Thursday, July 7, 2016

Aiming High: Backpacking up Franklin Creek

Tulare Peak

Date: August 20, 2015
Place: Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates: 36.446535, -118.594293
Length: 4 miles to our first night stop
Elevation gain: 1900 feet
Level: Strenuous

This trip started with a big bang.
I had planned to go backpacking with my younger chika while the elder one spends that week at the 4H camp, just like we did on the previous year. Not wanting to waste our recent altitude acclimation from Lassen Volcanic NP I chose to go to Mineral King: an area of Sequoia National Park I had always wanted to explore beyond a day hike perimeter. And so, after seeing my elder chika off to camp, I started south, with one excited chika, in a reasonably new car loaded with backpacking gear.
We nearly made it. We were east of Visalia, the mountains looming ahead, crisp in clarity. We had almost got to our promised land when we were rear-ended by another car and were sent spinning acxross the road coming to a stop on the opposite shoulder, facing west.
We were extremely fortunate to come out of the accident with only minor injuries. The car, however, was ruined. And so was our backpacking trip.

A nice vacation in Southern California which included a hike at Mt. Pinos and a splendid day at Oso Flaco had uplifted my spirit considerably and, although I was still in the middle of therapy, I decided to salvage what I could of the last days of summer break and of my original backpacking plan.
That trip was supposed to be a special time for me and my young chika, who doesn't get much of an individual time with me. It was also a chance for her to 'get ahead' of her older sister on certain things, which is very important for her.
So after some discussion with Papa Quail, I left the elder chika in his care and took off to the road again with my younger china, this time in Papa Quail's tiny hybrid car.
In many ways that was not a wise choice. We had already lost our altitude acclimation and my back was still hurting from the accident. Also, school was about to begin in less than a week and there was still much to get done beforehand.
But the call of the mountains was too strong for me to ignore, so off we went.

This time we arrived at the town of Three Rivers without incidents. The air was so murky that I couldn't see the mountains at all, not even from right beneath them. We had stopped for dinner at a local restaurant where my chika had an enormous chocolate cake and I inquired with the staff about the intense smell of smoke outside and found out that a wildfire was raging at Kings Canyon National Park, about 30 miles north of us.
The road from Three Rivers to Mineral King isn't very long: it's 25 miles. But it is very narrow and winding, and full of potholes. It was a very slow drive during which day turned to night and my chika fell asleep in the back seat.

It was already late when we arrived at the Cold Springs campground so I quickly pitched our tent and we crashed in our sacks.
I had no prior reservations so on the following morning we were the first at the Ranger's Office door to obtain our wilderness permit. After that we took our time eating breakfast, breaking camp and organizing our packs. And also to photograph that pretty penstemon next to our campsite.
Penstemon sp.
The parking lot at the trailhead was jam-packed. Some of the cars were wrapped with tarps - protection agains overly curious marmots. For a moment I worried about my own car but I was assured by the park personnel that it was already late enough in summer for the marmots to not be chewing car tubing. Anyway, there was little I could do about that at the time but hope for the best. It was a more pressing issue to find a parking spot. After squeezing in a tight spot between a large trash receptacle and a huge tree it was time to finish preparing the backpacks. Mainly - decide what food goes into the bear canister and what stays behind in the parking lot's iron bear closets. All and all, It was about noon time before we made our first steps on the trail. Then, of course, we had to stop for lunch.
Day 1: Up the Farwell Gap along Franklin Creek
For the first mile the trail goes on a steady, mellow upward slope along Franklin Creek. The weather was sunny and warm and other than the murky air it was a perfect day.
The Farewell Gap Trail
The creek was flowing nicely, if a bit low. I suppose that was normal for late summer, following a long drought. We walked at a slow pace, enjoying the views and chatting away. My young daughter, who constantly measures herself up to her older sister, was happy to have my undivided attention, for a change.
Franklin Creek
The first mile of this trail is easy going with mild slope that is barely noticeable. We did notice, however, the high altitude and our heavy packs, and we progressed slowly.
Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
Our slow progress was perfectly suitable for exploring closely every flower along the path, and there were many of them.
Littleflower Penstemon (Penstemon procerus)
We stopped frequently. I soon realized that I was carrying too much water and dumped some on the ground. Hiking near a running creek while carrying a water sterilizer doesn't necessitate carrying all that much drinking water. Water is heavy.
Brewer's cinquefoil (Potentilla breweri)
I was also trying to finish all the fresh fruit and veggies I couldn't leave behind to rot in the car. Fresh produce is also heavy.
Long-lived Hawk's Beard (Crepis acuminate)
We arrived at the first creek crossing and sat down for a break. The tributary we had crossed cascaded noisily and cheerfully down the mountain and as we munched on the last of the fruit I started thinking that we may not make it as far as I thought we would. 

Lovely summer bloom was all around us and as my chika was tossing pebbles into the water I wandered a little without my pack and enjoyed the colors.
Bigelow's Sneezeweed (Helenium bigelovii) 
Quite a few of these wildflowers were completely new to me. They were all very beautiful.
Sierra Fringe Gentian (Gentianopsis holoetala) 
Then we hoisted our packs and went on. The grade became somewhat steeper and the trail slowly detached from Franklin Creek, getting higher on the eastern slope.
Marsh Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris)
A bit away from the creek the soil was much drier and the wildflowers got smaller. But there were many of them to be seen.
Sierra Linanthus (Leptosiphon pachyphyllus)
Little chika and me soon got into a routine: we would walk for about 10 minutes, then stop for a short breather, then move on for them minutes more. The pace was painfully slow for me but I didn't want to hurry my girl along. I was very careful not to push her. One outcome of the slow pace was that my camera's memory card was getting filled quickly. There was much to see and I had much time to take it all in.
Bigleaf Lupine (Lupinus latifolius)
We arrived at the second creek crossing, that of the main Franklin Creek branch, the one that cascades down directly from Franklin Lakes. The trail actually climbed up near the waterfall in the photo but I save the close-up to the down-hill blog entry as on that day our stop there was a special one.

We did stop at the crossing (naturally) and I refilled our water containers.  The creek was running nice and high. I had to help my chika across to not get her shoes wet. 
The lovely red flowers of mountain fuchsia decorated the rocks by the water cascades. 
Mountain California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum ssp. latifolium)
South of the crossing the trail begun ascending in earnest. Although we continued at a similar pace as before, the hike was all the more strenuous now. We were gaining more altitude.
Rising above Franklin Creek
Soon we reached the switch-back part of the trail and our exertion doubled. My chika kept requesting breaks and at that time I begun to prompt her to progress a bit more between the stops. I already knew that we won't be arriving at Franklin Lakes that day, but I begun to worry that we might not even make it to the Farwell Pass junction that was the nearest place where overnight camping was allowed.
Western Eupatorium (Ageratina occidentalis)
There was only so much prompting I could use, though. A trail of steep upgrade combined with high altitude is challenging to trained adults let alone an 8yo child. The thought occurred to me, and not for the last time, that I may have been asking too much of my daughter.
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)
I resigned to the possibility that we may need to camp even sooner than the first permitter site. Once I accepted that possibility it was much easier to allow ourselves longer, more rejuvenating breaks. One of our stops was near an amazingly beautiful Sierra Juniper that was beaten by the extreme mountainous weather until looking like a giant bonsai. 
Sierra Juniper
After a long break we were ready to go on. My chika had rested enough and walked for a while without needing a break and while our pace remained slow, we were making a steady progress now. 
Sierra summer flowers: asters and Indian paintbrush
We were gaining more and more altitude. Also our water level was getting low and we were also getting no closer to the creek. It meant that we had to go on to where the trail did come near the creek again, or go back. By then we had gained enough distance and altitude that going forward was our choice. 
Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)
The switchbacks seemed endless. But they also provided good immediate goals to attain. Doable goals. We would designate a point and stop for a short break upon reaching it. This way the trail was conquered bit by bit and we were making constant progress. 
As we were gaining altitude the trees got fewer and farther between. Still, the trees we did see, were all the more spectacular. Some were juniper, but the biggest and prettiest were pines of a species I did not identify. 

