55-mile Solo from Mineral King to Nine Lakes Basin
Exploring Mineral King has been on my to-do list ever since my daughter Courtney and I attempted Sawtooth Peak. Just getting to the Mineral King Trailhead is an ordeal. From Three Rivers, would-be adventurers drive a narrow, windy road with high exposure for an hour and a half just to reach the parking lot. Upon arrival, fellow travelers can’t help but notice cars wrapped in think plastic tarps to keep the marmots from chewing through their hoses and fan belts. This place is truly remote, rugged, and wild and I am drawn to it for all these reasons.
I Ieft home a little apprehensive. I knew the weather was going to be a challenge because of the intense heatwave across the state and a hurricane in the gulf. The temperature was 111. As I approached the turn-off for the 395 near Adelanto, I saw a twister about a mile from the freeway. Not a dust devil, but a full blown twister reaching all the way up to the dark ominous mass above. As a Californian, seeing a twister is nothing short of apocalyptic.
I made it to Mineral King as the sun was setting, and I was able to get my roof tent set up just before it started sprinkling. There was thunder in the distance and a bolt of lightning on Sawtooth Peak for dramatic effect. I slept well and awoke to a clear, cool morning with scattered clouds, but I knew the good weather wouldn’t hold. The weather reports called for scattered rain showers in the late afternoon, so I got an early start on the trail.
Day 1 – Heading into the Mineral King Backcountry
My plan for the day was to get over Franklin Pass (11,800′) before noon so I would be below the treeline by early afternoon – and I did just that. After the 4,000 feet of elevation gain in the first eight miles, I finally got to the stunning views at the pass that made it all worthwhile. The clouds were already gathering, so I hurried down to the treeline where I got my tent set up and took a late afternoon nap to the sounds of distant thunder.
At camp, I took a number of pictures of Franklin Lake from the same spot over a period of three hours. Clouds rolled in, rained, cleared, then rolled in again for more rain. The pictures below give some of this perspective. I ended up spending most of the afternoon in the tent, only emerging occasionally when the rain stopped. Each time I came out of my tent, there was a completely different scene.
The bigger plan was to move through Mineral King into Nine Lakes Basin, then cross Pants Pass into the Kaweah Basin and summit Triple Divide Peak and Picket Guard Peak. I planned to come back through the Pyra-Queen Col where I would complete a loop back to my starting point via the High Sierra Trail.
Day 2 – Little Five Lakes
My goal, day two, was to go all the way to Little Five Lakes, which also went exactly according to plan. Like my first day, it was a hard day of hiking, but beautiful. As I climbed out of my last valley of the day toward my destination, clouds rolled in and it began to rain. More thunder in the distance.
I got to Little Five Lakes in the late afternoon and set up camp. The weather cleared and I enjoyed a delightful afternoon with stunning views of the lake during sunset. I checked the weather report on my Garmin Inreach and it looked like the weather the next day was going to improve. It was perfect timing, since I had some big goals to get over Pants Pass and into the Kaweah Basin.
Day 3 – From Mineral King to Nine Lakes Basin
Day three was the big day for me. Unknown to me, it was about to be a bigger day than I was ready for. I got out of Mineral King and down to Big Arroyo faster than expected, passing a series of glassy still lakes along the way. I wanted to stop and take in the views, but I knew the clock was ticking and I needed to get over that pass early. There was a lot of elevation loss to reach the Big Arroyo drainage, which made the trip really relaxing and enjoyable.
Once I reached Big Arroyo Creek, I started my four-mile gradual ascent toward Nine Lakes Basin. The views along the way were incredible. I had come over the Kaweah Gap with my son Wes and his wife Liz in 2016, and seeing this area again brought back sweet memories. It’s one of my favorite areas of the Sequoias.
At 11:00 am I found myself at the largest of the lakes in Nine Lakes Basin, looking up toward Pants Pass. A final weather check showed a slight chance of rain in the late afternoon and sunny skies for the next two days. This was a huge improvement from previous forecasts and it gave me a boost of confidence to proceed, so I started up the pass.
