Backpacking: Mineral King/Sequoia National Park

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Last week, Brian Korver and I spent a couple of nights backpacking in Sequoia National Park, starting from the Mineral King trailhead, and doing the Little and Big 5 Lakes loop (pics).

Just getting to Mineral King was actually somewhat challenging. I didn't realize that the ranger station closed at 4 and there's no after-hours way to get a wilderness permit. Since it's s 5+ hours from Palo Alto and we left at 10:20, this didn't leave us a lot of slack, especially with the last 23 miles being on a winding, blind, one-lane road where I wasn't able to go faster than about 16 mph. We finally got to the ranger station about 3:30, got our trail passes, and were on the trail around 4:40. Our first day we climbed out of the valley, over Timber Gap, and got as far as the Cliff Creek campground/trails junction. This is about 5-6 miles and about 1500ft of ascent (not much net elevation change, though), so a good start.

The second day was the big one: we had to go over Black Rock pass (11670ft) the first of the two major passes on this route. The ascent here was a real slog, largely because it's something like 5-6 miles of climbing from the campsite, getting progressively steeper and ending in some really steep switchbacks in the last mile or two, so you just feel like you've been climing forever. All-in-all I prefer things to be flat and then steep rather than sort of gradually ramping up like this. Anyway, we got to the top around 2:30 (after leaving camp at 8:45), so not exactly a record. We hung out for a while and then started the fast downhill to the Little Five Lakes and managed to haul ourselves as far as the Sawtooth Pass trail junction (estimated mileage for the day 12-14). The campsite at the junction is nice, but what wasn't nice was that we were attacked by mosquitos as soon as we stopped. A coating of DEET and a fire quickly solved this problem, though.

On the third and last day, we had to ascend Sawtooth Pass. Since we were already at 9580 ft, and Sawtooth is at 11630, this wasn't that big a deal in terms of elevation gain, but the challenge is that the trail over Sawtooth Pass is unmaintained. Our guidebook claims that there are a lot of trails, but the situation on the ground seemed a bit different. The terrain is basically a huge boulder field on top of rock with a few patches of gravel and sand. There's no obvious trail but instead some kind soul (or souls) has laid something like 50-100 cairns indicating the general direction of the trail. At the beginning it wasn't even that clear which notch we were going through and we'd thought we might have to eventually navigate with compass and topo, but the cairns led us right up to a series of switchbacks over sandy trails going right to the pass. The way down, also unmaintained, was totally different and rather more brutal, consisting primarily of loose sand and gravel, with the result that we spent almost as much time sliding and arresting our slides as walking. Eventually, we got to Monarch Lake and the regular trail and then there was just the long descent back to the car.

I love the High Sierra, but I think I would hesitate about doing Mineral King again. The drive to the ranger station is really unpleasant and worth about another hour of freeway driving, so that's a real negative. Also, I prefer a bit more privacy and we saw a lot of people, to the point where there was some contention for campsites the first night— and this wasn't even on the weekend. Also, apparently if you go at the wrong time of year, marmots eat your car.

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