Kings Canyon National Park, California
The 4.0-mile trail to 11,760-foot Kearsarge Pass switchbacks up a sunny slope towards its namesake mountain pass, providing access to a sparkling High Sierra lake basin, the John Muir Wilderness, and the dramatic backcountry mountain scenery of Kings Canyon National Park—superb destinations for any day hiker.
Begin your hike at the trailhead located at the end of Onion Valley Road (Market Street in town), a 13-mile drive from the town of Independence, California—starting at an elevation of 9,189 feet, you might already feel breathless as you begin climbing towards the pass right out of the starting gate. As you continue climbing—the trail ascends continually— take note of cascading Independence Creek, the gorgeous stands of pine, and the alpine vegetation such as bush chinquapin, Manzanita, and false hellebore that line the trail, not to mention the incredible views back down to the trailhead and across the Owens Valley.
Within a mile of climbing, enter the John Muir Wilderness and continue to make your way along the rocky trail towards Little Pothole Lake at mile 1.4—the first of five lakes found along the route to Kearsarge Pass. After a brief stop, we set back out on the swithbacks and eventually traversed a boulder field before reaching Gilbert Lake a half-mile later—its clear blue boulder strewn waters reflecting the emerging fall colors perfectly.
It’s easy to get lost in the beautiful scenery while skirting the north and then the west shore of Gilbert Lake, but the views of the sapphire water offer just a taste of what is yet to come—next up, the junction with the trail to Flower Lake and Matlock Lake, where even greater vistas await. Follow this path for a short excursion to the shores of Flower Lake—your last chance to be at water’s edge as you make your way towards Kearsarge Pass—the two remaining lakes, Heart Lake and Big Pothole Lake, are far below the trail at the base of steep glacial slopes. We decided to save the trip to Flower Lake for our return journey—with hopes that the sunset would offer up a few alpenglow photo opportunities.
Once back on the main trail, ascend a granite ledge via more switchbacks—the path leading you high above the azure waters of Heart Lake. Several points along the ascent offer incredible bird’s eye views of the lake, complete with bench-sized boulders that seem custom built for taking in the scenery. Any of these vantage points provide the perfect place to stop for a snack and to rest your legs—the crest of the ridge is just a few steps away.
Upon cresting the ridge, the stark mountain landscape of the pass comes into view—devoid of most plant life, the scenery before you now consists mainly of rock and talus. Despite the barren mountainside, the views of Kearsarge Pass are inspirational, and just in time to break the monotony, Big Pothole Lake comes into view—the sun playing off its cobalt blue waters.
Just a bit more climbing and you reach Kearsarge Pass, where a sign marks the border between Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, beyond the pass are towering mountain peaks and a string of lakes that stretch as far as the eye can see—such mountaintop views are the reason we hike. When we reached the pass, the afternoon sun was glinting off the lakes and warming the jumble of boulders perched high above Big Pothole Lake—we found a sheltered spot out of the wind and bathed in the sun’s warmth as we enjoyed the view and a few revitalizing snacks. All that was left to do now was retrace our steps back the trailhead—a welcome downhill trek made all the more enjoyable by the warm light of the late afternoon sun.
As we descended from the pass, the sun’s low angle added saturation to the already colorful lakes, trees, and mountain peaks—allowing us to capture one of our best Sierra images yet. Upon reaching the Flower Lake trail junction, we quickly made our way back to the lake, just in time to see the light of alpenglow painting the peaks above Flower Lake a soft purple—talk about purple mountain majesty!