Nine Lakes Basin, Sequoia National Park

The Grave

Sequoia National Park Backpack, Mineral King, Sawtooth Trailhead. 
Just under 50 miles (plus whatever miles traveled in 9 Lakes Basin)
Mostly on trail…except 9 Lakes Basin & Sawtooth Pass “use trail”

Chased out of Nine Lakes Basin for the second time in two days due to thunder and lightning just seemed like an ill omen for this trip.  However, Gary and I just don’t seem to get the message sometimes….:)  If you are the kind of person who likes to be “out there” in the weather, energized by  elements totally out of your control, hiking by topographical map and compass….getting by on only what you can carry on your back for shelter, food and clothing …well,  you just don’t always take the hint that maybe you should be turning around,  retreating and throwing in the towel.   I’m almost always glad I didn’t throw in the towel…as in this trip that took us all over but where we wanted to go!

Nine Lakes Basin beckoned to us for some time before we actually planned a trip there.  Seemed like an easy adventure…on trail most of the trip.  Arriving at 9 Lakes Basin in a couple of days whereupon we would meander happily off trail up the canyon oohing and ahing over each of the gorgeous 9 lakes we explored.  I envisioned sunny skies and green grasses dotting the lovely flat approaches to each lake, and an idyllic relaxing lunch by a charming lake each day.  I’d be taking pictures to later look back on, while Gary sat quietly reading his book.   Premade mental images don’t always pan out though….

Sunny trail out of Sawtooth towards Timber Gap

And so, after driving 25 twisting and turning miles on the narrow Mineral King road, we donned our packs and set out from the Mineral King trailhead at 7,800 feet  in Sequoia National Park on a lovely sunny day in August of 1999.   Our first  night’s destination would be over beautiful Timber Gap and on towards Pinto Lake.

The first few miles actually turned out to be quite hot, and more than we bargained for.  An uphill  unrelenting climb of 2.2 miles took us from the Sawtooth parking area at 7,800 feet, to Timber Gap at 9,400 feet.  That amount of elevation gain is not that much really…unless you are in intense heat.   Ah, the shade of Timber Gap was just perfect for a quick snack and to rest our hot tired feet!  And, as you can see from the picture, just as we reached Timber Gap, the hot sun gave up it’s battle to foglike clouds.    Never anywhere else we have hiked have we experienced such swiftly changing elements!  Each trip to Mineral King has astounded us….foglike clouds can roll in and roll out every few minutes with a rapidity that is just amazing!  You just have to have your camera at the ready to capture any of it!

Clouds rolling over Timber Gap

Once on Timber Gap, we began a mostly shallow descent to Cliff Creek Crossing at roughly 7,000 feet.   At one point we walked a very interesting knife edge section of trail with dropoffs on either side of our narrow footpath.   From Timber Gap to Cliff Creek is mostly a treed walk, but don’t let that fool you, this is quite an interesting walk.  Once across Cliff Creek,  we began climbing once again in what could be a grueling 4,560 foot climb up to Black Rock Pass at 11,600 feet.   However, we put down roots for the night near tiny little Pinto Lake and spread out our gear under the stars enjoying Mineral King’s amazing weather displays.  If you’ve spent any time on the Coast in the fog….imagine the Coastal Fog rolling right up a hill at you…then 10 minutes later simply disappating and leaving you with a silky black sky overhead blanketed with stars.  Then….ten minutes later watching the fog roll right back in and over the top of you!  Words cannot describe the beauty of this phenomena that I have seen nowhere else like I have in Mineral King.

Near Pinto Lake  on the approach to Black Rock Pass
Hiking thru fields of  lovely “Bigelow’s Sneezeweed”

The next morning, refreshed and energized by a sound sleep under the stars, we packed up and headed out once more for unknown territory.  Most backpackers go to great lengths seeking out new trails they’ve never traveled, and this was one such trip for us.   After a mile or so, we reached Black Rock Pass, and stayed a bit to savor views in all directions.   However,  the trail soon called, so off we went before long and in a short day’s hike stopped at Five Lakes Basin for the night.   Five Lakes Basin is home to one of a handful of backcountry ranger huts in the Sequoia Kings Canyon backcountry.   However, the ranger was out on patrol and the hut locked up, so we had the lake we chose all to ourselves for the night.   Perfect!   Solitude is one of the sparkling gems of backcountry travel and we feel quite lucky when we find it!

A thick blanket of clouds had rolled in….

