OF MANY MEADOWS
Meadow Ranger Station
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Nov. 6, 2009)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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...
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
Information excerpted from the book Place
Names of the Sierra Nevada: From Abbot to
Zumwalt (Wilderness Press,1991).