Pets allowed
Not Allowed
Elevation Gain
8,547.00 ft (2,605.13 m)
Trail type
Loop
Distance
27.00 mi (43.45 km)
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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.

Additional Notes:

Some important notes about Mineral King:

  • Backcountry permits and bear canisters are required for overnight trips in Sequoia National Park. Both are available at the Mineral King ranger station during peak months (June-September). If you are heading out in spring or fall, self-issued permits can be obtained outside the ranger station and bear canisters can be rented from numerous outdoor gear shops in Visalia, Fresno, and elsewhere. Be prepared to see rangers, as they are out and about on trails.
  • Marmots have posed a serious problem for a few unlucky hikers who park their cars at Sequoia National Park's Mineral King trailheads in the late spring and early summer months. They have been known to crawl up into engine compartments and chew on everything from electrical wiring to hoses, disabling some vehicles. This is thought to occur due to a lack of salt content in the Marmot’s natural food source until later in summer, and the threat seems to decrease after mid-July. Hikers on this Glacier Pass, Sawtooth Pass + Big Five Lakes loop can avoid this potential issue either by parking near the ranger station a mile from the Sawtooth Trailhead (marmots seem to stay higher up the valley), or by wrapping the lower third of their vehicle in a tarp diaper, which helps prevent marmots from climbing into the engine compartment via wheel wells. For the latter method you’ll need a tarp large enough to drive onto; you then wrap the tarp above the wheel wells around the entire vehicle. Secure in a diaper fashion with lanyard or rope.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer

Congestion

Low

Parking Pass

National Park Pass

Pros

Quick access to the high Sierra. Good Fishing. Nice mix of trail and cross-country travel.

Cons

Rough access road. Marmot issues at trailhead in late spring and early summer.

Trailhead Elevation

7,820.00 ft (2,383.54 m)

Features

Backcountry camping
Big Game Watching
Wildlife
Big vistas
Old-growth forest
Wildflowers
Fishing

Typically multi-day

No

Location

Nearby Adventures

Comments

07/22/2018
I did this loop in July 2018. It was absolutely stunning.
A few things to note: when we told the ranger at the front gate our itinerary, he was completely against it because of the glacier pass/spring lake route finding bit. Apparently a lot of people have been seeing this route here on outdoor project, and they're trying it when they do not have the experience or the preparation for off-trail/on snow travel.

He was very concerned, and kept bringing up the snow conditions of glacier pass as being too dangerous. He honestly looked like he was going to have a panic attack! We had to convince him we were more than experienced to do this route, but due to his obvious concern, we decided to do the loop backwards- go up over sawtooth first, then around big five lakes, over black rock pass, and then onto spring lake and glacier pass, then back out. We ended up going out on an unmaintained, unmarked trail that someone had named 'hell's trail' that a different ranger told us about.

Going backwards has multiple benefits:
1) The route will bring you past a ranger station just after big 5 lakes, where you can chat with the ranger about the snow conditions of glacier and get his/her opinion on the route. When we asked the ranger stationed there, he said we wouldn't have an issue (said he could tell based on the fact that we looked like we knew what we were doing and were making decent time).
2) The climb up black rock pass is much shorter and way easier this way. The view from the top is spectacular, and leads me to benefit number 3:
3) You can see Glacier pass from the top of black rock pass. I had a pair of binoculars on me and we were able to 'scout' the pass. From the ranger's updates, we knew there were 3 snow patches to cross. So we were able to quickly identify it and talk it through. We didn't have any fall arrest device (ice axe or otherwise) but saw a way we could skirt around the snow/ice patches. At this point, if we had felt that glacier was too sketchy, we could finish the loop via the timber gap (which is apparently a super shitty slog of a boring hike, but very safe compared to glacier pass).
4) Climbing up glacier pass, in my opinion, is much easier than trying to find and climb down it from the beginning. We camped at spring lake for our last night and hiked up the pass in the morning. We were able to completely avoid the snow, but had to do some decent boulder crawling to do so. It would have been sketchy in bad weather, but we were lucky with clear skies. You can see a cairn clearly marking the pass from below. NOTE: for the last 100 feet of the pass, it gets STEEP. Like near vertical. It is sketchy. Due to our unusual route to get to the pass (skirting the snow) we found A WHOLE TENT, and several Nalgene bottles beneath the pass. People have obviously lost gear here trying to climb/descend the pass. Stuff slid off their packs (due to the steepness) and then went over the edge. They obviously felt it too unsafe to try and go after the stuff they had lost, which should give you an idea of how technical this pass can be.

My friend packed the tent we found out, reported it, but no one claimed it so he got to keep a nice north face tent, for free.
We just did that loop in reverse last week 10/16. First night at Columbine lake, second at Spring lake. It's all gorgeous. We didn't see anybody for two days after Monarch lakes #goodtimes.
Glacier pass is getting a little tricky as there's snow. But we were fine without any crampons. Temperatures are mid to low 20's so plan accordingly.
We didn't have GPS but got a paper topo map at the park.
One major note: TOTAL net elevation gain is close to 7,300ft. The PDF mentions 3,810ft - that's just the first pass.
Have fun!
09/22/2018
We tried doing this last weekend. For glacier pass itself the GPS track from HikingProject (traversing right after the pass along a ledge system on Elephant peak) led us onto extremely loose sand/rock above a 100ft cliff. Possibly there's been a rock slide since others have done it, but as it was it seemed extremely unsafe without a backpack let alone with one. We turned back and did Sawtooth Pass. In retrospect the map here (on OutdoorProject) makes it look like the route goes more directly through the pass at its weakest point (we didn't see any cairns though). We'd had our fill of sphincter-tightening for the day so we didn't try that way, YMMV.

The rest of the loop is gorgeous, but I can't recommend glacier pass with a clear conscience!
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