This trip is 37 miles starting at the Onion Valley Trailhead on the east side of the Sierra near the town of Independence, CA. To do the loop without shuttle requires an 8 mile walk down Onion Valley Road as well as a 4 mile gravel roadwalk to get to the other end of the “wild” trail. The trails go over Junction Pass (13,200) and Kearsarge Pass (11,760). Junction Pass is the pass directly to the east of Forester Pass (13,200ft) which is the highest pass on the JMT and PCT and was the former route of the JMT prior to completion of the Forester Pass Trail. Other areas of travel include Center Basin and Lower Vidette Meadow.
It was a tough week at work. I had to travel out to the Bay Area and staying the weekend would save hundreds on airfare meaning I had a three day weekend to kill in the Sierras. But what to do? Option 1 was the Onion Valley trip. I had attempted this twice already this year and on the first occasion the snow conditions would not allow me to do a solo trip in there without becoming a statistic. I made it over Kearsarge and down to Bullfrog Lake before turning around. My second attempt took me the other direction going up from the Shepherds Pass Trailhead, but I was not mentally prepared for the adventure. Third time the charm? Option 2 would be a 100 mile “forced road march” from Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows and back with a goal 50 miles on day 1. The snowshoe trip ultimately won out because I am planning the thru-hike the PCT next year and I would be duplicating my route. Also, I can always do the PCT hike and the snow only allows this trip in a limited time of year.
My meetings were over at 11am so on the road I went. There is no easy way to get to the east side of the Sierra from the Bay Area. I ended up going through Tahoe and getting to the trailhead at 6pm. I was fortunate that the Onion Valley Road was open so I left my car at the parking lot and backtracked down the mountain by foot. My progress was hastened by the temperature. It was already 25 degrees and falling fast and the wind was howling. My goal was to make to down the Onion Valley Road (8 miles) and across Foothill Road. (4 miles) and make camp at lower elevation, 5600ft. This was easily accomplished and it was nice to night hike using my new PT Remix. I laid my TG Raven bivy right on the trail and slept comfortable in my Golite UL-20. The bivy did a wonderful job keeping the winds at bay.
4000’ Descent Down Onion Valley Road
It seemed to be light but was it the sunrise or just the blazing full moon. The birds were starting to chirp so it was time to begin to real adventure. The day started off without snow as I climbed up the Symmes Creek drainage. The trail then goes over a ridge into the Shepherds Creek drainage. At 7500’ the snowshoes came out. Near the top of the ridge I met three cross country skiers. They were cutting their trip short due to the cold and wind. (Previous night’s lows at these elevations was -6F) These would be the only people I would see my entire trip including the road sections. The trail traverses across the south facing side of the Sherpherds drainage. Snow disappeared and snowshoes went back on the pack. This would be common for the remainder of the trip. The descent into Sherpherd Creek was 600’ of hard earned elevation. Near Mahogany Flat I had my first mishap. The snow was very firm underneath but there was a 6 inch layer on top that often broke free. That happened while traversing a bowl and I slammed into a tree giving me a war wound to tell the kids about. Mahogany Flats would make a great place to spend some time. Proceeding up Shepherd Creek I had a fork in the creek at The Pothole. Straight would take you over Shepherd Pass (12,000’) to Tyndall Creek. My path would be toward the right heading to Junction Peak. My goal for the day was to get over Junction Pass but after 10 miles and over 7000’ of elevation gain the elevation won. I camped out about half a mile above The Pothole at 11,200’ and prepared myself for a very cold night. The weather forecast was calling for a low of 4F and I was pushing my UL-20 beyond its limit. I had a sleeping bag liner which is supposed to add 5 degrees and the bivy in my optimistic estimation is another 5. Maybe the Fritos in the middle of night would give me the remaining 6 degrees? I was in bed at 6pm just a bit anxious. (Post hike add – CDEC Temp at 10,400’ was -2 and I was 800’ higher so this would be my first below zero night!)
