Onion Valley, Gardiner Basin, Sixty Lakes Basin, Rae Lakes Onion Valley Loop 8/20-8/26
Sep 6, 2013 at 8:04 pm #1307394Jani KikutsSpectator
@enginerdLocale: Southern California
As an engineer I do not pride myself on my writing skills, so please forgive any typos and poor grammar :) This is my first trail report here, so before I dive in let me give a little history on my backpacking background. The first time I went backpacking was in high school, a friend’s family invited me along to Mineral King for 5 days to keep their sons company. We would be one of the first parties over still snowy Franklin Pass that year and ventured down Rattlesnake Creek to the Kern to camp, fish and relax. A number of years went by before I had the opportunity to go on another extended trip, this time from Cottonwood Meadows to Mt. Whitney via the back route, that trip left yet another strong impression on me. Lucky enough to reside in San Diego I lived an active outdoors lifestyle of weekend hiking and mountain biking while finishing my engineering degree, starting a career, and forming a family. Now in my early 30’s I love this time of my life and luckily I’m finally able to get back to backpacking, this time on a slightly more regular basis.
Over the last three years I have been exploring the Sierras once a year with two friends, one form engineering school and the other a coworker. In 2011 we went from Silver Lake to Devils Postpile along Thousand Island, Garnet, Ediza, Cecile, and Minaret lakes, a fantastic trip! Last year we hit the Big Pine trail and Palisade glacier, and this year wanted to do something “bigger” as my friend Joey is about to have his second child and will probably be out of the backpacking scene for the next year.
In the last nine months I discovered BPL and High SierraTopix forums, both have proved to be tremendous resources for gear, routes, and techniques. Up until this last trip I was carrying 43-45 pounds for a 3-4 day trip, thanks to all of you I was at 31 pounds fully loaded with bear canister, fishing gear, and a liter of wine for my last 6 day adventure which is still heavy by the standards here but I’m thrilled with the progress.
Ok, on to the trip report. I spent 8 months planning this trip as it became a fun project in itself for me, once again thanks to all of the tips and resources at BPL and High Sierra Topix. The final route we settled on was Onion Valley, Gardiner Basin, Sixty Lakes Basin, Rae Lakes, back to Onion Valley. Nice loop that provided us with several days of complete solitude and several days of a well-traveled trail experience. We are comfortable with class 2 stuff, but also were not looking to get hurt. Our pace may seem slow to many UL folks here but we wanted a balance of hiking, camping, and fishing.
We were all very excited, left San Diego at 4:30 am, picked up permits at Eastern Sierra Interagency Center around 10:30, and were at the trailhead by 11:30 ready to start the adventure. The trailhead parking lot was fairly full, but we were starting on a Tuesday so we figured we would not encounter a big crowd on our way over Kearsarge pass.
It started out as a beautiful sunny day, temps in the mid 60’s, a nice breeze, perfect hiking weather! Over the next 3 hours we made it up to Keararge pass. On top we took a little break, spoke with a guy that was doing a one day trans-Sierra West to East trip from the end of 180 in Kings Canyon to Onion Valley, and observed some thunderstorms rolling in over Kearsarge Lakes.
Our goal for first nights camp was Lake Charlotte; we were treated to lightning, thunder, and mild showers on our way down the trail. While setting up camp I was experiencing a terrible headache, I made an effort to stay hydrated throughout the day but waking up at sea level and 12 hours later camping well above 10,000 feet tends to mess with me. Luckily some warm soup and dinner took care of the headache.
The next morning we all slept in a bit, took our time eating breakfast, and chatted with an elderly couple at the campsite next door. They were finishing up the Rae Lakes loop and it had rained on them the last 5 days and were happy to hear that the rain was only to last another day. This would be a big day for us, going over Gardiner pass and hopefully making it to Lake 9530 for next night’s camp. The trail on the current Tommy H maps officially ends shortly after Charlotte Lake, but my Garmin maps had the old “un-maintained” trail so I made a track for us to follow to upper Gardiner Lake. Between this track and lots of research I felt good about our semi cross country path.
The trail continued to be easy to follow until we got to the large avalanche zone below Gardiner pass. At this point we started climbing and following the route I had on my GPS from the “old trail”. While doing this we saw lots of cairins and figured they were marking the trail up to Gardiner. We soon stopped relying on the GPS and followed the tracks others had left behind. The one thing slowing us down was the weather, the thunderstorms would come on go every 20-30 minutes…dri-ducks jackets on, dri-ducks jackets off over and over.
Relying on cairins proved to be a mistake, I had read that we should follow the left (west) side of the large avalanche zone, but instead we found ourselves at the top of the wrong pass, overlooking Kings Canyon (see pic below area labeled “oops”). We had gained most of the altitude needed for Gardiner, but now had to head back North East along the ridge line to Gardiner pass in the middle of a thunderstorm. It was a bit scary to be honest, all I kept thinking was we need to get down the other side quick!
