Trip Overview: ~45 mile loop from the Mineral King trailhead in Sequoia National Park. +/- 12,000 feet of elevation with a starting elevation of 7,800 feet and a peak elevation of 11,800 feet. Highlights include alpine lakes, expansive granite canyon views, and scenic lake-side campsites. We completed the trip over 6 days and 5 nights in September of 2015.
- High resolution USGS topographic map part 1 (pdf) and part 2 (pdf) and part 3 (pdf)
- Link to purchase USGS topographic maps part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Jump to Day 1: Sawtooth Trailhead to Columbine Lake
Jump to Day 2: Columbine Lake to Big Five Lakes
Jump to Day 3: Big Five Lakes to Precipice Lakes
Jump to Day 4: Exploring the Nine Lakes Basin
Jump to Day 5: Precipice Lake to Eagle Scout Creek
Jump to Day 6: Eagle Scout Creek to the Sawtooth Trailhead
Day 0: It was a 5 hour drive for us to reach the ranger station, so we decided to camp the night before taking off on the trek. This gives you the opportunity to both acclimate to the elevation (~7,500 feet) and get some sleep before starting early the next day. We camped at Cold Springs Campground (23 miles from Highway 198 on Mineral King Road, 36.451421, -118.612058) because it is less than a mile from the Mineral King Ranger Station. The campground is 1st come, 1st serve and is in a great location right next to a spring. Before you leave for the trek, I recommend buying or borrowing the following items for this trek: a bear canister (Bear Vault BV500 transparent canister), some trekking poles (Cascade Mountain Tech 100% Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles), and a strong tent with a mesh roof to take in the views at night (ALPS Mountaineering Chaos 2-Person Tent).
The next morning we woke up and headed to the Mineral King Ranger Station to check-in and get our backcountry permit. Permits are needed for any backcountry wilderness camping here. You do not need to apply to a lottery for permits in the Mineral King area, but they do limit the number of hikers entering each trailhead. If you want some certainty, it is easy to email or call the ranger station to reserve a permit. At the ranger station, there is a community storage shed we used to store the food and scented items we were not bringing on the hike (so bears did not try to get in our car). We also filled up our camelbacks and water bottles at the ranger station.
Next, we got back in the car and drove ~1 mile to the Sawtooth trailhead and parking lot.
Day 1: ~6.5 miles; +4,400 ft / -1,300 ft; Sawtooth Trailhead to Columbine Lake
On Day 1 we hiked to Columbine Lake via Sawtooth Pass trail. Despite being only 6.5 miles long, the hike was fairly tough because you must hike over Sawtooth Pass. Upon leaving the parking lot take the trail towards Monarch Lakes. The trail is well marked and may see people going on day hikes up to the lakes and back. Along the way you can see Sawtooth Pass and Franklin Pass in the distance.
Monarch Lakes made a good lunch spot and we rested up there before attacking Sawtooth Pass. We just relaxed at Lower Monarch Lake, but some people were scrambling up to Upper Monarch Lake.
Then, we continued on the trail towards Sawtooth Pass. Eventually the trail becomes unmaintained and you must follow faint trails and cairns as you ascend towards Sawtooth Pass. There is no one correct route, but we did our best to slowly and carefully get up to the top of the 11,800 foot pass. The trial is sandy and dusty, so be prepared to go slowly. Once at the top of the pass, we enjoyed the view of Monarch Lakes on one side and Columbine Lake on the other side. Then, we made our way down the other side of the pass to Columbine Lake where we camped the first night.
We camped on the northwest side of Columbine Lake, which gave great views of the lake and Sawtooth Peak. Columbine Lake is very beautiful and we really enjoyed camping there. The scenery is a great reward after tackling Sawtooth Pass.
Day 2: ~6.2 miles; +1,000 ft / -2,200 ft; Columbine Lake to Big Five Lakes
On Day 2 we hiked to Big Five Lakes from Columbine Lake along the Lost Canyon Trail. This day was easier than the last because it was mostly flat or downhill. Once you leave the small basin in which Columbine Lake sits, you are treated to a great view of the canyon that the Lost Canyon Trail travels through. Going through the canyon makes for a really nice hike. Along the hike there was water in the creek that the trail follows until you reach the next junction.
After ~3.5 miles along the Lost Canyon Trail we reached the junction for the trail with Big Five Lakes. We headed towards Big Five Lakes and we met with a surprise wildfire. The fire was “100% contained” and the sign said to leave the fire burning, so we just walked through the smoke as we tried to find Big Five Lakes. It should be noted that a fully contained wildfire is not necessarily 100% done burning…
After getting through the forest and the smoke, we were treated with our first view of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge.
Finally, we arrive at Big Five Lakes and chose to camp at the first lake we encountered (WL9830 T). We found a nice campsite on the Northwest side of the lake that had a view of the lake and the mountain ridge. There was also a fire ring, though you need to check the current fire regulations before having a fire. This was a really nice campsite and I would stay there again.
