Life Imitating Art
If you’re a fan of landscape photography, then you are undoubtedly familiar with Ansel Adams. And if you’re familiar with Adams’ work, chances are at some point you’ve come across his iconic image of Precipice Lake. It was 1932, and Adams was hiking through Sequoia National Park when he found himself face to face with the hypnotic body of water now known as Precipice Lake. Nestled in the heart of the Mineral King wilderness, Adams remarked that he “was impressed with the solemn beauty of the scene and saw the image quite clearly in [his] mind.”
I grew up hiking and backpacking, but it wasn’t until I visited an Ansel Adams photography exhibit during a family vacation in middle school that the two activities—hiking and photography—became forever intertwined. I’m always struck by how sometimes the most innocuous events leave the most significant impression. Adams inspired my love of photography, my first post on Instagram, and now this backpacking trip around the Mineral King Loop to experience the same solemn beauty that he captured so profoundly almost a century ago.
The Mineral King Loop Trail At A Glance
The elevation at the floor of the Mineral King Valley is 7,500, and pretty much anything you want to see in the area requires a significant amount of elevation gain from there. To complete this particular loop, you’ll hike through multiple passes, traverse part of the High Sierra Trail, and down into an enchanting Redwood grove. Needless to say, the elevation gain and loss throughout the route makes this a strenuous trip. The relatively high elevation and the overall distance don’t help. Quin and I tackled this as our first backpacking trip of the season – and we definitely felt it. Luckily, nature is the best medicine, and the scenery on this trip kept us pretty doped up!
Distance: Approximately 47 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: Approximately 11,500 ft
Trailhead: Sawtooth Pass (located about a quarter-mile from the Mineral King Ranger Station)
Direction Traveled: Counter Clockwise
Pets: Pets are not allowed on any trails in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
NOTE: For this trip, we used the Tom Harrison Mineral King Map, AllTrails, and trail signs to navigate. Unfortunately, these three resources provided different (sometimes significant) milage reports. With that in mind, I have done my best to give what I believe to be relatively accurate distances for each leg of the trip.
Backpacking The Mineral King Loop
Photographing Precipice Lake was the sole objective of this trip when Quin first floated the idea. And the simplest way to achieve that objective would have been to do a simple out and back hike on the High Sierra Trail. But as I started researching routes, I found myself deep in a Sierra backpacking rabbit hole. And as I continued to dig, one area, in particular, kept popping up.
That area was called Mineral King. It was remote, offered everything from alpine lakes to redwood groves, and most importantly, there was a route through the area encompassing Precipice Lake. Better yet, the trails could be connected to create a loop. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. So I applied for the permits, packed my bags, and the next thing I knew, we were parked outside the Mineral King Ranger Station, ready to hit the trail.
Day One On The Mineral King Loop: Sawtooth Pass Trailhead to Redwood Meadow Grove / 10 miles
We arrived at the Mineral King Ranger station as soon as it opened at 8:00am. When I’d booked the permits, I didn’t recognize the names of any of the camp locations, so I panicked and requested the wrong campsite for our first night. Luckily the ranger was able to sort us out. He went over our planned itinerary, gave us a bear box for the trip, and lent us a tarp to “marmot proof” the van.
It took about an hour to get the van ready at the trailhead parking area. We had to store all our food in the provided bear lockers and wrap a giant tarp around the van’s undercarriage to protect it from the local marmot population. Apparently, they’ve developed an appetite for radiator hoses and car wiring in this area. Once we were done securing what amounted to a giant car diaper, it was time to hit the trail!
NOTE: The Mineral King marmots don’t only enjoy munching on car parts. They also love the salt found in human sweat, so keep your backpacks, shoes, and any other items you’ve sweated on close.
There’s no easing into the Mineral King Trail. It throws you right into the deep end. The trail starts with a long series of steep switchbacks that eventually take you up over Timber Gap. Even after toiling for half an hour under the brutal mid-day sun, we could still see the van and its bright blue diaper parked down below, almost mocking us with its proximity. It was demoralizing, to say the least. I would highly recommend getting an early start to avoid hiking this exposed section in midday heat.
Eventually, the trail took a turn, and we found ourselves meandering through a gloriously shady forest. At Timber Gap, we stopped to regroup and take a moment to embrace the fact that the rest of our day was all downhill. In fact, over the next 6 miles or so, we would not only lose all of the elevation that we had just gained, but would actually descend around 3,000 feet to end up at a lower elevation than where we had begun the day.
