Golden Trout Gambol, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14124A, Backpacking


  • Enjoy wildflowers and geological wonders
  • Explore a less known and less traveled corner of the Sierra
  • Relax or explore on our planned layover day


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


DatesJun 21–28, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffDavid Melton

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Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

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. (In spite of the name, fishing on our route is not exceptional and the fish are generally small.) Our on-trail route runs through the high northeastern portion of this less-visited area. It will specifically focus on the meadows in the Wilderness that have been closed to cattle grazing for over a decade. The Forest Service is considering returning cows to these areas in 2015. We will enjoy the meadows cattle-free and learn how to participate in the process to keep them that way permanently.


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 to ensure we have sufficient water.  A high snow year 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, our starting trailhead, to get acquainted, shuttle cars, 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 dinner tonight.

Day 2: On the first hiking day we hike five miles, climbing 1,200 feet over Cottonwood Pass and then lateraling to our campsite at Chicken Spring Lake, the only lake on our route, and our high point at 11,242 feet.

Day 3: Today’s nine-mile hike first descends 1,400 feet from Cottonwood Pass. As we descend we’ll get views of the Great Western Divide in the distance and expansive Big Whitney Meadow below.  Continuing on a gently descending stroll, we’ll hike all the way through the meadow to camp in the forest along Golden Trout Creek.

Day 4: We continue south, gradually descending along Golden Trout Creek for two miles to the southern environs of Tunnel Meadow, named for the tunnel that attempted to siphon off water from Golden Trout Creek into the nearby South Fork Kern. Then we turn west and continue descending gradually for four miles to camp anew along Golden Trout Creek in the vicinity of Little Whitney Meadow.  Total elevation loss is about 1,000 feet in a distance of six miles.

Day 5: Today we’ll enjoy a layover day with an optional 10-mile round-trip hike with a 2,000-foot descent to the main branch of the Kern River in the long deep north/south-oriented Kern Canyon. Along the way we’ll walk over the Natural Bridge, catch sight of Volcano Falls, and walk below a cliff of basalt columns.  Other possibilities include exploring the nearby meadows and Malpais (Bad Country) Lava flow, fishing, or just relaxing.

Day 6: We will retrace our steps four miles and up 500 feet to Tunnel Meadow, then turn southeast to follow the South Fork Kern in a gradual descent for five miles through Ramshaw Meadows to our campsite at 8,600 feet in Templeton Meadows.

Day 7: After four miles of nearly level walking along Strawberry Creek and the base of Templeton Mountain (losing 400 feet), we ford the South Fork Kern in Strawberry Meadows, where we’ll linger and explore a bit. Continuing on for five miles, we first climb 500 feet to a saddle where we leave the Golden Trout Wilderness to hug the border of the South Sierra Wilderness, then drop 1,000 feet to camp near massive Monache Meadow, which lies outside the wilderness. This will be our low point at 8,000 feet. 

Day 8: Our last hiking day is also the hardest day with nine miles total, a climb of 1,200 feet and a descent of 3,700 feet. Leaving camp, we will climb 1,000 feet in two miles and level off for two more miles by long skinny Summit Meadow before gaining the broad saddle of Olancha Pass. Gazing out at the mountain ranges between us and Death Valley, and looking down on the southern Owens Valley, we will descend 3,700 feet in five miles on generally sandy tread to our exit Sage Flat Trailhead (5,800 feet). Our packs will be light, but we’ll be 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, June 21 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 (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.  The San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose airports in the Bay Area are a full day’s drive (380 miles) plus crossing the Sierra.

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

Our last day is long, and the car shuttle will take some time.  For those flying home, the only practical option is to fly out the following day, on Sunday, June 29.

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. The distances and campsite elevations would make the trip a 4 were it not for the mostly moderate elevation losses and gains. The 3 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, all on-trail, is about 47 miles, not counting any distance we cover on the layover day. The second moving day and the last three moving days are each nine miles long.  Our greatest ascent is 1,200 feet, on both the first and last moving days. Our greatest descent is 3,700 feet on the last day.  Campsite elevations range from 8,000 to 11,200 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 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 feet) 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. Paradoxically, this generally drier area of the Sierra may get the most rain in the July monsoon. 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. Nighttime temperatures may be below freezing. 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.
  • Seven 7.5 minute series maps are needed to cover the entire route. Getting two-three custom topo maps printed from an internet source may be more practical. The topo maps are:
  • Cirque Peak
  • Haiwee Pass
  • Kern Lake (for the layover day)
  • Kern Peak
  • Johnson Peak
  • Monache Mtn.
  • Templeton Mtn.


  • Swedo, Suzanne, Hiking California’s Golden Trout Wilderness.
  • Jenkins, Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side.  An older but still useful reference that is no longer in print.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. Published by the California Academy of Sciences. A general reference to Sierra life. It covers trees, wildflowers, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, and other life in the mountains.


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.

The area of this trip has a specific current issue. The Golden Trout Wilderness was established in 1978 with significant Sierra Club involvement. At that time, four existing cattle allotments where grazing had occurred historically were grandfathered into the wilderness. Two of the four allotments (Whitney and Templeton) have been rested since 2001, and the recovery of the meadows is being studied to determine if grazing should return, possibly as soon as 2015. The scoping process for this decision, to be made by the Forest Service, is expected to start in the spring of 2014. We will learn about this process, how meadow health is assessed, and the role we can play in keeping these meadows cow-free.

In 2014 The United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, plus the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure 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 itthe 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, including the Golden Trout since then.

California and Nevada are key states for Wilderness. In the original 1964 Act, California got more wilderness areas designated than any of the other 12 states with units in the new National Wilderness Preservation System (although Montana had somewhat more acreage.) Out of 54 wilderness areas designated in 1964, 13 were in California—the largest being the John Muir wilderness. Today, California alone has 149 wilderness areas. And California is second only to Alaska in the percentage of its land area that is designated as Wilderness—Alaska has 16 percent, California nearly 15 percent. No other state even comes close. California is also one of few states that boasts its own state wilderness system, inspired by and modeled on the federal system. California State Parks will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2014 and will highlight all 12 of the state wildernesses during the year. 

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

Jindra Goodman is an experienced backpacker who has participated in and led many High Sierra outings with the Sierra Club. In addition, she has backpacked in New Zealand, Nepal, Patagonia, the Alps, the Tatras, and the Czech Republic, where she learned her backpacking skills as a youth. She is also an active member of several wilderness search and rescue teams in the Bay Area and Sierras. Jindra recently retired after four decades as a professor of meteorology at San Jose State University to enjoy her grandchildren, skiing, running, swimming and cycling.


Gillian Bailey

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