About Onion Valley Waterfalls
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. 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. So just this year-round characteristic of the waterfalls and cascades here compel me to consider them significant enough to have a writeup.
The key with these waterfalls was that they were draining from one lake to another. 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.
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. Kearsarge Pass was 11,760ft. 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. 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 given the ridiculous driving distances to cover going around the Sierras between Onion Valley and Road’s End at Cedar Grove.
Anyways, the waterfall series began immediately when I saw an impressive cascade right from the car park 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 car park 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. 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. One of the cascades was as tall and impressive (if not more so) than the cascade at the car park. 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. 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.
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.
To get to the Onion Valley trailhead, you must first enter the town of Independence (about 20 minutes north on the Hwy 395 of Lone Pine), then take the highway towards Market St where you turn left (there’s a post office at the street corner here).
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.
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