Kearsarge Basin - Rae Lakes


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Em below Glenn Pass
Em below Glenn Pass (the pass is the saddle right of center)


In late winter 2013, article after article kept mentioning how little snow there was in the California mountains. We experienced this ourselves during a few short hikes in the Angeles National Forest, including a really nice night hike to Mt. Williamson in January.

Then, a week after coming back from Sespe Hot Springs, we were crazy enough to drive to Onion Valley one morning, hike up the Kearsarge Lakes trail for about two miles, then drive home again (pictures here). There was snow on the trail, but comparatively little. Actually, we wanted to hike a bit longer, but this time it was me who got a bit of altitude sickness and we didn’t press it.

Our tent in moonlit Onion Valley
Our tent in moonlit Onion Valley

However, barring new snow storms - which unfortunately didn’t materialize – we couldn’t wait to get over the pass as soon as possible. Scheduling and other issues delayed this until almost the end of May, though. At least all reports talked about almost no snow and the trail and the Onion Valley campground opened, giving us a night to acclimatize. The plan was grandiose (for us) and depended on benign snow conditions: over the pass to one of the Kearsarge Lakes, next day over Glenn Pass to Rae Lakes, then back to Charlotte Lake for another night and finally back over Kearsarge to the car. Weather forecast looked great.

Day 0 – L.A. to Onion Valley

Em had Friday-Monday free, so we decided to the leave Thursday as soon as she got home from work. About two weeks prior, I made a reservation at Onion Valley for Thursday evening and we left after 5pm, arriving at the campground a few minutes after 9pm.

This is where we had one of the weirdest experiences of our camping career.

So we get there, it’s already dark. We pull up to our designated campsite. There’s a plastic sign listing the reservations – last name and date. Our name was missing, the next day being the first date listed. The sign also said “please check in”. Me, innocently, stroll over to the camp host’s trailer. The year prior, we met the host and he was a really nice guy. When we were here in April and wandered into the campground, an awful grumpy man emerged from the trailer and told us to get out of there. I almost forgot about this, somehow thinking that the grumpy man could have only been some security guard and certainly not the new host. No such luck.

I walk up to the trailer. It’s lit on the outside and there’s light on the inside, plus I hear the TV going. I know 9pm is late in a campground, but these signs (plus the literal one where our name was missing and it said to check in) made me knock on the door.

First, a dog starts barking – I step back – then rustling, and somebody opens the door with the following greeting: “What the fuck do you want?” Before I can answer, he adds: “Who the fuck are you?”

I swallowed my surprise and tried to calmly explain to him that we have a reservation, our name was not there, and I’m just trying to make sure we’re in the right spot. After a few more sentences laced with unimaginative curse words (he just kept telling me to go fuck myself), he somehow told me to leave him alone and go to sleep.

I got thick skin, I don’t care if somebody is rude to me, but I was taken aback as it was so atypical of this environment. When I told Em what happened, she almost didn’t believe me.

Regardless, we had a great time, ate dinner, the almost-full moon came up and we took some pictures in the dark. The night was chilly, a good indication of what was to come.

Em on the west end of Gilbert Lake
Em on the west end of Gilbert Lake

Day 1 – Onion Valley to Kearsarge Lakes

After being up past 11pm, we got up comparatively late at 7am, ate breakfast, and while Em packed up the gear, I jumped in the car and drove to Lone Pine for our permit. We could have slept much closer, but opted for Onion Valley to sleep at altitude.

If it’s avoidable, try not to do this. It’s a waste of time and fuel. The drive is 60 miles roundtrip, half of it on the windy road. As much as I hurried, I only got back after 10am.

By the way, the Lone Pine Visitor Center does leave permits after hours in a dropbox, but only if the trip doesn’t leave the Inyo National Forest. Venturing into the Sequoia National Park (as in our case) required in-person pickup.

Em did a fantastic job preparing both her own backpack and mine, but with our usual slowness while getting ready, we only left the trailhead a bit before 11am. However, we were not in a hurry and wanted to take it slow anyway not to risk getting sick by the altitude.

Gilbert Lake and University Peak
Gilbert Lake and University Peak
Em looking at Kearsarge Lakes Kearsarge Pinnacles from the pass
Em looking at Kearsarge Lakes Kearsarge Pinnacles from the pass

Around 12:30pm we stopped at scenic Flower Lake for a really long lunch break, cooking soup and looking at the trout.

There was no snow on the trail to the pass save for a 20-foot stretch on the steep part next to Heart Lake. Big Pothole Lake was still frozen solid, being much higher and in a bowl protected from sunlight.

We crested Kearsarge Pass at 3pm, marveling at the great landscape beyond. Kearsarge Lakes were fully thawed and there was almost no snow in the basin, but for a bit on a few north-facing slopes. It looked great and hopelessly dry at the same time. Just two years ago we had a bit of snow on the pass in August!

After futzing around for more than half an hour on the pass, we descended quickly and made it to the nearest of the lakes in less than an hour. We decided to make camp right there, close to the bear box, which by the way is not for public use as too many people utilized it to stash food for through-hikers – a huge no-no with the Forest Service.

