Although our loop includes the word “Solitude”, it did not start off that way. The Eastern Sierra trailhead at Onion Valley is a popular one and it’s difficult to mentally prepare for a quiet week in the backcountry when you’re fighting for parking like CostCo on a Saturday afternoon. There are hikers coming off the trail, hikers preparing to get on the trail, shuttles dropping and picking people up, and lots of people simply sightseeing.

I found a spot that would fit my Outback and squeezed in. About 2 seconds later a car crawled slowly by with the passenger hanging his head out the window.

“Hey, are you leav….oh, nevermind, you’re clean.”

It’s easy to tell who is going in and who is coming out based on caked on dirt and greasiness of hair.

Trip Report

A few minutes later Sooz rolled in and scored a primo spot right next to the trailhead. My hike would include an extra 0.2 miles each way. The horror.

I double checked my pack – 40 lbs on the nose with 10 days of food and 2 liters of water. Oof.

My beloved purple beast
My beloved purple beast

We suited up and started out on the trail to Kearsarge Pass. As far as east side Sierra passes go this is one of my favorites. It’s well graded, scenic, and gets you over the crest in about 5 miles. The last stretch to the pass is a bit of a slog, but for the first day at elevation with a heavy pack it’s not too bad.

Big Pothole Lake: beautiful view on the way to Kearsarge Pass
Big Pothole Lake: beautiful view on the way to Kearsarge Pass

Backpackers going the other way cheerily greeted us with their grimy smiles. They didn’t smell good. I bet we smelled like soap and shampoo to them. I recognized that I would be in their position in 10 days. Wet Ones and hand sanitizer only go so far.

View towards Kearsarge Lakes from Kearsarge Pass
View towards Kearsarge Lakes from Kearsarge Pass

Dropping down the west side of Kearsarge Pass, we aimed for the lakes. The Kearsarge Lakes are crowded and overrun, but we didn’t let that deter us. Believe it or not, backpackers are really lazy and will drop their pack at the first campsite they see. Because of this, the southeast side of the chain of lakes (where the trail comes in) is extremely crowded.

Avoiding crowds as we walk along Kearsarge Lakes
Avoiding crowds as we walk along Kearsarge Lakes

We spent the small amount of effort necessary to find something nice and walked through the crowded and illegally pitched camps (including one guy ON the trail) to find a quiet and secluded camp. We hadn’t reached ‘Solitude’ yet but we were doing pretty good considering the location.

View from camp at Kearsarge Lakes
View from camp at Kearsarge Lakes

I immediately regretted not carrying my fishing pole (even with that 40 lb pack) while watching tons of trout  cruise the shore. At least I had a beautiful sunset as a consolation prize.

Sunset over University Peak from Kearsarge Lakes
Sunset over University Peak from Kearsarge Lakes

The next morning we cut back over to the trail and got a great view towards Mt Brewer, the next day’s destination. The east ridge looked both gnarly and fun.

Mt Brewer ahead, fun ahoy
Mt Brewer ahead, fun ahoy

Connecting to the John Muir Trail, we hiked the 2.2 miles south to Vidette Meadow. Instead of continuing on the JMT we turned east along Bubbs Creek. It’s all new for me from here on out!

It was down down down to Junction Meadow. I noticed how warm it was and bookmarked a few campsites on my GPS. We didn’t know exactly when we’d be heading back this way, so I wanted to have targets in mind in case we decided it was too hot and we needed to wait out the heat until morning.

Hiking down along Bubbs Creek. It's very hot.
Hiking down along Bubbs Creek. It’s very hot.

In Junction Meadow we found the sign pointing us towards East Lake and Lake Reflection. Here, we had to cross Bubbs Creek without the help of a log or bridge. This can be a dangerous crossing early in the season or in heavy snow years. People die here, but we easily waded across in shin-deep warm water. This was the first of several times I thanked the drought on our trip (the others involved mosquitoes and passes).

The trail climbed parallel to East Creek. A few hundred feet up there was a helpful bridge. Thanks? Why not below on the main creek? Anyways.

Bridge over East Creek
Bridge over East Creek

East Lake was really busy. Every campsite on the north end was filled, lots of people milled along the northern shore, and threatening clouds were moving in. Once again, extra effort meant avoiding the crowds. We poked our way along the western shore under trees and through marshes (no moquitoes! Thanks, drought!), then found a quiet campsite in the grove of trees on the south end of the lake. In retrospect, it looked like there was a much easier use trail on the eastern shore, but who are we to turn down a challenge?

Hiking along the west shore of East Lake.
Hiking along the west shore of East Lake.

By sunset we were settled into our quiet camp at East Lake, appreciating the fact that we still found a version of ‘Solitude’ at yet another busy lake. We were looking forward to Day Three’s adventure – some offtrail dayhiking up the east slope of Mt Brewer.

Gear Tips

When you’re hoofing a 40 lb pack up an 11,000 ft pass it doesn’t take long to figure out what you are happy about bringing and what you wish you left behind. As of nights 1 and 2, these are my main gear wins and gear fails.

Gear win:

  • LUCI inflatable solar-powered lantern: At 3 oz this weighs more than my headlamp but it is much more useful. It’s brighter, provides much more ambient light, and it doesn’t take batteries. As long as you remember to set this out under the sun every couple of days, this is a great alternate to a headlamp. I brought both, and definitely don’t regret this extra weight.

Gear Fail:

  • Sanuk Slip-On: Look, I love my Sanuks as much as the next guy. They’re comfortable, lightweight, packable, and feel great on my feet at the end of a long day. The problem is stream crossings. These aren’t very secure on the feet and they don’t dry as fast as a sandal. As a comfy lightweight camp shoe they were great. As a Bubbs Creek crossing shoe they weren’t. 

Maps and GPS Tracks

Day 1: Onion Valley to Kearsarge Lakes


Day 2: Kearsarge Lakes to East Lake

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  1. Petesthousandpeaks

    Can hardly wait to see if you did do the true summit pinnacle highpoint of Brewer. Class 3, by me, it’s a big sticking point in the guide by Secor. Someone said that they should recognize the highpoint climbed by former SC groups, the lower class 2 bump, but I see the truth as the summit pinnacle that I finally climbed. True peak baggers will do the highest point, and it took me my second trip back, in 1992 or so. By some perhaps, most SPS’ers don’t do the true highpoint. One called it class 4, but I did it without a rope, a bit scary, and a deadly fall if slipping. It’s long been away from backpacking and the High Sierra for me, since 2003 or so, but I enjoyed what I did, safely and successfully. No partners, ever again, but it’s mostly been there, done that. Good to see that someone gets out there!

  2. Joe

    Just ordered that lamp. Looks like it’ll be useful in car-camping situations too. Thanks!

  3. Dale Matson

    I did this hike from Road’s end. The drive from Fresno is more convenient than driving to Onion Valley but the hike is more difficult. You’ve done quite a bit of hiking over the years with nice reports. Thanks.

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