Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park
By Michael Lanza
I stare at the backpack on the ground in front of me. At 85 liters, with every milliliter of it stuffed with about 60 pounds of gear and food, it looks like something that should be lowered by a crane into a container ship rather than attached to a person’s back. If it had legs, teeth, and an appetite for meat, I wouldn’t stand a chance.
In fact, standing at the Sawtooth Trailhead at 7,820 feet in Sequoia National Park, looking up at the ascent we’re about to begin to 9,511-foot Timber Gap, I’m thinking the chances that I’ll have an easy time of it are very, very slim.
Probably like most parents, before I became a dad I had absolutely no idea how much heavy lifting was involved.
With no small amount of dread, I heft my pack onto one bent knee, slip an arm through a shoulder strap and turn myself until the pack rests heavily on my back. Then I straighten up, feeling like I’ve already surrendered points at the outset of a wrestling match against a formidable opponent. This backpack and I are fated to spend a lot of intimate time together over the next six days. And of course, this is all my doing.
I wanted to take my kids on their longest backpacking trip to date. I knew they were ready for it, and I liked the idea of exposing them to the shift in mindset that occurs after you’ve been on the trail for more than a few days. But our son, Nate, 12, and our daughter, Alex, 10, still do not carry their full share of gear and food. So I figured our limit was six days. But even with the lightest tents and other gear, fitting some 50 pounds of food inside two adult backpacks required some aggressive shoehorning. My wife, Penny, is carrying the heaviest load she has shouldered in years, and Nate eagerly accepted more than he’s ever carried, including our necessary third bear canister. Still, much of that 50 pounds of food ended up in my pack.
I’ve also been eager to backpack with my family in Sequoia, in the southern High Sierra, home to many of the highest mountains and one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48—a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book laying open on the lake bottom. Hearing about our plans for a nearly 40-mile loop from the park’s Mineral King area, Penny’s brother, Tom, and his 18-year-old son, Daniel, decided to join us.
While I’ve thru-hiked the John Muir Trail through this part of the Sierra and explored other corners of it—including a rugged, partly off-trail, 32-mile hike in the John Muir Wilderness—this would be my first deep foray into the backcountry of Sequoia, our second national park (designated 18 years after Yellowstone and a week before Yosemite, although the latter had been protected in 1864 as a public trust of California).
With my burly pack compressing my middle-aged spine, we start hiking at mid-morning in classic High Sierra weather: beneath a cloudless, blue sky, with the temperature in the low 60s and a breeze that’s very possibly saving me from heat exhaustion as we plod up through dozens of switchbacks on a sunbaked mountainside. Still, even in these pleasant conditions, within minutes, sweat pours from my head like a fountain.
Redwood Meadow Grove and Bearpaw Meadow
“I just startled a black bear about a quarter-mile back down the trail,” a backpacker tells us.
It’s late afternoon on our first day, and we’ve pitched tents in a spacious campsite in the forest by Cliff Creek, north of Timber Gap. The backpacker, just passing through, saw the bear on the trail we’ll hike tomorrow morning. It reminds me of what the ranger at the Mineral King ranger station told us when we picked up our permit this morning: This past winter saw the lowest snowfall in recorded history in Sequoia National Park, one fallout of which was less natural food sources for bears this summer—making them particularly aggressive in their pursuit of human food. It’s also a reminder of how climate change is affecting our parks. “Be extra careful,” the ranger had said.
In the afternoon sun, we boys take a bracing dip in pools in fast-flowing and frigid Cliff Creek. After dinner, all six of us play a long match of our new, favorite card game, Wizard. Although everyone’s tired, much yelling and laughing ensues—my family takes games very seriously. As we hit the trail the next morning, Nate and Penny passionately debate hands from last night’s Wizard game.
On our second day, we enter one of the highlights of backpacking in this park: a backcountry grove of giant sequoia trees at Redwood Meadow Grove. We had visited the Giant Forest in the park the day before starting out on this backpacking trip, and it’s majestic—but almost as busy as a shopping mall. Now, as the only people out here, we feel like the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels. Trees stand too tall for us to see their crowns, with trunks so big around that all six of us could not link arms around some of them, and branches as thick as the base of a Douglas fir. In the heart of Redwood Meadow Grove, we stop for lunch at the unoccupied ranger station, lounging in an eclectic variety of old, outdoor chairs left outside the log building.
That evening, another mild and clear one, we pitch our tents without rainflies in the forest of the backpackers camp just below Bearpaw Meadow. Then we walk the short distance to the rocky ledges of the meadow, high above the Middle Fork Kaweah River, to watch the sunset turn the peaks of the Great Western Divide to gold.
