Golden Trout Gambol, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13123A, Backpack


  • Enjoy wildflowers and geological wonders with a professional naturalist
  • Explore a less known and less traveled corner of the Sierra
  • Relax, fish, explore, or bag a peak on two planned layover days


  • Group campground at the trailhead on the first night
  • Tasty vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals
  • Lightweight group cooking gear and bear canisters


DatesJul 13–20, 2013
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffDavid Melton

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Compared to the better-known areas in the Sierra to the north, the Golden Trout Wilderness tends to be more open and gentle, with less granite and more soil.  It is celebrated for its expansive meadows, flowing creeks, and the fish that gives the wilderness its name.  Our trip loops through the high northeast corner of the wilderness to give us a taste of this less-visited area.

Especially on our easier days, we plan to pause at intervals to enjoy and learn about the flowers, birds, beasts, and geological features of the region.


Our hiking schedule is not rigid and the itinerary described here should be taken as a general plan. The creeks and meadows here give us some flexibility in how far we go and where we camp. We have scheduled the trip early in the season, and therefore greater than normal snowfall or other factors may cause us to alter the route.

Day 1: We will meet around 4 p.m. at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead Campground to get acquainted, distribute commissary gear, and check our equipment and packs.  The 10,000-foot altitude will help us get acclimated. Our first group meal will be served between 5 and 6 p.m. We may have a conservation speaker.

Day 2: This first hiking day will be a relatively moderate six-mile walk, first climbing 500 feet over Trail Pass and then descending to our campsite in the vicinity of Bullfrog Meadows.

Day 3: Today’s hike is a relatively easy, mostly descending stroll where we pick up the South Fork of the Kern River and camp near Tunnel Meadow, the low point of the trip at 8,900 feet.

Day 4: After being eased into the mountains with two relatively mild days, we ramp it up on this layover day to climb Kern Peak, the definitive destination in this part of the wilderness.  At 11,500 feet, it has possibly the finest vista in the wilderness. The actual climb is not difficult, but we’ll have a long walk getting to it, with round-trip distance of 11.2 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation gain. Other options are to fish, hike to nearby peaks and meadows, or just enjoy a day in camp.

Day 5: We turn north and ascend gradually along the banks of Golden Trout Creek. After three miles, we leave the creek, possibly our only reliable source of water before our destination, and continue the now steeper ascent six more miles to the end of the trail at Rocky Basin Lakes. This will be our hardest moving day and also the day with the least flexibility in where we camp.

Day 6: We’ll take a well-earned layover day to explore the lakes basin or hike to one of a number of possible nearby lakes and peaks.

Day 7: From the lakes we will head northeast cross-country, ascending 700 feet to the top of a ridge, the high point of the trip at 11,500 feet. Our initial climb out of the basin will be bouldery, as you might expect from the basin name, but should not be loose.  At the top of the ridge we enter Sequoia National Park, and then drop the same 700 feet into Siberian Outpost, an intriguing tundra-like meadow known for its stark beauty. Total distance of five to six miles.

Day 8: On our last hiking day, we start with a short stretch of flat cross-country, then pick up an undulating segment of the Pacific Crest Trail, which brings us back into the Golden Trout Wilderness and to easy Cottonwood Pass. From there, we turn off and descend 1,200 feet to our starting point. Our packs will be light, but the miles may drag on as we're hit by the bittersweet realization that we're nearing civilization. No matter -- going to the mountains has replenished us and nature's power over man has been proven again.



Getting There

We will meet on Saturday, July 13 at the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead campground on the east side of the Sierra, 23 paved miles (and 6,400 feet up!) from Lone Pine, CA.  A map and more detailed directions will be sent to those registered for the trip. Closest cities with major airline service are Los Angeles (a 250-mile drive), Reno (280 miles), and Las Vegas (330 miles, or 250 miles via Death Valley National Park). Smaller, closer airports with commercial service are Inyokern (IYK), just 100 miles away, and Bakersfield. 

A list of participants will be provided so that you can arrange carpools.

Our last day is long, so we recommend that you fly out the following day, on Sunday, July 21, in case we are unexpectedly late getting back to the trailhead.

