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On Foot in the Golden Trout Wilderness

Discovering California's most beautiful native trout.

On Foot in the Golden Trout Wilderness
California’s golden trout are among the most beautiful—and threatened—trout. Although plentiful in the Golden Trout Wilderness, their range today is greatly diminished. ( photo)

In retrospect I guess it was a fair question to ask: “Why are you driving all the way up there and hiking 20 miles to fish tiny creeks with little hope of catching anything over a foot long?” My friend’s face, as he posed this, indicated genuine puzzlement.

“Exactly,” was all I could, or needed, to say.

I watched the confusion melt into a grin of understanding as he caught on: “Yeah, wish I could get the time off.” That was months ago. Now here I am tying on a small caddis on the bank of the headwaters of Golden Trout Creek in long afternoon shadows. The scenery, from the classic alpine creek of my immediate surroundings to some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada framing the view in the distance, repeatedly steals my attention from the task at hand.

Trying to hang back far enough from the edge of the small creek to remain undetected, I make a short cast and let the fly drop gently near a brushy, overhanging bank. The unmistakable flash of gold and crimson that envelopes my offering is nearly instantaneous.

Bringing the feisty little California golden trout to hand, I am awed by its colors. I doubt anyone could ever become so accustomed to the lurid paint of the golden trout as to take it for granted. After I gently remove the fly, the fish idles lazily at my feet for several casual swishes of its tail before giving one strong flick and melting into the golden-hued waters of its home.

There are three native subspecies of golden trout in California: the California golden (also known as the Volcano Creek golden), native to the upper Kern Plateau east of the Kern River; the Little Kern golden, limited to the Little Kern River, which flows out of the Sequoia Wilderness to join the Kern; and the Kern River rainbow, found in the upper main Kern River, which is distinguishable from the native rainbows of the upper Kern by a more golden hue. Even experienced fisheries biologists admit that discerning among the three subspecies in the field can be difficult. The location in which the fish is encountered within the Golden Trout Wilderness (GTW) may be one of the best indicators.

A fly angler hooked into a fish on a bouldery stream.
The Kern River and both its forks were designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1987. (Moe Witschard photo)

It is generally agreed that the California golden is the most brilliantly colored of the three sub-species. Not coincidentally, it has been widely transplanted throughout other parts of the Sierras, and as far away as Wyoming and Alberta.

While it may be uncommon to catch golden trout in the GTW over 12 to 14 inches, the innate beauty of these fish and their surroundings more than make up for the lack of lunkers. In the right areas of the GTW, determined anglers could catch all three subspecies in a single day, as well as wild rainbows and the occasional brown trout.

Hiking In

There are several roads that skirt the edges of the GTW, but much of it is accessible only by strapping a rod to your pack and putting one foot in front of the other. The good news is that if you’re in decent physical shape, the effort doesn’t need to be superhuman, and you are virtually guaranteed a reward at any substantial flowing water.

You don’t need to plan a multi-day backpacking trip in the GTW to find golden trout—there are several areas where day hikes can yield results—but to truly immerse yourself in the experience there’s no substitute for an extended adventure. A hike to the true ancestral drainages of the California golden trout, such as Volcano and Golden Trout creeks, would make for a very long day hike with little time for angling.

The GTW boasts a diverse trail system, allowing for a variety of trips from easy to epic, depending on your motivation. Tom Harrison’s Golden Trout Wilderness Trail Map (, $8.95), Suzanne Swedo’s Hiking California’s Golden Trout Wilderness, and Ralph Cutter’s The Sierra Trout Guide are excellent references.

Most of the GTW is higher than 8,000 feet above sea level, but the hiking isn’t arduous nor the route finding complex. These factors make the GTW a rare combination of relatively intact, lightly trafficked wilderness, combined with fairly easy access.


A fly angler kneeling and peering into a small meadow stream in a mountain landscape.
Golden Trout Creek (right) in Big Whitney Meadow is accessible only by a 7-mile hike. (Moe Witschard photo)

A popular entry point for adventures into the heart of the GTW from the eastern side is Horseshoe Meadow situated high above the town of Lone Pine on Highway 395.The trailhead is on Horseshoe Meadow Road, a spur that branches off Whitney Portal Road west of Lone Pine and ascends—by a series of hair-raising switchbacks—to 10,000 feet. It is at this altitude that you start hiking, so if you live at sea level, spend a night at the trailhead campground and make sure you’re well hydrated prior to hitting the trail.

From the trailhead, a steady climb up and over Cottonwood Pass drops you into Big Whitney Meadow (about 7 miles), an excellent first night’s destination with spectacular views, easy camping, and a small creek full of eager goldens.

Follow Golden Trout Creek downstream as it tucks into a narrow valley and gradually grows in size. The better part of a fine afternoon can easily be spent stopping and wetting a fly at the many little pools and runs along this stretch of trail.