After another idyllic night in the wilderness, we finally were close enough to strike out in the morning for Nine Lakes Basin!  In fact, a little after noon we were strolling up to the first lake in the Basin.    Above treeline though,  I started to get concerned about the weather during lunch.  We huddled down next to a huge boulder for our lunch, and by the time we were done with lunch it was clearly obvious we were going to be chased out of the basin.   A thick wall of clouds had rolled in and drops were starting to fall as the crack of thunder could be heard in the distance.   From the first lake at about 10,400 feet, the basin  is above treeline with the exception of a small grove of Foxtail Pines standing just a few hundred yards east of the first lake.  Foxtail pines are thought to possibly be among the oldest trees in the Sierra, just behind the famous Bristlecone Pines.  Being basically above treeline near these sparse Foxtails, it is most definately not where one wants to be when hearing the crack of thunder rolling in.   So, we grudgingly packed up lunch and headed back down the Big Arroyo Canyon to find a thicker grove of sheltering trees to sit out the storm.

A break in the storm allowed for a quick shot of camp

Interestingly enough, we hiked in and out of sun on the way back down.  And, we had enough time to set up a hasty camp once we found a cozy spot in the trees to feel safe waiting out the storm.    As it turned out though, this would be camp for the night, and we would not be headed back up to Nine Lakes that day.  The storm raged for hours!  Luckily, Gary and I had each brought books and we whiled away the hours absorbed in our books….in between gasping over the cracks of thunder coming closer!    After spending these long hours in our bivy sacks, this trip might have been the beginning of the end of our bivy camping however.  Bivy sacks are like waterproof envelopes that you slide over your sleeping bags.   And a good bivy will have a hoop overhead to keep the fabric off your face.  You stay nice and dry….but there is only room for one person in each bivy so talking to your partner is muffled by each of your little “mini tents.”  We have long since gone back to tents and are much happier.

Eventually, the storm passed and we were able to open our bivies and enjoy the night sky at least.  In the morning we packed up and wandered back up canyon again to Nine Lakes Basin.   With an eye on the distant clouds,  we decided not to take the morning sun for granted, and we packed our little lightweight silnylon daypack, stashed our packs behind some rocks and scurried up into the Basin.   Oh what a lovely spot we found!  Each lake a gem, each section of Basin between the lakes a wonder to explore in and of itself.  We could indeed have spent days enjoying this amazing spot.   We moseyed from lake to lake oohing and ahing over the deep turquoise blue of the largest lakes just as I had envisioned, and delighted in the easy travel up the canyon that we had all to ourselves.   Once again though,  the weather would chase us out.  Clouds moved rapidly in,  and as we decided to head back to our packs we heard the first clap of thunder in the distance.  Making a hasty retreat once again, we vowed to come back and spend more time here…it would not be this trip however.

Clouds rolling in over Nine Lake Basin
Taking a last look back  at enshrouded Nine Lakes Basin 

Taking a last look back up at Nine Lakes Basin afforded us no views as the clouds had socked in the Basin solidly.  Knowing this was goodbye for this trip, we headed yet one more time back down canyon towards the safety of the trees.   It being clearly obvious to us that we were destined to put further exploration of Nine Lakes Basin off to another trip,  we pushed off rapidly down canyon not even bothering to try and stay close to the Basin as we had the day before.   Again, once we got a little lower, we had some intermittent sun, but eventually we got caught in the storm with dark wet clouds sending a clear message that we better find a place to berth and batten down the hatches for the night!   Not wanting to be in sparse tree cover, we headed off trail into the forest to the right of us…to the left was a raging creek crossing and sloping terrain that would present no good safe camp spots.   As the rain started falling I got a little frantic and started looking for any spot flat enough to throw down our tarp and bivies.   We had played long enough in Nine Lakes Basin that the daylight was fast leaving us as well, and so without looking around much at our surroundings, but simply spotting a flat spot to sleep on, we unfurled our tarp and quickly set up camp and dove into our bags.   It was late enough, that at least this night we would not spend too many extra hours in our bivies.   But, all night the storm did rage, thunder clapped, lightning thrust fiery arms here and there in the wilderness around us.

