Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Day in Paradise: Exploring Spring Lake

Date: August 3, 2016
Place: Spring Lake, Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, California
Coordinates of Spring Lake: 36.470975, -118.554916

This is a post about the third day of my backpacking trip to Mineral King with my friend Last August.

The night was just beginning to fade when I woke up and went out of the tent. Everything was still and quiet - the air, the lakes, and the animals. I felt as calm as my surroundings. I was in my element.
First Light
I went down to the lake for a quick (it was cold!) bath. The direct sunlight hasn't reached our level yet but the lake was nonetheless illuminated with the brilliant light reflected from the peak above it. I took the photo before destroying the mirror effect with my bathing ripples.
Dawn's Reflection
The little bush birds were awake and active already. By the time I came back from the lake there was already enough light to take some photos.
Western Wood Pewee
We took our time making breakfast and getting ready for the day. Since we had decided to stay the next night here as well we didn't have to fold the tent nor to pack everything. We were in no hurry so we simply took our time and enjoyed the peaceful and absolutely gorgeous line of sunligh approaching us little by little.
'Mirror' Lake
The doe came back to visit our campsite. By now we were referring to here as our 'camp host'. She was completely unafraid and had no issues at all walking right by our tent. Every now and then she would halt and eye us with obvious curiosity. It was very cool to see how calm this usually skittish animal  was in our presence. I should add that unlike squirrels, she didn't look as if expecting us to feed her. 
Black-tailed Deer, female
All of our morning's work was done by the time the sun popped from behind the peak and the temperatures rose from chilly to warm all at once. 
We didn't plan any hike for that day but to explore the Spring Lake basin. We started our exploration with climbing the Cliff Creek cascades up towards Cyclamen Lake.
Spring Lake area
We has in mind to get to Cyclamen Lake by climbing the rocks along the creek. From below it didn't look much of a challenge. We couldn't see Cyclamen Lake but we assumed that by following the creek we will get there, so we chose a path north of the creek and started climbing up.

It was a great feeling to walk around without having to carry our heavy backpack. All we took was water, a light snack and my camera.
Soon we discovered that there was no easy path going up to Cyclamen Lake. Not where we were going, anyway. We had to climb some massive granite slabs and hop across some deep ravines between those slabs. Whenever it looked like there would be an easy way between the boulders it was blocked with a thicket of willows. Often we had to backtrack some distance and tray another lead.
Little by little, however, we were gaining altitude, and the view that lay before us was absolutely spectacular.
Spring Lake Lagoon
Neither myself or my friend had any serious rock climbing experience so we didn't try anything too adventurous. Occasionally though, we had to step outside of our comfort zone and use our hands and less than ideal upper body strength to pull ourselves over one rocky edge or another. The cracks of the granite were very useful for that.
These cracks are also very useful for plant too. Many plants were growing in these narrow rock crevices, thriving on whatever little soil that had accumulated there.
Alpine Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna) 
Wider rock cracks and gaps accumulate more soil and more moisture. And as expected - more plants grow there. Many of these I've seen for the first time.
Tolmie's Saxifrage (Micranthes tolmiei) 
We progressed slowly upward, looking for the path of least resistance, trying not to make any risky moves. One time we crossed the creek to the south and then we were walking under and around huge chunks of granite. These chinks have been weathered to frightening smoothness and we were too cautious to try and climb them. The granite masses were separated by deep and narrow cracks, some of them wide enough to accommodate us.
Going up these chutes was challenging too but we were less worried about plummeting into oblivion while squeezing through them or climbing onto the boulders that blocked our way here and there.
Big Crack
Rock climbing is tiring. Often we would stop, breathless, and take a short break before moving on. I took these opportunities to check out the local flora - the pretty wildflowers that decorated the granite and made it look like so much better than the best designed rock garden.
Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) 
Even the humble grasses looked very pretty, adding their touch to this celestial arboretum we were at.
Forked Wood Rush (Luzula divaricata)
One of the amazing aspects of being so high up the mountains was the clarity of the air. Everything looked so vivid and vital, and the colors were so intense and brilliant. There was no hint of haze, smoke, or dust to cloud our view (nor did I need to do any levels adjustment to my photos later). Everything looked and felt so vibrant and we were absorbing it like the starved who were let in to a rich buffet.
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)
Eventually we reached a point where climbing looked more challenging than we wished to tackle. I left my little day pack and managed to scramble a little bit higher where I saw that the way was blocked by a plug of snow with who  knows what underneath. I was at a dead end and I could see no access to Cyclamen Lake.
What I did see was a young robin sitting on the rock face and calling to its parents. They didn't come, not while I was watching.
American Robin, juvenile
I looked down and squeezed myself a but tighter to the granite. To the south below I could see the cascading creek my friend and I walked down along to get from Glacier Pass to Spring Lake. It looked so far and small from where I was standing. I could really get an appreciation of how high we had climbed.
The creek on the south, cascading down from Glacier Pass
I rejoined my friend and we found a path through the granite crack all the way up to the snow plug, there we halted and decided not to go any further.
Leftover Snow
A small bird was poking at the snow. I got a few shots before it took off. I didn't know what it was at the time, but as I was looking through my photos back home my elder chika passerby and said it was a rosy finch. Consultation with the Sibley Guide and with Papa Quail proved her to be right. Once more I was amazed by my china's sharp memory for birds, and this one was particularly impressive because she had never seen a rosy finch before. She had memorized it from the book.
Gray-crown Rosy Finch
Looking out through the crack we could view mount Eisen just ahead. On anther trip I may go there, but on this one we would stay well below that peak.

