Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Inyo National Forest: Minarets and Mt. Ritter Range

Mt. Ritter (left, a bit further back) and Banner Peak (in the foreground and therefore looking taller) tower over Garnet Lake

Our friend John Zaller recommended a backpacking trip to the Minarets, a series of jagged peaks in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  The Minarets (about a dozen with individual names) are part of the Ritter range; Mt Ritter and Banner Peak are the two main mountains. The John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails weave around the many lakes at the foot of the range. We camped at Badger Lake, and also passed Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Shadow Lake, Ruby Lake, Emerald Lake, and a bunch of smaller lakes.  

I have seen the Minarets from a distance, as do most people who visit Mammoth Lakes, but had not been in the wilderness area. 

On Starkweather Trail with Minarets in the distance. Riding trails around Mammoth was previously the closest I got to those mountains.

The Minarets were named in the 1860s by the California Geographic Survey. Only their family name was bestowed by the California Geographic Survey, their (unofficial) individual first names came much later. Mount Ritter, the main mountain of the range, was named at the same time and before there was any known climbing (John Muir takes credit for the first known ascent). 

We visited our daughter Anya in Davis over the weekend and the backpacking trip added only 150 miles of driving, a small price. Backcountry permits can be hard to obtain because it is a hugely popular area, but I got permits for a Monday start on the High Trail/Pacific Crest Trail. Our trailhead was at Agnews Meadows, which is on the road to the Devil's Postpile National Monument (huge tourist attraction) and therefore requires taking a shuttle bus. We were on the trail (PCT going north) at 4 pm. 

On the High Trail/PCT, Minarets in the hazy distance

There are big wildfires and air quality can be very poor. Over the weekend, it was in the unhealthy range in both Davis and Mammoth, but it had improved to moderate by the time we started. The afternoon still had some haze, but it cleared completely overnight and air quality remained very good. 

On the High Trail

The Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails are extremely popular. They are polished with signs at every intersection that make it hard to get lost. By 7pm, Kathy was getting very tired and when a sign pointed to Clark Lakes uphill and 1000 Island Lake still an hour away, she suggested going to Agnew Meadows because that sounded promising and it seemed to be downhill. Not remembering where we had started 3 hours earlier is a sign that it was time to stop. 

Agnew Meadows would have been the one wrong choice out of those 3

She had to stumble on a little longer, but not much. Badger Lake was close and enough off the PCT to be empty (whereas 1000 Islands is always busy). We made camp at sunset. There are several Badger Lakes, maybe 5, but only one is of a reasonable size, the others are more like ponds.
Badger Lake at sunset

and at sunrise

It was a lovely evening and despite being absolutely still, there were no mosquitoes or other flying insects. We didn't even unpack the tent. The haze had cleared, there was no moon and an amazing night sky with many shooting stars. Badger lake is a little over 2900 m. 

On the PCT heading towards 1000 Islands Lake

Maybe because of the late start yesterday afternoon, we had not seen anybody since a large animal pack train (15 horses/mules) coming the opposite way during the first hour. But this morning, we encountered the first ranger ready to direct traffic before 10am. Nobody has ever wanted to check my permits, but this day our permits were scrutinized twice (and verified that we haven't gotten lost yet and also reminded about backcountry rules). 

Now we are at the foot of the mountain range and 1000 Islands Lake (and the others) are spectacular. At 3000 m, the vegetation is fragile because nature's metabolism slows down. 1000 Islands Lake along the John Muir trail might be more appropriately named 1000 Hikers Lake and regulations are needed to keep the area reasonably healthy. So there are many signs on where not to camp and it generally is a better idea to look for places not directly along the JMT or PCT.

Here is the beginning of the San Joaquin river: The outlet of 1000 Islands becomes the middle (and main) fork of the San Joaquin. The north fork starts near Mt Lyell and a short south fork in Kings Canyon.

The outlet of 1000 Island Lake becomes the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin

The San Joaquin picking up speed

The San Joaquin is an amazing river, almost 600 km long. It originates on the Eastern side of the Sierra and for 150km is a rocky mountain stream with a steep gradient and many waterfalls. Yet somehow it manages to get across the Sierra Nevada to meander for 400 km through the Central Valley from Fresno to Stockton. Most of the water is used for agriculture and by the end only a heavily polluted trickle is left to join the Sacramento river and eventually flow through Suisun and San Francisco Bay into the Pacific.  

Ruby Lake
At 1000 Islands, we connect with the John Muir Trail, which comes from Tuolumne Meadows from the north (so does the PCT, around this area they are often the same) and turn south again. The trail goes by Emerald and Ruby lakes. But only their names are shiny; they are pretty, but no more than lakes with more pedestrian names; neither one would have been as good for camping as Badger. Also along the JMT, they see heavy traffic and the forest service closed one camping area for plant rehabilitation.

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. Ritter, on the left, is a little over 4000m and Banner a little under 4000m. But the perspective makes Ritter look smaller. Garnet Lake in the foreground 

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak again

Mount Ritter is king of the mountains of the middle portion of the High Sierra, as Shasta of the north and Whitney of the south sections. Moreover, as far as I know, it had never been climbed.

Muir, John. The Complete Works of John Muir: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies & Letters (p. 211). Madison & Adams Press

Muir was going to change the "never been climbed" part. Why Ritter? Carl Ritter was a famous geographer in the early 1800s. Ritter was not much of a world traveler and never left Europe. Seems that the only connection to California is Josiah Whitney. Whitney got to name a lot of things as chief of the California Geological Survey (like the Minarets), but earlier in life studied with Ritter in Berlin. 

The other famous geographer/naturalist of the early 1800s was Alexander von Humboldt (he and Ritter died the same year) and his name is on even more things. Humboldt did a lot of traveling, especially in South America, but he never came anywhere near Humboldt Bay/County/Redwoods (California) or Humboldt River/Range/Sink/Lake (Nevada) either. The closest was a short detour at the end of his South America travels in 1804 to visit Thomas Jefferson in Washington. Berlin casting a long shadow over our hikes in California: Ritter range this week, 2 weeks ago we were in Humboldt county.

Crossing the outlet of Garnet Lake. The trails are very manicured.

The descent to Shadow Creek/Lake surprised us. It seemed long and hard and we didn't think we had climbed up that much. It was interrupted by another permit check by a backcountry ranger and by many hikers coming the opposite way and asking "are we almost there yet?". 


Looking southward along the axis of the range, the eye is first caught by a row of exceedingly sharp and slender spires, which rise openly to a height of about a thousand feet from a series of short glaciers that lean back against their bases, their fantastic sculpture and the unrelieved sharpness with which they spring out of the ice rendering them peculiarly wild and striking. These are the Minarets. Beyond them you behold the highest mountains of the range, their snowy summits crowded together in lavish abundance, peak beyond peak, aspiring higher, and higher as they sweep on southward.

Muir, John. The Complete Works of John Muir: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies & Letters (p. 19). Madison & Adams Press.  

Roughly the same view, but Muir must have looked from a higher elevation to see the peaks behind them, from Ritter rather than from the John Muir Trail. Of course, there was no John Muir Trail then and its construction started in 1915, the year after John Muir died. Maybe there was no trail at all: Trails start for utilitarian purposes, first by animals, then followed by humans, connecting grazing, hunting, and eventually trading areas. Primitive trails over Kearsarge or Mono Pass were known and surely many current hiking trails follow much older trading and hunting routes of the native Paiutes. But around here, there would be little practical use for animals nor people looking for them. Joe Nisbet LeConte, who became Muir's successor as Sierra Club president, pioneered a high route in 1908, roughly the modern JMT, and those efforts would be needed to create connections between traditional trails.  

Joining Shadow Creek Trail, I had a tentative plan of maybe turning right/west going up Shadow Creek. Shadow Creek starts in the Minarets and then flows through Cecile/Iceberg/Ediza lakes. However, after Ediza, it is an unmaintained/no trail route along the Minarets and, from what I believe, partly along a glacier. This would be a slow scramble of a route, adding another day, and probably one I need to do on my own. 

Shadow Creek and Shadow Lake are particularly pretty. Shadow Creek drops 1000 m over the short distance from its origin to the San Joaquin and therefore has many waterfalls. 

