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Summer hikes

     

HOCKETT MEADOWS:

LAND OF MANY MEADOWS

Hockett Meadow Ranger Station

PART ONE

(Published Oct. 23, 2009)

  It was late afternoon, and John and I were sitting on the northern edge of Hockett Meadows. We traded off the camera and binoculars, one taking photos of the deer grazing in the meadow and the historic ranger cabin while the other scanned the meadow’s perimeter. Also attracting our attention was the mountain to the east where wisps of smoke were emanating from the two-month-old, lightning-caused Horse Fire.
   A warm breeze rustled the treetops. Whitman Creek trickled nearby. The sky was blue and cloudless. The meadow was golden and bug-free. It was the last week of September 2009; the last warm days before autumn returned to the Sierra.
   There would normally be no reason to check our watches regularly while enjoying this time outside, but we had a rare backcountry happy-hour invitation that we weren’t about to miss.
   We started this two-night adventure earlier that day. Although we have backpacked extensively out of the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park, we had (1) never been to Hockett Meadows and (2) never backpacked without our children.
   Backpacking together as a family was a way for us to introduce our kids to the gentle-yet-rugged, nearby-yet-remote wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks while also exposing them to life unplugged — day after day of no television, computer or handheld gaming, or portable music. We started these annual excursions when they were five and six and continued to head out each summer, eventually increasing the length of the trips, until they were 17 and 18.
   This current September trip was feasible to plan since our children are both now off at college. We have slowly realized that there is some semblance of freedom as we don’t have to adhere to the school calendar anymore.
   The weather in late September could have changed to winter on short notice, so we were fortunate for this unseasonable warmth. But planning this early-fall trip was intentional as our last two backpack trips in 2006 and 2007 were soggy events as the August thunder-and-lightning storms became a daily ritual.
   We began making our way to the Hockett area at 9:30 that morning. We embarked on the Tar Gap Trail, which is located at the far west end of Cold Spring Campground in Mineral King.
   Mineral King is a narrow valley where previously we thought that the only way to walk out of it was over a steep mountain pass. Not so when heading toward Hockett Meadows.
   This 12-mile route barely strays from a contour line. The trailhead elevation is 7,500 feet; Hockett Meadows is at 8,499 feet.
   It was summer’s end, which is always when we are in our best shape as we have a season’s worth of hiking that has conditioned and acclimatized us. Our packs, at about 35 pounds each, were 20 or more pounds lighter than when we would travel with children, as we always ensured that they were abundantly fed, warm, and comfortable.
   We were quickly up and over 8,000 feet in elevation within the first mile of the trail as we climbed west out of Mineral King along the steep valley’s south flank. We crossed Mosquito Creek, then Mineral Creek, and from here on out it was all new trail for us.
   As most Three Rivers residents know, the “Tar Gap” region has in recent years been the site of an annual large-scale prescribed fire.  The conifer forest is now thinned, which provided us panoramic views from this new perspective, looking north across the Kaweah River’s East Fork canyon to the long and winding Mineral King Road and farther up and across the valley to the high country of Empire Mountain, Glacier Pass, and Sawtooth Peak.
   The trail took us around the mountain and turned south. We crossed near the headwaters of Deer Creek then took off the packs for a lunch break at Clover Creek.
   We were surprised at how fast we had covered the miles. Depending on which trail sign we chose for our calculations, we had traveled about eight or nine miles and had just three to go. It was not quite 1 p.m., so we lingered over lunch on a sunny rock overlooking the sparkling creek.
   About a mile beyond Clover Creek, the Tar Gap Trail meets the Atwell-Hockett Trail. From here, a sign informed us that we had a half-mile to Horse Creek and two miles to Hockett Meadows.
   The sign also let us know that Mineral King is 10 miles away via the trail on which we had just traveled and that it is eight miles to Atwell Mill. In our quest to avoid taking the same trail twice, the Atwell Trail would be our return route.
   We easily rock-hopped across Horse Creek, which gave us another reason to appreciate late-season hiking. A crossing here in early season would definitely require that the feet get wet.
   We now entered the high plateau that contains Hockett Meadows, as well as Sand Meadows, Summit Meadow, Mitchell Meadow, South Fork Meadows, Green Meadow, Wet Meadow, Cyclone Meadow, and even more unnamed meadows. This is definitely the land of many meadows.
   There are campsites near Horse Creek and even a permanent cable rigged between trees for easy food-hanging. After more than a decade of food-hanging high jinx, we came to the conclusion that these cables should be placed on trees at regular increments throughout the entire Sierra Nevada Mountain Range solely for our convenience.
   The Hockett region is obviously bear country as there wasn’t a stretch along the dry, dusty trail that day that we didn’t see bear tracks. No bears were sighted, just pawprints.
   The first sighting of Hockett Meadows is an unforgettable scene. The trail breaks out of the trees and there’s a classic view of the log cabin perched at the edge of the meadow with horses tied to the hitching post and the American flag high on a pole billowing in the breeze.
   We were personally directed by the hospitable backcountry ranger to the prime campsite (with bear box) that was situated at the edge of the forest and overlooks the meadow. We set about emptying our packs and pitching the tent.
   Soon, we had stowed the food bag, rinsed the trail dust off in the creek, changed into clean clothes, and even taken a walk through the woods to scout the location of the open-air pit toilets. And it was just mid-afternoon, so we whiled away the rest of the day enjoying the meadow vistas from a sun-drenched boulder.
   Now it was five o’clock and we had an appointment to keep.
   Joe Ventura, the backcountry ranger at Hockett Meadows for the past eight summers, had invited us to join him and his cabin guests for wine and hors d’oeuvres. Although this was sheer luxury for us, Joe had an ulterior motive.
   This was Friday and he was closing the cabin for the winter on Monday. Any extra provisions had to be packed up and out.
   It was a lot to ask of us, but we decided to assist. In addition, we were invited into the cabin.
   This was the first time ever that we had a roof over our heads while backpacking. The cabin is quaint and comfortable with a wood-burning stove, a hand-pump at the kitchen sink, and a priceless view.
   We hadn’t even been away from civilization for a day, but enjoyed eating fresh food and mingling with good company. In fact, we were so rested, clean, organized, and well-fed that we had to remind ourselves that this was a backpacking trip. The kids were going to be sorry that out of all the miles they had logged through the Sierra, this is the trip that they missed. They would have so enjoyed the creature comforts and camaraderie.
   Just about dark, which comes a lot earlier in September than in July or August, we returned to our camp and set about boiling water for our dehydrated pasta dinner. We cleaned the dinner dishes and brushed our teeth by the light of the campfire, wandering away from its warmth to view the star-filled sky and the glow on the mountain from the Horse Fire.
   The night was chilly as the temperature had dropped rapidly when the sun disappeared behind a ridge, eventually dipping to the low 40s. We were snug in our sleeping bags and fell asleep reading by the light of our headlamps, the only sound being Whitman Creek flowing peacefully through the meadow.
   Sometime in the night, we were startled awake by a loud crash that echoed off the mountainside.
   Thunder? Dynamite? The deafening sound could have been either, although this didn’t make sense, not even to our sleepy brains.
   Within minutes, another blast penetrated the silence of the night. We realized that these eerie, ground-shaking crashes were burned-out trees toppling to the ground on the mountain above us where the Horse Fire was burning its way through the forest.
   Nine more fell throughout the night.
 

