Mineral King Loop, July 20-24. Our route was Tar Gap to Hockett Meadow, Evelyn Lake, Blossom Lake, Little Kern, and Farewell Gap. 45 miles. The photo log of the trip is here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/sYSebfF1oLkAsXBf2
We’d originally planned to do a more traditional loop out of Mineral King: over Franklin Pass, through Big Five Lakes, and back over Black Rock Pass and Timber Gap. But when we discussed our plans with the rangers, they suggested that crampons and ice axes were still a pretty good idea on those passes. And that’s not in our toolkit.
So we chose a lower elevation adventure, a loop that began with the Tar Gap Trail to Hockett Meadow, then continuing down into the Little Kern Canyon, and back up over Farewell Gap into Mineral King. Farewell Gap was still quite snowy, but we were assured there were ways to work around it. And besides, we had almost a week of snowmelt to improve the situation.
The cars at the trailhead were protected against killer marmots. They marmots have already claimed four cars this year.
But that’s about all the plan we had: no specific campsites, destinations, or timelines. Something between 35 and 45 miles depending on how we did it. We took our larger Bearvault with five days of food, and left the smaller one, along with a chunk of M’s cosmetics and medications, in the bear boxes at the trailhead. We were a little worried about that…
There was plenty of room at the Cold Spring Campground on a Wednesday night in the middle of July, and so we set up camp and took a short hike up to Black Wolf Falls to stretch our legs and get acclimated. The flowers were out in force, we were lucky to see both a grouse and chicks, as well as a rubber boa, and the falls were roaring. We ate our dinner, and went to bed early.
Day ONE: the trail starts right out of the West end of the campground, so I took a quick trip to park the car across the road from the campground entrance (this was at the suggestion of the ranger, to avoid marmot damage. The rodents had already disabled four cars in the main trailhead parking lot this season.) And we were off. The only real climb of the day was the first stretch of the trail, where we gained about 700 feet to get us up to contour around Hengst Peak.
This was not a great trail for expansive views, but we did catch an occasional glimpse of Hengst, as well as the Mineral King Road winding its way up the Kaweah Canyon, and off in the distance, the King’s Kaweah Divide. A beautiful day, with so many rushing creeks that it was difficult to keep track of our progress. At one point we met one of only two other hikers we saw on the first day, and asked him if he knew which creek we were crossing. “Nope,” he replied. “They are lots of creeks today that aren’t on my map!” There were indeed.
But we couldn’t get lost. There was only one trail, and it continued first Southwest, then curving and twisting South towards Hockett Meadow. National Geographic gave the mileage to the meadow at 9.9, but Sequoia National Park said 12. Hmmmm. This was a pattern we found for the rest of the trip. At any rate, we began to worry about the mosquitoes we might find if we camped at the meadows, and so resolved to take a look at the next couple of creek crossings to see if we might like to stop short and stay at one of them.
And while we had been able to rock hop across every creek so far, when we got to Horse Creek, it would have to be a wade. (We knew it was Horse Creek because it came right after the junction with the trail down to Atwell Mill!) And there were nice campsites around, without noticeable skeeters. We picked a spot up on a ridge above the creek, set up camp, and took a nap. Later I fished the creek and caught clouds of small rainbows up to about ten inches—loads of fun. The evening settled in, the mosquitoes never arrived, and we congratulated ourselves on a good day’s hike and a smart decision.
Day TWO: Having consulted the map last night, we thought we’d take a short side trip and visit Cahoon Rock and then camp at Evelyn Lake. It was a nice quick hike down to the Hockett Meadow Ranger Station (no ranger around) and then we set off to cross Whitman Creek and head up the ridge. The mosquitoes in the meadow and along this section of the trail confirmed our decision to avoid these campsites for Horse Creek instead.
We left our packs at the junction of the Cahoon Rock and Evelyn Lake Trails so we could “dayhike” up to Cahoon Rock to enjoy the views. Which were nice, but they were much nicer fifty years ago before the current crop of trees had grown up. We did get some views of the King’s Kaweah Divide, and also of Hengst Peak and its environs, but later discovered that the view of the latter were just as good from the trail to Evelyn Lake. Eh. We did notice that there were a number of stumps along the top of the ridge by Cahoon Rock, and couldn’t help thinking that some time in years past, either private individuals or the Park Service had “improved the view” by taking out some of the taller trees. Thank God times have changed.
Back at our packs, we ate lunch and then headed up a short steep climb to the ridge above Evelyn Lake. A mile along the ridge, and then a short steep descent brought us to beautiful and isolated Evelyn. This day we met our second fellow hiker, a young man who had +camped at Hockett Meadows that night, and was taking these hikes from his base camp in the Meadow. We didn’t ask about the mosquitoes, and he stayed only a few minutes at the lake before heading back to his camp. Evelyn is set deep in a granite bowl, surrounded by huge blocks of talus. It’s a lovely spot, and we took the largest and best campsite all for ourselves.