Shadow Creek

Shadow Lake, Mt Ritter in the back

Shadow Creek shortly before it joins the San Joaquin

Even more descending after Shadow Lake and by now our knees had enough of that. Also, now it was in the afternoon, the sun was hot, and the temperature was rising the lower we got to river bed. Fortunately, the trail back to Agnew Meadows along the river was shady and that was very welcome. And a surprise at the river crossing: There actually are a few sequoias, the Sierra redwoods. Far from the western slopes where they are usually found! Just a few, not giant and not old (decades, not centuries), but also not where I expected any as it is outside their natural range.   

Another 1000 years and it'll look more like this
From a bike ride on the western slopes 5 years ago

We were on the trail for 7 hours this day, a very different world from LA, but not that far: We were back in Santa Monica for dinner.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

California's Lost Coast - King Range Wilderness

a short inland section on day 3

The King Range Wilderness area in Northern California (aka Lost Coast) is one of the rare areas for a beach hike in a wilderness area. It is a National Conservation Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and less developed than a National Park. But it also has a low quota of backcountry permits. Usually those are gone months in advance, but I got a 3-person permit for the week after July 4th. Kathy invited our friend John Zaller, who immediately accepted even though he would come off a multi-day hike in the Sierras the day before we start.

The King Range is a steep coastal mountain range, so rough that no road was built on the beach side (unlike Big Sur). King Peak is 1300 m and within 5 km of the beach. However, the hiking route is along the water and almost entirely on sand and rocks. Elevation gain is minimal and the brief sections that go a little bit inland are very welcome for having a harder surface:

afternoon day 2

There are several sections that are only passable during low tide; other times, the waves crash against the rocks, often steep cliffs that offer no option for a detour. Our permit started during a full moon, which tends to have extreme tides. In this case, only an early morning low tide was low enough to get past otherwise impassable sections. That timing was perfect for us going opposite (south to north) to the typical route and it avoided congested campsites (as the N-S hikers had to aim for campsites just north of the impassable sections). Sometimes there will be no passable tide during the day.

We started after 4pm in the afternoon at Black Sands Beach (Shelter Cove), with pleasant air temperatures, but still a hot sun. We only had about 6km before the first section that requires a low tide and stopped at Gitchell Creek to camp.

Kathy and John along Black Sands Beach.

The weather during all 3 days was clear with a gentle breeze (other times could be foggy with a strong headwind going north). Slept outside with just a tiny bit of moisture on the sleeping bag, there was no need for a tent or tarp.

Soft sand/gravel (even at low tide few spots with hard sand) and rocks make for a strenuous hike. Although our afternoon was just a small hike, the soft sand made it harder than one would think.

On day 2, we started about 6.30 around the lowest tide level.

Early morning on day 2

But we weren't the first: There were already new animal prints in the sand. The mountains are steep, often cliffs, and even bears hike on the beach to get from one area to another (these fresh bear footprints can't be more than a hour old). Deer, too.

Fresh bear tracks

It didn't take long before the animal tracks were obliterated by humans, within the next 2 hours, we saw several groups coming the opposite direction. The sand comes and goes, depending on how the coast line curves. At some places, deep sand gets deposited; elsewhere it gets washed away, leaving just medium to large rocks and little space between the water and the cliffs. This picture is during a very low tide, most low tides leave less space - and during higher tides, the waves crash against the rock.

These rocky sections are slow and strenuous

The morning was great, but this was the longest day of the trip(about 20 km) and the afternoon sun is not as pleasant as the morning. The terrain (soft sand or rocks) makes walking harder than 20km sounds.
The hiking experience is quite different from the mountains not just in scenery, but apparently walking mechanism: I got blisters on my toes despite wearing my usual hiking boots and socks.
We made camp at Randall Creek by 3.30, right before the next section that required waiting for a low tide.

looking down from my camp at Randall Creek

Day 3 started off with a similarly lovely morning as the previous day, it just had a bit more fog and wind towards the end. The first section that has to be hiked during low tide had some spectacular rock formations, almost like a minuscule version of Devil's Postpile near Mammoth.

This needs a low tide - at other times, waves crash against the rocks

Cooskie Creek is in the middle of that section and probably getting quite crowded at times (for people hiking N-S, the two camping options just before or along the impassable section are Sea Lion Gulch - where we saw the first people already making camp by 11am to start the next morning- or Cooskie).

