Kern Peak is located in a very remote area of the southern Sierra in the eastern section of the Golden Trout Wilderness. At 11,510 feet, it is not actually a high Sierra peak. Kern Peak lacks the alpine qualities of the Sierra Crest found a few miles north at Chicken Spring and Rocky Basin Lakes, and Olancha Peak to the east, which anchors the southeastern end of the High Sierra. Instead, Kern Peak is set on the broad, 8-10,000 feet Kern Plateau, which contains several large meadows, rolling hills, and vast upper montane forests consisting of foxtail and lodgepole pines. Although it is remote, the rolling, sandy landscape is easy to traverse.
Along with Olancha and Cirque Peaks, Kern Peak is probably the most prominent point in the eastern section of Golden Trout Wilderness. It thus has sweeping views of the middle and upper Kern River drainage and much of the far southern Sierra, including Olancha Peak, the Langley and Whitney areas, the southern Kaweah Range, the mountains of the Mineral King area and the western section of the Golden Trout Wilderness, and the Dome Land Wilderness of the far southern Sierra.
Because it overlooks such a large area, Kern Peak was formerly a fire lookout. Remnants of the lookout, including much debris, remain on the summit. Kern Peak is most commonly climbed using the class 1 trail to the top. Much of the area immediately south of Kern Peak was burned in the summer of 2002 by the 150,000 acre McNally fire.
To get to the Cottonwood Pass trailhead, take the Whitney Portal Road west from Lone Pine for 3 miles, turning left (south) onto Horseshoe Meadows Road for about 20 miles until reaching the trailhead at the end of the road. From the Cottonwood Pass trailhead there are two possible approaches to the Tunnel Guard Station, which is located near the beginning of the climbing route (see map below). Both are long but easy.
1. Cottonwood Pass (12.5 miles to Tunnel Guard Station): hike west across Horseshoe Meadow until reaching the top of Cottonwood Pass at mile 3. Just below the west side of the pass, the trail intersects the Pacific Crest Trail. Continue down Cottonwood Pass, eventually reaching and crossing large Big Whitney Meadows. At mile 7.25 at the western edge of Whitney Meadows, turn left (south) down Golden Trout Creek until reaching Tunnel Guard Station.
2. Trail Pass (11 miles to Tunnel Guard Station): this route is shorter than the Cottonwood Pass route but slightly less interesting. From the trailhead, hike west for one-third mile, then turn left (south), reaching Trail Pass at two miles. The route now enters the South Fork of the Kern River watershed—the native range of the golden trout. Continue over Trail Pass through Mulkey Meadows. Mulkey Meadows is dry, has many sand dunes, and somewhat resembles a wilderness golf course. Continue hiking across gentle terrain through Tunnel Meadows, arriving at Tunnel Guard Station at mile 11.
Wilderness pemits are required for all overnight visitors to Golden Trout Wilderness. Permits may be obtained at the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station, located in Lone Pine, California. Cottonwood Pass is a popular eastside Sierra trailhead and is subject to a quota on visitation for much of the year, which can make entry during summer weekends difficult. However, permits for Cottonwood Pass may be reserved in advance by paying a $5/person fee. Information on permit reservations is available online or call (760) 876-6200.
When To Climb
Climbing is best from May-October, depending on current weather conditions and snowfall amounts from the previous winter.
There are several campsites situated in a large, flat, forested area south of Tunnel Guard Station along the South Fork of the Kern River. There are also campsites in Ramshaw Meadows 1.25 miles down the South Fork of the Kern River from Tunnel Guard Station.
Near the Cottonwood Pass approach, Chicken Spring Lake and Rocky Basin Lakes are very nice areas to camp.
Inyo National Forest visitor information: (760) 876-6200
Updated weather information is also available.
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