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Six Days from Mineral King to Mt Whitney

Now to catch up for 2021's big trip.  The folks at church asked me to plan a week long backpacking trip for the youth, and they wanted to go to Mt Whitney.  I had already been on Mt Whitney five times, and try to avoid the crowds that are drawn to the highest point in the lower 48 (summit is 14,508'), but they insisted, so Whitney it was.  I chose a route that I had not done yet - starting at Mineral King on the west side of the Sierra, and crossing to the east side of the Sierra to Mt Whitney and then exiting at Whitney Portal.

My brother from Tennessee opted to come along, with his son-in-law.  This son-in-law is the husband of my niece Sarah, for whom we named the lowest lake on the Picket Creek drainage in Sequoia NP.  My brother, nephew, and Sarah came out in 2016 to go to that lake as part of a nine day trip, for which I wrote a trip report in 2016.  We were entering from a different point, and my brother wanted to go to Sarah's Lake again, so we added a side trip to go there.

The first day we started at Mineral King, and the clouds were already threatening.  The weather in the Sierra during the summer can be a week of nothing but sunshine, or sometimes a monsoonal pattern settles in and makes for a wet week.  We ended up with the wet week.  

On the way to Franklin Lake, looking toward Vandever Mt:

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We got to Franklin Lake just before the rain started.  The main group was stopping there, but, since we were taking an additional side trip to Sarah's Lake, we had to continue over Franklin Pass.  Some views along the way:

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Just below the pass, looking up

 

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 My favorite Sierra flower, Rock Fringe

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 Almost to the pass

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 When we got to the pass, the rain stopped for a while, and held off until we got to our campsite on the far side of the pass.  Some views along the way.  Looking at Florence Peak from the pass.

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 Looking down Rattlesnake Creek from the pass.  Camp was in the trees on the far right of this picture

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 Views along the way to camp.  Right when we got to camp it started raining again, and the rain continued for a couple hours.  This was a trend that was repeated several times on the trip.

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The next morning was bright and clear, the only day when we didn't get any rain.  We headed down Rattlesnake Creek:

 

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 An avalanche came down the opposite slope not too long ago.  The picture shows only the very edge of a bunch of downed trees.

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 About to drop into the Kern River canyon.

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 Down in the Kern River Canyon

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Still in the Kern River Canyon

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 We passed the Kern Hot Springs, where there is a handy tub.  But it was too warm for me to want to get in that hot water, even with the cold Kern river only yards away in which to cool off.

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 Just above Kern Hot Springs was a burned out area from a fire last year.

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 The fire was hot enough to cause spalling in the granite/granodiorite

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 We finally got out of the burned zone and camped at this spot.  The picture is deceiving; those walls are 3000' high.

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The next day we continued up the Kern River to Junction Meadow:

 

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 From Junction Meadow we took our side trip to Sarah's Lake, going up the lightly traveled Colby Pass trail.  Partway up, we could see our destination.  The lake is at the top of the face in the center, just above the line of trees.  There is no trail to it, we had to find a route up a ledge system to the lake.  

 

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 The lake sits in a small bowl, with a granodiorite rim on the east side, beyond which is the large face that could be seen from below.  We got our tents set up just in time, after which we got a nice long thunderstorm.  As the clouds started clearing at dusk I was able to get a few pictures of the lake.  Looking across the lake you can see Mt Whitney in the distance.

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 I also took a short walk up the Picket Creek drainage to a spot that I like.

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The next morning we backtracked to Junction Meadow and then headed up to Wallace Creek to rejoin the main group.  First, a parting shot of the lake from water level to give you the feeling of being there:

 

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 Going down:

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 The view looking down from just below the lake.  Junction Meadow is at the bottom of the canyon.

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 Looking up the Kern-Kaweah drainage during the descent.

 

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 After getting to Junction Meadow we went up the east side of the canyon toward Wallace Creek.  We could see the face below the lake from that vantage point, in the center of these pictures.

