South Sierra Backpacking

Onion Valleyto Rae Lakes
Trail at a Glance

Trip: From Onion Valley to Rae Lakes via Kearsarge Pass, Charlotte Lake and Glen Pass
Distance: 27 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: 5/2
Moderate: 4/1
Strenuous: 4/0
Trailhead: Onion Valley


From the high desert surroundings of the Onion Valley trailhead, this trip ascends to the alpine"moonscape" of rugged Kearsarge Pass, descends to the forested shores of bright blue Charlotte Lake, and then joins the John Muir Trail to climb over Glen Pass and visit the justly famous — and consequently well-visited — Rae Lakes. It's an exciting mix of varied scenery and good angling.

Because of very heavy use, camping at Rae Lakes is restricted to a maximum of one night at each of the three lakes, and bears can be a serious problem. Store food properly at all times. Wood campfires are not permitted.

Leisurely Trip

First and Second Hiking Days: Follow Trip to Charlotte Lake, 8 miles.

Third Hiking Day (Charlotte Lake to Rae Lakes, 5-1/2 miles): Retrace your steps to the X junction with the John Muir Trail and turn left (north) toward Glen Pass. The trail makes a long, steady, rocky ascent that rounds a granite promontory with fine views of Charlotte Lake, the Charlotte Creek Canyon, Charlotte Dome and Mount Brewer; then it descends slightly and veers east. As the headwall of Glen Pass comes into view, it is hard to see where a passable trail could go up it. And indeed the last 500 feet up to the top are steeply switchbacking — but never on the edge of a cliff. At the pass (11,978'), one can look north down on the unnamed glacial lakes immediately to the north, and to several of the Rae Lakes below.

The descent from the pass is by zigzagging, rocky switchbacks down to the granite bench holding the unnamed lakes seen from the pass. Bad underfooting here requires care in placing one's feet, and the upper part of this side of the pass may be snow-covered until late season. After crossing the outlet stream of the lakes on the bench, the trail resumes its switchbacking descent, reenters a pine forest cover and skirts the west shore of upper Rae Lake. Just before the trail crosses the narrow isthmus separating the upper lake from the rest of the chain, we pass a spur trail branching west to Sixty Lake Basin.

After crossing the sparsely timbered isthmus, the route swings north, passes the unmarked, unmaintained lateral to Dragon Lake, and arrives at the many good campsites near the east shores of middle and lower Rae Lakes (10,560'). Fishing is good for brook trout and some rainbow (to 16"). Views from these campsites across the beryl-green lake waters to dramatically exfoliating Fin Dome and the King Spur beyond are among the best and longest remembered of the trip, along with sunup views of Painted Lady in the south. A summer ranger is stationed on the east shore of the middle lake.

Fourth and Fifth Hiking Days: Retrace your steps, 13-1/2 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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