TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin to Timber via Kaweah Gap

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TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin to Timber via Kaweah Gap

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:49 pm

Mineral King Loop via Franklin Pass and Kaweah Gap
August 1-August 7, 2017

7 days
48 miles
Gained and Lost 15,479 feet
Lowest 6022
Highest 11695


Purpose of Trip

As I age I realize that I do not have forever to see all the places that I would like to, and so for the last several years I have been trying to diversify my backpacking experiences. For decades I only backpacked from trailheads in the eastern Sierra, and so I have been making a conscious effort over the last few years to go elsewhere. The Mineral King region—not to mention the High Sierra Trail--has always eluded me. No longer.

Logistics

The trip required a reservation, and since I was going solo it was not difficult to find a slot. Those hiking from the more northerly trailheads where the hordes of High Sierra Trail hikers originate may have more problems. Mineral King also made it possible to do a true loop rather than a “lollipop.”

One issue with Mineral King is the long and extremely windy single lane road from Three Rivers on highway 198. The road was built by miners in the 1890s and other than being paved and having a cool WPA bridge installed in the 1930s, it cannot have changed much. It is 28 miles long and is estimated to take 1 hour 31 minutes. Tip—drive it in the very early morning before much traffic is on it. There are many blind curves. The good news—it can easily take passenger cars and requires no particular clearance.

The other major issue with Mineral King is the need to protect your car at the trailhead from hose-eating marmots—especially early in the season. The current thinking is to use a giant tarp and to park on it, tying it up to cover the entire undercarriage and wheel wells. A little like automobile bondage. Some use chicken wire fences, but this does not seem to be as effective. I did both. A tow from the end of that road is not desirable.

When you drive up the road and go into the park there is a self-serve kiosk where you can buy your park permit—except it was out of order. I’ll be buying a national park annual pass at Yosemite later so I don’t feel too bad about not paying my way at Sequoia.

At the end of the road there is the Silver City resort, with a small store, and the Ranger Station that will issue your permit when you show them your reservation. They are open 8-4 seven days a week during the summer. They also are a source of better than average information about conditions, and seemed friendlier and more helpful to me than some permitting offices.

Day 1
5 miles
+2894’
-374’
MK to Franklin.JPG
I got up very early at my motel in Visalia, grabbed a quick breakfast, and drove the two hours to the ranger station, getting there when they opened at 8am. I was convinced by the ranger that my ice axe would not be needed but that my microspikes would be useful—good advice on both counts. After trussing up my car at the Sawtooth/Timber Gap parking lot I walked a short ways south on the road to start the hike to Franklin Lakes.

The first day always has boundless optimism—almost enough to make up for the heavy pack, the out-of-shape body, and the sea-level lungs. I was hiking by 9am—my latest start by far of the trip—but the weather was cool and sunny, although there were a few fluffy clouds. At the first ford of Franklin Creek I met a group of 6 very young men who were off fishing. They offered to help me across the creek and take my pack! How nice! I must have looked old indeed. It was an easy rock hop for me with my poles, and then I noticed they were hiking without poles—of that kind.

I continued up the trail towards Farewell Gap. The bulk (but certainly not all) of the elevation gain is done before turning off onto the Franklin Lake trail.
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Near the intersection was a terrific flower garden, where I settled down for lunch.
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Continuing on, I notice that the trail was exceptionally well engineered. From Mineral King to the top of Franklin Pass the trail steadily rose, never at too steep a pitch.

Before I reached Franklin Lake, however, those fluffy white clouds fill in and it began to sprinkle. I hurried to get the tent up. I was not impressed with the campsites below the dam, but found a delightful high site uphill from the main trail in one of the few copses of trees.
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Later I discovered the most popular campsites (and a bear box) are well below the level of the trail halfway around the north side of the lake. I like my spot though, because it had views of both the lake and also back down the valley for the sunset. A spring just below the trail supplied me with water, so I did not have to trudge to the lake for it.
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The rain cleared in time for a nice alpenglow and sunset.
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Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:50 pm

Day 2
5 miles
+2341’
-2244’
Franklin to Little Claire.JPG
I began my normal routine of getting up by flashlight at 4:30, eating breakfast and breaking camp, and hiking by first light at about 5:45. For a few days, it was the only way to hike and stay dry, since it rained each afternoon.

Franklin Pass was a spectacular climb, with better and better views of both the lower and the upper Franklin Lakes appearing. The best route to the upper Franklin Lake appeared to me to simply take the main trail until it leads you above the green area at the SE side of the lower lake, then cut around the green and contour to the plateau where 10578 is located. The turn would be just before the first switchback.

