Sunday, October 30, 2016

Back on Track: Down to the Campground at the Cliff Creek Crossing

Flooded meadow near Pinto Lake
 Date: August 4, 2016
Place: Mineral King area, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California,
Length: 3.5
Level: strenuous

This is the continuation the latest post - the second part of our hike from Spring Lake to Cliff Creek Campground, on the forth day of the backpacking trip in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park.
Our hike from Spring Lake to Cliff Creek Campground as captured by my GPS. Established trail part labeled purple. 
We were now on a proper trail. We were going downhill. Our packs were somewhat lighter. For the first time in this trip we were walking fast. Indeed - we were marching.
My friend took the lead. She preferred a continuous stride whereas I would stop briefly to check out one plant or another. Still, I walked more and stopped less than before.
Western Cow Bane, Oxypolis occidentalis
We exited the pine grove and were walking now in a terrain that was very similar to what we've seen just before meeting the trail. That is lots of scree and loose rock, partially covered with vegetation that was dominated by low shrubs. Way below us we saw the glint of a small lake that on my map was labeled Pinto Lake. The map had a mark of a campground there. We agreed to have our next break yonder.
View of Pinto Lake
The way down looked similar to the terrain we've crossed before, but there was another feel to the air. For one thing, it did feel denser. And after the three days of high-altitude acclimation, it felt heavier to breathe. Also, it was murkier. Not as pure as the air high at Spring Lake. I could feel it, and late I would see it as a hazy shroud over my photos.
And then, there was that smell.
It was a strong, overwhelming at times, odor. And it reminded me very much of the male blossom of carob trees, or that of, pardon me, human semen.
Sierra Chinquapin (Chrysolepis sempervirens)
And male indeed it was - the strong odor emanated from the male blossom of chinquapin bushes, that all of a sudden seemed to be the only plant around. Not that they were, but there were lots of them, and all were at peak bloom.
Sierra Chinquapin (Chrysolepis sempervirens)
My friend didn't seem to notice the smell and when I brought it to her attention she had said that she didn't mind it. I too, put the odor out of my mind and turned my attention to other, gentler wildflowers.
Lewis's Flax (Linum lewisii) 
If the chinquapin grabbed my attention with its smell, the fireweed did so by its brilliant color, set against the green and gray backdrop of the granite and the willows. It is a common plant, but that doesn't make it any less striking with its beauty.  
The path became steeper and we had to slow our pace so to to slip on the granite gavel and rocks that made the trail. But we were going down still, not yet thinking to stop.
We did stop, however, to look at a pretty butterfly that fluttered to and fro and then settled on a rock and posing for a photo. My friend had a good eye for them - nearly always she was the first to see the butterflies, and then she would point them out to me.

We were lucky enough that the cooler weather had slowed down the butterflies, enough to allow me to photograph them.
Pale Mountain Monardella (Monardella odorosissima var. pallida) 
We were losing altitude rapidly now. The patch of greenery ahead grew larger and larger, and the lake disappeared in the vegetation. Also, for the first time since we descended from Glacier Pass to Spring Lake we could see other people. Far below we could see small dots of humans on the move near the creek. It was the first sign that we were on our way back to society.
I chose to ignore that sign for the time and focus on the beauty and serenity that surrounded me all around.
Water Cress (Nasturtium officinale) 
Eventually we made it to the bottom of that slope. The trail disappeared into a meadow of knee-high grass-like sedge (photo at the top of the page)
The moment we set foot in that meadow we realized it was flooded. The trail too. We walked slowly, trying to find the balance between not soaking our shoes and not trampling the vegetation. I don't think we were 100% successful on either one.
Clouds in the meadow
We found the Pinto Lake campground after slushing through the meadow and sat down for a well-deserved break. The clouds cover had lifted mostly and we were enjoying some nice, warm sunshine for a change. And also the spectacular view of Mount Eisen towering over to the north.
Mt. Eisen
We were lazying on the warm rocks, not eager to get going again. Other backpackers were walking up and down the trail now, in pairs or small groups, passing us as we were munching on our dried food.
Loud squeaks from a nearby pine grabbed our attention - there was a squirrel up in the canopy. It hopped from branch to branch, emitting loud, shrill cries. I don't know what had upset it. I didn't see any predator near. Eventually the squirrel jumped to a smaller tree, and from there to the ground. Then it run off and disappeared from our view.

