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TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

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TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby toejam » Sat Sep 07, 2013 10:20 am

Pictures first for those who’d like to skip my ramblings:
https://picasaweb.google.com/toejamhike ... directlink

8/24/13 “Too Excited”

It was easy to get up early on the first day of vacation. A lot of anticipation, excitement, and stress had built leading up to my only big solo trip in the Sierra Nevada this year. By 11:00 a.m. I’d gone from sea level to Mineral King. The permit was easy – still lots of slots in the quota for Franklin Pass. The ranger prognosticated zoo-like conditions the following weekend, however.

Not finding a space in the first parking lot, I found a spot along the road and parked nose-in to the brush. Shouldered the pack at 11:30 and started walking with an empty water bottle just to get some trail under my feet. Saw several people coming down from Franklin Lake, as well as a young couple backpacking and some day hikers going my way. One of the day hikers said, “You’re passing us like a runner.” “I am a runner,” I chided.

I stopped at the larger Franklin Lake around 2:30, went down to fill a bottle and snap a picture, and accidently dropped my camera in the water. Fortunately it’s the cheapest one Walmart sells, but I figured I could dry it out. The incident shook me awake enough to realize the thoughts I’d had of crossing Franklin Pass on a day I’d started at sea level were daft. So I set up in a quiet spot, explored a little, and watched a young woman swim across the lake and climb out naked. Paradise! Hiked 6 miles.

8/25/13 “The Longest Day”

I went to bed early but didn’t sleep well – the dry air and altitude had my head pounding. At 4:10 a.m. I awoke with the very clear thought that, in my bravado and excitement to hit the trail, I’d parked the car unwisely, and that if anyone was going to have rodents gnawing things under the hood, it would be me. If I didn’t want this thought bothering me all week, there was only one thing to do. So at 5:20 I put my pack in a bear box, noting some quiet grumbling from the tent nearby, and started for the trailhead with a headlamp.

I reminded myself of my Great Commandment of Backpacking, which states, “Thou shalt not hurt thyself,” and my Golden Rule of Backpacking, which states, “Thou shalt enjoy every minute.” I concentrated on my footing and tried to make the best of this unanticipated 12-mile hike. The view, after all, was not bad, and I moved the car, re-confirmed my choice of footwear, and was back at the bear box at 9:35. The young woman camped there said she thought I was a bear at 5:20, but the young man knew bears didn’t wear headlamps.

In another hour I discovered my camera was functional again, and climbed towards Franklin Pass. I planned to climb Florence Peak, but it looks scary from the pass and, considering the extra miles I’d hiked, I decided to skip it. I want to go back and climb it though – it couldn’t be that hard. At 2:00 I was in Rattlesnake Canyon looking at a sign that said, “Kern River – 8.4.” I figured I could be there by 6:00, since it was all downhill.

Rattlesnake Canyon was enjoyable and I saw several decent places to camp. The shadows were long as I limped wearily to the Kern River. A guy camped at a sweet spot near the trail intersection told me, “Look upstream, and then look downstream,” pointing out forest fire smoke in both directions. I camped nearby in a park-like spot with big, old trees and smelled smoke in the night. Hiked 13 miles, not counting 12 to move the car.

8/26/13 “Smoked Out”

In the morning I walked stiffly towards Kern Hot Spring. Just before the intersection with the High Sierra Trail, my intended route, there was fire on the trail and in the gully the HST descends. I saw firefighters working the area – looked like they had set the fire at the bottom to control the blaze. I could have worked my way around the fire to get to the hot spring, but figured the only way I was going to see Nine Lakes Basin this week was to head back up Rattlesnake Canyon. I told the guy I’d met earlier what I saw, and he actually encouraged me to hang out on the Kern, since he really loves the place. But I was ready to get out of the smoke.

As I climbed the switchbacks, smoke from the Fish Fire downstream became very thick and filled the canyon. I hiked about 5 miles into Rattlesnake Canyon and found a spot where I could stop, rest my legs, and cool my dogs in the creek. I was out of the smoke, but still smelled it. Hiked 10 miles.

8/27/13 “A Chance of Rain”

I rolled over with sore hips and legs a lot, but stayed in bed about 10 hours due to the lengthening nights. The mileage took a toll on my legs, and I never really slept comfortably the whole trip. The sky was overcast with blowing clouds and I hoped for some rain on the fires, but not too much on me. The stiffness worked out of my legs quickly. I saw some kids headed for Mt. Whitney still in pajamas and told them about the fires.

Forrester Lake has lots of great places to camp, but Little Claire Lake is much more scenic and has a swimming beach. It was too cool and cloudy to swim, so I headed down the switchbacks into Soda Creek Canyon and tried to cover a lot of miles quickly. Clouds grew thick and wind in my face smelled like rain. When the sprinkles started I put on my rain jacket. But it sprinkled just a few minutes and the sun came out, so I sat down for lunch to soak it in. The sun came out again, as I passed the little lake above Big Five Lakes, illuminating a perfect sunbathing rock. I took the opportunity to swim and lay on the rock like a lizard.