At Tunnel Meadow, the headwaters of the South Fork Kern flow within 100 feet of Golden Trout Creek, with just a low natural barrier separating them before they diverge. It has been determined that in the recent past, Golden Trout Creek actually flowed into the South Fork Kern (and the possibility still exists during unusually high floods), explaining why both are now home to populations of California goldens.

Tunnel Meadow is named for the tunnel that Kern County irrigators built to capture the water (and coincidentally, fish) from Golden Trout Creek and divert it into the South Fork Kern. A combination of relatively recent volcanic and sedimentary activity has again divided the two waters, and Golden Trout Creek now flows west from Tunnel Meadow to join Volcano Creek.

Heading west from Tunnel Meadow takes you along the Volcano Creek drainage—home to a thriving population of goldens. There are a couple of different trail options, depending on how consistently you want to stay near the creek itself. While most of the natives in Volcano Creek are on the small side, larger individuals lurk in the deeper pools—fish of sufficient size to put a healthy bend in a 3- or 4-weight rod.

A fly angler hiding behind a large boulder while fishing a small stream.
Golden trout are wary in their clear, small-water environments. Stalk them carefully using natural obstacles to mask your approach. (Moe Witschard photo)

Heading west along Volcano Creek, you reach the western edge of the Kern Plateau, where impressive Volcano Falls tumbles to the Kern River, forming a natural protective barrier blocking other trout species from intermingling with the native goldens. From this point, continuing west on the trail, you quickly drop roughly 1,800 feet from the plateau to the gorgeous upper Kern River.

The Kern in this area is full of productive pools and huge granite boulders in a deep, dramatic valley, with wild rainbows, Kern River rainbows, and brown trout. Extending your trip to include the upper Kern is worth the additional effort, but keep in mind that in spring and early summer the Kern is a substantial, fast-flowing river, making fishing more challenging. By mid-July, water levels drop to make angling more realistic, and by September it is usually perfect.

As the old saying goes, “There is no free lunch.” At the junction of Volcano Creek and the Kern River you have a decision to make: Either ascend the steep trail back to the plateau, or cross the Kern and either hike for several more days following the Kern downstream, or continue west into the Sequoia Wilderness.

Another access point on the south end of the GTW that requires only 2 miles of hiking to get to great fishing is the trailhead for the Forks of the Kern, named for access to the confluence of the Little Kern and main Kern rivers. From a base camp in this area, you can spend days hiking up both drainages in pursuit of wild rainbows, Little Kern goldens, Kern River rainbows, and brown trout.

The Forks trailhead can also be a beginning or ending point for more extended trips into the GTW to waters few bother to fish. This lack of pressure is based solely on remoteness and effort required, not on a lack of healthy populations of willing trout.

As with any backcountry trip at this altitude, early season accessibility depends on spring temperatures and snowfall, but you can expect to find snow off the trails by mid-June, and great hiking weather continues into late September or early October. Check with the Inyo National Forest (760-873-2400) for trail conditions. Trips after Labor Day—when daytime temperatures are moderate, biting insects are at a minimum, and there are few other hikers—are ideal.

A fly angler crawling on a boulder peering into a plunge pool.
Volcano Creek is home to a distinct subspecies of golden trout and joins the Kern River downstream of Volcano Falls. ( photo)

Challenging weather can happen suddenly at any time of year in the high Sierras. Prepare accordingly. Permits are required for all overnight trips into the GTW, and reservations are recommended, especially for high season, because the number of users at any given time is managed to avoid overuse. For prices and reservations, see or call the number above.

The two largest towns near the GTW, Lone Pine on the east and Kernville to the south, offer well-stocked grocery stores, restaurants, fishing licenses, tackle, and some camping supplies. If you are coming from the south and passing through Kernville, a stop at Kern River Troutfitters is well worth the time. It’s a true family-run operation, and owner and head guide Guy Jeans is always happy to share information and encourage people to just hang out and chat.

Jeans also developed a popular local pattern, the Kern Emerger. In his words, part of what makes the GTW so special is this: “Anglers think when you say ‘Golden Trout Wilderness,’ that you’re talking about little 6- to 10-inch fish. Most anglers don’t know that you can catch 20- to 24-inch Kern River rainbows in the upper Kern River on dry flies. The area is comparable to any remote fly-fishing destination like Montana, New Zealand, or Argentina. I believe it is one of the best, world-class fly-fishing destinations, where you can catch big wild trout in their native drainages.”

For those who’d rather not put every- thing on their backs for an excursion into the GTW, Kern River Troutfitters also offers multiday horse-packing trips

Connecting with California History

Early southern Sierra settlers came seeking one type of gold and inadvertently found another. According to early 1900s Kernville resident Ardis Walker, “Many of the pioneer visitors to golden trout waters reacted with a desire that was almost compulsive; they shared a common missionary urge to spread the golden beauty and life of this native habitat to the barren waters of more elevated and more easterly and northerly lakes and streams.”