Lake access was a bit complicated because the water was so high, and much of the grassy shoreline was under water. And we never did find a trail around the lake. The talus blocks were just too big and awkward. We had to pre-filter all the water through a bandana to remove some of the pollen and dust we could see floating in the water, and I was limited to only a few spots that were accessible to fish. I still caught four lovely brook trout about a foot long. We also found a cache of tents stakes here that someone had left…and we left them at the Hockett Meadow Ranger Station the next day. Another wonderful warm afternoon was followed by a quite amazing twilight, as this lake sits on the very Western ridge of the Sierra, and gets the last rays of the sun as it sets behind the smog of Visalia and the Central Valley.
Day THREE: We both woke up feeling quite dehydrated, and resolved to drink more water today.
It would be close to eleven miles, a long hike for us, to reach the isolated Blossom Lakes on the ridge above the Little Kern. But the trail back to Hockett Meadows went quickly and easily, and from there we had about four miles of almost dead flat hiking across the plateau. This was made more interesting by the number of deadfall logs across the trail, and those slowed us down a bit. But we met that same first hiker again along this trail. He had camped at Hockett the first night, and was coming back from Blossom Lake, which he loved. He also warned us about the climb from South Fork Meadow up to the ridge, and we decided that we would take a break before that climb.
We passed the junction, crossed Hunter Creek (our only wade of the day) and decided that we would go ahead a leave our water shoes on, and just hike a bit further to a spot for lunch. After filtering some more water from the creek and eating our lunch, we tackled the dreaded climb.
Before we even got started, we met two older men (at least as old as we are!) who had just come down. They were tired, carrying huge packs and hiking staffs, and warned us again about the climb. But they were also out on the trail, having a great time, and we enjoying chatting with them. We took the climb slowly, stopping every fifteen minutes for water and a breather, and were at the top in less than an hour. Wasn’t that hard. From there another steep climb took us to the top of the ridge, and a mile later we were at Blossom Lake. Here again the water was high, and the shoreline was quite grassy.
To reduce our mosquito risk, we camped on a granite ridge above the outlet stream, which again turned out to be a good decision. I caught five brook trout in fifteen minutes in the stream, all 10-12 inches. The waterfall across the lake was a delight, the trees around us were absolutely amazing, and the sunset almost lived up to the previous night’s.
After our usual nap and dinner, we got into the tent and watched night fall. We did have to put on headnets for the first time during dinner and breakfast, but these mosquitoes were pesky, not pernicious. The nights on this trip continued to be warm enough to be very comfortable, and the days were warm in the sun, cool in the shade.
Day FOUR: A walk on the wild side. After retracing our steps to the junction from South Fork, we now hiked out of Sequoia National Park and into Sequoia National Forest. And there was a difference. The trail here quickly became hard to follow, and we had to stop several times a mile to consult the map or search for the trail. We’re pretty sure that we simply missed the junction with the trail to Quinn Peak…but it’s possible that either that trail doesn’t exist or the junction isn’t signed.
At any rate, we did find our way to the trail that goes down into the Little Kern via Wet Meadow. Nat Geo shows two trails here, and we think we saw their junctions, but neither was marked, at least from our direction. From the other direction the lower junction had a sign indicating that one of the trails led to Wet Meadow. Hm. OK… So at this point, we were quite focused on our navigation. To miss a trail or turn here would be a real mess, because one trail led to our route back up the Little Kern to Farewell Gap, and the other one led further down the canyon of the Little Kern and Rifle Creek. We found the junction, and every trail was signed except for the one we needed to take. (There was also a post at this point, with no sign at all on it.) But by deduction we assumed that the third trail was the one we needed. And that’s where the adventure began.
Yes. it was the right trail. It quickly crossed Wet Meadow Creek, at a crossing complicated by deadfall logs and the fact that part of the creek ran down the trail long enough and deep enough to have trout living in it. That gave a whole new meaning to seeing a few trout on the trail. And from there, it got much worse. Too many deadfall logs to count. Dense thickets of prickly buckthorn covered the trail. We could either push our legs through it, getting scratched all the while, or stop over the top of it, and hope the trail surface didn’t hide any surprises. And then thickets of mountain laurel densely packed with branches up to an inch in diameter, making every step a struggle. Manzanita thickets.
Finally, after taking the better part of an hour to hike less than a mile, we came out into the sun-baked rocks of the Little Kern. This was the only section of the trail that was hot, baking both from the lower elevation and the heat radiated from the trailside rocks. And all the while, we worried just about bit about how we were going to be able to cross the creek we could hear roaring down below. Ah well. That turned out to be the easiest part of the whole day. A lovely wade, calf deep, in an icy stream after a hot hike. Pretty darn nice. So nice that we had lunch there, and filtered some more water. Now it should be easy to follow the trail up the Little Kern to a campsite below Farewell Gap.
Only it wasn’t. Somewhere near Broder’s Cabin the trail simply disappeared into overgrown brush, deer trails, and confusion. It doesn’t help that there are theoretically TWO trails in this section, neither of which has been maintained for many years. The good news is that we knew that we were going up that canyon and that’s what we did. We followed the canyon, bushwhacking, following deer trails, and continually making progress. We charted our progress past the side canyons, and tracking our elevation with the altimeter on my watch.
