Rock walls rise off the lake precipitously on the north, west and east sides, over 2000 feet up in all three directions. This is not uncommon in the classic U-shaped basins of the glacial Sierra, but the effect is exaggerated here. I’m not claustrophobic, but being squeezed between such steep walls imbued a subtle sense of dread to our time at the lake.
On a more prosaic note, the steep canyon walls meant that even at the height of summer, we lost the sun an hour and a half before sunset and gained it a full two hours after sunrise.
Was it all worth it? At least for me, yes. Are there similarly beautiful lakes that aren’t 27 miles from the nearest trailhead? There absolutely are. But the bizarre, niche appetite to make it to these especially empty spaces is part of their irrational pleasure.
We had considered a full layover day at the lake, but the next morning we wandered the west side of the lake and eventually decided to pack up and slowly move our way down the valley and up into the Finger Peak drainage.
Within a few hundred feet, the trees gave way to this view. This was an unexpected bounty, silver on top of gold, another screensaver come to life.
We followed the stream on the east side, which is more open.
We had all day to go a few miles and paused often to take in the extraordinary scene. The sheer riot of rock behind us and this soft, perfect meadow in front… it was almost too much to take.
After lunch, we started wrapping our way southwest up the Finger Peak drainage.
A last look across the gap created by Goddard Creek to the peaks at the heart of the Kings Canyon high country.
The going was mostly easy as we climbed past unnamed lakes.
Occasionally we found ourselves doing some climb-y stuff that we could’ve avoided if we’d tried harder.
We stopped early at the unnamed lake around 10,600.
We came across an old metal American Airlines spoon but not a single existing campsite.
We ate dinner and watched the light change across Ragged Spur: as prehistoric, raw and gnarly a landform as you are likely to come across up here.
It was hard not to keep checking out the very imposing headwall that holds Finger Col, the bluntly obvious notch in the center, and the modest crux of the entire route.
We woke to Finger Col Day – a pass that the internet told us was easy if you took the proper ledge and perhaps treacherous if you did not.
We worked around the lake and were almost immediately climbing steep slabs and jagged talus. It was a windless morning and sweat was soon dripping into my eyes.
We slogged up the talus on a good line that nonetheless deposited us surprisingly far south of the Col itself, almost directly under Finger Peak. There is a more direct line, though this one was perfectly workable.
From this southern perspective you could see straight through the break in the headwall to the mountains on the other side – it didn’t photograph well, but was a kind of profound vision in the moment. This is also a good view of the ledge, which is the chunky rocks starting towards the left side of the photo and winding its way towards the pass.
We huffed and puffed a bit more and then, all of a sudden, we were looking down on the lonely tarn just below the Col, with much of the Kings Canyon high country rising behind. (It was also a good vantage to see how quickly the smoke had dissipated. Blessings to the smoke gods.)
We made our way onto the ledge that is the subject of some internet consternation and… it was a wide, easy boulevard. There is one spot where you must swing around a boulder that blocks much of the ledge, but it was one quick move and the rock had good handholds. As an exposure wuss, I can tell you that this pass is nothing to worry about. I wish I’d taken more photos, but the whole ledge was over in a few seconds.
And then we were in the pass. Much jubilation and photo taking.
The titular finger is only visible on the far side, a thin rectangle of striated rock. It somehow manages to support a tree growing out of it near the top despite sitting at 11,600 feet.
It’s a very cool pass, architectural and a bit mysterious. In my modest experience, it’s the winner of the “Best Personality” Award in the Sierra Cross Country Pass Yearbook.
Soon it was time to go. The far side is steep but easy sand at the top.
Looking back at the Finger.
As suggested, we angled moderately right (northwest) and worked through talus, steep slabs and merciful grassy ramps (albeit grown so tall and thick that you couldn’t always tell where your foot would land).
I went for a swim in the cold, shallow water. Clouds were building and stealing our sunshine, which chilled the air considerably.
The route from the Col to the lake looks a whole lot harder from here.
Field repair in a nice place.
We reluctantly got going, walking past Midway Lake and the insane, sheer formations of Kettle Ridge.
The view from the cliffs above Portal Lake was amazing.
The topo looks doable on the right (north) side of Midway’s outlet stream, but in person it was pretty chunky and we were not particularly excited to attempt it. One of us went scouting and found a route that would work but required jumping 5 or 6 feet onto a narrow ledge.
With a minimal amount of map reading, an easy and beautiful alternative presented itself, wrapping south and then northwest around the head of Crown Basin.
Peering down into Crown Basin. We would stay high and skirt to the right, never making it down to the ponds below.
This improvised route went perfectly: glorious slabs with pine trees and a generous, mild grade. It probably added ¾ of a mile, but we got to stare at the profound peaks of Blackcap Basin the whole way. I’d recommend this route to anyone wandering this area.
And finally: Portal Lake.
We lay in the grass under a perfect shade tree while shadows danced across the White Divide. Portal is a fine lake — right at the subalpine level with trees and grass but still open to the sky and surrounded by granite.
Eventually it was time to go, and unfortunately that meant the end of the high country. From Portal, we plunged immediately down into the trees, and with it the vibe shifted into trudge mode.
This is the pain and pleasure of starting from Courtright: many miles of forest lead to some brilliant and rarely visited high country. We still had over 18 miles left.
We eventually ran into an older guy in a bright white button down - our first other hiker in 3 days.
We were all ready to stop for the night by Big Maxson Meadow, but it was pretty uninspiring. Hot forest, mediocre water, and some old cabins.
So we pushed on, and ultimately found a great spot hidden away behind this granite pool on the North Fork Kings River. We were down at 8300 feet, and in another world: trees, ants, allergies, bats in the night.
If I were to do it again, I’d stay at Portal for the last night and resign myself to a long last day. Splitting the exit into two days was bad for morale.
We were walking by 7.
There is a rather beautiful and Emigrant-like area of smooth slabs where you leave the Kings River for good (x8028 on the topo). A large family was camped there, with many happy children running around. They were packing up to go, and for good reason: clouds were building, and the forecast called for rain. In fact, a couple of strong monsoonal surges meant that it poured on and off for weeks in the Sierra starting this very afternoon. Lucky timing for us.
A few more hours, some horses, maybe a podcast for the last few miles, and we were back at the “Bond villain bunker” by the reservoir. Then it was over and we were on the road, drinking gigantic chocolate shakes and dreaming of the next trip.
For my nerds:
Courtright > Hell For Sure Pass > Martha Lake > Reinstein Pass > Lake 10,232 > Finger Col > North Fork Kings > Courtright