Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mineral King / Sequioa National Park Backpacking Trip- Mineral King Loop Trail

 I've read a backpacking quote that went something like " It's very humbling to have your life on your back." I can't find it, or figure out who said it (I assume someone like John Muir or maybe even Henry David Thoreau ).  I think that's why I love backpacking SO MUCH. It gets you to break things down to the most simplistic forms : Food, water, shelter, first aid, and a minimal amount of comfort. When I come out of the woods, I come out a changed person. I'm in so detached from everything and become more aware of my surroundings. I hear water, birds, see vivid colors, and smell fragrance that usually get ignored in day to day tasks.

Where are we going?!
This trip wasn't all what we planned. Originally, the plan was to do Rae Lakes Loop out of Kings Canyon National Park. However even though our permit was submitted more than 2 weeks out of our entry date, a ranger called and informed us there was only 1 permit left for that trail head. We requested a departure date of a day later and still had no luck. He gave us an hour to find another hike and get back to him. I was frantic. I googled "backpacking in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park" I was so unprepared and had little knowledge of the area. After a little bit of research Mineral King Timber Gap, Big 5 Lakes, kept coming up. We submitted our request for that loop and then waited for 2 weeks to receive our permit/conformation email.

Mineral King is an area, only accessible by a very curvy twenty one mile long road, South East of the main entrance of Sequoia National Park. The road is narrow and usually takes an hour and a half to reach the ranger station.

Having two weeks to do some research (and last minute gear prep) we planned out our trip according to millage allowance for 4 days, campsite availability, and a map we found on a really helpful blog.
Mineral King Loop.

I found this map while doing a general google search for Mineral King Loop Trail . EVERYWHERE I read recommended doing this loop clockwise. The Trek up Sawtooth pass is pretty awful (1,300 feet in less than a mile), it's all lose gravel, and flying down it is much more fun (and terrifying).

SO here is a quick break down for you.
 TIME: allow for a MINIMUM of at least 4 days. If you're in GREAT shape (aka CLIMBING shape and are able to climb at least 1,000 feet per mile and just want to get this hike off your bucket list) then yeah you could do it in less, I wouldn't recommend it.

LENGTH: 28 miles. Again, It doesn't seem like much but every day has a pass (mountain range ) you have to climb over. My husband and I are athletic. I'm a Crossfitter and we both are marathon runners and triathletes. Living at sea level did us no favor for the 3,000 ft elevation changes.
We also wanted somewhat of a vacation so we took our time, took lots of pictures, and just relaxed if we got to campsites early.

DIFFICULTY: I would rate it strenuous. Some of the valleys were gentle and pleasant, however, if you're not use to altitude the climbs are going to make it rough.  Twice we hiked back to a valley and were surrounded by cliffs. I looked straight up and moaned "we have to climb this?". But up we went. On the climbs, we would average about 1 mile every 50 minutes. The rest of the hike, average hiking speed would be 1 mile every 29-33 minutes, depending on slope. (Referencing from Garmin Foreunner 220.)

SEASON / WEATHER: With our jobs, we are very fortunate to not have our lives revolve around a school calendar.  We were able to sneak in before the busy labor day weekend (August 19th-22th) and basically have every lake/campsite to ourselves. At night I wore merino wool and had a 20 degree sleeping bag and was a little on the warm side. During the day hiking pants and a tanktop/tshirt was perfect, maybe even a little too warm still. We didn't deal with mosquito but still bought bug spray just in case.

Alright, here we go, "The wilderness must be explored"!

Day 1- Trail head to Pinto Lake, well, Almost. 

 The day we left, we drove in from Ventura, CA. It was about a 3.5 hour long drive. My husband had to work the night shift prior to us leaving so we didn't actually get to the ranger station until 1:50. We checked in, got our permit,and heard about Leave No Trace.We also asked about the marmot problem. If you google this hike you're likely see cars wrapped in tarps. During the summer marmots are very problematic and like to eat through engine hoses in cars.  I came prepared with a car tarp but lucky for us, coming in late August, it wasn't an issue and didn't need to dress my car in a tarp.
Our Packs.
 Getting on to the trail:  When we got to the trail head the bottom of Josh's bag was soaked and my water bladder was empty. Already dealing with severe stomach pain, this was not a way to start a trip. Luckily I had purchased a 3.0L platypus bladder, along with the 2 of our 2L bladders. I was able to exchange Josh's 3.0 L for the empty 2L. However with 2 32oz water bottles and now the new bladder, I would easily say my pack weighed somewhere in the 45-47lb area. 
 I wasn't prepared for the steep climb we encountered the first mile. I began questioning if I could do 4 days of this. We also felt rain drops. Having only a 20% chance of rain on Sunday, I forgo-ed the purchase of pack covers, a lesson learned. The rain didn't last long, little did we know it would be chasing us this weekend. 

