Mineral King is one of those rare, but fantastic little spots in a national park that is naturally protected from overcrowding simply because it is tucked away behind miles of winding and undulating roads. These roads aren't necessarily dangerous or out of shape. In fact, I'd say that Mineral King Rd. is better maintained than the majority of the streets in South America. It's just that it takes about an hour of driving at 20-25 mph to make the trip. And some people would rather not waste two hours in a day inside the car just to get there.
For those willing to put forth the patience and safe driving, the reward at the end of the road is great indeed. With your car doing most of the legwork, you're already at 8000 foot elevation when you step out onto the trailhead. And within a two mile radius are outstanding alpine lakes, rugged passes, and an astoundingly gorgeous palette of colors. You've got to do a little climbing to get to them. But as John Muir said, "One must labor for beauty, as for bread. Here, as elsewhere".
My buddies Scott and Mark and I decided to do this trip despite the fact that we were cramming it into a short 3 day weekend. We left from Palo Alto pretty late on Thursday night and made decent time getting to the turnoff for Mineral King Road. Actually, we passed it and had to double pack a few miles, but I claim no responsibility for that. The windy drive down Mineral King illuminated by only my highbeams was a little tense, but luckily there were no other cars on the road. Around 11 pm, we rolled into the Atwell Mill campground and held up there for the night.
Bright and early, we were up and
eating breakfast and
putting on our socks. By 9 am we were at the Mineral King Ranger Station to pick up the permit we had applied for. The ranger was a very nice guy. He was very insistent about making sure we had bear canisters and some bug spray, both of which we had. By 10 we had parked the car and were
headed on our way to Franklin Pass by foot. Here's
me looking like a chump,
Mark scratching his head in confusion, and
Scott somehow managing to look more like a chump than myself.
The first thing I was really looking forward to on the hike, being a keen admirer of aspens, was Aspen Flat. I have to say, though, that I don't think the place quite stands up to the name. There weren't many aspens and the few there were tiny little guys. The first mile or so was still very enjoyable, with several
rolling waterfalls, and a great
view up the gully towards Farewell Gap. Seeing the latter made me quite eager to continue south and check out Bullfrog Lakes, but instead we started on our way up the
switchbacks to the east.
Despite the 90 degree weather that Mineral King had been seeing for the last week, there was still a good amount of
snow in areas that had plenty of sunshine. We were all amused at a little
golpher that was taking advantage of it to keep cool. There are basically two sets of switchbacks you have to get past on in the earlygoing parts of this trail. The first set takes you up to 8700 feet along
Franklin Creek through some
loosely space pines. And the second brings you up to 9400 feet where you have a good opening to the
east where you're headed.
At this point the trail climbs steadily to the east and joins back up with the rolling falls of
Franklin Creek. If there's one thing that I remember particularly well during this first day, it's the
colors of the terrain along this very section. Deep reds and browns and even greens and blues coat the mountains, and one can see why the name "Mineral King" fits so well. We were pretty
happy when we reached the dam in front of
Franklin Lake. After climbing a little beyond the mouth of the lake we stopped for lunch at a nice shaded spot with a
superb view across the lake. Scotty busted out the stereo that he brought along and played some music to go along with our food for the afternoon.
After filling my stomach with some food and putting down nearly half of my water supply, I started to get a little nervous that we wouldn't find any places to fill up along our way to Franklin Pass. It was hot out, so we definitely needed more water than we had, but I didn't want to backtrack or climb down to the lake, which was about 300 feet below us. So we decided to count on finding a spring or a stream (there had been plenty so far) on our way up, and luckily we did find one not much further down the trail. In hindsight, had it been a little later in the season this would have probably been a bad idea.
The next set of
switchbacks would prove to be quite difficult for our group. Mark was getting a bit of a headache and feeling sluggish, but he played it like a real trooper and said he was cool to move on. The 1500 foot
climb was indeed tough, especially since the air temperatures were hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Before getting to the top we could see the
tiny pool just northwest of the pass.
After our long ascent, we finally made it to
Franklin Pass and let out a collective
holler of triumph. I'm not sure exactly what time it was, but judging from my
six o'clock shadow, I'd say it was about six o'clock. Franklin Pass quickly earned an A in my book of Sierra passes. With a clear sky we could easily make out the
peaks of the Great Western Divide,
Forester Lake, and what I think is the
outlet of the Big Arroyo. Mark was sufficiently exhausted that he decided to spend most of his time on the pass
laying down with his eyes closed. When I asked him if he had taken in the views he replied that he was really enjoying the sound of the wind flowing over his ears. Yeah, I was a little worried he was gonna pass out. But when we picked up and started walking again he was just fine.
The descent down from the pass was pretty easy. The wind had picked up quite a bit, and while we crossed an open section of the trail it almost sent my map flying down a 300 foot dropoff. When we finally got next to Rattlesnake Creek we decided to set up camp at the first site that looked nice. There were no shortage of them, and we chose a spot right next to the junction with the trail that leads north to Little Claire Lake. That was a great, great night. Mark had brought along some abalone that he had just caught and he cooked it over the fire. We ate it with tortillas and rice, and damn did it hit the spot. That boy can cook.
