Golden Trout Wilderness and Cottonwood Lakes

This is another post that has been sitting in my archives for far to long, as I did the adventure mentioned here last year. That being said, now is the time that people would start venturing up here so I am sure it can help a few adventures and fishermen to explore an often overlooked area of the Sierras.

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Horseshoe Meadows Campground

The entry point and home base for the Golden Trout Wilderness and Cottonwood Lakes is the campground Horseshoe Meadows.

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This campground is located 45 minutes up from Highway 395 at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet. It is a beautiful and hard to get to area that is first come first serve and has about 10-15 spots. The distance away from civilization provides a beautiful seclusion that allows for amazing nighttime views. Below is a photo from the drive up, so you can see how far away from people you really are, that is the Alabama Hills off in the distance.

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The campground has a couple of pit toilets and is self registration for about 6 bucks a night. I have been twice on weekends and have not had trouble finding a spot but I imagine there are some times of year where it will be full so best to get there somewhat early.

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From the trailhead here you almost immediately enter the Golden Trout Wilderness.

Golden Trout Wilderness

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As the name implies, this area is home to the Golden Trout, a sub species of the Rainbow Trout that is native to California. These fish are a prized catch for their golden skin and appearance and the fact that they are found in so small of an area. The fish themselves do not grow too big so it is harder to catch enough to eat but just the fun that can be had with fly fishing catch and release is what draws many to the area.

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As soon as you leave the trailhead you will see the sign that lets you know you are now entering the wilderness. Make sure to note the rules as there are only two of the six Cottonwood Lakes that you can actually keep the fish you catch out of, the rest are catch and release.

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The trail winds through the Forrest and up over a small hill before descending down into the valley and giving you a view of the beautiful meadows and stream. We didn’t spend much time here on the way there but on the way back we checked out the stream and saw a lot of small golden trout swimming in the pools. Be careful to sneak up on the fish because they are extremely skittish and will be gone before you even see them if you are not quiet.

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From there the trail starts an uphill climb for about 900 feet of elevation gain before topping out at the first Cottonwood lake.

Cottonwood Lakes

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This series of six high altitude lakes butt up against the climb up New Army Pass and the trail to Mt Langley, a California 14er. They are as beautiful as you can imagine and so remote that you will often be all alone when fishing them. After inspecting the lakes we decided to pull out the fly rods and test our luck at the long Cottonwood Lake number 4. Depending on the rain and time of year some of the smaller, like number 2 may not have water.

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Now regardless of whether you even catch anything, you will be hard pressed to find a better view then just casting in the shadow of the Sierras.

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We spent hours fishing without much luck and it seems to pass as minutes. Finally we were able to snag a couple small goldens. We kept them long enough for a picture (above) then threw them back in the water as they were not much bigger then 6 inches. For us though, the fishing and the relaxation that came from casting your fly in such a beautiful location was payment enough, but I was glad to be able to see a golden in real life as well.

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Right as we were packing up our stuff the rain rolled in and we got caught in a downpour. Make sure to be careful when up this high as the lakes are around 11,000 feet so you are very susceptible to lighting at an elevation like this.

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We high tailed it back to camp and heated up our freeze dried meals before retiring for the night after an epic day fishing in the Golden Trout Wilderness.

Have you been up in this area? I would love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments, as well as any ideas you have for me on places to fly fish in the area.

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  • As you might have read, recently I got rained out just to the south of Cottonwood Lakes Basin. Mount Langley was one of my goals that I did not reach. It was also a bonus goal on my Mount Whitney trip in 2010. This view of Langley really makes me want to play hooky and go finally bag that peak.

    • Ya it is an epic peak! I have not done it yet either, I would love to take it down one of these days too.

  • Shawn Morrish

    Can you fish in the creek near the beginning of the trail by the campgrounds? I may be dragged up here (long story) for a night but wont have time to hike into the lakes. Wouldn’t mind relaxing while trying the creek for a bit.

    • I would assume you can fish there but the fish available would probably be very small. That being said the creek is a beautiful place to just relax as well so I am sure you will enjoy it!