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.

Onion Valley to South Lake

An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.

It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down!  This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.