Sequoia National Park is more than just a host to its namesake trees. The Mineral King region of this park is a perfect example of its diversity. Located in its southeastern sector, the Mineral King area is the starting point for many excellent loop-option backpacking trips varying in length from three days to as many as your legs can handle. The traditional Mineral King Loop includes Pinto Lake, Black Rock Pass, Little 5 Lakes, Columbine Lake, and Sawtooth Pass. The adventure described below is an extended version of this traditional hike, which includes part of the famous scenery of the High Sierra Trail, while still maintaining the convenient loop-style hike.
The trip begins with a significant climb out of the Mineral King Area over Timber Gap. Begin this day early to avoid climbing this exposed trail in the direct sun. Once at the top, the trail sharply descends into the valley below. Redwood Meadow and campground makes for a convenient stopping point if you are unable to make it to Hamilton Creek. Immediately across Hamilton Creek, there are several excellent places for tents as well as a fire ring.
At this point the views reach a new level, but first comes the climb out of Hamilton Creek to the Bear Paw High Camp. Following this climb, the trail joins the High Sierra Trail and descends to Lone Pine Creek. From here the trail climbs on a well maintained but steep trail across Hamilton Falls and to the indescribable Hamilton Lake. This popular lake has numerous excellent camping locations, but it will be crowded throughout the summer. As such, the park has instituted a one-day limit for camping here. Trout are numerous and the alpenglow at sunset is not to be missed.
Once again the day starts out with a big climb past Precipice Lake, made famous by Ansel Adams, and over Kaweah Gap. Arguably the most scenic miles of the trail, an early morning start will keep you out of the midday sun. Once over Kaweah Gap, a gentle and long downhill awaits as the trail winds through the meadows of Arroyo Canyon. Two river crossings in this meadow help to cool aching feet from the downhill pounding. The day ends with a sharp, steep uphill to Little 5 Lakes. The best campsites exist on the trail toward Black Rock Pass. With lush meadows surrounding this lake, be prepared for mosquitoes if the wind is down.
This short day allows just enough miles to stretch the legs, but it leaves plenty of time to explore and trout fish at the beautiful Big 5 Lakes area. The best campsites here are on the granite mounds surrounding the western border along middle of the Big 5 Lakes. For those with less time or who are able to log more miles, Big 5 Lakes has nicer camping spots, fewer mosquitoes, and many more trout than Little 5 Lakes.
The trail descends to the outlet of the lower Big 5 Lakes. The trail here is difficult to follow. Over the creek outlet the trail tracks west (right) and ascends sharply out of the valley. The climb takes hikers to the bottom of Lost Canyon Creek, a stream cutting through an idyllic meadow surrounded by sheer granite cliffs. This canyon is a direct pathway to the final climb for the day up to Columbine Lake. While intimidating on the topo map, this climb is surprisingly gentle on an extremely well designed trail. Columbine Lake is picturesque, surrounded on three sides by large jagged mountains. The lake is crystal clear and full of trout. The high-altitude camping spot provides a great opportunity for stargazing.
The day's festivities begin with an ascent up the unmaintained trail over Sawtooth Gap. While unmaintained, there remains a semblance of a trail with numerous cairns to direct travelers along the easiest route. Over the top, the trail descends sharply down a scree and gravel slope. The traveling can only be described as skiing with boots. Undoubtedly it will be the most fun mile of hiking on the trip. Monarch Lake greets hikers at the bottom. Following Monarch Lake a long gentle downhill to the trailhead is all that remains to complete this loop.
Bear canisters are required and are available for rent at the ranger station.
The narrow Mineral King Road twists and turns infamously. This 25-mile section will take over an hour to navigate.
As with all national park hikes, reserve a permit in advance, because they will often sell out. You must pick up your permit by 4:00 p.m. the day before or by 9:00 a.m. the day of your hike. If you'll be arriving the day prior, the Cold Springs Campground offers a convenient overnight location in a first-come, first-served campground for $12 per site.