I tracked our hike via Strava. The hike up took about 43 minutes to cover 1.8 miles with 933 feet of elevation gain. We definitely weren’t rushing on this hike, stopping to enjoy the views and throw some snowballs. At this point in this low-snow year, there’s not really any snow on the trail, but some of the sections of trails are very muddy and covered by small meltwater streams. Wear boots or expect wet feet! We stopped several times on the hike down to examine and identify wildflowers. While the wildflowers aren’t going crazy yet, I imagine that this hike will be excellent for wildflowers in the next couple of weeks.

Donner Peak Hike // tahoefabulous.com

Hike stats: 3.8 miles, 933 feet elevation gain, 1:27

Click here for more information and better directions to this hike.