Backpacking Sierra Nevada: Onion Valley – Short Hikes, Spectacular Views & Secluded Lakes

Backpacking Sierra Nevada: Onion Valley to Flower Lake
Backpacking Sierra Nevada: Onion Valley to Flower Lake

Backpacking Sierra Nevada: Onion Valley Trailhead

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Most people hate the snow, but I love it. I couldn’t have asked for more than what we got backpacking in the Sierra Nevada range from the Onion Valley trailhead to Flower Lake – what a spectacular trip! Read on for tips for your own backpacking trip, and beautiful pics to show you what to expect. This post also contains affiliate links for gear I use, if you’re looking for recommendations!

In this article:

Tips for Your Onion Valley Backpacking Trip
Planning Your Sierra Nevada Backpacking Trip
Picking up Your Backcountry Permits for Backpacking Sierra Nevada
Hiking to Flower Lake from the Onion Valley Trailhead
Camping at Flower Lake
Hiking Back to the Onion Valley Trailhead

Tips for Your Onion Valley Backpacking Trip:

  • Always check if permits are needed, and when you can pick them up
    • The Lone Pine Ranger Station doesn’t open until 8am, and we needed permits to camp overnight in the backcountry in Inyo National Forest. It didn’t make sense to drive to the Onion Valley trailhead the night before, back to Lone Pine (about 40 min), and then back to the Onion Valley campground, so we camped in Lone Pine and were first in line to grab our permits in the morning. Would have been nice to have camped at higher elevation at Onion Valley but logistically didn’t make sense. Some permits do allow for you to call ahead and have them leave them for after-hours pickup, but we didn’t know about that at the time. I now use this all the time, but it’s only applicable as long as you’re not hiking over into Sequoia or Yosemite National Parks.
  • Check bear regulations
    • Yes, you can try the whole bag over a tree trick to keep the bears from getting your food, but bears are pretty darn smart. NPS has a link where you can check for backcountry bear bins, but I recently gave in and bought a Bear Canister so that I don’t have to worry about all that jazz. You can also rent these from REI or the ranger station for like $5 or so per day.
  • Buy a map
    • Technology is great, but it can fail, whereas a physical map is less likely to fail (but maybe keep it in a plastic bag in case in rains). It’s just good practice to keep a map on hand when hiking or backpacking!
  • Consider the weather
    • California weather can be a bit unpredictable backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some years it’s real dry, which means water sources can be harder to find, and other years are very wet which means snow late into the spring and even summer months. Call the Rangers before your trip – they’re very nice – and ask their advice. If you’re concerned about hiking in snow, be smart and book something after July.
  • Be prepared with the right gear
    •  Since the Sierras can be tricky when it comes to weather, you want to be prepared with the right gear. One minute it’s sunny and clear, and the next you’re stuck in a snowstorm. You want to be smart when backpacking not to bring everything from home, or everything you would pack for car-camping, but while being selective with your gear, you also want to make sure you’re prepared. Consider things like warm layers, a rain fly and tarp for under your tent, and I love my sleeping bag liner – way light, but really adds some nice warmth. Backcountry.com and Amazon are my favorites for gear – great selection, great prices!

Planning Your Sierra Nevada Backpacking Trip

We had been planning a Sierra Nevada backpacking trip for a few weeks, but didn’t nail the spot down until the week of our trip. Normally, backpacking the Sierra Nevada mountain range is difficult early season because it is socked in with too much snow until around Memorial Day weekend. You’re not able to make it far unless you have the right gear, but sadly we hadn’t had much snow in the drought year, so mid-May 2015 there were areas that were more easily accessible.

I was originally looking at the Rae Lakes Loop from the Western Sequoia side and trekking out hopefully to Charlotte Lake, but then I noticed that you can get there from the Eastern Inyo National Park entrance. It was a much shorter hike with a ton of really cool lakes to set up at. This has since become one of my favorite spots for backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

With the forecast calling for snow, and never knowing whether they’d underestimate or overestimate, and also knowing that we were looking for a low-key weekend, we opted to backpack from the Onion Valley campground to whatever lake we decided to stop at.

