Deep in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park's Mineral King area lies a pristine, alpine lake surrounded by jagged, high-altitude peaks. Aptly named Crystal Lake, this sparkling body of water is just a 4.5-mile hike from the Sawtooth Trailhead. This makes it an excellent choice for a day hike or an easy weekend backpacking trip, ascending to nearly 11,000 feet above sea level at its highest point.
If you're a fan of wildflowers, try to embark on this trip from late June through early August, as they are out in full force along the rushing streams and small waterfalls of the region. Corn lilies, mountain lupines, western columbines, and Indian paintbrush burst out of the landscape, turning the trail into a panoramic rainbow of life. Fishing is also allowed in summer months, but be sure to get a permit with the parks service first!
Rather than taking the well-maintained Generals Highway up and into the main areas of Sequoia National Park, this adventure begins by following the smaller and more rugged Mineral King Road out of Three Rivers. The road is famous for its 25 miles of twisting and turning as it ascends - often on what feels like a cliff's edge! If you attempt the drive at night, be sure to take your time and go slow. You might even get lucky and spot a fox or an elusive ring-tailed cat.
If you’re planning to do this as an overnight trip, make sure you 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, just after Silver City. Permits for overnight camping cost $10 each plus $5 per person in your group. They are also available on a first-come, first-served basis at 8 a.m. at the ranger station.
Park at the Sawtooth Trailhead and wrap your car in a tarp (they have a few to borrow just across from the ranger station!). Marmots in this area are tenacious and well-known for crawling into people's cars and chewing on their hoses and parts. If no parking is available, head a bit farther down the road or park at Tar Gap.
The trail begins with a few hot and dusty switcbacks before dipping deper into the backcountry and mellowing out under a canopy of old-growth pine trees. The ascent is more gentle from here until a well-signed trail junction, where you'll turn right and head away from Monarch Lake and toward your destination. Pretty soon you'll find yourself ascending another small set of switchbacks and cresting the top of a ridge with a stunning view of Mineral King and the tiny, sapphire Cobalt Lakes that lay below. Veer left and continue ascending through big wisps of mountain heather and lupines, completing the hike with another burly set of high-elevation switchbacks.
Keep your eyes peeled just before the lake, as the few backcountry tent spots are easy to miss. They are just west of the trail and overlook the valley you just traversed - a perfect spot to watch a magical, wilderness sunset. Continue past the campsites and up a few weathered stone steps to the base of Crystal Lake and her historic mining dam from turn of the century mineral extractions of yore. Strong bug spray is highly recommended because Sequoia's lakes are a frenzy at dawn and dusk. There are no bear boxes at this site, so pack your bear cannister or rent one at the ranger station for $5.
If you're day hiking, simply turn back the way you came when you're ready to leave or scramble up the Class 2 and 3 southwest ridge of Mineral Peak if you want an accesible, adventurous summit day. For overnighters, pick a spot just below the lake that strikes your fancy (no campfires allowed!) and enjoy the views as the sun dips behind massive, neighboring peaks. In the morning, hike out the same way you came, or connect the trail over Sawtooth Pass to the north for a multi-day thru hike.