My lungs labored as I chugged up the trail, pausing often for breath. The pass at the top is not exactly a conventional pass, though. When I was at “the top” I slipped my pack and walked over to the other side to get the view.
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But the trail takes another long switchback/traverse somewhat uphill to get around to a point where it can go down the east side. At that point I had to carefully pick my way over a 15’ snow bank, diagonally trudging down it with my microspikes.

The descent was nothing like the ascent. The trail on the east side first passes through a bizarre, wind sculpted landscape before plunging down an extremely rough trail to the upper reaches of Rattlesnake Creek.
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At the bottom I found the creek to be delightful, and fully worthy of camping had the time been right. I might have preferred it to the crowded lake camping that was ahead.
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Following Rattlesnake Creek along I soon came to Forester Lake, a woodsy lake with greed sedge on one side, and a huge packed-earth camping area on its western shore big enough for a jamboree. It seemed to be a popular spot, but I look for a little more granite around my favorite lakes.
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After a short pause I continued on to Little Claire Lake. Little Claire is over a fairly low hump—less than a 500 foot rise, but after trudging over Franklin Pass I was tired, and I felt every one of those 500 feet.

Coming into Little Claire you descend into another jamboree like camping area on the southern side of the lake. In fact, there was a college group of 10 camped there, but the area was big enough for many more. It seems as if a great many people come over the pass to these two lakes. Few go beyond them.
Little Claire was a more scenic lake to my taste, with a half granite bowl. The outlet has the most attractive camps, with views up and down the Soda Creek valley. As I set up camp those six fishermen I had met early the day before at Franklin Creek were busy hauling small trout out of the lake on nearly every single cast.
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I had been advised that this was a spot for a spectacular sunrise, so I settled in just before a three hour pelting of rain began. I had hoped that the short hike would give me ample time for a little exploration and perhaps a dayhike around the corner to lake 10569. In fact, I had scoped it out with Google Earth and picked my route down to the last ravine. But those plans were washed away as I huddled in the tent for three hours.
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Re: Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:51 pm

Day 3
8 miles
+1923’
-2513
Little Claire to Big Five.JPG
This day was to have been ambitious—I had hoped to get to the northern batch of Little 5 lakes where I had planned a layover day. But my energy levels flagged and I only made it to the lower of the Big Five lakes.

Earlier that morning I did witness a gorgeous sunrise, before plunging down the many switchbacks that take you from Little Claire to the bottom of Soda Creek valley.
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At the bottom I forded Soda Creek, knee deep and extremely cold. While many I encountered on the trails had complained about the mosquitoes at Forrester and Little Claire, I had found them tolerable. Now, down near Soda Creek, with overcast skies and humidity from the previous day’s rain, there was nothing tolerable about them. I also did not find Soda Creek valley to be particularly scenic. Furthermore, there had been no trail crew over this trail and it was littered with dozens of deadfall and livefall—mostly young trees that could not stand up during last winter’s snows.

Finally I reached the junction with the Lost Canyon trail and started up. This was the first trail I encountered on the trip that use “old fashioned” switchbacks—meaning none at all or slight bends as I clawed my way up the side of the hill to the stream crossing. Before and after the crossing, however, I caught glimpses of Lost Creek—a very pretty stream with numerous falls and cascades through the flowers and brush. It was difficult to get a camera angle through the brush, but the water was musical.

After the crossing I continued uphill until coming to the intersection/crossing/camp at 9560. There is a bear box there and a serviceable small camp next to the creek. People continuing up the canyon would cross the creek again here, but my trail turned NE to get over the ridge to the Big 5 lakes. That hike was not terribly exciting. The lake at 10,000 that was billed in Sierra South as a possible camping destination is now a hell hole, with the eastern side having recently burned and now filled with boggy, mosquito laden muddy water. Finally I got over the ridge and began to get glimpses of lower Big Five lake. By the time I arrived, I was exhausted, and took a camp on the peninsula.

The peninsula proved to be an ideal spot, since for most of the afternoon and evening breezes came over the lake to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
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The day had remained dull and overcast, with “flat light” making it hard to find worthy photographic subjects. Still, occasionally a beam of light would poke out and I tried to make the most of it when one did.
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I also found a large, extremely well made Winchester hunting knife that someone had carelessly left by the lakeshore—by its condition within days. It was valuable enough for me not to want to let it rust, but on the other hand it would be another lead weight in the backpack. I wound up packing it out. Maybe we will turn it into a kitchen knife—I do not routinely skin bears.
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Re: Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:52 pm

Day 4
5 miles
+1128’
-552’
Big Five to 10410.JPG
This day was a turning point. It brought me close to Black Rock pass, which reputedly is beautiful and which would provide a faster exit from my loop if conditions remained bad.