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 And the view looking east as we got close to Wallace Creek.

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 We set up at Wallace creek, and then were treated to a couple hours of rain...surprise, surprise.

Here is the full crew the next morning:

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 From Wallace Creek we had a short day, going to the tarn above Guitar Lake.  Some views along the way:

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 Here is Mt Whitney from Timberline Lake:

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 And here is where we camped that night:

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 After setting up, we were treated to a powerful thunderstorm, with thunder reverberating off the cliffs that were on three sides.  Then it cleared for a sunset picture:

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The final day was a long one - sixteen miles, going up 3900' (starting at camp at 11,600' and going to 14,508'), and then dropping about 6400' down to Whitney Portal.  The elevation is a big deal for us; I live at 300' above sea level and my lungs aren't used to the thin air.  On top of Mt Whitney the air pressure is about 60% of sea level.  

We started at 3AM with headlights.  By the time it got light enough to take blurry pictures in the low light we were on the final mile to the summit:

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 And finally we were there.  Some views from the top, first looking south toward Mt Langley:

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 And north toward nearby Mt Russell and the distant Mt Williamson, the second-highest peak in California (14,375'):

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 Then it was time to descend.  Another of my favorites is Polemonium, also know as Sky Pilot.  I only see it growing above 12,000'.

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 We did this section of the trail in the dark on the way up.  We could sense space to one side, now we could see it.

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 Looking west.  On the distant ridgeline on the far left is Franklin Pass, which we crossed on the first day.  Sarah's Lae is on the far right edge about a quarter of the way down.

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 Once we crossed Trail Crest, it was time for the endless switchbacks.  This is only a small part of them, looking down.  IIRC, the official count is 99 switchbacks.

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 When you are tired that final five or six miles to Portal, which is near the bottom in this picture, seem to drag on and on.

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 Last view - Outpost Camp.  I have camped here a couple times, but this time we were just passing through.

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 When we got to Portal we all had the very large hamburger lunch.  The trip was a very good one, and all of the youth did well.

A great trip report. 

Very interesting country.  I like the part below the tree  line much better. 

It is not so easy to take a large group of young people, especially if they are from back East. 

I have led a lot of trips over the years, but no longer take my old East Coast friends.  They are too urbanized.  Everything is scary to them. 

Would you do it again?

ppine said:

A great trip report. 

Very interesting country.  I like the part below the tree  line much better. 

It is not so easy to take a large group of young people, especially if they are from back East. 

I have led a lot of trips over the years, but no longer take my old East Coast friends.  They are too urbanized.  Everything is scary to them. 

Would you do it again?

 I'd do it again in a heartbeat.  It is getting harder and harder to get youth interested in backpacking, they would rather play video games.  This group did very well.

John,

Your trips and your strength are always impressive.  The hike you describe, herein, minus the side trip up the Kern-Kaweah, is one of the few items I ever deemed worthy of being on my bucket list.  My version varies from yours, in that I plan to hike back out to Mineral King.  I also intend to use 12 days, so I can saunter along and savor the experience.  I am done with forced marches, and want to take some fishing friends, who surely will relish the upper Kern.  Alas, I have yet to do my dream trip, due to time constraints, and don't know if I am up to it now, given my age and two heart attacks.  But I haven't given up the dream, not yet!

Your TR raises several questions:

  1. On the north side of Wallace Creek is an escarpment that juts out into the Kern Canyon.  This appears to be an overlook where one can peer 10-12 miles south, down Kern Canyon.  Is this wishful thinking on my part?  Would this view warrant the effort to reach it from a camp located near the junction of the JMT and Wallace Creek (High Sierra) Trails?
  2. How did you get permits to accommodate such a large group?  Most venues I know of have maximum group sizes well below the size of your group.
  3. You stated you named Sarah Lake after your nice.  Is that official, if so, how does one get this officially recorded? 
  4. My version of your trip also travels Rattle Snake Canyon.  I chose to access the Kern by this route, because a friend stated the canyon impressed her, and she is a seasoned Sierra hiker.  Is this the most scenic trail to the Kern in the general vicinity, or are other options perhaps more scenic? 
  5. You stated Kern Hot Springs was too hot for your comfort.  Is this a opinion based on camping in summer heat, or was the spring in fact too hot, no matter the season (i.e. >106⁰ F)?  I soaked there in the 1980s (a winter trip) when the water temp was ~102⁰ F.  I found the experience addicting!

