Words by Peter Amend. Photos by Peter Amend.
If you make a clever east-bound turn off Highway 198, you’ll drive up one of the worst and windiest twenty-five mile sections of paved road in Central California.
It’s a good hazing, though—make it through and you’ll be rewarded with the most magnificent subalpine valley surrounded by snow-tipped peaks. And the best part? No crowds.
The glacial valley dubbed ‘Mineral King’ lies in a portion of national park buried deep in the south-east region of Sequoia National Park, and has its own entrance (one that often evades even the savviest of national park enthusiasts). With a rich history steeped in mining and exploration, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time among the ancient shingled cabins scattered around the valley. At one time, Disney had plans to put a full scale ski resort in this valley. Thankfully that fell through, and it became part of Sequoia National Park.
My friend Josh and I grabbed our boots and hit the trail, as it’s the last week before the park gates close for the season. Feeling the need to stretch our legs, we decided to link up a couple of our favorite lake trails for a few nights under the stars. Here are a couple takeaways and suggestions for when you decide to head up this way for your own High Sierra alpine experience.
Pictured: Men’s Arrowood Lux Mid WP.
From CA Highway 99, take 198 east for about 38 miles. Turn right on Mineral King road, and follow the road for about 25 miles until you’re there! Careful, many parts of this road are narrow enough for only one car—drive slow, honk around blind corners, and watch for wildlife.
If you’re not keen on hiking your food & shelter up to a high-elevation peak, or if you want to spend a night or two acclimating to the elevation (Mineral King valley sits at 7,400 feet, nearly twice that of Yosemite valley!), consider camping out at Cold Springs Campground. If that’s full, Atwell Mills is just a couple miles away. Cold Springs sits alongside—you guessed it—a cold spring, one that is perfect for soaking your feet after a long hike, or rinsing your face in the morning for a quick wakeup! No reservations are accepted, so it’s a bit of a gamble whether or not you’ll get a spot. Definitely consider a weekday trip if you’re traveling in peak season. A 15-minute drive up the road will bring you to the valley floor, where you’ll find trailheads to the majority of available hikes. For $12 a night, all campsites include fire rings, picnic tables, and pit toilets. If this isn’t as appealing as a real mattress, check out Silver City Resort for a cabin with a bed.
Pictured: Men’s Durban Leather Tall.
The old proverb goes: “Invest in your shoes and your sheets because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.” You have to be comfy in your boots if you’re hiking all day, so for this trip I chose the Teva Durban Boot, and Josh was in the Arrowood Lux. I get the most stoked about gear I can use on and off the trail, so the Durban boots have the right mix of trail utility and good looks for urban wear as well. As a photographer I often need shoes that’ll pull dual duty, whether hiking into the woods for a mountain elopement or shooting a full-day wedding.
You never know what you’re going to get in the High Sierra, so be prepared for anything! I’ve seen thunderstorms roll in while bagging peaks in July, and I’ve seen it snow early in August. No matter what the forecast says, be prepared for cold, wet, or warm. I always pack a light rain shell, down jacket, and a headlamp on any hike, no matter what length. Not fun to be stranded and wet in the dark.
The small town of Silver City inside Mineral King hosts a small mountain lodge which has the best pie you’ll ever have. Grab a slice of nectarine and blueberry, with a French press full of Slow Train Coffee, and you’ll be set. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are also available on most days. There’s a small store available for minor items, but plan on bringing everything you need up the road with you.
We linked up Eagle and Monarch together for a sub-20-mile trek. The first is 7.2 miles roundtrip, a burly hike to Eagle Lake that climbs 2,700 feet over 3.6 miles and delivers a steady climb with expanding views. Your destination puts you at a beautiful alpine lake where you can hang up your hammock for a nap or and jump in the water before heading back down the trail. Monarch Lake is 9.4 miles roundtrip. One of the most notable peaks in Mineral King is Sawtooth, and you’ll know it when you see it. Start at the Sawtooth trailhead, and climb four miles of switchbacks. Below the daunting peak you’ll arrive at LowerMonarch Lake. Summit the scree field to the peak if you want to bag it, or take it easy at the lake. This an be done as a day trip, but it’s my favorite lake to camp out at after watching sunset from the ridge. Lake elevation is just under 11,000 feet, so bring your strong lungs (and your fly rod for some catch and release).