Sequoia National Park conjours up images of majestic, awe-inspiring trees, famed as the largest in the world. What is perhaps lesser known about the park, but equally impressive, is backpacking in the High Sierra’s amongst pristine alpine lakes and towering fins of granite. This trip had been on our radar for a couple of years, after our oldest daughter asked if we could make it happen for her 13th birthday.
Preparations have been going on for the last 12 months; this was to be our 9th family backpacking trip in that time, and the jewel in our crown. The circuit that we planned was 40 miles, taking in 3 high passes over 6 days. The highest was nearly 12,000ft, with significant elevation gain and loss in the process. All our prior backpacking trips we have done as a family, but because of the distances and potential difficulty of the trip, we made the decision to hike with our three older kids (aged 13, 11 and 9) and leave our younger two (aged 4 & 7) with their grandparents in their RV at lower elevations.
This post is primarily an information resource and jam packed with pictures. Lessons we learned on the trail? They will pop up sometime in future writings!
NB: We navigate with a paper map and compass, therefore distances and elevations are not going to perfectly match a digital navigation device.
DAY 1: MINERAL KING TO CLIFF CREEK
Distance: 5.1 miles (8.2km)
Elevation gain: 1700ft (510m)
Elevation loss: 2500ft (760m)
Departed trailhead: 9:30am
Arrived at camp: 1:45pm
Time on the trail (total travel time, breaks included): 4hrs 15mins
After picking up our pre-booked permit at the Mineral King Ranger Station, we drove to the trail-head a mile further up the road. The terrain here is open, and though the climb is steady, we didn’t find it difficult thanks to well placed switchbacks. I was hoping for clear skies for photography purposes, but unfortunately the previous evening, a lightning strike had ignited a forest fire about 30 miles to the south. It was smokey and overcast, and threatening rain.
Timber Gap (9,511ft) is everything its name suggests. The trail enters into a patch of forest and through the big, impressive trees in the saddle, we gained glimpses into the type of topgraphy we would be travelling into.
The 5km+ downhill trek to Cliff Creek felt like a long way on the first day on the trail.
Crossing over Cliff Creek was the first of many stream crossings on this trip.
Cliff Creek Campsite among giant trees, was just on the other side.
DAY 2: CLIFF CREEK TO BEARPAW MEADOW
Distance: 7.6 miles (12.2km)
Elevation gain: 1800ft (550m) Elevation loss: 1100ft (335m)
Departed camp: 6:00am
Arrived at camp: 1:00pm
Time on the trail (total travel time, breaks included): 7 hrs
Our rhythm on the trail was one of early starts and early bedtimes. We got up at 5am (in the dark), packed up camp, and were walking between 5:45am and 6:00am each day. We would have a snack after 1½ hours of walking, and then take a longer break after 3 hours to have breakfast.
The trail between Cliff Creek Camp and Redwood Meadow was mostly a gentle descent. Just under 2km of walking bought us back to a spot by the river that would have made a nice alternative place to camp. After hiking a further 2km we came to the first part of the Redwood Meadow grove of Sequoia trees. Naively, we had thought we were camping under Sequoia’s at Cliff Creek, but when we saw these majestic beauties we knew we had been mistaken. UNBELIEVABLE. That is all I have to say.
This particular Sequoia, had three trunks all coming from the same base. Destroyed internally by fire, yet still growing strong.
We had our breakfast stop at the main part of the grove. We wanted to see the big trees just like everyone else who comes to Sequoia National Park. But we didn’t want to see them for the first time with crowds of other tourists. We wanted to work for this experience, which is was a big part of the motivation of this trip. The underlying thing that fueled this motivation was a desire to honour our oldest daughter. When she was born I had written her a letter that paralleled metaphorically the life of a Sequoia tree. It expressed the hopes and dreams that we had for her. Things like resilience under fire, growing in a grove (community) and growing straight and tall, and trusting in God’s plan for her. It was in this solitary place, with no other people around, that we got to speak these words of life into our new-to-teenagehood daughter. It was amazing and sentimental, and couldn’t have been done in a more perfect location. It is something that I will never forget and hope that the same is true for her too.
Hiking on from Redwood Meadow, we crossed 3 more streams. Granite Creek (bridged & with camping opportunities here for one or two tents), Eagle Scout Creek, and the Kaweah River (camping here too). From the Kaweah we climbed 1.4 miles up to Bearpaw Meadow. It was hot and hard work, but because of our early start, we arrived at Bearpaw for a late lunch. First at camp meant we got first dibbs on a campsite and had plenty of time to explore.