 We knew in order to reach Pinto Lake before dark it would be a big haul, having started at 2:20pm. We still took moments to enjoy ourselves.
By 7pm we were both pretty tired. I had yet to eat anything since 8am, still dealing with my stomach, Josh was only running on 3 hours of sleep. According to a blog I read, we only had 1 more mile, 30ish minutes, left. We crossed a creek, and saw a sign "PINTO LAKE 2.9 MILES". We both just stood there, looking at the climb up. I sighed and said, "alright, we got this, almost there." We were hiking back into a valley, and what I was hoping to be Pinto lake. We were surrounded by cliff walls,
 eventually it became evident our last .50 of a mile was going to be straight up a cliff side and over.

However halfway up, we stopped and got a glimpse of a beautiful sunset. 

We were exhausted. After the climb I imagined this beautiful lake would be in front of us. However we were met with a marsh meadow. We spent about 25 minutes looking for a lake . After a while, we found a flat area, not far from a bear box, and called it a night. Our motor skills were quickly dwindling. The bear container lid was almost unlatchable due to our freezing hands and the lid to our Jetboil had became swollen shut due to elevation. Even setting up our tent took longer than usual. We got everything under control, All in the dark, but it is something we definitely laugh about now.

Elevation chart from the 1st day hike from my Garmin Forunner 220 Elevation : 8,800


Got our water filtration going on. The water tasted amazing and was extremely cold. Even though it looked clean we still filtered

We didn't hang around the campsite to long, according to my map's elevation I knew today was going to be a big climb.
We climbed...

 And climbed....
We celebrated with a goldfish and Twizzlers break

  I did some research and read the jaunt down to Upper 5 lakes (instead of going on to Columbine) was worth the mileage, so we made it our 2nd day campsite destination. We were so glad we did. It ended up being one of my favorite campsites ever and we were the only ones even near the lake. I'm guessing the two guys we saw on the trail decided to head on.

Upper 5 Lakes Elevation 10,192

DAY 3 BIG FIVE LAKES TO COLUMBINE LAKE - "Oh what a beautiful morning"

We woke up to a beautiful morning. We took our time here, taking pictures, drinking coffee, eating oatmeal. How could you not love this? 

Today was a pretty interesting day. We had an "easier " day, some rolling hills but nothing like the day before. We took our time and I FINALLY had hunger, for the first time in 2 days I ate lunch! So we stopped at a scenic over look. I kept hearing something. At first I thought it was a bird. Then maybe someone's bear bells. I mentioned something to Josh but he was like "it's a bird". I kept looking in the direction of the sound and finally saw it...I got up and said come here!

Someone had placed wind chimes on this tree. It was beautiful, so peaceful. I kept looking around for maybe a notebook or a geocache or something, but no luck. Just there for serenity.

Little did we know we played a little too long and the weather would catch up to us.

By the time we got to Lost Canyon, it looked again to be a climb up and over . However, I was taking a video of where we were at and Josh points over to the left side of the cliff and said "I don't like the look of those clouds". It started raining and we weren't prepared. Luckily we found 2 boulders big enough for us and our stuff to sit under . It looked like someone had once used it as a campsite. We once tried to continue on and the rain began again, we retreated to our spot. We waited this time for an hour, both dozing. A little sun peaked through and decided it was a good window to get up and over, so a climbing we went.

We made it to Columbine Lake! Elevation 10,970, Yes that's snow by his feet!

We had a great camping experience. Again, we were the only ones here the entire time. Unfortunately, the rain followed us and we had to put up our tent and gear pretty quick. It moved through fast and we had the rest of the evening to explore and take pictures.


We woke up to a BEAUTIFUL morning, again, spent a lot of time taking pictures, drinking coffee, and just enjoying the beauty of it all.

As we slowly packed up, we could see a rain curtain on the other side of the pass, as well as some darkening clouds. We continued taking pictures but had to get a move on if we wanted to stay safe. We still had one more big climb to make, 700 feet up in less than a mile up to Sawtooth Pass 11,600 feet elevation.

