Sequoia National Park – Mineral King Area – Sawtooth Pass and High Sierra Trail

 

 

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.

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Overall map of trek in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park. Day 1 (blue), Day 2 (black), Day 3 (red), Day 4 (green), Day 5 (light blue), Day 6 (yellow).

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

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Permits:  Permits are needed for any backcountry wilderness camping in Sequoia National Park. 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. For more information about permits and the reservation process, check out the NPS website for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

Logistics: The trailheads in the Mineral King area are not quite as popular as the Rae Lakes Loop or the High Sierra Trail. That said, it is still worthwhile to reserve your permit ahead of time to ensure you can enter at your desired trailhead (Sawtooth Pass for this itinerary).

If you need to camp near the trailhead the night before going on your trek, there is Cold Springs Campground and Atwell Mill Campground nearby. These campgrounds are first come, first serve and there is a $12 fee per night for camping. Camping the night before your trek will give you a bit of time to acclimate to the high elevation in the Mineral King area and will let you get some sleep before tackling Sawtooth Pass on day 1 of the trek.

The Mineral King Ranger Station is on the way to the Sawtooth Pass Trailhead, so you can pick up your permits the morning of your hike. 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). Once you get your permit, continue down the road to the trailhead. You can leave your car here while on your trek.

Trail Conditions and Difficulty: This itinerary is fairly strenuous, so you will want to be in pretty good hiking shape. There is a good amount of climbing which makes for some tough days (but also great views). The first day hike is tough because the Sawtooth Pass trail is unmaintained and is a bit hard on your legs. Once over Sawtooth Pass, the trail is well maintained and well marked.

Supplies: There are black bears in the area, so you are required to either bring a bear canister or a dry bag and rope for hanging your food. Rangers recommend using a bear canister rather than hanging your food. It seems as though some bears are smart enough to capture many bags of food hanging from trees.

You likely will want bug spray because the mosquitoes can be out in force in certain areas of the trek. I prefer a picaridin based spray because it does not damage plastics and synthetic fibers like high concentration DEET sprays do. I also like to pre-treat my clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of spray you need to put on your skin.

The other essential item for this trek is an inflatable sleeping pad. Most of the campsites are on pretty hard granite or gravel surfaces, so a good mat makes all the difference. If you plan to hike up Sawtooth Pass, you will want trekking poles and possibly microspikes/crampons. Depending on the time of year you hike, there can be snow on Sawtooth and the trail is not well maintained. The trekking poles are helpful because you can use them for stability in place of an ice ax (unnecessary for this hike in most conditions). It’s always best to call the ranger stations before starting your trek to ask about the conditions of the mountain passes and get an idea of what equipment they recommend.

Below is a list of the gear I brought on this Mineral King trek:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

 

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 gave us 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.

Prep_campground

The next morning we woke up and headed to the Mineral King Ranger Station to check-in and get our backcountry permit. 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.

Mineral_King_parking_lot

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Day 1: ~6.5 miles; +4,400 ft / -1,300 ft; Sawtooth Trailhead to Columbine Lake

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Map of Day 1 on the trek in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park (blue line). From parking lot head towards Monarch Lakes.

Day 1 Map (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile for the Day 1 hike.

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.

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View of Sawtooth Pass in the distance as seen from near the trailhead.
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View of distant Franklin Pass area.

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.

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View of Sawtooth Pass as you approach Monarch Lakes.
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Lower 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.

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View of Sawtooth Peak from the pass.
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Walking along the top of Sawtooth Pass.
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First view of Columbine Lake from Sawtooth Pass.
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View of Monarch Lakes from Sawtooth Pass.

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.

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Columbine Lake at dusk.
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Admiring the view of Columbine Lake from our campsite. (pictured: Icebreaker Zone Wool Leggings and 650-fill Down Vest)
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Our campsite at Columbine Lake (pictured: ALPS Mountaineering Chaos 2 Tent)
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View of Sawtooth Peak from shore of Columbine Lake.

