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DUE NORTH: Mineral King to Kings Canyon
Reflecting back on last July’s inspiring eight-day backpacking trip, it is difficult to discern exactly why this recreational experience had been particularly satisfying. Our family of four has embarked on a Sierra backcountry vacation every year for the past decade, and this trip ranked among the all-time best.
The weather conditions were less than ideal and a foot injury plagued me from the very first day. But as we contemplate this journey, we find it was one of the most memorable because we triumphed over any adversity using only our wits, perseverance, and strength of character.
Backpacking always takes many hours of preplanning before ever hitting the trail — meal and gear preparation, selection and research of route — but our trip also required some complex transportation arrangements. Our entry point was Mineral King in Sequoia National Park and we would exit the wilderness 50 miles due north (23 miles as the crow flies) at Road’s End, near Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
My brother was entrusted with delivering our truck to the Kings Canyon trailhead parking lot sometime during the week. Our main responsibility was not to lose the key that we stowed away in our gear.
— Day One —
Saturday, July 19, 5.5 miles— It was 11 a.m. when my dad dropped us off at the Timber Gap trailhead (elevation 7,700 feet above sea level). It was warm, but thunderheads were lingering on the mountain peaks.
As usual, we were on the trail an hour or two later than we had originally planned. No matter, however, because everything we needed was being carried on our backs and from the moment we started on our journey, we became free of the time constraints that hold us prisoner at home.
We had an ambitious first-day itinerary of 9.5 miles, where we would camp at Redwood Meadow, but clouds enveloped us before we reached Timber Gap (elevation 9,511 feet) at 2.75 miles. Raindrops were felt as we ate lunch — the last fresh, non-dehydrated meal we would have for more than a week… almost.
We were at the top of the ridge, the wind was gaining momentum, and the temperature plunged.
To the north, which was the direction we were traveling, there were ominous black clouds. Thunder was rumbling in the distance.
We had no choice but to begin walking directly toward the storm. We donned our rain parkas and began the descent to Cliff Creek.
Preparing to descend the Cliff Creek side of Timber Gap and into a thunderstorm in Sequoia National Park on the first day of a weeklong trip into the backcountry last July.
This is an extremely steep section of trail, and we appreciated the fact that we were traveling in a downhill direction. Because of this, we could better enjoy its beauty, which included an abundance of wildflowers, grasses, and ferns.
It was this lush vegetation, along with the moisture in the air, that created a prime habitat for mosquitoes, so we moved briskly through these hillside meadows as they started to pester us. In some places, this rain-soaked undergrowth was so thick that it obliterated the trail, and our boots were drenched by the time we had bushwhacked through it.
We arrived at the Cliff Creek crossing (elevation 7,124 feet) at 3:30 p.m. As we sat on the south side of the creek, switching from boots to sandals for the ford, a light drizzle began to fall.
Fording Cliff Creek. This, coupled with our late start, made the decision to camp for the night here instead of Redwood Meadow an obvious one. We had our choice of established campsites since there was no one else in the vicinity.
We began the chore of setting up camp and locating dry wood for a warming fire. New for us this year was setting up two tents.
Our family — the kids were now 13 and 14 — had finally outgrown our original three-person tent, so we added another two-person tent. As Mom, I had been reluctant about this change in routine.
First, I enjoyed the nighttime conversations when all of us gathered together in these close quarters. Second, I thought we would have too much space, which translates into carrying more weight than we needed.
This first night out proved me wrong. As soon as we got the tents erected, the downpour that had been threatening us all day arrived.
Having this luxury of extra space in the larger tent meant we were able to stow all our gear inside, therefore keeping everything dry. The two-tent scenario became the key to the success of this journey because the rain was here to stay for the duration.
Our Gatorade happy hour was spent in our respective tents — boys in the new one, girls in the larger one. I spent the time nursing a couple of hot spots on my heels that were caused by my wet boots, the first foot-related problem I had ever had while backpacking.
The rain backed off enough for dinner around the campfire and we ravenously attacked our fettucine, garlic mashed potatoes, and sourdough biscuits. It was just about nightfall as we were stowing our food back in the bear-proof storage container, strategically located nearby at the trail junction, when we heard voices on the other side of the river.
Our solitude had ended. Four young men crossed the creek and set up their camp just downslope from us, but mostly out of sight.
We completed our camp cleanup chores, then retired to our tents for the night. And then the storm arrived in earnest.
The thunder warned us of the impending arrival of the downpour as it moved closer and closer. Then came the rain that, combined with the roar of Cliff Creek nearby, became deafening.
The only sound that could be heard above all the waterworks was the crashing of boulders that were being eroded off the steep creek bank and tumbling into the water below. John and I laid awake in our respective tents and listened to the storm, both hoping that our tents and gear would withstand this extreme test of durability.
Continued... Day Two