As I mentioned this several times before, Mineral King is one of our favorite places to go. It's one of the greatest subalpine valleys in the Sierra and its relative remoteness keeps the crowds away. It was the scene of our first "real" backpacking trip and also where we almost killed ourselves with our really crazy heavy packs. But it's also been a great starting point to places like Black Rock Pass and Franklin Pass, and we even got lucky enough to see a moon eclipse from Eagle Lake in September 2015.
However wants more info about the road and winter access particulars should read about it in the other trip reports as I don't want to repeat myself.
The 2016-17 winter season brought much needed precipitation to our corner of the world, and this meant great snow blanketing the Sierra. We got a first look at it around Lake Tahoe when celebrating Em's birthday at Lost Trail Lodge. Ten feet of virgin powder!
We've been up to Mineral King in "winter" twice, but there was never any serious snow (see here and here). We kept planning to go up there again, but something always happened. It was either too stormy or we were too busy on the suitable weekends.
Finally, in March 2017, it looked like it will work out if we stretch ourselves a bit. I had tons of work, and Em went to Minnesota for an awesome dogsledding trip (she can't stop talking about that since). As soon as she got home, we both felt like we're coming down with some cold or flu, but it wasn't very bad.
The weather forecast for that weekend looked perfect, almost too good to believe: fifties during the day, high twenties at night, no wind. As an added bonus, the full moon was Sunday morning.
I tried to get more information about the conditions and this proved to be almost impossible. The valley itself was not the issue. Though the much-beloved webcam went down because of total phone line failure (well, the landslides – see later), we knew what awaited us there: snow, snow and some more snow. The question was the road.
I called the Foothills Visitor Center and tried to find out what's going on. They had no idea. They said there was some landslide, supposedly past the second gate, but couldn't tell me how much snow there is on the road up to the second gate or whether there are any other obstructions. They simply don't patrol that road in the winter.
Regardless, we decided – depending on how we're feeling – to head up there either Thursday or Friday. In the end, it worked out for Friday. Em had a runny nose and I had a bit of a sore throat, but neither of us was seriously sick.
We got out of town pretty early and drove to the visitor center, where they said somebody told them the landslide is so bad, not even a snowmobile could get through. Ugh. Okay, we'll see. Whether we can drive up to the second gate was still anybody's guess. They gave us the code to the first gate, we filed a backcountry permit, then drove up the always-amazing, narrow, winding road. Made sure the tank was full.
The first gate gave us a pleasant surprise: it opened in 10 seconds. The very first time, with the old lock, it took us half an hour (no kidding) to get it open. Then we drove on, keeping close watch on the odometer. We knew the second gate was 17.5 miles from Three Rivers and the question was how far we can go. We decided that if we need to hike 2-3 miles extra (one way), we'll do it, but anything more would be too much.
The road was in great condition (considering), but I drove extra carefully, not knowing what's behind the next bend. Thank goodness, each time there was nothing else, but another bend. At around mile 15, small snow patches started appearing on the side. We were giddy, though, because this meant we're far enough now, no matter what.
We got really lucky. All of a sudden, a big snow patch blocked the road, and it was time to stop. However, we were just before the second gate, maybe 1/8 of a mile. We parked the car on the side, as safely as we could from both possible traffic and sliding rocks. After eating lunch, we got our gear together and walked up the road. It was around 11:30am.
We wore our hiking boots only, with the Neos overshoes and the snowshoes tied to our packs. Looked pretty ridiculous. Serious snow cover began right past the second gate, dotted by a few dry patches along the way. Fallen trees must have been cleared recently, with fresh sawdust still visible.
Snow made travel a bit slower, so we only got to Silver City at 1:30pm, where we sat on the porch of the resort for a few minutes and enjoyed an energy bar. The place look great with all that snow, most of the cabins covered by 6-8 feet.
The snow looked much deeper from here, so we put the overshoes on, but not the snowshoes. We got to the first landslide half an hour later. Oh, wow, what a sight. The debris field was at least 200' wide, with the road covered and/or washed out in the middle. Rocky-muddy-snowy concrete-like stuff covered most of it, a dozen feet high in many places. Huge broken tree trunks littered the place. The creek flowed somewhere in the middle, mostly in a tube carved into the debris, out of sight. We have no idea how much of the road remained there, but I'd be surprised if anything less than 100/foot stretch would not have been taken out completely.
It looked pretty intimidating, but had to be mostly stable. It looked like it happened a while ago (I'm guessing that big mid-February storm), and there were many days of warm weather where this should have settled nicely.
