Mineral King Loop: Four Gorgeous Backpacking Routes (With Maps)

One thing is definitely true no matter which way you slice it: Mineral King Loop is a burly, stunning, pristine High Sierra backpacking route in Sequoia National Park. The scenery is big, the climbs are long, and the air is clear and thin.

But if you search for “Mineral King Loop,” you’ll find a confusing jumble of different mileages, lakes, passes, and gaps that never seem to quite match up.

This is because there are actually several different backpacking routes in the Mineral King area referred to as “Mineral King Loop.” They all start and end from the same place, but the area around Mineral King is so rich with possibilities that several loops in the 28 – 50 mileage range are possible, with some overlap between them.

No matter which route you choose, it’s going to be beautiful.

I went through the process of sorting this out when planning my own Mineral King hike, and I’ll lay it out here to save you time and head scratching as you plan yours.

This post will map, explain, and compare four different Mineral King backpacking routes. Here’s how they all fit together:

  • Loop 1 is purple up, right, and down, then the top orange track back left.
  • Loop 2 is orange all the way around.
  • Loop 3 is purple up, right, and down, then the bottom orange track down, left, and up.
  • Loop 4 is purple up, then blue up and over and down, then middle orange (or lower orange) back left.

That will probably make more sense once you’ve seen the individual route maps below. But first, a few basics that are true of ALL the Mineral King loops:

About Mineral King Loop(s)

Getting to Mineral King Loop

All variations of the Mineral King Loop start from the Mineral King Ranger Station, 24 miles on Mineral King Road from Highway 198 in Three Rivers. The road is curvy, narrow, and at times hugs the edge of a steep mountain. You can do it in a regular car (no 4×4 required), but should allow plenty of time (at least an hour) and take it slow.

There are two campgrounds along Mineral King Road: Cold Springs and Atwell Mill. Both are first come first served and cost $12 per night. There are also places to pull off and spend a quiet night in your car, if that’s how you roll. Either way, spending a night at higher elevation before your hike is a great way to acclimate and make those high passes a bit easier.

Permits for Mineral King Loop

Backpacking permits are required during the typical hiking season. See the NPS permit page for current details. Permits are issued based on the intended start of your route and limited by daily quotas.

Generally speaking, permits are granted on a first-come-first-served basis at least 2 weeks before your start date. Applications can be made by email or snail mail.

Limited walk-up permits are also available starting at 1pm the day before, at the permit station nearest your route (Mineral King Ranger Station).

For the Mineral King Loop variations in this article, the relevant permit types are Timber Gap, Sawtooth Pass, and Franklin Pass. Each has a different daily quota, found on page 11 of the Wilderness Trip Planner. Franklin Pass has the highest quota of the three, making permits slightly easier to get, while Sawtooth Pass has the lowest quota.

Mineral King Loop 1: Timber Gap, Black Rock Pass, Sawtooth Pass

Full track available on Gaia GPS

Distance: 29 miles

Typical days: 4

Elevation gain: 10,439 feet

Lowest elevation: 7,161 feet (western start of Black Rock Pass climb)

Highest elevation: 11,650 feet (Sawtooth Pass)

Recommended direction: clockwise (but either works)

Trailhead: Sawtooth Trailhead (both directions)

Permit entry point: Timber Gap (clockwise) or Sawtooth Pass (counterclockwise)

Popular camp spots:

  • Cliff Creek (low point between Timber Gap and Black Rock Pass, has bear box) or Pinto Lake (3 miles up the Black Rock Pass climb)
  • Little Five Lakes basin or Big Five Lakes basin (options to detour off trail to multiple lakes)
  • Lost Canyon (pretty and scenic) or Columbine Lake (dramatic, more exposed)
  • Monarch Lake (only about 4 miles from Sawtooth trailhead)

This version of Mineral King Loop starts and ends at the Sawtooth Trailhead. You’ll get warmed up on Timber Gap before tackling the taller Black Rock Pass, descending into the area around Big Five Lakes and Lost Canyon, before tackling Sawtooth Pass and dropping back down to where you started.

Climbing Black Rock Pass from the west side

This loop can be done either direction, but typically clockwise is recommended because the west side of Sawtooth Pass is quite a slog when going up. Going clockwise also saves the most scenic section for the second half. However, if you can’t get a permit for Timber Gap but can get one for Sawtooth Pass, counterclockwise works too.

