Gold in the California High Country

David Whitehouse is a co-founder of The Sierra Standard. The Sierra Standard is made up of a handful of outdoor enthusiasts from California who are constantly fly fishing, backpacking, hiking, camping, and hunting. If it’s an excuse to be in the outdoors, they’re all about it. It’s a passion. The Sierra Standard is an outlet to share these adventures with like-minded outdoorsmen and provide useful information through product reviews and other articles. To stay current on what they are up to you can follow them at and other social media outlets like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  

My borderline obsession with the outdoors (and more specifically the Sierra Nevada mountain range) began when I first picked up a fly rod.  I had fished many times before with the traditional spinning rig. My feelings toward this style were quickly tainted because of my unconscious connection (however unfair) between it and the planted, trashed, and over populated “party reservoirs” located in much of California’s foothills.  Rather than quit a hobby that I had begun to develop a passion for I headed for “greener pastures”.  This search lead me straight to the high country of the Sierra Nevadas.

As soon as I started exploring the Sierra Nevadas I was driven to fly fish as much of the awe inspiring landscape as possible.


I quickly found that there was a fish to match this beautiful, yet rugged scenery.  When I heard about the golden trout and the struggle to cross paths with it, I took it as a personal challenge to trek further and higher than I had been before in order to find them.  I began gathering as much information as possible to determine what elevations they inhabit, their diet, and the type of water they prefer.  

California is actually home to two different types of golden trout – the California golden trout and the much rarer Little Kern golden trout. A variety of factors drove me to pursue the California golden trout, although the Little Kern goldens will certainly see some of my flies in the near future. Goldens are a subspecies of rainbow trout, although they are often not as big as their relatives due to location, food sources, and competition from other species.

As I continued my research on this reclusive California native fish I learned some surprising statistics regarding their locations. Depending on what you classify as a “high elevation” lake, golden trout are either the most or second-most frequently found species of trout in California’s high elevation lakes, with rainbows a close second. Learning this exponentially raised my hopes for catching one of these fabled golden trout. Other sources echoed the idea that these fish weren’t as rare as people made it seem; however, the lakes and streams in which they call home are rarely trodden due to inaccessibility. This only strengthened my desire to trek out to their remote habitat.

It took me many months to sift through the possible lakes and streams in the high country that contained these beautiful trout.

Daniel Rollins
A California Golden trout. Photo by Daniel Rollins.

I would read about a stream or lake that was said to be teaming with goldens and then try and cross reference the rumor with other forums, websites, and books. I all too often found dead ends and rarely discovered other confirming posts. Like any good fishing spot, success would be determined by leg work. I realized that I would have to just pick a likely location and explore for myself.

Even though they can reside at 8,000 feet elevation and sometimes lower, golden trout thrive at 10,000 feet and above. I finally decided on an area that was over 10,000 feet elevation – But before I ventured out I had to wait for the winter to recede from the high country.  Sometimes the golden’s habitat never fully shakes the winter which can make the hike much more treacherous and backpacking in more challenging. Most areas in which you are likely to find goldens you will have to pack into which (for me) is part of the allure.  

Gathering my gear I treked into the high country of the Sierra Nevadas.  It took me all day to simply hike into the backcountry lake I had chosen for my first golden trout quest. As I hiked I became more and more content with the idea that I might not actually catch one of these beautiful trout.  The hike alone was long and tiring, but absolutely stunning and more than worth it.  I was shocked by the beauty that continues whether or not I am present to see it.  The idea that few people venture into where I was heading makes me reluctant to even share these photos as I feel it needs to be earned. 

As if the gorgeous scenery wasn’t enough, I was lucky enough to catch not just one golden trout, but many.  The day flew by as so many of my fellow anglers can understand.  As I headed back to camp and lay on the cold, hard ground, sore and exhausted, I reflected on the day behind me. I realized that part of what made the trip so satisfying was the fact that all the work that I had put into the hunt had paid off.  



In an effort to point you in the right direction I’ll note two well known spots. The first destination one should look into is Cottonwood Lakes. Cottonwood Lakes is made up of five different high country lakes in which only a few actually contain golden trout. After speaking with a local California Department of Fish and Game employee I learned that they actually use the goldens in this lake to breed and supply the state’s other lakes with goldens.

The other location I am going to suggest researching further is obviously the Golden Trout Wilderness. This public wilderness was aptly named because of the sheer volume of goldens in the area. If you have caught golden trout fever these are some great areas to start your hunt.
The hunt for gold in California has never been easy.  Even though you will likely find yourself, much like me, exhausted from a multi-day excursion in search of gold in the Sierras, just remember – if you put in the effort, it will pay off. I tell you about my hunt in order to encourage you on yours. If you are looking for an easy adventure I recommend looking elsewhere. If you are looking for the experience of a lifetime, look no further than a trek for golden trout in the California high country.

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2 comments on “Gold in the California High Country

  1. I caught my first Golden up in the Cottonwood Lk.s basin. My son and I made the trek up there a few years ago. What an awesome trip with my boy and beautiful, beautiful fish.

  2. That’s awesome! That’s what it’s all about, right? Sharing these moments with your kids.

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