We rested. My friend got into some snow play and I inspected the little herbs that grew in the little topsoil that accumulated in the granite crack and was muddy with snow-melt water. 
Possibly Showy Sedge, (Carex spectabilis) together with Poa sp.

When it was time to go we walked careful down the crack and stopped in a small rock porch that had a flat gravel floor and a wonderful vista point to the north. We could see the Spring Lake complex lying far below us like jeweled mirrors reflecting the clear blue sky. Honestly, I wasn't all that thrilled about getting back down. Climbing up was enough of a challenge for me.

There wasn't a choice there, however. We started our slow descent, carefully going down stepping from one rock to another below it. We stopped frequently to breath and to assess our progress.
The most prominent wildflower we'd seen up there was the magnificent Sierra Columbine. There was one near where we had our stop on the way down. As we were munching on the meagre provisions we had brought with us we heard a low hum and saw something buzzing about the large, pale yellow flowers. At first glance I thought it might be a hummingbird but closer attention revealed it was a moth - a huge moth. The largest I've seen active during daylight. It is, in fact, the size of a small hummingbird and the buzz of their flight is at a very similar pitch.
Sierra Columbine (Aquilegia pubescens) and a Sphinx Moth
The moth have had enough of the columbine near us and flew away, and our nook went silent once again. We got to our feet and continued climbing down the rocks.
Cinquefoil and pine on the rock edge. 
We came back to the creek again and, unable to identify the exact place where we had crossed it on our way up we simply followed it straight down along the cascading water. We treaded carefully - the rocks were sleek and the space between them (whenever there was space) was grown with moss so lovely we hadn't had the heart to step on. It has been so long since I saw a green so strong and vibrant. The photo below is as I took it, without any adjustments.
Moss Bed
Wow were getting down below the trees again. On the slope north of the cascades grew a small grove of foxtail pines, all looking very windswept, their canopies pointing northeast and upward, pointing out the wind's direction when it blows.

The biggest things that grew along the creek itself were large willow bushes that often were too thick for us to pass through.

The willows were at the seed dispersal stage and fluffy bits of willow cotton floated in the air and decorated the dark green bushes with white tufts.
Willow, likely Sierra Willow (Salix orestera)
It never ceases to amaze me how these plants grow and indeed thrive in such a thin crack of rock. But I guess they also have a way of enlarging the crack with their expanding roots, amounting to a weathering power not to be dismissed.
Willow, likely Sierra Willow (Salix orestera)
The willows comprised the green closest to the creek flow. Still along the creek line but somewhat removed big balls of fern grew out go the rock cracks, adding a lighter shade of green to the rock garden.
Cliff Fern (Woodsia scopulina) 
I thought going up was challenging but getting back down had its points of excitement too. After losing the path where we had climbed up we descended along the creek until we reached a barrier of thick vegetation and had to climbed back up partway and find another way around. There were a few cairns there, indicating that we weren't the first people to have done this adventure, but I found that these cairns can be as confusing as they can be of help. Not an official trail marker, they can mean whatever, and not necessarily what I might chose to interpret it as.
About mid-day we got back to our little camp. I went into the tent to 'lie down a bit' and within seconds I was out for a good half an hour.