A small golden trout held in a hand.
Conservation groups such as CalTrout and California Trout Unlimited—funded in part by companies like Patagonia and Orvis—are working to protect the California golden trout. ( photo)

That desire is easy to understand when you first lay eyes on a golden trout or spend time in the southern Sierra waters they call home. The missionary urge has scarcely waned since those early days, as the California golden trout was named the official State Fish in 1947, and the Golden Trout Wilderness (GTW), an area encompassing roughly 300,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada south of the John Muir Wilderness, was designated in 1978 to protect the trout’s ancestral waters.

Despite these protections, golden trout continue to struggle in their native range. The Little Kern golden is listed as threatened, and there are concerns that other subspecies may follow if more action isn’t taken—hence the focused conservation efforts by CalTrout, Trout Unlimited (TU), and other groups. In collaboration with TU, Orvis helped raise more than $90,000 for golden trout conservation in 2004 and Patagonia’s ongoing World Trout program has raised $13,000 for golden trout conservation through t-shirt sales alone.

Threats to the GTW include habitat degradation, in large part due to cattle grazing (a practice that was grandfathered in parts of the GTW but is now being controlled or phased out), hybridization with genetically similar rainbow trout, and at the lower elevations, predation by brown trout.

In a twist of fate, the efforts of early California settlers to transplant goldens to remote lakes in the Sierras have now provided relatively pure, isolated genetic stocks from which to repopulate impacted sections of native waters.

To learn more about the challenges and successes of the ongoing efforts to protect the golden trout, visit the CalTrout web site ( As a testament to the above-mentioned organizations and many passionate volunteers, it’s worth noting that when you make the effort to hike into the GTW, it’s hard to believe golden trout are at any risk whatsoever: they seem to be everywhere there is enough water to support them.


Fly selection for a successful GTW trip doesn’t need to be complicated. Due to a short, active feeding season at high alti- tudes, golden trout are always hungry. In fact, part of the fun of angling for goldens in this area is their willingness to rise to a variety of dry flies. General attractor patterns, such as Royal Wulffs, Elk- or Deerhair Caddis, mosquito imitations, and Adams (#12-18) all produce.

Emergers such as the X-caddis and Kern Emerger—drifted in the surface film—are also good bets, as are olive Hare’s Ears and Pheasant Tails for getting deeper. Jeans has found success fishing his Kern Emerger with a number of different techniques such as dead-drifting in the surface film, weighted deep under an indicator, and swung downstream wet-fly style.

The upper Kern is home to healthy populations of stoneflies, caddis, and terrestrials through summer and fall. Yellow and orange Stimulators, and rubber-leg variations, are good choices. Golden and black stonefly nymphs (#8-16), Kern Emergers, Z-caddis, and Sparkle Pupas also work well. A variety of terrestrials, particularly hoppers, are essential. Buggers, Matukas, and Muddlers added to the above complete a GTW backcountry fly box.

A particularly effective technique is the terrestrial double whammy: a small (#16-20) lightly greased, winged ant, rigged as a dropper about 12 to 18 inches behind a high-floating dry such as a Stimulator or hopper.

A map of California showing the location of the Golden Trout Wilderness.
(David Deis graphic)


If you plan to just visit the high alpine creeks, a 3- or 4-weight, 7 1/2- to 8 1/2-foot rod is all you need. Since some creeks are brushy down to the water and you are rarely making long casts on alpine creeks, a shorter rod is best.

If your plans include hiking to the larger waters of the upper Kern, a 4- or 5-weight, 8 1/2- to 9-foot rod is more versatile. Four-piece rods are a big advantage, and there are good 5- to 7-piece rods on the market. On a multi-day trip, saving weight makes hiking much more pleasant and can alleviate strain and injury. Consider leaving things like metal rod tubes at home, and go with a lightweight option such as a thin-walled PVC tube or just a rod sock.

While the esthetic allure of the three subspecies of golden trout alone is sufficient to lure you to this wilderness, the real appeal lies in the whole package. There is a certain state of mind that is the byproduct of extended backcountry angling trips, which is hard to achieve in just an evening on the water followed by returning to the creature comforts and distractions of home.

You can travel in no particular hurry, knowing you have days of fishing ahead, knowing there will be a simple meal of pasta in your belly after a great day of hiking, knowing your angling will lead to being zipped in a nylon-and-down cocoon, gazing at a clear sky full of stars. It takes the angling experience to a whole new level.

Catching gorgeous wild trout that rarely see a fly is the icing on the cake. Only in this corner of the southern Sierra can you find golden trout in the same drainages where they’ve existed for the last 10,000 years. To stand on the banks of Golden Trout Creek, gazing up at austere, jagged peaks, and then down at healthy native trout darting about in their home drainage, is a special and increasingly rare experience not quickly forgotten.

Bruce Smithhammer lives in eastern Idaho. He works at High Country Flies in Jackson, Wyoming.

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