Cooskie creek

The narrow section ends at Sea Lion Gulch, which unsurprisingly has many sea lions sitting on the rocks. The trail goes inland for a little bit, but soon returns to the beach and then it is mostly deep sand until the trailhead at Mattole Beach. The last hour is definitely a sand slog.

Just before the final sand slog, the elephant seals at the old lighthouse provide some entertainment. Not a particularly exciting entertainment, mostly they lie next to each other and doze. The more enterprising ones use their flippers to toss sand on their backs every few minutes. They spend most of their time in the ocean and much further north (Alaska), but come to California twice a year. This is the summer beach vacation for molting (they will be back for the winter breeding season). But first they will be swimming north again. These are two very long round-trips each year!

Occasionally they get on each others nerves - maybe one was snoring too loudly? - raise up their fronts and yell and snort at each other for a minute. They are huge animals, the males weigh several tons, and the males are also astonishingly ugly to human eyes with their fat wobbly noses. Their females must perceive that wobble nose differently: They didn't become extinct despite being aggressively hunted by humans. I think that huge nose is only good for loud snoring or roaring sounds (unlike an elephant's trunk, they can't do anything practical with it). Those two guys roared for a minute, the outcome was that the one at the left moved maybe a foot back before they laid down again. The rest of the pack didn't move a flipper and didn't pay attention, except for the tiny one in the front who was unnerved by the racket.

Elephant seals snoozing and grumpy males yelling at each other near the lighthouse

done, time to lie down again, the one with the bigger nose wins and gains a foot more space.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Mineral King Loop - Sequoia National Park


Top of Sawtooth Pass

My favorite trip so far this year was a 4-day hike in Sequoia National Park, starting from Mineral King over the Blackrock and Sawtooth passes into the Five Lakes Basins. One of most spectacular routes ever. I went by myself, starting July 6.

The Great Western Divide is a formidable barrier separating the justifiably famous tourist destinations of the Sequoia National Park from the much less visited (and road-less) high mountains that account for much of the area of the Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. There is no easy way to get over the Great Western Divide, every pass here is over 3500m (or >11500 feet). This trip started from the west, whereas last month's hike over Kearsarge Pass into King's Canyon started from the east. The western and eastern approaches differ systematically: 

"All the passes make their steepest ascents on the east flank of the range, where the average rise is nearly a thousand feet to the mile, while on the west it is about two hundred feet.  ... Approaching the range from the grey levels of Mono and Owens Valley the steep short passes are in full view between the peaks, their feet in hot sand, their heads in snow, the courses of the more direct being disclosed nearly all the way from top to bottom. But from the west side one sees nothing of the pass sought for until nearing the summit, after spending days in threading the forests on the main dividing ridges between the canyons of the rivers, most of the way even the highest peaks being hidden."

Muir, John. The Complete Works of John Muir: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies & Letters (p. 25). Madison & Adams Press. 
Sunset from upper Monarch Lake on my last night

Mineral King is a quiet corner in the National Park, connected to the rest of the park by trails. A windy road that is too narrow for lane markings leads there, with an easily missed turnoff before the official park entrance (coming from the south, Three Rivers). It can take 1 1/2 hours for the 40km/25m to the ranger station (and the road dead-ends shortly afterwards). For John Muir, this took "days in threading the forests". 

Nicely wrapped minivan
I stopped at the ranger station to pick up my backcountry permit (only for overnight, none needed for day hikes). Rangers want to confirm that people know the rules and have appropriate equipment. Although the ranger quizzed me on bear-containers (I have a Garcia, which can hold 4 days of food) and waste disposal, his first question was whether I had a tarp for the car. Car wrapping is a custom specific to Mineral King: The local marmots chew wires and hoses in cars left overnight. This is a major concern Mineral King, but only there (nowhere else in the park) and only until August (no car chewing from August to April). I brought my own tarp, but the ranger station has spare ones if needed. Marmot-disabled cars have occurred so often at Mineral King that the National Park Service has a webpage on that. While marmots could easily chew through a tarp if they wanted, having the car wrapped from below is sufficient to discourage them (whereas open wheel wells seem to invite exploration and wire/hose tasting sessions). 