More info: here are trail descriptions and trip reports for this variation of Mineral King Loop:

Mineral King Loop 2: Franklin Pass, Sawtooth Pass

Full track available on Gaia GPS

Distance: 28.4 miles

Typical days: 4

Elevation gain: 9,027 feet

Lowest elevation: 7,846 feet (trailhead)

Highest elevation: 11,650 feet (Sawtooth Pass)

Recommended direction: counterclockwise (but either works)

Trailhead: Farewell Gap / Franklin Lakes Trailhead (ccw) or Sawtooth Trailhead (cw)

Permit entry point: Franklin Pass (counterclockwise) or Sawtooth Pass (clockwise)

Popular Camp Spots:

  • Franklin Lake
  • Forester Lake or Little Claire Lake
  • Lost Canyon (pretty and scenic) or Columbine Lake (dramatic, more exposed)
  • Monarch Lake (only about 4 miles from Sawtooth trailhead)

This version of Mineral King Loop shares the Lost Canyon Trail and Sawtooth Pass Trail with version 1, but instead of starting to the north it starts heading south from Farewell Gap / Franklin Lakes Trailhead.

The route begins with a big climb up Farewell Gap Trail toward Farewell Gap, but you’ll make a left turn before the gap and continue climbing to Franklin Pass. The route then descends to Soda Creek before turning left and following loop version 1 along Lost Canyon, over Sawtooth Pass and out at Sawtooth Trailhead.

Franklin Lake

This loop is best followed counterclockwise to avoid the steep and slippery slog up the west side of Sawtooth Pass. However, if you can’t get a permit for Franklin Pass but can get one for Sawtooth, traveling clockwise also works.

More info:

Mineral King Loop 3: Franklin Pass, Black Rock Pass, Timber Gap

Full track available on Gaia GPS

Distance: 36.3 miles

Typical days: 5

Elevation gain: 12,140 feet

Lowest elevation: 7,161 feet (bottom of Black Rock Pass climb on west side)

Highest elevation: 11,729 feet (Franklin Pass)

Recommended direction: either (slight preference for counterclockwise)

Trailhead: Farewell Gap / Franklin Lakes Trailhead (ccw) or Sawtooth Trailhead (cw)

Permit entry point: Franklin Pass (counterclockwise) or Timber Gap (clockwise)

Popular camp spots:

  • Franklin Lake
  • Forester Lake or Little Claire Lake
  • Along Soda Creek
  • Little Five Lakes basin or Big Five Lakes basin (options to detour off trail to multiple lakes)
  • Cliff Creek (low point between Timber Gap and Black Rock Pass, has bear box) or Pinto Lake (3 miles up the Black Rock Pass climb)

This is a combination of Mineral King Loops 1 and 2. You’ll cross both Franklin Pass on the south side of the loop and Black Rock Pass / Timber Gap on the north side, but you’ll skip Sawtooth Pass in the middle.

View from near Black Rock Pass

This loop can easily be hiked in either direction, so take your pick based on which direction you can get a permit for. I’ve shown it counterclockwise here because a) permits for Franklin Pass are generally easier to get, and b) Black Rock Pass from the west is both longer and steeper than Franklin pass coming from the west.

Coming down from Timber Gap to the trailhead just before sunset

More info: here are trail descriptions and trip reports for this variation of Mineral King Loop:

Mineral King Loop 4: Timber Gap, Kaweah Gap, Sawtooth Pass

Full track available on Gaia GPS

Distance: 41 miles

Typical days: 6

Elevation gain: 14,175 feet

Lowest elevation: 6,162 feet (Granite Creek crossing)

Highest elevation: 11,650 feet (Sawtooth Pass)

Recommended direction: clockwise

Trailhead: Sawtooth Trailhead (either direction)

Permit entry point: Timber Gap (clockwise) or Sawtooth Pass (ccw)

Popular camp spots:

  • Redwood Meadow or Hamilton Creek
  • Hamilton Lake (very scenic)

This long Mineral King Loop is essentially loop 1, but with a long extension on the northern side that takes in Kaweah Gap and some of the scenic High Sierra Trail. For the same reasons as loop 1, clockwise is the recommended direction.

