“A trunk route with many branch trails and off-trail routes leading to all of the high lakes west of the LeConte Divide.
— Lee Watts
Lake · River/Creek · Swimming · Views
Wilderness permits are required and there are daily quotas, but it is a lot easier to walk in and get a permit for this area, compared to other regions in the Sierras. The ranger station in Prather usually closes by 4:30 p.m.
This main trail from Courtright Reservoir to the Crown Basin passes some great swimming holes along the North Fork of the Kings River, but otherwise, it is long and not very spectacular by itself. Its main feature is the many branch trails and off-trail routes that lead to all of beautiful lakes on the west side of the LeConte Divide. Several off-trail routes and one branch trail cross the LeConte Divide to Goddard Canyon. The Blackcap Trail is a good choice in the early season when the snow-line is at about 10,000 feet.
Climbing up any of the domes around Courtright Reservoir will lead to a great panorama of the entire LeConte Divide as well as beautiful views of the reservoir itself.
If you have any acrophobia, driving across the narrow dam road to the parking lot is an adventure in itself. From the parking lot there is a trail down the hill to the 4-wheel drive road that you can follow to Maxson Meadows. From there, the trail leaves the road and makes an easy run over a low ridge, through Long Meadows, and down to a crossing of Post Corral Creek. This can be hot, and after mid-summer, there may be no water until you reach Post Corral Creek.
After making the wide, shallow crossing of the creek, there is a major branch trail leading to Hell For Sure Pass and the lakes in the Red Mountain Basin. We continued south away from the creek, climbing a rocky ridge and then descending to the North Fork of the Kings River. There are some great camping spots here along the river. The best swimming holes are a little ways down the river. Sue Falls is about .5 miles downstream.
The trail then follows the river with a moderate climb for most of its length. Early in the season, you have to make several wet stream crossings. There are several good camping sites along the river before you reach Big Maxson Meadow, which is no longer much of a meadow. Big Maxson also has more mosquitoes than the downriver sites About .5 miles beyond Big Maxson, there is a major trail branch leading to Bench Valley with its many beautiful lakes.
Continuing up the canyon, the trail gets steeper, especially when it leaves the river and climbs up to the branch trail to Portal Lake. Portal Lake is the gateway to many beautiful and spectacular lakes below the LeConte Divide. The Blackcap Trail continues up and dead-ends at Crown Basin. I've seen some nice pictures of Crown Basin, but like most other runners, I took the branch to Portal Lake.
Portal Lake is a beautiful lake with good camping. Given that it is over 20 miles from the nearest trailhead, I was surprised to meet several other groups in the area.
Relatively easy off-route trails lead from Portal to Pearl Lake and on past several other lakes to Ambition Lake.