Funny looking trail parking lot
The fairly recent website makes backcountry permit reservation fairly easy (it also is the portal for park passes, campsite reservations, shuttles, backcountry permits is a tiny part). Backcountry permits are inexpensive, this was the most expensive permit at $25, King Range/Lost Coast was $6. The website is for reservations only, getting the actual permit varies across agencies. Sequoia and Kings Canyon require in-person pickup of the permit at a ranger station, whereas I printed the King Range/Lost Coast permit (BLM) from the site and received the Kearsarge permit by email from the Inyo National Forest backcountry office. 

At Columbine lake, afternoon of day 3
I didn't stay there but continued over
Sawtooth (peak and pass in the background)
The permitting process is not difficult to navigate and I think that minor hurdle is a necessary requirement to keep the backcountry pristine. Along the Colorado trail a few years ago (no permits were required there), I've seen lovely lakes in the tundra surrounded by human waste. Nature's processes work slowly in those climates. 

I went clockwise: Mineral King - Timber Gap - Blackrock - Five Lakes - Sawtooth - Mineral King. The data from my GPS are here: Mineral King map and GPS files The parking area (middle of the week) was almost full, but compared to the well-known hiking destinations of the John Muir or High Sierra Trails, Mineral King is nearly empty (there is room for maybe 20 cars, not hundreds). Not that there is anything secret or less impressive than other hikes. It just isn't famous like the JMT or HST. And that makes Mineral King loop hard to beat. 

The High Sierra Trail is actually not far from my trail, at times even parallel to it 2-3 km away. You probably would encounter dozens of hikers on the HST during any summer day. I saw far fewer on the trail: Zero on day 1, 3 on day 2, zero again on day 3, although 12 or so near Mineral King on the last day (mostly day hikers). The route wasn't entirely empty, I saw tents/people when passing visible campsites, just not on the trail. 

Elevations are in meters; the top right shows a bit of the High Sierra trail running parallel.

I started in the afternoon, planning only to get to Cliff Creek, which goes over Timber Gap, followed by a long descent. In the afternoon sun, ascending to Timber Gap (< 2 hours) was a sweaty affair despite pleasant air temperatures and largely forested. The ascent is up to about 3000m, followed by a much longer descent to Cliff Creek, the descent is almost double the initial climb.  

Cliff Creek can be a difficult or even dangerous crossing during spring with high water, but once I found the right crossing (took a bit of searching), it was easy. Cliff Creek is marked as a campsite with a bear box and indeed there were already 3 tents nearby (it was about 7 pm). Too crowded for me and I continued because I expected to find better opportunities. This wasn't guaranteed: The climb started, it is a steep canyon, and the vegetation is thick. However, after about 20 mins, I found a perfect spot near the creek, with a little waterfall, and no bugs. Outstanding camp site and I slept well, possibly because this was still at relatively low altitude, around 2200m. The standard recommendation, which would have been my fallback if I hadn't found anything else, is continuing to the next official camp with bear boxes at Pinto Lake, another 4k and 500m of climbing.  

Early in the morning, before the sun made it over the mountains

The next morning started before 7 as I read trip reports warning of the difficulty of Black Rock Pass, 1400 m climbing with a full pack and without shade (or in feet: it goes from 7100 to 11,600). While not easy, it certainly wasn't grueling, and I got to the top after 11am without feeling particularly exhausted, less than 5 hours after I started. Cliff Creek to Black Rock Pass was the hardest part of the loop.  

The climb begins gently after crossing Cliff Creek, along the creek with lots of vegetation, sufficiently overgrown that I twice lost the trail. Near the bottom of the waterfall in the photo (I think that waterfall is Cliff Creek, too, but maybe there is another contributor to it), it veers away to go over a ridge to the flat area near Pinto Lake. A path to the right (south) with a bear box presumably leads to camp sites, but the main trail briefly goes through marshy meadows. That may be half the distance and 1/3 of the elevation gain. Then the climb starts for real on a scree slope, now fully exposed to the sun. Trees - or any meaningful vegetation - are gone. 

