Onion Valley Waterfalls

Inyo National Forest / Independence, California, USA

About Onion Valley Waterfalls


Hiking Distance: 14 miles round trip (to Kearsarge Pass and Matlock Lake)
Suggested Time: overnight backpack (to Kearsarge Pass and Matlock Lake)

Date first visited: 2013-08-29
Date last visited: 2013-09-01

Waterfall Latitude: 36.76726
Waterfall Longitude: -118.33961

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The Onion Valley Waterfalls are what I’m dubbing the series of cascades draining the many lakes of Onion Valley between Kearsarge Pass and Independence.

They were merely my waterfalling excuse to talk about the popular yet spectacular lakes of Onion Valley as well as Kearsarge Pass.

Onion_Valley_700_09012013 - One of the Onion Valley Waterfalls
One of the Onion Valley Waterfalls

Prior to my backpacking trip to this area, I had this preconceived notion that the waterfalls found here would be ordinary mountain cascades that might have a short life and flow only during Spring and early Summer.

However, I was shocked to see they were still flowing fairly well (albeit at low flows) even on a Labor Day Weekend of a second consecutive drought year in the Sierras.

In fact, just this year-round characteristic of the waterfalls and cascades here compelled me to consider them significant enough to have a waterfall writeup.

The key with these waterfalls was that they were draining from one lake to another.

Onion_Valley_467_08312013 - View into Kings Canyon National Park from Kearsarge Pass
View into Kings Canyon National Park from Kearsarge Pass

Each lake appeared to have some kind of glacial origin as many of them resided on elevated benches before the outflow of the lake would drain to the next lake below typically in a cascade or at least a stream.

However, what really made these waterfalls stand out was the mountainous backdrop that was the quintessential Eastern Sierras scenery.

The Onion Valley Backpack – Basic Logistics

Although following the trail from the Onion Valley trailhead to Kearsarge Pass can be doable as a long and demanding out-and-back day trip, backpacking might be the better way to go.

The reason why was that the Onion Valley trailhead was already above 9000ft, and Kearsarge Pass was 11,760ft.

Onion_Valley_353_08302013 - Setting up camp near Matlock Lake
Setting up camp near Matlock Lake

The high altitude alone would be reason to want to take your time and acclimate to minimize the risk of altitude sickness.

I was in a backpacking party that broke up the amount of hiking over a span of two nights and three days.

We started at the Onion Valley trailhead (see directions below) then hauled our packs to Matlock Lake, which was where we pitched our camp.

During the lone full day we had in Onion Valley, we day hiked from Matlock Lake to Kearsarge Pass before returning back to camp.

Onion_Valley_652_09012013 - Breaking up camp after the second night at Matlock Lake, which broke up our hiking into three days and two nights
Breaking up camp after the second night at Matlock Lake, which broke up our hiking into three days and two nights

Then on the last day, we hiked back to the trailhead.

I’ve seen many trip reports that do this hike as a one-way shuttle from Onion Valley over Kearsarge Pass and into Bubbs Creek before terminating at the Cedar Grove section of Kings Canyon.

However, this might take a bit of coordination as I’m not certain how the car shuttle situation would work.

After all, it would require a ridiculous amount of driving to cover going around the Sierras between Onion Valley and Road’s End at Cedar Grove.

The Onion Valley Backpack – Trail Description

Onion_Valley_018_08302013 - The cascade by the Onion Valley Trailhead
The cascade by the Onion Valley Trailhead

Anyways, the waterfall series began immediately when I saw an impressive cascade right from the parking lot for the Onion Valley trailhead.

Backing this cascade were impressive but distant bare and jagged peaks providing a bit of intrigue to this cascade (see photo at the top of this page).

The cascade also twisted as it wound its way down past the parking lot so that kind of gave this falls a bit of character.

As I continued higher on the trail, I noticed a smaller cascade which was harder to photograph.