Accommodations and Food

The first meal included in the trip will be dinner in the campground on the first day. The last meal will be lunch on the last day. Trip participants will share cooking and meal clean-up duties. The menu will lean toward vegetarian, though some meals will include meat options as well. We will have plenty of food carefully squeezed into the bear canisters, so there's no need, or space, for additional personal food. If you have dietary restrictions, please check with us well in advance of the trip about whether we can accommodate them. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 3 on a scale between 1 and 5. This rating is an average and needs to be put in context with the whole spectrum of backpack trips that we offer, all of which are difficult, just to varying degrees. The total distance is about 34 miles, not counting any distance we cover on the layover days. The trip is on-trail except for all of day seven and the beginning of the last day.  We have two nine-mile days, at the middle and end of the trip. Our greatest ascent is 1,900 feet on the first of those long days. Campsite elevations range from 9,000 to 11,000 feet. You need prior backpacking experience to be sure this sort of trip is right for you.  

Conditioning is extremely important for both pacing and altitude considerations. You should have a regular strength and endurance fitness routine involving serious day hikes, comparable to our first layover day, and leg strengthening exercises. Upper body and core exercises will ease getting your pack on and off. We strongly encourage you to complete at least one early-season weekend backpack before this trip.

Our night camping at the trailhead (10,000’) will help us acclimate to the altitude. You may wish to come a day before that and do some hiking in the area, particularly if you don’t have recent experience at altitude and don’t know how you will likely respond.     

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be sent to all registered participants, and a general list can also be found at  Be prepared for the extremes of our high-altitude environment. Though weather in the Sierra is normally delightful, last summer demonstrated that persistent rain is still possible. Nighttime temperatures may be below freezing. Make sure your tent will keep you dry, and don't skimp on rain jacket and pants (no ponchos).  At the same time, try to limit your personal gear to 25 pounds. Your sleeping bag should be rated down to at least 20 degrees, depending on how warm you sleep. You will also need good waterproofed hiking boots with lug soles that are well broken in. The Club will provide commissary equipment, including pots, cooking utensils, and stoves. Expect to carry up to 16 pounds of group food and gear, including a bear canister (11 inches tall by 9 inches in diameter).



  • The Tom Harrison “Golden Trout Wilderness” map covers the entire route.

Three 7.5 minute series maps also cover the entire route:

  • Cirque Peak
  • Kern Peak
  • Johnson Peak


  • Swedo, Suzanne, Hiking California’s Golden Trout Wilderness. Written by the assistant leader.
  • Jenkins, Exploring the Southern Sierra: East SideAn older but still useful reference that may be hard to find.


The Sierra Club is focused on the environment. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Volunteers aided and encouraged by a salaried staff accomplish our work. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club.

On this trip we will learn about the history of this wilderness and how it was established in 1978, with an eye toward learning how wilderness areas are established and protected. The Golden Trout Wilderness has a specific current issue:  we may well see some cows from two active cattle allotments, which were grandfathered in when the wilderness was established. Two other cattle allotments, which generally include the meadows we will be in, have been rested (not grazed) since 2001 to let the vegetation and the riparian environment recover. The Forest Service is currently evaluating whether grazing can resume in these currently closed allotments, perhaps as soon as 2014. The Sierra Club is working to close these allotments permanently, and we’ll talk about how you can get involved to support these efforts.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Inyo National Forest.



Dave Melton grew up in the Mojave Desert next to the Southern Sierra. He took his first Sierra backpack in 1986, and he has been leading trips for the Sierra Club since 2005. After some years living in the Northwest, he is back living in the desert in Rancho Mirage. When not in the mountains, he designs aluminum castings for heavy trucks.

Assistant Leader:

Suzanne Swedo is a botanist who leads wilderness seminars for the Yosemite Conservancy and other organizations as well as her own adventure travel company. She writes trail guides for Falcon Publishing, including Hiking Yosemite National Park, Best Easy Day Hikes in Yosemite, Hiking the Hawaiian Islands, Wilderness Survival and others. She has led Sierra Club outings for 25 years and has hiked the mountains of every continent. She is a trained Wilderness First Responder.

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