PART TWO

(Published Nov. 6, 2009)

Evelyn Lake

When we awoke, the view from inside our tent revealed that smoke from the Horse Fire was hanging low over this idyllic place known as Hockett Meadows. As the sun rose over the ridge where the fire was burning, its beams cut through the haze like a laser through glass, warming us and causing the dew-laden meadow to sparkle as if covered with diamonds. It was eerily beautiful.
   As the breeze turned around, it pushed the smoke back up and over the east ridge where it belonged, but what we saw when the air cleared was alarming. From our perspective, it looked as though a section of the 800-plus-acre fire was burning toward the historic Hockett Meadows Ranger Station.
   Granted, the fire monitors assigned to this blaze were ready for anything. There was a pump in Whitman Creek, which flows through the meadow in front of the cabin, and fire hoses lay ready for action around the perimeter of the log structure.
   Brandon Dethlefs of Three Rivers, fire crew leader stationed at Hockett Meadows to closely monitor the fire, informed us later that morning that the fire was over a quarter-mile away and posed no threat to the area’s cultural resources. He also explained that monitors walked the circumference of the fire daily to map it, take measurements, and record its activity.
   This was a challenging and risky job as the fire was burning in mountainous terrain, was growing daily and, as mentioned in the previous installment of this story, trees could be heard crashing to the ground regularly. Another monitor had the task of climbing to a high ridge opposite the fire each day for an overview of its location and behavior.
   After bidding goodbye to Joe, Don, and Tony as they rode out on patrol along the trail between our campsite and the meadow, we visited with Brandon as he ventured out toward his fire-observation post. Then we packed some food and water and also hit the trail.
   We were headed for Cahoon Rock, the site of an old fire lookout. Fire lookouts are situated where the views are extensive for obvious reasons, and that’s why we like to visit them, too.
   Hockett Meadows is located on a high plateau at 8,500 feet in elevation. Most destinations within day-hiking distance from here vary little in elevation; Cahoon Rock is a three-mile hike and just under 9,300 feet in elevation.
   It was an enjoyable walk, first on flat terrain leading away from the cabin and paralleling Whitman Creek while passing many small meadows. We crossed the creek on a wooden footbridge and began a moderate climb through a shady conifer forest, now paralleling another unnamed waterway, of which there are many as they are the irrigation for the myriad meadows that dominate this region.
   At the two-mile mark, we came to a trail junction. It was Evelyn Lake to the north and Cahoon Rock to the west.
   We continued toward Cahoon Rock and soon there was an opening in the trees and another meadow came into sight. We were rounding a ridge on one side and, just below us, so was this large, L-shaped meadow, which continued for as far as we could see.
   The trail skirts the meadow at its upper end then turns due west for the final ascent to the former lookout site. Just before the start of this gentle climb, a massive fir tree had fallen across the trail.
   Rounds had since been cut out to clear that portion from the trail but the girth of the tree made us stop and inspect it. This tree on its side was taller than we were, nearly six feet in diameter.
   The trail ends on a flat-topped mountain with 360-degree views, and we set about acquainting ourselves with the area. We first stopped along the east side of the summit plateau to look out over the Hockett region toward the peaks of Mineral King.
   After this orientation, we moved to Cahoon Rock proper, over on the west side where the panorama increases with each step.
   Here is a rock pinnacle surrounded by a jumble of boulders. It’s hard to imagine there was formerly a structure on this rock pile, and there is not much left from the lookout days except some pieces of metal and a concrete form with “1932” and the initials “G.B.” and “B.H.” scrawled into it.
   This is where we ate lunch. As we suspected, we had quite a view.
   Across the canyon to the west is Homers Nose. Surveying the steep terrain surrounding this distinctive promontory we saw more grass-covered clearings and could pick out the rounded tops of giant sequoias towering over the other trees in the forest. There are many groves of Big Trees in this southern portion of Sequoia National Park: Horse Creek Grove, Eden Creek Grove, South Fork Grove, Homers Nose Grove, and several others just out of view behind peaks and ridges.