Taking pics here and there…

Come morning though…the sun was once again shining  and everything was fresh and crisp and clear.   We lazed around a bit, letting the warm morning sun dry our gear.  Gary did indeed get a chance to read a bit, and  I got to take  my camera and enjoy a chance to take portraits of the freshly watered flowers dotting the forest floor.   As I wandered, I took pics here and there and really focused on my macro or close up shots.  Thus, I wasn’t particularly looking at my general surroundings as I crept from flower to flower.  Suddenly though my eyes roved over something I just couldn’t make sense of.   A pile of rocks in the loose duff of the forest floor.  But not just a big pile of rocks.,…a flat pile of rocks….no, not a flat pile of rocks… but a layer of rocks.  I stopped looking for flowers and let my camera filled hand drop to my side.  As I cocked my head sideways trying to figure out just what I was looking at,  I gasped,  and yelled for Gary to come look!   He came and puzzled much as I had….cocking his head and looking quizzically for a few moments before exclaiming …. A GRAVE!”

The Grave

My photo does not do justice to what we found that day in the Big Arroyo Canyon of Mineral King.  The rocks were exactly a rectangle about six feet by four feet.  They had been brought from the creek bed  a few hundred yards away and purposely placed here to lie through the ages far from their birthing place.  The soil that held this bed of rocks had sunk about 8 inches so it almost appeared to look like someone had dug a shallow resting spot for the rocks and then placed them in the rectangular hole dug for them.  However, on closer inspection…it was clearly obvious, they had once been piled on top of the fertile forest floor and gradually little by little, and year by year,  had sunk to their current level…that of being almost level with the forest floor.   There was no mistaking what we were looking at.   A very long time ago, someone had buried a friend or loved one, or maybe just an acquaintance, or maybe an enemy here!  And through the years, the body had decomposed, lowering the rocks bit by bit until they no longer rested on top of the land, but nestled down into the surrounding soil.  I would later talk to a friend who had been a backcountry ranger of Sequoia-Kings Canyon for several seasons.  She told me the story of two sheepherders who used to live in the nearby Big Arroyo of Mineral King.  One died of an illness and the other had buried him in a known grave near their cabin.   Noone really knew what happened to the shepherd left behind that had buried the first…and neither do we really,  but I am guessing I know exactly where he was buried.  By whom he was buried, and what befell him will probably always be a mystery however.

Dee just plain having fun!

The rest of our trip was anticlimatic.  No raging storms,  no sleeping near old graves.   However, we explored closely this incredible area on our hike out.   Hiking past the old cabin in the Big Arroyo,  we followed the river down and eventually turned West and hiked up beautiful Lost Canyon.   Climbing up to lonely and austere Columbine Lake we spent another lovely night in the wilderness before going over Sawtooth Pass.  The trail over Sawtooth Pass is an unmaintained unofficial trail, thus not well engineered, nor is it marked.   The trail over the pass is however, fairly easy to follow as it is well used.   Once over the top though, the fun really begins.  The sandy west side of the pass leading back to the trailhead gets quite deep and steep.  At one point Gary and I were running and pushing off into giant leaps downward, feeling much like we were on the low gravity of the moon!  Each step was a  huge springing step down the hill.  Yes, I did catapult myself into a huge slide at one point…landing ignominiously on my bum!  However, it was just too much fun and I sprang back up and took some more giant leaps!  Sawtooth’s deep sand provides  great cushion for falls.   And for the first time on our entire trip on this last day, we finally saw other hikers.   As we careened past them on our downhill slolam course,  Gary and I remarked quietly how lucky we were to be going downhill in that deep sand and not trying to slog up through it.   We have since been back to Sawtooth Pass….but never uphill on the sandy west side!

We have returned to Mineral King many times to hike over the years.  A close friend first told me about this area and that it was her favorite.  It has steadily risen in rank each trip to become one of mine.  Go explore Mineral King and find the most fascinating weather in the Sierra,  wonderful wildflowers, perhaps a grave or two….and maybe it will become one of your favorites too.

Hard to get lost in the Sierra Nevada with landmarks like Sawtooth Peak guiding you…

Looking up towards Columbine Basin
Gary playing in Columbine Lake
We always manage to find the most amazing flat spots…
View from Sawtooth Pass “trail.” Notice on the top left, the dark brown smooth sloping but flat mountain. The smooth surface is typical of the older non glaciated sections of the High Sierra peaks.  At one time in distant geological history,  before ice and weather etched the peaks, the Sierra was formed of rolling hills. The one you see in the top left being a piece of what was once one of the rolling hills representative of the original Sierra peaks.








Dee on Sawtooth Pass, Mineral King, Sequoia
Dee on the top of the steep Sawtooth Descent…still on fairly hardpack sand…




Gary negotiating the steep westside of Sawtooth Pass 


Dominating Sawtooth Peak from the Westside


End of the Trail.


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