2010 Mineral King Loop

Description: Classic loop from the Mineral King trailhead along Timber Gap, Blackrock Pass, Big Five Lakes, Lost Canyon, Columbine Lake, Sawtooth Pass and back.

Day 1:

The infamous Mineral Kings Road, unavoidable for hikes out of the Mineral King trailhead, lived up to its reputation as a twisty, seemingly endless road. After passing a taxi in the opposite direction my thoughts turned to the many stories of trailhead cars disabled by marmots with an appetite for auto parts. At the ranger station, I was assured that the last marmot incident occurred 3 weeks prior. The ranger also cautioned me to start my hike slowly, as the initial section was steep. But it’s always been difficult for me to temper the excitement of finally getting on the trail with the wisdom of starting slow.

As I hiked towards Timber Gap, it seemed that I was perpetually within earshot of a calming cascade or running creek. In fact, this continued on the entire route to Cliff Creek. Shortly after cresting the hill at Timber Gap, the trail descended alongside miles of wildflowers and I could see the Timber Gap Creek below me to the left. Don't count on getting water here though, as the climb down to the creek looked treacherous. A little further down, the trail bottoms out and crosses Cliff Creek. The trail then climbs steadily alongside Cliff Creek and its occasional cascades.

I was on autopilot watching my feet navigate over a section of rocky terrain, when I looked up and had my first backcountry bear experience. The bear and I both stopped in our tracks as we noticed each other simultaneously. While I fumbled for my camera, the bear continued on its way into the bushes, the same bushes where my trail was heading. Since I couldn't see if he was still there, I waited about 10 minutes before continuing, whistle in mouth in preparation to scare it off if necessary. The 10 minute rest was well timed as the next few miles would be a steeper exposed ascent.

I finally reached the campsites at Cliff Creek/Pinto Lake. Although a pleasant area close to the creek, it was difficult to appreciate due to the mosquitoes that had been absent until now. I used my headnet for the first time in about 10 years of backpacking.

Flowers abound past Timber Gap


Cliff Creek cascades


Hello bear!


More cascades


Tomorrow's obstacle - 11,600ft Black Rock Pass to cross the Great Western Divide


Day 2:

I chatted with a neighbor the next morning hoping for some beta on the morning’s hike over Black Rock Pass. He admitted that it had been too many years since he’d been on that route and now he’s just camping at Cliff Creek and exploring the area. I couldn't help but think that Cliff Creek was at best, a layover destination in order to get to a better place, but this opinion was influenced by the mosquitoes and my preference for higher elevation scenery. In any case, he did provide some advice, “Don’t cross the river”, that would have been valuable had I listened.

I always have trouble following trails around campsites and lakes due to the many intercepting use trails. Today was no exception. I saw a path cutting through the marshy grass but thought that would be a silly place for a trail. So, ignoring the morning advice I was given, I crossed the river in search of the main trail. After about 30 minutes of wandering around, I returned and followed the marshy path, finally finding my way out of the Cliff Creek/Pinto Lake area.

The slow grind up was alleviated by magnificent views to the south, first of Spring Lake, then Cyclamen Lake and finally Columbine Lake, which seemed so far away. It was strange to think that I would be at Columbine Lake in a day. I finally crested Black Rock Pass and found even more magnificent views of the Big and Little Five Lakes and of the Kaweah Range. I congratulated myself for ascending 3000ft in 3 miles and amply rewarded myself with a lunch break of salami, cheese, and pita bread, nourishment I would need for the 2nd half of today’s hike.

With renewed energy, I descended down to the Five Lakes basin at a quick pace. At a junction, I decided to detour to the largest of the Big Five Lakes to look for a campsite, even though I would have to backtrack a little the next day. After setting up camp, I tried my luck at fishing. Quantity prevailed over size here as I was able to hook a golden about every other cast. I spent the rest of the late afternoon and evening appreciating the mosquito-free campsite.

On the way towards Black Rock Pass with Spring Lake coming into view


Further up towards the pass, Spring, Cyclamen, and Columbine Lakes are now visible


Lakes below Black Rock Pass


The Kaweah range


Closer view of the Kaweahs


Campsite at one of the Big Five Lakes


Day 3:

The next day, I traveled along the mostly forested trail to the Lost Canyon junction towards Columbine Lake and Sawtooth Pass. The hike through Lost Canyon was nice, as expected, and I was accompanied the entire way by a flowing stream.

I slowly made my way up the dry and sandy trail to beautiful Columbine Lake, situated below the magnificent Sawtooth Peak. The area was windy but I found an ideal campsite, about 150 ft from the lake’s edge, protected on 1 side by a short granite wall.

After setting up camp, I took out my fishing gear and tossed my Kastmaster into the water. The brookies immediately responded by hooking themselves about every other cast. After a few more minutes of this, I decided to explore the area. Looking south, I gazed across at Black Rock Pass, trying to find the trail I had used and also appreciated new perspectives of Spring and Cyclamen lakes. The moon was out early which created some nice photo opportunities.

I met an older couple who were also staying at the lake. Amazingly, they came up the steep and sandy west side of Sawtooth pass. We marveled at the scenery and I commented on all the flowers that I had seen on the way to Cliff Creek/Pinto Lake. The woman excitedly recited the Latin names of the various flowers she had seen. I nodded in agreement though unfortunately for me, they were “pretty flowers”. I mentioned to them that the fishing here was fantastic so the gentleman decided to give it a try. His face lit up with excitement as he caught a fish on his first cast. As I continued to explore the area, I looked back a few times, each time seeing him excitedly reel in more fish. He ended up packing the fish in ice for breakfast.

Trail along Lost Canyon


Towards the end of the canyon before heading up to Columbine Lake




Columbine Lake and Sawtooth Peak


One last look at Lost Canyon


Campsite at Columbine Lake with a Sawtooth Peak backdrop


Cyclamen and Spring Lake, Black Rock Pass on the right


Nearly full moon


Reflection over Columbine Lake


Day 4:

Tuesday morning was both exciting and sad. The plan was to climb up and over Sawtooth pass, crossing the Great Western Divide again, and head home. I followed many series of cairns, placed by multiple hikers marking their own different paths, towards Sawtooth pass. I was surprised to be bothered by mosquitoes the entire way up, even at the top. I was an easy victim as my pace was slow and I did not have spare energy to swat them away.

At the top of the pass, I started heading towards Sawtooth peak. I hadn't traveled far before deciding against a solo trip to the peak, although I would later regret that decision. The west side of the pass was comprised of small pebbles and deep sand and the path down was arbitrary. I found the fastest and easiest way to descend was to use a skiing motion. Slaloming down was fast and fun and I reached lower Monarch Lake in a short period of time, appreciative that I was not going the opposite direction. Although I had planned on stopping here for lunch, swarming mosquitoes forced me to move on.

A few miles from the trailhead, I crossed paths with a group of hikers on the way up. I warned them of the mosquitoes and was surprised to hear they did not have repellent. I suggested another nearby lake if they wanted to try it and gave them my map of the area, as they didn't have a map either. After reaching the parking lot, I began to make plans for a return trip.

Looking back at Columbine Lake from the trail to Sawtooth Pass


The ridge to Sawtooth Peak from the pass


Southwest view from Sawtooth Pass showing the contrast between granitic and metamorphic rocks


NE view from Sawtooth Pass - One last look at the Kaweahs


Monarch Lakes and the metamorphic Mineral Peak


West side of Sawtooth Pass - Much easier going down than up


On the way home