The hike from from Onion Valley campground to Kearsarge Pass covers 10 miles roundtrip on a very scenic trail with nearby views of five alpine lakes. This is a very accessible hike despite the elevation, as it only gains 2600 ft on its way to the 11,760 ft high point. Located in the Eastern Sierra, Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass are reached via U.S. Route 395 and the town of Independence, CA. In this guide, you’ll find directions, a hike profile, maps, and a hike description with photos. I will also include information on how to turn this hike into an overnight backpacking trip.
Getting There: Directions And GPS Track
- The trailhead for Kearsarge Pass and Kearsarge Lakes is located at Onion Valley Campground. Onion Valley Campground is reached via U.S. Route 395 and the town of Independence, which is right between Lone Pine and Bishop. In Independence, you’ll see the historic courthouse and post office located on Market St. Turn west on Market St and head west, Market St will turn into Onion Valley Rd and dead end at the campground.
- Download GPX
- Distance: 9.90 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2615 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 9200 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 11760 ft
- Difficulty: (3.5/5)
- Dog Friendly: Yes, on a leash. No pets allowed in John Muir Wilderness, which is on the other side of Kearsarge Pass
- Permit Required: No for hiking. Yes for overnight backcountry camping.
- Parking: A large lot at Onion Valley trailhead with overflow in pullouts
- Water: Many water sources along the trail
- Weather: Warm in the summer months and best from July to early October. After the first snow and ice of the season, this trail is not accessible without specialized gear and mountaineering skills.
- Trail Condition: This trail is mostly single track with a few many steep rocky outcrops
- Cell Phone Reception: Patchy to none
To book a permit to camp along this trail, you’ll need to visit Recretion.gov to search for Inyo National Forest wilderness permits. Once there, you can click to ‘Explore Available Permits’ and search for JM31 Kearsarge Pass. Wilderness permits may be reserved up to 6 months in advance for dates between May 1 and Nov. 1 with a limit of 60 people per day. You will need a bear canister, a water filter, and a bag to pack out all trash and waste.
Hike Map And Elevation
Do you have the appropriate gear for this hike? Don’t hike unprepared!
See my current hiking gear list.
0.0 Miles (9200 ft) – Starting from the Onion Valley Campground parking lot, head west towards the trailhead. There are pit toilets and bear boxes in the parking area. Make sure to use the bear boxes to store any food or scented items if you will be staying overnight.
The trail towards Kearsarge Lakes starts out on a gradual incline. The single track is mostly smooth, and the steps come easy. There is very little shade on this trail and the summer exposure can make for a very hot trip. Make sure you start early and wear proper sun protection.
1.6 Miles (10060 ft) – After a series of switchbacks, you’ll approach Little Pothole Lake. This lake is a bit off of the trail, but an option to filter water and relax if you’re in need of a break.
2.0 Miles (10289 ft) – After leaving Little Pothole Lake behind, a new set of switchbacks presents itself. There are a few wet areas of trail that can be submerged during the first snow melts, so make sure to have proper footwear as the rocks can be slick. After that, the trail opens up into a small scree field. The trail is easy to follow and well traveled here, so you need only pick your steps with care.
2.5 Miles (10440 ft) – The first major water feature of the hike is at Gilbert Lake. There are a few sandy spots on the shores of Gilbert Lake that make for really nice camping and fishing spots. The downside to camping here is the exposure and lack of shade, which can be an issue on hot summer days. This is also the spot on the trail where mosquitoes begin to increase in number, so make sure to have a little bug spray ready to go.
2.8 Miles (10,600) – Not long after leaving Gilbert Lake behind, you’ll be on the shores of Flower Lake. I’ve camped on the shores of Flower Lake a few times, and it is my favorite spot on the path to Kearsarge Pass. Flower Lake has many buffed out tent sites with ample shade from the trees and boulders around the lake. For this hike and backpacking trip, I dropped my gear off here, set up the tent, and let my wife and son go down for a nap. I continued on to Kearsarge Pass soon after.
4.4 Miles (11500 ft) – After leaving Flower Lake behind, you’ll take on a few more rocky switchbacks and see the next water feature, Heart Lake, from afar. Heart Lake is well off of the trail, but an option if you don’t mind some off-trail exploration. Continue on the trail upward, where the elevation begins to rack up in earnest. As you approach the high point of this hike, you’ll see the amazing Big Pothole Lake off to your left. Like Heart Lake, Big Pothole is well off of the trail, and best seen from afar.
4.9 Miles (11760 ft) – Shortly after passing Big Pothole Lake behind, you’ll be standing at Kearsarge Pass. You’ll have views of the Kearsarge pinnacles, University Peak, Mt. Gould, and sweeping views west into Vidette Meadow. During the summer months, you’ll see a lot of backpackers heading in both directions as this is an entry point to the JMT and many of the best backpacking trips in the Sierra.
Once you’ve spent enough time enjoying the views at Kearsarge Pass, you can head back to Onion Valley Campground on the same trail that your arrived on. On hot summer days, you can take a swim, soak your feet, or do a little fishing at Gilbert and Flower lakes.
On this trip, we had an overnight backpacking permit, and were able to enjoy the night at Flower Lake.