And what views there were… our front door opened toward the lake. To the east was the outlet stream filled with marsh-loving wildflowers, including shooting stars and a few showy leopard lilies. To the west was the rocky knoll that hides a couple more of the Mineral Lakes from view.Backpacking with Kids
This article was originally published in The Kaweah Commonwealth newspaper on July 26, 1996. 1996.Backpacking with Kids
The Elliott family recently undertook a challenge that tested our mental and physical endurance. We took our first overnight backpack trip with our children – Jennie, age 7, and Johnnie, 6.
As parents, we’ve had the kids in training for this excursion since they were born. Instead of carrying backpacks they used to be the ones in the backpack. As they became too heavy to carry, we embarked on dayhikes that became longer and more challenging. Soon we were all wanting to see what was over the next ridge and felt the urge to stay in the mountains longer.
We began our trip on a Saturday morning from Mineral King. John and I carried 35-pound packs; Jennie and Johnnie carried their clothes and water. Proportionately, the kids carried almost as much weight as we did.
We started on the Tar Gap Trail at the west end of the Cold Springs Campground. This trail ends in 8 miles at the trail junction that leads another couple miles to Hockett Meadow. On this hike, however, we followed the trail for just over a mile until we reached Mineral Creek. Then we scrambled cross-country to our isolated destination, Mineral Lake.
After skirting an ancient rockslide area, we picked up an obscure trail. For the entire ascent, we were within earshot of Mineral Creek but were careful not to travel too close to the drainage due to the heavy vegetation.
We remained on and off of the “trail” but finally lost it about halfway amidst a legacy of snowslides that have brought hundreds of trees down the mountainside.
This was the most challenging part of the hike. We were at about 8,800 feet in elevation, picking and choosing our trail, and slapping mosquitoes that were threatening to carry us away if we dared stop to rest.
Finally, at about 9,000 feet, we left the forest for a more alpine type of vegetation and began our final ascent on granite.
Johnnie and I emerged into the cirque first and upon our first glimpse of the lake, let out a hoop and holler. That gave John and Jennie the extra push they needed and soon they, too, scrambled over the last hump.
We set up camp immediately due to the thunderheads that were threatening to collide… and because the kids were so anxious to toss their fishing lines in the lake. But everyone had a camp chore. Jennie and Johnnie were in charge of picking the perfect tent site and clearing away the pinecones, which aren’t too comfortable to sleep on.
After claiming the territory from a curious marmot, our home away from home was quite a sight. We were perched on the ridge at the northern end of this uninhabited lake. We set up our tent as if we were building a house. We made sure it was perfectly situated for the best views.
And what views there were… our front door opened toward the lake. To the east was the outlet stream filled with marsh-loving wildflowers, including shooting stars and a few showy leopard lilies. To the west was the rocky knoll that hides a couple more of the Mineral Lakes from view.
The most impressive scene, however, was to the north. We looked over the backside of Miner’s Ridge at Sawtooth Peak, Mineral Peak, and Empire Mountain and also down on Timber Gap and over it to the peaks of the Kaweah’s Middle Fork beyond.
There seemed to be an ample supply of a self-sustaining population of brook trout in the lake. The kids set out to the other side of the lake to sample the fish, but they got nothing more than a few bites, just enough to keep their interest piqued.
We met up back at the tent about 4 p.m., just in time for the afternoon thunderstorm. As far as John and I were concerned, it was nap time anyway. We fell asleep taking turns reading aloud and watching the raindrops on the lake.
We awakened two hours later to sunshine that soon turned into an amazing 360-degree alpenglow. Dinner featured several courses of dehydrated fare. The meal rivaled the best Thanksgiving feast.
Jennie and Johnnie ate on the run, back and forth from the lake where their fishing poles were constantly in some state of tangles or in need of bait.
After cleaning up our eating area, washing hands and faces, and bear-proofing our food, we crawled back into the tent sometime after 9 p.m.
At daybreak, John and I scrambled quickly… but oh so quietly… out of the tent. We knew we could not miss the sunrise.
It didn’t let us down. At about 6:15 a.m., the sun rose directly over Sawtooth! It was a dramatic sight and the perfect beginning to this high country day.