We finally reached the pass, as we took our first curious peeks over the edge we could finally see Gardiner Basin! The thunderstorm had subsided allowing us to make our descent. I had read that the best place to go down is to a couple hundred yards to the east of the low point by either a rock chute marked out by a rusty tin can wedged between rocks or even further east a little trail. I found the rock chute, looked down and said “we’ll pass”, it was not bad but looked loose, and the rocks were wet from the rain so no need to get hurt if there is a better way. We went around another little mound with two dead trees side by side and found the faded trail, piece of cake from here on down. At this point it was 4:45pm, we were tired, and didn’t want to risk getting caught in another storm, so we decided that we would camp at the first lake below the pass instead of trekking on to 9530.
We arrived at the lake and the sun had come out, we quickly set up camp, set some things out to dry, and I decided to go for a quick but refreshing dip.
After my dip another thunderstorm came through and got us good, the campsite was mostly DG so water didn’t have many places to go and our tents got a bit wet on the bottom. Luckily this would be the last rain we would get on the trip.
The next morning we decided that we would try to make up for lost ground (should have been at lake 9530) and would attempt to push for lower Gardiner Lakes. We set off following the GPS track and saw the old trail from time to time, it’s there but definitely comes and goes. A couple hours later we made it to 9530, had lunch, and caught a couple more trout.
After lunch we started to make our way to Gardiner Creek, much like before the signs of the old trail would come up every now and then but overall it was fading more and more. By the time we actually made it down to Gardiner Creek there were no signs of the old trail. Along the way we saw some bear poo and a deer but no bear encounters. Once we made it to the creek we decided to take a rest, get water, and evaluate what we were up against.
Disclaimer: I have no idea if our next section was the best route, but it theoretically was based on the old use trail which at this point was non-existent. We crossed the creek and immediately had to start climbing high up and slowly making our way east. In the beginning it was lots of climbing with some loose soil beneath our feet which later turned into lots of bushwhacking.
If you take a look at my trip route pic at the beginning you might be able to tell that we crossed Gardiner Creek three times, this first northern section was by far the most tiring and slow (definitely doable though). Our next crossing brought us back to the south side of the creek, this area was fairly straight forward to follow the GPS track and we some cairns along the way. No more bushwhacking, just climbing on a wooded hillside. After some time we once again crossed the creek and remained on the north side of the creek until we reached lower Gardiner Lakes.
Once at the lakes we ended up camping on the western end of the large lower Gardiner Lake bordering another smaller lake. This was my favorite campsite for the entire trip, so peaceful and beautiful. Unfortunately I somehow did not get the best pictures of it, but it’s a great spot. That night with bellies full and sipping on some port we chatted about countless topics and enjoyed the moon-rise over Mt Cotter / Clearance King.
The next morning we all enjoyed some coffee and tea while relaxing and taking in the scenery, I felt a bit sad leaving this place knowing that by the end of the day we would again see people in Sixty Lakes Basin. There is so much to explore out there but I would certainly like to revisit this spot with some family, maybe once my daughter gets older but that’s a ways off since she’s not even two yet. The climb to upper Gardiner Lake was not bad and we were treated to some beautiful scenery along the way.
Thanks to BPL I had read that it would take a bit of time to scramble around Gardiner Lake and get to the bottom of 60 Col Pass. Actually going around the lake was not that bad, the granite boulders were large and for the most part very stable. It actually took us longer to get from the east side of Gardiner Lake to the bottom of the pass as the boulders seemed to become larger and more difficult to navigate. All said and done it was two hours including lunch, but we were taking our time and making sure we did not sprain any ankles. The climb up was ok, but towards the top I saw the low point and attempted to aim for that only to find some very large, loose, boulders. So instead I elected to go a bit to the south (right) of the low point and then walk back down the spine.
We reached the top and and celebrated with a group hug, as we discussed our ascent we all shared some “sketchy” moments, remember, were not climbers. Taking a look around we could now see Sixty Lakes Basin and evaluate our descent down the other side, looked fairly straightforward. During this evaluation I spotted something, I had read that there were big horn sheep in the area and lone and behold, we saw two in separate area eating some vegetation. I was very happy and snagged a couple of pictures. In retrospect, from the top of this pass does not do Gardiner Basin justice, the view west from the western edge of upper Gardiner Lake is far better than from the pass.
We made our way down the pass and headed towards Long Lake, we primarily stayed on west side of long lake and soon enough found ourselves on the lake shore. We followed the shoreline for a bit and then ran into a large rock wall straight down to the water, at this point we had found a use trail, seen some of the famous gill nets, and figured there was a way around if we just followed the trail. We were tired, mumbled more than a few curse words and started climbing again. Luckily, in the grand scheme of things this detour only lasted about 20 minutes. Finally set camp at the north end of Long Lake, at this point we also saw the first person in 2.5 days setting up camp not too far from us.
After another night of a delicious home dehydrated meal, port, and stargazing we made our way down Sixty Lakes Basin to the notch, and then to Rae Lakes. This was easy day, we figured we would actually get to set up camp before 3pm, fish, relax, and explore. The trek down Sixty was easy and went surprisingly quick, of course I had our rout on my trusty friend Garmin but the notch was well marked with cairns and fairly straightforward. We surprisingly did not see anyone else in Sixty besides last night’s neighbor in the morning. After lunch overlooking Arrowhead Lake we hit the PCT / JMT highway south.