Ed

 

whomeworry said:

John,

Your trips and your strength are always impressive.  The hike you describe, herein, minus the side trip up the Kern-Kaweah, is one of the few items I ever deemed worthy of being on my bucket list.  My version varies from yours, in that I plan to hike back out to Mineral King.  I also intend to use 12 days, so I can saunter along and savor the experience.  I am done with forced marches, and want to take some fishing friends, who surely will relish the upper Kern.  Alas, I have yet to do my dream trip, due to time constraints, and don't know if I am up to it now, given my age and two heart attacks.  But I haven't given up the dream, not yet!

Your TR raises several questions:

  1. On the north side of Wallace Creek is an escarpment that juts out into the Kern Canyon.  This appears to be an overlook where one can peer 10-12 miles south, down Kern Canyon.  Is this wishful thinking on my part?  Would this view warrant the effort to reach it from a camp located near the junction of the JMT and Wallace Creek (High Sierra) Trails?
  2. How did you get permits to accommodate such a large group?  Most venues I know of have maximum group sizes well below the size of your group.
  3. You stated you named Sarah Lake after your nice.  Is that official, if so, how does one get this officially recorded? 
  4. My version of your trip also travels Rattle Snake Canyon.  I chose to access the Kern by this route, because a friend stated the canyon impressed her, and she is a seasoned Sierra hiker.  Is this the most scenic trail to the Kern in the general vicinity, or are other options perhaps more scenic? 
  5. You stated Kern Hot Springs was too hot for your comfort.  Is this a opinion based on camping in summer heat, or was the spring in fact too hot, no matter the season (i.e. >106⁰ F)?  I soaked there in the 1980s (a winter trip) when the water temp was ~102⁰ F.  I found the experience addicting!

Ed

 

 Ed - To answer your questions:

1.  I think the view from that escarpment might be worth the walk from Wallace Creek.  Here is a view looking down the canyon from the trail above Junction Meadow.  If the escarpment allows a free view over the south wall of the Wallace Creek drainage, you might be able to see more of the canyon southward.

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 2.  The maximum permit size for Franklin Pass is 15.  I got a permit for 15, and the group ended up being 12.

3.  I call the lake after my niece, but it has no official name.  It is my understanding that it is difficult to get places named and we haven't bothered.  I have seen others call it Picket Guard Lake, after the peak that is above it.  I call it Sarah's Lake because she is the reason I went there at all.  Before 2012 she saw a picture of it and told her father (my brother who went on this trip with us) that she wanted to go there.  In 2012 I organized a trip to visit the lake, but she dropped out of the trip because she got married.  In 2016 I went there again, and that time she was able to go.  This year her husband went with us.

4.  If you want to see the section of the Kern between Rattlesnake and Junction Meadow, there are only two real options - High Sierra trail, which misses the lowest two miles, and this route.  It is much more difficult to get permits for the HST, and that route is longer, but maybe a little more scenic.  In 2006 I did a trip to Whitney from Marvin Pass, but it was even longer, and only reached the Kern at Junction Meadow.  That was also quite scenic, going up Cloud Canyon and over Colby Pass.  Another alternate would be to go over Franklin Pass, then to Forester Lake, Little Claire Lake, and down Soda Creek, which I think is more scenic than Rattlesnake.  But at the bottom of Soda Creek you would either have to go north via Big Five/Little Five Lakes to meet the HST, or south in Big Arroyo and back up to the lower part of Rattlesnake.  I tried doing that section of Big Arroyo in 2013, but ran into a lot of blowdowns in Big Arroyo which made the going very tedious; we ended up turning around and going up Soda Creek instead.

