Groundhog Meadow Loop is approximately 31.5 miles long and can take anywhere from 3 to 6 days depending on what you want to do. The trip layout is designed for those who want to do a lot of hiking each day in an extended weekend (2 nights/3 days). However, if you want a more leisurely pace, notes about where to stay below are mentioned. This gives you time to explore the Groundhog cinder cone, volcano meadow, fish Golden Trout Creek, and explore Rocky Basin Lakes. The trip will note spots one could stay if one wanted to remain in the wilderness longer.
Day 1 – Horseshoe Campground to Golden Trout Creek (11.2 miles)
Start by heading west towards Cottonwood Pass for about 1/3 of a mile. Take the trail south towards Trail Pass. The pass is an additional 2.0 miles from the Cottonwood Trail. This will be the hardest climb of the day, especially if you are not used to the altitude. You will be rewarded with great views and a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail.
Descending downhill for an approximately 2 miles the trail arrives along the northern edges of Mulkey Meadows. The trail heads west at this point. You’ll want to continue staying to your right at trail junctions following the northern edge of the meadow towards Tunnel Meadow. When you have walked along the edge of the meadow for about 1.2 miles, you’ll start to enter a forested area. Continue hiking till you arrive at the upper end of Tunnel Meadow about 2.5 miles later.
Once in Tunnel Meadow the trail again follows the northern edge. If you look hard enough you may see the old landing strip that where small planes would land back in the mid-20th century. Press on to make your way to Golden Trout Creek. Note: If you wanted to break up the trip, this would be a good place to camp in Tunnel Meadow Campground.
Now that you have left Tunnel Meadow, continue down the trail towards Groundhog Meadow / Kern River. In approximately 1 mile you will arrive at a trail junction near Golden Trout Creek. Here is where you can set up camp near the creek and call it a day.
Day 2 – Golden Trout Creek to Big Whitney Meadow (11.2 miles)
Here is another opportunity to explore and take an easier day. Explore the cinder cone, fish for golden trout, and more. When you are done, camp at Little Whitney Meadow to shave off a few miles before starting the next day.
Start early and hike west following the Golden Trout Creek drainage. The trail will walk round a ridge and expose you to Groundhog Meadow (right/north of trail). Groundhog cinder cone will be to your south. A once active volcano now sits dormant, but the soil shows where the lava once flowed. Enjoy the view for another 3 miles till the next trail junction. Take a right and head north through Little Whitney Meadow.
The trail is now going uphill for approximately 4.7 miles. Elevation starting at Little Whitney is 8440 feet and you will “false summit” at 10,300 feet. The trail drops a couple hundred feet bit to 10,080 and climbs back up to 10,330 within another mile. Approximately the last 1.5 miles of the trail will drop you into Big Whitney Meadow.
A detour can happen to Rocky Basin Lakes when you are in the small meadow between the “false summit” and 10,330 feet marker. If you are filling up to it, head up the drainage along the trail towards Rocky Basin Lakes. It is another 2.5 miles to these lakes, but would be worth it if you are again taking a longer trip. Camp at Rocky Basin Lakes and then make a trek to Horseshoe Meadow when ready.
Day 3 – Big Whitney Meadow to Horseshoe Meadow (8.6 miles)
Enjoy this large high elevation meadow as you walk east towards Cottonwood Pass. The trail goes through the middle of Big Whitney Meadow for the next 1.1 miles. After you leave the meadow, a short uphill climb to String Stokes Meadow (0.25 miles) rewards you with a view of the saddle where Cottonwood Pass resides. To the west of the pass are two unnamed peaks that house the small drainage where Chicken Spring Lake resides.
The next 2.6 miles is a steady climb uphill to Cottonwood Pass. You will get to see some nice views when you stop for a break up the trail. Once at the top, turn around and look back towards Big Whitney Meadow and beyond. The trail junctions with the Pacific Crest trail at this point too. You could proceed to Chicken Spring Lake for a detour and possible camping spot for the day if you are coming from Rocky Basin Lakes. Otherwise descend downhill towards Horseshoe Meadow. You will be greeted with views all the way down from the pass.