It was a Saturday, and frankly I expected to see a lot more people on the highway heading to Rae Lakes. I was pleasantly surprised as we only saw 3 people on the trail and a couple camps set up off trail. One hiker we ran into was completing the classic Rae Lakes loop, he looked at us and simply said “this is the most beautiful F@&&%^ scenery I have seen!” it was his first time in the eastern sierras. We made our way to the north end of the second lake and found an awesome campsite with a beach! It was 2:45pm and time for another swim, this time all of us!
The next day we wanted to get fairly far (for us) and camp relatively close to Onion Valley trail head to make our drive back to San Diego easy. We left Rae Lakes, and made our way up and towards Glenn Pass. On our way up the pass we met a couple of JMT hikers, we leapfrogged one another up and over Glen while sharing some good conversation. One of them was a working on his doctorate in environmental engineering at Berkley, the other an attorney. I love that the trail is somewhat of an “equalizer” in outside appearances from which we so often tend to draw conclusions. We all are grimy, dirty, carrying a pack, with the common goal of enjoying the outdoors. It’s fun and often rewarding to talk to people and find out about whom they are, what they do, and what makes them tick without as many visual cues to draw judgment form. Oh, and we lucked out going up Glen, it was about 62 degrees with a strong breeze.
We made our way down Glen and went for Kearsarge to Flower Lake for our last camp. As we soon saw Charlotte Lake from the high trail, our first nights campsite but this time on a beautiful sunny day. Onwards over Kearasrge where we ran into about 15 boy scouts, diverted by the rim fire to a new adventure. It was at this point that we had about 5 people comment on our pack size, not going to lie, it felt good! Questions like “do you have a bear canister?”…yes, “ how thick is your sleeping pad”…3.5” Q core SL, “are you sleeping under a tarp?”…nope, 3 pound tent. I know I’m nowhere close to most of you on my gear selection, but again 31 pounds for me on this 6 day trip with fishing gear and port was an accomplishment.<img src="/backpackinglight/user_uploads/1378522789_88610.jpg" alt="Last cast!" width="550" height="413">
The next morning it took us about an hour to get from Flower Lake to the trailhead. We rinsed off at the trail head faucet, packed up our gear, and headed into Independence for breakfast.
If anyone wants more info on my route or the gpx file please feel free to PM me. Thanks again for all the help, and I’m excited for planning my next adventure.Sep 7, 2013 at 11:24 am #2022702Kiel SenningerBPL Member
@kiel-sLocale: San Diego
Looks like you guys had a great trip! Glad you guys were able to get in there and see some sheep too! Thanks for posting such a good report of the route.Sep 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm #2022717Ike JutkowitzBPL Member
@ikeLocale: Central Michigan
I enjoyed your write up, Jani.
Thanks for taking the time to put this together.Sep 9, 2013 at 10:45 am #2023359Ken HelwigBPL Member
@kennyhel77Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Great report! I am planning the same hike next year!Sep 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm #2023395spelt with a tBPL Member
@speltLocale: Rangeley, ME
Looks like a fun time was had by all. Very good job of planning and a well-deserved satisfaction with your pack weight.Jul 23, 2017 at 7:19 pm #3480935Tom KBPL Member
I just came across this report, Jani, and enjoyed it thoroughly. You picked one of the best places in the Sierra for solitude and beauty. It’s right there in plain sight, sitting above/between Paradise Valley and 60 Lakes Basin, yet is seldom visited. A friend and I were in there last September and followed essentially the same route as far as 60 Lakes Basin. The only difference is that we stayed on the south side of Gardner Creek all the way to Lower Gardner Lake and exited via the standard trail instead of Arrow Col. It is hands down one of my favorite places in the Sierra. I must say, it hasn’t changed at all in the 35 years since my first trip in there back in 1981. Thank you for sharing your journey.Jul 24, 2017 at 7:49 am #3480982Matthew / BPLModerator
Thanks for sharing your trip report. That sounds like a great trip.Jul 24, 2017 at 8:00 am #3480983Ryan TuckerBPL Member
Thanks for sharing.Sep 11, 2017 at 11:23 am #3490377Stephen L.Spectator
Thanks for sharing this report. I PM’d you!Sep 11, 2017 at 11:31 am #3490380Ben CBPL Member
Looks like a great time.Oct 21, 2017 at 12:10 am #3497726Michael HaubertBPL Member
@socalmikeLocale: So Cal
Thank you for posting. Really enjoyed reading your TR. Gives me some ideas for future trips.
MichaelMay 3, 2022 at 10:09 pm #3748274Doug SSpectator
Excellent report, thanks! If it’s still available I’d love to have the .gpx file.
DougMay 7, 2022 at 8:00 pm #3748707Steve ThompsonBPL Member
Great trip report. You gotta love the surprises and lessons learned when following the old non-maintained trails and cross-country routes. A key one: pay attention to the map! But sometimes mistakes can take you somewhere awesome.
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