South Sierra Backpacking

Exploring out of Bear Dam Junction and Onion Valley Trailheads

Backcountry travelers know the exhilaration of the out-of-doors in a rich, personal way that is beyond the ken of the ordinary car camper. Far from the crowds that infest the roadside campgrounds, they come to realize the value of solitude, and they learn the calmness of spirit that derives from a fundamental relationship with the mountains. They come to know the simple satisfaction of deep breaths, strong muscles and a sound sleep under brilliant stars. But, above all, in renewing their bond with the wilderness they rekindle that spark of childlike innocence that is easily extinguished by the pressures of city life. It is these pressures that account for the dramatic increase in the demand for wilderness experiences. The Sierra, offering some of the finest and most spectacular wilderness in the United States, has drawn more than its share of the demand.

The western slope of the Sierra is typically long and gradual. In contrast to the gentle slope on the west side, the eastern escarpment rises steeply to the crest. We've picked out two sets of hikes to explore these areas.

Bear Dam Junction: Mono Creek to Glacier Divide Area
Part of the 540,000-acre John Muir Wilderness, this region towers between Mono Creek and the northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park. It is a roadless vastness of incredibly rugged alpine beauty. Barren summits rise above a dense mat of green conifers, and the landscape is stippled with a thousand blue-green lakes bound by connecting silver ribbons of mountain streams. Any of the hikes heading out from the Bear Dam Junction trailhead makes a good introduction to the area.

Onion Valley: Glacier Divide to Bubbs Creek Area
This area contains the greatest single block of unbroken wilderness in the southern Sierra. Still untainted by roads, its core enjoys the protection of national park status. Spread out over roughly 1,200 square miles, this country boasts some of the most remote and scenic sections of the Sierra, and it is replete with scores of peaks that soar above 13,000 feet, hundreds of lakes, and thousands of streams. Peculiar to the east side is the lower juniper woodland belt, replete with the scattered grasses, piqon pine, Utah juniper and brush plants associated with the Great Basin. Hikes heading out from Onion Valley trailhead are true American classics. Both Charlotte Lake and especially Rae Lakes are popular destinations — for very good reason.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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