Cirque Lake: A High Sierra Adventure For Just About Anyone
Flatlander hikers that secretly yearn for unspoiled and scenic high-alpine lakes and meadows filled with flowers, but miss them because getting to their habitat means climbing thousands of feet up Sierra trails, should consider Cirque lake in the southern Sierra.
Cirque Lake sits in the southern part of the Cottonwood Lakes Basin at an elevation of 11,100 feet. It’s outlet, together with the stream from the two nearby South Fork Lakes, forms the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek, which drops over 7,500 feet to the Owens Valley in a little more than ten miles. The lower portion of Cottonwood Creek canyon is the site of a flume, which carried logs from Colonel Sherman Stevens’ sawmill until 1877. The big timbers pushed each other down the waterway of the flume to arrive in an area near the trailhead.
The Cirque Lake trailhead (Horseshoe Meadows) is one of the highest in the Sierra at about 10,000 feet. This makes the hike to Cirque Lake doable for just about anyone. Keep in mind that spending a night at the Horseshoe Meadows Campground before your hike is advisable so you can acclimate to the high-altitude. Horseshoe Meadows has several walk-in tent only sites and about 10 large drive-in campsites that have corrals for horses.
Half the fun of your adventure is the drive to the trailhead! Though the Horseshoe Meadows Road is a good, well-paved, two-lane road; there are many switchbacks, tight turns, and steep cliffs as it climbs above the dry lakebed of Owens Lake. The views are spectacular though as you drive the 21 miles from Lone Pine (3,680 feet) to the forests surrounding Horseshoe Meadow at almost 10,000 feet.
The Cirque Lake scenery is typical of the Artic-Alpine- Zone, with spare stunted trees in a prevailing meadow environment. The Cirque Lake region is characterized by more boulders than you’d find in other alpine meadowlands. The foxtail pine also grows here, as does the lodgepole and white pine. Depending on when you visit, the meadows produce lupine, shooting stars, columbine, elephant head, groundsel and gentian.
Located in the extreme northern end of the Kern Plateau, your hike will take you through on of the largest continuous stretches of high-country in the Sierra. The views are spectacular and not far to the north of Cirque Lake is Mt. Langley, which is the southernmost 14,000-foot peak in the Sierra. The hike from the trailhead (9,920 feet) to Cirque Lake (11,100 feet) is a little over 12 miles with an elevation gain of 1,180 feet.
How To Get There
From US Highway 395 at Lone Pine, turn west at the stoplight toward Whitney Portal on the Whitney Portal Road. Pass through the Alabama Hills 3.20 miles and make a left on Horseshoe Meadows Road. Follow Horseshoe Meadows Road almost to the end. Cottonwood Lakes Trail takes off to the right. Wilderness Permits are required and available from the Mt. Whitney Ranger District office in Lone Pine.