Onion_Valley_038_08302013 - The crew making the uphill backpacking trek from Onion Valley to Matlock Lake
The crew making the uphill backpacking trek from Onion Valley to Matlock Lake

The main trail would eventually switchback right next to the top of this cascade before continuing its steep climb.

It turned out that both this cascade and the first cascade were resulting from the drainage of Little Pothole Lake.

Speaking of which, the climbing would briefly plateau as the trail would then skirt by the scenic Little Pothole Lake.

This otherwise humble curving lake was worth additional attention because there was a pair of cascades tumbling into both of its ends.

Onion_Valley_112_08302013 - An attractive cascade beneath peaks as it fed Little Pothole Lake
An attractive cascade beneath peaks as it fed Little Pothole Lake

One of the cascades was as tall and impressive (if not more so) than the cascade at the parking lot.

And like the first cascade, this one was also backed by beautiful Eastern Sierras peaks.

Meanwhile, the other cascade flowed lightly and had a wishbone-type shape when I saw it in late Summer.

Beyond Little Pothole Lake, the trail then skirted Gilbert Lake before hitting the Matlock Lake junction.

Onion_Valley_208_08302013 - Looking towards the very attractive Flower Lake near the Matlock Lake junction
Looking towards the very attractive Flower Lake near the Matlock Lake junction

We then took this junction passing by the scenic Flower Lake before briefly climbing up a ridge then descending down towards the basin containing Matlock Lake, Slim Lake, and a few unnamed lakes and ponds.

We encountered yet another cascade which fed Matlock Lake, and it drained the fairly difficult-to-access Bench Lake, which overlooked this basin.

This turned out to be the last of the main waterfalls we noticed.

However, back on the main trail, we then climbed the remaining 2-3 miles passing by Heart Lake and Big Pothole Lake before eventually reaching the coveted Kearsarge Pass.

Onion_Valley_284_08302013 - A small cascade draining into Matlock Lake near our camp
A small cascade draining into Matlock Lake near our camp

Overall, the hiking distance was said to be 5 miles one-way from Onion Valley trailhead to Kearsarge Pass (or about 10 miles round trip).

However, our spur trail to Matlock Lake was probably between 1-2 miles in each direction.