We had completed two days hiking and had seen very few people. Just up the hill, we discovered was the junction for the very popular High Sierra Trail. There was a fixed camp that tourists could hike to, carrying in only a day pack while all their overnight stuff was transported. For them, hot showers were included, as were meals. Honestly, I am kinda turned off by these sorts of places, especially when I am camped nearby. But the bonus?! There was a shop there. Yep, a shop. Miles worth of hiking from anywhere. It was basic, but they had giant $5 camp-made brownies that we could split into 5 pieces, and potato chips. And well, that brownie made it all OK.
The views from the front of the cafe were amazing too.
DAY 3: BEARPAW MEADOW TO NINE LAKES BASIN
Distance: 8.3 miles (13.3km)
Elevation gain: 3300ft (1000m) Elevation loss: 400ft (120m)
Departed camp: 5:45am
Arrived at camp: 2:45pm
Time on the trail (total travel time, breaks included): 9 hrs
Day 3 was our longest and hardest. But oh so AMAZING.
From Bearpaw meadow it was a 1.8 mile walk, sidling around the mountain to the bridge crossing over a deep rift in the granite, with the creek flowing fierce, far below. There is a small (1 tent) campsite upsteam that would be possible to snag if you were arriving earlier in the afternoon.
The trail then switchbacks up towards Hamilton Lake. In some places, it’s a little exposed but it wasn’t difficult. After 2 or 3 km we crossed over Hamilton Creek. The crossing is right above a cliff and waterfall, which made for a pretty spectacular setting just as we were getting a little bit of alpenglow at sunrise.
Breakfast today was at Hamilton Lake. From what I read, I was expecting there to be quite a few people camped here. This year, due to its popularity, the NPS has implemented a one-night-only stay. But guess what? No-one! No campers and no other hikers on the trail yet because it was still pretty early in the morning. We enjoyed an extended hang out time while we cooked and ate breakfast and did a little exploring.
Up, up, up we go. The measures that were taken to construct this trail in completely inhospitable terrain were staggering to us. We learned that back in the depression in the 1930’s, young men that were out of work, were put on these government ’employment’ schemes and these crews were responsible for building this amazing trail. There would be no way to enjoy this beautiful terrain if it wasn’t for them.
The stretch between Hamilton Lake and Precipice Lake was taxing with lots of elevation gain, but look at this place! Simply stunning. Sequoia National park had a 180% snowpack this year so even in September the snow hadn’t completed melted off Precipice Lake. The combination of snow and the streaky cliffs reflecting in the background made for a surreal environment.
We had lunch here, and three of our party went for a swim with the icebergs. I was not one of them!
After a much needed rest, and a belly full of food we continued up to Kaweah Gap.
The going was a little easier; less steep. And the views!! How many more adjectives can I use? Mind blowing. Gorgeous. Out-of-this-world amazing. Every turn in the trail yielded a different breath taking vista. So much variety. So grateful to be in this place.
We made it to Kaweah Gap at 10,700ft (3220m)
And then new views down into Nine Lake Basin and the Big Arroyo Valley
We camped on a cool little knoll where the trail first meets the creek and the rain that had been brewing for the afternoon hit us. Thankfully it was after we had set up camp so we could dash into the tent. The near-by creek was cascading with numerous waterfalls and pools. It was my favourite campsite of the trip.
DAY 4: NINE LAKES BASIN TO BIG FIVE LAKES
Distance: 9.3 miles (15km)
Elevation gain: 1500ft (460m) Elevation loss: 1600ft (490m)
Departed camp: 5:45am
Arrived at camp: 1:00pm
Time on the trail (total travel time, breaks included): 7 hrs 15 mins
Clear, star-filled skies greeted us when we got out of the tent. The walk down the valley in the pre-dawn was peaceful and still. With the open terrain we could enjoy 360° views in a valley that was unique from everything we had hiked through so far. Though the going was easy and downhill, it was chilly. A couple of the kids struggled. They were tired and cold. It took us quite a bit longer to make it to where we wanted to stop for breakfast. We had to cross the creek twice and spent quite a bit of time trying to find somewhere we could rock hop so we didn’t have to take off our footwear. We cooked breakfast, and warmed ourselves in the sun just as it was peeking over the mountains near the Big Arroyo campsite.
As the morning progressed, the sun was warm on our backs, and there was another change in scenery as we veered off the High Sierra Trail and headed towards Big Five Lakes. We switchbacked up onto a plateau, and passed a couple of pretty little lakes that had camping opportunities.
