Over Fourth of July weekend, we ventured out on our first family backpacking trip. In January, we reserved backcountry permits for Sequoia National Park to hike the Atwell Hockett Trail to Hockett Meadow in the Mineral King section of Sequoia National Park. The online reservation process was simple and easy through recreation.gov and allowed us to get a great permit for a really beautiful section of the park that we have not visited.
The pre-trip planning was more intense than our car camping trips due to the following factors:
- We had to hike in 10.5 miles (21 miles roundtrip) with all of our gear
- Be prepared for rain just in case a storm rolled into the mountains
- Find food that the girls would commit to eating in advance
- Store our food and scented items in a bear canister
- Preparing our bodies to carry the loaded packs for 21 miles
The prep work involved laying everything out to select the “mission critical” equipment: tent, four sleeping bags, four sleeping pads, clothing layers, food, and cooking equipment.
Once we got everything packed and organized, we weighed our packs. My pack weighed 45 pounds with everything except water. Mary’s pack weighed 29 pounds without water. Quincy and Leona each had a small backpack with a few items weighing 2.5-3 pounds each.
The travel to get to the Mineral King section was spread over two days. On Thursday afternoon, we drove 285 miles from Encinitas to Visalia for a night in a hotel room. The next morning had us in the car at 5:30AM to drive the final 60+ miles over windy roads into the park and up to the Mineral King Ranger Station to secure our backcountry permit. After securing our permit, we got to the parking lot, loaded up and hit the trail around 9AM. The temperature at the beginning of the hike was in the 60s and climbed up into the low 80s as we progressed throughout the day.
We had an ambitious plan to hike all 10.5 miles to Hockett Meadow on the first day, but that would involve over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. We knew it was going to be a stretch, but also knew a campsite was available around mile marker 7.5 if we didnt want to go the full distance. We did our best to keep the girls motivated, but the length, elevation and heat slowed everybody down.
In addition, I made a GIANT ERROR- an all-time bone-headed move. When parking, we had to remove all scented items from the van and place them in a bear box. I took a small toiletries bag and placed it in the publicly accessible bear box in the parking lot. What I didn’t remember until the family was 2.75 miles into the hike was that Mary’s wedding and engagement rings were in the toiletries bag. We made the decision to split up with me dropping my backpack and jogging/hiking back to the car to lock up the rings while Mary and the girls continued on. The detour added over five miles to my day of hiking. During my detour hike back, the girls had hiked almost another three miles. Once the family was back together, we hiked about 2 more miles and set up camp near Clover Creek where we cooled our feet, hydrated and ate dinner. As they do at any campsite, the girls immediately went into play mode finding sticks and pinecones to do some imaginative play. The entire family was exhausted and were in our tent by 8PM.
The highlights of the first day were the waterfall of the East Fork of the Kaweah River and the grove of sequoia trees. Last year, the SQF Fire burned parts of this area, but the sequoias have natural fireproofing with their ultra thick bark. We could see the charred bark, but the trees are still strong and growing.
This trip was also one of the first times they girls camped with dispersed camping, which meant no defined campsites and no amenities like a toilet. We packed our foldable travel toilet so the girls would have a seat when they went the bathroom in the hole we dug.
Day 2 started off with all of us well rested and ready for the final 3 miles to Hockett Meadow. After breakfast and reloading the backpacks, we hit the trail around 8:30AM. The final stretch of trail involved more elevation gain, about 600 feet, then a short descent into the meadow. As we hiked up the trail, Quincy spotted a golden eagle soaring in the sky. After that we crossed a few creeks, saw some small trout, and encountered a few hikers leaving the meadow. Everyone was impressed seeing the girls on the trail. It’s great to see that positive encouragement for them from other hikers cheering them on. We strolled into the meadow to an expansive pasture full of wildflowers, a meandering stream, and beautiful views. It was definitely worth all the miles and elevation to soak in that initial view.