Day 2 started off just great. Everybody was a little sore, but noone had any bad blisters or nagging cramps or anything like that. After a good breakfast, we continued along
Rattlesnake Creek and then climbed up to
Little Claire Lake while discussing the drug habits of pop culture icons and movie stars (Scott and Mark are veritable encyclopedias when it comes to topics ranging from this to the metaphorical nature of James Joyces's work). Next we descended the
switchbacks to Soda Creek.
The combination of the heat, humidity, and fatigue from a ton of hiking the day before made getting down Soda Creek more of a chore than it should have been. The little two mile section of canyon between the last switchback and the trail junction at Lost Canyon is loaded with lush vegetation and wonderful aromas, but I think we were all just excited to stop for lunch and get a little rest. Just before the junction we stopped and ate underneath the shade of a gigantic boulder. Scott and Mark took a little nap while I sipped on instant coffee and stared at the trout in Rattlesnake Creek.
Freshly rested, we started on the
Lost Canyon, which was just ridiculously more awesome than I was expecting it to be. It's one of those places where--when I'm reminiscing about it--tracks from the Braveheart musical score are playing in my head. You know what I'm talking about. The trail rises at a perfect grade along
Chapooga Creek, taking you in and out of pine forests and then dumping you out into this incredibly open,
lush meadow. The soft grass was
glowing when we reached the base of the switchbacks that climb up to Columbine Lake and we all agreed that it would be nice to spend an entire weekend just hanging out in this
haven playing cards and drinking whiskey. But alas, we didn't have that kind of time. We were actually running short on daylight and we all wanted to make it up to Columbine Lake by nightfall so that on Sunday it would all be downhill.
So then began our journey
up the switchbacks to Columbine Lake. Mark was pretty
damned tired , so we took our sweet time. I had no qualms about this since every time we paused the
views down Lost Canyon got better and better. I really loved the picture-perfect stripe of green that coated the canyon bottom.
Just as the sun
sank behind the horizon we entered the impressive
cirque bowl of Columbine Lake. At the northwest end we found a perfect
flat section of dirt and grass to set up our tents on. I was feeling so good and carefree that I didn't mind Scotty snapping a picture of
me looking like a total gomer. While Scotty and I were applying layer upon layer to defend against the dropping chill of the evening, Mark decided to go for a swim, and I spent the next twenty minutes taking in one of the best
alpenglow shows I can remember. Columbine Lake is an impeccably situated ampitheatre for doing just that.
After having dinner, Scotty and I stayed up another hour or so just staring up into the night sky. With no fire and a new moon, the stars were incredibly brilliant. The cloudy swath of the Milky Way swept across the entire sky from north to south in one of the best shows I've ever seen. I could count every star in the little dipper (indicating we were seeing down to fifth magnitude) and was totally overwhelmed when I tried to make out the constellations to the south. There were just too damned many of them! Eventually I was able to find the teapot of Sagitarius and the body of Scorpio, but most of the stars I was seeing were completely fresh to me. Yes, it was a truly great viewing experience. If you have the means, I highly recommend watching the stars at Columbine Lake.
It's always nice to wake up knowing you've only gotta go downhill for the day. That was almost the case for us. We still had to make it up to Sawtooth Pass, 600 feet above where we were, but that would be a walk in the park compared to what we did in the last two days. So we set off from
Columbine Lake, past the many
pools to the west, and then began to climb up the
trail towards the pass.
The views to the
east and back down to
Columbine Lake kept our attention firmly enough that we lost the trail a couple of times. It's not a confusing route up to the pass, but the wear of the dirt and rock isn't that great. Soon enough, we were standing in the saddle that is Sawtooth Pass and once again beholding the superb
Mineral King. Wow, those
colors. Once again,
Mark took a chance to lie down while we enjoyed the views to the
Ready to start our
descent, we headed down the scree slope that lines the west face of Sawtooth Pass. It's a very steep and challenging route, I must say. The layer of scree is loose and thin enough to make slipping commonplace, so there were a few times where we were all intenionally sliding on our asses to avoid a spill. After about 1000 feet of careful stepping we were at the
flatter section across from Upper Monarch Lake. With the temperature lingering in the upper 80s and a whole bunch of 2-days-without-a-shower smelliness coating my body, I decided to jump in the lake. It was as refreshing a swim as could be, and before I was dry we were walking along the
colorful trail once again.
The remaining 2500 feet of descent weren't the most exciting since we were all pretty tired and ready to get in my car and turn the AC on. But there were several great
vistas of the Mineral King canyon along the way, plus a very nice,
shaded area where the trail crosses a small stream, giving us the opportunity to once again get wet and fill up on water.
When we arrived at the car around 1 pm, a surge of anger began rising in me when I saw a yellow piece of paper on my windshield. I couldn't believe that I had gotten a parking ticket when there were no signs or anything else to indicate that I was parked illegally. Turns out it was just a warning about keeping scented objects in plain view in my car. And that confused me a little since the only object in my car was an REI bag that had two hiking books and a pair of socks in it. I guess the rangers are worried about those literate, word-starved bears that break into cars to get their reading fix.
With that frustration vanquished, I was extremely excited to take a nice, hot shower, which is one of my favorite rituals after any backpacking trip. Luckily, Mineral King is perfect for this. There are showers at the Silver City Resort right down the road that cost about two bucks. So we stopped there to take showers and get some food (they also have some really good coffee; they brew it with a french press), and I also bought a cool t-shirt to remember the trip by. Then it was back to the road and off to the south bay.