South Sierra Backpacking

Onion Valleyto Charlotte Lake
Trail at a Glance

Trip: From Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake via Kearsarge Pass
Distance: 16 miles
Type: Out and back trip
Best season: Mid or late
Topo maps: Kearsarge Peak, Mt. Clarence King 7-1/2'

Grade (hiking days/recommended layover days)

Leisurely: 3/1
Moderate: 3/0
Strenuous: 2/0
Trailhead: Onion Valley (13)


Kearsarge Pass, because of its relatively low elevation and its proximity to an east-side road-end, is a justly popular way to reach the John Muir Trail. Because of this popularity, many of the lakes and meadows en route have been overrun, and Park officials have felt it necessary to close these"impacted" areas to grazing and camping.

Leisurely Trip

First Hiking Day: Follow Trip to Flower Lake, 2-1/2 miles.

Second Hiking Day (Flower Lake to Charlotte Lake, 5-1/2 miles): From Flower Lake the Kearsarge 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 Big 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 whitebark specimens, and then makes two long-legged traverses across an exposed shaley slope to the low saddle of Kearsarge Pass (11,823'). To the west, the impressive view encompasses the Kearsarge Lakes, Bullfrog Lake and the serrated spires of the Kearsarge Pinnacles.

On the west side of the pass our route descends easily on a traverse high above the basin holding the Kearsarge and Bullfrog Lakes. After passing a spur trail branching left to the Kearsarge Lakes (one-night stay limit) and Bullfrog Lake (no camping), the route continues westward on a gentle descent into sparse timber. Crossing several small runoff streams in early season, the rocky-sandy trail contours high on the viewful slopes above Bullfrog Lake.

Now descending steadily through sparse-to-moderate whitebark and foxtail pine, the trail offers fine views south to Center Peak and Junction Peak. On this viewful slope we reach a fork whose branches both go to the John Muir Trail. We take the left fork southwest. Our Charlotte Lake, where an X junction (not shown on the 7-1/2 topo) we take a trail west that switchbacks down moderately-to-steeply for north shore, and fishing for rainbow and brook trout (to 10") is fair. Emergency services are perhaps available from the resident summer ranger on the north shore.

Third Hiking Day: Retrace your steps, 8 miles.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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