Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake (CA)

This is still on my wish list. Description, elevation and map.

This trail is characterized by the many lakes it touches. Initially it climbs up to Kearsarge Pass (3607 m). The view from the pass looks promising on the map. The trail then leaves the bear territory (take canisters) as it leads down into another basin dotted with little lakes. Leave early to avoid the crowds, as the first basin is within easy reach of day hikers. The Onion Valley (2804 m) trail head. Go west from Independence 15 miles to the road-end parking lot.

16 miles round trip. Best season mid to late. Strenuous when done with only one overnight stay.

Accumulated elevation gain

elevation ascend/day descend/day trail backpack
Onion Valley 9,186′
1. Charlotte Lake 10,427′ 3,215′ 2,000′ 7.3 mi 5:30
2. Onion Valley 9,186′ 2,000′ 3,215′ 7.3 mi 5:00

Description from the trail guide “Sierra South” (pg. 66+67)

The trail leaves the road a few yards north of the Onion Valley camp ground and switchbacks up a dry, manzanita-covered slope. Switchbacks always seem to come in bunches, and this ascend is no exception. The first set of switchbacks is relatively open and exposed, offering fine views back onto Onion Valley and south to the heavily diked summit of Independence Peak. After about .5 mile there is a short level stretch where one may study the distinctive shapes of the large foxtail pines nearby. Found only at high altitudes in the mountains of California, fixtail pines have distinctive dark purple cones that take two years to mature. The densely needled (in clusters of five) branches do look like tails and do look inviting to touch – but you’ll probably get sticky fingers if you do. Then the trail enters John Muir Wilderness and switchbacks steadily again, until after a mile it comes close enough to tumbling Independence Creek that only a few steps are needed to reach the wild flower-lined stream bank and slake one’s thirst.

After this draught, on a more gradual slope, our path crosses many runoff rills in early and mid season, where a neophyte botanist may identify specimens of Queen Anne’s lace, paintbrush, wallflower, tiger lily, columbine, shooting star and whorled penstemon. At the top of this gently grade is Little Pothole Lake, not much for camping but boasting two beautiful, willow-lined cascades pouring into its south and west bays.

After another set of rocky switchbacks, the trail levels off in a slightly ascending groove across glacial moraine and then reaches small, round Gilbert Lake (3175 m). Poor-from-overuse camp sites dot the shores of this fine swimming lake, and fishing for rainbow and brook trout is good in early season. This small lake absorbs much of the day-hiking impact from people camping at Onion Valley, as does Flower Lake, at the top of the next set of switchbacks. There are many highly used camp sites along the north and east sides of this shallow lake (3110 m). Less used and more scenic are Matlock and Bench lakes, the first reached by an unmarked trail that leads south from the east side of Flower Lake, and the second, cross country west from the first.

From Flower Lake the Kearsage Pass Trail turns north and ascends steeply to a viewpoint overlooking Heart Lake. Now the trail switchbacks up to another overlook – this time the lake is the nearly perfect blue oval of Bit Pothole Lake. From the trail high above the water, the lake, with its backgrounding granite finger, is particularly photogenic. Continuing, the trail rises above timber, except for a few hardy white bark specimens, and then makes two long-legged traverses across an exposed slope to the low saddle of Kearsage Pass (3604 m). To the west, the impressive view encompasses the Kearsage Lakes, Bullfrog Lake and the serrated spires of the Kearsage Pinnacles.

On the west side of the pass our route descends easily on a traverse high above the basin holding the Kearsage and Bullfrog lakes. After passing a spur trail branching left to the Kearsage Lakes (on-night stay limit) and Bullfrog lake (no camping), the route continues westward on a gently descent into sparse timber. Crossing several small run-off streams in early season, the rocky-sandy trail contours high on the view full slopes above Bullfrog Lake. Now descending steadily through sparse-to-moderate white bark and foxtail pine, the trail offers fine views south to Center Peak and Junction Peak. On this view full slope we reach a fork whose branches go to the John Muir Trail. We take the left fork south west. Our route descends gently onto a sandy flat in a broad saddle overlooking Charlotte Lake, where at an X junction (not shown on the t.5 topo) a short mile to Charlotte Lake (3161 m). Good camp sites line the north shore. Emergency services are perhaps available from the resident summer ranger on the north shore.


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One Reply to “Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake (CA)”

  1. Wow! What a great post. I love the high res map you included. Thank you for that. It will be super useful. We are planning a 2 night backpacking trip over the memorial day weekend. Always hurts to hear about the crowds on holiday weekends. Oh well. Thanks again for the post!

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