Backpacking Over Cottonwood Pass to Lower Soldier Lake

Inyo National Forest Backpacking: Cottonwood Pass
Inyo National Forest Backpacking: Cottonwood Pass


Inyo National Forest Backpacking: Cottonwood Pass Trail

Looking for some Inyo National Forest backpacking info? Welcome!

The Cottonwood Pass trail is no easy hike, but well worth the views! Read on for my story backpacking in Inyo National Forest from Horseshoe Meadows over Cottonwood Pass to Lower Soldier Lake. Or, if you want to go even further, read about how you can start here to summit Mt Whitney!

In this article:
Planning for Backpacking Cottonwood Pass Trail
Overnight at Horseshoe Meadows Campground
Hiking Over Cottonwood Pass
Hiking Downhill to Lower Soldier Lake
Hiking Back to the Trailhead

Planning for Backpacking Cottonwood Pass Trail

Inyo National Forest backpacking: it starts with a decision to go on a trip. You start by figuring where…for purposes of this conversation, we’ll pretend it’s the Sierras. You do some research, you find your route, and then you work to sell the trip to your friends. The route you’ve chosen – backpacking Cottonwood Pass trail – is approximately 10 miles each way over two days, reaching ~12,000 feet at a maximum and gaining a good chunk of elevation both coming and going.

You figure – we have all day, 10 miles won’t be that bad.

Inyo National Forest Backpacking: Cottonwood Pass Trail Map
Inyo National Forest Backpacking: Cottonwood Pass Trail Map


Disclaimer for Cottonwood Pass trail map above: Caltopo for some reason doesn’t show the trail at the bottom of the pass just before Rock Creek, but it’s there. Definitively. I hiked from Cottonwood Pass to Mt Whitney most recently in August 2016, with a map from Caltopo, and was very surprised that they didn’t show the trail. This also makes it difficult to confirm the actual distance. I’ve seen some references state about 9 miles each way but I think our hike felt closer to 10. 

You find a few friends who are interested, and they find a few more friends who are interested, and suddenly you have at trip – Inyo National Forest backpacking, here we come! You’ll be hiking from Horseshoe Meadow campgrounds in the Sierras over Cottonwood Pass, and on to Lower Soldier Lake. It will be 5 chicks, 1 dude, and a whole lot of wilderness.

Overnight at Horseshoe Meadows Campground

It’s Memorial Day weekend. You set off Friday after work for your ~6 hour drive from San Diego to meet the rest of the group in Inyo National Forest. You’ll sleep at Horseshoe Meadow campground overnight and will be heading to the Ranger’s station early the next morning for permits (it took your group a bit of time to commit so you were without permits…). The campground for Cottonwood Pass and Cottonwood Lakes is nice – relatively secluded. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Lone Pine up some winding, mountain roads. No flush toilets, but the facilities are well-kept.

Morning comes, and you luckily have no problem securing permits for the route you want (I do not recommend banking on this option because there will come a time that the quota is full!) since you were first in line when they opened. You head back to Horseshoe Meadows campground, which sits right at the trailhead of Cottonwood Pass, pack up your packs with the essentials for an overnight backpacking trip, and set off into the wilderness. You figure 10 miles to Lower Soldier Lake can’t be that bad so you’re in no real rush.

You finally set off for your Inyo National Forest backpacking trip from Horseshoe Meadows campground over Cottonwood Pass around 10am and you’re feeling great. The trail starts out fairly flat and you’re surrounded by incredible beauty. You’re keeping up with everyone, enjoying the conversations and you think – wow, this is going to be a great trip!

Hiking Over Cottonwood Pass

Then it comes – you reach the pass. Time to head up the switchbacks! It’s about 1,200 feet up over 3.5 miles which you think should be fine, but you’ve forgotten to take into consideration the elevation. Going from 10,000 feet to 11,000 feet is a lot more difficult than going from sea level to 1,000 feet.

The girls you are backpacking with are beasts (the good kind!). They move up the pass with no problem, while you seem to stop every 3 steps for a breath (it’s actually more like 100-300 steps…but who’s counting). Luckily the token dude of your group hangs back with you which half makes you feel bad that he has to wait, but half makes you feel comforted. You stop to take pictures and use that as an excuse for a breath every so often.

