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Summer hikes

Big Five Lake number 4       Big Five Lake number 5

 

MINERAL KING:

FOUR LAKES IN A DAY

(Published Sept. 12, 2008)

 

Crystal Lakes in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park.

 

  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 weekend.

  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 path.

  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 stop.

  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 Park.

  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 day.

  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, “Yes!”

  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 guests.








         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
EDITORS/PUBLISHERS: John Elliott and Sarah Barton Elliott
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