Backpacking Trip to Mineral King (Oct 5-7, 2001)

October 6th-8th
28 miles

Sawtooth pass trailhead to Glacier Pass, cross country to Spring Lake (1st night).
Spring Lake cross country to Black Rock pass trail, Black Rock pass, little five lakes, big five lakes, lake 10040+ (2nd night).
Lake 10040+, lost Canyon, Columbine lake, Sawtooth Pass, Sawtooth Peak, Monarch Lakes, Groundhog Meadow, Sawtooth Pass trailhead.

Liz, Henri and I decided that we should make a last trip before the 2001 backpacking season was over. After debating where to go, we chose Mineral King, primarily because none of us have ever been there before.

On October 4th, we left the Bay Area for the long drive to Mineral King. The last 25 miles of the road are a very interesting drive. It's a very long, windy, narrow road with some dirt segments (these segments are in excellent condition and they are passable by any passenger vehicle). We spent the night atr Cold Springs campground.

Early on October 6th, we went to the Ranger Station and we found it close for the season. After getting our self-issue permits, we headed to the trailhead, where we met the owner of one of the private vacation houses inside the National Park. She has been preparing the house for the winter and she was heading home that day.

Sawtooth Pass trailhead

It was quite cold in the morning and we were in the shadow of the mountains, so we started all bundled up in our fleece. That change dramatically after we hit the sun. The temperature started to rise and the trail was steep and exposed, so we quickly packed our fleece and put sunscreen.

The steep, hot trail to Groundhog Meadows

After reaching Groundhog Meadows there were two possible trails: an "official" trail and an "unmaintained" trail. We decided to take the official trail (despite being longer) as the reason the other trail is unmaintained is that it was causing erosion on the mountain side. The two trails merge around Monarch Lakes (10380ft) where we had lunch.

Liz and Henri with Monarch Lakes in the background

From Monarch Lakes, a "cross country" route climbs the sandy slopes to Sawtooth Pass. At first, it was easy to follow a trail, but eventually, we just went up. After reaching the ridge line, we traversed horizontally to Glacier Pass. We heard that Glacier Pass was class 3, and we were not sure if we could do it with packs. After we reached the lowest point on the ridge (where you would expect the pass to be), we found that the gully was upper class 3, even class 4. We started scouting around for a better route, but we couldn't find any. Finally, Arturo decided to climb a high point to see if there was a better route available. To our surprise, there was a Class 1 route about 200 feet Southeast of the lowest point (Note: a big snow field forms until late season in the North side of the pass, if there is snow the pass can be up to Class 3). From the bottom of the pass, it was an easy cross country down to Spring Lake (10050ft), our first camp.

Liz at Spring Lake

After a relaxing nap by the lake, we realized that clouds were gathering and that the weather was deteriorating. Liz and Henri quickly set up their tent, while Arturo (who didn't bring the tent) set up a lean-to. Sure enough, it started raining (but there was no lightning) and it kept going for about 1 1/2 hour.

Arturo's lean-to Our campsite at Spring Lake

Spring Lake

The following morning, we headed to the outlet of the lake and hike cross country to the Black Rock Pass trail. There is a significant amount of talus when descending from the lake, but it quickly turns into an easy hike. After about a mile, we hit the Black Rock Pass trail and we headed to the pass. This trail is long and hot, but it has very nice views at the pass. We had a snack at the pass while enjoying views of the Kaweahs and the Little and Big Five Lake basin.

Partial View from Black Rock Pass

From the pass, we dropped to the Little Five lake basin. The first lake is a great break from the heat of the pass. This lake has a peninsula that it's just next to the trail. We got into the peninsula and had lunch. While Liz and Henri were napping, I was relaxing on a rock when I heard some noise on the other side of the peninsula. At first I thought it was some other hikers, but when I found the source of the noise, it was a mother bear and a cub. They were less than 30 feet from me (with water between us)! I tried to get my camera, but when I moved, they saw me and went away. I went back to the where Liz and Henri were and told them about the bears. We got our cameras and waited to see if they would come back... which it happened after less than 5 minutes. We were able to take a good look at the bears and it was reassuring to see them fat and ready for the winter. After they realized again that we were looking at them, the cub run up hill and hid behind a tree, while the mother stood her terrain and start checking us out. The cute cub kept peeking from behind the tree, while the huge mother bear stood between us and the cub. Eventually, the mother bear just turned around and left with the cub.

Mother Bear and a cub Close-up

We continued down the Little Five Lake basin passing the Ranger station (it was closed) and some outfitter storage camp (protected with a broken electric fence). From there, we took the trail that leads to Big Five Lakes. The start of this trail is very wet (even this late in the season) and some of it is on boardwalks. There are wonderful view of the Kaweah peaks from the trail.

Big Kaweah Black Kaweah

We lost some elevation and we hit the biggest of the Big Five lakes (9830ft). We found a bear box there, but we decided to continue further as it was still early. From the Big Five Lakes, switchbacks on a granite wall take you to a beautiful unnamed lake at 10040+ft. This is a very shallow lake (probably ideal for a swim in the summer) and it has good campsites. We spent the night there, enjoying a small campfire.

Lake 10040+

The following morning, we woke up early and headed down to the Lost Canyon. After reaching the Lost Canyon trail (where a bear box is located), a gentle uphill through forest follows the Lost Canyon creek (it fords the creek a few times). After a few miles, trees start disappearing and the hike continues on a lovely meadow. Soon, we were able to see Sawtooth Peak and the head of the canyon. Then, steep switchbacks led us to Columbine Lake.

Lost Canyon

Columbine Lake is a beautiful alpine lake. There we had lunch, while enjoying the view of Sawtooth Peak and admiring the huge cairn next to the lake (this was one of many that we found toward Sawtooth Pass). This lunch was a treat as we had too much extra fuel and we decided to have a warm meal. There is no bear box in Columbine Lake despite despite the bear-box map posted at the ranger station (we believe it was moved to the place where the Big Five Lake and Lost Canyon trails meet).

Columbine Lake and Sawtooth Peak (with the biggest cairn I've ever seen)

From Columbine Lake we followed huge cairns up a sandy slope towards the pass. This route is well marked, but one has to pay attention to the cairns as it's easy to get off route onto hard terrain. Sawtooth Pass was well marked with a big cairn and a pole with a white flag. At the pass, we dropped our packs and started to climb Sawtooth Peak. This was a very nice climb, a solid class-2 with some route finding. We found that it was advantageous to stay on the sandy ribbon going up and then scramble up the rocks when we reached the summit block. From the pass, it took us a little more than 30 minutes to get to the summit.

Sawtooth Peak

At the top of the summit of Sawtooth there is an ammo box with several booklets inside. The actual summit is a fin-like rock that protrudes towards the class-5 face of Sawtooth. Climbing this fin would be at least class 4, so we were contempt with "tagging" it.

Tagging the top of Sawtooth

Liz and Henri with the summit register

As we were at the top of Sawtooth, clouds started to gather, so we decided to return as fast as possible to Sawtooth pass. Half way during our return, the clouds covered us and visibility was about 100 feet. We follow our compass, and after some apprehensive moments, we spotted the white flag at the top of Sawtooth pass. We picked up our packs and descended the sandy slopes (now a lot more fun than in the way up) towards Monarch Lakes. From there, a long descend took us to the trailhead and our car.

Back at the trailhead

© 2001 Arturo Crespo (Text and pictures)