The water crossing at Big Arroyo is apparently tricky when the water is high. Ask a ranger for current status before committing to this route in early season or high snow years.

It would also be possible to finish this loop over Franklin Pass to the south instead of Sawtooth Pass, adding roughly another 8 miles. But most people don’t, perhaps because 41 miles is already long enough, and the Lost Canyon / Sawtooth Pass section is very scenic.

There is yet one more variation possible for all these routes, which is to head further east, dropping down into Big Arroyo Trail. Most people seem to prefer the high route through the scenic Big Five Lakes area instead.

More info: here are trail descriptions and trip reports for this variation of Mineral King Loop:

Which Mineral King Loop should you hike?

You can probably see by now, the biggest factor is distance. Loop 4 is the longest, with loop 3 next. That said, the section through Lost Canyon and over Sawtooth Pass (which loop 3 skips) is highly scenic.

Between loops 1 and 2, your choice might be made for you by permit availability. Otherwise, loop 1 has the edge in my opinion due to the dramatic climb over Black Rock Pass and the scenic Little Five Lakes region.

Tips for Backpacking Mineral King Loop

Whichever loop you pick, here are some tips:

  • These routes are tough! The climbs are big and the terrain is always either up or down. Don’t be surprised if you cover fewer miles per day here than you’re used to. My husband and I tried to breeze through loop 3 in two days and while it’s certainly possible, it proved to be ambitious.
  • Approved food storage is required in Sequoia National Park. Bear canisters are recommended. If that’s a new piece of gear for you, here’s a bear canister guide.
  • Prepare for typical high Sierra weather: often clear and very sunny (bring sunscreen!) but rain is possible. Nights can be very chilly – below freezing even in summer – at higher elevations. These tips for staying warm should help.
  • Mosquitoes can be an issue; bring bug repellent.
  • Lingering snow can pose a danger in early season or high snow years, especially on Sawtooth Pass. Check with rangers for current conditions.
  • Drinking water is frequently available in the valleys; filter the water to be on the safe side.
  • Creek crossings at Cliff Creek (loops 1, 3, and 4) and Big Arroyo (loop 4 only) can be challenging when flow is high. Check with a ranger for current conditions.
  • Some people plan a zero or near-zero day to explore the scenic alpine playgrounds around Little Five or Big Five Lakes.
  • When parking at Mineral King Ranger Station, put all your food in the bear boxes and beware of marmots. They’ve been known to chew through important parts of peoples’ cars, causing overnight parkers to wrap their vehicles in tarps. Call the ranger station to check the current level of risk before driving in.
  • For paper maps, I recommend either National Geographic or Tom Harrison.

Whichever Mineral King variation you choose, it’s impossible to go wrong in this gorgeous part of the high Sierra. Remember to pack light for those burly climbs, and enjoy the views!

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re planning a backpacking trip in the high Sierra, you might also find these helpful:

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the western US. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more or say hi.

Hiking resources in your inbox?

There’s more where this came from! If you’re into exploring the wild outdoors, sign up here for occasional emails with my best tips and inspiration for backpacking, hiking, and more.

Share the Adventure

Was this helpful? If so, please consider sharing so it can help other explorers too:

Are you an experienced backpacker who’s excited to share your knowledge? You can contribute to this site. Learn more here.

Pin For Later

Pictures of mountain trails with text: Backpacking Guide, Mineral King Loop, Sequoia National Park
Pictures of mountain trails with text: Trail Guide to Mineral King Loop, Sequoia National Park

4 thoughts on “Mineral King Loop: Four Gorgeous Backpacking Routes (With Maps)”

  1. Hello,
    I am so thrilled to find this information.
    I have been looking for maps of trails my Father mentions in his book, “Mountains Mules and Memories”, by Bill DeCarteret.
    He ran a pack station at Mineral King from 1958 for about 25 years.
    It talks about the making of these trails and the history behind them as well as his adventures in the mountains.
    Thank you Bonnie Kanae

    Reply
  2. We used this for our MK hike last year; thank you! I JUST noticed a typo: in the header for “Loop 2” it says “Franklin Pass, Black Rock Pass, Sawtooth Pass” but this loop doesn’t go over Black Rock (which is further north).

    Reply

Leave a Comment

105 Shares
Pin
Share
Tweet