You finally make it to the top of the pass and you feel relieved. The rest of your group is waiting at the top having a snack, and you drop your pack to admire the view and take in some calories. The altitude is slowing you down but luckily you still have a bit of an appetite which is a good sign.

The view while backpacking the Cottonwood Pass trail….is amazing. You forget all about how hard it was to breathe coming over the pass and you enjoy the moment. This is your moment. It belongs to you because you worked hard for it.

After your snack, you put your pack on and continue your Inyo National Forest backpacking trip along the Cottonwood Pass trail. You’ve made it over the first obstacle but you still have plenty left to go. The girls, as expected, take off again leaving you feeling inept. It’s not their fault, but you’re frustrated. You work out, you eat right, yet you can never figure out why this always seems to be so much more difficult for you than it is for some other people.

Regardless, you push on. The token dude once again hangs back, and you are appreciative. The altitude is hitting you hard so your half of the conversation is fairly limited, but you continue on counting your steps and taking in the amazing landscape around you. The counting seems to keep you focused, and gives you milestones to help you keep moving (let’s shoot for 200 steps without stopping. okay, now 300!).

At one point you realize how far ahead the other group must be because when you call, they don’t answer. You become more frustrated. You feel completely left behind, short of the token dude (and no, he wasn’t trying to get in my pants, folks) who has clearly picked up on this and knows you well enough by now to know how to help.

From the pass, the trail heads gradually uphill by Chicken Springs Lake before you cross over into Sequoia National Park. Chicken Springs Lake is a good place to fill water if you want your pack to be a bit lighter coming over Cottonwood Pass. Continuing uphill a bit longer, you reach a ridge that is relatively flat, which is nice, but it’s just under 12,000 feet so it’s still not easy.

You make stops along the way to look at the trail map and determine how much further you have to go. You talk about the strange “whomp whomp whomp” sound you hear coming from some creature and you make guesses about what it could possibly be (for the record, it’s a blue grouse). You talk life and relationships, and before you know it, you’ve turned a corner and the rest of the group is sitting having lunch.

You’re still upset. You’re upset with yourself for not being able to move faster, at your lungs for not being able to work harder, at your friends for not recognizing how left behind you feel, yet not wanting them to wait for you because you don’t want to be the one who holds them back. You know it’s not their fault, but you’re just upset all around. You eat your lunch quietly, and then it’s time to set off again.

Leaving Inyo National Forest and entering Sequoia and Kings National Parks
Leaving Inyo National Forest and entering Sequoia and Kings National Parks

Hiking Downhill to Lower Soldier Lake

After a few more miles, the trail that has been lingering around the 12,000 feet marker starts to decline. You would think this would be a great feeling, but all you can think is that the next day of backpacking Cottonwood Pass, you’re going to have to climb right back up. Regardless, you feel relieved. Your feet start to move more quickly, your lungs start to work better, and you’re better able to keep up with the rest of the group.

In the distance you see New Army Pass, which you conquered a few years before on your way to Mt Whitney, and you know you’re almost there. You continue on to Lower Soldier Lake and you’re feeling energized. Soon you will be making dinner and sipping wine by a lake that relatively few get to see – and that will make your Inyo National Forest backpacking trip so worthwhile.

Finally, you get to camp. Day 1 of your Inyo National Forest backpacking trip along the Cottonwood Pass trail is finally complete. You know you need to set up camp before you lose your momentum, and then dinner must follow because you need the calories. The sun is starting to go down and it’s starting to get cold so you put on your warm clothes and wait for your dinner to finish cooking.

You finally have a moment to pour and enjoy a glass of wine, and it’s glorious. You spend the rest of the night cramped, all 6 of you, in 1 tent drinking wine and laughing. You step outside occasionally to take in the Milky Way and every other star that must exists – you can see them all. You marvel at how amazing our universe is, and then you settle in for bed. Your REI Joule sleeping bag is amazingly warm and cozy, and it doesn’t take very long to fall asleep.

Hiking Back to the Trailhead

You wake up the next morning sore, so very sore. You tell yourself there’s no time for that – you have to make it back the way you came and that’s no easy feat, and you don’t want to be the girl who complains the whole way back (or at all).

You all make breakfast and take in the beautiful morning at the lake around you. You know there’s not much time to sit around if you want to make it to the car before dark, so you start to pack up camp. Before long, your pack is on your back again and you’re walking again towards the pass.

It seems so much harder this time backpacking Cottonwood Pass. Climbing uphill, you count 100 steps, and stop. Then 75 steps, and stop. Then 50 steps, and stop. You’re once again the last one in the pack and your pride is eating at you. Why is this so hard???

The token dude stays close telling random stories to pass the time, and another girl friend has slowed down, possibly recognizing your frustrations and wanting to help. 75 steps, and stop. Push for it – 100 steps, and stop. You reach the top of the pass and stop for a brief snack and some hydration, but everyone is looking to keep moving so you set off.

When people ask you how you feel, you put on a smile and say “great”, or you make jokes so that you’re not the Debbie Downer. You really do enjoy this…you’re not sure why, but you are always the one who plans these trips, so you must enjoy it, right?

You finally make it to the decline on the other side of Cottonwood pass and you can almost feel the comfort of your car. The hike to this point yesterday wasn’t all that far, it’ll be that much easier going downhill. Yes, my knees will hate it, but my lungs will love it. You still hear that “whomp whomp” and wonder what the heck it is.

Wrong. It’s exactly that bad. The last ~2 miles backpacking Cottonwood Pass feels like hell. Literally. This must be what hell is like. The ground is now flat, and somehow you don’t remember this part of the trail being all sand, but it is. Your muscles work 5x as hard to move you forward, and you get very, very quiet. But, you continue to put one foot in front of the other. No matter how much your mind wants to tell you that you can’t move forward, your body tells you that you can. So you do.

As you finish your Inyo National Forest backpacking trip, you wonder what it must have been like years ago when the first explorers moved west and brought their families. Or for native cultures who first explored the lands. You think about those who lost their lives just searching for something new, and those who reveled in the landscapes they came across.

You come across a tree and through your despair you realize that it looks like an upside down heart. You take a photo, and then continue on through the sand. You continually wonder how much further it could possibly be. This part of the trail seemed to go so quickly the day before. Your friends are still not far ahead, but you continue to feel like the weakest link. You continue on.

Well Done, You’re Finished! Back at Horseshoe Meadows…

At long last…you see the parking lot of Horseshoe Meadows campground. It’s like an oasis in the middle of the desert. You suddenly feel a burst of energy and your legs begin to move a bit quicker. You think about getting into your car, changing into fresh clothes, and driving into town for a burger. All things that weren’t options for those back in the day doing this for survival, and you realize how lucky and blessed you really are.

You catch up with your friends, you take photos of the end of the trip, and all of the negative feelings pass on. You suddenly feel amazing – accomplished – light as a feather…a very, very sore feather.

Woooooo back at Horseshoe Meadows, ready to go home!
Woooooo back at Horseshoe Meadows, ready to go home!

You say goodbye to your group and head off for the long drive back to San Diego from Inyo National Forest. You put on some music because you and your friend have had your share of talking and just want to relax. You suddenly feel great – tired, but great. You think back to what you’ve accomplished, and the amazing views along the way.

You realize that most people never get the opportunity to see what you’ve seen, to be where you’ve been. You don’t think of it in a sense of bragging, but in a sense of accomplishment and privilege – you’ve seen an incredible wonder of the world. Mountains, lakes, trees – all from way before we were even a thought in the universe. Animals all around, hiding in plain sight yet keeping their distance. You realize what your body was able to do, even if it wasn’t the most comfortable thing.

You recognize that every time you thought you couldn’t make it another step on your Inyo National Forest backpacking trip, you did. You realize how amazing the last 2 days were and the pain subsides. Yes, it was difficult. Yes, at times it outright sucked. But the experience as a whole was incredible. You climbed a mountain. You carried all that you needed on your back. You didn’t rely on technology or anyone else. You relied on yourself, and you did great.

And you realize how backpacking Cottonwood Pass relates back to your life. No matter how bad things might seem, no matter how many times you feel like you can’t possibly make it another day….you do. You move on. You take another step. And when the bad part is over, you look back and realize how many amazing things were around you the whole time, and that it wasn’t all that bad after all.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

7 Responses


      Haha good point! I guess I need to add a disclaimer that this list is for people who would be going with people more experienced than themselves who would have other basics – like the whistle, first aid, water pump, etc. – but if they’re not, the emergency gear is very important!

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