Onion Valley to Whitney
September 6, 2017 - September 9, 2017
In the fall of 2017, I planned a backpacking trip of the southernmost quarter of the John Muir Trail with my dad. We planned to start at Onion Valley and finish by summiting Mount Whitney and exiting at Whitney Portal. This was the longest backpacking trip I had done at the time, though I had a lot of experience with weekend trips.
This was coming on the tail of a summer with a good deal of activity, including a short trip to the Palisades area, the San Francisco Marathon, a two week trip to Peru where we climbed up to almost 19,000’, and a climb of Mount Williamson just the weekend before.
I got to Onion Valley the day before we were set to start and got to work rationing food and packing up the bear canisters before settling into my hammock for a night under the stars.
Day 1: Onion Valley to Kearsarge Lakes
6.2 miles, +2,500’
My dad arrived the next morning and we finished packing up and headed up towards Kearsarge Pass under cloudy skies.
As we climbed, the clouds grew, and it started to rain for a bit as we passed Flower Lake. Fortunately there were no indications of a thunderstorm, so we put our coats on and continued up.
Clouds over Heart Lake.
A slight break in the clouds revealed University Peak to the south. This was as we approached Kearsarge Pass.
Kearsarge Pass. We didn’t have any company on Kearsarge Pass on this cloudy, midweek, late-season day.
The storm looked a little bit more active to the west. We made our way down from the pass and found a campsite in the trees near one of the Kearsarge Lakes.
Some nice golden hour photos of the Kearsarge Pinnacles.
And a lovely view west of the clearing storm.
Day 2: Kearsarge Lakes to Tyndall Creek
16.2 miles, +3,700’
On the second morning it was really nice and clear when we woke up.
Sunrise over the Kearsarge Pinnacles. We packed up and headed out for camp, taking the lower trail past Bullfrog Lake to the John Muir Trail.
East Vidette and Mount Brewer rising prominently over Bullfrog Lake.
Wider shot of Bullfrog Lake. This is a really beautiful lake.
Looking across Bullfrog Lake and up Bubbs Creek towards Mount Stanford. After a nice stroll along the shore of Bullfrog Lake, we found the JMT and headed down to Junction Meadow.
East Vidette from the JMT where it drops down to Junction Meadow. From Junction Meadow, the climb to Forester Pass is long. Nowhere is it steep or difficult, but the 9 mile rise from ~9,600’ to 13,200’ is always a slog, and this, my first time over the pass was no different.
Looking north down Bubbs Creek towards University Peak. Mount Rixford, and Mount Cotter.
A little lake along the climb to Forester Pass. The last sheltered camping on the north side of Forester is in the trees around 11,200’.
Junction Peak above a small lake.
Dad making his way up one of the last stretches to Forester Pass as some clouds start to build to our north.
From the little notch at Forester Pass we had a great view to the south.
Center Peak with some building rain clouds to the north.
Not wanting to get caught in any weather, we didn’t linger at the pass too long before dropping down to Tyndall Creek.
The final switchbacks on the south side of Forester Pass. This was the final pass to be completed on the John Muir Trail, and from the south side it looks quite impossible that there’s a trail route crossing this pass.
In an hour or so we were down in the trees along Tyndall Creek just north of the Ranger Station. We set up camp here for the night, cooked dinner, and went to bed.
Day 3: Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake
12.5 miles, +2,400’
We were a bit tired from the big day so we slept in a little bit this morning before heading out, hoping to make it to Guitar Lake.
Looking north to the Kings-Kern Divide from near Tawny Point.
Panorama of the Kaweahs from somewhere near Tawny Point. Kern Point dominates the foreground, but Mount Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and Black Kaweah are visible at left.
First views of the west side of Mount Whitney as we turned up Whitney Creek.
Mount Whitney from Timberline Lake. The looming clouds signaled the possibility of a storm, but we were close enough to Guitar Lake that we guessed we wouldn’t get wet today.
A curious marmot in a meadow near Timberline Lake. We reached the lake and set up camp behind a boulder. It wasn’t terribly busy, but there were several other groups in the area. Later in the afternoon a thunderstorm blew through quickly, dropping hail for a few minutes before clearing.
Sunset behind the clearing thunderstorm.
We planned to wake up on the early side the next day to get up and over Mount Whitney before any possible late morning weather came through.
Day4: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal
17 miles, +3,400’
We were out of camp at 6AM, headed to the summit of Mount Whitney and then down to Whitney Portal.
Looking across at sunrise over the Kaweahs.
As we climbed higher, so did the sun. The clouds lingered again, signaling more afternoon weather, but we were early enough in the day that it likely wouldn’t matter too much.
The storm the previous day had managed to drop enough snow and hail on Mount Whitney that the trail remained covered. Fortunately this trail is easy enough to navigate, even with some snow.
We stashed most of our gear at Trail Crest, being careful to pull out anything smelly into bear canisters to prevent our packs being chewed by marmots before heading out the final 2 miles to the summit.
The view south to Mount McAdie and Mount Langley (in the clouds).
Before long, we were on the summit of the highest peak in the continental United States! As it was after Labor Day, it was a little bit quieter than usual, at least as far as I understand it. This was my first time on the summit.
Me and my dad on the summit of Mount Whitney.
The view north to Mount Russell (foreground) and Mount Williamson (farther back, obscured by clouds).
The Kaweahs to the west.
We hung out a bit and signed the register before heading back to Trail Crest to grab our things and continue down.
Mount Muir in the clouds from somewhere on the 99 switchbacks.
Mount Muir and the Whitney Massif from the switchbacks.
Wontans Throne above Mirror Lake.
A squirrel enjoying a snack by the side of the trail.
We reached Whitney Portal by mid-afternoon and stopped for a snack and drink at the general store there before hitching a ride into Lone Pine. We stayed the night at the Dow Villa and coordinated a ride back north to Onion Valley to pick up our car, then headed off for home.