The Little Five Lakes area is a popular spot to overnight, but we were there at morning snack time! This was one of my favourite places on the whole trip. A-MAZING.
We pressed on to Big Five Lakes, through undulating terrain. After travelling 1.7 miles from Little Five Lakes there is a trail junction that goes to the upper lakes. The photographer in me really wanted to go there but it would have been nearly 3 miles to go in and out, and was out of our way. The kids were tired and were looking forward to playing and swimming at camp. On we travelled, and we enjoyed lounging and doing very little for the whole afternoon and evening at Lower Big Five Lake.
DAY 5: BIG FIVE LAKES TO MONARCH LAKE
Distance: 8.2 miles (13.5km)
Elevation gain: 2900ft (900m) Elevation loss: 1900ft (580m)
Departed camp: 6:00am
Arrived at camp: 1:00pm
Time on the trail (total travel time, breaks included): 7 hrs
The air was filled with smoke, creating a hazy, eerie glow as we walked. It was so great to be hiking when the sun came up! We walked for 2 miles, making our way around the top end of a very broad ridge and then dropped down steeply into the Lost Canyon Creek campsite and watershed.
We had our early morning snack by the creek, and then followed the meandering trail for 4km. It was upward bound, but gentle in its approach, travelling through the open forest and coming and going from the creek. Higher up in the valley the trail still had some snow, and a small section had sustained some avalanche damage from the unusually large winter snowpack. There were little area’s that would have been perfect to camp in.
We broke out of the trees into yet another beautiful landscape. The smoke had cleared and it was a gorgeous bluebird day. We reveled in it, enjoying breakfast, and being able to look ahead on our intended route.
The climb from the valley floor up to the Columbine Lake Basin was yet another highlight of the trip
Columbine lake was so pristine and perfect, held in place all around by the granite peaks that this area is famous for. John Muir said it right in his quote “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul”. This place is the epitome of just that. I was truly in my happy place.
Our original plan was to camp at Columbine Lake (11.000ft). As a team (but mostly lead by the kids) we decided to push on over Sawtooth Pass and down to Monarch Lake so that our final day we could sleep in and not have very far to walk to complete our trip. The trail from Columbine Lake up to the pass was the least defined part of the circuit. There were rock cairns everywhere marking the way, but because a lot of the trail was over rock, it wasn’t always obvious were it was.
We did it!! 11,630ft (3550m). That is the highest any of us have climbed. My New Zealand homeland’s highest mountain is only a couple hundred metres taller, so it was a pretty proud moment. Our celebrations were short though. The clouds had moved in and it had threatened rain since we had left Columbine Lake. As we were summiting, there was the first distant clap of thunder and we needed to high tail it to camp. We didn’t want to be stuck in an electrical storm.
This stretch of the trail was through fine, broken-down granite. I wouldn’t say it was sand, but more like very small scree-gravel. Some spots were slippery with the gravel over solid rock, and other parts were the most divine scree running. It looked and felt like a long way down to Monarch Lake.
100m before we got to camp, the rain struck, and right in front of us was the perfect overhanging rock for us to shelter from the deluge. Afterwards, we set up camp, and like usual had the afternoon to hang out in another beautiful part of God’s handiwork.
DAY 6: MONARCH LAKE TO MINERAL KING
Distance: 4.5 miles (7.2km)
Elevation loss: 2500ft (760m)
Departed camp: 7:00am
Arrived at Trailhead: 9:00am
Time on the trail (total travel time, breaks included): 2 hrs
Our intended sleep-in never worked out. It howled a gale all night long and I spend a good chunk of it holding the tent up so the poles didn’t bend. No-one had slept that great and it was cold. So we decided to start hiking. We got down to the trailhead for breakfast!
