Florence Peak and an Ill Advised Attempt at Vandever Mountain's North Ridge in Mineral King

  • Updated: August 17, 2014
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

August 15th to 17th, 2014
Florence Peak (12,432')

These were two peaks I'd tried to do years back only to get sidelined by some misadventure.  So I kept the plan and figured eventually I'd have a free weekend.

And it just so happened I had this weekend open and Kristen had never been back to this particular area.  So off we went to Mineral King.

Mineral King is a spectacular area and I absolutely love going back there.  Of course no discussion of the area is complete without mentioning that bloody drive.  And marmots but more on that later.

Google might say it's an hour and change from Three Rivers to Mineral King but the signs at the start of the road warn it's 90 minutes.  It's narrow and very winding so I hope you don't get carsick.

Doing in in the middle of the night has it's advantages since you get a warning when cars are coming around a corner towards you vs during the day when I've suddenly been looking at someone halfway into my lane.

Of course once you're back there you're faced with the face there's only two campgrounds and they tend to be rather full.  I've always managed to find something open so far.

The ranger station is right there near the end of the road so at least permits are fairly easy.  You just have to wait for them to get in, open the place, hoist the flag...

And then it's marmot time.

This is the parking area at the end of the road used for several trails headed up toward Farewell Gap.  Notice the tarp wrapped around the car.

The issue is Mineral King has a notorious problem with marmots.  In the backcountry marmots are far little guys that look like they'd make for a nice pillow and are only occasionally a minor inconvenience if you aren't using proper food protection.  In Mineral King they have a reputation for chewing through wires and drinking antifreeze (and surviving).


They used to talk about using chicken wire to deny access to the bottom of the car but that's no longer recommended.

We were there late enough we didn't bother with either.

I do a lot of trips and usually during the summer clothing and gear come out, get washed, then get tossed back into a bag for the following weekend.  Usually...

Somehow in the scramble to get out the door I'd managed to forget some of my hiking clothes.  Instead of the usual long sleeve sun blocking performance shirt I normally wear I'd be running around in a short sleeve cotton t-shirt.  And I burn like a white boy.

But hey, we were here and things looked spectacular with only a hint of smoke from the ever present fires that happen every summer.

Kristen spent the entire trip going on at length about how amazing the place was.

It's a steady climb up towards Farewell Gap and then we cut east towards Franklin Lakes.

A packer on his way out
We found some camping options around lower Franklin lake around the eastern side but it wasn't very private and there were already several people camped in the better spots.  We decided to continue on to Upper Franklin and see if we could find a better spot.

There's no official trail to Upper Franklin though there were ducks and a use trail to the west of Lower Franklin (which we didn't find until later)  With full packs this was a little harder and at first I was afraid we weren't going to find a place to camp.  Then we found our rock.

Of what I saw this was the one legitimate place to pitch a tent back there.  Everything else was too uneven or covered in vegetation.

We went swimming briefly but it was just a little too cold to be comfortable.  At least it felt good to wash the sweat off.

We decided to do Vandever the next day since it was a longer haul of the two peaks we wanted.

We took the use trail running along the west side of Lower Franklin and then crossed the dam at the north side of the lake.

From there we dropped back down the way we'd hiked in and took the trail towards the gap.

Vandever is class 2 from Farwell Gap but I'd also heard there was a 3rd class way up the north ridge.  This was a mistake.  Turns out the 3rd class ridge is the northwest ridge from the White Chief trail *not* the big northern ridge.  Why doesn't anyone do the northern ridge?  Keep reading...

We left the trail at a promising place, crossed the drainage, and aimed for the prominent saddle.

Looks easy.  We aimed for the big saddle.

This involved some amount of bushwhacking along the way.

We ran into a ranger who said she was out there looking for mines.  She was as surprised to see us as we were to see her considering we were off the beaten path over here.

Florence peaking over the intervening ridge

Once we reached the ridge things got a bit 3rd class here and there.

We realized soon we were on the wrong ridge but due to the time of day decided we'd have to make this work or we'd likely not get the peak.

This is the spot that eventually stopped us.  Going any further would have required some significant exposed scrambling on crumbly rock.

Looking down we could make out White Chief Cave below us and could also make out the actual ridge that has a 3rd class route.  Ah well, stay tuned for a future trip.

At least we had a really nice view back towards the trailhead.

Retracing our steps was somewhat more of a chore since we didn't make our peak but we had a rather pretty sunset.

One of the really cool things about where we camped was the lake is in a bowl under Florence.  That means any loud sound bounces around and echos.

There were bats that started flying around not long before dark.  This isn't uncommon in the Sierra but there was a lot of them the nights we were there.  We could hear little squeeks from them and they'd come just close enough to get caught in the headlamp before swerving back into the dark.

We had a relaxed morning in camp before setting up towards Franklin Pass.  We went around the eastern shore of Lower Franklin to pick up the trail and then up to the pass.

The tracks you can see shortcutting to the left were made by an entire troop of Boy Scouts ignoring the trail and heading straight down just trashing the hillside.  The ranger in the picture was really awesome and we chatted for a while commiserating about Boy Scouts and poor outdoor behavior before leaving him to his work trying to repair the damage.

Florence has a huge cliff face looking over the lakes giving us a very dramatic view of our campsite.

The summit of Florence

The register went back quite a ways and had a number of friends in it.

Looking over at Hengst Peak from the summit of Florence
Kaweah range on the left
It was yet another one of those days when we knew we really needed to head down since we had to hike out and drive a long way home but it was just so bloody pleasant we didn't want to leave

After delaying longer than we should we did head down.  We took a cross country route down (yes, this is different than shortcutting switchbacks on a pass) which worked fairly well and got us to the southern tip of Lower Franklin.

The hike felt surprisingly long.  As the sun set we had the trail to ourselves except for the hundred or so deer we could see all around us.

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