Farewell Gap - Ansel Lake
Around late April 2021, we got some disturbing news: no week-long backpacking trip this year. Em’s work schedule got so messed up, we simply wouldn’t be able to get away for an entire week. We were sad, but the previous year we could do two week-longs, so if we can squeeze in a few shorter trips during this summer, we’ll survive somehow.
Usually, we try not to go anywhere during major holidays because of the crowds. However, this time we decided to make an exception and go during the Memorial Day weekend – as we had little choice. The year was dry with low snow levels, meaning we could plan a trip at relatively high altitudes.
After some false starts we decided to try for a nice loop out of Mineral King. Ansel Lake has been recommended to us several times – this would be a great opportunity to check it out. The route was planned as follows: Farewell Gap – Wet Meadows – cross-country to Ansel Lake – then over to Eagle Lake, then back down on the regular trail. According the recent satellite imagery, snow should not be a problem.
Sequoia-King Canyon National Park moved their permitting online, and of course all permits were gone. We were hoping for a walk-up though. At least they were giving them out the day of and not two weeks in advance, like Inyo.
Day 0 – L.A. to Mineral King
Em still had to work Friday, and we knew the traffic getting out of the city would be terrible. We packed most items the night before and I finished up during the day. As soon as Em got home, I took the steps to convert our little Prius into RV mode, which means the back seat is down and it’s prepared as a bed. Then we loaded the backpacks on top and left as soon as possible.
Of course, it was a crawl out over the Grapevine. We were patient, though, and Em is a born DJ, she blasted great music to keep our spirits up. We got to Mineral King after 11pm. The campground was hopelessly full (and it’s reservation-only anyway), but we arranged with some friends to sleep on their property next to the cabin in our car, a few hundred yards down the road from the ranger station. We still had to eat something, make the last sleeping arrangements, etc., so it was somewhat after midnight by the time we went to sleep.
Day 1 – Mineral King to Wet Meadows
I thought the ranger station opens at 8am, so we got up at 7. A lady in ranger uniform came up and questioned us about what the heck we’re doing on private property, sleeping in our car. She got real friendly after we explained our deal with the owners and mentioned their names (later I learned she double-checked with them). She also told me the station opens at 7:30am, not 8.
Before doing anything else, I practically ran to the station. Em was left to pack up the car and meet me there.
My heart sank when I saw that at least 20 people are already in line. Twenty! A few minutes later, that same ranger lady showed up and she was dismayed. She said she’d never seen this many people.
It was very slow going, only one group was served at a time and a lot of people had no idea what they want to do, so it took forever to sort them out. By the way, let me take a moment and chastise all those idiots who show up for a wilderness permit without a plan A, B, C (maybe even more versions), and especially those without any plans at all. They truly cause trouble for everybody waiting in line behind them.
Anyway. Em came with the car, brought me breakfast in line, we took turns using the restroom, bantered with the others, finished packing. People coming out of the station were not very happy, most quotas were already full. I was hopeful, though, Farewell Gap is not that popular. Finally, after 9am, I was in front of the ranger. Farewell Gap still had spots left and I was out of there in a few minutes. By the way, if you’ve done many backpacks before, it helps if you tell this to the ranger and quickly rattle off a few “leave no trace” items so they see what you’re talking about. Then they skip most of the orientation.
When I came out, the line was still at least 15-20 people long. Not sure how many of those got to go anywhere.
We drove to the Eagle Lake parking lot and secured the car, wrapping the front in a big tarp. As I mentioned this in several trip reports, marmots here are notorious for crawling up into the engine compartment and chewing on hoses and insulation. It happened to us once, but no serious damage was done. Over the years, many other cars have been stranded here, though.
It was 10am. Late, sure, but the packs were finally on our backs and off we went, first back on the road to the bridge, then turning south again, up the dirt road past the old pack station where it becomes a proper trail. Farewell Gap is about 6.4 miles from here and almost 3,000’ higher up.
First, we had to cross Crystal Creek. In a normal or high snow year, this can be knee-dee or deeper well into June or even July. This time, it was an easy rock hop. We love this part of the valley, by the way. The trail alternates between amazing aspen groves, pine groups and then thick manzanita.