Authorities

The Onion Valley Waterfalls reside in Inyo National Forest near Independence in Inyo County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Onion_Valley_005_08302013 - Looking towards the Onion Valley Trailhead from the large parking lot at the end of Market Street
Onion_Valley_008_08302013 - Looking towards the shadowy cascade that tumbled towards the Onion Valley parking lot
Onion_Valley_009_08302013 - Closer look at the first Onion Valley Waterfall backed by jagged peaks
Onion_Valley_010_08302013 - Context of the first Onion Valley Waterfall backed by jagged peaks as seen from the Onion Valley parking lot
Onion_Valley_022_08302013 - Last look at the first Onion Valley Waterfall as we made our way up the trail towards Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_027_08302013 - The crew starting to leave the Onion Valley parking lot with heavy packs on
Onion_Valley_044_08302013 - Looking back at the Onion Valley parking lot looking smaller the further we hiked
Onion_Valley_045_08302013 - Continuing the taxing uphill hike (especially with packs on) as we had to gain the initial elevation at the outset of the hike
Onion_Valley_052_08302013 - Context of the second Onion Valley Waterfall that I encountered on the hike
Onion_Valley_061_08302013 - Context of the long uphill trail as we continued up the Onion Valley towards Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_064_08302013 - Looking downhill back towards Onion Valley and Owens Valley way in the distance
Onion_Valley_073_08302013 - Looking down over the top of the second Onion Valley Waterfall
Onion_Valley_090_08302013 - Making it up to the Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_105_08302013 - One of the attractive cascades spilling into Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_107_08302013 - The other cascade spilling into Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_115_08302013 - The third Onion Valley Waterfall backed by impressive mountains as it feeds Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_116_08302013 - Context of the attractive cascade (the third one) spilling into Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_123_08302013 - Looking downhill back over Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_124_08302013 - Another look over one of the attractive cascades spilling into Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_141_08302013 - Hikers hiking past a boulder field with impressive peaks in the background
Onion_Valley_149_08302013 - Looking across Gilbert Lake
Onion_Valley_178_08302013 - Looking back over Gilbert Lake in the other direction
Onion_Valley_179_08302013 - The signposted Matlock Lake junction
Onion_Valley_222_08302013 - Looking across Flower Lake towards other hikers continuing towards Kearsarge Pass
Onion_Valley_232_08302013 - Looking across another lake near Matlock and Flower Lakes as we looked for spots to set up camp
Onion_Valley_258_08302013 - Matlock Lake and University Peak
Onion_Valley_260_08302013 - Checking out lots of tadpoles in Matlock Lake near our camp
Onion_Valley_277_08302013 - Matlock Lake seemed to be home to thousands upon thousands of tadpoles and frogs
Onion_Valley_314_08302013 - We spotted this deer nearby our backpacking camp by Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_327_08302013 - Slim Lake
Onion_Valley_332_08302013 - Looking towards some kind of cave way up on the cliffs overlooking our camp by Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_413_08312013 - Elusive cascade draining Bench Lake hidden in the bush somewhere upslope from our backpacking camp at Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_415_08312013 - Another look at the elusive cascade near Matlock Lake upslope from our camp
Onion_Valley_421_08312013 - Looking over Bench Lake towards the partially cloudy Kearsarge Pass
Onion_Valley_567_08312013 - Hiking further above the treeline en route to Kearsarge Pass
Onion_Valley_574_08312013 - Looking down at Heart Lake on the way up to Kearsarge Pass
Onion_Valley_531_08312013 - Looking over Big Pothole Lake towards the Owens Valley way in the distance
Onion_Valley_507_08312013 - Finally made it up to Kearsarge Pass
Onion_Valley_465_08312013 - Kearsarge Lakes and Kearsarge Pinnacles
Onion_Valley_611_09012013 - Sunrise over a large pond adjacent to Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_639_09012013 - More distant but comprehensive view of the cascade draining Bench Lake into Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_649_09012013 - Calm morning reflections as seen from our backpacking site near Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_659_09012013 - Heading back towards the Onion Valley parking lot after breaking camp at Matlock Lake
Onion_Valley_677_09012013 - Distant look back at one of the pretty cascades draining into Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_678_09012013 - Closer look at the attractive cascade spilling into Little Pothole Lake
Onion_Valley_680_09012013 - The attractive cascade draining into part of Little Pothole Lake as seen in context on the return hike
Onion_Valley_685_09012013 - The Onion Valley parking lot was now within sight; the end was near
Onion_Valley_698_09012013 - Last look at the first Onion Valley Waterfall when we finally made it back to the parking lot

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To get to the Onion Valley trailhead, you must first enter the town of Independence, which is about 20 minutes north on the Hwy 395 of Lone Pine.

Then, you take the highway towards Market St where you turn left (there’s a post office at the street corner here).

Onion_Valley_006_08302013 - The busy parking lot at the end of Market St, which ends right at Onion Valley
The busy parking lot at the end of Market St, which ends right at Onion Valley

Follow Market St for about 15 miles as it goes past some residences before curving its way up the mountain to the Onion Valley trailhead and campground.

The trailhead parking was quite full but even on Labor Day Weekend, we still managed to have all three cars in our group find parking (though we did arrive prior to 9am).

For some context, Independence is roughly 3.5 hours from Los Angeles via the I-5, Hwy 14, then Hwy 395. Coming from the opposite direction, Independence is 84 miles (about 90 minutes drive) south of Mammoth Lakes.

360 degree sweep from parking lot of Onion Valley zooming in on waterfall at the end


Short sweep of Little Pothole Lake zooming in on both cascades spilling into the lake


360 degree sweep from Kearsarge Pass with a couple of zoom-ins on Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake

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Tagged with: inyo, national forest, independence, onion valley, kearsarge pass, 395, kings canyon, national park, john muir, wilderness, trail, owens valley, pothole, eastern sierra, matlock, gilbert, flower, bench, slim



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