How to Backpack 38 Miles Through the Sierra Nevada Backcountry

Lost Canyon is just one of the many breathtaking locations along the Mineral King area's 38-mile Sequoia Loop.
Lost Canyon is just one of the many breathtaking locations along the Mineral King area's 38-mile Sequoia Loop. Kara Kieffer
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I woke in the back seat of my car, just as the sun started to creep over the granite faces that marked the entrance to Sequoia National Park. It was a chilly July morning, and I arrived early at the ranger station in time to snag one of Sequoia National Park’s coveted backcountry permits for the Mineral King area.

This was to be my first solo backpacking trip.

Sequoia National Park is like the middle child of California’s park system—loved, sure, but sometimes a little forgotten. While Yosemite to the north has become the media and tourism darling of the Golden State, Sequoia’s epic and sprawling backcountry waits for the flood of visitors that will likely never come. On all but the busiest weekends it’s still plenty easy to get a walk up permit. The park is a southern Sierra Nevada dreamland of towering granite domes and spires, glacially-carved canyons and valleys, and some of the world’s tallest and oldest trees—and no area of the park embodies this alpine majesty more than the Mineral King backcountry.

In fact, Mineral King offers everything which make the Sierras such a special mountain range, with one notable exception—no crowds.

Soaring views from the top of Sequoia National Park's Sawtooth Pass.
    Kara Kieffer
Soaring views from the top of Sequoia National Park's Sawtooth Pass. Kara Kieffer

At the ranger station I detailed my plan for the next three days. My route would loop through roughly thirty miles of pristine backcountry, climbing over three large passes, and depositing me next to a burbling creek or mountain lake each night. Even in the middle of summer, when most national parks are bursting at the seams with tourists, I was able to score the exact permit I wanted.

Solo Travel Tip: Leave a note! This should be mandatory anytime you step into the backcountry, but especially so if you’re traveling by yourself. Always leave a detailed itinerary with several reliable people as well as an estimated day for your return. If anything goes wrong these are the people who will alert the authorities that you’re missing. National Parks are big, and many people enter and return from different trailheads, meaning that park rangers are not necessarily going to notice if you don’t come back to your car on time.

DAY 1 - Mineral King Ranger Station to Lost Canyon

The approach to Monarch Lake. 
    Kara Kieffer
The approach to Monarch Lake. Kara Kieffer

I leave my car at the upper parking lot at Mineral King, making sure that there is nothing that smells of food inside of it, lest I attract bears, and head for the trail. My pack is blissfully light with only one liter of water. The Sierras are literally flowing with water in the early summer and I know I only have 4.2 miles and 2,500 feet of gain before I reach Monarch Lakes.

Sawtooth Trail begins to climb immediately as it parallels Monarch Creek, which tumbles down into the valley in a series of short waterfalls. After less than a mile I will cross this creek and begin a shaded climb towards Monarch Lakes. All around me granite peaks erupt from dense forests as they reach into the epically blue skies.

Monarch Lakes makes for a perfect rest stop. Nestled below Sawtooth Peak the waters of the lakes are shockingly clear, allowing you to look into the depths of the lake and watch the comings and goings of the local trout population. I don’t linger long at Monarch Lakes. Surrounded by 12,000 foot peaks means I cannot see much of the skies, and afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Sierras; I want to be well over Sawtooth Pass before any chance of rain.

Sawtooth Peak towering above Columbine Lake. 
    Kara Kieffer
Sawtooth Peak towering above Columbine Lake. Kara Kieffer

The hike from Monarch Lakes to Sawtooth Pass is just over a mile long, with close to 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s rough going. The trail is rambling and often splintered, following various contour lines before reconnecting with itself. The loose sandy shoulders that reach towards the peak are reminiscent of hiking in snow. With each step I gain a foot of elevation only to slide back six inches or more. Towards the pass, I stop and chat with two backpackers who are just finishing up their trip, they’re surprised to find that I’m out here alone and let me know that there is a trail crew working near Little Five Lakes “should I need any help.” I thank them for the beta and press on towards the pass. At nearly 11,600 feet, Sawtooth Pass is the highest point of my trip. From there it’s all downhill for the rest of the day.

After leaving the pass I descend towards Columbine Lake, which shines navy blue between high granite cliffs. Beyond Columbine Lake is a short descent into one of the most beautiful canyons in California: Lost Canyon, which features a thin ribbon of water snaking between granite monoliths towards the horizon. This will be my campsite for the evening.

Solo Travel Tip: Stop and talk to fellow hikers! In addition to always leaving my trip information and estimated return time with several reliable sources, I also like to stop and talk with hikers on the trail. If anything should go wrong while traveling in the backcountry, it’s beneficial to have people know where you are, so that they’re able to report when they last saw you. Your fellow hikers are also great sources of information for things like water sources, where rangers or trail crews might be working, and they can give great recommendations on camping locations as well.

DAY 2 - Lost Canyon to Little Five Lakes

A scenic sanctuary in Lost Canyon.
    Kara Kieffer
A scenic sanctuary in Lost Canyon. Kara Kieffer

Lost Canyon is resplendent at sunrise. The light from the east rises above the high Sierra and floods into the valley where a thousand colors explode all at once, and the serpentine creek radiates like fire. The start of day two meanders down the center of the canyon as the trail gently loses elevation and slowly submerges me back into a thick pine forest. In the morning, the forest is quiet and I pass a pack train; this must be the trail crew I’ve heard so much about.

Soon, I take a hard left and begin to climb once more, up and out of Lost Canyon, heading north with the sun on my shoulder as I crest the hill and begin the descent into Big Five Lakes. The descent is short and before long I’m lunching next to the lowest lake, grateful for the breeze that keeps the mosquitoes at bay. One could easily while away an afternoon at Big Five Lakes, but I have to make miles.

There is another climb, but short and well-graded, over a ridge and then back down again as trails are wont to do. Evening finds me watching the sunset over Black Rock Pass next to Little Five Lakes. There is a ranger station around the southern side of the lake where backcountry rangers sometimes stay, but I don’t venture that far, as I’m content in my little campsite. Tomorrow I will climb over Black Rock Pass, just over 11,500 feet.

Solo Travel Tip: Stick to the plan! When you’re tired later in the day it can be tempting to diverge from your original plan, stop at an earlier campsite, or take an alternative trail. However, if you diverge from your plan you dilute the chance that a search and rescue party will be able to find you if something bad should happen.

DAY 3 - Little Five Lakes to Mineral King Ranger Station

Bluebird days and mountain views from Little Five Lakes.
    Kara Kieffer
Bluebird days and mountain views from Little Five Lakes. Kara Kieffer

The Little Five Lakes waters are smooth as glass when I start hiking early the next morning. Day three requires two big climbs. The first will take me one and a half miles and 1,000 feet up to Black Rock Pass, and the second will take me to Timber Gap, climbing 2,400 feet in three and a half miles. It’s going to be a hard day, but I have ice cream on my mind and I’m moving fast.

The morning feels easier than it should, and I suddenly find myself at the top of Black Rock Pass, where the views unravel in all directions from atop the Great Western Divide. To the south I see Sawtooth and Mineral peaks; to the east, the brutally jagged Palisades that pierce the sky like knifes; and to the north, the wooded interior of Sequoia National Park. The sky is clear as the trail spirals me down more than 4,500 vertical feet towards the banks of Cliff Creek. As I drop below treeline, I am grateful for the shade that protects me from the hard alpine sun.

Stopping for lunch along the banks of the creek, I filter water and eat a quick lunch. Clouds are building towards the south and there is still one large pass and more than five miles before I’m back at my car. Ice cream continues to call my name.

The climb up and over Timber Gap alternates between dense pine forests and grassy meadows exploding with thousands of tiny white wildflowers. Suddenly I’m surrounded by day hikers with their tiny packs and wooden walking sticks; a boy scout troop lumbers past; and then I can see my car. Just like that it’s over, I’m back. With nothing more than a gnawing hiker hunger, dirty clothes, and a camera full of pictures I drive the four hours back to the city life of Los Angeles.

Solo Travel Tip: Bring Extra! Carrying extra food into the backcountry means that if, for any reason, you’re not able to return to the trailhead when you expected, you won’t be going hungry. Having a thousand extra calories of food means you can sit out a storm or any unforeseen delay if necessary.

*If you're interested in planning a trek, this detailed topo map offers a solid starting point for learning more about the Sequoia Loop hike. *

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