Night Cap Peak

Night Cap Peak beckons, while the Emigrant Wilderness provides an excellent outing

We reached the foot of the mountain early, which should have tipped us off; climbing trips never go ahead of schedule. But the summit looked inviting and achievable, so the three of us eagerly hiked toward it.

Reynolds Peak was our goal, and we approached the 9,679-foot peak from Ebbetts Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail. My friends, Bob and Polly, and I climbed laboriously but steadily. Only after we reached the summit did we see a surprising view: crowning the landscape of the Mokelumne Wilderness was the higher summit of the real Reynolds Peak about a mile to the north. I had read the map incorrectly, and we had climbed the wrong mountain!

“Fool’s gold” was once a nemesis of miners in these parts. Today, the term might describe the wrong turns and unexpected finds of many outdoor enthusiasts; if you’ve ever struck it, you’re in good company. Our wayward effort to climb Reynolds Peak was not the only time I’ve felt the plight of unlucky 49ers in these mountains.

Panoramic Point boasts an unparalleled view of high Sierra peaks in Kings Canyon National Park and beyond. Spectacular in summer, the 7,520-foot vista becomes even grander in winter, or so I imagined. I planned to ski about 2.5 miles to reach it in February and I was glad to find that a Sno-Cat had broken a trail to it, making my travel faster and easier, or so I thought.

An hour and then two passed as I delved deeper into the forest. Puzzled that I hadn’t reached my peak, I realized the Sno-Cat had detoured around it, leading me instead toward a destination unknown. Eventually I reached Park Ridge Lookout, miles from where I had planned to go. Miners found precious little gold this far south, yet I had managed to find fool’s gold once again.

But Park Ridge offered its own grand perspective and I didn’t regret the detour. It gave me a longer, more rewarding day on my skis and led me to return another time that winter to reach Panoramic Point. That second trip introduced me to other winter trails beside ancient giant sequoias and to rewarding mountain summits that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.

Another time, I attempted Night Cap Peak with my cousin Andy and our friend Scott. Our goal was a 10,641-foot summit in the Emigrant Wilderness near Sonora Pass. I’ve spent a good amount of time in those parts, and Andy knows those mountains better than anyone. But that didn’t stop us from missing a turnoff, misinterpreting a trail sign and ultimately summiting a different peak than the one we had planned to climb.

No one seemed upset at missing Night Cap Peak, as we had a night cap at the Kennedy Meadows bar that evening. The summit we did reach was nearly as high and had a grand view of its own. Besides, the outing involved eight hours of hard work and we couldn’t bring ourselves to regret doing no more. Similarly, Bob, Polly and I were probably better off climbing the mountain we did, rather than hiking hours longer to ascend its similar neighbor.

No one sets out to find fool’s gold, and not every wrong turn turns into a positive experience, but outdoor types may discover that unplanned detours and discoveries can lead to a mother lode of golden memories.

Matt Johanson wrote the new guidebook, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”

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