   To the north, the Mineral King Road is a ribbon winding its way up the mountain above the East Fork canyon.
   Well beyond is Moro Rock, and we were seeing it from a new angle. From this vantage point, it has a pyramid shape; we only identified it because something shiny in the trees caught our attention. Using binoculars, we saw that it was the sun reflecting off cars in the parking lot at its base.
   Beyond here is Little Baldy. To the north and east, the peaks of the Great Western Divide are on the horizon.
   We packed up our lunch of dried fruit and nuts and wandered around the mountaintop looking for signs from the past, but there doesn’t seem to be much left, so it was off to Evelyn Lake. If we would have had to backtrack a mile down the trail to the junction, then 1.5 miles to Evelyn Lake and back out, we may have talked ourselves out of visiting the lake in the same day. But because firefighter Brandon shared a noteworthy hiking tip, we were on our way to Evelyn Lake.
   Instead of following the Cahoon Rock trail back to the southeast, we embarked on a cross-country route by traversing the ridge to the north. We basically just picked a contour line on the map and followed it for about a half-mile until it ran directly into the trail to Evelyn Lake.
   This couldn’t have been easier and saved us at least a couple of miles of trail hiking. And off-trail is always much more adventurous and exciting.
   For anyone who considers attempting this alternate route to Evelyn Lake, it is important to pay heed to what Brandon warned us about. It is not recommended to hike cross-country directly to the lake because massive slabs of granite will be encountered on a steep slope that will make navigation dangerous. Instead, use a topo map to follow the ridge to the trail instead.
   We met up with the Evelyn Lake trail on a wooded gap just as it begins its descent to the cirque that contains the lake. We caught a glimpse of the shimmering turquoise water on the way down, and where the trail levels out and turns south toward the lake there is a packers’ camp.
   This pleasant body of water occupies the floor of a lovely cirque. It is small as Sierra glacial basins go, but scenic and sheltered.
  On the approach to the lake, we walked through a couple of backpacking campsites, which were unoccupied. Come to think of it, we hadn’t met one other hiker in the past two days and would soon have almost 20 miles logged.
   We found our resting spot near the edge of the lake and tested the water temperature, realizing that despite the unseasonable heat of the day it was chilly. But when backpacking, being clean often wins out over warmth, especially on a sunny day.
   So we carefully scanned the shoreline, saw no signs of people, and peeled off our clothes to take the cleansing plunge. It took our breath away, but after emerging from the water, we felt as though it had added years to our lives.
   After sunning on warm granite to dry and bring our body temperatures back to normal, we started back toward Hockett Meadows. Because of the shortcut we took to get to Evelyn Lake, we were soon on trail that we hadn’t traveled before.
   The trail climbs out of the lake cirque to another bald ridge crest that afforded an incredible easterly view of Hockett Meadows and the Horse Fire, even better than what was seen from Cahoon Rock. From this perspective, we were able to determine that the section of fire that looked much too close to the ranger station when viewed from our campsite earlier that day was actually farther away than it had appeared.
   We were back at our campsite in time to change into warm clothes and head over to the ranger station for a happy hour gathering.
   On the way there, we met a backpacker — the first we had seen in two days, remember — on his way to scout out a campsite. We sat on the granite front porch of the cabin with our three newfound friends and discussed our various outings that day while the sun set behind the ridgetops where we had been just a couple hours before. We watched as deer grazed among the mules in the meadow.
   The backpacker came and joined us, eating his dinner-in-a-bag. As the fire monitors began wandering in from their day in the field, they, too, stopped and joined the conversation.
   It was quite a social gathering. I was regretting that we had to bid farewell the following day as there was still so much to explore in this land of many meadows, but I was also anticipating the trail to Atwell Mill, which was sure to be a wondrous adventure.
  To be continued...