Columbine is the lake on top
2 days later I get there from the other side
While going up the switchbacks,  one terrace after another with a lake become visible to the right/south: Spring, Cyclamen, and Columbine. The switchbacks themselves are strenuous and boring, but the views of the lakes and valley below are fantastic. Everytime a new lake is revealed, a good time for a short break. 

Black Rock Pass crests the Great Western Divide and crossing it leads to a different world. The western part is hot, scrubby foothills and some forests, but now it is all alpine mountains with lakes and ragged granite peaks. 

Big 5 lakes - I think #2
The first basin is Little Five Lakes, which came highly recommended. "Definitely a place to camp", "spend more than a day here" seems to be the summary. One ranger considers it the most magical spot and his favorite in the whole Sierra. Well, wasn't my experience. Now early afternoon with a biting sun and even more directly biting mosquitoes, this was instead one of the "why am I doing this?" times.  I don't think Little Fives Lakes is to blame. I got there between 1-2pm, my least favorite part of the day, and was welcomed by hungry mosquitoes. Slathering myself in Picaridin kept them from biting or landing on me, but didn't change the dial from miserable to pleasant. I'd rather be going up Blackrock Pass. I had lunch near the intersection of my route and Big Arroyo and somewhat listlessly explored the next lake as well, but can't say it was enjoyable. Flying bugs and hot sun overwhelmed whatever charms the Little Five Lakes basin had. My visit to Little Five Lakes was a bust. That July is peak season for mosquitoes in the Sierra is not a new observation:
"The Sierra mosquitoes are courageous and of good size... They sting anywhere, any time of day, wherever they can find anything worth while, until they are themselves stung by frost."
Muir, John. The Complete Works of John Muir: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies & Letters (p. 716). Madison & Adams Press. 

After an hour or two, I decided that this requires a change of plan, I wouldn't stay here, and continued. Slowly trudged along towards the Big Five Lakes basin with repeated breaks. Still too many bugs, and too hot, and too much sun, or sand, or maybe it went up and down too much, or trees in the way. By 3.30, I found a spot without flying bugs, sun was at a lower angle, and I made coffee and started liking where I was. After a long break, I continued towards the Big Five Lakes and the rest of the day was lovely again. 

Heading towards the Big Five Lakes Basin, life is good again

Only one of the lakes in the Big Five Lakes basin was on my planned route, the others would be a detour on an unmaintained spur trail going west. It was still early and now I was happy to do this detour (which would be an out and back). This part is definitely off the beaten path, by lake 3 it is so unbeaten that it becomes hard to make out any trail. People come here as I saw good sites to camp that clearly had seen use within the last month. It is a bit swampy, lots of grass, and unsurprisingly buggy. I continued to lake 4 and found an excellent sandy area slightly above the lake, bug free until sunset. 

Lake 3, I think

The trail is getting overgrown. This is a slightly elevated path above the swamp, now  getting hemmed in by trees that want to grow on the elevated part as well. It looks as if somebody tried to plant a row of trees, but it is just that the trees started growing where they didn't get stepped on. There is still room to get through, but not much longer, now the trees will win. I encountered this repeatedly, maybe 4 times just between lakes 2 and 3, a sign of too few hikers on this side trail.   
Around 7.30/8.00, I had to put up the inner tent as mosquitoes started showing up. As I looked out, there were a dozen of them hanging on the net outside trying to join me on the inside. I didn't have to stay indoors for very long. It was a moonless night and the stars were great, which I rather see directly than filtered through netting. By 10, the bugs had left and I was outside again.  I couldn't sleep well (nor the next day) and attribute the difference to the elevation on the second and third night, almost 1000m higher than the first night.  

In the morning I retraced my steps to the main route - sort of. It wasn't the same way I came until I joined up with the more established trail from lake 2 back to the intersection. Lake 1 is on the main route and substantially downhill from the other lakes. While I didn't see anybody on the trail this day, it is clear from the trail condition that this sees many more visitors than  lakes 2-5.

Big Five Lakes # 1

The Five Lakes trail is paralleled by Big Arroyo and Big Arroyo trail (1-2 km aerial distance to the northeast, the canyon in the next photo) and the High Sierra Trail (another 1 km beyond that, probably along the foot of the mountains). On the far side of the High Sierra Trail are the Kaweah Peaks: Kaweah Queen, Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and Mt Kaweah. Every one of them is over 4000m. The High Sierra Trail is about halfway between from where I took the picture and the mountain tops. 