After breakfast, we packed up snacks, water, and what mosquito repellent we had left and began our climb to the largest of the Mineral lakes. It is hidden in the granite cirque about a half mile above where we made our camp. It is a beautiful lake, much deeper than the others, and surrounded by granite outcroppings that drop abruptly into the water.
By this time of day – about 9 a.m. – the fish weren’t too hungry but the water was so clear we could watch from our granite perch as the good-sized trout curiously swam around the bait.
With the abundance of mosquitoes that we had been experiencing, these fish have so much natural food that they have no need for anything artificial. John did catch a beautiful brookie with his first cast, but after the kids took a look, he released his catch. After that we had nary a nibble.
The clouds began rolling in a little earlier than the previous day, so we headed back to camp and packed. We loaded our house on our backs and headed down the mountain for Mineral King.
We were able to stay with the unmaintained trail a little longer in this direction, but lost it once again in the thick forest of downed trees. This made for slow traveling and the mosquitoes were at their most vicious.
The kids were being swarmed and we waved the varmints away with hats and bandannas while continuing the pep talk to keep up the pace. In no time, we hit the Tar Gap Trail. The kids were instantly rejuvenated.
Always interesting to note, the hike up to the lakes took us just under four hours. The descent took us an hour and a half!
Although the mosquitoes were horrendous; there was lightning and thunder and rain; and there was no maintained trail, when we arrived home it wasn’t the negative factors that were discussed. We reminisced on the beautiful scenery, the solitude, and that we conquered any challenge together as a family.
This hike is strenuous. Hikers should be experienced in map-reading and route-finding. The effort exerted, however, is well worth the trip.
Mineral Lakes may also be reached by an alternative cross-country route from the upper Mosquito Lakes. Once again, route-finding skills are a must. It is a feasible day hike and has been via the “fishermen’s trail” for generations.
When we received our wilderness permit at the Mineral King Ranger Station, Chris Durniak, ranger, told us that the mosquitoes were so thick that when you slap them you would get 10 at once.
I have to report that we were seriously misinformed. When you slap you get at least 20!
How to hike with kids
Sometimes parents unintentionally turn an enjoyable family activity like hiking into a chore by making it more like marching than walking. To a degree, the children are in charge of the outing, at least in terms of its overall tone and mood. Make sure the destination is within their ability to accomplish but throw any agenda, timetable, or itinerary away.
Parents learn quickly that if their children are not enjoying themselves, then neither will they. Be prepared; the right equipment, information, and attitude is the key to successful hiking (and lots of bribes: “If you hike to that tree stump, you’ll get some M&Ms…”). It sometimes takes a lot of work to keep the kids motivated, entertained, and happy, but it’s also fun to help them discover the outdoors in their own way.
When starting out with your young hikers, remember that you’re a parent first, hiker second. Slow your pace, put them first, and allow them to stop as often as they like, to look and examine.
To a young child, what’s most important is the present time… not the goal at the end of the trail, not the mileage accumulated, and not the altitude climbed. For parents, patience is important; for children, play is the most important activity. Allow plenty of breaks for children to wade in creeks, climb on rocks, and find the perfect hiking stick.
Be realistic with your goals. Don’t overestimate or overload your child’s abilities. If children come to feel comfortable in the wilds, and have fun while there, they will be naturally motivated to walk and discover what is around the next bend.
Above all, encourage safety, responsibility, and environmental awareness. Talk to your kids about what to do if they get lost, teach them to pick up trash, and tell them how to stay on marked trails.
Hey, Kids: Here is what to pack in your pack
Water – Drink lots of water while hiking. Bring water from home and use a water filter to replenish the water supply from streams.
Whistle – It is important to have a whistle in case you get separated from your family.
Emergency rain coat – Bring lightweight rain jacket and rain pants, a plastic rain poncho, or a plastic garbage bag with a hole cut out for your head.
Extra food – Bring a couple of energy snacks. If you get separated from the person carrying the food, you can eat your own. Snack at anytime along the trail, whenever you feel hungry.
An extra layer – Weather in the mountains can change very quickly, and it can sometimes play tricks on you. It will most likely be cold at night.
Also carry a flashlight, sunscreen, bandanna, hat, and water/camp shoes.