Onion Loop

The Onion Loop provides an excellent sampling of the high country above Onion Valley in a complete loop with minimal repetition. The route includes excellent views throughout, fun scrambling, several alpine lakes and the three primary summits that reside along the Sierra Crest in the region: Dragon Peak, Mount Gould and University Peak. Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass are a major gateway to the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park so the main trail up to the pass and adjacent lakes are quite popular and somewhat crowded. However, this route eschews the main trail for all but a mile and entails a considerable amount of scrambling and off-trail travel with grand vistas and spectacular scenery. GPS route here.

The first part of the route ascends the steep trail to the Golden Trout Lakes where Dragon Peak, the first summit objective, towers above the pristine alpine lakes. Dragon Peak is an outsanding summit with a fun class 3 scramble. In particular, the final summit block includes some exposure and a traverse across a narrow ledge. The views from Dragon Peak are stellar and include the deep blue Dragon Lake immediately below and the entire Rae Lakes Basin. Mount Clarence King and Mount Cotter show there impressive east faces and to the south the view includes layers upon layers of peaks including Mount Rixford, the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. It’s a fabulous spot and the author’s favorite summit of the three on this loop; well worth enjoying the summit perch!    After descending Dragon Peak, the traverse to Mount Gould goes as entirely class 2 by staying on the west side of the crest or class 3 if one chooses to stay on the crest proper. Mount Gould is a large massif with a broad plateau. The actual summit (by a few feet) is on the SE side of the massif but there is another high point on the northwest end of the plateau that is worthy of the extra effort for a grand vista of the Rae Lakes basin and down the south fork Woods Creek drainage. This subsidiary summit on the NW end of the plateau contains some measuring equipment and transmitters which I would rather not be there, but it doesn’t distract too much from the amazing vista. While the NW summit of Gould has the best view looking north, the SE (actual) summit has the best view looking south including the Kearsage Pinnacles and Lakes, Kings-Kern Divide and Great Western Divide. The actual summit of Gould is a fairly small pinnacle with a few class 3 moves, most easily done when approaching from the west. The author’s favorite view from this perch was East Vidette with its classic triangular shape rising above the Kearsarge Pinnacles with Deerhorn Mountain and the Great Western Divide forming the background (pictured in the black & white photo above). From Mount Gould traverse a couple ribs to a broad sandy slope above Kearsarge Pass where the sand enables a remarkably efficient plunge step down to the pass. From Kearsarge Pass, the next objective is the north face of University Peak. Descend a short distance on the Kearsarge Pass trail to a bench above Heart Lake and then take a use path to the lake. From Heart Lake, traverse cross country over some talus and alp pine slopes to beautiful Bench Lake. Aptly-named Bench Lake sits at the foot of University Peak in a lovely setting of granite and pines. From Bench Lake, the most efficient route to University Peak’s north face is to take the solid slabs starting on the east side of Bench Lake. The slabs transition to more talus and large block as one ascends. One can keep most of the ascent at class 2 or opt to tackle some class 3 to keep things as direct as possible. Near the top the terrain grows steeper but the climbing is still largely class 3 with some easy class 3. The final traverse to the summit is on a surprisingly broad ledge on the north side of the ridge with a few more scramble moves near the top. Overall, it seems the north face of University Peak gets a reputation as a harder scramble than it actually is. Most of the route is a class 2 slog and the scramble portions have little exposure. The views from the route overlooking the chain of lakes between Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley is fantastic. Moreover, the view from the summit into Center Basin, Forester Pass and Mount Stanford are excellent. From the summit of University Peak traverse sandy slopes on the west side of the ridge to either University Pass or a shortcut chute north of University Pass. Here is where the route becomes quite tedious with a lot of boulder hoping that is unavoidable in the glacial moraine area. As one travels down to Robinson Lake, there is still quite a bit of talus, but also sections of easier terrain, and the last few hundred feet down to Robinson Lake are on slabs and pine forest. From Robinson Lake it’s a fairly short trip down the trail back to Onion Valley.

Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak & Bench Lake

Arrow Peak and Bench Lake have been on my list of places to visit for several years. The iconic view of Arrow Peak towering above Bench Lake was one of the first images of the High Sierra that inspired me to explore the range when I first moved to California. However, a relatively long approach over Taboose Pass and an even longer drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead likely deterred me from getting it done. On an ideal early summer morning I finally made it out to Bench Lake to see in person what I had dreamed of all those years. Often times such anticipation built up over a long time can result in unrealistic expectations, and commensurate anticlimactic experiences, but the scenery surpassed even what I had imagined. Bench Lake is a Sierra gem with a priceless view as aptly named Arrow Peak reflects in its waters. The objective for the day was the 2,700 vertical foot Northeast Ridge route up Arrow Peak which is front and center when viewed from Bench Lake and looks quite intimidating from that vantage.  However, once on the route one discovers that the technicality is limited to a class 3 scramble with just enough exposure and steepness to make it an engaging and fun route.  Combined with the outrageous views en route, the northeast ridge of Arrow is one of the most aesthetic scramble routes in all of the High Sierra. This region of the range is probably the area I have spent the least amount of time so it was great to finally get out there to see the amazing scenery and dream up future routes in the area.  GPS route here.

The logical approach to the Bench Lake and the Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak is via Taboose Pass, an infamous pass that starts in the sage-filled desert of the Owens Valley and climbs 6,000 vertical feet to the pass in a consistent ascent with little shade. Starting before dawn, I found the trail reasonable and a fairly efficient way to reach the crest and the incredible beauty that lies beyond. In other words, I hope to be back to Taboose Pass soon. I can’t say as much for the access road which is totally beat up with large rocks everywhere. In many ways the access road is in worse shape than the trail!  While having a low clearance vehicle doesn’t help, this road wouldn’t be much faster in a high clearance vehicle. Most of the obstructions are large rocks buried in the sand so it doesn’t seem like it would take much machinery to improve this rough road dramatically, but I guess the poor condition naturally regulates visitation. When I’m driving under 10 mph I start to second guess why I’m driving at all (as opposed to running). Next time I will likely park my car at the end of the pavement and jog up the east slopes of the Owens Valley to the trailhead.

Bench Lake and Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge close-up: 

As mentioned, the Taboose Pass trail starts in a desert environment with sage and sand. The going is slow for awhile until one enters the Taboose Canyon where the tread improves. The trail steadily climbs along the north side of Taboose Creek before crossing the stream and entering the only shaded part of the climb in a beautiful pine forest. The shade is short lived and soon the trail is back to switchbacking through open talus slopes. The grade eases up towards the pass where there are numerous small tarns and the terrain gradually shifts from rock to tundra. At Taboose Pass one enters Kings Canyon National Park and is greeted by a lovely view down the South Fork Kings Canyon, the Cirque Crest, Bench Lake and Arrow Peak. The connector trail from Taboose Pass to the John Muir Trail is an amazing stretch with glorious meadows and astounding views. Turning south on the JMT for merely a hundred meters brings you to junction with Bench Lake. Judging by the faint tread it seems as if few through hikers bother to take the time to visit Bench Lake. This has served the Bench Lake area well as it seems unspoiled for such a beatiful spot. The trail to Bench Lake gradually descends through pine forest passing a couple small lakes to reach Bench Lake, a Sierra gem with one of the finest views in the range.

After a beautiful stretch along Bench Lake’s shores the trail peters out, but off-trail travel is easy through through open pine forest over a small rise followed by a descent to a small drainage at the base of Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge. The initial slope up to the Northeast ridge can be accomplished by various routes, but they all converge on the ridge crest where the cliffs on either side make the spine of the ridge the logical route. The lower portion of the route features some scrappy low-lying pine trees that can be cumbersome as they tend to grow into thick, unmalleable bushes. The vegetation scrambling peters out about half way up the ridge leaving clean, enjoyable rock scrambling for the second half. The ridge features some nice exposure, a few knife edge sections, and awesome views in all directions including Bench Lake below, the Cirque Crest, and as one ascends higher, the mighty Palisades. The Northeast Ridge is a long and sustained climb with over 2,700 ft of vertical from its base to the summit. Once on top, enjoy Arrow Peak’s amazing view, perfectly positioned to have one of the best 360 degree panoramas in all of the High Sierra. To the south lies the Kings-Kern Divide, Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. To the north is the Goddard-Evolution area and the Palisades. Close at hand is the Cirque Crest, a region of the High Sierra I have yet to visit but near the top of my list for future exploration. Perhaps the most compelling view is down the Muro Blanco, or the South Fork Kings River Canyon.  This is a truly wild canyon with no trails and sparse documentation. From Arrow Peak’s perch I could see the entire length of the aptly named canyon, which is virtually entirely composed of distinctly white granite slabs and cliffs. From Arrow Peak, the easy descent is off the WSW slopes which have some helpful sand for efficient descending. From Arrow Pass, talus and slabs are taken down to the drainage east of Arrow Peak. This drainage has some gorgeous turquoise pools from which to admire the northeast ridge of Arrow Peak. Ascend back to Bench Lake through the forest and retrace steps over Taboose Pass.