A snowcat made sort of a ramp on the near side, and we climbed that to scout a route. We could see that one person already walked across a few days prior, so we decided to mostly follow that trail.
It wasn't bad at all. We made sure not to linger in the danger zone and proceeded very cautiously, getting to the other side in a few minutes. With all the planning and scouting the entire endeavor took 20 minutes, though. On the far side, the snow got much deeper, so we strapped on the Northern Lites and kept trudging. I thought it will be smooth sailing from here on up. Oh, boy.
Less than an hour later we came to landslide number two. From far away, it looked pretty bad, but as we got right up to it, it turned out to be much smaller than the first. There was even a small piece of the actual road exposed. Then, another half hour later, number three. Not very bad, but of course it still slowed us down a bit.
Number four came not much before Faculty Flat, and when walking up to it, for a moment I thought we won't be able to get across. It seemed like there's a huge gully in the middle. Thankfully, it was only an optical illusion, from up close it was actually the easiest to cross.
All these crossing took time, though, and it was 4pm by the time we saw the first cabin of Faculty Flat. By the side of the road, only the top 2 feet of the "Speed Limit 15 mph" sign jutted out from the snow.
It was winter wonderland. Not a trace of anybody. We knew we still had some ground to cover, so we kept pushing on. Half an hour later we passed the Cold Springs campground, the scene of many-a-fun nights, and walked up to the ranger station only to look down into the entrance from the huge snow bank. There's a sign on the awning saying "Mineral King Ranger Station, Elevation ----- 7580 ft." Well, if that line is exactly 7,850', we were at 7,582' on the snow.
Fun or not, daylight was fading quickly, we knew we only had an hour or so to set up camp unless we want to do it in the dark.
The idea was to go up past Endurance Hill, somewhere to the vicinity of the Sawtooth Pass trailhead's parking lot. My thinking was that there should be reasonably level snow to camp on, maybe even flowing water nearby. Mainly, this area gets sun almost right until sundown and in the winter, you can use as much that as possible.
Of course we were getting a bit tired, but we enjoyed the beautiful late afternoon sunlight and the impossible scenery as we climbed Endurance Hill and everything came into view. Empire Mountain, Sawtooth Peak, Timber Gap, and the valley itself. Holy crap!
Just to keep things exciting, there was an avalanche right before the trailhead parking, a pretty big debris field at least 100' wide with 10-12-foot crests on either side. This, like the others, looked old and settled, and there was no reason not to cross it. This time we followed a bear's footprints. They looked fresh, same-day.
Past the avalanche we crossed the main parking lot (almost unrecognizable) and went down to the south side of the road, to what must be the overflow parking area with the restroom. The restroom building itself was almost completely buried.
After a bit of looking around we decided on a nice level spot not far from Monarch Creek. The sun was half an hour from setting. With the packs still on our backs, we stomped around for a while, compressing a few dozen square feet of snow for our camp. Then we set up quickly, still stomping around if necessary and making adjustments with the Snow Claw. By this time, most of the camp area was solid enough to hold our weight without the snowshoes.
Getting water here would not be a cakewalk. Though the creek was flowing nicely and was only about 100' away, on either side it was protected by vertical snow banks at least 10 feet high. My first idea was to find a stable spot and lower our shower bag on a rope, trying to scoop some water, but I hoped this could be avoided.
After looking around a bit, I found great access point about 50 yards downstream from camp. It took a bit of digging to make some steps, but I could get down into the creek bed without much trouble. Soon we had fresh water.
The sun set with a nice, colorful show behind hazy clouds in the west. A few high clouds were above us, clearing.
We cooked soup as a first course and kept unpacking. I blew up the winter mattresses and Em set up the inside of the tent. Then she put on her down booties and just sat there while I was organizing stuff outside. The temperature was only in the high-thirties and I kept asking her whether she's cold and she kept saying no. Of course she got cold after a while, especially her feet, booties or not.
It was nighttime now and the moon appeared, illuminating everything with blazing light. We ate proper dinner, then made sage-ginger tea.
I did the dishes and man, the water was cold. I didn't mind very much, but it's something I could do without.
I coaxed Em out of the tent and we went for a walk. The snow was much harder by this time, but we still needed the snowshoes. After crossing the bridge below Black Wolf Falls, we kept to the left and I tried to take a few nighttime shots of the valley. It's impossible to describe how cool it looked by moonlight.
Em went down towards the restroom and the last bridge, and I followed her, taking some more shots from the bridge.
We returned to the tent, organized ourselves for the night. The bear canister was placed in an area shaded from the morning sun. Also, I put it on half-buried branch, minimizing contact with the snow so the contents freeze as little as possible.
The night was really warm: when we went to bed at 10pm, the thermometer left outside was showing only 34° F. Inside the tent, we made sure that things needing protection from the cold (water filter, batteries, etc.) were off the ground.
The long day did its job, we both slept really well. I woke up a few times and felt my throat acting up, but not before long, it was morning.
We waited until the sun hit the tent around 8:45am and started warming everything rapidly. Looking out of the tent and seeing the mountains covered in show, blazing in the sunlight... Bliss...
We took our time and eventually got out of the tent half an hour later to start making breakfast. Our water was a bit slushy, but far from frozen solid. After decanting some for tea and coffee, I placed all the water in the sun on some darker surface to soak up heat. In a few hours, we had almost lukewarm water.
With fresh (read: ice cold) water for the shower, we both washed up a bit, then donned glacier glasses, put on sunscreen, and had breakfast: rehydrated hummus and then plum jam. None of our food had frozen overnight. I found a few dry branches and made a little nest to keep our cooking pot off the snow so the steeping tea doesn't get cold right away. Worked great.
There was nothing to do for us all day, except have fun. Em had me put on the Viking hat she brought me from her trip (Nordic-style hat made in Peru, purchased in Minnesota – a truly global phenomenon). It's a great cap, it was even too warm for the conditions. To protect the tent a bit, we secured the sleeping bag on the outside, then got some stuff together – mainly food – and walked up towards the valley.
First stop was Black Wolf Falls. It's not easy to get close in the summer, all those bushes around make for a tough approach. Now, it was nothing, we just walked right up on all that snow.
Next, we went down to the bride to snap a few more photos, but then climbed back up and stayed on the left side, wanting to check on the pack station and the webcam. Everything was as expected. The corral was completely buried, only the top half of the building clear of snow. The 10-foot snow pole's top two segments were visible, meaning the snow was about 8 feet deep at that spot.
The webcam looked good. The camera and the antenna, mounted near the roof, were hip-high because of the snow. I made sure to take a few pictures of the Timber Gap view from the exact same angle as the cam.
On the other side, the solar panels were about halfway covered. The snow was so high, I could have walked up and cleaned them, but I didn't touch anything, not wanting to mess with somebody else's equipment.
We kept walking on the east side of the river, crossing another older avalanche field. The valley looked breathtakingly beautiful. Sunshine, all that snow, almost total silence. The river a dark strip in a really deep snow gully right in the middle. The temperature must have been in the mid-fifties, but on the snow with the reflected light it felt like 85 or 90. Em unbuttoned her shirt to cool off.
I was sure we'll have a hard time crossing Crystal Creek, but when we got there, the flow was surprisingly low and most of the creek bed was covered with snow. We chose a safe-looking spot and just walked over it.
It was almost 1pm and time for lunch. That cool little aspen grove just past Crystal Creek looked like an ideal place to stop, and we found a thick branch bent almost horizontally, making a great bench. There was no point in hurrying anywhere, so even after lunch, we just sat there for another half hour, looking at the few birds and enjoying the silence.
We decided to head back on the other bank of the river. A bit further down, crossing would have been tricky. The water level wasn't high at all, but climbing up and down 8-10 feet on a vertical wall of snow is not much fun. Up there, tough, it was not a big deal, the snow still covered the creek in a few places and we didn't have any trouble.
Many fresh-looking animal tracks covered the snowfield, but no matter how much we kept our eyes peeled, we didn't see anything. Even a deer would have been nice. I guess we were crunching so loud with the snowshoes that every halfway decent animal ran away before we even got close.
Back down at the end of the road, we checked out the Honeymoon Cabin. This building houses a little museum, very much worth visiting when open in the summer. There's a great rundown of the valley's history, illustrated with many cool pictures, newspaper articles, and even some artifacts.
When approaching camp, Em went back to the tent. I climbed the hill a bit to get a nice angle and take some pictures. Then I joined her, and we retreated into the tent for a nice afternoon nap. Even though we left the sleeping bag outside on top of the tent, it was still really warm inside.
At sundown – around 6pm – we ate soup, then walked west, over the debris field and down to the helicopter landing on Endurance Hill. We've never been there before and this seemed like a good time to check it out. The mountains were yet again impossibly beautiful in the evening light.
After walking back to the tent, we prepared everything for the night, then ate dinner. The temperature was a bit lower than the previous night, but it was still very pleasant. I was happy to see that Em felt warmer now from all that movement.