I was amazed to have the lower Big Five Lake to myself, so I took the primo site on the big rock peninsula. I set up the tent to the threat of rain and shortly was driven inside. But the rain didn’t last long, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching clouds and sun play on the crags rising above the lake. My tortured suburban mind was starting to release the unresolved and unresolvable. The cognitive dissonance that seems to swell continually in my normal life faded beneath the song of the mountains. Hiked 12 miles.

8/28/13 “Fellowship of the Remote”

In the morning it was wetter inside my tent than outside. That’s the downside of my 1.5 lbs Six Moon Designs tent, but it sure is easy to pack and carry. I climbed a long way to the trail to the upper Big Five Lakes, and by then I wasn’t interested in seeing them.

A group at Little Five Lakes said the ranger was home, and I found her reading by the yurt. It was her “day off,” but she seemed happy to talk to me and give me beta on Nine Lakes Basin and Glacier Pass. Everybody on the trail who had met Ranger Christine had good things to say – a very strong hiker, knowledgeable, and helpful. Hopefully she’ll write a book when she’s done with this gig.

I saw more people on the way to Nine Lakes Basin than I’d seen since the first day, but saw none in the basin. The topography transformed to an alpine regime as I hiked up Big Arroyo. Nine Lakes Basin is pretty much a moonscape with scattered bodies of water and a little stand of foxtail pines above the lower lake. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, although attacking one of the Kaweah ridges with some guys could be fun.

I set up in the trees near a creek, on the ranger’s recommendation, and enjoyed huge views and the light playing on the surrounding crags at sunset. I also watched an eagle and a falcon hunting. After dinner I noticed the giant foxtail I’d pitched the tent under was mostly rotten and hollow on the backside. It will probably stand another 20 years, but I wasn’t willing to sleep beneath a widow maker, so I moved the tent. Hiked 9 miles.

8/29/13 “High Sierra!”

The movie was nothing like this. The High Sierra Trail west of Kaweah Gap is spectacular! Crossing the Gap I noticed 6 days of hiker funk reach a level offensive even to me. I stripped to freshen up in a tarn. It was a little after 8:00 a.m., but there was no wind and the sun was warm.

I watched the advancing sun turn Precipice Lake an impossibly deep blue hue, and hiked slowly down the skinny trail blasted out of the cliff. I don’t know what the “Valhalla” label on the map is supposed to represent, but all the glacier-carved crags in that canyon are breathtaking. I had lunch and a swim at the larger Hamilton Lake. There were several people there, a deer carcass near the crapper (wouldn’t want to camp near that!), but no Viking ghosts that I could see.

The trail is scenic all the way to Bearpaw Meadow. I met a couple headed for Mt. Whitney who had been told the trail I saw burning was now open again. A guy was lounging on the front porch of the High Sierra Camp. It looked like a great place to pound 3 beers and the cooking fire smelled wonderful. I considered enquiring about vacancy – in hindsight, I should have. Water from a spigot at the campground was easily the worst tasting water of the trip. I hiked into the canyon and set up camp on Hamilton Creek. After several days of big high country views, the canyon was warm as summer and a bit claustrophobic. Hiked 9.5 miles.

8/30/13 “No Wimps!”

The incredible red bulk of giant sequoias loomed in the woods as I approached Redwood Meadow. I had to drop my pack and have a closer look. I found a cluster of 3 trees, and beyond that a true giant whose mass was frightening to behold. I tromped around the area for a while enjoying the big trees. I thought someone was chopping wood by the cabins, but the racket was made by a squirrel in a fir tree dropping cones on the roof.

I pushed on without much to look at, and the Timber Gap Trail presented itself and a shortcut home. Conflicted Steve said I’d had enough fun this week and should hike out a day early to attend to more important business at home. Toejam the Adventurer said it might be a really long time before I get to see Spring Lake and Glacier Pass again. I stuck with the original plan and was almost immediately rewarded with open views up the Cliff Creek canyon, including parallel waterfalls.

At Pinto Lake I found a great swimming hole where I stopped for lunch. Pinto Lake is a great place to camp that doesn’t get much talk. Climbing above the lake I met an older couple on a 12-day hike to Horseshoe Meadow and back. They were thrown off route by the fires, but hopefully things worked out.

I spied the trees on the edge of Spring Lake and left the trail to reach them. A use trail persisted for a while, but either it petered out or I lost interest. Hiking across a talus field I thought how I hadn’t used any band-aids all week, then stepped in a marmot hole, hit the ground, and started bleeding. I wrapped a handy red bandana around a gashed finger and continued. Gotta be more careful to obey that Great Commandment. Ended up using 2 band-aids and 8” of leukotape, for the record.

