Cottonwood Lakes Trail

Cottonwood Lakes Trail provides a scenic romp through the Southeastern Sierra with alpine lakes and mountain views. Located south of Mount Whitney and west of the city of Lone Pine, the trail travels through the Golden Trout Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness to end at the border of Sequoia National Park. This is a superb trail for day hikers and backpackers alike.

The first mile passes through a pleasant pine forest and heads down to a crossing of the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek (the trail is allowed to go downhill because it starts at 10,000 feet above sea level). You can rock hop if the water is low. Otherwise, utilize the well placed log to bridge the creek. Just past the creek crossing is an unmarked and easy to miss junction with Old Cottonwood Creek Trail.

Cottonwood Lakes
A mountain meadow along Cottonwood Lakes Trail

Cottonwood Lakes Trail continues straight ahead on a gradual course into the John Muir Wilderness. Every step brings you closer to the pleasures of Cottonwood Basin. Let Muir’s words encourage you forward:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

The trail passes a turnoff for Muir Lakes Trail, the route for those wishing to climb Old Army Pass en route to the 14,042-foot summit of Mount Langley. The trail was built at the end of the nineteenth century and is now under-maintained. The snow-covered pass has the potential to be treacherous. Some hikers still use the old pass, but most now prefer New Army Pass at the end of Cottonwood Lakes Trail, even though it is a higher crossing.

Several other use trails branch off from Cottonwood Lakes Trail, taking hikers and fishermen to other lakes in basin. One example is South Fork Lakes Trail, which spins off the main track beneath the first Cottonwood Lake, and reaches South Fork Lake after one mile.

Cottonwood Lakes
Mount Langley towers over Cottonwood Lake Number One

Cottonwood Lakes Trail angles uphill and reaches Cottonwood Lake Number One five miles from the trailhead. The views keep improving from there as you pass meadows and creeks, and a second Cottonwood Lake. The trail rises over a crest to emerge at the end of Long Lake, a spectacular setting. The natural beauty of the mountains and lake is so powerful that many backpackers choose to camp right here.

Cottonwood Lakes
Hiking above Long Lake toward to New Army Pass

The trail to New Army Pass continues along the west shore of Long Lake and crosses a bolder-strewn ridge with nice views of Cirque Peak. Just ahead, and 6.5 miles from the trailhead, is High Lake. At 11,500 feet, this is the preferred backcountry rest point for backpackers who have their sight set on Langley. From here it is a mile to the pass and another three or four miles of off-trail traversing to the summit.

Above High Lake, the trail climbs a series of moderate switches to the 12,300-foot pass into Sequoia National Park. Unless you are here late in the summer, there will be a shelf of well-trodden snow along the pass to cross over.

New Army Pass is 7.5 miles from the trailhead, but day hikers may wish to turn around before then at High Lake (6.5-miles) or Long Lake (5.75-miles). From the pass, hikers are in a great position to venture an ascent on Cirque Peak or Mount Langley (the ninth tallest mountain in California), or drop down the other side of the pass to Lower Soldier Lake, Miter Basin, and the expansive network of trails in the Sierra.

Cottonwood Lakes
Looking down on the Cottonwood Lakes from New Army Pass

What you should know before you go: A free wilderness permit is required for all overnight trips into the national forest. A trail quota is also in place on Cottonwood Lakes trailhead from the end of June to mid-September. A permit may be booked in advance for a five-dollar fee or obtained the day of the hike for free at the nearby ranger station in Lone Pine (or one of the other permit offices in the Inyo National Forest). The quotas are generous for Cottonwood Lakes trailhead and those who haven’t reserved a permit will most likely be able to obtain one on the day of the hike (if you get to the ranger station early in the morning). Cottonwood Lakes Trail opens to sixty permits per day. Thirty-six of those may be reserved ahead of time for a fee of five dollars and twenty-four are saved for walk-ins.

Campfires are permitted and backpackers must set up camp at least 100 feet from lake shores and streams. There are not garbage cans or bathrooms along the trail, so hike responsibly.

To be safe, backpackers must carry a bear canister to hold their food while camping. These can be rented in Lone Pine for five dollars. Bear Lockers are provided at the trailhead. Make sure your vehicle is bear-safe before leaving the parking lot.

Given the high elevation of the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadow, altitude sickness is prevalent in the region. Backpackers are well advised to spend a night of acclimation at one of the trailhead campgrounds or be prepared to face the symptoms (headaches, nausea, and lack of appetite) out on the trail.

To get to the trailhead: From the city of Lone Pine, it takes half an hour to ascend to the trailhead campgrounds. From Route 395 in Lone Pine, turn west at the traffic light on to Whitney Portal Road. After three miles, turn left on Horseshoe Meadow Road. Drive twenty miles up mountain switchbacks to the end of the road at Horseshoe Meadow. Turn right, following signs for Cottonwood Lakes and park at the trailhead.

Trailhead address: Horseshoe Meadows Road, Inyo National Forest, Lone Pine, CA 93545
Trailhead coordinates: 36.453253, -118.169784 (36° 27′ 11.71″N 118° 10′ 11.22″W)

Use the map below to create your own directions:


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Photos

Cottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailCottonwood Lakes TrailMount LangleyMount LangleyMount Langley

These photos were taken in May of 2007. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
sierra hiking trailNew Army Pass Trail
This trail continues down the northwest side of New Army Pass into Sequoia National Park toward Lower Soldier Lake.
sierra hiking trailMount Langley
This 22-mile trek travels past Cottonwood Lakes Trail over New Army Pass to a 14,042-foot summit with towering views of the Sierra.
sierra hiking trailOld Cottonwood Creek Trail
This 8 to 9-mile day hike follows a secluded trail through mountain meadows to the South Fork Lakes and Cirque Lake.
Cirque PeakCirque Peak
This 12,900-foot summit can be reached via off-trail ascents from New Army Pass, Cirque Lake, and Chicken Spring Lake.
sierra hiking trailCottonwood Pass
This 7-mile round trip trail ascends 1,200 feet to an 11,200-foot pass and a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, with access to Golden Trout Wilderness and Sequoia National Park.
sierra lakeLower Soldier Lake
This 19.2-mile loop crosses Cottonwood Pass and New Army Pass to visit a beautiful lake that is an ideal camping spot for backpackers heading higher and deeper into the Sierra.
Sky Blue LakeSky Blue Lake
This hike extends beyond Lower Soldier Lake up Miter Basin to a deep blue lake surrounded by towering peaks.
hiking trails sequoiaMore trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Explore other destinations in Sequoia National Park and the rest of the range.
Camping
sierra hiking trailHorseshoe Meadow Campgrounds
This pair of campgrounds offer 40 sites and serve as a great base for the Cottonwood Pass and Cottonwood Lakes trails.

15 Comments on Cottonwood Lakes Trail to New Army Pass in the John Muir Wilderness

  1. JMT 5: Weight matters says:

    [...] Cottonwood Lakes Trail | John Muir Wilderness | Hikespeak.com [...]

  2. Daniel Franklin says:

    How likely is it that there will be snow and ice on the summit of Mt. Langley at the end of September? Thanks for your input.

  3. Kester says:

    Planning to hike up to the summit during Christmas Time. Will the area be covered by snow all around at that time frame?

  4. Moses says:

    Planning to backpack Cottonwood Lakes Trail to New Army Pass the week of June 17th–do you know a ballpark for low temps in the area? Will there likely be snow on the trail? Rain? Thanks!

  5. Mike says:

    Hi Hikespeak: I noticed in your section labeled “What you should know before you go” that you mentioned campfires are permitted. However, I read a few things on the National Park Service website that fires are not permitted above 10,400 feet in Inyo. Would you mind clarifying that for me?

    • hikespeak says:

      Your correct. campfires will only be allowed at the campsites near the trailhead. You’ll be over 10,400 feet once you get going on the trail, so campfires won’t be allowed. I’ve updated the write-up. Thanks for the catch!

  6. chris says:

    my buddy and i are planning on using Cottonwood Lakes Trail to ultimately summit mt whitney. i’ve read a number of reviews/trail conditions but haven’t seen anything on mosquito activity. i’ve been to some spots in yosemite that were a nightmare when it comes to bugs. just curious what the area is like. we have permits for august 7-11.

    • hikespeak says:

      Hi- I haven’t come across mosquitoes in the Cottonwood Lakes area, but you might run into patches of flies on your loop (I encountered a swarm at the bottom of Miter Basin that was completely fierce). Enjoy your journey. Cottonwood Lakes to Mt. Whitney is on my to-do list!

      • T-Squared says:

        We are going up to camp and hike to Langley in mid-August as well. Any word on the water situation in the various lakes, especially around the Rock Creek area – Lower Soldier Lake, Erin Lake, Primrose Lake, etc? Appreciate any input.

    • ryan says:

      hey Chris,
      my brother and i are planning that same trip, plan to hike from 11 to 15 august hitting langley muir and whitney, nice to see others are doing the same.

  7. Marian says:

    My friend and I are planning a 2 day hike 6/30 to the Cottonwoods Lake area, can you tell us if there is water in the lakes and or how low the level is. Also what kind of high and low temps should we expect?

  8. chris says:

    Ryan we made it back last night. Not sure where you’re planning on setting up base camp. Here is what our itinerary consisted of:

    day 1 – enter from cottonwood trail head. hike 9.5 hours & camp at sky blue lake. crabtree pass is steep and covered with scree. I would not recommend attempting to pass this feature with a 4 day pack unless you are prepared.
    day 2 – leave for whitney. we left sky blue lake at 7 am and made it back to camp after dark around 8:30 pm. last light at sky blue lake is around 7:45 pm; hike almost 13 hours.
    day 3 – hike out back to cottonwood trail head; hike 9 hours.

    no bugs, water everywhere. once you get past soldier lake, you don’t see anyone. we had sky blue lake to ourselves both nights. we got hit by hail coming back from whitney over crabtree pass as well as hiked back to blue sky lake in a lightning storm….there’s no real trail once your past soldier lake. it’s very demanding. good luck and be safe.

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