Trip Date: July 3-5, 2020
Trail: Sawtooth trailhead to Franklin Lakes trailhead
Distance: 38.9-miles loop
Elevation Gain: 10,487′
Location: Sequoia National Park, Mineral King, CA.
Permit: Wilderness permit required.
A good friend of mine is currently training to hike the John Muir Trail this summer and has committed to camping or backpacking every weekend until her start date in August. I was extremely excited when she invited me on her permit to go backpacking in the Sequoias over the Fourth of July weekend, which just so happens to be my birthday weekend!
Five years ago, on a solo road trip, I discovered the Mineral King area in Sequoia National Park, by accident, but since then I have gone back a few times to explore the area a little more. This was the first time I’ve heard of the Mineral King Loop- a 39-mile hike that loops around some of the most pristine mountains and alpine lakes in the Sequoias! On average, this loop is usually done over 5-days, and we completed it within an extended 3-day weekend.
Day 1: Sawtooth trailhead -> Black Rock Pass -> Little Five Lakes 13-miles / 6,097′ gain
Our first day on the trail would be the hardest day of the trip, nearly 6,000 ft. of elevation gain and one major pass to climb right before reaching camp. The ranger at the trailhead chuckled when we briefly mentioned that we had planned to complete this loop in 3-days, but that’s just usually how it goes when your out having type 2 fun. It was the Friday morning before a big holiday weekend and we arrived at an entirely packed parking lot. I was surprised to see that nearly 98% of the parked cars were all tarped up and marmot proofed, per recommendations of the SEKI rangers. It was a little after 7:45 AM and we lucked out with the very last parking spot, not realizing that we actually parked at the very end of where we would be hiking out on Day 3. We spent some time properly tarping up my SUV and by 8:30 am, we were at the trailhead and ready to start our 39-mile trek!
The first 2.2 miles to Timber Gap climb the entire way and the views of Mineral King start to open up and make the climb totally worth the effort. We had planned to stop at Timber Gap for a quick break, especially after that climb, but since it was mostly downhill from there, we continued on. It ended up being downhill for a lot longer than we thought, now realizing that this pass is going to be a lot more intense than we had imagined. The wildflowers were blooming and the creeks were fully rushing. There was no shortage of water sources along the trail and somewhere along mile 5.5, we stopped near the creek to fill up water and have a snack.
We were a little under 3-miles away from Pinto Lake, after having our first break and decided that Pinto Lake would be a nice area to have lunch right before we start our 3,000′ ft. climb up and over Black Rock Pass. There is a backcountry campground at Pinto Lake, allowing backpackers to set-up camp for the night before tackling Black Rock Pass the next day. Unfortunately, we completely missed Pinto Lake, so we stopped under a tree somewhere along the trail to have lunch before climbing Black Rock Pass. This was the first time I ever cooked a snack on the trail for lunch, so it was nice to be able to take our time.
It was 3:45 PM and a little under 7.5-miles into our hike before we started our climb. The day was long, the sun was out and we were about to hike above treeline, which meant zero shade. We took our time hiking up the pass, pulling out our GPS every quarter of a mile just to see how much further we had to go. At 10-miles and 10,000 ft. we reached an unnamed spring where we stopped for a quick water break, soaking in the views, snapping a few photos before continuing our climb. At 6:15 PM we reached the top of Black Rock Pass at 11,700 ft. Views from the top were unreal! We could point out Mount Whitney far far away from the Eastside and views of Spring Lake from the West. All downhill from here to camp and by the time we finished photos from the top, we started to lose sunlight behind the mountain.
By the time we reached the first of the Little Five Lakes- we were done, tired and hungry. It was around 7:30 PM when we reached camp and immediately after finding our spot for the night, we prepared dinner while the sun started to set. Janelle surprised me with not only 1, but 2 slices of birthday cake and it was seriously the perfect ending to our 9.5-hour hike. As soon as the sunset, the moon started to rise up and over the mountain behind the lake. The moon reflections along the water was something else. It was a beautiful moment. The weather was so perfect, we didn’t sleep with the rainfly all weekend! Before I crawled into the tent, I sat outside to meditate and appreciate our journey thus far and was so grateful that not only did we just complete the hardest part of our entire trip, but it was still only the first day.
Day 2: Little Five Lakes -> Forester Lake 14-miles / 2,109′ gain
Her alarm went off around 5:30 AM for sunrise. We ended up staying inside the tent until 7:30 AM. The morning was a bit chilly and as much as we both wanted to get up for sunrise photos, the thought of getting out of our sleeping bags wasn’t worth the trouble. It was Day 2, our longest mileage, but the easiest climb of the trip. A pretty relaxed day, or so we thought. We both woke up thinking we had about 12-miles to our next lake for camp when really it was closer to 14. We broke camp and back on the trail around 8:30 AM. The morning started hiking around and down to Little Five Lakes and down past Big Five Lakes. Ah yes, and all downhill it was.