At Cliff Creek, we had our first river crossing, and even though we could have easily done it without taking our boots off, the day was too hot and the water too glorious to not get in. Cliff Creek is a great spot to take a load off, cool down, and filter some water before completing the next 4 miles to Red Wood Meadow Grove.
NOTE: Taking the opportunity to fill up your water at Cliff Creek is especially prudent if you plan on camping in Red Wood Meadow Grove as we did. There’s no water in the grove, and while there may be a few other opportunities between Cliff Creek and your camp, Cliff Creek is by far the most obvious and plentiful water source along this portion of the trail – especially later in the season.
Arriving at Red Wood Meadow Grove, we were greeted by a scene straight out of a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. Low afternoon light flickered through the canopy casting a golden glow over the forest floor. The glow was only accentuated by the sea of yellow wildflowers that flooded any space left between stands of ancient redwoods. In the midsts of it all, a quaint log cabin sat quietly in a small grove. Built in 1938, the rustic Redwood Meadow Ranger Station was unoccupied, but I wouldn’t have been half surprised if an old woman with suspiciously big eyes and sharp teeth had stepped out and offered me some candy.
The designated campsites for Redwood Meadow Grove are located on the left-hand side of the trail about a quarter-mile past the Ranger Staton. We missed them on our first go, but I think we were just distracted by the beauty of it all.
Day Two On The Mineral King Loop: Redwood Meadow Grove to Precipice Lake / 13 miles
I had nightmares about giant redwood branches crushing the tent in the middle of the night. Maybe that’s the flip side of an enchanted forest – too many things that go bump in the night. The point being, I woke up ready to climb up out of the forest and into the alpine. And it’s a good thing, because day two was one of the more grueling days I’ve ever had backpacking. Luckily, it was also one of the more beautiful days I’ve ever had backpacking.
The trail eased us into our second day. The first two miles were relatively flat until we began the climb up to Bearpaw Meadow. There’s an active ranger station at Bearpaw Meadow in the form of yet another cute log cabin. There are also some established campsites just before you reach the ranger station. Many backpackers that complete the Mineral King Loop choose to spend a night here. Not us. We had places to go and things to see. So after a quick water break (there is a faucet outside the ranger station), we kept moving.
NOTE: Most years, there is a full-service High Sierra Camp located at Bearpaw. Guests at the camp stay in rustic tents overlooking dramatic views of the Western Divide while the on-site staff provides fresh-cooked breakfasts and dinners. You’ll also be treated to hot showers and flush toilets. To reach Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, you hike 12 miles one-way along the High Sierra Trail starting from the Crescent Meadow Trailhead. From there, you can enjoy a number of day hikes from camp – including Precipice Lake. Unfortunately, the camp is closed for the 2021 season due to issues with its water infrastructure. But you better believe it’s on my bucket list!
At Bearpaw Meadow, we joined the High Sierra Trail, and it didn’t take long to understand why this historic trail is so iconic among hiking enthusiasts. Within a mile, I was experiencing sensory overload. Expansive views stretched out in every direction. Towering peaks, vertigo-inducing valleys, and enough granite to give Yosemite a run for its money stretched out in every direction. Needless to say, the cameras came out, and despite the gentle downward grade of the trail, our forward progress took a dramatic turn for the worse.
About 2 miles past Bearpaw Meadow, we crossed a large bridge, and it was here that the uphill climb really began in earnest. . . and didn’t stop for the next 9 miles or so. But don’t fear; there are countless beautiful views, tranquil watering holes, and shimmering alpine lakes to keep your spirits high.
The next major benchmark on our Mineral King Loop was Hamilton Lakes. We had only seen one other group of backpackers on the trail over the past two days until this point. So it was a bit of a shock to the system to arrive at Hamilton Lakes and see people again. People in tents, people in hammocks, people sunbathing and swimming. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was crowded. . . but there was no doubt that Hamilton Lakes wasn’t just a benchmark for most people. It was the destination.
I found myself wondering where they had all come from, but I didn’t have time to ask because we had another 4 miles and 2,000 feet in elevation to gain before we made it to our destination – Precipice Lake.
I’m not going to lie; the stretch between Hamilton Lakes and Precipice Lake was both physically and mentally taxing. It was late afternoon, I was exhausted, and quite frankly jealous of the people—now merely tiny specks—napping down in their hammocks at Hamilton. But Precipice was within our grasp now, and we pushed forward.