At one point near Broder’s Cabin we met a couple who were coming down the canyon, and were also frustrated by the lack of trail. But while we knew where we were going and how to get there, they were trying to do our route in reverse. They had only two more days to hike it, and had spent the entire previous day in two short miles of the Little Kern Canyon searching for the trail that would take them up to Wet Meadow. I did my level best to discourage them from continuing. The fact that they were having trouble here meant that the following section of trail would be a real problem, and I couldn’t see them completing the hike with the food supply they had with them. But they went on their way, and we went on ours.
We finally found the trail again, right as we reached Bullion Flat. We’d decided on this as a campsite because it was a flat area in the steep canyon, gave us a great base for the next morning. And it did those things. But while the scenery was stunning, and gave us a great view of the pass, it was also every heavily impacted by thoughtless hikers. We found a rotting nylon camp chair, a rotting nylon camp stool, a shovel, the head of a mattock, a trowel, some marshmallow skewers, a carbon fiber arrow, loads of micro-trash, and a veritable museum quality exhibit of Neanderthal campsites…with fire rings, benches wind breaks, etc. Not exactly pristine wilderness.
But once again the amazing High Sierra trees, the towering peaks during sunset, and the roaring of the creek below us were wonderful. And then we began to look at the pass. It was snowy. And from where we were, it didn’t look easy. The right-hand side looked completely snowy, with an insane pitch. The left-hand side appeared to be almost as bad, but with a rock ridge that we might be able to climb if it wasn’t too steep. And it was a very long way back to Hockett Meadow if we couldn’t get past Farewell Gap. Oh well.
Day FIVE: M had trouble sleeping because she was so worried about the pass, and that didn’t help her digest her breakfast. And I was worried for her. But we agreed to take it one step at a time, working our way up to see what we had to do to get home. The trail out of Bullion Flat is nicely graded, and it was a real pleasure to hike up the switchbacks towards the pass. And at least in my mind, the closer we got, the better things looked.
At one point, at the end of the second the last switchback, I suggested that we should cut across the canyon, cross the relatively gentle slope of the snowfield there, and then climb the rocky ridge to a point above the pass. From there I was sure that we could get across the Gap, which was snow-free at the very top. M was not convinced, and wanted to hike that last switchback, just to make sure there wasn’t anything easier that we couldn’t see from where we were. And so we did. And there wasn’t anything easier. In fact, the slopes on the right side of the pass were far steeper. I tried to cut a few steps in the snow with my boots, but the snow was icy, the slope was already quite steep, and that seemed an insane risk to take for the 80 feet we needed to get to the trail on the other side.
We paused for a rest, a consultation, and a quick bite of energy bar. The only possible route was clearly up the left side. I led the way as we descended a steep slope of scree down to the snowfield, using what might have been a few diagonal use trails from years past. The snowfield was hard and slick at that point, but almost dead flat, so there was no real danger.
On the far side we worked our way steeply up around the Manzanita thickets to reach the edge of the ridge. All of that turned out to be quite feasible, even if M hated sliding down the scree with each step. And the ridge was a piece of cake. Made up of knife-edge rocks set in channels, the traction was nearly perfect, and we simply followed those channels up to the top, about 100 feet above the pass. Class 3 at most. M did it with hiking poles. A gentle slope down to the pass, and our work was done. From the gusty cold winds on Farewell Gap, Mineral King looked like a slice of heaven in the sunlight.
From here on, it was easy, if long. (Again, Nat Geo has much shorter distances for this hike, and the rangers mentioned this to us as well. That’s something we’ll keep in mind as we plan future trips.) The switchbacks are long and gentle—really long and gentle—and so the miles add up.
But we were over the pass, headed downhill, and a warm shower was now something more than a fantasy. We met our first hikers of the day just at the junction for Franklin Lakes, and they were dayhikers. The flowers on this part of the trail were amazing, and we also saw deer, marmots, lots of butterflies. After the windy night at Bullion Flat, it was paradise. And down we hiked, on and on. Lordy, but this trail has a lot of switchbacks.
We noticed a use trail closer to the bottom of the valley, and I am sure that locals use that more often to get up to Farewell Gap. Once past the Franklin Lakes junction, we sat down for lunch amid gathering clouds and a few raindrops. There seemed to be a steady stream of traffic as well, both dayhikers and backpackers, but all were using the Franklin Lakes trail. After crossing Franklin Creek, the end was in sight. One last rockhop across a creek, a couple of miles of dusty trail, and we saw the cabins and road of Mineral King.
We finished the hike with exactly two crackers, one energy bar, a few craisins, and two sips of Chartreuse in our bear can.
We stopped in at the ranger station, both to inform them about the sad state of the trails in the Little Kern, but also to tell them about the hikers we had met who seemed lost and out of their depth. We picked up our extra food and stuff from the bear box, where it was waiting for us nicely. And then we headed home. Hot showers and a real bed felt great.
And as I pointed out to M, there is this device in the kitchen that allows you to lift a lever and water comes out of the spigot, pre-filtered, and ready for drinking. She noted that if you pointed the lever to the left, the water came out warm. Ahhhh.