At an elevation of 11,200 feet, Cottonwood Pass serves as a gateway to the Golden Trout Wilderness and Sequoia National Park. The pass is reached via a 3.5-mile one way trail from Horseshoe Meadow, which has an elevation of 10,000 feet, making this is one of the easiest passes for hikers to reach in the Eastern Sierra.
Pick up the trail at Horsehoe Meadow Campground and begin hiking east over packed sand along the northern edge of Horseshoe Meadow. After a third of a mile, the level trail crosses an early junction. To the left is a single track heading to Trail Pass, To the right is a path to the pack station, which means there could be horse presence (and presents) on the trail from here on.
The trail passes through a light forest and remains fairly level for the first two miles. Just past the end of the meadow is small creek that the trail crosses twice before beginning a series of long gradual switchbacks. The views expand as you ascend of bulk of the 1,200 feet between the trailhead and the pass.
Just over Cottonwood Pass comes a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Straight ahead, the trail continues west across Golden Trout Wilderness and down to Big Whitney Meadow. To the right, the PCT heads northwest toward Rock Creek, Lower Soldier Lake, and the whole of Sequoia National Park. After just 0.6 miles, this track comes to Chicken Spring Lake, a worthy turn around point for an 8.2-mile hike.
Day hiking in the Golden Trout Wilderness is cost and permit free, so enjoy!
What you should know before you go: A wilderness permit is required for all overnight stays and a trailhead quota of forty backpackers per day is in force 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 Inyo National Forest permit offices). Sixteen of the forty permits are saved for hikers without reservation. If you get to Lone Pine early on the day of your expedition, snatching up a permit should not be a problem.
To be safe, backpackers must carry a bear canister, which can be rented in Lone Pine for five dollars. Bear lockers are also provided at the trailhead. Make sure your vehicle is bear-safe before leaving the parking lot. Dogs are permitted on a leash on trails in Inyo National Forest but not across the boundary in Sequoia National Park.
Given the 10,000-foot elevation of the Cottonwood Pass trailhead, altitude sickness is common. It is advisable to spend a night of acclimation at one of the trailhead campgrounds to avoid facing 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 Horseshoe Meadow: 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 road’s end at Horseshoe Meadow. The Cottonwood Pass trailhead is at the east end of the campground.
Trailhead address: Horseshoe Meadows Road, Inyo National Forest, Lone Pine, CA 93545
Trailhead coordinates: 36.44834, -118.17065 (36° 26′ 54″N 118° 10′ 14.3″W)
|Chicken Spring Lake |
This 8.2-mile round trip hike continues past Cottonwood Pass to an alpine lake that makes a nice day hike destination or a good first camp for backpackers.
|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.
|Cottonwood Lakes |
This scenic trail through a lake-filled basin provides a 10-mile round trip day hike to Long Lake and a 7.5-miles one-way trek to New Army Pass on the border of Sequoia National Park near Mount Langley.
|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.
|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.