The Sierra summer backpacking season is coming to a close which means I am home again and can focus on the thousands of photos taken, hundreds of miles hiked and GPS-tracked, and long list of peaks summited. I’ll start with a report on a classic loop out of Mineral King featuring Timber Gap, Black Rock Pass, Little and Big Five Lakes, Lost Canyon, and Sawtooth Pass. Although it is under 30 miles long, this loop is typically done in four days or so since the elevation gain is so extreme (nearly 10k of vertical up and down). We did this hike in mid-August. Bear with me – this is a long report shoved into one blog post.
No matter which way you do this loop you will have a lot of climbing, but I strongly recommend going clockwise as we did. Otherwise, you’ll be climbing Sawtooth Pass on Day 1 and this is possibly the sloggiest slog that ever slogged on the west side of the Sierra. It is much easier to come down (i.e. ‘scree ski’) the steep and sandy slope (“wheeeeeeee!!!”)
I chose the four day trip to span a weekend – starting on Friday and exiting on Monday – to try and avoid as much weekend travel traffic as possible. Also, I wanted to be a day into the backcountry before the weekend crowds hit. The truth is this really wasn’t that important. Most people going on trips out of Mineral King are out for more than a weekend so the permits were still all taken. We saw plenty of people throughout the trip, but not as many as the ranger led us to believe (“oh, you’re spending the last night a Columbine Lake? You know there is no room to camp there? And there are also a lot of other people who will be there that night.” She lied. More on this later.)
The road into Mineral King is, to put it lightly, a nightmare. From the turnoff in Three Rivers it is 25 miles to the end of the road. This 25 miles takes approximately an hour and a half to drive and if you or anyone in your vehicle is prone to motion-sickness you will suffer. This is why you won’t run into many weekenders back in Mineral King – I know I wouldn’t put up with driving this road for anything shorter than a four day trip.
Within a few miles of the end of the road is Silver City Resort, a small collection of cabins, a shop, and a restaurant. This is one of my favorite little small cafes in the Sierra. The pies are absolutely amazing. I particularly like the Fruit of the Forest – I believe it has apples, wild strawberries, rhubarb, and blackberries (?). Whatever it is, it is almost worth the drive just to get a piece. Don’t miss stopping here for a great lunch before or after your hike (or both)!
Interested in maps and logistics? Check out the details here.
Okay, on with the trip report.
Day 1: Trailhead to Pinto Lake Via Timber Gap
This hike begins with the climb out of Mineral King. Every hike from here starts with a climb to some pass, and Timber Gap is probably the easiest one, even though a friend of mine has nicknamed it ‘Timber Gasp’. It’s about a 1500 foot climb in a little under 2.5 miles so the grade is relatively easy going. The biggest thing slowing us down was the fact that it was Day 1 – we had just driven from San Jose on that twisty road, it was hot, and we were not yet acclimated to the altitude. Still, we chugged up the trail and found ourselves on the shaded Timber Gap relatively quickly.
On Timber Gap we briefly enjoyed the view towards the ridge where the High Sierra Trail runs, then we continued down the trail to lose nearly 2300 ft on the descent to Cliff Creek. This stretch was densely packed with wildflowers and was quite pretty.
Upon crossing Cliff Creek we once again climbed. From the crossing, the trail ascends around 4500 feet to Black Rock Pass. About 1700 feet into this climb is Pinto Lake, a marshy and buggy uninteresting lake. But there is a bear box and some campsites scattered nearby. After the day’s drive and eight miles of hiking with over 3000 feet of climbing, we were running on fumes and chose a less-than-ideal dusty campsite to settle in for the night.
Day 2: Pinto Lake to Big Five Lakes via Black Rock Pass
Our morning started off early with Pavla scaring off a hungry deer that had discovered the delicious salty straps on the trekking poles left out in our camp. Both Pavla and Laurent suffered damage, but the deer left mine alone most likely since they were new and had not yet been soaked with the sweat of hundreds of miles of hiking.
I was a bit concerned about our departure this day since I had followed the trail the previous evening and lost it in the marshy terrain near Pinto Lake. Everything was fine though – about 300 feet of ankle-deep mud and water walking before emerging into rocky terrain again. There were a lot of wandering use trails from people looking to find the way, but sticking to the main track got us to the right place. And then the climb. 3000 feet to Black Rock Pass.
I’ve read reports that describe this pass as “an interminable slog”, but I rather enjoyed it. It’s steep, the grade isn’t always the best, and it’s sandy slick in some places. But the views towards Spring, Cyclamen, and Columbine Lake are breathtaking and I felt no guilt in stopping to catch my breath. In fact, I stopped more than I needed to simply to enjoy the view which got better as we climbed progressively higher and higher. I felt great upon topping out and let out a loud “woo hoo!”
