This summer, my college roommate and I decided to embark on a backpacking adventure. He’s from Wisconsin and I’m from Oregon, so we decided on an area that was new to both of us. My requirement: available water. His requirement: mountains! After much deliberation, we decided on the gorgeous, high-altitude, alpine, lake-strewn, forested, and little-traveled Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park.
To say that the Mineral King area of Sequoia is off the beaten path would be an understatement. The Generals Highway section of the park, with its big trees, campgrounds, and tourist amenities, receives the bulk of Sequoia’s visitors. Visiting the Mineral King area is not for the faint-of-heart. The one-lane, dead-end unpaved road to Mineral King takes about 90 minutes to traverse despite its 25-mile length.
Dozens of rustic family-owned cabins, including several that predate the park itself, are nestled in the forest near the Mineral King Ranger Station. Providing a spot of civilization, along with cabins for rent, a pay phone, a small shop, and a restaurant famous for its delicious slices of pie, is the Silver City Mountain Resort. After registering for our hike at the ranger station, we spent the night in one of its rustic cabins so that we could hit the trail bright & early the next morning.
The trail begins where the road ends, at a parking lot in which marmots, according to the NPS, sometimes enjoy feasting on radiator hoses and car wiring. We parked, slung on our packs, and noted our elevation: about 7,700′ (2,350 m). We were immediately greeted by several mule deer that were grazing on tall trailside grasses. Our route took us through green valleys up to Franklin Lakes, at about 10,000′ (3,050 m). On a tip from a park ranger, we crossed the dam at the base of the lake and camped on the rocky slope just above it. The site offered a panoramic view of the mountains around us, and a great sunset view down the valley to the west.
Day 2 took us up over Franklin Pass, at 11,600′ (3,540 m). The saddle atop the pass had fantastic views in all directions, flat boulders perfect for a rest or lunch stop, and a boulder-secluded area that could be used as a shelter in a pinch. From the pass, the trail bounded rapidly downhill through scree and switchbacks, eventually flattening out along a branch of wooded Rattlesnake Creek. A swim in Forester Lake cooled us off before a last up and down section of trail took us to picturesque Little Claire Lake, where we camped for the night at 10,500′ (3,200 m).
Little Claire Lake’s flat, gravelly shore extended for 100 yards into the trees, providing a fantastic tent site. A brisk evening wind whipped up some waves, but the lake was calm as glass the next morning. Day 3 took us down a series of switchbacks to Soda Creek. The trail followed Soda Creek to Lost Creek at 8,600′ (2,620 m), where we turned west and made camp in a great site complete with fire pit just above the creek. A handful of raindrops made us wonder about the next day’s weather atop Sawtooth Pass, but we awoke to some blue sky the next morning.
The plan for Day 4 was to hike past Columbine Lake, climb up and over Sawtooth Pass, and camp at Monarch Lakes. The trail along Lost Creek began as a gradual climb through the trees, and continued above the treeline in a beautiful wildflower-filled meadow. The trail continued to the base of the cirque, and then switchbacked up to rocky Columbine Lake, just below 11,000′ (3,350 m). By this time, clouds had rolled in from the east and the wind had picked up. The Park Service doesn’t maintain the trail above Columbine Lake, but a social trail continues up to Sawtooth Pass. Finding it from the shore of the lake was a bit tricky. Once we found it, it was at times boulder scramble or scree switchbacks and always steep.
We contemplated lunch with a view atop Sawtooth Pass at 11,700′ (3,560 m), but the weather had turned: wind, rain, and a bit of hail got us moving downhill quickly. To the south, Monarch Lakes were clearly visible although still several miles away. The official trail doesn’t begin again until Monarch Lakes, and social trails crisscross the scree descending from Sawtooth Pass. About a third of the way down, we managed to lose the trail, turning the next third of the trek into a boulder scramble. Luckily, Monarch Lakes (and the trail leading to them!) were always visible in the distance below. The weather cleared enough for a lunch stop amidst the rocks, and we caught up with the trail after a bit of off-trail adventure.
Once we reached Monarch Lakes at 10,400′ (3,170 m), the weather atop the pass still looked ominous. The campsites at Monarch Lakes are rocky and exposed (still well above treeline), and the prospect of spending the next 16 hours in a wet tent wasn’t too inviting, so we decided to continue hiking to the trailhead. Monarch Lakes are beautiful, with a waterfall cascading down from the upper lake to the lower lake aside the campsites. From Monarch Lakes, the trail cuts across a steep scree slope before beginning a long series of switchbacks across the wooded slope.
Of course, our decision to bypass camping at Monarch Lakes turned two five-mile days into one ten-mile day. Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted by the time we got off the trail. (No marmot damage to the rental car, though!) Cold beverages and a slice of pie at the Silver City Mountain Resort hit the spot, as did a pizza and a dip in the motel pool in nearby Three Rivers!
Getting off the trail a day early gave us the added bonus of being able to spend the next day in the “big trees” section of Sequoia — much of it in the car instead of on foot, but a lot of fun nonetheless. All in all, getting off the beaten path in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park was well worth it. We saw very few other hikers each day while enjoying spectacular mountain vistas and pristine alpine lakes.
What are your favorite off the beaten path backpacking hikes? Wherever they are, enjoy your next trail adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!
Thanks to Nick Meier for the inspiration for our trail route. His 2011 trek is described in detail on his blog.