Hiking the Parks: Exploring Mineral King’s high-alpine lakes

Eagle Lake as seen from the historic dam.

It seems as though when there’s a hint of autumn in the air, I start feeling that there are so many backcountry treasures to find, so little time left in the season. So we’ve had a hiking frenzy the last few weeks, seemingly trying to see all we can before the winter brings a blanket of snow to the high country.

Although it’s been a hike a week for the past month, each has been an entirely different experience. Not just the destinations have changed, but the family and friends participating in these jaunts have varied considerably, too.

Note: This article was first published in The Kaweah Commonwealth on September 20, 1996. Our children were 6 and 7 at the time.

Eagle Lake Trail: The flat part.

Eagle Lake
Perhaps the most popular dayhiking destination out of Mineral King, Eagle Lake has it all. At 10,000 feet elevation, it is located 3.5 miles from the trailhead at road’s end in the valley.

Fishing, swimming, and a picnic lunch on the dam were the main activities for the 20 people in our group upon our arrival at this high country locale. Yes, 20!

Although a hike with 10 adults and 10 children may not sound like the most serene way to spend a backcountry day, it actually was a rewarding experience. The group was always split into four to seven groups, so everyone was able to hike at their own pace.

The Eagle Lake trail begins its constant, but gradual climb on the west slope of the V-shaped Mineral King valley. At one mile, the trail junctions and the White Chief trail continues straight while we took a switchback to the west.

After about a quarter-mile of steep switchbacks, first through timber, then through a hillside meadow, the trail levels out just before the Eagle Creek sinkhole. The creek mysteriously disappears underground here and emerges again down the mountain just above the main trail.

Eagle Creek.

The trail then flattens out and passes through a red fir and lodgepole pine forest adjacent to Eagle Creek and along a verdant meadow filled with ranger’s buttons, wandering daisies, sneezeweed and, near the stream banks, wild onions, shooting stars, and leopard lilies. Just past the Mosquito Lakes trail junction, we skirted a large meadow that currently was sustaining a family of deer.

We then climbed through more switchbacks before hitting the wide open granite stretch that is the last hill home, per se. After climbing these stairs, the trail enters an open lodgepole, lightning-zapped forest and head on to the lake.

The sunny dam was a welcome sight as each of the splinter cells of our group arrived and caught up with their children, friends, and other various family members.

The historic dam was built during 1904-1905 by the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Co. It is still maintained by Southern California Edison Co. and is one of four Mineral King dams that regulate the streamflow to Power House No. 1 at Hammond above Three Rivers.

After lunch, fishing, swimming, exploring, and bonding with a little (white!) chipmunk, the group packed up and headed down the mountain in shifts. We had a tad of a rain shower on the way back that was just enough to keep the dust down and the kids entertained!

It was a fantastic day filled with camaraderie and the fantastic beauty that only Mineral King and good friends can supply.

Continue reading below: Franklin Lake.

Eagle Lake, looking north toward the dam.

 

 

Pika: These adorable relatives to rabbits are being driven toward extinction due to climate change.

 

Blue grouse: As the impacts of climate change advance and wildfires grow more frequent and severe, the blue grouse is vulnerable to losing its habitat that the bird relies on specifically. It’s unknown how the blue grouse and other grouse and pheasant species will adapt and survive.
Lupine: Numerous species grow in the Mineral King area from the foothills to the highest passes.
The Franklin Creek crossing.

Franklin Lake
This year, the kids have been asking to be included on John’s and my annual trek to the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp. Well, their enthusiasm during hikes always remains high and complaints are few and far between, but I was still not certain that they, at ages six and seven, could pull off 11 miles and arrive at the camp in time for the required hot shower and sit-down dinner at 5:30 p.m.

So, we offered them a challenge: Dayhike from the Mineral King valley to Franklin Lakes and back – 12 miles round trip – and we’ll talk about it. We offered a bribe of an afternoon of fishing at the lake, too. Well, lo and behold, they did it, and with enough time left over to catch their limits of brook trout, too!

Although the trailhead begins at the Mineral King Pack Station, park in the lot at road’s end. The first mile of the trail is flat; it crosses Crystal Creek and meanders easily along the East Fork of the Kaweah River and through a forest of quaking aspens.

The route begins to climb slightly, and in a half-mile Franklin Creek can be heard just around the bend. This creek is crossed just below a tumbling waterfall.

Remnants from the Mineral King mining boom along the Franklin trail.

Crossing, however, can be treacherous in the early part of the season, especially on the return trip in the afternoon when the snowmelt is at its highest level of the day.

After a series of switchbacks that makes this dayhike long but not as steep as some Mineral King hikes, the Farewell Gap cutoff is reached ( elevation 9,300 feet).

We continued on and in another mile we crossed Franklin Creek for the second time, this time in a flat meadow filled with wild onions, sneezeweed, shooting stars, and willows.

At this point, the lower Franklin Lake’s dam looks deceivingly close. Enough so, grab your second wind and begin yet another set of steep switchbacks that, at times, seems to take you too far in the opposite direction of the destination that appeared so close.

Upon our family’s arrival at the lower lake, elevation 10,330, we crossed the dam – built in 1904 and still used today – and settled on a granite point on the northwest side. We ate a quick lunch while rigging our anxious kids’ fishing poles.

Franklin Lake and its dam.

As John and the kids settled in for an afternoon of fishing, I ascended the shale heading southeast to the upper Franklin Lake. Although a barren slope in the shadow of Tulare Peak, it had a beautiful carpet of rock fringe and alpine phlox. The upper lake, at elevation 10,600, was still surrounded by snow on this September day on its shady south side.

Still feeling energetic, from the north shore of the smaller lake I traveled cross-country past a grove of artistic, craggy foxtail pines in a northeast direction to hook up with the Franklin Pass trail. Beautiful vistas of both lakes and an unnamed pond can be seen from all points of the sandy granite switchbacks that lead up to the high country pass.

The terrain on this trail is so desolate I felt as though I was walking on the moon. After an 1,100-foot climb, I reached the pass that, at elevation 11,800 and 8.5 miles from the pack station, is the highest that leads out of Mineral King.

The pass was blustery, but the view was fantastic. Rattlesnake Canyon and Forester Lake beyond were in clear view, as well as the precipitous south ridge of Sawtooth Peak. Smoke plumes from the Big Arroyo and Castle Rocks fires could be seen as well.

After taking it all in, I headed back down to meet up with the family and head home. The day held an abundance of all the Sierra has to offer including Johnnie’s count of 30 “natures” seen during the day, which included grouse, deer, bear, pika, and a marmot or five.

Franklin Lake and a looming thunderstorm.

 

Another view of Franklin Lake and its century-old dam.

 

Franklin Creek tumbles toward the East Fork of the Kaweah River.
The uppermost reaches of Franklin Creek.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.