I woke up feeling lightheaded and very hot. When I got out of the tent my friend wasn't there. I looked around and spotted her down by the lake shore, sitting meditatively on a large rock near the water and I went to join her there to sit among the sedges.
Native Sedge (Carex vernacula)
The air was hot and still. It was prime time to go swimming. The water was pretty cold, however, so I suggested going to the little pond just off of Spring Lake, snug between two narrow sedimentary hills.

The lake has a long, narrow 'arm' that stretches eastward. We hopped across it, went a little up the hill and looked back. From there we could see the cascading slope that we had climbed earlier that day. I saw where we met our path's dead end and I could see other possible climbing routes that now will have to wait until the next time I make it to Spring Lake.

We made it to the little pond and there I promptly took my clothes off and went in the water. Like I expected, the water was much less cold than at the larger Spring Lake. It was still too cold for my friend, however, and she settled for wading in the shallows only.
Little Spring Lake
I enjoyed that swim immensely. There was no one else in the entire Spring Lake area (the couple we had met on the previous day had been long gone), and no inhibitions except the self-imposed ones. This, turns out, tent to fall away easily when alone in the wilderness at a place of perfect bliss.
After the swim we continued our exploration. We walked to the place where Cliff Creek spills out of Spring Lake. It fell down two short but strong cascades, then eases through a flat area into a string of beady little ponds before turning the curve and disappearing from view.
Cliff Creek
We arched back southward and run into a small grove of trees withe a clearing between them. The clearing had all the marks of an actively used campsite, including the charred remains of a campfire (it is forbidden to have campfires there) and wads of toilet paper shoved between rocks around the campsite (hikers are expected to pack out everything they brought - including used toilet paper. It takes many months to decompose!)
We hurried away from that site, feeling it desecrated the place. But there, on a little rock overlooking the creek we saw a squirrel munching on something. We went around the squirrel, careful not to scare it away, conscious that it was at home and we were the visitors.
Golden-mantled Squirrel
The most common tree in that area is the foxtail pine. The old and venerable trees look very majestic. Some of the younger trees also have interesting figures, like this one we saw on our way back to our campsite. It reminded me of a graceful dancer wearing a tutu skirt.
Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana) 
Back at our campsite we had lunch. Some distance behind the rock ledge where we had pitched our tent, hidden in the bushes, was a small side flow with water springing somewhere north of Cliff Creek, creating a small waterfall. A narrow path between the willows and the granite gave us access to the freshest and tastiest water ever and it was from that waterfall that we had fetched our drinking water. (Wild water needs to be treated).
Near the tiny waterfall was a damp area covered with the teeniest tiniest wildflowers of several species. Some I've seen on the earlier days of our trip but others I was seeing for the first time.
Small White Violet (Viola macloskeyi) 
Conscious of the draining camera battery I took a few careful shots of these tiny beauties but sadly most of my photos didn't come out very nice. On my next trip there I'll bring along my macro lens - it doesn't weigh all that much.
Willowherb (Epilobium sp.)
After lunch it was my friend's turn to take a little relaxation time. The bright sunlight, the tranquility, the immense beauty we were immerse in, all worked its wonderful way of healing our soul.
I took the time to explore Spring Lake basin a little bit on my own. In particular, I wanted to check out more closely the little lake on the northeast of the area.
I climbed the low hill that lay between the lakes. It was made of sedimentary soil that was deposited there by countless floods. It comprised mostly of coarse granite gravel that looked highly porous and didn't seem to hold much water. The dominant plant there was the shorthair sedge that grew in circles and loops of various shapes, some quite elaborate.
Shorthair Sedge (Carex exerta)
I approached the lake. The deer I had seen grazing there earlier was no longer visible. The water was perfectly calm. The air, however, carried the buzzing of tiny insects, some of which were no doubt mosquitos.

I circumvented the lake on the west and found myself walking along a shallow brook that was flowing gently out of the lake. I didn't resist the temptation - I took off my shoes and sat for some time with my feet in the water, until I lost all sensation in my toes.