We set up the tent, lounged in the sun on the rocks, enjoyed a visit from two marmots, and I set out to fish. They weren’t very active, it took me a really long time to catch a few, but we had plenty in the end.

As soon as sunset approached, the temperature dropped dramatically. I heard stories about this basin being really cold as the frigid air is drawn downwards by the geography, but I was really surprised to see the thermometer dip to 34° F before sunset and then rapidly fall to 26° F by 9pm. We had enough clothing, we weren’t cold, just a bit surprised. Uncharacteristically for us, we went to bed before 10pm, snuggling up in the Nunatak bag. I even had my Capilene 2 long johns on, a first.

The temperature kept falling, though not as rapidly. We had to get up for a potty break in the middle of the night and the thermometer showed 16° F. The air was still, so lots of condensation formed on the inside of the tent, turning into ice, making it “snow” early in the morning.

Day 2 – Kearsarge Lakes to Rae Lakes

We had a good location, the sun hit the tent not much after sun-up. By 7:20am, the tent was in full sun, quickly warming up, the night’s icy condensation thawing and turning into “rain”. I got out to beautifully, crisp, clean air. Sure it was cold, but it was very bearable in the sun and with no wind.

Side note: as I learned later, this very place was the scene of one of the few attacks by a black bear. A solo hiker was spending the night, and apparently, two large male bears were fighting for dominance. The guy somehow got caught up in between and had a few blows dealt to him. He survived.

Kearsarge Lakes, Kearsarge Pinnacles and our tent
Kearsarge Lakes, Kearsarge Pinnacles and our tent

We took our time, even longer than usual, eating breakfast slowly, drying out the tent, fraternizing with the two resident marmots. We wanted to make sure the snow on Glenn Pass is not completely icy when we get there, so we didn’t leave our camp until around 10am.

We could have backtracked to the high trail on the north side of the valley and taken that to the Charlotte Lake junction, but we’ve been on that before, so instead we decided to stay on the low trail, go past Bullfrog Lake and connect with the PCT at the main junction. It’s a very scenic trail, following the creek in the sparse pine forest, down to amazing Bullfrog Lake and around it. I totally understand why it’s prohibited now to camp here. I can imagine that every PCT/JMT hiker and the re-suppliers stopped here and it was way too crowded.

Two guys came our way and were kind of sad to be leaving, they said they hiked around quite a lot for a few days, but now they’re running out of food and it’s time to head home. They gave us good news: they did Glenn Pass the day before, and there was lots of snow, but doable without any special equipment.

Em taking a quick break on the shores of Bullfrog Lake
Em taking a quick break on the shores of Bullfrog Lake
The trail about a mile below Glenn Pass
The trail about a mile below Glenn Pass

Just past Bullfrog Lake, the trail dips a bit and meets the PCT in the middle of the forest. At least a dozen people were still camped here, even though it was past 11am. We turned north on the PCT, climbing a really short, but terribly steep section to the Charlotte Lake junction. I love this place, we’ve been here several times, in all kinds of seasons and weather. It’s a small, bowl-shaped, open meadow with the trails meeting in the middle and a nice sign. I heard in high snow years it can turn into a small lake, covering the sign and confusing hikers. Now it was completely dry, save for a few snow spots on the side. A few years later, we’ve seen the sign almost covered by snow, but never in water.

So we started climbing on the PCT, heading towards Glenn Pass. First, the trail meanders in the woods, heading generally west, climbing gently, As soon as the trees thin out, there’s a great view of Charlotte Lake, one of our favorite spots in the Sierra. About a mile and a half from the junction, the trail turns north sharply, into the canyon leading to the pass. There was some snow on the trail, but not very much.

A few scenic little tarns dot the place which is getting more and more moon-like with each step. Soon, we were way above the treeline, the landscape alien and gorgeous. We stopped for lunch on a big, smooth rock. There wasn’t much snow, except for the north-facing-slopes, but I had to double my sunglasses as my head started to hurt from all the harsh light.

We continued slowly, taking frequent small breaks to catch our breaths both literally and figuratively. This place was simply unbelievable. Rocks, snow, a few trees and shrubs, a frozen lake, somebody even camping in the middle of all this, the blinding light…

We got to the pass at 2:30pm to clear skies and great views in both directions. Some more people were there, including three PCT guys who appeared a mile behind us and caught up in 15 minutes, powering up the steep trail like mountain goats.

Snow fields on the trail to Glenn Pass.
Snow fields on the trail to Glenn Pass. Actually, there was less snow than it would seem from this picture

A family of four excitedly told us they saw a mountain lion just minutes before, but when it appeared again it turned out to be a coyote. It was still a strange sight, though, a coyote on top of Glenn Pass, moving casually north.

The far side of the pass looked a bit intimidating – it was very steep and almost fully covered with snow, but there were several people moving in both directions and it looked doable. The real trail was completely obscured, of course.