Contrary to plan, by 11:40 am the sky had turned dark and I felt the first drop of rain on my head. My instincts told me to turn around and get lower, so I headed back to the lake where I thought I’d wait it out for a while – hoping for a light afternoon shower or two. When the first thunder came, it was close and powerful, followed by more of the same. Now my instincts told me to run, so I did. And just then, nickel-size hail rained down in almost biblical fashion.
Within minutes the lightning strikes were visible and the thunder was as little as two seconds behind the strike. After every strike, thunder would come with a shock wave that felt like the blast of a bomb. I kept moving as fast as I could toward Big Arroyo. At its peak, the storm shot down 10-15 strikes a minute.
I found myself recounting all the promises the Lord made to me that have not yet come to pass – repeating these back to Him in anxious conversation.
It also helped keep my mind off the lightning strikes. By the time I made it the 4.5 miles back to Big Arroyo, the lightning and thunder were in the distance, although the rain continued for hours. Once I got into a dry tent, I felt the weight of the ordeal begin to lift off me and marveled at the rainbow that followed at about 8pm. I went to bed early and woke up to a beautiful, clear starry night around midnight. I had made it through the worst backcountry storm I had ever been in. Thank God!
Day 4 – Two Passes in One Day
The next morning was cloudy with thunder in the distance. Given the clear night, this was disappointing. I was still feeling a little shell shocked from yesterday’s storm, so I packed up fast and pushed hard to get over Black Rock Pass (11,700′) as early as possible. I didn’t want another weather debacle far above the treeline.
I made the pass by 10:00 am and started the long descent into the valley beyond. Along the steep walls of the valley, creeks streamed from high lakes into Cliff Creek below, some of them for over a thousand feet in stair-step waterfalls.
I had planned on camping along the creek, but the weather continued to be fickle. The sun would come out, then it would rain, then the sun would come out again, and so on. Thunder always lurked in the distance, giving me a gnawing anxiety the whole day. The thunder had not bothered me in the first few days of the trip, but after that massive storm my nerves were shot.
By 2:00 pm I had had enough of Mineral King. I decided to push over Timber Gap, another high pass, and get off the trail. It took me three hard hours to gain the 3,000 feet of elevation I needed to cross the pass. As I started down into the valley where my hike started, I came out of a grove of thick tree cover to a breathtaking sunlit valley – and I could see my car!
I ended up hiking an 18-mile, 6,000′ elevation gain day. Saying it was a tough day is an understatement. I cleaned up a bit before driving the 5.5-hour drive home. I had two Beyond Meat Famous Star burgers from Carl’s Jr. and a Red Bull to keep myself awake on the way home. And I still lost two pounds.
On Wilderness Solitude and Life Purpose
A great adventure has a little suffering and danger – like salt and pepper on a delicious steak. It’s got a lot of hard work, and most importantly, beauty. By that definition, this trip was a great adventure. It didn’t go as planned, but it went perfectly, and I am thankful for all of it.
Besides the big lightning storm, I spent a lot more time in my tent than I wanted to because of the bad weather. As much as I didn’t enjoy it at the time, I found it therapeutic. I ended up having some great conversations with God about the bigger issues of life. The danger of the storm was also a great catalyst for these conversations.
I had started the year with clarity and passion, but the COVID pandemic really derailed me from a life-purpose perspective. I think the lack of human connection, and the isolation, slowly lulled me into a place of boredom and hopelessness even though my work life had been going well. The intense solitude of this trip was the unlikely anecdote for this.
I walked away from this trip with new-found energy and clarity of purpose. Over the years, there have been many things the Lord has promised me that have come to pass – some in ways that were so dramatic they are hard to explain. Miraculous would be a term I might use for some of them.
Other promises have still not come to pass and I hold on to them by faith. The Lord reminded me of many of these things and it filled me with hope and determination to take hold of them.
People have been going into lonely wilderness for millennia to find themselves and hear from the Almighty. And it works.
I cannot explain the mechanism of why this works, but I’ve found from personal experience that it does.
In an era when we are increasingly distanced from the solitude of nature, I am reminded of the prophet Jeremiah when he said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls'” (Jeremiah 6:16).
Technology and the business of life are the enemies of our soul. If we want to truly live, we’ve got to tap into some of the “ancient paths.” I hope you are encouraged to find your own ancient paths of solitude in the wilderness. You never know what might happen out there.