You could also hike a couple additional miles and camp at the larger lake. We were a bit tired and decided to just stop at the first lake we saw in the Big Five Lakes region.
Day 3: ~8.6 miles; +2,500 ft / -2,000 ft; Big Five Lakes to Precipice Lake
On Day 3 we hiked to Precipice Lake from Big Five Lakes Lake along the High Sierra Trail. This day was fairly tough as it is mostly uphill and roughly 9 miles long. However, the views along the High Sierra Trail were great and Little Five Lakes makes for a great lunch spot along the way.
The hike starts with a moderate climb as you leave the lowest elevation lake at Big Five Lakes go around a ridge that separates Big Five Lakes from Little Five Lakes. From the ridge you are treated to some nice views.
2-3 miles into the hike you reach the Little Five Lakes region. The views here are really nice and the lakes make either good lunch spots or nice camping spots.
From Little Five Lakes there is a ~3 mile hike to the junction with the High Sierra Trail. This section is mostly downhill as you descend into the Big Arroyo area to link up with the High Sierra Trail.
Hiking up the High Sierra Trail provides some great views as you hike through the Big Arroyo Area towards the Nine Lakes Basins. This part of the hike is a fairly steady uphill, but is not too bad. The scenery as you approach the Nine Lakes Basin is great and this area makes for a good lunch spot before hiking over the Kaweah Gap.
Once we reached the Nine Lakes Basin Area we grabbed lunch and then hiked up over the Kaweah Gap to reach our destination of Precipice Lake. The views from the Kawaeh Gap are great and Precipice Lake and the surround area are gorgeous.
Once we reached Precipice Lake, we set up camp and took pictures of the beautiful lake and surrounding area. This is probably the best campsite we have ever had. The ground is hard and it is not easy to find large campsites, but the backdrop is hard to beat. One one side you look at Precipice Lake and on the other side you look down into the Hamilton Lakes Basin.
Day 4: day hike back into the Nine Lakes Basin to explore. Camp at Precipice Lake again.
On Day 4 we decided to do a day hike and keep our camp at Precipice Lake. We hiked back over the Kaweah Gap and went into the Nine Lakes Basin to explore. We ended up scrambling up to Lake WL 10725T and then came back. These lakes had trout in them so you could do some fishing here. There are a bunch of other lakes in the basin, but they required more climbing and scrambling to get to and we wanted to take it kind of easy. I am sure the views of those lakes would be great though.
Day 5: ~9.4 miles; +1,400 ft / -5,600 ft; Precipice Lake to Eagle Scout Creek.
On Day 5 we packed up camp at Precipice Lake and set off towards Bear Paw Meadows. We originally planned to camp at Bear Paw, but upon arrival the camp was closed and there was no water. So, we continued on until we reach Eagle Scout Creek and set up camp next to the creek (there were a few campsites here). The added distance made the hike tougher, but we actually were happy with the choice because our hike out the next day was going to be shorter.
The hike from Precipice Lake down into the Hamilton Lakes Basin was spectacular. As you drop ~4,000 feet into the basin you are treated to amazing views of the Hamilton Lakes and the surrounding granite cliffs. Hamilton Lakes makes a great lunch spot and the lakes have plenty of trout for fishing. These lakes would also make a great campsite, though they appear pretty popular. We were very glad we were hiking down into the basin rather than hiking up to Precipice Lake because the views looking down at the basin are great. We encountered a few hikers going up the hill and they looked super tired…
As you begin to descend into the basin you catch your first glimpse of Upper Hamilton Lake. The views going forward and behind you are great. The trail drops ~4,000 feet and has many switch backs.
Once you reach Upper Hamilton Lake, you can explore the lake area. This lake makes for a great lunch spot and is gorgeous.
As you leave the upper lake and head to the Lower Hamilton Lake, you pass some vertical rock structures known as “Valhalla.” Soon you reach the smaller Lower Hamilton Lake. This whole section of the High Sierra Trail is great. Parts of the trail hug steep cliff walls and provide great views. There is even a tunnel you get to hike through.
Eventually the terrain changes from granite rock to a forest as you approach the Bear Paw Meadows area.
Day 6: ~9.5 miles; +4,400 ft / -2,600 ft; Eagle Scout Creek to Sawtooth parking lot.
The day 6 hike was our last trek, and we went up over Timber Gap and then down to the Sawtooth parking lot. This hike ended up being quite tough as the climb up over timber pass was long and laborious. The views were not spectacular on this portion of the hike, but were still nice. You follow a creek for much of the hike, but near the top of Timber Gap I do not recall there being many sources of water. It’s best to fill up after the first few miles of the hike.
Along the way you see some granite outcrops peaking out of the forest.
You also pass through a redwood meadow, which has some very large redwoods and a horse camp.
As you climb up Timber Gap there are some nice views looking back.
And then after you reach Timber Gap, it is only 2-3 miles downhill to the parking lot! I don’t have any pictures of this part of the hike because we were excited and rushing to get to the car. After you finish the hike, be sure to go to the storage shed by the ranger station and pick up any food you left.
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