Saturday, August 23, 2014

Overnight Hike To Center Basin From Onion Valley

Dale Matson

Click on photographs for a larger view
Perhaps the hardest part of getting to Center Basin is finding the junction where it departs from the John Muir Trail. The Center Basin trail travels along the eastern side of Center Peak and the JMT travels along the western side. The route to Center Basin and Golden Bear Lake from Onion Valley is definitely not the shortest but the route into Center Basin past Robinson Lake over University Pass is mostly off trail and I was by myself. The Onion Valley route round trip is about 33 miles with about 7,600’ of altitude gain overall. One of the most discouraging locations on the JMT is where the Bubb’s Creek Trail joins the JMT. From that point it is climb, climb, climb heading north or south. You could also do this from Road’s End but after several trips ascending the Bubb’s creek trail I would rather drive to the east side and climb over Kearsarge Pass.

 Heart Lake
 Big Pothole Lake
Kearsarge Lakes And Pinnacles
 Bullfrog Lake In Distance

Bullfrog Lake

The Kearsarge Pass trail is about the most merciful ascent you will find from east to west over the Sierras. The trailhead is above 9,000’ and the trail itself is well maintained and gradual. There are several lakes along the way but resupply water before Heart Lake. The pass has a wonderful view to the east that includes the Pinnacles, Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake. Bullfrog Lake has been closed to camping for many years because of overuse.

 Center Peak In Center And East Vidette On Right
 Bubbs Creek

 Approaching Center Peak 
 Junction Peak In Distance
Center Basin Crags

This is the first time I had taken the trail past Kearsarge and Bullfrog Lakes to join the JMT to head south. You descend from the junction another 1,000’ until the junction with the Bubb’s Creek Trail then begin climbing again heading toward Forester Pass.

Map Route Versus Actual Trail Into Center Basin
 Center Basin
 Campsite By Center Peak
 Golden Bear Lake

 Sunrise At Center Basin Crags
Center Basin Junction Markings

 Flower Lake
 Kearsarge In The Afternoon Light On The Return
 Bullfrog Lake Panorama

Here are some hints at where the Junction with the Center Basin Trail can be located. My GPS (NAD 27) gave the location as N 36°44.054’ W 118° 22.474’. The altitude was 10,474’. About 20’ south of the junction is a use trail leading west and down to an established campsite with a bear box near Bubb’s Creek. If you come to this trail, you have already passed the junction on the east side of the trail between two trees marked with Cairns at the foot of both trees (See included photographs).

There is a caveat to maps when the maps note that a particular trail is an approximate location. I found the trail to Center Basin sketchy at times but not hard to follow if you pay attention. When I downloaded my route, it was more direct to the first two lakes than the map indicated. Yes, there is a marshy area before reaching Golden Bear Lake but I lost the trail skirting the marsh and took a more direct route. It rests on an obvious ledge about 40’ above the two smaller lakes.

Was the trip worth the effort? Yes, if I had it to do over again, I would spend an additional night in Center Basin, follow the trail south as a day hike and return to the first lake for the final night.

Note: It took me just over four hours to get to Lone Pine from Fresno going over Tehachapi. It took me over five hours returning to Fresno over Tioga Pass through Yosemite. Both routes are about 260 miles.
Note II: There is a YouTube video of this with additional graphics here: 



  1. Note
    The original JMT route selected by Wilbur McClure the CA state engineer went through Center Basin, over Junction Pass and over Shepherd Pass until the Forester Pass section was completed in 1938. I assume McClure Meadow in Evolution Valley was named after him.

  2. I see there a lots of page views on this trip. One suggestion would be to do it as a three night four day trip. Perhaps an overnight at Kearsarge Lakes, overnight at Center Basin and another overnight at Kearsarge Lakes on the return leg.

  3. I was at the trail junction two days ago; it's just as your photo shows it to be. For those traveling southbound, the junction is right past a particularly scenic overlook of a meadow with Bubbs Creek meandering through.