Half an hour later we were at Franklin Creek, another problematic crossing. In July 2017, it was shoes- off. This time, we could rock hop it again. It really helped that somebody placed a nice boulder in the middle of the deepest area. As this is a great break spot, quite a few people were sitting around, but everybody we talked to was headed to Franklin Lakes. Great for us.
The serious climb begins right past this creek, with well-made, steep, short switchbacks first, then longer, more undulating sections on the steep side of the main creek’s drainage.
About an hour later, we were at the junction to Franklin Lakes and continued up. The landscape is much more barren here, with only a few bushes and pine trees sprinkled around. It was almost noon, we were getting hungry, but decided to press a bit further and find water. After another 15 minutes, we crossed a small stream and settled for lunch. There was a 20% chance of rain in the forecast, but for now, it looked stable, so we took our time.
Then it was on and on, slowly gaining elevation towards Farewell Gap. Two guys passed us on a day run to Vandever Mountain. We soon saw them on the flank above the pass, then lost sight of them below the summit. About an hour after lunch, we crested the pass, too. Last time, a few snow pilots (one of our favorite flowers) were in bloom here, but now it was too early in the year.
The time was 2pm. Clouds were gathering, but the only possible rain looked far to the north. As expected, the south side of the pass was almost snow free, making for an easy descent on the much fainter trail on the scree. Still, it was steep and rough and we didn’t rush it to save our knees.
It took over half an hour to get down to the crossing of Bullfrog Creek. About half a mile after that came the point where we turned around last time and went up to Bullfrog Lake. These are the headwaters of the Little Kern River, by the way.
The going got much slower past there. The vegetation thickens exponentially, the trail becoming very faint and overgrown. It was still relatively easy to follow, and we only lost it once, briefly, but it took an effort. It was beautiful and serene, tough. It alternated between bushy and grassy sections, sometimes crossing small creeks coming from the side. The Little Kern became a bona fide creek in a small gorge on our right side.
In less than half an hour, the clouds fully covered the sky and we heard thunder – not very distant. No rain yet, though. For a while, it looked like it might be raining in front of us, pretty much where we were headed.
About 3.6 miles below the pass, there’s the turnoff to Shotgun Pass, Coyote Pass, et al, and just beyond, a nice big campsite in the woods. It looked shady and cool, but cozy. Right past the camp, we had to cross the river. Like the crossings before, it was very easy this time, but it can be a real hazard in “normal” years (though it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have such a thing again. It will be either well above or well below average).
From here the trail starts climbing again, the river falling away on the side. Thunder was louder and we got a sprinkle, but not enough to put on any rain gear. At least the trail was much easier to follow for a while, though strewn with fist-sized, loose rocks – annoying for the soul and bad for the knees.
About a mile after the crossing, the trail turns west-ish from the valley and climbs into the drainage of Wet Meadow Creek. Briefly, the sprinkle turned into light rain, and we almost stopped to waterproof ourselves, but then it stopped. However, we could see on the ground and the leaves that just a few minutes ago, it actually rained for a while.
Here the forest got much thicker and the trail got truly gnarly. It became almost non-existent, mostly covered by entire fallen tree trunks and/or their branches. For a short stretch the creek overtook the trail completely. It was even slower going than in the thicket below the pass, and it was late, and we were tired. At least we knew the day’s destination was just ahead and kept pressing on.
Finally, the trail crossed the creek and there was the junction to Hocket Meadows or Wet Meadows. There were some signs of a recent wildfire, but nothing major (side note: this area burned later in the year in the Rattlesnake Fire, almost up to Wet Meadow).
Here the forest thinned out considerably and the trail was very much visible. It was an easy hike, still climbing a little bit, then dropping a third of a mile to Wet Meadow. We arrived at 6:30pm, to the low sun beautifully illuminating the bright green grass of the meadow, with the creek meandering in the middle. Right on the side, there was a large campsite, obviously frequented by equestrian parties, but it looked like nobody’s been there for a while.
