Sequoia NP - Mineral King
We’re in love with Mineral King. It’s as simple as that. It’s one of our favorite frontcountry places in the Sierra, with the added quirk that is becomes backcountry in the winter. After an amazing full-winter trip in March 2017, we couldn’t wait to return for another snowy adventure.
For details about the area, history, access, etc., take a look at our other Mineral King trip reports.
The winter of 2018-2019 was somewhat weird, the first half was relatively dry, but stormy. Then a lot of rain and snow fell in the new year. We kept planning several trips to different locations, but each time, we had to cancel because of heavy rains, gale-force winds, snowstorms, then a combination of all of the above.
Finally, by the end of March, it looked like it might work out. We were very busy the week before, including Saturday, but Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were free. Our car had some trouble and we didn’t want to get stuck on the mountain, so we rented a little Nissan.
Day 1 – L.A. to Mineral King
The Foothills Visitor Center opens at 8am, and we did our best to get there on time, which meant getting up at 4am and leaving town before 5, arriving at the center just past 8. Very few people were there, we got our permit and gate code in 15 minutes, then drove back down the 198 and turned onto Mineral King Road.
It was a beautiful, sunny day with no clouds and pleasant temperatures. The wildflowers were going crazy at the lower elevations, everything was covered in marigold and purple. As were in a hurry to go up, we decided to stop for pictures on the way down.
Even the rangers couldn’t tell us what to expect, they haven’t been up the road in a while. How close we can get to the second gate before snow or fallen trees block the way was anybody’s guess. Again, see our other write-ups if you don’t know what I mean by “gate code”, “second gate” and such.
Like before, we got lucky. About a mile before the second gate, a fallen tree has obvious blocked the way until recently, but somebody cleared it away. A bit further up, about a quarter mile before the gate, another tree and big snow bank blocked the road, but we were very happy to have made it that far. A truck with a big trailer was parked on the side, we had to back up another hundred yards to leave the car in a decent spot.
It took us a long time to get our packs ready, eat, secure the car… it was 10:40am by the time we started walking on the road.
The serious snow began just past the gate, first only a few inches deep, melting fast. Snowmobile and Sno-Cat tracks were visible, going up.
Not much before the Atwell Mill ranger station, we found two forest service snowmobiles parked on the road and ski tracks continuing on.
The snow got deeper, but it was very well consolidated by time and the Sno-Cat threads. The going was very easy, we didn’t even have to put the Neos overshoes on, let alone the snow shoes.
Around 12:30pm found us in Silver City, most of the cabins still halfway buried in the snow.
We stopped for a break, eating Em’s marvelous homemade cheese sticks while perched on the railing of the store’s porch. The porch itself was still under several feet of snow.
Three people were sitting nearby, also on a break. Turned out they were snow surveyors, they already skied up to the valley and they were on their way back to their snowmobiles.
We kept on, walking on the hard snow in perfect weather. No mudslides and avalanches blocked our way this time, and not having to use snowshoes made the trip so much easier.
Around 2:30pm, we arrived at the Cold Springs Campground bridge, and just past that, we could take a good look at the ranger station. The snow level was lower than in 2017, but still impressive.
Another 45 minutes later we were in the Sawtooth Pass Trailhead’s parking lot again. Black Wolf Fall’s roar was evident, but somewhat muted by all the snow.
After considering some alternatives, the decision was to camp almost in the same spot as in 2017. Leaving the Sno-Cat tracks and this being the late afternoon, the snow was much softer. We put the snowshoes on, but then stomped the selected campsite with only the Neoses. This ended up the only time on this trip when we used the snowshoes.
We cooked some soup, set up the tent while waiting, then prepared the bed. The restroom in the parking lot was somewhat less buried this time. I climbed down into the snow well by the entrance to see if I can get the door open. Using the potty there would have been nice, but no such luck. I would have had to break, then shovel at least half a ton of concrete-hard snow to get the door open enough. All this with only the Snow Claw.
It was already springtime, this being 10 days after the vernal equinox. Though it still felt like winter in many respects, it was sure nice to have some extra daylight: the sun set a bit after 6pm, coloring everything orange and red.
The temperature dropped quickly, but it wasn’t bad at all. We went for a walk to keep warm, then ate dinner, then another walk by starlight. I took some long exposure pictures of the valley from the last bridge and the Eagle Lake parking lot. There was no moon this time, but I didn’t mind, it was like a totally different world.
Back at camp, the thermometer said 28° - a few degrees warmer than expected, and the best of all: there was no wind.
Understandably, we were tired after such an early rise, a long drive and the hike, so we went to bed uncharacteristically early for us, at 9pm.
The night was chilly, but we were warm and toasty on our trusted winter mattresses, cocooned in our even better-trusted sleeping bag.
Day 2 – Mineral King Valley
We tried to sleep in, with mixed results, in the end we emerged from the tent around 7:45am. There were a few high clouds and we were still in the mountain’s shade, but it was a beautiful morning.
After coffee and breakfast, we secured everything from wildlife and sun as much as we could, then went for a hike, up into the valley. By this time, the temperature must have been in the fifties, but in the sun, it felt much higher. We decided not to take the snowshoes.
We kept left, first taking some fun pictures with the Farewell Gap Trailhead info board. It’s over fix feet tall, but with all the snow, we could sit on its top beam.
Next stop was the forest service cabin hosting the famous webcam. We could also see that the skiers climbed on the snow-covered roof and slid down. By the corral, the pole measuring the snow level indicated six feet and change.
The Mineral King valley is mesmerizing, no matter what, but the snow makes it extra special. The quiet, the muted colors, the creek bed’s dark ribbon in the middle… perfect. We just kept walking south slowly, taking our time and tons of photos.
Remnants of a small avalanche were evident, but nothing compared to what we saw down by the Sawtooth Trailhead two years prior (side note: the scar of that big avalanche is still visible years after the fact).
Crystal Creek’s cascades were about halfway exposed, the sound muffled. Down in the valley proper, the creek was still mostly buried, but there were a few exposed parts, we had to contour around a bit to make sure there’s no trouble.
We kept looking for animals, but other than some spiders on the snow (totally normal), only a few birds flitted back and forth in the trees. Then, movement up on the hillside, and a coyote scurried away, moving easily on the steep incline. Other than this, no other mammals presented themselves.
Before reaching the aspen grove, we carefully crossed the creek to the west side and walked back towards the Eagle Lake Trailhead, exploring at a leisurely pace, still trying to find animals, and just enjoying the view and the little details.
We took some more pictures of the buried cabins, including the one with the other webcam. Then it was time to climb the big rock next to the parking lot, something close to impossible without snow. Em did a great standing glissade down from the rock, but the crust couldn’t take my weight and I postholed. Thankfully I anticipated this and braced myself with the hiking poles, otherwise I could have easily broken my leg.
Before returning to camp, a detour to Black Wolf Falls was in order. This is always a special treat when there’s lots of snow as otherwise this waterfall is heavily guarded by thick manzanita and other bushes. Now we simply walked over them.
At camp we were surprised to note that the hike took three hours. Well, that’s how time flies if you’re in such a spectacular place.
After lunch, a nap sounded great, but with the tent in full sun, it was way too hot inside. After cleaning up a bit, we went for another walk, this time back down towards the campground.
Em tried to slide down the hill on her butt, and failed miserably in the soft snow. Then she had trouble getting up, she was laughing so hard. Of course, I didn’t help, I just took pictures while not even trying to wipe the grin off my face.
The clouds were getting thicker, especially in the north, and according to the weather forecast, there was a chance for some snow, increasing to almost certainty during the night and the following morning.
Past the ranger station, we turned into the campground, crossing the snow-covered bridge a good two feet higher than the guardrail’s level. The campground was of course buried, too, with only the info board and one of the restrooms visible.
We got back to our camp around 4:15pm, and the wind started picking up. To make soup, I set up the stove in a small hole in the snow, plus further sheltered it with the Snow Claw. Worked great.
By then, the cloud cover was almost complete, and the temperature dropped rapidly. It was still only about freezing, but we had to keep moving not to get cold.
First, we took another short walk, this one down to the main creek. Magnificent snow formations adorned the bank, but the light was not OK for truly great pictures.
We still had some time to kill before dinner, so a huge snowball-fight ensued. Em is fierce at this, not to be trifled with.
Then, to keep the internal furnace firing, we dug a nice big hole with the Snow Claw. The next step was to fill it in. It’s pointless, but you’re don’t get cold doing this, that’s sure.
Despite the snow being old, the warmer temperatures melted the top enough to be OK for building snow… things. We don’t like building snowmen, that’s so passé, we built a snow bear. With the sticky snow it only took 15 minutes to make a five-foot-tall teddy.
On other trips, we sometimes make snow turtles, snow dolphins, and one time, I even made a snow marmot (though I admit, it took some stretch of the imagination to identify it as such).
With all these wholesome activities, the evening went by quickly. It was pitch dark with all the clouds, and after an early dinner, we went to bed at 9pm again. The idea was to get up early so we have time for the wildflowers on the way down.
Day 3 – Mineral King to L.A.
Around 1am, we awoke to the gentle patter of snow falling on the tent. We looked outside: medium-sized flakes, not very heavy, almost no wind. We went back to sleep, but then woke a few more times to shake the tent so the new snow slides off. The snow was on and off all night, but it never got heavy.
The alarm chirped at 5:30am, and the scenery was even more amazing, with a about 2-3 inches of fresh powder covering everything, including the trees. It was not snowing at that moment, but it was a little bit windy and the clouds kept changing, with some more precipitation imminent.
Compared to how slow we are usually, and taking into account that everything takes longer when in snow, we left very quickly, at 7:15am. The new powder covered our snow bear’s handsome features somewhat, meaning we had to stop for a minute to clean him up, but then we were off.
Right then, the snow started again, the heaviest so far, but still in the medium range. It was thrilling, beautiful and stopped after only 15 minutes. By the time we walked past the ranger station, it was over.
Half an hour later we could see the clouds breaking up and sunshine hitting the lower parts of the valley. By the time we got to Silver City and stopped for the mandatory snack break, it was clear and sunny.
Starting here, we found fresh bear tracks, going the same way as us. The snow was melting very fast, and I’m not some master tracker, but the paw prints looked very recent. Essentially, we were chasing the bear.
The lower we got, the difference in snow coverage got more evident – huge amounts melted in the two days we spent up in the valley. The bear tracks disappeared on the side a few times, but kept showing up in front of us, leading us all the way to the car which we reached before 11am.
Under normal circumstances, the drive from here to Three Rivers takes about an hour. This time, it took almost two. We stopped often and took our time enjoying and photographing all the floral marvel by the roadside. Everything was out, but the lupins and poppies were truly special.
The rest of the drive was easy, we were back home by the early evening, already dreaming about the possibility of return.
The rest of 2019’s spring, however, was horrible in terms of trips. Like before, nothing worked out, mostly because of weather. The next time we could get away for an actual backpacking trip was to Golden Trout Lakes in July.
Make sure to check out all the pictures in the full gallery.