Finally, around 8pm, the full moon appeared from behind the mountain. Well, the actual full moon was exactly 12 hours later, but let's call this full. The sky was much clearer than the night before and in a few minutes, the moonlight got so bright, we didn't need headlamps for most tasks. I could read my camera's unlit LCD.
We had dinner, again followed by ginger-sage tea. This time I had an idea and I did the dishes with liner gloves on, covered by pair of thin surgery gloves from our first aid kit. It was a million times better than with bare hands.
It was time for yet another walk. We put the snowshoes back on and walked up the valley one more time. I simply can't say enough times how effin' cool it was.
After taking a few more pictures, we walked back and I wanted to climb the hill again to take some nighttime pictures from above. I was a bit concerned about Em getting cold while me doing this, but she decided to come with me.
Earlier, we wanted to sled down the hill – on our butts, as we didn't have anything suitable to use as a sled – but the snow was too soft. By now, it froze somewhat and Em decided to try. She sat down, lifted her snowshoes up and whoohoo, down she went. I stood there, taking pictures of it. She climbed back up again for another go, this time even higher and went down fast, squealing with delight.
I was quick to follow her as soon as I was done with the pictures. Super fun. It was sort of a lame glissade without an ice axe and on "friendly" terrain.
It was past 10pm, so we went to bed. My throat still felt sore, and I knew this could easily develop into a fever, but nothing happened yet. After a bit of debating, I set my phone's alarm to 8am. We wanted to get going, but also knew that the sun will only hit us around 8:45, and it would be nice to be able to warm up a bit while getting ready.
I woke up to morning light, looked at the little thermometer/watch, and it said 6:50am. A few minutes later, the phone went off. It said 8am. What the heck? I could not have dozed for an hour. Then it came to me: daylight saving time just began. The phone knew, but the offline watch didn't. Both Em and I completely forgot that the adjustment was to happen this weekend. Just as well. We lingered for another half an hour, then got out and started boiling water.
The morning was crisp, but we've seen much worse. It could not have been colder than 27-28° F. Direct sunlight was over an hour away, but the air was still and we were OK.
Even more than usually, we really took our time, eating a nice long breakfast and slowly packing up. The place was too nice to just hurry away.
As predicted, the sun hit us around 9:45 – what was 8:45 the day before – making it even nicer. It took us almost another hour to get going, but finally we were on our way.
Not surprisingly, the trek back was considerably quicker and easier than coming up. For one, we didn't have to look for the route. Also, of course, it was mostly downhill. The snow has melted a lot in the two days, in some spots it was more than a foot lower, but this did not matter that much.
We stopped at ranger station and then Cold Creek campground's bridge to take a few photos, but other than that, just kept going. Crossing of the debris fields took way less time, again mostly because we didn't have to look for the way.
In a bit over two hours, we got to Silver City and sat down by the playground for lunch. We left there after lingering for almost 45 minutes. Our snowshoes got secured to the backpacks as we didn't need them anymore.
Em took the lead. In her usual style, she started speeding up and up until I kept joking that soon we'll break the sound barrier. She stopped for a second and wondered: "Ah, so that's why I'm so out of breath." She took it a bit easier from there, but we still kept going at a really nice clip. Less than an hour and a half after we left Silver City, we got back to the car.
Everything was as we left it, no bear or rockslide damage. After cleaning up a bit and changing, we slowly rolled down the mountain, stopping only to take some snapshots of the mountains behind us. One of the landslides is nicely visible, it's pretty obvious where the avalanche came down and made a tongue-shaped incision in the forest.
Looking down, the awful air of the valley was clearly visible. I guess the windless conditions and high pressure of the last few days must have exacerbated the conditions that are very dusty and smoky to begin.
Well, back to civilization. We haven't seen another human since the visitor center, over two days ago.
The day after we got back, the cold simmering in me came out and I had a bit of a fever for two days. If this would have happened in the backcountry, I would have been fine, I just couldn't have hiked any serious distances with a heavy pack.
Other than that, it was one of the best trips we've ever done. This was the first time we fully camped on snow, but we prepared for it, so it wasn't bad at all. It was even less inconvenient than I thought. We were sure most of our gear will be wet and it will take days to dry, but surprisingly, very little of this happened.
We sent the photos to the gentleman operating the webcam (great guy) and he posted one in lieu of live pictures. Hopefully the real, live webcam will be back up again. It's very cool and extremely helpful in judging conditions before a trip. Here's the link: http://mk-webcam.net/
Can't wait to go back there again, preferably before the road opens.
Make sure to check out all the pictures in the full gallery.