We set our packs down and I went for water. This turned out more complicated than usual. The creek was slow and muddy. I had to find an inflow point. The far end of the meadow looked… well… too far. It seemed like there’s another inflow on the near side, so I worked my way though the boggy and bushy terrain and found a small creeklet with barely OK water.
It’s been a long day with a late start and then 14 miles or so. One note: the first 7 miles after the pass took us way longer than climbing almost 7 to the pass – all because of the trail’s condition.
Our spirits were high, though. We had water, we were in a great spot, the weather was clearing, and there was nobody else in the vicinity. Like always, we took our own sweet time, ate a big dinner, then went to bed around 10pm.
Day 2 – Wet Meadows to Ansel Lake
This will be an interesting day. Short in distance, long in effort. We slept a bit late to compensate for the previous day. At least the weather forecast looked great. Maybe a small chance of rain for the late afternoon.
First, water again. This time, I decided to try for the far end. It was a much longer hike, but easier, as I didn’t have to cross any boggy areas. I found another creeklet with a weaker flow, but fresher water than the other.
All this took time, we only left camp at around 9:30am.
We could have cut across the meadow, then bushwhacked our way up to the trail directly west. This would have saved us around half a mile. Usually, we like doing this, but this time, we decided to stay on the trail, just to see what shape it’s in, especially that we’ve never been here before.
Just past the meadow, we found the remains of an old hunting cabin. I guess they put it up there to get away from all the bugs in the bog. From the looks of it, somebody camped here recently.
The trail was in good shape, and not much later we passed the sign indicating we’re back in Sequoia National Park. Then came the junction, where we turned north. Continuing west would have taken us down to the Hockett Meadows neighborhood.
Our trail ran on the wide spine of the hill in the sparse, dry forest. It was calm and quiet, not too dusty thanks the previous day’s sprinkle.
Another half hour later, after a short drop, we arrived at Lower Blossom Lake. It’s small-ish, but beautiful, with nice-sized trout swimming lazily in the brown water. Like many other bodies of water here, it looked stale, with not enough snowmelt to freshen it up. The trail continues another mile or so to Upper Blossom Lake, but we abandoned it and crossed the outflow, then sat on the south shore, comfortable on a rock with great views. It wasn’t even 11am, but we decided to eat lunch anyway.
Ansel Lake is almost exactly north of here, past Upper Blossom Lake, only about two miles as the crow flies. However, UBL sits in a nice little cirque with a 1000-foot, almost-vertical headwall, and crossing that would be a highly technical climb on both sides.
From what I gathered from the maps and satellite imagery, the class-2 route would take us west, then circle back, crossing this sub-ridge via a manageable route.
After lunch, we left the lake on its western end, past a few scenic little tarns, then climbing a small hill. No trail, of course, but it was pretty easy going. Then we crossed an extremely beautiful meadow, feeling very remote and seldom-visited. There were zero signs of any human activity. The small creek on the side provided great-tasting fresh water to fill up.
Past the meadow, after another small climb, we had to cross a creek in thick vegetation. It was wet and full of wildflowers. Finding a route took some time, but we tried hard not to lose elevation and finally, we emerged at the bottom of the boulder field leading up to what I termed Ansel-Blossom Pass.
It was obvious enough: a semi-steep ascent on rocks to a notch about 900 feet above us. On the lower end, impenetrable manzanita groups necessitated some small detours, but these got sparser higher up. In turn, the terrain got steeper. It wasn’t bad at all, we were having a great time.
The vista to the south opened up gradually and Hockett Meadows came into view, then Cahoon Rock and Homer’s Nose. Far in the distance, the San Joaquin Valley’s floor was visible, too.
We were enjoying ourselves, taking it slow, finding our footing. It took about on hour, and finally, after circling a small snowfield, we crested the rise. It was 2pm. The last three miles took almost three hours, but that was to be expected.
The view was magnificent all around. Now we could see Hengst Peak, White Chief Peak, even Florence Mountain, with many more far-away peaks visible to the north. Ansel Lake was just a peak within the boulders and trees, but the way down seemed OK. Also, next day’s route to Eagle Pass was laid out right before us, so we took a minute to discuss which way we’ll go.
Clouds were gathering for the possible afternoon shower, especially in the north-east. Though lightning didn’t seem imminent, it was still a very exposed location, so we only took a quick break.
The immediate north side of this pass is a very steep chute. The solution is to go east by about two hundred yards. From there, it was an easy descent on huge slabs, some small remnant snow fields, and big rocks. We tried to keep to the right as not to lose much elevation.
Half an hour later, we were down in the bowl, circumnavigating some manzanita thickets and small creeklets. Somewhat lower, several small tarns adorned the bottom; scenic, but looking like huge mosquito nurseries later in the season. The clouds in the east were truly menacing and dark by then, with distant thunder reaching us now and then. No rain yet.
Soon we were among a few pine trees and there was the lake. It was 3pm. The lake is mid-sized with a somewhat boggy eastern inflow and a much steeper and rockier western outflow.
Thankfully, nobody else was there. We found a great tent spot, sheltered and legally far from the water, but with great access. The first order of business was to pitch the tent and prepare for rain. Then we cooked soup and rested a bit. We could see rain coming down a few miles away, but for now, we were spared.
We explored the lakeshore a bit, I started fishing. Em walked around the lake by herself. A marmot accosted her, following her for ten minutes, posing for pictures. It started raining lightly and we both went back to the tent, retreating in anticipation of more to come. However, it stopped after only 20 minutes, and soon we were out and about again. The sun broke through and it was an amazing afternoon.
I fished some more. The trout weren’t very active, but they were decent in size, and soon we had enough for a great meal. About this time we glimpsed two people, obviously on a day hike over from White Chief, making their way toward Eagle Pass. They didn’t even see us and we didn’t shout to them. They were the first humans we saw since over a day ago, on the other side of Farewell Gap.
After eating the fish, we took a quick shower, then went for another walk around the lake. The sky barely had any clouds left, and the setting sun made for a fantastic light show over the lake. The temperature was dropping rapidly, but it wasn’t terribly cold, and most importantly, the air was calm.
It was time for dinner. After, as we love to explore a bit in the dark, we walked a a few hundred yards to the south-west of the outlet. It was worth it; we could see all the way into the San Joaquin Valley. Countless lights were strewn about, dense, but not even close to city-density. Later at home, I researched it on Google Earth and found we were looking at the farming area north of Visalia.
Day 3 – Ansel Lake to Mineral King via Eagle Lake and back to L.A.
We woke at our usual 6am. No wind, no clouds, the sun still behind the mountain. It peaked out an hour later, as blinding and magnificent as ever.
We left camp around 8:15am, walking to the north side of the outlet. There’s a big drop right there, leading to the next tarn, but it looked like about half of that elevation loss can be avoided by contouring on the north side. Which is what we did, advancing slowly on the boulders. We dropped a few dozen feet, first looking to see if we could stay high and skirt a group of trees on the right. No such luck, the rocks were too big. We had to drop another bit to the first few trees, then cross there, then gain elevation again. It wasn’t bad at all.
From here, we could see yesterday’s descending route on the other side of the canyon, and I it looked way more foreboding and dangerous than it really was. In the morning light hitting the face full on somehow it seemed much steeper than in reality.
Anyway, on we went, slowly contouring and going upwards, headed into the bowl below Eagle Pass. Leaving the rockiest parts, we got to side of this bowl about 45 minutes after leaving camp.
From here, the going was easy for a while, walking through the forest, some relatively flat boulder fields and a few tiny meadows. From satellite pictures, I knew there’s a small lake somewhat lower, and we even got a glimpse of it for a minute, but there was no point in making a detour.
The going got steeper, the forest thinned out, and soon were leaving the tree line altogether, headed up in the bowl towards the obvious notch of Eagle Pass, flanked by Miner’s Ridge on one side. It’s a beautiful place and feels more remote than it actually is.
Just after 9:30am, we got to the top. Eagle Lake came into view below, with the whole Mineral King area behind.