In fact the day started overcast again. I decided to bypass the rest of the Big Five lakes to try to get out of mosquito country—although I was undecided if that meant going over Black Rock or going north. That determination would be made later. As I chugged over the rise and came down into the more southerly of the Little Five lakes I thought they were pretty, interesting shorelines, lots of very, very green “lawn” and particularly mosquito infested.
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A couple from Michigan was on a loop over Kaweah Gap and commented that they had planned to stay and explore, but would head over Black Rock early instead. A shame, these lakes looked like the kind of place I would enjoy exploring.
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I headed north, following the route to Lake 10410 that Rogue described in one of his adventures—crossing the outlet stream at a nice ford, heading up a couple of switchbacks, then departing the trail to head west. I tried to keep well above the outlet stream, which was in a gorge to my left, and cliffy granite ledges to my right. It worked, and I came out into a more open shelf with granite where I stumbled over a decaying old camera before coming to one of the most charming little complexes of lakes I have encountered. The network of smaller lakes had interesting shorelines, green carpets, granite, and babbling streams connecting them. I almost stopped there. But heading just a bit further brought me in sight of lake 10410. Rogue had said he had problems finding campsites except on the north side, and I agree. I only ever found two spots on which you could put a tent, ½ to ¾ of the way along the north side as I traveled from the outlet. I took the first one, and for the first and only night of the circuit was truly camping alone. Every other night there were campers somewhere within earshot. I enjoyed the solitude.

This lake was in a stunning setting—a real jewel.
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But before I even got unpacked it started to rain again. I hurriedly set up, moved into the tent, listened and watched as the hail began to pelt down, and decided right then and there that the next day I was heading out over Black Rock for what I hoped would be better weather and fewer mosquitoes.
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Then something funny happened. The rain stopped. I got out of the tent. There wasn’t a mosquito anywhere. The sun began to crack through. I began to explore 10410 and the areas above it, finding some amazing erratics.
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As the afternoon wore on, a rainbow appeared over the Big Arroyo.
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Finally the sun was casting some shadows and giving me dramatic lighting.

The clouds were retreating and it felt as if the weather may have turned. So….I told myself that if it did not rain again during the night, and if in the morning the skies were clear, I would continue my original loop. Otherwise Black Rock for the early exit. And it did not rain.
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Re: Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:53 pm

Day 5
8 miles
+1352’
-3521
10410 to Hamilton lake.JPG
This day was among the most beautiful and most demanding days in my 44 years of backpacking.
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It did not start out wonderfully. After backtracking from 10410 to the trail, the trail north plunged down into the Big Arroyo, with mosquitoes waiting to ambush those who stripped down to ford the stream. There I paused to look at the historic old cabin, which seems to me to need some preservation work.

As I joined the High Sierra Trail for the first time—heading the opposite direction of most hikers who were headed to Whitney—I appreciated this large glacial valley more and more as I gained elevation. Eventually it opened into a splendid flower strewn valley with the green carpet interrupted with granite boulders, surrounded by the Kaweah Peaks on the east and the Great Western Divide on the west, with the Kaweah Gap gradually becoming visible as a low notch to the northwest. I paused often for pictures. The sun, alas, was not fully out after all, and I often had to wait long spells (often unsuccessfully) for the openings in the clouds to illuminate my subjects.
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The other delight was that the climbing was mostly gradual, as I came north upstream, so that by the time the trail decisively turned toward the gap there were only a few hundred feet of elevation to be made. There were several snowbanks to cross—only one of which with much slope (which I scrambled around) and soon I was at the eastern end of Kaweah Gap.
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Now my nerves would be tested. Many friends, backpacking companions, and family are surprised to learn of my fear of heights. On the one hand, I absolutely love vistas from high places and scenery that can only be gained from being on high. But exposure makes me very uncomfortable. I have usually been able to overcome my fears and have been delighted with the results—but it is always a psychological struggle. And coming through the gap would require walking on snowfields with some exposure, followed up by taking the High Sierra Trail—blasted out of sheer cliff faces—down to Lake Hamilton.

The Kaweah Gap was eerie and foreboding as I came through it. It was not a conventional pass at all—more like a half mile long narrow canyon. Clouds and fog were roiling through the Gap, which was half filled with snow.
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What wasn’t covered in snow was muddy or flooded. This did not even feel like Spring. The rock formations were interesting and I could imagine how charming it all must seem on a warm summer day.

