Onion Valley Trailheads
(Kearsarge Pass, University Pass)
(Kearsarge Peak, Golden Trout Lake)
Revised 18 Jun 2018 - please send updates to the webmaster
WARNING: Bears are very active on both sides of Kearsarge Pass, and bear cannisters are required for all backpackers leaving this trailhead. A friend said his food was stolen by a bear on the run while he was eating at the pass.
Take the Onion Valley Road (aka Market Street) west from the center of Independence (waypoint INDEPN and the only traffic light in town). Continue west past the turn-off to Shepherd Pass (waypoint INDEPJ). About 13 miles from town you go past an umarked dirt road going uphill to the right (waypoint KSRGTH), where there was once free unimproved camping and one of the trailheads for Kearsarge Peak.
To reach the main Onion Valley trailhead (for Golden Trout Lake, Kearsarge Pass, and Robinson Lake / University Pass) follow the pavement all the way to the parking circle at waypoint ONIONT (about 3/4 mile past the informal campsite mentioned above). There are pay campsites near the trailhead parking, and sometimes the rangers will let you sleep next to your car in the backpacker parking area. I was once rousted pre-dawn while sleeping inside my car in the trailhead lot, and told to pay the camping fee or have my car towed while I was backpacking. There are pit toilets, water spigots (which were turned off as of June 2018), and quite a few bear boxes. The toilets and spigots are locked off-season and the bear boxes are often full with PCT through-hiker packages that have been dropped off by delivery services.
FYI, the Kearsarge Pass and Golden Trout trails start separately, but almost meet near waypoint GOLDT1. The Kearsarge Pass trail is twice as long. I was once chased off the shorter trail by a ranger who said it was only for stock, but since then they've admitted it's for humans also... but there is still no sign for the start of the shorter trail and it is managed for the benefit of the pack station.
The shortest trail to Kearsarge Peak (GPS Route KEARSARGE PEAK) starts from the rough parking area at waypoint KRSGTH (described above), at which you can no longer park. There are amazingly deep sandy slopes here, so it's easy to forget the trail and run straight down. You can climb Kearsarge Peak as a loop by going toward Golden Trout Lake on trail, going over the summit, and returning via the sandy switchbacks.
The trail over Kearsarge Pass (GPS Route KEARSARGE PASS) starts at the sign west of the toilets, near waypoint ONIONT, then turns west and climbs past several lakes. It is where most people go from Onion Valley. I'm not advocating cutting the trail, but Roper's guidebook notes "The upper part of the trail is so well graded and obviously designed for pack animals that hikers have made major shortcuts. This ecologically unsound practice is quite obviously the common man's reaction to horse trails." Well said. In 2007 the western side of Kearsarge Pass was re-graded to make it flatter and longer also. They went overboard, and at least one switchback CLIMBS through sandy talus on the way down to Bullfrog Lake.
The trail to Golden Trout Lake (GPS Route GOLDEN TROUT LK) starts just east of the toilets, near waypoint ONIONT. The trail to Golden Trout disappears under a boulder landslide and you'll have some rock hopping to do on your way to Dragon or Kearsarge - there are use trails on both sides of the stream, and most people end up crossing once or twice.
The trail up to Robinson Lake and University Pass (GPS Route UNIVERSITY PASS) is almost unsigned: Park near ONIONT, Walk into the campground, and stay left until you reach waypoint UNIVTH where a wide trail crosses the stream and heads east before turning south. Before the stream there is a faint use trail that goes straight up. It's worth fighting across the stream because the newer trail is far better. According to Will MollandSimms, "The trail begins in campsite 8 of the Onion Valley campground. There is a sign that points the trail going through a creek, but being the questioning fellow that I am I decided not to follow the creek but go up the faint trail more to the right of the sign. My mistake as this trail is very steep and goes straight up the slope." University Pass is a huge shortcut to Center Basin, but the rock is very loose and steep. Remember that the pass actually has a south and north face, not east and west, so snow conditions will be extremely different before and after the pass. The north side can be over 40 degrees depending on how the wind shapes the snow.