Step 1: Find the Trailhead
Ruvicha, Brian (not a Summitpost member yet) and I had Kearsarge Peak on this summer’s to-do list. We had aimed to climb it in 2010 but, finding no Kearsarge Peak trailhead along Onion Valley Road, blithely assumed that the peak must be somewhere off of the Kearsarge Pass trail, a trail that was very clearly marked. Sounds logical, right? Well, not exactly. About three miles up the Kearsarge Pass trail, when three miles should have taken us close to the summit of Kearsarge Peak, we figured out that we were in the wrong place – as it turned out, two miles, 2000 feet, one ridge line and one valley away from our intended destination.
We decided to try Kearsarge Peak again on August 10, having hiked the previous day to the top of Kearsarge Pass (a very pleasant and scenic hike). Armed this year with a GPS and 1:24,000 U.S. Geological Survey map, we located the unmarked trailhead. It lies about three quarters of a mile below the Onion Valley parking lot. Driving up from Independence, there is no sign, and the cut-off road up and to the right is virtually invisible (it is, however, clearly visible when driving down from Onion Valley). Once you find the cut-off road, head up, making a left and then right switchback to a small circle, which is the trailhead.
Once having located the trailhead, at about 8800 feet elevation, we looked up a gully that ran to the north before turning to the northwest in the direction of the Kearsarge summit. The next challenge was to locate a trail. There it was, running ... for about 15 feet before it disappeared into some low Manzanita bushes (wear long pants so you don’t scratch your legs). That was the story for the first mile-plus of the hike. Find a trail, lose it in the bushes, then find it again only to lose it again. We found ourselves mostly on crummy, loose scree.
After about 90 minutes of slogging, Brian decided he had had enough and turned back. Ruvicha and I praised him for his wisdom and foresight as we continued pushing upwards, passing between two large rocks after which the gully angled toward the northwest.
The Going Gets Easier
As we gained elevation in the gully, getting to about 10,500 feet, two things happened. First, the scree became more solid, making the hiking much more comfortable. Second, while the trail remained faint in places, it was easier to find than down below, with small rock cairns marking it as it snaked up the gully. The higher we went, the easier it was to find a trail; indeed it became much more apparent at about the point where the last high (15-20 feet high) trees appeared. We added to or built new cairns as we went along. As we climbed, we could see on the southwest ridge of the gully the remains of an old mining site; the map showed a number of other mining sites on the eastern side of the summit.
Getting (Almost) to the Top
Once out of the gully and on the east face of the peak, the trail became very clear, with a series of switchbacks leading to the east bloc. But it had been a long, hot and generally unfun hike. We decided to declare victory at that point, though we were still probably 100 feet and a couple of blocs from the true summit, which lay to our west.
The views offered significantly less than other hikes. Having spent much of the time in the gully, from the east face most of the view was of the Owens Valley. We did catch glimpses of Independence Peak, Mt Williamson and Sardine Lake, but not the kinds of inspiring vistas that we had found on other Sierra summits. You can also get a good view of Onion Valley and the start of the Kearsarge Pass and Golden Trout Lake trails. (There might have been more to see from the true summit, with better views to the west.)
Trails were much easier to spot – when they existed – on the way down. We also had the opportunity to do some scree-skiing, which quickened the descent. So the hike down happily passed quickly.
Not One We Would Recommend
We calculated that the hike amounted to a roundtrip of about 6.5 miles with 3600 feet elevation gain. While Ruvicha and I have not done that many Sierra peaks, we found Kearsarge the least fun and least interesting. In retrospect, Ruvicha’s proposal that the U.S. government cut the deficit by selling Kearsarge Peak off to be blasted down to sand and gravel for construction purposes seems a tad much, however worthy the idea sounded when we were on the mountain. If you do try it, keep in mind that the USGS maps and other map software show a trail at the start of the climb where none no longer exists, but do not show the trail that does exist higher up.
Kearsarge can be reached also by taking the trail from the Onion Valley parking lot up toward Kearsarge Pass, turning off to Golden Trout Lake, then turning north and approaching the summit from the west. We considered that but had heard that there were still tricky snow patches to cross. That route sounds far more scenic and might avoid some of the scree slogging that we encountered on our hike. We would suggest trying that vice the gully route from Onion Valley Road. Or, if your time in the area is limited, you might try Kearsarge Pass, a far more enjoyable and picturesque hike.