The night at Spring Lake was the most enjoyable of the trip. The lake was warm, the campsite comfortable, and the views huge. I was glad I’d stayed the course and not bailed out a day early. Most people bail out of backpacking trips because they lose heart before actual conditions force them to quit. They wimp-out because of a little discomfort like a damp sleeping bag, dead headlamp, or guilt about things at home (almost me), and miss out on adventures within their grasp. I raised a toast to “No wimps!” Hiked 11 miles.

8/31/13 “Rough Trail Home”

I awoke early, excited about the hike over Glacier Pass, but it was still dark, so I read about the death of Anatoli Boukreev on Annapurna. The pesky deer that stalked my camp the previous night was nosing around again pre-dawn. When I could see to make breakfast, I got up and started tearing down my final camp. To think of all the greenhorns that crowd lower Monarch Lake, when Spring Lake is an amazing destination within a short day’s hike of the parking lot for the strong and bold.

There are places where the old Glacier Pass trail is really obvious, and places where it’s lost without a trace. I worked my way towards the low spot on the ridge where it looked like I’d have to scale a cliff to reach the top. As expected, the old path offered safe passage through the cliffs, including old steel bars driven into the rock to hold the tread, and one sketchy spot where a chunk of rock was hammered out to provide a foothold. Mostly easy class 2 with a big elevation gain.

On the south side, the most obvious path connects with the Sawtooth Pass trail, but I wanted to follow the old trail, which is probably more trouble but worth doing. It became easier to follow down the valley, where cliffing-out becomes a concern and the diverse paths coalesce. Then it follows the old cut on the mountainside that’s so obvious from the main trail across the valley. When the old trail joined the main trail, I ran into lots of people headed up for the holiday. At the parking lots, cars circled like buzzards waiting for a space to open. I put on a clean shirt and headed for lunch at Silver City, which wasn’t crowded at all. Hiked 5 miles.

The route I ended up hiking was around 75 miles. I hadn’t hiked any of it before except for the last bit on the trail to Monarch Lakes. When I moved to California five years ago, loops hikes out of Mineral King were highly recommended, so I’m happy to have finally done one. I had solitude most of the time and every camp except Franklin Lake. The scenery is as great as I’ve seen anywhere. I had no personal breakthroughs, transformations, or revelations, but I sure had a good time!



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Re: TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby giantbrookie » Sat Sep 07, 2013 10:58 am

Nice report. Your second day was pretty over-the-top with that 12 mile "jog" to "warm up" and 25 miles total. It is interesting to me to read all these reports out of Mineral King. I haven't been there since 1969 and, as a result, this is a part of the Sierra I haven't spent enough time in.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Re: TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby SweetSierra » Sun Sep 08, 2013 11:25 am

I enjoyed your write-up very much. I've never been on the route over Franklin Pass and into Rattlesnake Canyon and Kern Hot Spring, though I've been to Little Five Lakes, Black Rock Pass, Timber Gap, Hamilton Lakes, Nine Lake Basin, and Glacier Pass (with snow). Your trip sounded great. I'd like to try it sometime. (Liked the runner comment by the people you passed and your reply :cool:
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Re: TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby toejam » Sun Sep 08, 2013 6:40 pm

Thanks guys. Mineral King is the most direct route to the high country from where I live, but this was only my second time there. I've found too many excuses to go other places. I've been scheming a trip that includes spending a night at the little lake below Amphitheather, maybe a night at Little Claire, maybe a fall trip to the Kern. There are so many great things to see. And running really helps with all the elevation. :nod:
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Re: TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby Cheetahwoka » Mon Sep 09, 2013 12:05 am

Mineral King is very close to my heart. It's my stomping ground, it's my backyard, I even spent a season working MK trail crew decades ago.

Great TR! But you forgot to mention how tedious and narrow the road in is, and how yummy the home-baked pies are at Silver City Store.

Anyone that wants a partner for hikes out of MK, feel free to PM. It's particularly good for basecamping and doing many day hikes.
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Re: TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby toejam » Mon Sep 09, 2013 8:40 am

The road is a pita for sure, but I was mentally prepared this time, and it was quickly forgotten since I was on the trail before lunch.

I have to say I found the pie at Silver City a little disappointing. I still plan to have pie after my next trip, but I'm married to a chef and used to better. The gourmet mountain burger, however, was outstanding!
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Re: TR: Big Mineral King Loop (8/24 - 8/31)

Postby Cheetahwoka » Mon Sep 09, 2013 10:18 am

I agree with you on everything. I am spoiled on my own home-baked pie, but I mention it because most folks look forward to the Silver City pie/ice cream/burger, and to support local business is good.
And I mention the road to keep the hoards filtered and riff-raff out. Those that truly appreciate the MK experience don't mind paying their dues on the MK road, or any TH approach for that matter.
But we don't have any riff-raff here, right?
Loved your TR, and your happy adaptable approach.
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