There is a cluster of lakes before you get to Kearsarge Pass from the Onion Valley trailhead, so not knowing if the pass was clear, we figured at least we’d have some great short distance spots to set up at. And, if we did get some snow, they’d be short enough distances and easy enough hikes that we wouldn’t have trouble getting back.

We drove up Friday after work (and after traffic) and got to the Lone Pine area around 11pm. Luckily it’s only about a 5ish hour drive from San Diego so it’s not too bad for a quick, short weekend. We found an empty campsite, blew up an air mattress that barely fit in the trunk of my Rav4, had a beer, put our things in the bear bin, and passed out.

Picking up Your Backcountry Permits for Backpacking Sierra Nevada

We were up with the sun the next morning, and the sunrise view of the Eastern Sierras was breathtaking, as always. Since we were up before the Ranger Station was open, we decided to head into town for a bagel and coffee. It was Ransom’s first time to the area, and he couldn’t get over how much it looked like the scene in the movie Tremors. He mentioned it once, or twice, or like five times. It wasn’t until we stopped in the coffee shop that we found out it actually WAS where Tremors was filmed! Who’dathunk. There’s a museum in town with features from all of the movies filmed in the area, if you’re interested.

Picking up permits for backpacking from Onion Valley is relatively painless. If you want to pick up after hours, you can call to arrange for the Rangers to leave your permit in the drop box, as long as you’re not crossing into another park (Sequoia, Yosemite, etc). If you’re picking up the day of, try to get there as early as possible – there will be a line.

The Rangers will walk you through the rules – pack out what you pack in, camp 100+ feet from water, bear safety, etc – and then send you on your way! There are also really great restrooms here if you want to clean up or take care of business before you hike into the woods.

Hiking to Flower Lake from the Onion Valley Trailhead

Permit in hand, off we drove north from Lone Pine to Independence where we turned East and drove to the Onion Valley campground. We were ready to get started on our backpacking trip from Onion Valley to Flower Lake! On the way, we saw two young guys hitching for a ride up to Onion Valley and decided to pick them up. They were clearly PCT trekkers, so we were happy to give them a ride up to the campground.

They were cool guys…one had been bitten by a rattler, walked 40 minutes until he reached a ranger, and then passed out…..and was back on the trail a few days later. Badass!

We dropped our friends off, got our gear packed up tight, ate a few donuts, and got ready to head off. It had been a mostly clear morning with some passing clouds, but now a little deeper into the mountains, the clouds started moving in a bit faster and stronger…and darker. Just about the time that we started up the switchbacks, it started to snow…and, like, mini-hail.

After all the snow we trekked through for Everest Base Camp, a little light snow was nothing…but it did make things incredibly beautiful, as it tends to do! The trek stars around 9,600 feet of elevation and gets up to around 11,000 feet, which really isn’t bad altitude gain if you’re sleeping at 9k overnight at the Onion Valley campground. However, coming from Lone Pine at around 3,727 feet…our lungs felt it a bit.

The hike from the Onion Valley trailhead to Flower lake is only about 5 miles round trip, so it’s really not a very difficult hike, which was nice. I’ve done other backpacking trips where you’re doing 10-12 miles a day and although those have their time and place, a 2.5 mile hike was perfect.

The hike starts off on a gradual uphill for about a mile and a half or so, and then it flattens out a bit, and there are many camping spots to choose from!

  • First, you come upon Little Pothole Lake, which is really tiny. There were 3 tents set up there but nobody around, we figured they had been off day-hiking. On our way down, the tents were still there…don’t quite know what happened to the people that were in them… Hopefully they’re okay.
  • Then comes Gilbert Lake which is beautiful, but it didn’t look like there were a ton of good spots to set up camp.
  • Next was Flower Lake, where we found a nice spot that was already clear of snow, and pretty flat.
  • If you head south after Gilbert Lake, you’ll find some others like Matlock Lake and Slim Lake.
  • Beyond Flower Lake (west) are Heart Lake and Bullfrog Lake, although the signs at the time said no camping at Bullfrog.

 

Snow on Gilbert Lake - beautiful!
Snow on Gilbert Lake – beautiful!

Camping at Flower Lake

It was still snowing when we got to camp, but amazingly the sun came out just as we dropped our packs. The great thing about our experiences backpacking Sierra Nevada from Onion Valley is that there is usually nobody else around when we go, and for this trip it was perfect – AND it was only noon!

This was one of the first times backpacking that I got to camp with plenty of time to mosey around, be lazy, and just take it all in – and it was glorious! We had a very few day hikers and other backpackers pass by – the Sierra High Route that goes out to the Kearsarge pass starts uphill right at Flower Lake, so we didn’t have foot traffic next to our tent, but we could hear them in the vicinity. However, I would imagine that in the warmer months this area is packed with day hikers so it’s probably not nearly as serene of an experience as what we got, so just keep that in mind.

For lunch, we had some instant mac and cheese, beef jerky, and this mix I make of rice/quinoa mix, pre-cooked lentils from Trader Joes, and pre-cooked bacon. We had brought a few New Belgium canned beers on our backpacking Sierra Nevada trip and set those in the snow to get cold. In the meantime, we warmed up some cider and whiskey…cause, why not?

Backpacking Onion Valley to Flower Lake provides you with some beautiful views. The campsite was absolutely perfect – with just a little snow around us. The lake wasn’t frozen (during this time in 2015, the year before, Franklin Lake on the Sequoia side was still half frozen) and the temperature was comfortable, especially when the sun peeked out.

We made dinner just as the sun was starting to get lower in the sky. I made a three cheese pasta meal from REI, the rest of the lentil mix (although now I dehydrate my own backpacking meals)….as well as this Raspberry Crumble dessert, more beer, and more whiskey/cider. The tough part about camping over 10,000 feet is that you can’t have a fire, so once the sun goes down there’s not much to do. We watched some Star Wars, sipped more whiskey/cider, and went to sleep early.

Now, for anyone who hasn’t camped in the backcountry…it can be a little uncomfortable at first (or for some, always) knowing that there are bears all around and thinking they may see you as a delicious taco. I had one time where I tried to sleep outside of my tent just in my sleeping bag, and I couldn’t shake the thought that there was a bear next to me sniffing to see if I was alive. I’ve never been so still in my life!

There is a false sense of security provided by a tent, but even with that it can be unnerving. Ransom woke up at one point and was pretty confident he had heard a bear snarl down by the river, so we were up listening for that around 3am. Luckily all of our scented items and food were in the bear canister far away from our tent so we wouldn’t have been much help to a bear. We found some tracks the next morning, but luckily they weren’t bear!

A.....mazing.
A…..mazing.

 

Hiking Back to the Onion Valley Trailhead

The next day we woke up, had some breakfast, and took our time packing up camp. Most of the snow had melted, and our hike back wouldn’t take more than about 45 minutes, so there was no rush. We took some before and after photos – what a change 24 hours makes – and were happy to get to the car…and more donuts. Grabbed some coffee in town, and then we hit the road. We were back in San Diego around 4pm with plenty of time to settle in before going back to work Monday.

For some, 10 hours of driving, a bunch of hiking, and sleeping on the ground is the last way they’d want to spend a normal weekend, but for us…it’s a must! My first time backpacking Sierra Nevada out of Onion Valley had been a success.

We did another trip backpacking trip in Onion Valley in October 2015 and ended up with more snow. MUCH more snow. It hit Sunday morning as we were making coffee, and by the time we packed up camp and started heading out, there were already a few inches of snow on the ground. It made for a wet and cold hike out, but snow makes things so beautiful that it’s worth it!

Less than 24 hours apart, both taken at the same spot at Gilbert Lake - May 2015
Less than 24 hours apart, both taken at the same spot at Gilbert Lake – May 2015
Gilbert Lake in the snow - October 2015
Gilbert Lake in the snow – October 2015

Gear links seen in this post:

My favorite boots ever from Vasque – Vasque Breeze Women’s Hiking Boots

MSR PocketRocket Stove – Don’t leave home without it!

ALPS Mountaineering Lynx 2-Person Tent – still going strong after 7 years!

Bearvault BV450 Bear Resistant Food Canister – hard to open, even for humans

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