I’m an idealist, a glass half-full kinda gal and always seeking the next greatest idea, particularly when it comes to adventure in the outdoors. Therefore, my plans for our summer vacation were no exception – cram as much family adventure in as many national parks as I could in two weeks. During the spring, I laid out the plans over a family dinner and immediately I was hit with the reality check. So I scaled back a bit and added a few days at the end in San Francisco to appease my kids desire.
What I was most excited about was a backpacking trip in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park. My original plan was to do one in Yosemite to get away from the crowds but after reading Michael Lanza’s family backpacking trip in Sequoia, I was hooked by his description of the beauty. I bought a Tom Harrison map of the Mineral King area as suggested and began planning. My excitement grew.
There are three loops approximately 25-35 miles in length that start from the last two trail heads at the end of the Mineral King road, Sawtooth and Franklin Pass. After examining their length, elevation gain and suggested camp locations, I determined my family didn’t have enough time to do any of the loops. I figured they (my kids in particular, ages 13 and 9) could backpack 5-6 miles a day with 2,000 plus feet of elevation gain at elevation which was the only difference from a backpacking trip I did with them two years previous in the White Mountains. To help us acclimate to the elevation from our normal DC sea level, I scheduled the backpacking trip at the end of our vacation after hikes and camping at elevations above 7,000 feet.
I deviated from my desired plan to backpack the Sawtooth Pass loop that would take us over and past many beautiful alpine lakes and jagged peaks to the more realistic itinerary of Monarch and Crystal Lakes. With our wilderness permit confirmed, I began planning the trip’s logistics, in particular packing the equipment for our plane ride to San Francisco.
After ten days in Point Reyes National Seashore, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, we woke early and began our, what turned out to be, long drive on very curvy roads. We’d already experienced curvy roads throughout our vacation but this drive was crazy curvy. From Giant Forest to the Foothills park entrance, we experienced many hairpin turns and dropped about 5,000 feet in elevation to have to go back up that on the Mineral King Road. The drive on the Mineral King Road is 25 miles long on a narrow, not-well maintained road with approximately 580 curves, expected drive time 1.5 hours. The whole drive took us three hours. As I reflect on mistake number one; we should have stayed the night at Cold Spring or Atwell campgrounds or Silver City resort before starting our backpacking trip.
My daughter has always had a weak stomach. The norm has been to keep ziplock bags in the back seat and even then we had many clean up jobs. I brought Bonnaire but forgot to give it to her – mistake number two – and sure enough the nausea began. About half way up the Mineral King road with all the windows down, she called out, “I’m going to throw up.” She flung open the door and lost her breakfast on the pavement. All of a sudden, our son barfs, only he didn’t make the asphalt but instead his lap. Clean-up in….
All returned to normal in the car and we made it to the trailhead after getting chicken wire for our car at Silver City (to prevent marmots from eating the hoses under the car) and getting a bear canister at the ranger station. After some backpack adjusting, we headed 4.2 miles up 2,500 feet at noon for Monarch Lake under sunny skies.
Within the first half mile, my daughter declared her stomach ache returned; therefore, I checked for other signs of altitude sickness, headache and dizziness, which weren’t present figuring it was remnants from our 3 hour roller coaster ride in the car. She continued to drink water and eat little bits of food. At lunch with her stomach ache present, a hearty discussion took place between my husband and I – turn around or keep going. We kept going up the switchbacks to Monarch Lake.
About 2.5 miles up, my daughter unfortunately vomited again. Okay, now I needed to put my plan into check. Was this mistake number three? My first doubt about the trip occurred and our ability to continue to our destination. She sat for a while, took in small sips of water and checked her again for a headache and dizziness. None. She announced she felt better and we decided as a team to continue up while discussing alternatives for the remainder of our backpacking trip (ultimately, we decided to stay put at Monarch Lake for two days). The last half mile was hard for my daughter as she was weak from vomiting. She was brave, strong and persevered to the end but crashed on a rock where we decided to camp.
Along our hike up, we followed a family of four with older children, 17 and 21. The dad became our trail angel. At Monarch Lake, he came over to tell the kids he was impressed with their hike up the mountain. He noticed my daughter wasn’t feeling well and offered a vitamin C pack full of electrolytes. I had packed everything else in our first aid kit but unfortunately not an electrolyte supplement – mistake number three. After a nap and the supplement, she woke happy and with energy to eat dinner, Italian mash potatoes without the pepperoni. With relief that we had conquered the difficult hike up, a swim in the gloriously cold lake and dinner in our stomachs, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the ridge, played crazy-eights on a huge rock and stargazed at the millions of twinkling lights that we aren’t fortunate enough to experience in our light-filled city of DC.
We woke the next morning to grey clouds that sat on the ridge tops surrounding Monarch Lake. After our morning cups of joe, hot coco and some pecan, pomegranate oatmeal, we stuffed one of our packs full of supplies to hike for the top of Sawtooth Pass. From Monarch Lake to Sawtooth Pass and down the backside on the eastern face, there is no prescribed trail. One begins from the lake but a third of the way up, multiple paths exist between the boulders and alpine vegetation and on the pea-sized granite that covers about 50% of the face. Essentially, it is every man, woman and child for him/herself to seek the best path up or down the pass. With the kids leading the way, we conquered 3/4 of the way up the face before we heard thunder. The decision was made for us; we would not see what lay to the east of Sawtooth Pass that day. Very shortly after turning around to make our much easier descent, two different groups of backpackers came running of the ridge away from the lightening. Not exactly what I would do, run down that steep face.
We returned to the lake to eat lunch, listen to the waterfall from upper Monarch Lake and watch the still reflection in it. Our lunch was cut short as the hanging grey clouds on the peaks opened to let rain fall. We retreated to our tents where we stayed for the next two hours. This was hard for my very active, restless son. At 2:15 pm, after watching the clouds out our tent flaps and listening to the persistent rain, my husband and I made an executive decision to stuff our packs and start for the trailhead by 3:00 pm while our kids still had smiles on their faces and a positive frame-of-mind. With wet gear, we hiked the 4.2 mile descent in half the time it took us to ascend. However, this time there was a skip in our step and the opportunity to linger a bit at the bends to breath in the spectacular, grey and red stone landscapes that surrounded us.