To be fair, this section of the High Sierra Trail is genuinely spectacular. An engineering feat, really. I found myself asking, “how did they do it” over and over again. And even “Why” a few times. Before I could work any of this out, I looked up from my feet, and in what I can only describe as a semi-delirious state, witnessed the mountain in front of me melt into the ground. Or at least that was my addled brain’s first impression. Then I realized it wasn’t the ground at all. It was a lake. It was Precipice Lake.
The lake was so calm that the mountain’s reflection jumped off the water with the intensity of a solid. It defied logic. It was everything I dreamed it would be – and more. Quin’s voice broke through my momentary hypnosis, “we need to shoot!” He was right. It had taken hours longer than we had expected to get up here, and the daylight was quickly melting away. I dropped my backpack and summoned the last remaining drops of energy at my disposal. We ran around trying to capture the moment before it was gone forever. I’m not sure it’s ever really possible to do a destination like Precipice Lake justice in photos, but we sure had fun trying.
Day Three On The Mineral King Loop: Precipice Lake to Lost Canyon Creek / 13 miles
I woke up to the sound of our neighboring camp packing up, and by the time we rolled out of the tent, we had Precipice Lake all to ourselves. It’s hard to say whether the lake was more striking in the evening with the sinking sun casting a golden hue across the rocks or in the morning as the rising sun illuminating the bright blue color of the water. Luckily we didn’t have to choose. And that is perhaps my favorite thing about backpacking.
Our bodies were sore from the effort of the previous days, and we took the opportunity to spend the morning swimming and then relaxing in the sun on warm granite slabs. It was the perfect remedy for weary muscles, and neither of us wanted to leave. So much so, that we seriously debated spending another night at Precipice. We had packed an extra day’s worth of food as part of our “Ten Essentials,” but also in case we came across something on our journey that demanded more time. Something exactly like this.
In the end, we decided that we still had a long way to go (we were only about halfway through our loop), and the prudent thing to do was save the food and keep covering ground. So it was with full yet heavy hearts that we packed up camp, took one last dip in the lake, and started the short but steep trek up the final stretch of Kaweah Gap.
From Kaweah Gap, the remainder of our time on the High Sierra Trail was a blessedly mellow downward grade. We cruised along, taking in the views and basking in the afterglow of that morning at the lake.
There was a lot to be happy about. Not only had Precipice Lake lived up to our wildest expectations, but our third day on the trail was also meant to be our shortest. Soon we would turn off the High Sierra Trail and head for Little Five Lakes, a mere 3 miles further, to set up camp. At least that had been the plan. . .
But as we cooled down our feet in the first of the Little Five Lakes, it became apparent that we were in for a massive last day if we stopped here. We still had an extra day of food, and we had initially thought that if the fourth day proved to be too much, we could break it up by spending the night at Columbine Lake. I had read that Columbine was beautiful and a favorite campsite for backpackers in the area. But after talking to the park ranger stationed at Big Five Lakes, it was clear that wouldn’t be an option. Camping at Columbine Lake was no longer permitted due to the lack of places to responsibly relieve yourself. So it was back to the drawing board.
It was still early afternoon, and we were both feeling pretty good, so eventually, we decided to just keep hiking. We didn’t really have an exact location in mind. We would walk until we dropped or until it got dark. In the end, we called it a day at Lost Canyon – a beautiful area with ample campsites and water galore. And while Big Five Lakes was lovely, in hindsight, neither of us regretted that it was now in a rearview mirror. And we certainly didn’t regret it the next day.
Day Four On The Mineral King Loop: Lost Canyon Creek to Sawtooth Pass Trailhead / 11 miles
This was it. The last day of our backpacking trip. Is there anything more exciting than getting back to the trailhead after a strenuous hike? If there is, I certainly couldn’t think of it that morning!
I’m getting ahead of myself though. It was too soon to start talking about hot showers and burritos. Our last day wasn’t going to be a mere walk in the park. We still needed to tackle what would arguably be the most strenuous section of the trail – Sawtooth Pass. At 11,630 feet, Sawtooth Pass marks the highest point on the entire route. But first, we needed to make it up to Columbine Lake.
The trail between the head of Lost Canyon and the switchbacks up to Columbine Lake is uncharacteristically chill. We covered ground quickly and felt good when we reached the switchbacks.