Preparing to descend from Glenn Pass
Preparing to descend from Glenn Pass

We moved carefully, using the established use trail and postholes in the snow, stabilizing ourselves with the hiking poles. It almost felt like a real mountaineering expedition, and I had to be careful not to become giddy and complacent.

There were a few really steep and rocky sections, but in about 45 minutes, we got to the bottom of the “hill”. Look up at it looked much worse. We knew we had to come back this way next day, but we there was no reason for concern.

Em looking back at Glenn Pass
Em looking back at Glenn Pass

From here, it was a nice and leisurely hike down to Rae Lakes. This place, again, is truly astonishing. It’s a series of several interconnected lakes, the trail crossing a land bridge between the uppermost and the second lake.

It was very crowded. People were taking advantage of the low snow situation and getting on the through hikes earlier. It seemed like there was somebody in every second bush. After some exploration, the decision was to camp about a hundred yards west of the trail before it crosses the lakes. We found a pretty private and very nice spot with great access to the water. As soon as we settled, we agreed to have fish again, and thankfully I had no such problems as the day prior, the fish were biting like crazy and I caught enough in 10 minutes, making a great appetizer before dinner.

Hiking down towards Rae Lakes.
Hiking down towards Rae Lakes. The land bridge I keep menitoning is in the middle
Morning light at Rae Lakes
Morning light at Rae Lakes

As sunset approached, the temperature dipped again, but it was way less cold than the night before. After dinner, we took a nice long walk. A huge group just arrived and they settled pretty much right there on the trail by the “bridge”. You almost had to step over people. Anyway, we went to the other side, walking around in the dark, enjoying night’s colors on the lake. After returning to our tent, I realized that I forgot our toilet paper on the other side. I had to stop for a potty break there, placed the zip-locked TP on a rock, and simply walked away.

Em stayed to prepare the bed and I jogged back for the TP. Those guys camped in the middle of the trail were getting ready for the night and looked at me kind of funny, not understanding why the heck I’m running around in the middle of the nigh (i.e. 9:30pm). I jogged as much as the trail and my headlamp allowed, and was surprised how little out of breath I got. Seemed like I was slowly acclimatizing after all.

At least I remembered where I left the toilet paper, so I went right back to Em and we went to sleep quickly.

Day 3 – Rae Lakes to Charlotte Lake

We woke bright and early at 7am to glittering sunshine, chilly but still air, and impossibly nice views of the halfway snow-covered mountains. Again, we didn’t want to get to the pass too early, so we took our time and only left camp at 10am.

The climb up the pass was slow and arduous, but we took it easy and it didn’t feel particularly dangerous. The snow was not hard enough to slip on it, but it was not too soft to badly posthole at every step.

At quarter past noon, we stood on top of Glen Pass again. Weather looked great, we only had two more miles to go to Charlotte, so we took a long break and snapped some more pictures. After descending in the canyon, we stayed in the watershed, abandoning the PCT for a faint trail leading directly towards Charlotte. The last part was cross-country in the forest, getting us exactly where we wanted to go: the west end of Charlotte Lake, near where the bear box is. We got there from the pass in less than an hour.

After setting up camp in the same spot as on our mini trans-Sierra trip, we went down to the lakeside and sat in the grass, enjoying the view and doing nothing. Hundreds of trout gathered around the outlet, but we both agreed that as much as we love fresh fish, a third day in a row would be too much.

Em at Charlotte Lake
Em at Charlotte Lake

We took a walk west past the outlet (great place, we camped here on a later trip), then another up towards the inlet, then dinner after sundown, then yet another nice walk in the dark, and then to bed. It was cold again, but at least 10 degrees warmer than two night before at Kearsarge Lakes, only two miles away and a few hundred feet higher.

Day 4 – Charlotte Lake to Onion Valley and L.A.

We slept in, then had a slow breakfast and left Charlotte Lake around 9:30am, climbing for about a mile to the aforementioned junction with the PCT, this time crossing it and keeping on the high trail towards Kearsarge Pass.

The high trail above Bullfrog Lake
The high trail above Bullfrog Lake

This route from Charlotte to Onion Valley via Kearsarge Pass is one of my favorite hikes ever. We must have done it at least 10 times and I’m in keep being amazed how nice it is, especially the part above Bullfrog and Kearsarge Lakes. Even Forester Pass is visible from there, if you know where to look (honestly, this time, I had no idea).

The pass was very windy, thus really cold, so we didn’t take any break when we created it at noon, instead we went down to Flower Lake and just as on the way up, had lunch there, just not by the water. Somebody constructed a very nice rocky “dinner set” consisting of a few chairs and a table, so we sat there.

Comfortable lunch at Gilbert Lake
Comfortable lunch at Gilbert Lake

The hike to Onion Valley and the drive back was nice and uneventful, except for the terrible windstorm in Antelope Valley, resulting a few dramatic pictures around Mojave.

Way more pictures in the full gallery.

Windy afternoon in the Antelope Valley
Windy afternoon in the Antelope Valley