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Place Names

HOCKETT MEADOWS— Hockett Meadows was named in 1869 by Ira Blossom of Three Rivers. The meadow’s namesake is John B. Hockett (1828-1898), who came to Tulare County from Arkansas in 1849. Beginning in 1862 and continuing as weather allowed for the next three years, he built the Hockett Trail, a route that began on the South Fork of the Kaweah River (today the Ladybug Trail) and crossed the Sierra to its destination of Lone Pine.

WHITMAN CREEK— The headwaters of this year-round waterway that makes its way through Hockett Meadows is Blossom Lakes, a smattering of small snowmelt basins located to the east of the meadow at about 10,000 feet elevation. The creek was named for Captain William Whitman of the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry by the men who were serving under him. Whitman was acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1912.

CAHOON ROCK— George W. Cahoon was an early Three Rivers pioneer who settled on the South Fork of the Kaweah River in the late 19th century. Several of his descendants still reside in the area, including Evelyn Stiltz, a lifelong Three Rivers resident, and her granddaughter, April, who is a Sequoia National Park ranger.

EVELYN LAKE—
This small, but beautiful lake is named for the sister of William O. “Billy” Clough, Mineral King dam-tender who discovered Clough’s Cave on the South Fork of the Kaweah. Although she reportedly had three others, Evelyn’s first husband was George Cahoon (see Cahoon Meadow above).

Information excerpted from the book Place Names of the Sierra Nevada: From Abbot to Zumwalt (Wilderness Press,1991).

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