Then, just before I came down to Precipice Lake, I came to a challenge I had a hard time overcoming. The gap was filled from side to side with a 10-15 foot high snowbank, carved out in the middle by a sizable snowmelt pond. The only way through the gap was to climb up to the snowbank and traverse it around the lake. The snowbank, however, had melted away from the cliff face on one side, and it had split off into the lake (where it was increasingly undercut) on the other. At its narrowest it was about six feet wide. Stray too far in one direction and the edge would collapse into the lake. Too far in the other and you might collapse into a crevasse between the snow and the cliff. A well worn path went over the top, and I had met two couples who had recently done it. Putting on my microspikes and steeling my resolve, I walked in other people’s footprints and got around. Most experienced hikers would not have giving it a thought. I felt a sense of triumph as well as nervous exhaustion.
(See pictures at my conditions report here: http://highsierratopix.com/community/vi ... 8&start=84 )
There was more to come. As I came over into sight of Precipice Lake (a famous Ansel Adams subject,) I saw the lake was 95% frozen, with just a few lines of the brilliant ice blue. And I had more snowbanks to walk on, although none so nerve wracking.
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Re:Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:53 pm

After working my way to the lone exposed tent pad near the outlet of Precipice, I surveyed the magnificent vista that was spreading out below. You can see the route of the High Sierra Trail as it cuts its way up more than 2000’ of frequently sheer cliff.
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As I descended through the upper, greener reaches I crossed numerous small waterfalls and a profusion of wildflowers.
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Then the trail gets to the serious work of crossing cliff faces. The most famous and notorious involves a deep “notch” or gorge which forces the trail to V inwards to get around it. A tunnel was installed in the notch, and the trail is held up with steel bars drilled into the rock in numerous places.
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Many other such adventures awaited on the way down. I dealt with my vertigo by staring intently at the trail, as if I were a horse with side blinders, attempting to ignore the sheer drops that would turn a simple fall (and I had fallen once earlier on this trip) into a long plunge to oblivion. In order to see the vistas I would stop every dozen steps or so, carefully turn my back to the cliff, and survey the panorama. Strangely, I felt no fear when doing so. It probably helped that I was passing numerous groups with inexperienced hikers, children, and people even older than myself heading uphill—all seemingly without a concern.

At the bottom I found that ¼ acre or so of granite next to the outlet was teaming with campers. I found my way down hill near the bear box where there were many convenient, woodsy tent pads. They had a magnificent view of Valhalla—which reminds me a little of El Cap. But no view of the lake. For that I took numerous strolls uphill as the afternoon and evening concluded. Oh—it did rain—for about 10 minutes. I also met a very pleasant young man from England—his family comes to the U.S. every few years to backpack together. The world needs a lot more people like them.

As the sun got low, it shined straight across the lake and lit up the waterfalls magnificently.
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I held my breath while clicking, hardly believing that the sun was actually cooperating with me. A bit later, a very tame dear wandered through camp.
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I slept well that night.
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Re: Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:54 pm

Day 6
11 miles
+3198
-4320
Hamilton lake to Cliff Creek Ford.JPG
This was a transit day—a day to make a lot of time around the loop. But it did give me some good and some not so good surprises.

I got out of camp by 6am again only to discover that the excitement of the High Sierra Trail continued. The journey from Lake Hamilton to the Bearpaw backcountry camp was dramatic, with numerous views of granite domes and crags.
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The trail passed across the top of a waterfall, where it fords the Middle Fork 15’ from the precipice, it crosses numerous granite faces, it crosses a chasm on a bridge, with tributary Lone Pine Creek raging below.
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I had not expected so much scenic entertainment to start my day. Unfortunately the very early morning light, combined with a mist in the air, made the photography very problematic.
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Eventually I made my way to dirty and unattractive Bearpaw Camp, where numerous HST through hikers feel compelled to stay. Here I left the HST, and of course did not see another human being for the next 8 miles as I worked my way over to Cliff Creek. The hiking from this point on became pretty dull. Lots of hiking through mature forests, with little understory and piles and piles of jackstraw on the forest floor. Quite a few of the trees were dead—victims of the latest drought—I remember thinking to myself how much I would want to be somewhere else if a fire started. The trails were also definitely of a lower order of engineering and maintenance than elsewhere in the park. Still, I pounded along the forest floors very easily, eager to complete the loop. I went by Little Bearpaw meadow, recommended as an alternative to Bearpaw for camping—but did not see a campsite, although I wasn’t looking carefully.

The trail down to the Middle Fork of Kaweah was scenic in its way—descending into deciduous forest. It reminded me of hiking in parts of Yosemite Valley. But at the crossing I had a rude shock, which I detail in the conditions report. It took me an hour to figure out a way over the river, which I did manage safely. But while guidebooks mentioned a log crossing, whatever logs there were have been swept parallel to the banks, which are brushy and covered with so much flotsam that I could not even spy where the trail was “supposed” to cross.