After thawing my feet and putting my shoes on again I continued walking along the lay brook. Soon I arrived a wetland area and I tired going around it the best I could. The bog was belted with shrubs, many of which were willows. Between the willows and the flooded grassy flat was an inner belt of purple and pink flowers, primarily shootingstar, penstemon, and onion.
Pacific Mountain Onion (Allium validum)
There were also many lupine bushes there as well. The lupine, however, was already at the end of its bloom time. Nearly all the lupines there were heavy with seed pods. But a few were still blooming. Just the very ends of their inflorescences.
Bigleaf Lupine (Lupinus latifolius)
I kept going around and around but eventually I understood that there was no way of completing that circle without going through at least some of the wetland. It's not good going through wetland. It is a very delicate ecosystem and the harsh treading of shoed humans can be very damaging to it. It is one of the warnings backpackers hear in the lecture given when issued the wilderness permit.
And then again, being so soft and soaked, it is a difficult land to walk too.
The bog east of Spring Lake
I crossed the wetland hopping on rocks that protruded through the peat and water., occasionally missing my mark but mostly staying out of the wet places.
There were many flowers right in the bog itself, although smaller and less showy.
Wandering Fleabane (Erigeron glacialis)

On my way back to our camp I came across another little pond that functioned as the perfect bathtub to a white-crowned sparrow. the little bird took a lengthy bath, disregarding my presence altogether. It really is an amazing experience, being in the presence of wildlife that doesn't see me as a threat.
White-crowned Sparrow bathing
I found my friend once again at the meditation rock by the lake and I made my way directly there. We sat on the rock, absorbing the sun, chatting lightly about anything and everything. If not for the slowly lowering sun and the slowly growing sense of hunger it would have seemed that time had stood still. And at that moment I wished it would have.
Water Sedge (Cares aquatilis) in Spring Lake shallows
We stared not the water a lot. It is very mesmerizing to see the dance of sunlight on the water surface. The water was so clear that we could see the lake bottom near where we were sitting. We saw new sprouts of sedge, we saw insect larvae, and we saw something that surprised me much = a large oak leaf!
Surprising, because the nearest oak is quite far away and in much lower elevation. I wondered if the wind had blown it up there or did it come hitching a ride on someone's shoe. No way of knowing.

We hang by the lake until the sun was quite low. Then we went back to our campsite to make dinner and watch the sunset. I tried not to think about having to leave Spring Lake on the morrow. I felt strongly that my time there was fleetingly short.
Spring Lake 
Immediately after the sun had vanished behind the peaks our camp host returned, walking to and fro about our campsite. She looked very curious, and clearly had decided that we're harmless enough, because this time she had brought her nearly mature fawn. Perhaps she wanted to show us to her fawn, teaching her about humans and their strange migration ways.

The fawn eyed us curiously too, but stayed further away - a smart approach when dealing with humans of any kind.

Little by little the light faded away. The peaks on the eat lit up with gold evening light that clung to the granite tip in the final moment of the day, and then extinguished, leaving us to get ready for the night.
Last Light
That night we didn't stay outside the tend for long. Already in the afternoon large clouds were passing through the sky and after sunset they started accumulating, blocking our view of the southern stars. I suspected it might rain tomorrow, perhaps even during the night, so we gathered all our non-food items, packed them under the vestibule tent tarp, and went inside the tent.

Different people might have different images of paradise in their minds, generated from personal experiences and stories imprinted on them. But whether it's a tropical beach somewhere, rolling hills of green grass, a rich rainforest or any other landscape, I think it will be safe to assume that our image of paradise is of a place where we are free from worries, a place where our soul can grow and expand to the horizon, a place where our mind is at peace and where we don't have to account for anyone or anything. And naturally - a place that is perfectly beautiful and beautifully perfect. The pristine wilderness of the High Sierra, at the peak of its summer vibrance, and the blessed solitude it offered me -  last August Spring Lake was my paradise. I feel an ache in my chest every time I look at my photos from there - it is the tug of the unseen chord that connects my heart to Spring Lake in the High Sierra above Mineral King.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants! 


  1. Beautiful pictures, interesting area.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Avi, It's such an amazing and inspiring place!

  2. This sunds and seems to be a wonderful day!

    The moth picture is funtastic and so is the last refection picture.

    1. Indeed it was! Paradise isn't just the location. It is also the everything else that goes about there. Right now the place is probably already covered with snow. I'm sure it is gorgeous no doubt, but quite inaccessible at this time :-)