Five Lakes Basins

July 3-6, 2003

by Bill Finch

About every five years or so, I forget why I haven't been on a hike out of Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. Memories of Big Five Lakes and Little Five Lakes lingered in my mind so I headed up the Mineral King Road to the trailhead. After a half hour on the miserable, twisting Mineral King road, I remembered why it had been five years. Then smoke began to thicken. Where there's smoke, often there's a ranger telling you that you can't go where you want to. Another half hour later, I was relieved to arrive at the Mineral King Ranger Station and to find out that the fire would not cause changes to my plans. However, the ranger warned us (several groups of hikers) that we might not be able to go where we wanted to because of heavy snow accumulations on certain passes. Many hikers changed their plans for going over Sawtooth Pass and used Timber Gap, Franklin Pass, or even Glacier Pass (a cross country route) instead. I stuck with my plans, but I was the only hiker to cross Sawtooth Pass that day.
Five Lakes Map Five Lakes Map

Day 1

As I began hiking, I was immediately reminded why Mineral King is such a great trailhead. You're there as soon as you take your first step. The scenery from the Sawtooth Pass Trailhead is as fine as any I know about and it just gets better as you ascend the trail. MK valley
Mineral King Valley - This is one of the few trailheads where you feel like you have already arrived just as you get started. Farewell Gap is on the left.

The cruise up the perfectly graded, built, and maintained trail to Monarch Lakes couldn't have been more pleasant. Conditions began to change. A sign near Monarch Lakes pointing the way to Sawtooth Pass was surrounded by snow, not a good omen. sign
Trail Sign in Snow - Lots of snow fell in May and it stuck in places where it usually doesn't. This patch surrounding the trail sign at the bottom of the pass seemed like a bad omen.

The climb to the pass was tedious as usual, but I hiked toward Glacier Pass which helped me to avoid much of the loose sand. The steep climb up the ridge went quickly enough and soon I was at the pass. The trail to Columbine Lake was not visible from the pass and the route down from the top was blocked by a cornice. I worked my way down rocks south of the trail and stayed off snow as long as possible because the snowfields were very steep toward the top of the pass. The small tarn above Columbine Lake was still mostly covered in ice and snow. tarn
Ice Covered Tarn above Columbine Lake - The trail east of Sawtooth Pass was completely covered by snow. Snow and ice remained on this tarn even though it was early July of a normal snow year.

After two hours I had made my way to the outlet of Columbine Lake and I soon began the descent into Lost Canyon. After a few hundred yards, I looked back toward Columbine Lake and decided it would be a much better place to spend the night than Lost Canyon, so I returned to the fine campsites near the outlet. I was rewarded that evening with some spectacular alpenglow. alpenglow
Alpenglow on Peaks Southeast of Columbine Lake - I had planned on spending the night in Lost Canyon, but after I started descending into the canyon I realized I would be missing evening views like this one.

Day 2

After an exceptionally good night's sleep, I awoke to the fantastic view of Sawtooth Peak across Columbine Lake. Columbine Lake
Sawtooth Peak Reflected in Columbine Lake - I was really glad I had stayed up at Columbine and had views like this in the morning instead of trees and mosquitos.

In less than an hour I was in Lost Canyon heading toward the Big Five Lakes turnoff. Lost Cyn
Lost Canyon - Only a small part of the trail was snow covered and it largely skirted the swampy parts of the meadow in the upper part of the canyon.

After passing through swamp and meadow, I entered forest where I remained for the rest of the day unless I passed near lakes. forest
Forest in Lost Canyon - After navigating through the swampy upper meadows of Lost Canyon, the remainder of the day consisted of hiking through forest such as this until it brought me to another lake.

The first lake of any consequence I encountered was the lowest of the Big Five Lakes, Lake 9,830. Lake 9830
Lowest Big Five Lake, Lake 9,830 - On a previous trip, I had visited the other Big Five Lakes. This one rivaled them in beauty.

Having visited the Big Five Lakes on my last trip to the area, I decided to press on to the Little Five Lakes. After a ridge crossing and ascent through swampy forest, I arrived at Lake 10,476, the lake where the ranger station is located. Lk 10476
Central Little Five Lake, Lake 10,476 - This is one of the lovliest of the Little Five Lakes and it is arguably the most central. The ranger station is located off the trail and a few hundred yards around the lake.

I decided to stay at the northernmost of the lakes, Lake 10,410, so I left for it immediately. Eventually, I was forced to leave the trail. As the cross country route became less distinct and I did my best to work around swamps and ponds toward the lake. Lk 10410
Northern Little Five Lake, Lake 10,410 - I'd heard that this lake contained monstrous trout, so I bought a fishing license and prepared to catch some. There were trout in the lake all right, but all I caught were pan sized rainbows.

Finally, I found a good campsite near one of the inlet streams, set up camp, and had another great night's sleep.

Day 3

I'd bought a fishing license for the first time in years, so the third morning, I went fishing. My skills were a little rusty, but soon I had five fat rainbow trout on ice, in the pack, and ready to take home. Scenery on the third day of hiking was superb. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge was splendidly reflected in the lovely lake just downstream of Lake 10,476. KPR
Kaweah Peaks Ridge - This is the most scenic spot in the Five Lakes area. This otherwise average lake has an exceptional view of this impressive set of peaks.

I had never seen the ranger station, so I took a slight detour around the lake and found the ranger's home, a yurt. With a lot more hiking ahead, I headed up the trail to Blackrock Pass. Blackrock Ps
Blackrock Pass - Quite a bit of snow remained on the east side of Blackrock Pass, but there was no snow on the west side. The pass was busy the day I crossed it. I met two couples on the way up and two on the way down.

The trail was covered with snow in places but it slowed down progress very little. From the ridge top, the view of the headwaters of Cliff Creek was spectacular. headwaters
Cliff Creek Headwaters - The three lakes at the head of Cliff Creek are Columbine, Cyclamen, and Spring. They are classic pater noster lakes carved by glaciers as they moved down Cliff Creek Canyon millenia ago. Sawtooth Peak dominates the skyline.

Water flowed into Cliff Creek Canyon from every direction. water
Cascades and Falls of Upper Cliff Creek Canyon - Cascades and falls could be seen in every direction in Cliff Creek Canyon. Many types of wildflowers were in full bloom.

Soon Pinto Lake came into view through the smoke from the Mineral King fire. Pinto Lk
Pinto Lake - Smoke from the Mineral King controlled burn filled Cliff Creek Canyon above and below Pinto Lake. Mosquitos were thick near the lake so I camped away from it on the west side of the creek.

As I was looking for a place to camp, I spied a deer licking salt from a pack at a large campsite. deer
Pinto Lake - There were four or five tents at this large campsite near Pinto Lake, but none of the occupants was to be seen. A small buck in velvet took advantage of the situation by licking salt deposits from the hikers' pack straps.

Day 4

On the fourth and last day of the trip, I got an early start and headed down the canyon, passing by waterfalls and cascades next to the trail. cascades
More Cascades in Cliff Creek Canyon - Cliff Creek Canyon narrows in its mid-section, so cascades and falls are often right next to the trail.

At the crossing of Cliff Creek, two young ladies showed me their unique tent. Apparently, the tent has an automatic mechanism which rocks its occupants to sleep after a hard day on the trail. tent
Rocking Tent - The girls camped at the Cliff Creek crossing, introduced me to a new kind of tent. After a hard day of hiking, the occupants of this newfangled tent are gently rocked to sleep.

I expected the climb to Timber Gap to be mostly through forest, but in some places wildflowers bloomed out of bare rock. flowers
Timber Gap Trail - I expected the Timber Gap Trail to be forested from Cliff Creek to the top. I was pleasantly surprised by occasional clearings which revealed a profusion of wildflowers and more falls and cascades.

The journey to the pass was delightful. Finally, the parking lot came into view and before I knew it, I was there. The wise among us had wrapped our cars in tarps. tarp
Marmot Proof? - Marmots have a reputation for feasting under the hoods of visiting cars and trucks. A park employee came up with the bright idea of wrapping the lower part of vehicles in cheap tarps. I wish I had brought a tarp and some rope. A marmot feasted on the hood insulation of my car. It could have been worse. Marmots like to eat cooling system hoses, brake lines, and air conditioning system lines, also.

Many of the rest of us, including myself, had damage to our cars from the local, car-eating, marmots. I guess I was lucky. All they wanted from my car was a little hood insulation.

One Page Version 23 January 2013