Around the side of the hill I went to Redwood Meadows. As I came into sight of the Sequoias, they are truly magnificent creatures. And so much better to have entire forest of the giants to myself than to be gawking elbow to elbow with busloads of tourists at General Grant or General Sherman. Redwood Meadows was also reputed to be a possible camping spot.
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The unused ranger station provided lots of flat ground for tents. The water situation, however, leaves something to be desired. A rusty tap delivers water to a stock tub. You can take water from the tap, but it comes out rusty. After surveying the situation and realizing I still had time in the day, I decided to try to make the four miles remaining to Cliff Creek crossing and camp there.

Those next four miles were torture—coming after an already long day. On my first day, I marveled at the almost overly-elaborate engineering of the trail to Franklin Lake, that seemed to rise at a modest degree the entire way. Redwood Meadows is one of the lowest elevations of the trip at around 6000 feet, and I needed what sounded like a modest 1200 feet rise to get to Cliff Creek at 7200. I do not believe, however, that there was a single switchback on the trail. Whoever laid it out simply did not believe in them. During the first mile after Redwood Meadows the trail passes through some other lovely groves of Sequoia. After this, however, the trail began to seem to me like a steep, dark tunnel with no views except dead forest floor. There were a couple of side streams bringing water across the trail—better looking certainly than the rusty stuff I had filtered into my back up bottle, so I stopped, dumped, and refiltered.

Finally I came to Cliff Creek crossing, not knowing what to expect. I was absolutely delighted by the little camp there—enough room only for a few tents, but in a pretty streamside setting. Better than anything I had seen since lake Hamilton. Oh….it hadn’t rained.
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Re: Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin, Kaweah, Timber

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:54 pm

Day 7
5 miles
+2680’
-1993
Cliff Creek to MK.JPG
The last day is bittersweet. I was eager to be home and sorry to leave, all at the same time. I sat by the water before crossing, waiting for it to become light enough to see to wade. I listened to the sound, heard the early morning birds, and was mesmerized by the rushing water. Finally, heaving my pack on, I splashed across, changed into my boots, and started up the hill.

The trail up over Timber Gap is reasonably good—a far cry from that obscenity between Redwood Meadows and Cliff Creek. It is well engineered and entertaining at time, with lots of wildflowers, meadows, and some interesting red rock festooned with waterfalls on Timber Gap Creek.
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The name of the pass and its sub 10000 elevation is deceptive, however. Timber Gap is a 2300 foot climb from Cliff Creek—a major pass and one that took me four hours to conquer. The Mineral King side is much drier, and passed through sage rather than meadows. I sailed down those slopes thinking that I would certainly not want to go UP Timber Gap from Mineral King in the afternoon, and catching sight of my car long before I made it to the bottom.
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At the bottom, I extracted my car from its various marmot protections, packed up, and drove home, uneventfully.

Conclusion

It is hard to reflect on a trip one day after it is over. I think this loop may have been the most scenically beautiful extended hike I have ever done. It rivals my North Lake/South lake loop. It certainly WAS the most psychologically challenging and satisfying of my backpack career. With all of the damp conditions, I think I prefer it that way—later in the year it might seem too desert like to me. But surrounded with green meadows, babbling brooks, and dramatic backdrops at every sight-line—this trip will produce fond memories for the rest of my days.
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Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin Pass - Kaweah Gap 8/1-8/

Post by maverick » Tue Aug 08, 2017 3:11 pm

Looking forward to the pictures KP, always recommend folks to visit Lake 10410 and the surrounding lakes, very pretty. Did you get hit by that big storm on Thursday (3rd) , received several hours of rain starting around 8:30 pm over on the North Fork Big Pine, with a lot of lightening and thunder too.
Professional Sierra Landscape Photographer

I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member: http://reconn.org

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Re: TR Mineral King Loop - Franklin Pass - Kaweah Gap 8/1-8/

Post by kpeter » Tue Aug 08, 2017 4:16 pm

maverick wrote:Looking forward to the pictures KP, always recommend folks to visit Lake 10410 and the surrounding lakes, very pretty. Did you get hit by that big storm on Thursday (3rd) , received several hours of rain starting around 8:30 pm over on the North Fork Big Pine, with a lot of lightening and thunder too.
Thank you for the 10410 recommendation, Mav! It was one of the highlights of the trip!

My biggest storms were Wednesday the 2nd from 630-930 pm, and Friday the 4th from 1-3 in the afternoon, after which the weather seemed to break.
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