The trees closest to the trail were a perfect place for a good, long break. The switchbacks were almost over and, at least by the map, we didn't have much more to go, and that was a good thing because the day was drawing to the end and so was our energy. Once again it was hard to prompt my chika to go on. She was nearing exhaustion. I was pretty tired too, but we were still before the closest place were we could camp and the creek with the water was far below us. I moved a bit of weight from my chukka's backpack to my own and helped her to her feet, convincing her (and myself) that we would soon stop for the night. 
Going uphill. 
This 'little longer' was, as expected, longer than it seemed from looking at the map. Even with the weight reduced little chika slowed down and as much as I was in a hurry to reach our night's destination I held myself from pushing her along. Instead I focus on the lovely bloom. 
Bastard Sage (Eriogonum wrightii)
We had a few more breaks but at that point we could also see the general area where we expected to camp. Having a visible destination infused my girl with energy and she went on with renewed gusto. 
Cobweb Thistle (Cirsium occidentale var. occidentale)
But when we finally arrived at the area where I planned to camp we found that the trail intersection was still quite far from us. Moreover, it was further uphill and nowhere near the water. 
My chika couldn't go on anymore. There was a little grassy plateau below us and the creek seemed close enough to it. I instructed my chika to stay put while I go around the curve and inspect what's ahead. 

There was nothing promising ahead. Not a minute around the curve and I heard m girl crying for me. I run back and found her in tears - she didn't want to stay alone not even for a few minutes. She was completely drained and could not go any further. 
Sanddune Walflower (Erysimum perenne)
I hugged my chika and we sat for a few minutes by the trail. Then I helped her to her feet, slung her backpack on my shoulders over mine and together we stepped down to the little grassy plateau below us. 
When we neared the edge I saw that it was used before, and more than once. That made me feel much better. I was more disappointed to find that the creek was quite far below still, and that reaching the water meant scrambling down a steep and gravely slope with little foot hold. 

My chika sat down and I built our camp of the night. The cleared space was very small indeed, but so is our tent. Then i had to go down and get water. My chika wanted to go with me but I convinced her to stay on the ridge where she could see me. I went down slowly, noticing pretty flowers and making mental notes to photograph them tomorrow morning.
The creek right below our campsite was dry, but water emerged from the ground a bit further down and there I went to refill our bottles.
I treated the water as quickly as I could but as I made my way back up my chika, stressed by being left alone again, had already started downhill to meet me. I helped het back uphill, promising her that next morning I would let her come down with me to refill on water.
She felt much better after dinner and even helped me clean our mess kit. I thought she might ask that we go back home the next day but she was set on going on - she wanted to get to the lakes up on the ridge.
Precious Solitude, just below the Farwell Gap
The sun was setting and the daylight faded quickly. I tucked my chika in her sleeping bag and got everything in order and place the bear canister with our food in a safe distance.
Just before getting not the tent myself I looked back north in the direction of Mineral King. A huge pillar of smoke rose above the mountains, where the Rough Fire, as it was called, raged. I went into the tent and tried to ignore the strong smell of smoke that filled it.
The Rough Fire, beginning. 
My chika fell asleep almost immediately. As tired as I was, however, I didn't fall asleep for a while. I love backpacking in the wilderness but it was my first time doing so without friends, my first time of being the sole decision maker and responsible adult. And I had my child along. She had already backpacked with me, but never on such a challenging trail. We had walked only 3 miles this day, yet it took us over 5 hours to get to our campsite. An elevation gain of 1900 feet starting at 8500 isn't a trifle and we had more to gain on the morrow. Could we do it? Would it be too much for my girl?
I fell asleep eventually, after deciding to leave the decision for the morning.


  1. The begining is very scary, the actual hike very stressful...
    It's good to know that it ends well :-)

    The Sierra Juniper is very impressive

    1. Thank you! I still shiver when I think about that accident. I'm glad we had the chance to go again later. It was a good time together, even with the hardship.