With some reluctance we scrambled to our feet and hoisted our packs. The next part pf the trail was hidden from our view but looking at the map (which I did ever so frequently now, after the embarrassment of getting across the wrong pass), I could tell we had to go down quite a bit still.
Downstream of Pinto Lake Campground
We were back on the trail. Nearly immediately we plunged into a forested section of the creek. Large pine and fir trees shaded the trail intermittently and below them grew a number of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Many of the plants there were familiar to me from the lower elevations. We truly had left the alpine zone behind us.
Western Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
That first forested part of the creek was short and soon we were hiking out in the open once more, treading granite gravel down a steep grade slope.
The creek took the fastest way down and jumped off the cliff in a beautiful cascading waterfall.
Cliff Creek
Again we were crossing tributaries that rushed down the mountain ridge to join the main creek below. Some were narrow enough to hop across. Others we had to ford over strategically placed stones. Each such crossing we got reacquainted with the little riparian wildflowers that thrived on excessive wetness.
Glaucous Willow Herb (Epilobium glaberrimum) 
On one of these crossing I let out an exclamation - I had found an orchid! My trip was now complete, I told my friend. She smiled in appreciation. This little-flowered orchid isn't as big and impressive as its tropical relatives but it is still an orchid - a royalty among wildflowers.
Sierra Bog Orchid (Platanthera dilatata var. leucostachys) 
We were going down and down on a seemingly endless slope that got steeper with every step. We halted for a short break without even taking the packs off, just to rest our knees a little. A small group of backpackers were coming uphill towards us. We exchanged greetings as they passed us and I found it strange to be talking to people other than my friends. When they disappeared somewhere above us we got up again and continued down the trail.
Ranger's Button (Sphenosciadium capitellatum) 
More and more wildflowers were now familiar to me. Many of them I had seen on the first day of our trip, and others from many other places in California as well. I was glad to see them, as greetings from the wider world we were going rejoining after our time in the alpine heaven.
Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja sp. 
The slope became impossibly steep. Accordingly, the trail turned to switchbacking. We were walking down the south-facing slope and the vegetation grew thick again, covering the rocks with broad-leaved shrubs and vines.
Sierra False Bindweed, Calystegia malacophylla
I saw more and more familiar wildflowers. Some, however, I have seen for the first time because the likes of which that I was familiar with were not growing at all in that area. An example would be this penstemon below that is very similar to the scarlet bugler I was familiar with from the coastal region, but is of a different species altogether, one that grows in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Beaked Penstemon (Penstemon rostriflorus)
But others were the real thing- the same species I knew from the lower lands, like this black elderberry bush.
Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra 
Down, down, down, and down a seemingly endless slope we went. My knees began sending me warning messages. My toes hinted of possibly developing blisters. I had to slow down. My friend didn't complain - she was sucking up her own pains and discomforts.
The view down Cliff Creek Canyon
I was glad for all the beauty that surrounded us for getting my mind off the pains.
Harvest Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
We crossed another tributary that came down like sheets of water spreading over the rock. I could imagine it in winter time - all frozen in sleek beauty. This one wet a wide part of the trail, and eventually our shoes too.

The now familiar smell of the chinquapin bushes filled the air again. Th patches of chinquapin were separated by other shrubs, also growing n their own patches, not mixing as much. For the first time on our way down now, we were seeing manzanita.
Green-leaf Manzanita, Arctostaphylos patula
And on the way down we met another shrub that I remembered from our first day ascend:
Broad-leaved Lotus (Hockasia crassifolia)
Finally, after a looooong hike that felt like forever, we struck bottom. we emerged from the vegetation to an open area of the creek bed, found a convenient place to stop, took off our packs and dropped to the ground.
It turns out that Cliff Creek runs in two arms high above where we had descended from, and they drop down the cliff in two cascading waterfalls. We were walking down the northern and narrower one, which was mostly hidden from our view until we were right below it. The south one came rushing down the side canyon wall. We've seen that one continuously throughout the latter half of our descent and now we were sitting right below it, giving some respite to our legs.

