I returned last night from four fabulous and challenging days in Mineral King, in the southwest portion of Sequoia NP.
I had chosen the route because it appeared to promise a lot of variety in one trip: on-trail and off-trail hiking, streams and lakes, meadows, forests, and above tree-line camping, and the possibility of tagging a significant peak, Vandever Mountain.
The route we took had us leaving via the Tar Gap trail and camping at Hockett Meadow on Day 1. The trail contoured west and south along a forested slope, crossing a couple of streams before reaching the wide and picturesque meadow with a fine stream flowing near the campsites. There's a pit toilet, but it's fairly distant from the campsites on the trail toward Evelyn Lake. The backcountry ranger (who sported an excellent moustache by the way) warned of recent bear activity and promised deer foraging in the meadow at twilight, but we saw neither. Between miles 2 and 4 (approx) the generally excellent trail needed some maintenance, being overgrown with thick foliage and a fairly massive tree trunk fallen across it, a small quibble.
The next day, we departed Hockett Mdw south and east. The trail takes you immediately into another pine forest, level and past a second wide meadow with a stream flowing in it which was the last reliable water that day. After the meadow the trail climbed steadily to the boundary of the NP and Sequoia NF, where we took it north on a level trail to the lowest of the Blossom Lakes. We did some resting and swimming in the shallow lake, noticing the foreboding smoke from the fires in the Golden Trout Wilderness to the south. After a lengthy respite, we proceeded north by compass to the lake in the chain immediately to the north, and finding it inadequate, we proceeded due east, walking in our shadow, past a little pond and to a nice lake that had an admirable campsite at its southern end. The boys tried without success to catch the sizable fish in this lake, and we slept under a star-speckled night sky. Perhaps the cool temperatures had suppressed the fires? Even a bright half-moon couldn't dim all of the stars.
I should say at this point that we were surprised by 1) the cool temperatures, which made the daytime hiking very pleasant, and 2) the absence of mosquitoes.
Day 3 was entirely off-trail, was a test of our endurance, decision-making, and navigation skills. We continued by compass north of the Blossom Lake where we had camped to a saddle. The way was challenging, filled with blocks of granite boulders that made the passage, carring full packs and in the full sun, difficult. But, I should say that there was a great satisfaction in the accomplishment of negotiating that route. From the saddle, we had intended to descend to a broad east-west valley and then proceed east to Bullion Flat and a campsite. However, not only had the smoke from the Golden Trout fire filled the little valley, there also appeared to be fresh yellow ish smoke coming from Bullion Flat.
Plan B: make our way around the contour to Ansel Lake to the west, where the sky was bright blue, go up and over another saddle to the White Chief Trail, after a mile on the trail, go cross-country west and camp at White Chief Lake. Of course, this plan looked great on the map; on the ground, it proved to be much more challenging. It would turn out that we made barely 3 miles in a full day of hiking. It's probably the day that, when reminiscing about this trip, will be the day that sticks in the memory.
Continuing on the contour to the west meant continuing on the gnarly granite boulders. After an hour and a quarter-mile, we made the saddle overlooking breathtaking Ansel Lake, set in a granite bowl and sparkling like a jewel. There was a bitty tarn above the lake where we soaked our sore feet and ate lunch. We were exhilarated by the anticipation of what appeared to be an easy ascent to a saddle and then a lot of downhill traversing. Alas, when we attained the saddle, and as impressed as we were by the gorgeous view down the flowery and green White Chief valley, dotted with sequoias and framed by massive peaks on the west (White Chief), east (Vandever) and in the distance, the escarpment on the north side of the saddle was daunting. We couldn't scout a safe way down. Ahh, but to the west, separated by another forbidding ridge, was a benign saddle that it looked like we could easily descend. Of course, getting to that saddle meant continuing on the grueling traverse amongst granite boulders. My son's hands had already become raw with the constant abrasion of the granite, and the sun had swung to the west and beating off the grey-white rock was taking its toll on us. We knew that false steps could be disastrous. In fact, one of the boys decided to completely descend the slope to Ansel Lake and go the longer but more level way westward around the ridge and along a stream up the valley. Ultimately, when we reunited about 5:00, we decided to encamp at the unnamed ponds southwest of White Chief Peak and to go over the low saddle on the next day. As I fell asleep, I noticed the glow of ruddy flames on a hillside in the distant southwest.
At breakfast on our last day, we reflected back with satisfaction on yesterday's toils and knew that the day would regrettably be our last of this trip. The boys made plans for organizing future backpacking adventures with their other friends. Breaking camp, we proceeded easily up flat granite slabs to the east saddle and zigzagged carefully down to the valley floor. The top of the valley which seemed so flat from the saddle viewpoint was actually a jumble of massive white, rusty-red, grey, black, and marbleized boulders. Snow patches hid in the folds, and were visible in the north-facing creases in the escarpments above us. We rested for awhile in the chilly shade of a "family" of sequoias. A trio of marmots chirped and circled our repose, until we decided to descend the White Chief trail and the truck. The trail is quite rough in places, and drops quickly through lush fields of blue, yellow, red, and purple flowers. The boys put on their headlamps and took 5 minutes to explore the recess of White Chief mine. Then it was down, down, down, so steep that our toes were painfully jamming into our boots, through the dayhikers, to the trailhead, and then another mile on the paved road to the ranger station where we had parked the car.
We saw only two other hikers during our loop. A major disappointment was that the Silver City cafe closed at 3:00 on Wednesday, and couldn't dig into a burger and piece of pie before tackling the road back to Rte 198 and homeward bound.
All in all, I'd rather be camping.
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Thanks for sharing your trip report with everyone. It brought back memories of when I went backpacking to Evelyn Lake in the middle of May during a very dry year. The only snow I remember was just after Horse Creek as we descended into Hockett Meadow. There was nobody up there and the forest was silent it was so early in the season. I remember seeing snow on the other side of Evelyn Lake. If I had the time to do it, I would return to all the places I have backpacked to.
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