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Day 2: ~6.2 miles; +1,000 ft / -2,200 ft; Columbine Lake to Big Five Lakes

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Map of Day 2 on the trek in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park (black line).  Hiking from Columbine Lake to Big Five Lakes.

Day 2 hike map (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile for the Day 2 hike.

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.

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Hiking out of Columbine Lake basin area.
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Starting the Lost Canyon Trail after Columbine Lake (pictured: Kelty Coyote 60L Backpack and Stansport backpacking sleeping pad)
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View of Lost Canyon Trail.
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View of the Lost Canyon Trail.
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Looking back towards where Columbine Lake sits.
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Another view looking back.
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View of rock face on side of Lost Canyon Trail.
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Sign at the junction of the Lost Canyon Trail and the trail to Big Five Lakes.

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…

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Sign telling hikers they were entering a wildfire area.
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Burned area on right side of the trail (pictured: People Socks merino wool hiking socks)
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A small lake along the way to Big Five Lakes.
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Flames along the trail!
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Lots of smoke along the trail.

After getting through the forest and the smoke, we were treated with our first view of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge.

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Kaweah Peaks Ridge viewed from the trail to Big Five Lakes.

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.

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View of the lake and mountain ridge from our campsite.
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Another view from our campsite.
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Another view from our campsite.

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.

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Day 3: ~8.6 miles; +2,500 ft / -2,000 ft; Big Five Lakes to Precipice Lake

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Map of Day 3 on the trek in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park (red line). From Big Five Lakes to Precipice Lake.

Day 3 hike map (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile for the Day 3 hike.

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.

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View on the way to Little Five Lakes.
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Looking down at one of the Big Five Lakes.
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View on the way to Little Five Lakes.

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.

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Approaching Little Five Lakes.
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Little Five Lakes (Lake 10476).
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Little Five Lakes (Lake 10476).
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Leaving Little Five Lakes area.
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Looking back down the Big Arroyo area.

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.

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Junction to start on 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.

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View along the High Sierra Trail.
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View along the High Sierra Trail.
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View along the High Sierra Trail looking towards the Nine Lakes Basin.
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Un-named lake in the Nine Lakes Basin.
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View along the High Sierra Trail looking at the peaks across from 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.

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Looking up the trail towards the Kaweah Gap.
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View looking back into the Nine Lakes Basin from the Kaweah Gap.
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Ridge to the side of the Kaweak Gap.
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Just over the Kaweak Gap along the trail towards Precipice Lake.

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.

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Panoramic view of Precipice Lake.
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Close-up of the vertical wall at Precipice Lake.
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Taking in the view at Precipice Lake (pictured: North Face Venture 2 Rain Jacket)
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Looking down at the Hamilton Lakes Basin.
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It’s hard to beat the view from this campsite (pictured: Icebreaker Oasis Long Sleeve Shirt)
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View from Precipice Lake campsite looking into the Hamilton Lakes Basin (panoramic).
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Our campsite at Precipice Lake (pictured: ALPS Mountaineering Chaos 2 Tent)
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Taking in the view before sunset (pictured: prAna Lyra Down Jacket)
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Watching the sun set from camp.

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Day 4: day hike back into the Nine Lakes Basin to explore. Camp at Precipice Lake again.

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Day 4 hike map (green line).
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Approximate elevation profile for the day 4 hike.

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.

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View looking down Big Arroyo from the Nine Lakes Basin.
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More exploring in the Nine Lakes Basin (pictured: Kelty Lakota 65 Backpack)
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Looking towards the Kaweah Gap from deeper in the Nine Lakes Basin.

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Day 5: ~9.4 miles; +1,400 ft / -5,600 ft; Precipice Lake to Eagle Scout Creek.

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Map of Day 5 on the trek in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park (light blue) from Precipice Lake to the Eagle Scout Creek.

Day 5 hike map (pdf)

Mineral_King_Day5_Elevation.JPG
Approximate elevation profile of the day 5 hike.