Entering Symmes Creek Canyon
Looking up Shepherds Creek
I survived the night and it was a frigid pack up. Thankfully, I now roll my bag, liner and bivy in a loose roll and stuff it in my pack so it went quickly. I skipped first breakfast which was a sign of things to come. I had 1400’ of climb right out of the shoot to the top of Junction Pass. The snow was rock hard so I went without snowshoes until the final assault of the pass. The altitude was kicking my butt and I still hadn’t eaten. I would take 20 steps and stop, repeat as needed. Junction Pass was incredible. Anyone who has hiked Forester knows the view both north and south is beyond words. The entire Sierras stretch out as far as you can see and had the wind not been in full gale from Center Basin I would have stayed for hours. The descent into Center Basin was straight-forward at first. You follow the ridge separating the Center Basin from the drainage containing the PCT/JMT. I was able to get some great pictures of Forester Pass from the same elevation. But suddenly I had to descend and it was steep. So I decided it was time to learn how to glissade. So down I went and it was so much fun I almost climb the 500 feet back up to do it again. Luckily I would have many other occasions on the remainder of the trip to make my butt numb. (I was wearing normal hiking pants, not snow pants.) The trip through Center Basin was spectacular and very easy going. As the sun started heating up the snow the top 6 inches was sticking to my snowshoes making the MSR Denalis weigh about as much as the mountain their named for. I tested out my Salomon trailrunner and no postholing, so off I went san shoeshoes. The decent down to Lower Vidette Meadow (9500’) was interesting. I had hiked this on my JMT trip but I really enjoyed this section, maybe because it was downhill this time. The snow was really starting to melt at Lower Vidette and the bear box was clearly visible. The climb up toward Charlotte Lake sucked and the fact that I only ate a handful of Fritos and a few Oreos meant that I had no energy, I had hit the wall after only ten miles and 3000’ elevation gain. I had tried to eat a decent lunch at Center Basin but I nearly gagged. I stopped right above Bullfrog Lake (10800’) and went to sleep at 6pm without eating a bite. I slept warm that night and the CDEC temperature gauge at Charlotte Lake (2 miles away) recorded a low temperature of 5F.
Looking North from Junction Pass (Center Basin in foreground)
Looking South from Junction Pass (Tyndall – Whitney)
Looking Down at Forester Pass (The U-shaped notch beyond the V shaped notch)
Looking South at West Vidette
I woke and immediately dreaded the 2000’ climb over Kearsarge Pass. It was cold starting out and my soaked wet trail runners were frozen solid. The climb over the pass was in the shade and as soon as I crossed the pass warmth hit me. At this point there were now visible prints in the snow leading me back down to the trailhead, about 4 miles away. Then the fun started, there were many opportunities to hone my newly found glissading skill and I took advantage of every one. The final one took me down right to the trailhead. Now there was one thing left to do, pig out! In the following hours I consumed more calories then the rest of the trip combined and completely guilt free.
Final Glissade at Onion Valley Trailhead
Post trip Observations
1) What worked – My PCT gear list overall worked great. The change from a Ridgerest to a Ridgerest Deluxe really increased my warmth when sleeping on snow. The fact that I could handle temperatures below zero with a UL-20 is amazing.
2) What didn’t work – I have to resolve my appetite at higher elevation. I was calorically limited to about 10 miles a day at these elevations and conditions. I also had lbs of food that I needlessly carried.
3) Recommended? This is a very physically demanding trip and if you are up to it then it hits one of the premier locations in the Sierra. For this year, my timing was perfect. I would recommend April/May vs. earlier due to lower avalanche dangers. This could also be an interesting hike in Summer/Fall. There is supposed to be the remains of the old JMT trail between Center Basin and the Shepherds Pass Trail.
4) Trip Statistics- GPS Distance – 36.1 (I went straight up switchbacks.) GPS elevation gain – 14,835. (I think it was high because of many stops) Gross Elevation calculation from topo – 11,400’ (Doesn’t include minor ups and downs.) Max Elevation 13,277 at Junction Pass. Min Elevation 5200 at Foothills Road.