Place: Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates: 36.497937, -118.615552
Length: 5 miles
This is a post about the fifth and last day of my backpacking trip with my friend to Mineral King last August. To read about this trip from the start, here's a link to the first day post.
On August 5 my friend and I woke up to the last day of our backpacking trip in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park. As in each of the previous mornings we got out of the tent before sunrise. The couple that camped at the prime location were already out and about. Everyone else who had arrived late on the evening before were sleeping still.
Sunrise wasn't any dramatic or spectacular as it was on our previous mornings. The dim light just grew slowly stronger and brighter until we could see sun spots on the forest floor. The water of Cliff Creek was bitterly cold. Much colder than any lake we've camped by so far. It was pretty shallow, too, and the flow was fast. I washed my hands and face but passed on a more thorough bath.
|Sunrise at Cliff Creek|
But the moment they vacated their prime location my friend suggested we'd go and have our breakfast there, and that's what we did. We ate slowly, looking over the rushing water, talking softly, not hurrying to leave.
|View of Cliff Creek from "The Porch" at Cliff Creek Campground|
All of our neighbors were still in deep sleep when we were ready to go. I looked upon the tents and the hammock and wondered how many people could fit in to that small camping area at the Cliff Creek campsite. Being the first (or last) campsite for many backpackers in that area it was a heavily used spot. While the place itself was mostly clean and not too scarred, going in the bushes had sadly revealed that not everyone was following the "Pack it in -Pack it out" rule. Not when it came to toilet paper :-(
I didn't feel any particular attachment to that place, and no twitch of the heart when we finally took off.
Immediately we had to face our first obstacle - we needed to cross Cliff Creek. The river was shallow, but not enough, and it was flowing fast. A row of large stones has been laid across and we've seen the prime couple cross the river hopping on these stones. I didn't feel I could do that without getting my shoes soaked and I didn't feel like hiking all day with wet shoes. So I took my shoes off, rolled up my pants, and waded in the water.
I lost all sensation in my feet within seconds of stepping in the water, and a few long minutes to recover it after crossing and wearing my socks and hiking shoes back. All and all, it was after 9 am when we finally started our hike out of the Cliff Creek valley.
|From (almost) Cliff Creek to Mineral King, over Timber Gap. Trail end is at the red mark (I turned my GPS on late and forgot to turn it off at the end)|
|Gooseberry, Ribes sp.|
I could hear birds in the trees, and even got to see a steller's jay. But the only evidence I have of their presence there is this photo of a feather that was lying near the trail.
|Feather of a Steller's Jay|
Even bland then the slope became somewhat steeper and the trees opened up a bit so we got a view of the mountains to the north. I looked longingly at the bare granite peaks, knowing that they weren't really bare. That they held an ethereal beauty, observed only by those who would make the effort of walking up those sheer slopes.
These occasional openings also gave us a good view of the forest near us. It didn't reveal anything I didn't know but it was no less sad to see the casualties of the long California drought and the boring beetle attacks.
|Casualties of the Drought|
|Sugar Pine Cone|
|Bee enjoying the fireweed|
It was on this part of the trip that we finally made complete transition from spring to summer. There were a lot of wildflowers still, but many plants that I've seen blooming along Cliff Creek have gone to seeds on the sun-washed slope we were on.
|Sierra Bog Orchid, (Platanthera dilatata), and Pacific Mountain Onion, (Allium validum)|
But while still immersed in Nature, I tried making the best of it. Even of the tiniest bits of it.
|A spider on a Ranger's Button (Sphenosciadium capitellatum)|
|A 'Guardian of the Forest' (fake name I just made up), fungus.|
|Columbian monkshood, Aconitum columbianum|
|Twin Berry, Lonicera involucrata|
We stayed there only for a short while. I wanted to make it all the way to Timber Gap before stopping for lunch, but we did have a short snack break, and to stretch our limbs.
And to admire the trees, of course.
|California Red Fir, Abies magnifica|
Fallen trees created clearings too, also making room for new saplings to grow up.
After they moved on my friend noted that they were the first people we had met that day since early morning. I thought that was very odd, considering that it was Friday. I had expected many more backpackers to go into the wilderness for the weekend.
|Brewer's Fleabane, Erigeron breweri|
A light brown blob in the grass caught my eye and I moved the vegetation with my pole, uncovering a huge mushroom.
We kept going on. I half expected to see the gap around each turn of the trail but we weren't quite here yet.
|Coulter's Daisy, Erigeron coulteri|
|Double Honeysuckle, Lonicera conjugialis|
The narrow dale
And then we were right on top of the creek again, and now the creek was not so far below. It was also very narrow and was flowing a trickle. We were approaching the source.
|Timber Gap Creek|
My friend came up from behind wearing a huge smile. She, too, was uplifted by the wonderful sight.
|Up near Timber Gap|
|Timber Gap Creek, the dry beginning|
My friend was slowing down. She was hungry and had pain in her knees. I left her lagging behind and sprung forward, sensing that the top is right around the next switchback.
And just like that, I was there. I walked into a wide, flat clearing between some large red fir trees that looked like an ancient pagan worship place. I dropped my back pack to the ground, threw my arms in the air and screamed at the top of my lungs. Then I run back to the trail and called to my friend to come up. That finally, we were at the gap.
After that long break we got up to go down. For some time we were walking in a relatively dense forest where I took no photos. Then, after about half a mile, we broke through the trees into the open, and the beautiful and familiar valley of Mineral King was before us.
|Mineral King basin|
Every now and then we crossed paths with hikers that were going up yet, even this late in the afternoon. We were now inside the radius of day hikers.
My friend wasn't doing much better. Her back and knees were hurting and she had slowed down considerably.
I slowed my pace, trying to match my friend's, but my feet were burning whether I walked or stood still, and I was eager to get down and take my shoes off. I had my phone in my hand and tried to document as much of the beauty I saw around me, to distract my mind from the pain.
The last stretch was the most painful. I nearly run downhill, yearning to get to the car and relieve my poor feet from the shoes. My friend, on the other hand, was taking baby steps, easing the descent as much as she could on her sore knees.
|Mineral King Valley, view west|
We didn't really discuss what's next - we were both weary and ready to get home as soon as possible. So we finished arranging everything in the car and then said goodbye to the realm of beauty and freedom that was our world in the past five days and then embarked on the long drive down the mountain and back to the Bay Area.
It was my third time in Mineral King and my second backpacking trip there, and as I was driving away I was already musing about when i should go there next and which trail should I take. My friend didn't comment on that. For her it was the first time there, and very likely the last time too, as she and her family were about to move out of California this fall. For both of us, each with her own reasons, this trip has been an essential getaway, a transition into a world of peace, incredible beauty, and complete freedom. It was the greatest balm to all of our spirits' sores.
It was well after midnight when I dropped my friend at her house and made it to my home. I sneaked quietly into the house trying not to wake anyone up. Those were my last quiet moments in the month of August. On that morning I would wake up to a full house and on the following day embark once more on a trip to the Sierra Nevada, this time with my entire family including Grandma Quail and Pappa Quail's nieces. A busy trip that had started at the Calaveras Big Trees and ended at the Devil's Postpile National Monument. A trip in which I would cover much more ground but walk much less and lose all of the peace of mind I had found at the peaks of Mineral King.
Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!