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…

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The first view of the Upper Hamilton Lake. The trail is on the right side of the picture.

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.

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Looking back towards Precipice Lake (top left).
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Panoramic photo showing Upper Hamilton Lake and the basin in which it sits.
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If you look closely on the right side, you can see the switchbacks going down into the basin.

Once you reach Upper Hamilton Lake, you can explore the lake area. This lake makes for a great lunch spot and is gorgeous.

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Looking up towards Precipice Lake from the edge of Upper Hamilton Lake.
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View of Upper Hamilton Lake and the vertical wall at Precipice Lake (upper left).

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.

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Part of the “Valhalla” rock structure in the Hamilton Lakes Basin.
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Looking down at the Lower Hamilton Lake.
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Rock tunnel along the High Sierra Trial.
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Inside the tunnel (pictured: Inflatable Solar Latern and 2 Liter hydration bladder)
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View leaving the Hamilton Lakes Basin along the High Sierra Trail.
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View leaving the Hamilton Lakes Basin along the High Sierra Trail.
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Another view leaving the Hamilton Lakes Basin along the High Sierra Trail.
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One more view leaving the Hamilton Lakes Basin along the High Sierra Trail.

Eventually the terrain changes from granite rock to a forest as you approach the Bear Paw Meadows area.

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View leaving the Hamilton Lakes Basin along the High Sierra Trail and heading towards Bear Paw meadows.
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After Bear Paw Meadows you begin hiking through a forested area.
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View from our creek side campsite on night 5.

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Day 6: ~9.5 miles; +4,400 ft / -2,600 ft; Eagle Scout Creek to Sawtooth parking lot.

Mineral_King_Day6_map
Map of Day 6 on the trek in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park (orange) from Eagle Scout Creek to the Sawtooth parking lot.

Day 6 hike map (pdf)

Mineral_King_Day6_Elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the day 6 hike.

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.

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View along the trail to Timber Gap.
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View along the trail to Timber Gap.

You also pass through a redwood meadow, which has some very large redwoods and a horse camp.

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Redwood Meadows.
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Redwood Meadow camp.
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Redwood trees in the Redwood Meadow Grove.

As you climb up Timber Gap there are some nice views looking back.

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View looking back as you hike up Timber Gap.

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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8 Replies to “Sequoia National Park – Mineral King Area – Sawtooth Pass and High Sierra Trail”

  1. Thanks for sharing. what a great trip. we did Sawtooth Peak on July 1st this year. There was so much snow on that day. I had a hard time recognizing some of the places I saw.

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    1. I can imagine things were much different this year! We went towards the end of the drought, so we didn’t see any snow at all. It made for a really relaxing and easy hike without any need for crampons or other snow equipment. I bet the steep climb up Sawtooth was much trickier when the slope was covered with snow!

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  2. Hi we are doing a similar 5 day trip this summer. Is there anything you did that you would recommend against? Also how was the mosquito situation. Last year we did a trip in the northern part of the park (granite basin) and the mosquitos were absolutely nightmarish.

    Cheers
    Dave

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    1. Overall we really liked the loop and I wouldn’t have done anything differently! Depending on the snowpack this year, you may want to camp at Hamilton Lakes or the 9 Lakes Basin instead of Precipice Lake if there is still snow at Precipice. It’s probably also worth checking with the rangers about the condition of Sawtooth Pass before you go as well. I have heard that it can be snowy and a little tricky to hike early in the season.

      When we did the hike, there were minimal issues with mosquitos until we got to our last campsite. There were also some annoying flies when hiking from Precipice Lake to Bearpaw Meadows, but they didn’t bite (they just buzzed around your head). However, we went at the tail end of the drought, so it could have been more dry than usual (we also went late in the summer too). I imagine there could be more bugs this year, especially in July/August.

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    1. The temperatures were very pleasant when we went. During the day it was in the 70s. At night it got chilly do we had to put on our layers, but it was not too bad. Mornings were chilly too, but it warmed up quickly!

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