Sunset at Mineral King
How quickly plans can change...
2014 was another low snow year, and at the end of April we decided that on the second weekend of May, we’ll to go up to Onion Valley, then over Kearsarge Pass and spend two or three nights around Charlotte Lake and/or Rae Lakes.
Everything was set and prepared, we even had a wilderness permit reserved.
Initially, the weather forecast looked great, but a few days before the trip, they predicted strong winds. A day before we were supposed to leave, 50 mph winds with 65 mph gusts started blowing in the area and it was forecast to last through the weekend. I researched alternatives and quickly realized that Mineral King, though not that far away, looks much better. OK, so let’s go to Mineral King.
There’s a 23-mile, single lane, semi-paved road from Three Rivers up to the Mineral King Valley. This road is closed from October until around May with two gates: one approximately 9 miles from Three Rivers, the other around 8 miles further up the road. During these months, it’s possible to obtain a code at the Visitor Center to unlock the first gate and park the car at the second gate, leaving a 6-7 mile hike to Mineral King. Not bad at all.
I called the Foothills Visitor Center to make sure all my info is correct. Indeed, the road was still closed, scheduled to open in two weeks. Then I called Em at work and together we decided to abandon our Onion Valley plans and go to Mineral King instead. We didn’t care much about the extra 6-mile hike and it was likely that very few other people will be up there.
Day 0 - L.A. to Silver City
Next day, we had to hurry. Em was working until noon and the visitor center closes at 4:30pm. After sitting in heavy traffic a bit and then racing as much as I dared, we got there just before 4 and got our permit/code.
The locked gate proved really, really cumbersome to open. First of all, we were not given any instructions what to do, and there were two coded padlocks on the gate, rigged in a way that unlocking either one lets the gate swing open. We spent almost an hour trying to get them open until we finally succeeded. For a while I was convinced we got the wrong code. It turned out the lock was in such bad shape, it would barely open even with the correct combination.
Em walking towards the second gate on Mineral King Road
The second gate is in the middle of the forest at around 6,300’ elevation. There’s a bear box and a place to park 3-4 cars, but nobody else was there. By the time we parked the car and started walking it was 6:30pm and slowly getting dark.
Not even an hour later, as it was almost completely dark, we arrived in Silver City. This is a tiny community along the road, consisting of a few dozen really cool cabins. There’s also a small resort with a restaurant and store.
This time, the resort was supposed to be still closed, but as we were walking by, we saw a few guys are working there, obviously cleaning up the place and readying it for the opening. We asked them whether we could sit on their patio to take a quick break. They were happy to have us. Most of them turned out to be pretty serious hikers, and we shared trail stories for a few minutes.
Our luxurious accomodations in Silver City
When I realized one of the hiker guys I’m talking to is the manager, I asked him whether we could stay for the night. We only needed a small cabin with no amenities as we’re fully self-contained. We were fully prepared to hike up to the valley and sleep at Cold Creek campground, but it would be really nice to sleep here instead.
The manager was a cool guy, and of course, I did not expect this for free, so we negotiated a relatively small amount for a night in one of the cabins that was almost ready to receive guests.
The small cabin was very nice and very rustic. Wooden floors, bed, small desk, gas-powered heater. We cooked a trail dinner on the porch, ate with gusto and slept in unexpected comfort.
Em on Mineral King Road
Day 1 – Silver City to almost Monarch Lakes, then back to Cold Creek
We awoke at 8am, said goodbye to our friends at the resort, then left for Mineral King. Walking along the deserted road with glimpses of Sawtooth Peak in the distance was a great experience. The plan was to see if we can get up to Monarch Lakes and spend the night there.
After passing the Cold Creek campground and ranger station (both closed) after 11am, we walked straight up to the valley and then up some more on the Sawtooth Pass trail. The valley little bit of snow, but Farewell Gap looked pretty well covered. The direction of our destination was mostly obscured, but it did not look good.
Looking towards Farewell Gap from the Sawtooth Pass trail. West Florence Peak on the left, Vandever Mountain on the right.
Not much past the trailhead we saw a nice big bear foraging in the bushes, but it was far away and headed the other direction. Then we also saw some bear tracks in the snow on the other side of the trail.
Somebody warned us that we should be careful at the Monarch Creek crossing, but thankfully the water level was very low, simple rock-hopping got us to the other side. We sat down for lunch on a big fallen log and took a long break.
At this point, there was no snow on the trail, but looking up, I had serious doubts whether we’ll make it to the lake. We had no snowshoes or crampons/microspikes whatsoever.
Turns out I was right. The trail was soon completely lost under the snow, but we still decided to push ahead and slowly climbed upwards. Fog started coming in, making it even harder to find the way.
Em in the fog and in the wrong place
I made the first mistake of the day when I overshot the trail and climbed way higher, well above the point where it goes around the side to turn east towards Monarch Lake (maybe about 0.6 miles from the lake). We got to the top of this big cliff and the fog cleared enough to realize our exact location. We were at cca. 10,500’, the trail was below us, but completely covered in really deep snow. Although we couldn’t see the lake, it was obvious that it couldn’t be anything but a frozen snowfield.
After stopping for a snack break, we decided to turn around and go camp at the Cold Creek. The campground was officially closed, but the ranger said they let hike-in people sleep there.
Of course, descending was much easier, at least at first, but then I made my second mistake of the day, overshooting the trail again and not turning north in order to go around that big rock (maybe it has a name) that’s right
above Monarch Falls.
Nope, we're not going this way.
This was one of those rare occasions when my phone and the inReach went crazy, too, and I couldn’t get a good GPS fix to determine where we are exactly. By the time I realized that happened, we were way too low to climb back up to the trail (though in hindsight, it might have been worth it).
First, we tried to contour around to the north, but soon got cliffed out and manzanita’d-out (sic.). We lost a lot of time with this, so we decided to turn west and descend directly into the valley. There was a dry creek bed that looked much less steep than the cliffs.
It got pretty late, we were hungry and tired, and I was a bit concerned about Em, but she did great, she kept her calm and kept going down. The creek bed had two very steep sections, so steep we had to take our packs off, lower them, then climb down carefully. It was slow and tedious, but it worked out.
I lost my footing and fell once, funny enough not on one of the steep sections, but in between where I guess I let my mind relax for a split second. The Leki pole caught most of my fall, it bent (but didn’t break) and I came to a stop on top of a nice big manzanita. The lower pole section was hopelessly bent, but I knew better than not to try and straighten it (that’s when it breaks). A week later, the great Leki customer service replaced it without a problem.
The sun set and it was getting dark by the time we got down to the valley, not much behind that corral they have there. The last obstacle was to fight ourselves through a wall of incredibly thick bush to get over to the corral and down to the trail.
...and this wasn't event the steepest part.
This is where I made my third mistake. The side pocket of my backpack had a plastic watershoe with the rolled-up silnylon tarp stuffed into it. During the downclimb, I didn’t realize that I lost it somewhere either on the steep part or in the bushes.
That’s almost a pound of plastic. I feel bad about this to the present day. Though we’ve removed many pounds of trash from various mountains, I’m very mad at myself for having polluted that nice place with such ugly crap.
Well, by the time we walked into Cold Creek Campground, it was pitch black and we were hungry and tired, but none of us was grumpy, we were kind of in an elated mood after the adventure.
That’s when we realized that I lost the tarp and the shoe, and that got me pretty mad, but there was little we could do, so we pitched the tent and went to sleep.
There was no wind, but the night was pretty cold, it got down to around 29° when we were having dinner and then down to around 20° at dawn. Nonetheless, we snuggled up in our great quilt and we weren’t cold at all.
Day 2 – Mineral King
I kept waking up early in the morning, but then fell back to sleep and brilliant sunshine awoke us at 9am. There was not much to do. We decided to take it easy and spend the whole day walking around the valley.
We ate a big breakfast, drank tea and coffee, did a photo session with the local deer, then went around the campground to check it out. We looked in a few bear boxes and Em found a bag with about two dozen charcoal pastilles. I found a genuine Buff merino wool balaclava somebody left on a table all winter long and was buried under snow until recently. By the way, that balaclava smelled of fresh pines even after a washing it with detergent at home.
Em on the "nature trail"
With food and cooking items in our packs, we walked up to the valley on the “nature trail”. This starts at the far and of the campground and parallels the road, but runs on the other side of the river. It’s very nice, highly recommend it. Em has never been on it, I walked in twice on that faithful day when we got injured
Bad memories aside, the trail was great with lots of greenery and even some leftover snow. Then we walked past the last few cabins and up into the valley. For a brief time, we tried to look for the lost items, but soon realized how futile the attempt would be. We hiked up a mile or so on the Farewell Gap trail, sitting down for a late soup-lunch on the riverbank. Great weather, fresh air, cool water, what more can you ask for?
Our idea of a beautyful place...
Fish was planned for dinner, so I tried to catch a few at the bridge. I could see many in the water, but they weren’t very active and I only got two, even after considerable effort. On the way back to camp, we saw a mama bear with her cub crossing the road about 100 yards ahead of us. We stopped, gave them time to disappear, then continued on, making sure we’re noisy. Then we saw another bear, foraging high up on the hillside, with deer grazing nearby. If you look at this picture
, there’s a bear in the top left and deer at the bottom.
We didn’t want to make an actual fire, so I lit those charcoals and cooked the two hard-earned fish on them. Oh, how much better they taste bbq'd than steamed!
We stayed up really late. The sky was clear with no wind and a near-full moon. We went for a walk, took some long-exposure pictures by moonlight, then finally went to sleep after 11pm. The second night was maybe even a bit colder than the first, but it didn’t bother us. I heard deer walking around at dawn, but no bears, and again, sunshine got us out of the tent at 9 in the morning.
Mineral King cabin by moonlight
Day 3 – Mineral King to L.A.
Like always, we took our sweet time to get going in the morning. The hike back to the car was uneventful, but very nice. Being a Monday, Silver City was deserted, I guess those guys came up to work on the resort only during the weekend.
Our car was where we left it, and soon we were at the first gate again. This time, even knowing exactly what to do, it took us a over 10 minutes to get it open, but then we were on our way home.
In retrospect, I could have been doing much better with finding our way, but even so, the snow would have prevented us to go all the way to Monarch Lake, and even if we had, camping there would have been miserable. Winter travel is great and fun, but only if you know what you’re doing and you got the equipment. At least we had the presence of mind not to push it.
Take a look at the full gallery
Em in Mineral King Valley by the East Fork of the Kaweah River