South Sierra Backpacking
A short hike over well graded trail and a mere 1300 feet of elevation gain bring you to the justly popular lakes that compose the headwaters of Independence Creek. Angling is good and the scenery grand.
First Hiking Day (Onion Valley to Flower Lake, 2-1/2 miles): The trail leaves the road a few yards north of the Onion Valley campground and switchbacks up a dry, manzanita-covered slope. Switchbacks always seem to come in bunches, and this ascent 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 1/3 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, foxtail 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 wildflower-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 gentle 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 (10,417'). Poor-from-overuse campsites 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 campsites along the north and east sides of this shallow lake (10,531'). 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. Fishing for rainbow and some brook trout is fair in Flower Lake, but serious anglers will hike to the more distant lakes in the timbered cirque basin to the south.
Second Hiking Day: Retrace your steps, 2-1/2 miles.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication