We’re returning to the scene of the crime! Eagle Lake – the destination for our first-ever backpacking trip, and then the failed attempt which almost ended our hiking “career” – this place has always been special for us. After doing quite a few trips in 2015, we wanted to get away one last time before the cold weather and also, there was to be a really nice moon eclipse, so maybe we could watch it from really high above.
We thought of this as our version of “luxury camping”. Let’s go up to Eagle Lake, settle in one spot for three nights and just enjoy the place without hiking many miles each day. We didn’t have a reserved permit, either, but I called the ranger station and they said we should have a problem, this being after Labor Day.
I’m not going to get into details about Mineral King and how to get there, more info can be found in our other trip reports.
We didn’t want to get up very early, so by the time we arrived in Mineral King, picked up the permit and parked the car at the end of the road, it was almost 1pm. We stopped at the 1914-built “Point Cabin”, sort of a museum with lots of really cool Mineral King-related memorabilia. If you got time, I highly recommend taking a look, the old newspapers alone are worth it.
The hike up to Eagle Lake was much quicker this time, being a better shape and carrying way, way less tonnage on our backs. Truth be told, though, I included the long lens and a small tripod in anticipation of the moon eclipse. The weather was perfect and the trail as beautiful as ever, with great vistas of the valley and the mountains. With only one very short break, we arrived at the lake a bit before 3:30pm. The first thing we both mentioned is how much less water there is than what we remembered from 2009.
Then we set out to find aur spot. There are some really nice campsites there, right by the lake – all illegal. It’s simple: you’re not supposed camp between the trail and the lake.
There aren’t many great spots on the other side, and we were looking for a place to spend three nights. After walking around a bit, we found a perfect place. Level, shaded, not too far away from the lake, but legal. It was also pretty close to our “emergency” illegal spot we used in 2009.
After a late lunch, we pitched the tent and considered having fish for dinner, but we abandoned the idea as it was a bit too late, taking instead a walk to the dam of the lake. We found a dead marmot and we met a congregation of female sooty grouse (all alive and well), pecking for food on the lakeshore. We heard the male’s signature whoop-whoop before and once we saw a solitary female from afar, but these guys were really close and we could observe them at length. They are beautiful birds in their own monochromatic way and didn’t give much of a damn about us. We still have to see a male, though.
The moon was three days away from full and it showed itself around 8pm above the eastern rock face on the other side of the lake. The afternoon breeze died down and it was eerily warm, the thermometer not dipping below 50° F for most of the night. We took some pictures of the moon and the lake by moonlight, then went to sleep pretty late and slept in.
After breakfast, I set out to fish, and to our amazement, we saw a pika preparing for winter. He (she?) was running around the rocks on the lakeshore, always taking the same route, carrying green grass in one direction, then returning for another batch a short while later. Em sat patiently in one spot and the pika went by really close to her, so she took some pretty amazing pictures.
We had fish in the late afternoon, took a walk to the south and of the lake around sunset, dinner after dark, sage tea, a short walk by moonlight, to bed late. Again, the night was very warm.
After breakfast, we decided to scout some locations for the evening’s moon eclipse. We knew it’s going to happen right at sunset, when the moon is still low, so the lakeside location was completely out of question as the moon would clear the huge eastern rock face only about an hour after the show was over.
So we climbed the ridge to our west. It’s steep and rocky (what else could it be?), but not bad at all, and around noon, we were looking down at Eagle Lake on one side, Mosquito Lakes on the other side, and all the mountains in the distance, including the Kaweahs. However, the view was still not perfect and we decided not to clamber this high in the evening so we don’t have to go down that much in the dark. It looked like it made much more sense to stay a bit lower, but to the north, exploiting the fact that the eastern face drops away dramatically, giving us a better view.
We returned to camp, did some more fishing, and saw "our” pika again, still doing his job. Em took some more pictures, including the above one, which is my favorite. A bit after 6pm, we got our stuff together and climbed north-west, going as high and as much to the right as possible. After a very short but steep climb, we found the perfect place, a ledge big enough for the two of us and the tripod with a perfect view east.
The weather looked bad, though, at least in terms of observing the eclipse. There were clouds in the east and it looked almost sure that there’s no way we’re going to see anything.
Even so, the view of the mountains and the clouds was amazing, with impossible hues coloring the sky. However, even a few minutes before moonrise, we were almost sure we won’t see the eclipse.
Sometimes, luck is on your side. Just at the right moment, the clouds cleared somewhat and all of a sudden – behold! – behind some thin layered clouds, there was the moon, already in its fully eclipsed, dark red glory.
It was just magnificent. The clouds kept thinning, and by the time moon rose to 12-15° above the horizon, it was almost completely clear. We stayed for another hour, until around 8:30pm, taking tons of pictures and just sitting there, enjoying the view. We even saw someone night-hiking in the distance – headlamps moving up on the other side of the valley on the Franklin Lakes trail.
Carefully, we descended the slope in the dark and went back to the tent for a late dinner and sage tea. By then, the eclipse was over, the moon cleared the ridge, bathing our campsite in full moonlight. The upper atmosphere had a very thin cloud layer, creating a really nice moon halo (also called the 22° halo).
We were up until almost 11pm, then went to bed in the warm night.
Not wanting to sleep in too much, we set the alarm to 7am. As soon as we got up, we found another female grouse perched on a tree right next to our tent. She calmly sat still until I snapped my pictures. Like always, it took us forever to get ready, we left the lake just before 9am, when the sun got over the mountain.
After a nice and uneventful hike we were back by the car at 10:45am. This time there was no marmot under the hood – looks like leaving the hood open works pretty well.
There was still one surprise left. About halfway down Mineral King Road, as we’re coming around a sharp corner, there’s a nice little bear standing in the road. Thank goodness, I wasn’t going too fast and could stop without spooking him. He calmly acknowledged us, then just went around a bush on the side and started eating. We slowly drove by him, took a few pictures, then proceeded home to L.A.
Here’s the full gallery. Check out the videos at the end – underwater shots of trout fishing, pika on the shore, bear in the bushes.