Now, the question of how to descend. The chute was still full of snow – mostly. We knew this beforehand, but obviously, we couldn’t see much detail on the aerials.
Initially, the left (west) side looked worse, at least the topmost portion. We decided to try on the right. The first few dozen feet of descent were difficult, but not terribly so. We slowly eased ourselves down in a sort of randkluft, the crevice between the snow and the rock. Of course, compared to a decent randkluft on a proper glacier, this was nothing.
However, we soon got into trouble. Advancing further down was a no-no, the snow was right up to the rock wall and much steeper from there on. The solution would have been to cross the snowfield there as it was a little bit less steep and two rocks were protruding from the middle. We could see that descending further would be much easier on the far side.
I made the mistake of trying to cross. The snow was not ice, but it wasn’t very soft yet, either. I kicked in a few steps and made it out on the snow about 8-10 feet. I wonder why it took me so long to realize that I’m being extremely foolish. A slip would have been fatal: a 200-foot slide down icy snow, with sharp rocks waiting at the bottom. I had no way to self-arrest.
With a pounding heart, I turned around and slowly made my way back to Em. After evaluating the other side’s top from this angle, we realized it’s not so bad, so the decision was made to climb back up, cross on top, and come down that way. Which we did, though the way back wasn’t easy in the steep mini-randkluft.
We felt all our energy sapped, so we sat down for a minute to enjoy a quick snack. Then it was easy, we crossed the top of the snowfield back to the west side. The descent on the rocks was much steeper, but doable. Ten minutes later we were on the far side of the spot where I tried to cross, safe and alive. Time to continue downwards.
It was slow going on the steep boulder field. Like most people, I feel much safer going up something steep, but funny enough, Em loves these descents and she’s quicker than I am.
Anyway, other than the snowy part, this is not terribly though terrain, we kept stopping for pictures and then about 45 minutes later, we reached the fabled shores of Eagle Lake, one of our favorite spots in the Sierra, regardless of the crowds. I guess we’ll never forget our first-ever backpack here.
Thankfully, the lakeshore was deserted. I guess every overnight camper left earlier in the morning. We went to the mid-point of the lake and stopped in a shady spot for lunch.
After ditching the pack, as I was walking to the shore to take a picture, I saw a nice big marmot on the rock by the water. He dove out of sight as soon as he saw me and I thought he was running away. Not so. A few seconds later it turned out he was running towards me. He was begging for food. It was obvious: those know-nothing, bucketlister yuppie jerks feed them all the time. Meanwhile, another marmot started following Em around, also pleading for alms.
When we sat down to eat, the poor marmots wouldn’t leave us alone, despite our efforts to chase them away. When Em turned to me to say something, one of them crawled up on her other side, only a few inches away from her hip. We were sooo mad, but not at the marmots.
After a while, the marmots realized they’re not getting anything from us, so they went their way and we finished lunch. The weather was beautiful, the wind picking up a bit, but only a few clouds visible in the distance.
Em remarked how she’d love to spend another day here. I concurred wholeheartedly, but alas, we had to go home, work was awaiting the next day.
We put the packs on again and headed down from the lake. It was noon. The first group of day hikers was just below the dam, the first people we’ve met in almost two days if we don’t count those we saw from a distance. What a great feeling! From here, we started encountering people left and right, but we didn’t mind.
The hike down was as great as always. We love this place so much, it’s hard to get enough of it. An hour and a half after leaving the lake, we were back at the car. The marmot-proofing seemed to have held up well, there was no intrusion. Half an hour later, after changing into fresh clothes, we were on our way home. This being Memorial Day, traffic was heavy again, but we were patient and made it without much trouble.
Like most people who go there, we’re very concerned about the fire and water situation in the Sierra. Please be very fire-aware, and also, don’t count on usual water sources. Check lakes and snow on recent satellite imagery and with other hikers. Also, be prepared for previously fresh lakes to be muddy and full of algae.
Plus, it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: don’t feed wild animals! Never, ever, under any circumstances.
Make sure to check out all the pictures in the full gallery.