LAKES IN A DAY
Sept. 12, 2008)
Lakes in the Mineral King area of Sequoia
It's been a long, hot, busy summer, but one
that included no backpacking trips and just
a single dayhike; 3.5 miles to Eagle Lake
out of Mineral King.
That is so unlike us. So as August rolled
to a close, we vowed to make a change.
Late-season hiking is spectacular, with mostly-sunny
skies, easy water crossings, no bugs, and
less crowded trails (for the most part).
A key motivator for planning a couple of daylong
hikes is that on September 21 we have a challenging
hike planned. It became necessary for us to
spend some days at altitude while putting
a bit of mileage under our belts to ensure
we will obtain our goal.
That is why at 8 a.m. on the Saturday of the
Labor Day holiday weekend, John and I were
walking along the Mineral King Road in Sequoia
National Park toward the Sawtooth trailhead.
And we weren't the only ones preparing for
a day on the trail.
The ranger station could have easily been
mistaken for a Starbuck's drive-thru. There
were cars lined up along the road and around
the bend with more arriving. It was actually
the weekend warriors racing inside to drop
off their itineraries and obtain backcountry
permits, taking advantage of the three-day
Less than a mile up the road, we were navigating
our way in and around cars, backpacks, hikers,
and gear strewn throughout the Sawtooth parking
lot. It looked like an explosion at REI. There
were people in various stages of packing and
repacking, changing clothes, eating, flossing,
searching for socks, posing for photos, filling
their rental bear canisters, and racing back
to their car to silence an errant car alarm.
It was mayhem, and we resigned ourselves to
the fact that we would be on the trail with
dozens of other hikers. Ah, but we underestimate
ourselves and our ability to get off the beaten
We started up the trail that leads from an
elevation of 7,800 feet to a variety of destinations:
Timber Gap, Monarch Lakes, Sawtooth Peak and
Pass, Glacier Pass, and Crystal Lake. And
it was Crystal Lake that would be our first
The first mile of the trail to Groundhog Flat
has been written about in this series many
times. Contrary to our earlier prediction,
on this section of trail that works its way
up the lower flank of Empire Mountain, we
passed just one dayhiker, although we could
count about 15 more backpackers below us working
their way determinedly up the switchbacks.
We reached Groundhog Flat and hopped across
Monarch Creek to begin ascending the long
switchbacks that work their way around the
ridge toward Monarch Lake . Now and then along
this portion of trail there are panoramic
views through the forest of the Mineral King
valley and peeks at the trail below where
the huffing-and-puffing backpackers now looked
like ants marching toward their next picnic.
In about three miles and 2,200 feet of elevation
gain, the Crystal Lake trail veers off from
the well-traveled trail to lower Monarch Lake
and Sawtooth Pass and enters the remote Chihuahua
Bowl. The trail works its way up a rocky slope
toward an obvious saddle.
Along the way are the old Chihuahua Mine and
a few prospect diggings that divert the attention
from the trail, which is now steeper than
the gradually-ascending Monarch Lakes trail.
These are visible remnants of the Mineral
King area's mining legacy.
In the 1870s, many prospected the area, dreaming
of riches that were never realized. Ironically,
it was us and the dozens behind us who were
reaping the real riches of Mineral King: the
outdoor opportunities and cultural history
now preserved forever within Sequoia National
Upon reaching the ridgetop, it's all downhill,
but anyone who's hiked out of Mineral King
knows that going down never lasts long.
We enjoyed the descent while it lasted, passing
the cutoff to Cobalt Lakes, which are in view
on the other side of the grassy gully below.
When not enjoying the views of the Cobalt
Lakes , there is no other place to look but
up, where the trail leads. And as we travel
down, our destination of the Crystal Lake
dam becomes higher and higher on the mountain.
We made the final ascent of 300 feet on a
trail scattered with the red rocks from Mineral
Peak . We passed a couple of empty campsites
just before reaching the lower lake's dam.
On this busy weekend, we settled in by the
dam – built by the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric
Company ca. 1903 – and had the lake to ourselves.
We munched on nuts and fruit while adding
another layer of clothing. The wind was swirling,
as it always seems to here, and the cirrus
clouds were intermittently dimming the warm
rays of the sun, although there was no threat
of a thunderstorm.
The landscape is alluring here. Crystal Lake
is in a deep cirque with sides so steep that
there is no shoreline to the north and south,
just vertical walls. Looking back across the
Mineral King valley toward the White Chief
area, it is a rocky rainbow of color as every
mountain is a different shade of Sierran rock
– red, black, gray, and white.
To continue the next leg of this loop, we
backtracked on the trail slightly to pick
up an indistinct path that would take us up
and over the hill – actually just an oversized
talus pile – that forms the north side of
Crystal Lake . This began the cross-country
section of this hike.
As we traversed its rocky slope, we eyed Mineral
Peak (elevation 11,615 feet) above, the prominent
red peak between Crystal and the lower Monarch
Lake (elevation 10,380 feet). It was tempting
to make the Class 2 scramble to the summit
pyramid, but decided to save it for another
We boulder-hopped our way up to the low point
on the ridge, a great vantage point from which
to admire Sawtooth Peak (elevation 12,343
feet). From here, it is an easy drop into
the upper Monarch Lake basin (elevation 10,640
feet). To reach the opposite end of the lake,
we traversed the shoreline on the Sawtooth
Peak side. After relaxing next to our second
dam of the day, we descended on a use trail
to lower “Monarch City,” so-dubbed by us because
this was the destination of most of those
backpackers we had seen earlier in the day.
A couple of young men basking in the sun on
a lakeside boulder asked if going to the upper
lake is worth the effort. We gave a resounding,
In order to continue successfully dodging
the onslaught of backpackers, we opted to
return to Mineral King on the old, non-maintained
Sawtooth trail, which has actually disappeared
in some places. After picking up the trail
on the northwest side of the lake, the route
dropped us down the Monarch canyon via a series
of hanging valleys and over a large rockslide
along the south flank of Empire Mountain.
We picked up the trail again at Groundhog
Flat, and the last mile to the trailhead would
be the only time we traveled the same trail
twice that day. We met a half-dozen people
on this section, which was more than we had
seen all day.
With just a little effort, there are still
places where one can avoid the three-day-weekend
crowds. And we returned to the Mineral King
valley in time to prepare dinner for our weekend