PCT: Kennedy Meadows to Cottonwood Pass

Miles 702-750.2 of the northbound PCT: From Kennedy Meadows South, along a stretch of the Sierra Crest, to a trail junction near the road that leads to Lone Pine.

Hiking Difficult

Distance
76 km
Ascent
3 km
Descent
1.4 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
1.8 km
High Point
3.4 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Kennedy Meadows to Cottonwood Pass Map

Description

On this segment in the middle of CA Section G, the PCT makes a tiered climb along valleys and ridges to get progressively higher in the Sierra, starting from the broad basin of Kennedy Meadows (Note that this is Kennedy Meadows South, not to be confused with North Kennedy Meadows). Somewhere along the journey toward Cottonwood Pass, hikers may catch their first glimpse of Mount Whitney piercing the horizon to the north. The superlative peak is not so far away, but a few days of travel remain before the PCT comes within reach of its slopes.

Kennedy Meadows is a tiny town with a couple of stores, which serve as crucial resupply for many PCTers. Northbound hikers might stock up on food and acquire extra gear, depending on conditions expected in the Sierra. From the start of this segment at Sherman Pass Road (NB mile 702), a sandy path heads across sagebrush flats, then passes through Kennedy Meadows campground (NB mile 704.7). Next it turns uphill, among rock-strewn conifer woodland in the valley of the South Fork Kern.

Later on the trail crosses the river on a bridge (NB mile 706.6), then continues up another, somewhat steeper valley. Where the trail crosses Crag Creek (NB mile 708.6) and in the next few miles northbound, there are some nice campsites to choose from. It continues a steady climb, now on more sparsely treed hillside, and later emerges in another broad meadow where the South Fork Kern is again nearby.

Another bridge crosses the South Fork (NB mile 716.5) where there is a campsite, then the ascent continues––this time more purposefully upward, toward Olancha Ridge. Another good water source and some campsites come at Cow Creek (721.6). As the trail forges higher, the pine trees grow taller and more numerous, and the boulders heftier as well. Clearings remain frequent, however, allowing vantage from this elevation and views to Olancha Peak yet higher overhead.

Just after exceeding 10,500 feet, the trail tips and descends to a valley studded with rock mounds and striped with green meadows, making a fine zone in which to camp. There are seasonal streams and a spring in this vicinity, auspiciously positioned before the waterless ridge walk ahead. The last source is a spring near Death Canyon Creek (NB mile 730.8). Check PCT Water Report for the latest conditions on these.

It’s a zigzagging climb up out of Death Canyon, along a rocky ridge among stately pines. The top earns a sweeping view of the Owens River Valley, as the trail hits the crest of the Sierra Nevada and tops 10,600 feet. From there it begins to descend, and later reaches water at Diaz Creek (NB mile 741.7) along with good campsites.

Next comes another climb to regain the Sierra Crest, and the trail works its way even higher still, eventually surpassing 11,000 feet near Trail Peak. In this stretch are three side trails to Horseshoe Meadow, where there’s a Forest Service campground and a paved road going to Lone Pine. The first is Mulkey Pass (NB mile 744.5), the second is Trail Pass (NB mile 745.3), and the third is Cottonwood Pass (NB mile 750.2). Many hikers take this opportunity to leave trail for one last resupply or a zero day before entering Sequoia National Park and the High Sierra.

Note: Those continuing north from Cottonwood Pass need to plan for backcountry food storage in the national park. Bear canisters or other approved containers are required along much of the trail through Sequoia and Yosemite national parks.

Permits: Just north of Kennedy Meadows campground the PCT enters the South Sierra Wilderness, and continues into the Golden Trout Wilderness farther on. All overnight use requires a wilderness permit from Inyo National Forest, or a PCT Long-distance Permit instead. Additionally, the California Fire Permit is required for making a fire or for using a camp stove anywhere outside of developed camping areas. Northbound thru hikers should also plan ahead for permits in Sequoia and Yosemite parks ahead.

Sources: https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/ https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/passes-permits/recreation

Difficulty

Difficult

Hiking trails where obstacles such as rocks or roots are prevalent. Some obstacles can require care to step over or around. At times, the trail can be worn and eroded. The grade of the trail is generally quite steep, and can often lead to strenuous hiking.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area