Nestled deep within Sequoia National Park and the Great Western Divide lays a hidden high-altitude oasis full of rust-colored ridges and alpine lakes. The Mineral King area is not as well trafficked as the giant forest section of the park, but if you’re looking for well-groomed trails, indigo waters, and solitude, your extra effort getting there will be rewarded.
From the town of Three Rivers, turn right onto a narrow, poorly maintained country road. It winds up and through the mountains for the next 25 miles, often slimming down to one lane, so take your time and expect this journey to take a while. Stop at the Sequoia National Park kiosk to pay the park entrance fee before continuing toward the ranger station. If you’re going to be overnight backpacking in this area, you’ll need to stop to get a permit from the rangers or arrange for one in advance by emailing the wilderness office and picking it up there. Permits are $10 plus $5 for each camper. They do fill up in busy summer months, so make sure you plan ahead.
In late summer, the park will issue a marmot warning at the trailhead; the little critters like to crawl about the undercarriage of idle vehicles and chew on foam parts and brake cables. It is highly recommended to bring a large tarp, drive onto it, and wrap it up and around all sides of your car if you’re venturing out in Mineral King. If you don’t have a tarp that large, park at the Tar Gap parking lot and walk an extra mile down the paved road before beginning your adventure at the Franklin Lakes Trailhead.
The trail starts off by passing a corral of horses and traversing across a relatively flat portion of the Mineral King Valley. About a mile into the hike, a large waterfall appears on the left, rushing past hikers with a torrent of ice-cold snowmelt. Carefully boulder-hop your way across the stream below and continue straight ahead. From here, the trail begins the first of many switchbacks. Wildflowers burst out of the hills as you climb, and the scent is intoxicating. Go slowly and be grateful that the trail is gently graded for almost its entirety. The switchbacks are your friends!
In about 2.5 more miles the trail hits a junction for Farewell Gap. Make sure to veer left and continue on toward Franklin Lake and Franklin Pass. You’ll curve alongside the massive Tulare Peak before another marshy stream crossing. Here you’ll begin to clearly see the difference in rock formations from the rest of Sequoia National Park. The high concentration of iron and other minerals gives these mountains rust- and blood-colored hues as opposed to the austere granite that characterizes most of the Sierra.
As you continue climbing, the trail parallels Franklin Creek more closely, and a dazzling array of wildflowers bursts out of the hillside. Bigelow’s sneezeweeds, Indian paintbrush, mountain lupines, and bright western columbines all grace the horizon and give the alpine environment magical pops of life. This is also one of the few trails in the Sierra where you might spot a blazing star—an electric-yellow bloom with delicate fuzzy stamens at its center.
From here, it’s only a quick walk before you’ll get your first glimpse of Franklin Lake and its large historic dam on the north side. Florence Peak towers over the impressive cirque, and Rainbow Mountain looms over the east side. For the best campsites or an afternoon picnic spot with a jaw-dropping view, ignore the first turnout for camping below the dam and continue up the trail about a half-mile until you come upon several large granite ledges to the right. There’s a bear box here to stash food and toiletries overnight and several choice tent sites with an epic view of this beautiful sapphire lake. Enjoy the solitude of this pristine alpine environment and dare to take a dip in the ice-cold water if you’re brave enough! Due to its incredibly remote location, the views of the Milky Way and the night sky from this area are some of the best in the Sierra, which makes it a fantastic spot for stargazing and meteor watching.
If you’d like to hike on or get a more panoramic view, the trail continues up several wide, gently graded switchbacks to Franklin Pass (11,760 feet). When you’ve had enough of the ancient foxtail pines and deep blue water of Franklin Lake, head back down the trailhead the way you came in and enjoy the fragrant mountain sage as you descend.