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 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 Trail angles uphill and reaches Cottonwood Lake Number One five miles from the trailhead. The views continue to improve as you pass meadows, 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.
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 (with 2,350 feet of elevation change), 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.
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. When traveling in the backcountry, you may also with to carry an SOS beacon and communicator like the DeLorme inReach Explorer.
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: 36.4532, -118.1699 (36° 27′ 11.5″N 118° 10′ 11.6″W)
|New Army Pass Trail |
This trail continues down the northwest side of New Army Pass into Sequoia National Park toward Lower Soldier Lake.
|Mount 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.
|Old 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 Peak |
This 12,900-foot summit can be reached via off-trail ascents from New Army Pass, Cirque Lake, and Chicken Spring Lake.
|Cottonwood 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.
|Lower 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 Lake |
This hike extends beyond Lower Soldier Lake up Miter Basin to a deep blue lake surrounded by towering peaks.
|More trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains |
Explore other destinations in Sequoia National Park and the rest of the range.
|Horseshoe Meadow Campgrounds |
This pair of campgrounds offer 40 sites and serve as a great base for the Cottonwood Pass and Cottonwood Lakes trails.