5.  The hot springs were too warm for me because it was a rather hot day.  If I had been camping there with time to spare, I would have gone in since I could cool off in the Kern River if needed.

The side trip to Sarah's Lake is well worth it, that location is a real gem.  And the last time I was there, a couple guys in my group caught some beautiful 10-12" rainbows in it.

If you would do it again, your trip is even more impressive. 

Thanks. 

Great trip report, thanks!

16 mile days with vertical gains of 3,900 feet. 

I did it for a living decades ago, but now it is only a dream. 

ppine said:

16 mile days with vertical gains of 3,900 feet. 

I did it for a living decades ago, but now it is only a dream. 

 Yeah, well that wasn't the schedule I wanted, but we had to do it that way to fit the requirements set by the others in the group.  It was a long day.

Double tap

Great trip report!  I have a West to East trip over the Sierra crest on my bucket list, so it was nice to see the trip you took that ended up at Whitney Portal.  When I do do my trip I plan on working in Hamilton Lake so I can spend a night under Angel's Wing peak that I've always wanted to see since I first saw a picture of it in a National Geographic back in the 70's

Mike Mineart said:

Great trip report!  I have a West to East trip over the Sierra crest on my bucket list, so it was nice to see the trip you took that ended up at Whitney Portal.  When I do do my trip I plan on working in Hamilton Lake so I can spend a night under Angel's Wing peak that I've always wanted to see since I first saw a picture of it in a National Geographic back in the 70's

 The High Sierra Trail is also a good route across; it is also very popular, making permits much more difficult to get.  I have done the entire length, but not all in one trip.  You will like Hamilton Lake/Angel Wing, here are pictures from the last time I was there in 2016 coming out from the loop to visit Sarah's Lake with Sarah (that picture of Angel Wing was taken from below Hamilton Lake):

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 And here is a picture of Hamilton Lake, looking toward Angel Wing; the campsites at Hamilton Lake are by the far shore in this view.

 

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Thanks for sharing your pictures I can't wait to take a trip up there! The HST is probably the way I will go, but I may modify the trip so that when I hit the JMT/PCT coming from the west I'll head south and exit out at Horseshoe Meadows.  I've done the 99 switchbacks on the exit out to Whitney Portal a few times now and don't get much joy doing that section of trail any more and heading south I can go over New Army Pass and spend a night or two at Cottonwood lakes and get in some fishing.

Mike Mineart said:

Thanks for sharing your pictures I can't wait to take a trip up there! The HST is probably the way I will go, but I may modify the trip so that when I hit the JMT/PCT coming from the west I'll head south and exit out at Horseshoe Meadows.  I've done the 99 switchbacks on the exit out to Whitney Portal a few times now and don't get much joy doing that section of trail any more and heading south I can go over New Army Pass and spend a night or two at Cottonwood lakes and get in some fishing.

 If you want some real fishing, exit via Horseshoe and take a day to go up to Miter Basin.  I have seen trip reports from the lakes up there, with golden trout in the several pound range.  Real monsters for lakes that high.

I've been to the Miter Basin.  Pretty, very alpine, but bring a dining fly, as there is not much shade.  I've heard of the good fishing, too, but missed out, partially because of wind chopping up the surface water (that's my excuse, anyway and I am sticking to it)!  If you keep to the most direct N/S route along Rock Creek to Crabtree Pass, you may encounter a (relative) surprising amount of traffic.  Stray up any of the tributaries off Rock Creek and you will have those lakes to yourself. 

Ed

I've eyed doing a loop up through Miter Basin to Crabtree Pass and then back down to the JMT and back to Horseshoe, but have hesitated as I'm getting old and wanted to avoid getting into trouble on the class 2 stuff on Crabtree since I'd be by myself.  Based on your recommendations I will plan a trip up into the basin and do some fishing as it looks like a great area.

May 16, 2022
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