Maybe it was knowing that the end was imminent… Or perhaps it was all the scary trip reports I had read warning people about this portion of the trial… but in the end, the bark turned out to be worse than the bite. We sat at the far end of Columbine Lake, cooked up some food, and soaked our feet in the deep cobalt water. From here, there was just one more push to reach Sawtooth Pass, an unmaintained, mile-long section of trail that steeply winds its way up through the stark granite basin that holds Columbine Lake. I’m not gonna sugar coat it, that last mile had a bit more bite.
At the top of Sawtooth Pass, you can’t help but take a few minutes to soak it all in. There are expansive views in every direction, and there’s something extraordinary about standing at the highest point on your journey and looking down at how far you’ve come to get to this point. Of course, what goes up must come down. And when it comes to Sawtooth Pass, the verdict is still out on which one is more difficult.
Every ranger we ran into on the trail briefed us on the descent from Sawtooth Pass. One said that he usually just “glissaded right down” the steep shale field. The other insisted this was a terrible idea and encouraged us to follow the cairns to the right of the pass, where eventually, a faint trail would appear. We opted for the second option.
Even after finding the “trail” down, I slipped a couple of times. Quin, of course, was fine. But I found the combination of granite sand on top of slick granite slab to be hazardous and wished more than once that I had brought my trekking poles. We lost the trail about halfway down Sawtooth Pass, which made for an even more tedious descent. Nevertheless, eventually, we picked our way down to Monarch Lake, where we ran into our third park ranger of the trip. He stopped to check our permits, chat about where we had come from, and assure us that it was all downhill from there (literally and metaphorically). And he was right!
Alternative Routes For Mineral King and Precipice Lake
1. Alternative Mineral King Loop
When I first stumbled upon Mineral King, it quickly became apparent that contrary to all logic, “The Mineral King Loop” does not refer to one particular route. In fact, multiple different loops are possible to complete within the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park. All of which are generally referred to as Mineral King Loop.
The big difference between the loop Quin and I completed and the other popular loops is that our route includes a 10 miles stretch of the High Sierra Trail that takes you past Precipice Lake on your way up and over Kaweah Gap.
There is, however a shorter, and arguably more popular Mineral King Loop. For this loop, instead of continuing on to Redwood Meadow Grove after Timber Gap, you will head east at Cliff Creek toward Pinto Lake and Black Rock Pass. On this alternative route, you will still get to experience Little and Big Five Lakes, Lost Canyon, and Columbine Lake. You will miss out on the redwood grove, Hamilton Lakes, and Precipice Lake. Nevertheless, most of the people we ran into on the trail were planning on completing the loop through Black Rock Pass. They all seemed thrilled with what they had experienced thus far!
2. Out & Back To Precipice Lake On The High Sierra Trail
The shortest route to Precipice Lake that I know of is to do an out and back trip on the High Sierra Trail starting from the Crescent Meadow Trailhead. This route is approximately 19 miles one way, or 38 miles round trip. In other words, there really is no easy way of getting to Precipice Lake.
3. Adding More Days to The Mineral King Loop
There aren’t many things that I would change about this backpacking trip. But if I did it again, I would definitely add in a couple of days. We were able to complete this 47ish mile loop in four days and three nights, but it felt rushed. I had imagined arriving at camp each day in the afternoon, setting up the tent, and spending the rest of the day hanging out, exploring, and just generally relaxing. That never happened. Instead, we were on the trail almost all day, and we set up camp each evening with just enough time to make dinner before it got dark.
With this in mind, I spent a lot of time both on the trail and afterward thinking about how many extra days I would add, and where I would spend them.
Adding One More Day: If I was not a photographer the lighting at Precipice Lake was not a priority, I think that I would have spent the second night at Hamilton Lakes. On the third day, I would hike up to Precipice and spend a few hours there before continuing on to Little Five Lakes for the night. I would then add a fourth night either at the far end of Lost Canyon (the end closest to the switchbacks up to Columbine) or at Columbine itself if camping in that area opens back up.
Alternatively, assuming that camping at Precipice is a priority, I would add an extra night at Bearpaw.
Adding Two More Days: If I had time to add two additional nights, I would spend one at Bearpaw and the second additional night at Little Five Lakes. I would then spend the last night (the fifth night in this hypothetical) as close to Columbine Lake as possible. So the itinerary would look like this (1) Redwood Grove; (2) Bearpaw; (3) Precipice; (4) Little Five Lakes; (5) Columbine.
