If you’re on the hunt for an easy Class 3 ridge scramble in the Sierra and Sequoia National Park but you don’t want to get up to 14,000 feet, Florence Peak (12,438 feet) is an incredible backcountry destination. It scores high marks for its easy access to beautiful backpacking campsites surrounding Lower Franklin Lake, which sits just below the summit at an elevation of 10,335 feet.
Instead of taking the main General’s Highway through Sequoia National Park, this adventure begins by veering right onto Mineral King Road from the town of Three Rivers. This off-the-beaten-path road is poorly maintained and very narrow, twisting and turning for 25 miles as you climb deep into the park. If you’re planning to do this as an overnight trip, which is highly recommended for acclimatization, be sure to arrange for a backcountry permit by emailing Sequoia National Park’s wilderness office and picking it up at the ranger station located 24 miles up the road. Permits for overnight camping cost $10 each plus $5 per person in your group.
In late summer to early fall, the park usually issues a marmot warning at the parking lots near the Franklin Pass Trailhead. These tenacious little varmints like to crawl inside the undercarriage of people’s cars, chewing on vital components or latching on as stowaways. It is recommended to park in the Tar Gap parking lot and hike in an extra mile along the paved road if you do not have a tarp to enclose the bottom half of your car for protection. The Franklin Pass trailhead is signed and begins at a closed gate that marks the end of Mineral King Road. Pass the horse corral on your left and start hiking.
The trail starts off mellow and quickly crosses Crystal and Franklin Creeks. The second of these crossings features a massive, roaring waterfall descending down from the alpine lake above. Boulder hop across the ice-cold snow melt and continue up the first set of switchbacks. Once you get to the junction for Farewell Gap, make sure you swerve left toward Franklin Lakes. You’ll hit a few more switchbacks, eventually curving around the rust-colored edge of Tulare Peak, a striking geological formation that really gives you a sense of why this region is called Mineral King, famous for its mining at the turn of the century.
If you'll be attempting this trail in July or August, dozens of wildflowers like corn lilies, mountain lupines, western columbines, and Indian paintbrush burst out of the landscape like pops of tiny fireworks. They add welcome dashes of color and an incredible fragrance as you ascend higher into the alpine environment. A little over 5 miles into the hike you’ll get your first glimpse of Florence Peak and the massive dam for Franklin Lake that lies below it. Skip the first turnout for campsites on the right and continue up to the large, granite ledges that surround the east side of Lower Franklin Lake. If you want to stop for a snack break or drop your gear and set up camp, this area offers an unbeatable view and easy access to the deep, indigo water of the alpine lake.
To get to Florence Peak’s east ridge, continue up the wide, gently graded switchbacks all the way to Franklin Pass (11,800 feet). Be sure to budget lots of time for this, because the ascent adds a fair amount of mileage to the trek, and the switchbacks are entirely at high altitude. Once you get to the top of the pass, marvel at the stunning views of Franklin Lakes and the Great Western Divide. Turn right and you’ll see the east ridge up Florence Peak come into full view with its massive boulders and occasional late-season snow. There is a faint trail through the sand that gets you to the ridge, and a bit of easy route finding should help you keep the climb at Class 3. If you want more of a challenge or just love exposure, you can choose to traverse the larger rocks on the knife’s edge of the ridge, or you can elect to keep the route at an easy Class 3 scramble by staying a bit more to the left. Toward the last 200 feet of the climb, rock cairns start to come into view, and they are very helpful when trying to keep the climb at a Class 2 to 3 level.
From the summit, enjoy a vista of the entire Mineral King Valley, Tulare Peak, and Rainbow Mountain. As the highest point rising out of Mineral King, Florence Peak dominates the landscape and gives a 360-degree view of much of Sequoia National Park and the surrounding landscape. When you’ve had enough of these panoramic views, turn around and carefully climb down the way you came. Take in the epic night sky from the remote campsites by Franklin Lake or hike down to the parking lot the same way you came in. In either case, this is a great summer scramble for anyone looking to up his or her mountaineering game in the Sierra!