30 March 2014

Mill Creek

Sequoia National Forest

Locate the trailhead.

We hit the road not quite as early as planned for the Mill Creek Trailhead off the Old Kern Road with the goal of Breckenridge Mountain, about 11.5 miles and 5000 feet up. The weather was predicted to be rain overnight, with particularly high probability in the very early morning hours, but "30% before 11AM" for our purposes. There is a descent drenching over the Grapevine, but by the time we are at the trailhead, skies are showing brief patches of blue. Just under the slowly lifting clouds to the north, the mountains have been topped with a layer of white. At our feet, small wildflowers are blooming dotting the area with purples, whites, and yellows. The trail initially undulates along, crossing the creek from time to time. As we hit the creek, reds are added to the wildflowers and we spot our first salamander of the day.

sign at Mill Creek Trailhead
The start of Mill Creek Trail at 2400 feet. The correct trail winds upward at a better grade to the left.

snow on the mountains north of us
Looking across the road, the south slope is showing the result of the rain last night at higher elevations.

Mill Creek valley
A look up the valley to another very linear snow line as the clouds are lifting.

common salamander getting away from those with big feet
The first salamander we spotted of many found throughout the day. This one decided to get off the trail.

The creek is flowing nicely when we first get to it. We start to notice there is a great variety of trees along the way. There are the usual sycamores in the creek and live and scrub oaks along the hills, but there are also quite a number of walnuts. Scattered madrones, a few huge manzanita, some deciduous oaks, and a few extra varieties of live oaks also populate the valley. Conifers, which seem to be Coulter pines from the shape, run up the hillsides.

good flow in Mill Creek
A glance up Mill Creek at one of the crossings.

oaks on the hillside coming into leaves, grass speckled with white flowers
Looking up a hill manicured by cows and speckled with small white flowers at two oaks with a bit of mistletoe.

The trail leaves the creek and starts up a tributary before turning up a narrow and dry gulch. The hills ring with cow bells and bird song as we climb. Below, it is a nice decomposed granite and easy to travel even when wet, but above it gets to be more dirt and is more often a slippery mud. Another trail may continue up the tributary to Lightners Flat, but it is unsigned and difficult to confidently distinguish from another cow path. This looks like it would be a nice loop that takes in some of Hobo Ridge and Lightner Peak before coming down another ridge and rejoining Mill Creek not much more than a mile from the road.

sandy dirt trail along the side of a dry gulch
Leaving the creeks with water for a gulch and then the ridge.

sign demanding I take a photo
The trail is lined with these signs demanding people take a photo on one side and noting who is a valid user on the other. Behind, one of the smaller manzanita.

There is plenty of mud, and even small streams, from the melting snow above as we hike up the trail. We start to get patches of snow around 4500 feet, but the trail is still a line of mud along it. We start to cross long sections of snow by 4900 feet.

the boys make their way along the muddy trail beside a little snow
Water following the trail makes the small amount of snow here melt more quickly so that the trail is easy to see but quite muddy.

a light dusting of snow on everything
From here, it only looks like a light dusting of snow.

a relative of miner's lettuce in the snow
Streambank springbeauty, basically miner's lettuce with more flowers, popping through the light snow.

The patchy and light snow around 4900 feet is about what we were expecting, but the peak is 7548 feet so there is still a lot of climbing to go. The water in the trail starts to get a bit much and an ill-placed step can bring it flowing over the tops of boots, but then it lessens again. By 6000 feet, there is constant snow at least 4" deep and sometimes twice that. The trail is still easy to find as a gentle dip along the side of the mountain with cuts in trees and slapstick signs to confirm the route. The Coulter pines give way to ponderosa and Douglas fur and the few oaks are generally deciduous.

snow over a ridge line meadow
The snow seems a little more staying here, but up ahead, a streamlet clears the trail.

snow over a log and on trees
Delicately decorated logs and flocked trees are the order of the day.

the clear trail under the snow
Bernard and Peter follow the clear trail cut under the snow.

yearlings trying to keep it up
Small fur trees weighed down heavily by the snow.

snow plastered against the bark of tall trees
The snow must have been blowing a little to lodge into the tree bark.

After a bit more hiking than indicated on the sign below, we come to the parking area for the top of the trail. Somehow the location of the road under the snow is less obvious than the trail, but we can still get a sense of it. Bernard, who was ready to go all the way to the top half a mile before, realizes wool socks are not the miracle technology to keep your feet warm no matter how wet and cold and announces he is done. It turns out Peter has been done a bit longer than that, but was too easy going to say anything. I have to admit that although it looks like the snow has settled on a thickness, I do not really want to walk another four miles in it, plus return. Also, waterproof boots and Wrightsocks are not miracle technology either and although they will keep the water from coming in, they are not good at letting the water out once they are wet, so my toes are also starting to get cold. We are also a little worried about the muddy sections as we go back down. We all head down the road looking for a place to sit. The trees practically rain on us from melting snow and we decide the meadow is the place to be and settle in for a high altitude picnic.

signs at the top of the trail
The upper Mill Creek Trailhead off Breckenridge Road.

Squirrel Meadow
Sitting on a four foot log at the edge of Squirrel Meadow. The meadow is a narrow space that seems to be annoyingly kept clear of logs of reasonable size for sitting.

trees at the edge of Squirrel Meadow
Looking across Squirrel Meadow.

Bernard points out that the snow is all from the night before, which I think is unlikely, but he backs it up by pointing out there is no crust to it. This is true, it is powdery from top to bottom. Once finished with our picnic, we head back to the trail and down the hill. Somehow we leave the snow much higher than we entered it, having very little below 6000 feet. There is less water on the trail as well and the treacherous mud has dried sufficiently to be passable. There are still a few places it is unwise to place a foot, but plenty more near those that are fine.

very little snow left along the trail
Where we trudged through the snow surrounded past flocked trees is now thin patches of snow and clean evergreens.

small white and purple petals unharmed by the blanket of the night before
The little flowers uncovered by the melting blanket of snow seem unharmed by the experience.

green grass lined trail up the ridge line
Another look at the trail up the ridge line, but now dressed in green instead of white.

trees above with snow on the needles still
There are still a few trees with snow in their branches.

little orange mushrooms in the growth
Even a few mushrooms appear after the snow melts.

more flowers in the grass
Little bits of blue among pinpricks of white.

Once back to the level of the creek, we get to see a bunch of salamanders scurrying off the trail. The sunset makes a light show through the Kern River canyon below as we come down.

sun rays coming down the Kern River canyon
Lupin and sage lend their purples to the hillside.

a path climbing the hills
A path climbs the hills where the trail branches on the map. This may climb to Lightner Peak or it could be a fortuitously placed cow path.

We make it down as dark sets in. Bernard has brought everything he needs to stir-fry, so we settle in for a quick post hike dinner before settling into the long drive home.

©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 1 April 2014

1 comment:

Valerie Norton said...

Sometimes I sit up on a log saying the heat capacity is low and it insulates well and never realize I am talking chemist. Translation is that, yes, it is a good seat. It warms up quickly and stays that way.