Mineral King is a quiet corner of what is becoming an increasingly busy Sierra Nevada mountain range. And though it has been enjoyed and frequented by devotees for literally thousands of years (if you include the original inhabitants before their forced removal), it remains almost desolate compared to the more popular High Sierra Trail, and the John Muir Trail. It’s not so much that Mineral King is a secret, or that it’s a dud–it’s just not as iconic as the nearby locales that surround it. And that, more than anything else, is its saving grace.
The truth, though, is that the Mineral King loop is hard to beat. Just the drive up to the trailhead is a mind-bender. The twenty miles of sparely built road winding up steep foothills are as scenic as Glacier National Park’s Road to the Sun, but have a much more wild and rugged feel. Passing through the heat of California’s central valley foothills, the road winds up and up to the Atwell grove (full of Giant Sequoias, and enormous Sugar Pines), the miniature “town” of Silver City, and finally opens up into the beautiful alpine meadows of the Mineral King valley at the end of the road.
The first part of the trail is a bit of a Stairmaster, no matter which direction you walk the loop. My personal choice is to take the loop clockwise. Just getting up and over Timber Gap will be a gut-check for many folks coming from lower elevations. The trail is steep, hot, and forested, and the views pale in comparison to what’s to come, so I like to get it over with first. Still, keep an eye out for wild flowers and bears–this is the best part of the loop to see both.
You can camp on the other side of the gap after a long descent to Cliff Creek–and most will. The hike up from Cliff Creek (7,100 feet) to Black Rock Pass (11,600 feet) is the hardest hike of the whole loop, so it’s nice to be well-rested. An alternative is to push a little longer on day one and hoof it all the way up to Pinto Lake (8,700 feet) in order to cut down on the haul the next day. However you do it, saving yourself some time and energy for the endless switchbacks up to Black Rock is a good idea–not only is the hike grueling, but the views of Spring Lake and the plunging valley beneath are out of this world.
Black Rock Pass sits on the crest of the Great Western Divide, and, in my opinion, marks the end of the major suffering along the Mineral King loop. Crossing over the pass is like going through a portal into another world. From hot, lush, scrubby foothills, suddenly you are cast into bonafide high country dotted with alpine lakes and meadows and striking peaks of sheer granite.
Little Five Basin is arguably one of the most magical spots in the whole Sierra–but I may be biased since I lived there for one mind-blowing summer as a backcountry ranger. There is, in fact, a yurt and a ranger stationed there throughout the summer. Budget a little extra time to explore around those lakes. Find the ranger, strike up conversation, clean up someone else’s litter, and keep your eyes open. There is, I promise, magic to find.
Little Five is so spectacular, it’s not uncommon to spend two nights there. That said, if it’s a rare, crowded weekend, hump it up over the ridge and down to Big Five lakes. Big Five is lower elevation, and, differing from Little Five, campers are actually permitted to have fires at the lowest lake (though that may be changing in the next year or two–check with the trailhead rangers for current information).
Continuing on from Big Five, a few pleasant ups and downs bring you to a junction, where a decision needs to be made. You have two choices–you can either cruise up Lost Canyon, and finish the shorter loop that way; or you can continue on down to Soda Creek and finish up through Franklin Pass. While shorter, I think the Lost Canyon option is more spectacular.
Lost Canyon is, as the name implies, something of a lost world. A crystal clear stream cuts down through the tight forested canyon for a few casual miles of gentle uphill, and then the trees simply peter out and stop. When they do, a paradise of granite and meadows is revealed. This is a great place to not wander off trails too extravagantly, as all around are delicate meadows. If you do want to get off the trail, do it in the forest or on talused rock slopes on the north side of the trail. There is a holiness and a hush to this area that makes the trip worth it entirely. Spend a night here if you can.
At the back of Lost Canyon is another mountain pass. It looks heinous from the start, but it’s nothing compared to Black Rock. Besides, going this way, you’ll be lighter on food and your legs will be more mountain-worthy. Take your time, enjoy it, and get your cameras ready for the photo finish on the other side.
If you like lakes, Columbine Lake will be the highlight of the whole trip. This little gem is tucked into a spectacular bowl of granite, in the least likely of places, right along the Great Western Divide. Campsites can be hard to come by, as they are spare sections of flat land strewn less than liberally around the lake’s northern shore. The elevation is higher–about 11,000 feet where you camp–so this likely will be your coldest night. That said, there is no better sunset spot than the northwest corner of the lake, from where the land falls away in a seemingly endless descent down to the smog-filled central valley, thankfully out of sight below.
After Columbine Lake comes what may be the psychological crux of the entire trip–the steep slog up Sawtooth pass, and the complicated route finding down the other side. I’ve never found the same trail down twice, so I’ll save you the headache of trying to discover one. Simply traverse west along as easy of terrain as you can find, constantly side-hilling and slowly descending, then choose your own adventure down sandy switchbacks to Monarch Lake. Take a dip, eat some lunch, enjoy your last lake of the journey, and take a moment here to shed some tears. It’s all downhill from Monarch, literally and figuratively. Down to the car, down to the central valley, and back down to whatever reality you came from.