The hike down to the biggest of the Little Five Lakes, was in fact, all downhill. By the time we reached the bottom, we continued on our hike and decided it wasn’t worth it for us to trek down to Big Five Lakes since it would just add more miles to our already long(est) day. Looking back, I kind of regret not checking it out, but just another reason to…go back? Our trail eventually crossed one of the closer Big Five Lakes and we continued our way down 2-miles to the Columbine Lake junction, where we thought we would see a lot more people. It was the Fourth of July and that morning we had only seen a small handful of hikers that day, most coming from Sawtooth Pass. We stopped at the Columbine Lake and Soda Creek junction for water, lunch and to soak our feet. We ended up hanging out, relaxing in the creek for about 45-minutes. It was amazing, to say the least, and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t want to leave…at all.
It wasn’t until we reached our next trail sign, that we found out we had a long day ahead of us than originally planned for. Thankfully, it was only like 2 more miles longer, but a little more of a climb than we hoped for. By this time, we were relaxed, full, and ready to just make it to camp. Now, 5-miles to Little Claire Lake and 6.5-miles to camp, we picked up our speed to make up for lost time during our 45-minute nature soak. We started to climb just a bit, as the views once again started to open up and re-appear. It was nice to know we had options available to stay at Little Claire Lake if we were too tired to continue on, but that also meant adding more miles to Day 3. It was 5:20 PM when we arrived to Little Clarie Lake and to our surprise, we were the only ones there! We stopped for a quick break, water, and photos before moving forward to our final destination for the day. The hike to Forester Lake from Little Claire Lake is about 1.5 miles and we scrambled a bit at the beginning. A short, but steep half-mile climb to the top, then about a mile down to the lake.
It was 6:20 PM when we arrived to Forester Lake and I was extremely excited to drop my pack, set up camp, and take a dip. The best part, there was NO mosquitoes…or people! LOL. And that meant only one thing…(partial) skinny dip for my last day of being 32. It was beautiful and felt great! We ended the night with dinner, I had some Fireball with my cake and sat outside, as the moon started to rise on our last night.
Day 3: Forester Lake -> Franklin Pass -> Franklin Lakes trailhead 12-miles / 2,658′ gain
Another day stronger, another year older…Happy Birthday to me! Waking up without the rainfly on a beautiful summer morning was the best way to wake up on my birthday. The 12-mile day and Franklin Pass that we had ahead of us…not so much. It was Day 3, our last day on trail and a big drive home, so we started a little earlier to beat the heat over the pass. My body was physically tired, but I was excited to finally complete our loop! Our first 2-miles of the day were pretty flat and easy, as we passed an open meadow and hiked along the creek before starting our climb up and over Franklin Pass.
The climb over the pass was long, seemed to go on forever and somewhat steep. At some points, it almost felt as if we were walking on the moon! One foot in front of the other, as we slowly made our way up. Our trekking poles definitely helped at this point, and as with almost every climb, the surrounding mountain views give you a sense of badassery that’s just too good to pass up. Of course, thoughts of “whyyyy” and “how much further?!” occur with every step forward, only to look up at… good old natures stairs! UGH, stairs! In a distance far, faaaaaar away, we could see our destination, the top of Franklin Pass and we were still a while away. There were two hikers at the top, making their way down about a quarter of a mile from the top. We briefly chatted about how excited we all were for the rest of the day, as it was all downhill from here!
It was exactly 9 AM when we reached the top of Franklin Pass at 11,800′ ft. and the highest point of our entire trail. Out of breath and heart full, it was such an amazing feeling knowing that the climb was over and it was literally all downhill from here. From the top of the pass, we had 360-degree views of my most favorite mountain range, the Sierra and straight down below, Franklin Lakes. From the top of the pass, it’s just a little under 3.5-miles to the lakes and 8-miles to the trailhead and switchback after switchback after switchback. As much as I enjoy going downhill, this downhill was a little too much for my knees. The only thing on my mind now… jumping into the lake! The speed we kept going down was fun and fast, it took us probably an hour in a half to make it to the bottom of the switchbacks. The sooner we got down to the lake, the longer we can play!
Well, it turns out, that our trail didn’t go directly down to the lake and instead, we would have to backtrack very little to get lake access. There were many people at the lake who had camped out for Fourth of July and who were packing up and getting ready to hike out. At this point, we were tired, sun-kissed, and still had nearly 4-miles to the car and a 5-hour drive home. So we bypassed Franklin Lakes and we continued on down to the creek, where we stopped for a water break. The entire half mile down to the creek, I had major regrets. It was my birthday and all I wanted to do was jump into the lake. I even mentioned to my friend that I was going to hike back up and jump in, for the sake of no regrets..but seeing the climb I had within that half-mile.. yeah, it didn’t happen and that’s okay. Making our way down from Franklin Lakes, views from where we started 3-days ago started to appear and it was the coolest thing to see how far we’ve come since then. At 1:11 PM, we reached the end of our trail, logging in 38.9 miles. And the first thing I got to un-wrap on my birthday….my marmot proofed SUV. 😉
“My feet are tired, but the heart wants more.”