Hamilton Lakes, Precipice Lake
On a trail contouring across the face of a cliff, hundreds of feet above the deep Middle Fork Kaweah River, Alex points at a smooth, waterslide-like groove in the granite across the canyon, where sheer granite walls and spires stab at a cerulean sky. She says to me, “A glacier used to be right there?” I tell her that’s right.
It’s our third morning, and we’re facing our biggest climb of the trip: more than 3,000 feet, spread over 6.4 miles, to 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap. It’s warm but there’s a nice breeze. Most significantly for me, my pack has gotten much lighter—a major relief. My family consumes an impressive volume of food every day, and since I’m carrying much of it, my pack sheds several pounds daily.
By midday, under a hot sun, we reach the largest of the Hamilton Lakes, at 8,235 feet. Everyone needs a break. I start filtering several liters of water while Penny and Tom dig out lunch food and the kids head for the water; before long, we adults join them for a swim. The lake is almost completely enclosed by towering, impassable cliffs and pinnacles, except on its north side, where the High Sierra Trail zigzags up through steep ledges en route to Kaweah Gap—still 2,500 feet above us. [Note: Hamilton Lakes made my list of nicest backcountry campsites I’ve walked past.]
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A bit after 5 p.m., I walk up to the rocky shore of small, oval-shaped Precipice Lake, still 30 minutes below Kaweah Gap. At 10,400 feet, with the nearest tree at least a couple of trail miles below us, the lake’s glassy, green and blue waters sit in a granite bowl, reflecting a white and golden cliff with black water streaks on the opposite shore. A ribbon-like waterfall, originating in a remnant glacier below the north face of 12,040-foot Eagle Scout Peak, pours at least 100 feet down the cliff. I unconsciously mutter, “Wow!” Standing beside me, Tom, who’s backpacked in some spectacular parts of the High Sierra, says, “Yea. Incredible spot.” [Note: Precipice Lake made my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.]
Nate had been saying for at least an hour coming up the trail that he would take a swim in Precipice Lake, “although it’s probably going to be pretty frigid.” As we all congregate at the shoreline, he keeps his vow, plunging into the icy waters; then Daniel and I join him. Before long, we reach a unanimous consensus to spend the night here instead of continuing over Kaweah Gap and camping in the Nine Lakes Basin on the other side.
A steady wind rakes the campsite, but it’s beautiful up here. We have a view back down this high valley to the Hamilton Lakes and the row of granite monoliths rising across the valley. High above Precipice Lake, scores of slender spires line up atop a long ridge of Eagle Scout Peak.
While Tom and Daniel and Penny and Alex find flat spots on ledges above the lake for their tents, Nate and I decide to sleep under the stars. We lay our pads and bags out on a flat slab big enough for both of us. Long after dark, the two of us lie in our bags looking up at a sky shot full of stars above the dark silhouettes of peaks.
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On our fifth morning, we leave a nice campsite in the woods by the largest of the Little Five Lakes. Yet another gorgeous High Sierra day has dawned—weather we’ll enjoy every day of this hike. Everyone has fallen into the rhythm of a long backpacking trip—making good time on the trail, taking at least one swim every day, lazing around in camp and playing games every late afternoon and evening. That’s the great thing about an extended trip in the wilderness: the simplicity of existence, such a contrast with normal life. We pitch tents, and take them down, and eat. And that last thing keeps making our packs lighter.
We stop for lunch at the lowest of the Big Five Lakes, at 9,830 feet. Scattered campsites dot the open forest of whitebark pine and other conifers along the shoreline. Tall ledges of clean, white granite drop straight into the water. I picture how nice it would have been to camp here, how much fun we all would have had jumping off the ledges into the chilly lake.
That afternoon turns into a hot, hard grind up Lost Canyon, flanked by sheer granite walls. At the head of the canyon, we climb through innumerable switchbacks on a trail that ascends steeply and grows especially strenuous for a couple of tired young kids—although neither of them complains all the way to the pass at just over 11,000 feet. But just as Nate, Daniel, and I reach the pass ahead of the others, Nate says, with genuine relief, “Oh, god, that was hard.”
On the other side of the pass, it’s an easy, five-minute descent on a good trail to Columbine Lake—one of the most glorious backcountry spots I have ever seen, ringed by granite slabs, cliffs, and three pyramidal peaks rising across the lake from where we find a couple of tiny tent sites. [Note: Columbine Lake also made my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.] Nate and I agree we’ll just sleep out without a tent again, and we find a flat slab a short walk from their tent sites.
All night, wind buffets our campsites; Nate and I both burrow deeply inside our bags to escape it. At one point during the night, he and I awaken at the same time. We lie on our backs gazing up at a sky riddled with sparkling points of light and bisected by the broad swath of the Milky Way. We count more than a dozen shooting stars.
Tomorrow, our last day, we’ll make the nearly 700-foot climb on an unmaintained but pretty good, marked footpath to Sawtooth Pass, at 11,630 feet our trip’s high point—and a personal highest elevation ever for Nate and Alex. From the pass, we’ll look out over a panorama of jagged peaks and down to the shimmering waters of Columbine Lake. Then we’ll descend a steep mountainside of loose, sliding scree for several hundred feet to the Monarch Lakes, and there pick up a good trail for the two-hour descent back to our cars.
But for now, I’m perfectly content to be cocooned deep inside a warm bag with my son beside me and nothing on our minds but counting shooting stars and feeling a sense of a wonderful, shared adventure. Plus, I have another reason to be happy: Tomorrow, my pack will be much lighter than it was six days ago.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately fit backpackers with at least basic skills, including families if the kids have the stamina for hiking several hours a day at fairly high elevations. Challenges include long climbs to passes up to 11,000 feet high, hot alpine sun (especially in afternoons), possible thunderstorms, and camping safely in bear country. Trails are obvious and trail junctions have signs—except for the unmaintained stretch of trail from Columbine Lake over Sawtooth Pass to Monarch Lakes; the descent from Sawtooth Pass to Monarch Lakes is especially steep and loose.
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in the High Sierra runs from early or mid-July, once most snow has melted out of the high passes, through September and sometimes into October. Mosquitoes are thick, especially around lakes, generally until mid-August.
There are a variety of campsite options along this nearly 40-mile loop, depending on how far you hike every day. Remember that these high elevations can slow your hiking pace. This was our itinerary:
Day one: From Sawtooth Trailhead at 7,820 feet on Mineral King Road, hike 2.1 miles to 9,511-foot Timber Gap, then descend 2.7 miles and 2,400 feet to spacious campsites in the woods by Cliff Creek, near the junction with the trail to Black Rock Pass.
Day two: Hike 3.2 miles downhill to Redwood Meadow Grove, then 4.3 miles and nearly 1,700 feet uphill to the backpackers’ campsite in the forest 0.1 mile before Bearpaw Meadow (where there is a High Sierra Camp and tent camping is not permitted).
Day three: Follow the High Sierra Trail past Hamilton Lakes about six miles and almost 3,000 feet uphill to Precipice Lake, about a half-mile before Kaweah Gap. (It’s 6.4 miles from Bearpaw Meadow to Kaweah Gap.)
Day four: Continue on the High Sierra Trail over 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap and 2.8 miles down the Big Arroyo Valley. Turn onto the trail leading 2.7 miles to the Little Five Lakes, where there are campsites by the largest lake.
Day five: Hike 7.6 miles to Columbine Lake via Big Five Lakes and Lost Canyon, including an ascent to a pass at just over 11,000 feet.
Day six: Hike 0.8 mile to Sawtooth Pass, the trip’s high point at 11,630 feet, then descend a very loose scree slope for about 1,200 feet in less than a mile, trending southwest to Monarch Lakes (which are blocked from view until you’re well below Sawtooth Pass). From the lakes, where there are campsites, follow maintained trails 5.1 miles back to the Sawtooth Trailhead.
Getting There From CA 198 east of Three Rivers, turn onto Mineral King Road and follow it 26 miles to the Sawtooth Trailhead; you’ll pass the Mineral King ranger station several miles before the trailhead. The road is narrow and winding. It takes about 90 minutes to drive the road to its end, often at 10-20 mph.
Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping and costs $15 per party. Make a reservation at least two months in advance for the peak season of mid-July through August. See more information at nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/wilderness_permits.htm.
Map Mineral King, $9.95, Tom Harrison maps, (800) 265-9090 or (415) 456-7940, tomharrisonmaps.com.
• Bear canisters for food storage and safe practices for camping in bear country are required.
• To avoid feeling the ill effects of the high elevations along this hike, spend a day and car-camp a night at moderate elevations in the park to begin acclimating.
• The hot, high-elevation sun can induce heat exhaustion; stay well hydrated and wear a wide-brim hat.
• The route is remote; you’re often at least a full day’s hike or farther from the nearest road.
• The descent from Sawtooth Pass to Monarch Lakes on the last day is on a steep slope of loose, sliding scree, with no maintained trail; trekking poles are very helpful.
• In early summer, marmots commonly chew exposed hoses on the underside of vehicles parked at trailheads in the Mineral King area. People protect their vehicles from damage by surrounding them with chicken wire or using a “car diaper:” Lay a large tarp or two on the ground, drive onto the tarp(s), and then tape it up around the sides of the vehicle. For unknown reasons, the marmots typically stop doing this by around mid-July.
Contact Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, (559) 565-3341, nps.gov/seki/index.htm. Mineral King ranger station. (559) 565-3768.
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