But soon we felt large droplets splattering on us and the rocks we were sitting on. At first, with some denial, I think, we thought it might be the spray of the waterfall. But we weren't sitting all that close to it. A few more seconds later we could no longer deny it - the rain has returned. We quickly packed our stuff, got our rain cover out and headed down the trail to the nearest grove of trees.
That rain was the last goodby of the overcast morning we've had and was short-lived. Soon we were walking in sunshine again. The trail now was narrow, almost overgrown in parts with lush vegetation. We were now completely out of the alpine zone.
I lost another line on my camera battery indicator. Realizing I had less than 30% battery life left I tried hard to contain myself, self-imposing a limit of a single shot each time. I also held back now from photographing already familiar species.
But then again, I was seeing new plants around every curve of the trail.
Richardson's Geranium (Geranium richardsonii)
We were going down the final stretch of our day's hike. The groves of trees were now connected together into a large forest that covered the surrounding slopes. We were walking in a mixed conifer forest, and none of the trees were the foxtail pine.
We came across more backpacks that were making their way up the trail. Most of them were aiming to get to Pinto Lake campground. I held my tongue and avoided telling them about he bitch of a climb that they still had before them. I'm sure they knew already that they had more uphill to go and I remembered how upset I was with the depressing daunting description I got from a downhill hiker when climbing up the Sawtooth Pass Trail on our second day. I figure it would be better to hold my tongue on that slope so I just wished them a good trek.

For some time we were walking close to the creek again. My friend wanted to stop and rest, and to wash her face in the water. I felt hot and wished to find a good shade to sit under so I urged her on. But after a short distance the creek suddenly dropped in altitude, probably by a waterfall that was hidden from our sight. The trail, however, remained high above the water. We were going down alright, but always remaining far from the creek. We did have a stop in the shade, but it was a dry stop. My friend had to wait until the very end before she had had the chance to freshen up in tn the creek water. (Sorry, Y!)

There was a sole woman making her way up the trail towards us. She was a park ranger - the first one we've seen on our trip since we set out from Mineral King. She stopped we met, and we had a nice chat at the end of which she asked me to pull out our permit and show her that we were there legally. She informed us that we had only a short distance more to go. I was a bit skeptical - a short distance might mean a different thing to a top-shape park ranger than to us. The ranger, however, was right- a few hundred yards later we came down a steep dusty slope that brought us into a small clearing right above creek. There was a bear box there, and a fire ring and a place to pitch tents. And there was a tent already there - a couple of backpackers had made it there first and had pitched their tent in the prime location of the campground.
Wilderness etiquette dictates that when a camping place is occupied one should look for another one and not crowd other solitude-seekers. But Cliff Creek Campground is the only suitable campsite in that area. Plus, it was already late and we were too worn out to get any further. Perhaps it would have been polite to ask if we could share the space, but since there was no option for us of accepting a 'no' answer, I did not ask for permission. I simply went there, introduced myself and my friend, and said plainly that we'll be neighbors for the night. They smiled and nodded and I was relieved. We pitched our tent in a small flat area at a respectable distance from theirs and used a tree stump as our table for making dinner. My friend, who had carried a thin plastic tarp all the way had pulled it put in triumph and spread it on the dusty ground.
The sun set unceremoniously, hidden behind the trees. As we were getting ready to get in the sac more people came down the trail. They, too, had nowhere else to go that night. Before nightfall there were five tents crammed in that small campsite, and a hammock was hanging between two trees. Only the minimally-necessary words were exchanged - everyone was dead beat. A short time after nightfall we were all fast asleep.

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

A link to the post of the fifth and last day of this trip.


  1. Wow... that was very tiring for you for sure.
    I too enjoed the orchid :-) We saw this kind at Mariposa grove when we visited you a long time ago

    1. Yes, it was tiring. It was also a most extraordinary hike and worth every drop of sweat :-)