The meadow has a full-time backcountry ranger for the summer months that lives in a cabin and conducts trail patrols. This year it is Ranger Elizabeth, who became a local legend for the girls. She gave them wooden Junior Rangers badges that they proudly wore on their shirts or backpacks for the rest of the trip. They even want to paint them gold like a real rangers badge.
We set up camp in a designated area, stored our food in a bear locker and explored around the meadow. Because there is some construction taking place at the Ranger Station, packhorses and mules are being used to shuttle supplies from the trailhead. We had the benefit of watching a horse (Adam) and three mules (unnamed) grazing in the meadow during our trip. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and exploring nearby. The evening was capped off with dinner overlooking the meadow where we saw some deer.
Our final day involved an early start to eat breakfast, break down camp and pack up because we had a 10+ mile hike back to the car. The good news was that most of it was downhill. Our return strategy was for short breaks every 1.5 miles to snack and hydrate. With that plan in place, we slowly made our way down the mountain. It was a long trip, but the girls did an amazing job keeping their composure. We took a 40 minute lunch break at Deer Creek to cool off, eat, and hydrate for the final push. The final 1.5 miles was uphill and exposed to the heat, so morale dropped quickly, but with Mary’s motivation and a few times where the girls needed to be carried to recharge their batteries, we made it back to the van to celebrate with some Gatorade and snacks.
Over the three days, the girls hiked well over 25 miles and were an inspiration to us for how resilient and tough they are. They also kept us in tune with nature as we spotted hundreds of butterflies and were often walking along so many wildflowers. It allowed for endless conversation and discussion about the importance of the flowers and their pollinator friends.
The most memorable part of the trip for each family member:
Sean: My favorite part of the trip was exploring the meadow with the family. When we first walked into the meadow, I was blown away by its size and brightness – just lush green grass and wildflowers everywhere. We had no packs and just meandered around while talking about everything that we saw. Another highlight was noticed by Mary- the rangers that issued our permit as well as the backcountry ranger were all women. It was great for the girls to see female role models all around.
Mary: I enjoyed the seclusion. We saw less than 15 people on the trail over a three day trip. I also enjoyed experience the different ecozones as you hike higher in elevation. For example, the sequoia trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada between 4,000 and 8,000 feet of elevation. Probably the most inspiring though, was seeing not only what the girls accomplished, but that it didn’t take much to convince them that they could do it. They knew they could do it.
Leona: I was walking with Dad to go the bathroom when we saw a deer about 30 feet away eating some grasses. It slowly walked around but did not run away from us. It was really cool to see one so close.
Quincy: The horses walking around the meadow. And getting a junior ranger badge from Ranger Elizabeth.
Pleasant and unpleasant surprises we encountered on our trip:
-Bear boxes are great for scented items, not valuable items. We will remember to leave all jewelry at home for future trips to avoid the 5 mile scramble hikes. Oy!
-Mary and I might have been a bit ambitious with our first family backpack. The distance and elevation for the girls was doable, but pushed them to their limits. We might have been better with a shorter trip, but now we can say, “this hike is not nearly as hard as Hockett Meadow!”
-Same goes for our gear. If we had a shorter hike, Mary and I would have had more energy with the volume of gear we had. Most of the return hike involved a discussion around how much extra food we brought as well as refining our gear list to drop down weight.
-Certain parts of the Mineral King section of Sequoia NP often have marmots (giant squirrels) that will chew your vehicles wiring while you hike. They advise wrapping your vehicle in a giant tarp. We were advised by rangers that marmots don’t disturb cars at the trailhead we were parking at, so we didn’t wrap our car. However, 15 minutes into our drive home, our air conditioning fan stopped working and left us with no air conditioning through 100 degree temperatures. We thought it could have been a marmot, but after inspection at our house, we realized that a mouse climbed up into the cabin air vent and gave birth to five babies in the cabin air filter. All six mice died once we started driving and I had to remove them once we got home.
For many reasons, this trip will always be remembered, for its beauty and its follies.