TO WHITE CHIEF
Sept. 17, 2010)
Crest towers over White Chief Lake in the
King area of Sequoia National Park.
There are certain places I have
traveled where a presence is felt of others
who have come before. To me, these places
are spiritual and worthy of respect.
One of my favorite places nearby
where the ghosts of the past still remain
is White Chief canyon, accessible via a short
albeit steep hike from the Mineral King valley
in Sequoia National Park.
I have written about White Chief
in past columns — you may remember stories
of the Crabtree cabin ruins at the edge of
a beautiful meadow that is surrounded by jagged
peaks, or the abandoned mines, or our backpacking
trek through the area with our young children,
up and over the ridge on an off-trail excursion
to Ansel Lake. Once, I even hiked to the meadow
with my then-three-year-old son in a backpack
and holding my four-year-old daughter’s
hand to meet up with husband John and a group
of hikers he was leading.
This proved the perfect place
to spend an afternoon with two little ones.
They roamed the meadow, climbed on logs and
boulders, slid on snowbanks, and played in
the creek without inhibition.
But White Chief cannot be entirely
explored in just one or two hikes, or perhaps
even in a lifetime. The area contains so much
for the curious and the adventurous.
John’s and my recent hike
to the area had a Plan A and a Plan B. One
option was to get to the area, then hike overland
across the east ridge to Farewell Canyon.
But I'll save that for another day.
We opted instead to hike beyond
the meadow, continuing south toward the canyon’s
end, crossing the creek, bypassing the mines
and shafts, and crossing the creek two more
times before leaving the trail and turning
back to the north for a cross-country trek.
We traversed along the steep, boulder-strewn
slope beneath White Chief Peak with our ultimate
destination being White Chief Lake.
We found the lake with little
trouble, nestled in a cirque on the north
side of the peak and directly below Eagle
Crest to the west, the impassable fortress
of vertical granite mountain that divides
White Chief from the Eagle Lake drainage.
The lake is small (similar in
size to lower Monarch Lake over on the other
side of the Mineral King mountains) but pristine
due to its lack of trail, which reduces traffic
to the area. Decent-sized, hungry trout were
observed beneath the surface of the crystal-clear
The small amount of vegetation
growing between the rocks and this hard place
is of the hardiest stock. It is spring at
this elevation of 10,440 feet and there are
blossoms from columbine to phlox, which has
pink flowers, some no bigger than the size
of a pinhead.
In retrospect, returning to the
trail may have been easier and definitely
shorter if we had backtracked on our original
route. But primal instinct always seems to
prevail when picking a cross-country route
and we headed directly downhill.
Every footfall on this descending
boulder field has to be watched, so the going
is slow. Our downhill plan was eventually
interrupted by a cliff.
From above, we could tell that
the steep ridge below us was impassable and
it was difficult to discern a route at all
as the mountain seemed to drop away in every
Just when we thought we would
have to turn around and retrace our steps
back up the slope, a buck trotted by about
50 feet below us, followed by a startled doe,
both heading down canyon, which is the way
we needed to go. The buck stopped and met
our gazes before the pair disappeared behind
the ridge we thought too steep to traverse.
We continued our descent and
picked up their route, a fairly worn, yet
extremely narrow game trail. See what I mean
about spirits? We had just been guided by
We continued north and down toward
Crabtree Meadow at the head of the canyon,
which we could see in the distance far below.
We were still on the boulder field, where
every step had to be located and checked before
applying full body weight in case a loose
boulder decided to make like a snowboard and
head down the slope, taking us along for the
Once reaching the flat, grassy
meadow, walking became simple again as we
negotiated our way toward the trail around
fallen foxtail pines that were carried to
the meadow from high above via winter snowslides.
The gnarled, weathered wood of these ancient
and now long-dead trees are a magnificent
example of nature’s brilliant talent
as an artist.
Another is the surrounding high
mountains that we had been viewing the entire
day. It’s no wonder miners from more
than a century ago thought they would find
the Mother Lode here upon discovering this
palette of red, white, green, black, and yellow
rock that make up the slopes in this region.
We arrived at the trail that
would take us the 2.9 miles back to Mineral
King just as the sun set behind the ridge
along which we had just traveled the entire