June 26: Forester Pass to Kearsage Pass

We finished the climb up Forester Pass in the morning and then descended alongside an alpine lake-fed creek. At the end of the descent, we climbed up toward Kearsage Pass and the Kearsage Pass Trail, our route out of the mountains and into town for another resupply.

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Start: Below Forester Pass
Stop: The Independence Inn in Independence, CA
Miles hiked: 17 (7.5 of them on the Kearsage Pass Trail)

We woke late in the morning (7 am) to find another tent set up at a campsite close to ours. The hiker, whose name we didn’t catch, said that he came into camp in the middle of the night after having been stalked by a mountain lion for the last mile. It was incredible to us that a mountain lion would be up at such a high elevation (12,500 feet), but we had no reason to doubt the hiker’s story…

After the other hiker moved on, we continued packing up slowly, taking turns guarding our food and gear from the marmots. Marmots, we’ve learned, have very little fear of people. While Erica sat on a rock making coffee, a group of three marmots continually tried to approach her. She could have pet them, they were so close. Although cute for a while, constantly fending off chubby rodents does get old; we were glad to start hiking by 9 am.

Given how close we had camped to the pass, the climb up Forester went very quickly. As the highest point on the PCT, Forester Pass typically offers far-reaching views of the High Sierras. Unfortunately for us, that view was obscured by smoke from a forest fire. We had seen the smoke rolling in that morning just south of the pass, but we had hoped that the air would be clear north of the pass. No such luck. We and the other hikers we met on the pass were alarmed to see that the mountains north of us were also shrouded in smoke.

The descent from Forester passes multiple alpine creeks and lakes. One particularly clear lake had about five other hikers swimming in it/recovering from their swim. We did not join them; it was too cold!

About an hour after we passed the lake, Rick spotted a mountain lion on the trail at an elevation around 11,800 feet. The lion crossed the trail into some bushes that clearly had a wildlife use trail running through them. After that, we no longer doubted that the hiker we’d woken up next to that morning had been telling the truth about his own mountain lion encounter.

The trail paralleled a creek for the rest the descent from Forester Pass. There were a few crossings and many places to get water–how nice not to carry much water! We ate lunch at the bottom of the descent, near a crossing with the aforementioned creek. Many hikers, including some of the section hikers we’d passed earlier in the day, passed us as we ate lunch. Watching the section hikers go by, we realized that PCT hikers were no longer the most numerous people on the trail in this region. Indeed, few of the people we saw even realized that they were on the PCT; they were following overlapping trails like the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Trail, and a loop trail which sounds like “Great Lakes Loop”.

After lunch, we started climbing up to Kearsarge Pass. After a couple miles of ascending on the PCT, we reached the Bullfrog Lake Trail, which leads up to Kearsage Pass and connects with another trail to the Onion Valley trailhead, from which you can reach Independence, CA.

We ate another meal on the shore of Bullfrog Lake before the start of the toughest part of the Kearsarge Pass ascent. Not yet above timberline, our lunch spot was shady and beautiful; It’s a pity that the PCT proper doesn’t visit Bullfrog Lake.  We had mac and cheese, going all out with extra powdered milk. We were walking again by 4:30 pm.

The climb up to Kearsarge Pass from there was steep and exposed. Thankfully, the weather was fair (albeit still smokey from distant wildfires). We passed a hiker we’d met previously at Casa De Luna, an Australian named Richard. He was heading back to the PCT as we were climbing out.

The summit of Kearsage Pass was, like Forester Pass  earlier in the day, smokey. We mingled with some section hikers from UC Berkeley while there,then began a long descent towards the Onion Valley trailhead, nearly 2,500 feet below us and several miles to the east.

The descent was scenic. The eastern side of Kearsarge Pass is great, even if it’s not part of Kings Canyon National Park (but rather Inyo National Forest). We passed multiple alpine lakes, and eventually paralleled a creek. That creek, lacking the switchbacks which make the trail we were on human friendly, descended much more quickly than ourselves. In multiple places it formed cascades, if not waterfalls. Rushing water was the soundtrack for our descent. The largest cascade/waterfall is very near the bottom of the descent near the trailhead: It was a few hundred feet tall.

We arrived at the Onion Valley trailhead around 8 pm. It was quickly getting dark out. There were few people in the parking lot nearby despite many parked cars which, evidently, belonged to people section hiking in the Sierras. Not wanting to spend the night at the trailhead, we walked around the campground nearby to see if anyone might want to give us a ride. One of the first people we asked said yes after Erica helped him unload some groceries, and the two of them got to talking.

Around 8:30 pm, we got dropped off at a gas station in Independence, CA. There’s not much in Independence, and, unfortunately, the hotel which best caters to hikers was full for the night. We stayed at the “Independence Inn,” a fairly new hotel in town. The owner has only owned it for two years. Prior to that, it was a roach motel. He’s doing a lot of renovations and landscaping to the place. We enjoyed our stay there, except for the fact that our room had a lot of ants.

There are few services in Independence (two gas stations, a few hotels, and about 2 restaurants, both of which were closed). We ate dinner at a taco truck that–as locals later explained–is always in town. After $20 in tacos and another $10 in gas station junk food, we were finally full.

We stayed up fairly late drinking and watching TV. By midnight we were asleep.

(This post written on July 1st after returning to the PCT over Kearsarge Pass).

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