Sawtooth Pass Trailhead to Little Five Lake 10476 via Glacier Pass
(8 miles, +5,300/-2,700 feet).
Time for another trip to Mineral King! My first trip here was with Nick and Meredith, and it was my first-ever backpacking trip in the Sierra. This time I was supposed to go with MixMaster, but he couldn’t make it so I’m going solo.
A lot of people talk about doing THE Mineral King Loop, but there are actually a few variations. In fact, even though I am starting and returning to exactly the same trailhead, only about 6 out of 30+ miles will be covering the same path I took last time. Instead of entering over Timber Gap, I hiked over Glacier Pass today. And instead of exiting via Lost Canyon and Sawtooth Pass, I will exit via Soda Creek and Franklin Pass. Here’s a caltopo map of my trip.
It’s been a weird year in the Sierra, with very low snow fall through April and then May was a stormy and cold month. As a result, there has been a lot of uncertainty about snow levels. The official news from the rangers is snow above 9,500 feet, but after what I saw today, I can say with certainty that the snow line is already much higher! I did not use my crampons but I was very happy to have my ice axe.
I left San Diego about 4:30am and arrived at the ranger station around 11:30am. I asked Ranger Brooke about conditions on Glacier Pass, and she said no one had been over it yet, but there were some rangers going out today to set up the Ranger Station at Little Five Lakes. That made me feel a little better about trying something challenging and new.
I got to the Sawtooth Pass Trailhead and went through the Mineral King ritual of marmot-proofing my rental car. Apparently, those cute cat-sized rodents love to munch on hoses and what-not.
And at 12:30pm it was time to start hiking.
I hiked up the trail to 8757 where it crosses Monarch Creek. From here, Secor says to “go straight up the slope” to Glacier Pass, but I discovered the old Monarch Lakes Trail on Google Earth and a USGS Map from 1930, so I decided to follow that instead. I took a left on a clearly visible use trail at the sign saying “trail” with an arrow to the right, and followed it north. It then traversed upward and eastward around the bowl above Groundhog Meadow.
The trail was actually still pretty good, especially through some of the scree fields.
I actually enjoyed finding and following a historic trail, but I think Secor was right. The most efficient path is to head straight up the slope through Groundhog Meadow on easy grassy cross-country terrain.
The old trail eventually loops back to Monarch Creek above some cliffs and then you can either take a ravine to the left or follow the creek to the right. Of course, I chose neither and headed onto a cliffy ridge traverse above the creek. I got myself into class 3 territory in no time but that’s only because I didn’t want to give up 40 feet and head back down to the creek! It was a rookie mistake.
After that little bit of nonsense the rest of the route was foolproof.
At around 9600 feet I left Monarch Creek and headed up the ravine leading north towards Glacier Pass. As I climbed I had a good view back of the Sawtooth Pass Trail which still has a decent amount of snow coverage starting at about 10,000 feet.
Meanwhile, my beautiful cross-country route was almost completely snow-free.
By 3pm I made the pass. Easy peasy!
Lo and behold, I met the rangers right at the top!
One of them had already descended the north side of Glacier Pass and was sitting on a rock at the end of her path.
Although I would have felt pretty comfortable doing the descent by myself, I definitely felt a lot more confident surrounded by all this expertise!
I watched as one of the rangers did a short 30 foot class 3 descent on rock to get to the snow. I then also watched as he and another ranger cut two separate boot tracks down the steep slope.
I waited for the rangers to descend a bit and then I climbed down, started face first with my axe in a controlled slide, and then flipped up to enjoy a wonderful glissade!
It was then easy to follow the boot tracks of the rangers down the slope.
Postholing was not too bad, especially since I had early warning of problem areas from the fresh tracks before me.
I have to say, I was not fully prepared for how spectacularly awesome Spring Lake would be.
The lake was at that critical moment between frozen and unfrozen when the surface looks like a powdery crystal thumbprint on the deepest aquamarine glass you have ever seen.
At the outlet I caught up with the rangers and chatted with them for a while. I asked them why they did not glissade, and they noted that with their heavy packs they were worried about punching through the snow.
They were originally planning to do Hands and Knees Pass, but it looked too snowy so they decided to do Black Rock Pass instead. Ranger Mike in particular warned me about the path from Spring Lake to the Black Rock Pass trail. In the past he had tried a traverse to keep his elevation, but the rocks here are slippery with dirt on granite just like in the Kaweahs, so it was pretty sketchy. Now he always heads down to about 9400 feet where the switchbacks start above Cliff Creek.
The rangers headed off and I spent some more time taking pictures of the lake. I then made my way down towards the creek.
At about 9600 feet I found a grassy slope heading straight up to the switchback at 10480, so I followed that. The ranger was right — any time I wandered off the grassy parts the talus was slippery.
I huffed and puffed my way up to the 11,600 foot pass. There was absolutely no snow on the south side, but the north side was a different story. Although the pile of snow on the pass was small and the switchbacks were dry for the first 100 feet or so, after that it was about 80% snow coverage down to the uppermost of the Little Five Lakes.
I rested at the pass, and soon the rangers arrived as well.
I climbed a little ridge above the pass to get a great shot of the Cliff Creek drainage and their snowy lakes, Columbine, Cyclamen, and Spring.
Soon it was time to head down since I did not want to camp on snow! Once again, I benefited from following the fresh tracks of the rangers. The snow was a little crispier here than at Glacier Pass since it had been in shade for a while. I only postholed up to my waist once, but of course that was when my leg decided to cramp. Fun!
I got a little lost on the granite slabs between the top two of the Little Five Lakes, but the snow started thinning out and soon I was back on trail.
At 8pm, just before sunset, I arrived at the lake and made a right turn off the trail in search of an established campsite. I found one of my favorite sites ever! A little copse of pines set about 4 feet above and 30 feet from the lake with a perfect 10 foot by 10 foot flat duffy area for my tent.