 We made it to the top just in time to put rain jackets on when the thunder began. Josh says he saw lightening but decided not to tell me. The hail came soon after. We had no place to hide under, so down the mountain we flew. The other side is nothing but sand and gravel. At the beginning we were literally skiing down the 1,300 foot drop.

We both were saying little prayers as we were flying down that mountain. The thunder was getting louder and louder every step we took. Things finally lightened up, we caught our breaths, and just laughed at what we just did. " We FLEW down that thing". We took a quick break at Monarch Lake to take in the view but headed on as the storm continued over the pass.

 The terrain change drastically from white cliffs to beautiful forest.

 But as all good things must do, this trip had to come to an end. I was kind of ready to pitch my tent at Monarch lake and stay for another day. I'm sure I could have talked Josh into it.

After we left I had heard about this AMAZING Pie shop or something in Silver City. We passed to what looked like a little cabin market on the way up but decided to take a peak on our way back down the crazy 21 mile road. ....IT.....WAS...AMAZING... There is a little cabin getaway that has a kitchen attached.

Root beer float, Hamburger, chips, melon, and homemade pecan pie, OH MY

It was a life changing trip. So many times instead of thinking of what's next, I sat, and just let myself BE. I rarely looked at the time (mostly millage), and persevered through some challenging climbs.Some of moments I experienced took my breath away just by how beautiful this area really is. I love that places like this are a challenge to get to.

As I've previously stated, preparing for a backpacking trip makes you lay out the most minimal survival tools: food, shelter, water, and minimal comfort if room. When you enter the forest, it breaks you down to your most minimal version of yourself. It's you, your mind, body, heart, and soul. All complicated barriers but broken down into the most simplistic form, all coming together to experience the tranquility of the forest, as one.

. ...What's NEXT?...Maybe part of the John Muir Trail :)

 I've very thankful to work at REI and am able to get some pretty high tech equipment goods. As far as gear 3 things I HIGHLY recommend for this trip, or any high elevation backpacking adventure:
  1. High wasted hiking pants (not jeans) or ones that even have a inner drawstring. My pack was rubbing on my hips by the 2nd day after I wore lower cut hiking pants. The higher cut adds more padding and comfort. 
  2. Merino Wool Sleeping top (layered if can). I wore my amazing Smart wool 1/4 zip as well as a long sleeve Crew underneath

    I slept in it every night and was even a little too warm on 2 of the 3 nights ( as well as my down hooded Jacket)

    3. Trekking poles. This was the first trip I EVER used poles on. I always thought there were for the more slightly senior hikes. However with the elevation change, as well as important marathon in 2 weeks, I decided to check them out to help preserve my knees. These guys were my life line! They helped with distributing the weight of my pack in every direction. Mostly, they helped with my balance. My pack would pull me back as I would try to go up, they helped pull me and keep my pack moving with me. It saved me too when I would mistep, my pack going left, body going right. I'm a muppet after all. 


    I honestly think we brought more water than we needed. In the middle of a drought, we're used to desert types of hikes . The multiple streams, lakes, and waterfalls we could have used as water sources. If you're too worried about weight I wouldn't bring more than 2 bladders (1 2L and 1 3L , or even 2 , 2L) not much more is needed after the first day. 
    -Check YOUR WEATHER. 
    This is a pretty standard tip but again, living by the beach in CA, you could be used to "it's sunny, it never rains" type of mindset. I ALMOST...ALMOST bought rain covers for our packs and now wish I would. Nothing got ruined but it could have. We REALLY lucked out when it came to the weather, it could have been a lot worse. Also temperatures are important. 2 weeks out it was forecasting in the 30's, the day before we left it moved to 40's. We were both warmer at night than we thought, again, we got lucky.
    If you're like me, you like data. Each day had a millage and elevation estimation. Both day 1 and 2 , according to my map and a blog, we were almost done, then a sign would pop up "2.9 miles!'...believe it or not that exact millage, twice, so..check and recheck. I just need to get better my map reading skills. 

    Anyway, I hope you enjoyed and this trip report helps you plan for your next trip into Mineral King. Please feel free to contact me !


  1. Wonderful Lori. Beautiful place lovingly discribed. Thank you for sharing. You convey a feeling of a transcendent experience with a concise, practical instruction. I so hope to fellow in your foot steps. Dan

  2. Super! Thanks for sharing your adventure with beautiful photos.