Planning Your Trip To Backpack Mineral King
1. Leave No Trace & Wilderness Ethics
If you love the outdoors enough to camp out in it, you should also be committed to its conservation. At a bare minimum, it is vital to know and practice Leave No Trace principles whenever you spend time in nature. But it is also important to recognize that each wilderness area is unique and comes with its own set of minimum impact restrictions. Not knowing about these restrictions is not an excuse to violate them. Wilderness protection is the law, but it requires your personal commitment. It is your responsibility to look into the rules and regulations specific to the wilderness area you are traveling through.
You can view the Minimum Impact Restrictions for the Mineral King area HERE. A ranger will also review them with you when you pick up your permit at the Mineral King Ranger Station. If you have any questions or concerns about the regulations, this is a great opportunity to ask the ranger.
2. Permits, Fees, and Reservations
During the quota season (May – September), the number of people beginning trips in Sequoia Kings Canyon Wilderness each day is limited by entry point, and a recreation fee is required. You can find out more information about the wilderness permit system on the national park website or go to recreation.gov to check for availability. Reservations can be made beginning up to 6 months in advance of your desired trip date.
If there are no permits available for your desired date, you can always try for one of the limited numbers of walk-up permits. Walk-up permits can be obtained at the Mineral King Ranger Station starting from 1:00pm the day before your trip begins.
UPDATE FOR THE 2021 SEASON: Due to Covid-19, walk-up permits are being handled differently for the 2021 season. Rather than showing up the day of (or the day before), you now need to reserve “walk-up” permits on recreation.gov two weeks before your desired start date. This is how Quin and I got our permits for the Mineral King Loop, and I honestly kind of hope they stick with this system. It’s so much easier to plan for something 2 weeks in advance than 6 months in advance. Plus, you don’t need to drive all the way out to a remote ranger’s station just to find out that there aren’t any permits available.
NOTE: It goes without saying that you should always follow all of the wilderness requirements in an area. The regulations exist for a reason and are critical in preserving these areas for the enjoyment of everyone. This includes complying with all permit requirements. Don’t let the remote nature of Mineral King lull you into thinking you might get away with not having one. We were stopped and asked to present our backcountry permit by three different rangers on three separate occasions over four days.
3. Getting There
To say that Mineral King is remote feels like a bit of an understatement. To get there, look for the junction of Mineral King Road with Highway 198 in the town of Three Rivers. Mineral King road is narrow, winding, and unpaved in some areas. It took us about an hour to drive the 25 miles from the Mineral King Road turnoff to the ranger station.
Given its remoteness, Quin and I were shocked as we neared the end of the road to find several cabins for rent, as well as a small general store and restaurant. This small settlement is known as Silver City. You can contact Silver City to arrange a place to stay near the trailhead before or after your trip. Alternatively, the campground at Cold Springs is probably your best bet.
NOTE: The Mineral King Road is open from Memorial Day weekend through October. If you show up in the winter, you will find it blocked off by a locked gate.
4. You Will Need To Marmot Proof Your Vehicle
You will need to protect your car from the local marmot population in the spring and early summer. For whatever reason, they have a bad habit of chewing through radiators and other wiring. It seems that the most common way of “Marmot Proofing” vehicles is to wrap a tarp diaper around your car. To do this, spread the tarp out, drive on to it, and then secure it up above your wheel wells. Quin and I didn’t have a tarp with us, but the ranger station had an entire shed full of tarps for people to borrow.
5. Be Bear Aware
Bears are common in Sequoia National Park. In fact, we ran into one on the trail on our second day just before Bearpaw Meadow. In light of this, you must use an allowed portable animal-resistant food storage container, one of the permanent animal storage lockers along the trail, or hang your food. Of course, hanging your food is only an option where there are trees. There are no trees at Precipice Lake. There also are no food storage lockers. You will need to pack all of your food, garbage, toiletries, and other scented items in a bear box. If you don’t own a bear box, you can rent one at the Mineral King Ranger Station.
6. What To Pack: Backpacking Gear For The Mineral King Loop
Like all backpacking trips, you should be prepared with the 10 Essentials for outdoor survival. Of course, you’re trying to do more than just survive out there! You can check out my Ultimate Hiking & Backpacking Guide. I’ve also linked the specific backpacking gear that I packed for the Mineral King Loop below.
Click On Gallary Image For More Details
I believe that we all have the capacity to act as stewards for the environment now, and well into the future – we just have to want it. The famous naturalist David Attenborough once remarked that “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” It is my deepest hope that by sharing this beautiful piece of wildness with you, I can help engender a type of ownership and concern for all our wild places. If you do decide to experience Mineral King for yourself, please leave it better than you found it.