The descent to Little Five is relatively straightforward, but just a warning: from the pass, it looks like the trail will go right next to the Upper lake. This is not the case – if you want to refill your water there you will have to go off-trail a bit. No big deal, as the trail does meet the water at the next lower lake. Another good thing about the lower lake: nice for a swim. And another: monster trout that make a delicious lunch.
The gentle terrain between Little and Big Five Lakes was a welcome respite from the trail over Black Rock Pass, and we eventually arrived at the upper Big Five Lakes where we settled in for the night with the mosquitoes and our fishing poles.
Day 3: Big Five Lakes to Columbine Lake
Although it was a mosquito-ey night at Big Five Lakes, we hung around in the morning for a short time while David grabbed a nice fish for breakfast. Once packed up we began the relatively easy day over to Lost Canyon and up to Columbine Lake.
First the trail descends to the lower of the Big Five Lakes – this one looks more heavily used and has a bear box for the crowds. However, on this nice Sunday we only saw a couple of other guys hiking through, but no one camped there. Past the lake, the trail climbs a bit and has some nice views of the Kaweahs and towards the Whitney crest before descending into Lost Canyon.
The hike up Lost Canyon starts off kind of dull with trees blocking the view. There is a nice creek flowing by so water is abundant, as were mosquitoes. After a couple of miles, though, the trail ascends above treeline into one of the most beautiful meadowy alpine areas I’ve seen in the Sierra. Although the climb is gentle and I wasn’t tired, I found myself stopping frequently to enjoy and photograph the flowers, a fish-packed meandering creek, and glacially-patterned granite walls.
Upon reaching the end of the meadowy canyon, the trail begins to switchback up to Columbine Lake. As the trail crests a small pass it fades away in the sandy gravel, but is marked well by cairns as it continues around Columbine Lake.
Columbine Lake is one of my favorite lakes in the Sierra. I arrived in the early afternoon and had hours to wander around, fish, and soak in the scenery. There is no shade here so prepare to cover yourself and go through lots of sunscreen. The fishing was great – all of us pulled out more brookies than we could count.
It is true that the camping space is limited at Columbine Lake, but the ranger’s warning of “no place to camp” was wrong. There are plenty places to pitch a tent, but several spaces were still partially snow covered and/or wet. There were some nice flat granite slabs for cowboy-camping, which I would have loved to do if the mosquitoes hadn’t been so bad. There were a couple of other people there that night, camped on the other side of the lake’s outlet – we had some nice chats with them but otherwise the lake was quiet and not busy, and there was plenty of room for the eight people or so who were camped there that night.
Day 4: Columbine Lake back to the Trailhead via Sawtooth Pass
Sawtooth Pass is only 700 feet above Columbine Lake and although there is no maintained trail the route is well marked with cairns and use trails. The climb is easy, though the last stretch of switchbacking use-trails is a bit sandy and annoying. But it’s nothing like the west side of the pass, where it drops over 1300 ft to Monarch Lakes in about a mile. The terrain is sandy and it would be an incredibly unpleasant climb (to put it mildly).
On the way down, I tightened up my boots and started plunge stepping and gravel-skiing, following random use trails that aimed in the general direction of Monarch Lake. I couldn’t help repeating to myself, “thank God for gaiters, thank God for gaiters.” Even then, I had to stop and empty my boots twice.
Monarch Lakes wasn’t impressive – it looked heavily used and the mosquitoes were the worst of the trip – so we decided not to linger and continued down to the trailhead. From Monarch Lakes to the trailhead it is back to maintained trail, and although it felt like the switchbacks would never end, we made it back to the car in good time. In fact, even with a stop at Silver City for more pie and that eternal drive out of Mineral King, we made it back home to San Jose before dark.
- Although I am glad I was finally able to hike over Timber Gap and up Cliff Creek, and I really actually enjoyed Black Rock Pass, I didn’t like the Pinto Lake area and would use Glacier Pass (cross-country) to access this area in the future. This cuts off many miles of rather ‘meh’ terrain and quite a bit of elevation gain.
- I never want to climb up Sawtooth Pass from the west side.
- I should have done Sawtooth Peak. Class 2 from Sawtooth Pass. But it was the last day and I was outvoted.
- The fishing was really good along this whole loop, especially at Columbine Lake and Little Five Lakes. We caught an assortment of trout varieties in a wide range of sizes.