Onions and Thin Air - Onion Valley, Summer 2004

This time, we found the onions.

When I visited Onion Valley in the Eastern Sierra Nevada last summer, I wrongly expected to find a flat expanse of agricultural monotony. When I beheld the alpine splendor above the town of Independence, all thoughts of vegetables left my mind. This year, however, one of my keen-eyed hiking companions caught sight of a familiar purple bloom. Yanking on the flower at its root, she pulled up a finger-sized green onion. I wiped off the dirt and crunched my teeth down on it. Sure enough, the spicy tang proved it: there were onions in Onion Valley after all!

True to its name, Total Escape again provided a total escape from reality for the six of us who made the 300-mile trek north from San Diego. Six miles west of Independence, we made camp in Upper Gray Meadows campground. Here, a lively creek fed by snowmelt created a verdant band of trees and bushes through the otherwise parched foothills. We pitched our tents underneath this green canopy, where the rush of the creek sounded like the crash of surf upon a beach.

At 6,200 feet of elevation, we camped far below our goal: Kearsarge Pass, the eastern portal into Kings Canyon National Park, at nearly 12,000 feet. The way up began with a winding, 10-minute drive up to the trailhead at 9,200 feet, followed by a 5-mile ascent to the pass. A 10-mile round-trip day hike? No problem. A bear attack on a camper a few days before our visit? No problem. Air thinner than Mary-Kate Olsen? That could be a problem....

Brain-splitting Bodart Falls
Since our 3-day camping trip didn't give us much opportunity to acclimatize to the elevation, we decided to take a shorter, "test hike" before the Main Event. The Kearsarge Trail begins where the asphalt ends, at Onion Valley Campground. Less than half a mile up, the trail forks to the right, heading up toward Bodart Falls, a cascade visible from the trailhead. I wanted to hike up to the waterfall
last year, but had to turn back at the halfway point when I ran out of time. Today, we went for it.

Much huffing and puffing later, we came near the falls, but actually reaching the water would involve trailblazing over rocks and through bushes. Though I'm sure it had nothing to do with gender, the four women decided to take a rest while Craig and I crawled across to the waterfall.

I guess it's true what they say, "the women are smarter."

For the record, Craig and I did reach the waterfall, and even dunked ourselves in the brain-splitting cold water (you'll find the photographic evidence here). But getting there was an adventure. Climbing across the rocks proved to be as much fun as it was challenging. The thick bushes surrounding the cascade and the creek below it, however, would have protected a medieval castle. In fact, I think this is where those thorn bushes from "Sleeping Beauty" retired after their Hollywood career ended.

I still chuckle to myself when I see our final approach in my mind's eye. I crawled through the very center of a bush, going with the grain of the branches, as a lobster might enter a lobster trap. Easy going. Looking back, however, the ends of the branches pointed at me like the spears of the enemy on the field of battle. I felt like that lobster, realizing there was no escape. We did finally find our way back, but not before that bush claimed Craig's bathing suit.

Into Thin Air
The bush-whacking and brain-splitting at Bodart Falls, however, was only a dry run. The next morning, we rose early and prepared our Camelbaks and protein bars. The sun beat down on us, but the altitude kept the temperature mild. With the enthusiasm only found at the beginning of a hike, the six of us leapt up the trail like mountain goats.

Beauty abounds on the hike between the trailhead and Kearsarge Pass. The trail parallels a series of lakes, four of which lie either alongside the trail or within sight of it. The stream that feeds these lakes also follows the same path as the trail. With the abundant water, we had no shortage of greenery. At Gilbert Lake, we found a stony perch above the lake and stopped for lunch. The view was postcard-perfect.

Soon enough, however, our group of six became two sets of three, then three sets of two, and eventually a line of six straggling singles. The already thin air became emaciated. I had to take breaks more frequently, and began to consider turning back. I was confident that I could make it, but if it's not fun, what's the point? After each switchback, I expected to catch sight of the pass. Surely we must have climbed above 12,000 feet by now?

Dragging ourselves over the umpteenth ridge, we caught sight of the final lake, Big Bunghole Lake (which was how our altitude-addled tongues started pronouncing Big Pothole Lake). Pausing for a morale-boosting photo op reminiscent of Will Rogers, I caught my second wind and finished the last couple of miles. At 11,760 feet, we laughed, we cried, we hurled.

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If You Go: The hike from Onion Valley Campground to Kearsarge pass is just one small stretch of a trail that traverses the Sierra Nevada from one end of Kings Canyon National Park to the other. Camping is available at Onion Valley, as well as at Upper and Lower Gray Meadows Campgrounds halfway down the mountain. Camp sites run about $12 per night, with a variety of first-come, first-served and reservable sites. Each site has a fire ring, picnic table and bear locker for foodstuffs.

Reservations: Reserve America

More Information:
U.S. Forest Service
Inyo National Forest

873 North Main Street
Bishop, CA 93514
(760) 873-2400

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