The Mineral King area of California's Sequoia National Park provides hiking access to some of the most spectacular high country in the southern Sierra. It is well worth enduring the poorly maintained, 25-mile Mineral King Road to access this subalpine glacial valley; you will not be disappointed. There are several day and multi-day backcountry hiking loop options available from the Mineral King Valley. Hiking the Glacier Pass to Sawtooth Pass Loop via Big Five Lakes qualifies at the top of this list. If you are interested in a loop that is approximately 27 miles long and blends cross-country route finding and on-trail travel, stunning alpine landscape, and high Sierra lake fishing, this hike is for you.
Begin the 3,500-foot ascent at the Sawtooth Trailhead following signs to Sawtooth Pass. This lower section of the trail takes you to Groundhog Meadow and across Monarch Creek. Continue on the trail through an old-growth red fir forest before breaking through tree line below Monarch Lakes. Stop for a bite here and soak in the scenery, but keep a watchful eye on your bags as the marmots are anything but shy.
Continue on the trail above Monarch Lakes toward Sawtooth Pass. The official trail tapers off here, and the pitch to Sawtooth Pass and Glacier Pass becomes a steep slog, but it is worth the effort. Continue up one of the approach trails until you are roughly 300 feet below Sawtooth Pass, then head north (turn left) toward Glacier Pass – the low point in the ridge between Empire Mountain and Sawtooth Pass. Glacier Pass is third-class climbing that is easily navigated by those in good shape. (Note: there is an unmaintained trail from Groundhog Meadow that leads to Glacier Pass, but it is steep and isn't likely to save time if you are carrying overnight gear).
From Glacier Pass, descend cross-country through alpine meadows and bristlecone pine to Spring Lake. Choose from a plethora of awe-inspiring backcountry campsites at Spring Lake, along with some decent fishing for small trout. Here you will catch mostly rainbow and California golden trout in the 6-inch range. The National Park Service stocked hundreds of high elevation lakes until 1988, when they decided to change the policy and end their stocking program.
After a night at Spring Lake, continue cross-country to the Black Rock Pass trail and ascend 1,500 feet to the pass. Once you've reached Black Rock Pass you will be standing on the Great Western Divide, the range that separates the westward-flowing Kaweah watershed from the southerly-flowing Kern watershed. Views east look out across Big Arroyo toward the Kaweah Peaks Range where Kaweah Queen, Black Kaweah and Red Kaweah dominate the skyline at elevations well over 13,000 feet. The trail from the pass winds down through rocky outcroppings to the Little Five Lakes and Big Five Lakes basins. Little Five Lakes has a seasonal ranger station with established campsites and bear boxes. At Big Five Lakes you’ll likely be alone. If you have the time and are open to adding a couple of miles to your trip, consider exploring the Little Five and Big Five Lakes area. The fishing can be good in these lakes. Throw a bug or two and see what’s biting.
Departing Big Five Lakes, head southeast along the trail through lodgepole pine and red fir forest as you descend to 9,600 feet at the junction with Lost Canyon. Follow the Lost Canyon trail west and emerge from the forest into the box canyon proper. Steep, glacially carved granite walls form the cradle of meadow and boulders along the floor of the canyon. Ascend the west end of the canyon 1,400 feet to Columbine Lake. At 11,000 feet, Columbine Lake is an ideal setting to spend your final night. Take in the grandeur of this high alpine playground as Sawtooth Peak watches over you. Sawtooth Peak is a classic Class II climb that takes a couple of hours round-trip from Sawtooth Pass.
The final ascent of the loop takes you to Sawtooth Pass. Views of Lost Canyon, Big Arroyo, Kern Canyon and the west side of Mount Whitney (on a clear day) are enjoyed from here. Descend down the climber’s trail approximately 300 feet and reconnect with the same route that you ascended a few days prior on your way to Glacier Pass. Return to the Sawtooth Trailhead the same way you came up.
Some important notes about Mineral King: