Backpack Over Kearsarge Pass to Charlotte Lake

Rate this Adventure Yosemite Onion Valley Campground

Added by Carissa Trapp

Enjoy amazingly blue lakes, views of stunning peaks and pinnacles, and the sound of creeks cascading down the mountainside on this well-maintained trail.

This adventure begins at Onion Valley Campground outside of Independence, CA. The parking is abundant and the road is snow dependent. Snow will be plowed as long as it is not currently being hit with a massive storm. Dogs are allowed on trail up to Kearsarge Pass (4.5 miles from the trailhead). However, as you continue west over the pass you enter Sequoia National Park, which means pets are not allowed on trail.

Starting at 9,190 feet, you ascend the mountainside on easy-going switchbacks. At 10,425 feet you will spot the first body of water, Gilbert Lake, 2.3 miles from the trailhead. The trail continues along the north side of the lake with a gentle uphill. There will be signs not too long after Gilbert Lake is out of sight for another lake just off the trail to the south. According to the map the lake should be Flower Lake, but the signs say something else. As you continue up the trail you come to the base of a cliff with a set of 11 switchbacks. At the first switchback you get your first glimpse of the beautifully blue Heart Lake. It is, in fact, a perfect heart shape (although not anatomically so).

At the top of the cliff you have less than a mile left to the pass as you walk through what can only be described as a moonscape. Here you will get a lovely view of University Peak and Big Pothole Lake as you head straight towards Kearsarge Pass. It is a small notch on the north side of the scraggly saddle 4.5 miles from the trailhead, and 3.75 miles from your destination. From here you can look east to Owen's Valley or west and enjoy the expansive views of the valleys below. You have reached the highest point of the hike: a lovely 11,709 feet.

As you make the descent down from Kearsarge you have amazing views of the surrounding peaks and Kearsarge Pinnacles. The trail stays above the tree line for almost a mile. The first grouping of trees you come to is the Charlotte Lake Junction. If you go left you go down to Kearsarge Lakes. For Charlotte Lake you head right into the trees. The trail takes you along the mountain side with views of the valleys below. As you work your way west the Kearsarge Pinnacles end, opening to a view of East Vidette, a gorgeous standalone mountain separated by two valleys. Those who have adventured along the PCT/JMT will recognize the eastern valley as the route towards Forester Pass (a trip for another day).

As you continue down the trail you drop into the trees and come to a junction. Take the left fork. After a few twists and turns the forest opens to Vidette Meadow where you will reach yet another junction. To head to Charlotte Lake you go straight on through where you will drop back into the trees. From here you are only 0.75 miles from your camping spot. The last stretch of the trail meanders through the forest and provides you with glimpses of what waits below. Suddenly the trail opens up at the inlet, allowing you to see how large Charlotte Lake is. She sits in a long valley, surrounded by bare-topped mountains at 10,544 feet.

Most of the campsites are on the north side of the lake. As it is a popular location for backcountry adventurers, Charlotte Lake has a bear box (thanks Forest Service!) to keep your food safe from hungry bears. If you are looking to camp away from the group, there is a meadow on the southeast side of the lake that have a couple of campsites. If you enjoy fishing, there were plenty jumping at the lake, so bring your pole and fishing license. Keep in mind that fires are not permitted above 10,000 feet, so they are not allowed at Charlotte Lake.

This is an out and back trip. The best part of retracing your steps is being able to see what you missed on your way out. For instance, I saw a momma bear and her two cubs playing in the meadow near Bull Frog Lake on my hike out. It was a lovely sight. Happy adventures!

Pack List

  • Backpacking permit
  • Shelter
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Water filter
  • Map
  • Rain jacket/wind breaker (Kearsarge Pass was breezy)
  • Proper layers
  • Bear canister with yummy food
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More



Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Photography, Snowshoeing

Skill Level:



Year Round

Trail Type:



16 Miles

Elev. Gain:

2623 Feet


Easy Parking

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