Alpine Ambition, John Muir Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14135A, Backpacking


  • Experience the inspirational beauty and grandeur of the remote North Fork of the Kings River 
  • Enjoy a layover day to ascend Blackcap Mountain, explore Blackcap Basin, or relax lakeside


  • All meals and snacks from breakfast on August 3 to lunch on August 9
  • Reserved campground site near the trailhead
  • Bear-safe food storage canisters


DatesAug 3–9, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffDavid Roberts

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Dreaming of idyllic azure lakes nestled in glacial cirques beneath skyscraping aretes? Our route takes you there -- first by trail, then off-trail -- into classic high Sierra timberline and over a challenging cross-country pass. A layover day plus some shorter hiking days will allow for time to climb Blackcap Mountain, explore the North Fork of the Kings River headwaters, or simply relax amidst alpine splendor.

Along the way, we will traverse the lake-filled basins of Red Mountain, Bench Valley, and Blackcap Mountain, tucked away beneath the 12,000-foot peaks of the LeConte and White divides. This wide-open country offers ample opportunities to enjoy high cirques and sky-blue lakes with colorful names such as Ambition, Confusion, Rainbow, and Schoolmarm. Although we will start and finish our journey on major trails, during the middle portion of the trip we will travel off-trail in order to maximize our enjoyment of the region's beauty and solitude. We will spend most nights above 10,000 feet. This trip is suitable for those who are comfortable with trail hiking and would like to try the extra challenge of cross-country hiking as well. 


Our official meeting time is 7 a.m. on Sunday, August 3 at the reserved campsite. It is highly recommended that you plan on arriving by 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 2. Settling in, we will eat dinner, get  acquainted, acclimatize and, if everyone has arrived, engage in our "trailhead talk." There are no restaurants in the vicinity so bring your own dinner to the campsite.

Day 1: After breakfast (included), we'll drive to our trailhead near Courtright Reservoir and start hiking. Our plan is to hike 11.5 miles on trail with an elevation gain of about 1,300 feet to our camp along the North Fork of the Kings River.

Day 2: Scenic Guest Lake (10,194 feet), below Blackcap Mountain, is our destination. On trail, expect a steep climb of 2,000 feet in elevation over 7.5 miles.

Day 3: We layover at Guest Lake. Some may prefer to relax lakeside while others will be up for a hike to the summit of Blackcap Mountain for panoramic views of the Kings Canyon high country around Mt. Goddard. Alternatively we could be enticed to hike into Blackcap Basin, perhaps as far as Ambition Lake, or Rainbow Lake to Lake Confusion (a lake with two outlets -- one draining to the North Fork of the Kings, the other draining to the South Fork of the San Joaquin River).

Day 4: We leave the trail to traverse cross-country in Bench Valley. We should arrive at our lakeside camp by midday, leaving the afternoon free for exploratory hiking into one of the lake basins nestled against the Le Conte Divide.

Day 5: From Bench Valley, we will continue to travel off-trail, crossing the rugged 11,200-foot Lucifer's Saddle en route to another picturesque lakeside camp. In the afternoon, there will likely be time to explore more alpine lakes along the Divide.

Day 6: We rejoin the trail today and make our way to our final camp at the inviting swimming holes of Post Corral Creek.

Day 7: On trail, we will make good time back to our cars at Courtright, where we plan to arrive by early afternoon.

Our hiking schedule is flexible, depending on various factors, such as weather conditions and individual capabilities. Nonetheless, expect to have a fabulous time regardless of our final route choices.



Getting There

We'll meet at our reserved Forest Service campsite near Courtright Reservoir, about 90 miles northeast of Fresno. Our hike will start at Courtright Reservoir (8,182 feet). Trip members flying to California should consider flying to the San Francisco Bay Area (about 270 miles from Courtright) or Los Angeles (about 310 miles) and sharing a rental car or arranging rides. We will provide directions and a trip roster well before the trip to assist participants who want to share rides. \


Accommodations and Food

We will provide meals starting with breakfast on day one, the last meal will be a quick lunch on our last day. Meals are planned to be tasty yet simple to prepare. Provide your own snack bag, which must be limited in volume to a one-quart sized bag and weigh not more than one pound. Every other day we will issue a Clif Bar or similar energy bar. Cooking and clean-up duties will be shared by all members of the group on a rotating basis. The menu will be geared toward vegetarians, with some meat options available.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 4 (moderate-strenuous), as the first two days on-trail will prove to be taxing for some of us and the cross-country hiking over Lucifer’s Saddle could get a little tricky. The layover day can be as strenuous or leisurely as you like it. Most planned single-day elevation gains are less than 1,300 feet, but the second day will include a gain of at least 2,000 feet, our greatest single-day ascent. We will generally hike between seven and 12 miles on trail days, and up to four miles on off-trail days. Some days we will be hiking for six to seven hours (including breaks) -- longer if unforeseen difficulties arise. Off-trail sections of the trip will traverse rough, rocky terrain with loose footing, which will require patience and good balance. There may be short sections of walking on exposed steep granite. Since our trip is at high elevations, very good aerobic conditioning is essential. You must have the ability to hike up to 12 miles a day at high altitude with a backpack weighing as much as 45 pounds. We may encounter snowfields and difficult stream crossings.

You must maintain a regular fitness program, supplemented with weekend practice hikes wearing the boots and pack (loaded with at least 40 pounds) that you plan to bring on the trip. Also, taking at least one "warm-up" backpacking trip prior to this outing, at altitude if possible, is recommended. If you are not in good shape, you just won't have a good time. Be honest with yourself about your high altitude capabilities. Altitude sickness is unpleasant and can potentially be a serious condition. Trip participants are encouraged to arrive in the area a day or two before the trip so as to begin high elevation acclimatization.

Recent backpacking experience is recommended and good physical conditioning is essential. Experience in cross-country backpacking is not required, but hiking on rough, rocky terrain can prove challenging if you are not physically and mentally prepared. For cross-country hiking practice, find a dry streambed or other rocky terrain in your area to negotiate while wearing a loaded backpack.

The High Sierra is renowned for its excellent summer weather. However, extended storms can occur at any time of the year. Afternoon thunderstorms, with sudden cloudbursts of wind, rain, hail, and even snow are not uncommon. Be prepared for any extremes on this trip -- high temperatures during the day can exceed 80 degrees and temperatures can fall into the 30s at night.

Equipment and Clothing

We provide food (not including snack bags), pots, utensils, stoves, fuel, first-aid kit, repair kit, trowel, ropes, and tarp. Bears are present and so we will be carrying our food in bear-proof cans (provided). A one-quart water bottle is required and a capacity of two or more quarts is recommended. We will treat water for group use (central commissary), but plan to bring your own individual water treatment (i.e. tablets, water filter, or steripen). Limit your personal gear to no more than 25 pounds -- each participant's share of the commissary load could be up to 14 pounds at the start of the trip, occupying at least as much space as a full grocery sack.

Sturdy, fully broken-in boots, providing good support with rubber lug soles are optimal. For shelter, tents with a rainfly are strongly encouraged, and lightweight waterproof tarps are the required minimum. For raingear, we recommend a waterproof jacket and rainpants rather than a poncho.

Refer to the recommended the equipment list at



Tom Harrison Kings Canyon High Country and Mono Divide High Country maps are the most readily available choices, although the USGS 15-minute "Blackcap Mountain" quadrangle is best if you can find it. Other choices are the map of the John Muir Wilderness published by the U.S. Forest Service or the 7 1/2-minute "Blackcap Mountain" and 7 1/2-minute "Courtright Reservoir" quadrangles, which together cover almost the entire trip. Also including the 7 1/2-minute "Mt. Henry" quadrangle completes coverage of the trip.


  • Winnett, et al, Sierra South.
  • Secor, R.J., The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes, and Trails.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.
  • Storer and Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History. 


In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. The Sierra Club’s outings program is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our Outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: the need to set aside, by civic agreement, certain special places—forever—from human developments. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role -- in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving vastly more designated wilderness since then.

Signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act established our country’s National Wilderness Preservation System. Starting with only 54 Forest Service areas in 13 states, totaling less than 10 million acres, the system has now grown to more than 100 million acres in 44 states. Approximately 80 percent of Sierra Club national outings take place -- fully or partly -- in designated wilderness. We will be traveling exclusively in the John Muir Wilderness.

For more information about the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, go to the anniversary website,

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Sierra National Forest.



David Roberts remembers the lakeside moment of stillness and solitude when, at age 12, he first became entranced with the Sierra Nevada. His first Sierra Club outing was in 1969. Since 1977, he has led or co-led private backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. He began leading for Sierra Club Outings in 2001. When not working for the local Environmental Health Services, he enjoys photography and playing guitar with the Santa Cruz Guitar Ensemble. Nearly every day David and his dog hike the trails adjacent to his home in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Assistant Leader:

Peter "Fats" Elderon first backpacked in the granite state of New Hampshire, but loves the granite of the Sierra Nevada even more. He was an assistant leader on National trips in the early 80s, but forsook backpacking while raising two daughters (with his wife, whom he met in Sequoia National Park). In the last 10 years, he has returned to backpacking in the Sierra Nevada for several weeks every summer and loves to share his enthusiasm for Muir's mountains with all fellow hikers. In each of the last two years, Fats has led a Sierra Club National Outing in Yosemite.

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