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Summer hikes

Big Five Lake number 4       Big Five Lake number 5


(Published Sept. 17, 2010)

Eagle Crest towers over White Chief Lake in the

Mineral 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 water.
   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 direction.
   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 them.
   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 ride.
   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 length.











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