Sierra – Great Divide Double Traverse
This is the 100th Anniversary of our great National Parks established within the framework of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916. Since their inception, millions of people from around the world have been humbled standing in arenas of mountains, trees and rivers forever protected from the crush of humanity.
“(NPS)which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Organic Act
In 1964 the lands that Americans had come to love were further enshrined with the Wilderness Act of 1964.
For twenty of those years, Tabitha and I have visited many of the parks (listed below) enjoying day hikes and backcountry treks. After trekking through Yosemite nearly 20 years ago, the Sierra has been begging us to return. Mineral King Canyon had been on my mind since as it looked like one of the most remote access points into Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park dominated by high alpine peaks and lakes. So on August 1st we hit the trail.
With our best trekking buddy Bonnie “high-pointing” her way around the western states, we could not imagine not including her on a week long trek over the Great Western Divide and through some of the most stunning mountain landscapes in America. Our first challenge was finding the access road and then driving nearly 30 miles on a narrow patch of endlessly twisty asphalt. We located Bonnie parked right behind the sign we agreed to leave a note on our whereabouts. All was well as we grabbed a wonderful campsite a few miles shy of the trailhead and enjoyed the first of many evening campfires courtesy of the dry forest floor of old growth pines, firs and hardwoods. At nearly 7000′, we spent the next day packing, relaxing and acclimating under giant trees split with piercing sun filled with warmth.
The 45-mile/6day/5night trek would include three passes(gaps) including Kaweah and Sawtooth. Not being speed demons, we figured making 7-8 miles a day would be the perfect pace considering our food weight. Water would be everywhere so that was welcome as were the well designated campsites. If we got behind schedule, then we could speed it up if needed. During route planning it was decided to extend the trip by a few days to include a visit to a remote grove of Giant Sequoia at Redwood Grove as our first destination.
The first day tested us and our pack weight with an immediate hike on good trail up and over Timber Gap and then a long descent to our first camp. One of the perks of this route was the abundance of wild flowers in lush meadows all in full bloom. Like skiing, timing is everything!
The small grove of Giant Sequoia was a highlight of the trip. Growing tall in the their natural state, they simply overwhelm the senses. The primeval forest beneath was warm and soft. I could hear my heart beat amidst the buzz of bugs. Massive and fairylandish, they grew as two or solo with a spongy bark that seemed worthless in helping hold erect vertical an enormous tree. And has a testimony to evolution and diversity,their cones are slightly larger than a golf ball.
Day 2 was mostly in the forest wandering up to Bearpaw with the ladies occasionally stopping to cool their feet in crystal clear water. Once again we arrived in camp around 3pm and it appeared we would be alone. But as night encroached, small parties of backpackers arrived relieved to find a perfect tent site hidden about the forest. With ours and other’s foods stuffed away in metal bear boxes quiet and sleep soon followed sunset.
The day started with a long descent followed by a few thousand feet of perfectly angled switch-backs and a cave all of which drew you further in to the High Sierra. This trek was beginning to remind Tabitha and I of Nepal. The fun of planning a trip these days is to investigate enough, to leave most of the trip a complete surprise, such as avoiding previous posted pictures, etc….. This particular section of trail was a complete mystery to me, but ended up spectacularly.
Along this section of the High Sierra Trail, the efforts of the CCPA in the 40’s to build trail in our National Parks still remain, attestement to their skills. Blasted by dynamites and then rebuild with strong backs, a minimum wage, food and shelter, one is able to travel along steep granite walls and wind your way up to wild places in many of the Parks we’ve visited.
After a rather strenuous day we found Precipice Lake and could not budge further. And why leave this place!. With no one else around, yet, we grabbed the most perfect campsites I could have imagines. We staked our tents with a bit more attention to our exposed perch and braced for sunset. Has had become the routine,few groups of two or three and typically a soloist or two would come along and pick a site amongst the boulders. Some went swimming. We came to find out that this camp is one of the premier campsites in the Sierra, recently feature on the cover of Backpacker Magazine, and a famous B&W photo by Ansel Adams.
As the sunset more good karma graced the sky for the campers. A spectacular sunset scene was highlighted by a sliver of moon aligned with two planets across the western horizon. Haze from wildfires to the south just enhanced the whole experience. When the dark overwhelmed the shadows, stars by the millions mixed with galaxies. Some saw meteorites.
We started the next day by negotiationing Kaweah Gap and descending into a wonderful meadow and onward towards Five Lakes. We realized that the trek included more descent and loss of altitude than expected but we stuck to our Alaskan toughness and were rewarded with another ascent with stunning mountain views and majestic quiet.
Up and over to Lost Canyon Creek the next morning, we spent the afternoon wandering through one of most spectacular mountain meadows I have waltzed through. The gentle trail meandered along a creek and if one paused long enough to watch the ripples and pools, small trout could be seen waiting under the surface for a bug to grab.
We arrived at Columbine just below Sawtooth Pass for our final night. Once again the skies remained clear and cool as we savored our last night in the Sierra.
We descended Sawtooth Pass on a trail that disenigrasted into steep scree, leaving us with some Alaska-style route finding through steepening slabs of granite and giant boulders. Eventually things mellowed, more so mentally after lunch alongside a lake where we caught up with the “lost” Boy Scouts, but that’s another story to our excellent adventure. We scooted down a series of incessantly low-angle switchbacks to the trailhead at Mineral King Ranger station and retuned our bear canister for a deposit refund.
This is a fantastic loop and highly recommended. The Great Western Divide offers a great assortment of high Sierra peaks and valleys and this route stays high enough to keep cool in the high alpine and good shade at lower elevations. Camp sites were excellent but recommend arriving before 4pm if you want the best sites. The trails were in excellent shape and well marked. I would rate the route as strenuous due to the up and downs, but every turn on the trail was new earth to explore.
If you find yourself in a National Park this summer or fall, be sure to wish them Happy Birthday and many more to come!
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness Act of 1964
National Parks visited by Matt and Tabitha
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Mount Rushmore National Park
Grand Canyon National Park
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Mount Ranier National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Yosemite National Park
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park
Death Valley National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Wrangell/Saint Elias National Park and Preserve
Arches National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Redwood National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park
Denali National Park and Preserve
Mesa Verde National Park
Great Basin National Park
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve