Centrally located in Kings Canyon National Park, 12,907 ft Mount Gardiner has one of the most beautiful northern aspects in the High Sierra. The many buttresses and cliffs of this north side tower above Gardiner Basin which contains over a dozen pristine alpine lakes ranging from treeline elevations up to desolate rockbound bodies of water. While unmistakable from many vantage points to the north, the south side is fairly nondescript as a high point along a long ridgeline composed mainly a talus. This ridge extends from the confluence of Bubbs Creek and the South Fork of the Kings River all the way to the Sierra Crest at Mount Gould. Mount Gardiner is the highest point along this long ridgeline with the exception of the endpoint at the Mount Gould plateau. The view from Mount Gardiner is equally impressive to its important stature and prominence in the region. Standing atop the summit one gazes over a vast sea of peaks in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. To the north one looks down on the many lakes of Gardiner Basin with Mount Clarence King, Mount Cotter and the Palisades prominent in the background. To the south lies the rugged and remote Great Western Divide and Kings Kern Divide. While the slightly-lower south summit has a phenomenal view and is only a class 2 scramble, the higher north summit begs one to proceed further and entails a fantastically exposed scramble along a knife edge ridge. GPS route here.
Mount Gardiner can be reached from Road’s End in Kings Canyon via a scenic route up Charlotte Creek or Onion Valley. The Road’s End route will be described here. The approach begins with about 7 miles of trail from Road’s End to Charlotte Creek. Before reaching the Charlotte Creek crossing, turn left leaving the Bubbs Creeek Trail and head up along the west side of the creek. There are several use paths in the beginning that converge a few hundred feet up into a single climbers path. This route is almost entirely used by climbers seeking to reach Charlotte Dome so in true climbers path form, this is a very steep ascent. Instead of switchbacking around obstacles it climbs through them. To be fair, the Charlotte Creek drainage is steep and rugged so there’s good reason a designated trail was never constructed through here. While most of the climbers path is easy to follow, there are some non-obvious sections so be on the lookout for cairns to guide the way. Eventually, the climbers path ends at slabs beneath Charlotte Dome. While climbers would continue up the slabs to steeper rock walls, the route for Mount Gardiner skirts Charlotte Dome on its eastern periphery via some slab traverses and shallow gullies. Sticking to the slabs is effective at avoiding brush but there are some steeper sections where friction is needed (would not be fun in wet conditions). Charlotte Dome is captivating along this traverse as a magnificent sculpted rock feature. After climbs up talus and slabs, one ultimately reaches a forested hanging valley to the northeast of Charlotte Dome. There is evidence of old campsites through here as the now unmaintained Gardiner Pass Trail passes through although the route does not utilize any portion of this trail (which was not located on my visit although I must have stepped across it). Continue up into the basin southwest of Mount Gardiner utilizing friendly slabs and pleasant meadows filled with shooting stars in mid summer. This is beautiful and relatively easy off-trail terrain with excellent views south to Charlotte Dome, Mount Farquhar, North Guard and Mount Brewer. At the head of this basin the terrain becomes steeper but nothing more than second class rock hopping. Much has been made of climb portraying it as an endless slog, but it’s not as bad as one might guess provided one finds and stays on the more solid rocks. This second class rock hopping leads all the way up to the south summit of Gardiner and is quite efficient, but the same cannot be said for the last couple hundred feet to the higher north summit! From the south summit the technical scrambling begins with a class 3 descent to a narrow col separating the south summit and the north summit knife edge ridge. The easiest route climbs from this col on the left (south) side of the ridge and then cross over to the right (north) side. Stay on the right (north) side below the knife edge arete until just before the summit rock where perhaps the most exposed moves are encountered. The holds are good but the exposure is wild on these last few moves. While it looks intimidating when viewed from the south summit, the actual climbing is mostly class 3 with perhaps a few class 4 moves depending on the exact route taken, but the exposure may cause one to take pause depending on comfort and familiarity with this type of terrain. Staying on the knife edge proper for the entire ridge will take the climbing into fifth class territory and a lot more sustained exposure on both sides. From the south summit, one could either retrace steps back down Charlotte Creek to road’s end or descend the east couloir down to the upper reaches of Gardiner Basin. The east couloir route would enable one to explore Gardiner Basin and climb other peaks in the region including Mount Cotter and Mount Clarence King, followed by a carry-over into Sixty Lakes Basin and the beautiful Rae Lakes.