From left to right, that is Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and Mt. Kaweah
Big Arroyo is the canyon in the foreground

At the eastern end of the 1st Big 5 Lake, I briefly lost the trail again and followed a creek, which would have gotten me into Big Arroyo. But as it got steeper and steeper and the creek became more a waterfall, I realized that this was not the right way. First I have to go over another ridge, so uphill, not downhill! Afterwards, there is a steep downhill into Lost Canyon. A slide obliterated the trail and it is almost as much of a bushwhack as my earlier error would have been, the difference being that here obviously many other people have recently tried to find a way. But not a trail yet, just many attempts at finding one - which eventually recreates one. More sliding than walking, but a preparation for the even longer and steeper slide down Sawtooth. 

At the bottom, crossing a log leads into the sweet Lost Canyon. A narrow forested canyon with a clear stream and small interspersed meadows. Gentle uphill, shady, and it is such a sweet place that even a hike during the bad time of day is pleasant (now it was about 2 pm). 

Eventually trees peter out, revealing and a much fiercer granite vista.

Approaching the end of Lost Canyon with a pointy Sawtooth Peak 

The back of Lost Canyon has a double climb, first to Columbine Lake and then to Sawtooth pass. It looks intimidating from the approach, but the first half to Columbine is surprisingly easy, with a very developed, almost manicured, path. The second part, from Columbine Lake to Sawtooth, isn't any of that. 

going up to Columbine Lake - a lot of effort must have gone
into building this trail!

Columbine Lake may be the highlight of the route. It comes as a surprise, tucked into a bowl of granite on the Great Western Divide near the top. Camping is possible, but there are only 3 or 4 suitable sites and the rangers discourage camping because human waste has been an issue. The area is fragile and overused. At this altitude, everything moves more slowly. 

Columbine Lake, with Sawtooth Peak and Pass behind it

The outflow of Columbine Lake is Cliff Creek, so now I cross it again (which at its origin is just a tiny little creek). The climb to Sawtooth pass is hard, big rocks. Initially there are some cairns and at the end a trail reappears (gravel), but the middle part can be confusing and require some backtracking to find a route (at least for me). 
The way to the top

From the top of the pass, I had read about "complicated route finding", "constant side-hilling", "slow descent". The closest to a trail runs along the ridge for a while. The ranger said that some people try this, but also that it isn't worth trying to find a trail and instead go straight down. From the top it is clear where you want to go and straight down the chute is almost a fun jog/slide down. Like running down a sand dune. The "almost" is only because gravel doesn't feel as nice as sand and you want to avoid bigger rocks. A really fast and (I think) easy descent. 

Sliding/jogging down the chute is the easiest and fastest way

At the bottom of the chute, the trail continues to the two Monarch Lakes. They are popular, but right after Columbine, I found them rather disappointing. Lower Monarch is marked as wilderness camping and it has a lot of visitors, there were maybe 6 tents. So popular that it even has a toilet. That was a dud, so I continued to the upper Monarch Lake, a terrace up and with a steep climb on a primitive/unmaintained/no trail, but only for 1 km. Yet that climb is enough to discourage people, even for a visit, and I had the upper lake to myself. On the populated side of the Western Divide and close to Mineral King, these lakes are not in the same league as the pristine lakes on the other side. Upper Monarch even has a dam. I'll skip those lakes in the future. 

upper Monarch lake

I put the inner tent up for mosquitoes, but like the previous night, it was only necessary during dusk. Most of the night I was just outside, but it was another very restless night. I couldn't get comfortable (despite nice sandy ground, pleasant cool temperatures) and my mind was racing. Monarch lakes are still over 3000m and I just think that elevation takes a longer acclimatization. Up to 2500m seems to be fine immediately. 

Lower Monarch Lake and Mineral Peak

From Monarch Lake, it is only about 2 hours back to Mineral King, all downhill. 

Back on Mineral King road. Is the road descends, there are a few Sequoias along the way. But none like in the main part of the National Park.