OTHER BITS AND BOBS YOU MIGHT WANT TO KNOW TO PLAN YOUR OWN TRIP
A backcountry permit is required year round to overnight in Sequoia National Park. A quota system is in effect from approximately May 25 – Sept 22. Permit applications open on March 1st at 12:01am. We put our application in right on the dot; we didn’t want to miss out. You can find out what you need to know at this link
SEASON & CLOTHING
The road from Three Rivers to Mineral King is not clear of snow and open until May. June to September is the main backpacking season. Early season there will be more snow, more water in the creeks and more biting bugs. Drowning while crossing creeks is the number one cause of death in Sequoia National Park and I can see why. We crossed a lot of creeks, and there was still a lot of water in them even though it was late in the season. As mentioned previously there was 180% snowpack. Most years the creeks run much lower. Our trip was from August 30th to September 4th. We carried full thermal underwear, fleece and down jackets, beanie, gloves, raincoat and we used it all. A lot of the trip you are camping around 10,000ft and night time temperatures can get below freezing even in the summer. Beware of afternoon thunderstorms and educate yourself for your own protection. There are parts of the trail that the sun would beat down hot in the middle of summer. Sun protection, and travelling earlier or later in the day would be necessary
Bear-proof food storage containers are a mandatory requirement to travel in the backcountry in Sequoia. The ranger who issues your permit will check you have them. We bought two large ones because I am sure we will use them again. They are also available to rent from the Mineral King Ranger Station. Most of the more established campgrounds also had bear cache’s for food. California has a different way of dealing with bears than we are used to in Canada. We always carry bear spray; in California (or at least in Sequoia) it is considered a weapon and isn’t allowed. All usual bear precautions apply. Make noise. Cook away from your tent. Remove all scented items from your tent and store overnight with your food.
Campsites were a lot more numerous than we expected. If we were to do the trip again I would opt for some different places to camp. Every 2 or 3 km it seemed there was somewhere to pitch a tent. Because you have to take bear canisters you don’t need to camp some place with lockup boxes. I would skip Bearpaw Meadow for sure (just make sure you buy a brownie before moving on 🙂 It was really dusty at that campsite with no undergrowth. There were no views either. I would add another day to the trip simply so we would take advantage of camping in some different places than we did. We took a 4 person tent and the 5 of us crammed in it. Lots of the tent sites fit a 2 person tent perfectly but with the 4 person we were often on a bit of a slant. Some of the more quaint spots to camp only held one, maybe two tents. Remember to practice all parts of no-trace camping. Fires are only allowed in area’s below 10,000ft. Treat all water.
We used the National Geographic trail map for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The visitor centre at Mineral King also had larger scale topo maps that we would have preferred had we not already purchased a map. Like usual, I made 3 or 4 copies of the section of map that we needed and put each in a ziplock. This works great for kids learning to navigate. We have the master map that we pull out if we need the bigger picture or more clarity than our copy. The trail was very well defined for the most part, and was signed at all intersections. The only part that the route was more fuzzy was from Columbine Lake up to Sawtooth Pass, and then down the other side to Monarch Lake. If you are experienced, neither of those areas should pose any problems.
It was an epic drive for us to get to California – a full 24 hours of driving which we spread over 3 days, stopping at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, and then finally Three Rivers, California. The heat was extreme – 115°F or 45°C and we honestly thought we might melt. Thankfully, Mineral King at 7,800ft yielded much cooler temperatures. There are plenty of warnings about how windy the road is from Three Rivers to Mineral King. It is narrow; not suitable for trailers, or people who don’t know how to drive around sharp bends and steep dropoffs, while sharing the road with others. We are used to driving roads like this so it didn’t feel like that big of a deal but if freeways and two laned roads are your life, it would be intimidating for sure. The area is very rugged and remote and the drive in gives a sense of isolation and vulnerability.
PARKING & MARMOTS
During June and July there is a problem with marmots chewing on lines and cables on the underside of vehicles at the trailhead. The result is an immobilized vehicle and a long, complicated and expensive procedure to get help. The National Parks Service recommends taking a large tarp that you can drive onto, and then pulling it up and tying it over the vehicle; kind of like a diaper. The other way to protect yourself is to park at the Ranger Station/Visitor Centre and walk the mile up the road to the trailhead. Apparently the marmots aren’t a problem down there, or in other months outside of June and July.
No other hikers that we met on the trail were doing the circuit we were. That would indicate this wasn’t a ‘typical’ route. It therefore comes with a very high recommendation from us! Many seem to start on the High Sierra Trail at the Crescent Meadows trailhead in the ‘main’ part of Sequoia National Park. This would avoid driving the crazy road into Mineral King, but is also a more populated option. We loved that we saw less people the way we went. In fact, we really didn’t see many people at all. The trail was challenging (I don’t want to downplay it) but it was also so well graded and maintained that even broken-kneed hubby didn’t have any knee issues. There were no giant steps; just more gradual slopes, switchbacks and nicely formed rock steps, and as I mentioned, we were super impressed with the construction of the trail. The scenery is second to none. Varied and always changing. For our family it provided the perfect amount of challenge. ‘Digging deep’ was necessary, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly hard. Our 7 year old, who is an excellent little hiker, would have been fine coming with us. It would have been nice to add an extra day, making it a 7 day trip. If you would like more info please feel free to contact me!
You Might Also Like: