Mineral King to Little Five Lakes Trail

HARD 36 reviews
#18 of 86 trails in

Mineral King to Little Five Lakes Trail is a 28.1 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Three Rivers, California that features a lake and is rated as difficult. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from March until October.

DISTANCE
28.1 miles
ELEVATION GAIN
10,449 feet
ROUTE TYPE
Loop

backpacking

camping

hiking

nature trips

walking

forest

lake

river

views

waterfall

wild flowers

wildlife

scramble

snow

no dogs

backpacking
29 days ago

My hiking buddy and I did this loop in the clockwise direction over 4 days in late August, camping at Pinto Lake, Upper Big Five Lakes, and Columbine Lakes. Overall a challenging but rewarding experience!

Pros
- Scenery: the views from Black Rock Pass and Columbine Lake were 5 stars. The alpine territory of Big Five Lakes and Lost Canyon were also incredible. The rest of the hike was pretty, but not quite as memorable.
- Logistics and solitude: this hike has become a lot more popular (permit demand has doubled in the last year alone). Nevertheless, obtaining permits is relatively easy and trail congestion remains low. We passed by only ~12 hikers per day on the trails and felt like we had our campsites all to ourselves.
- Charm: one thing I liked about this loop is you revisit a lot of the same locations from different points of view. For example, you get to see Columbine Lake from far away, then up close and personal. Or walk up Black Rock Pass, then admire how much altitude you climbed from far away 2 days later!
- Easy to customize: there are many variations of this loop if you have extra time, such as a detour to Nine Lake Basin or going over different passes.

Cons
- Difficulty: this hike kicked my butt! Although it's only ~7-8 miles per day, in the clockwise direction the first two days involve a LOT of uphill. The last day involves scrambling up and sliding down Sawtooth Pass. The packs and altitude only add to the exhaustion. On the flip side, the hike generally gets easier with each day.
- Getting there: Mineral King is less accessible than some other parts of the Sierras, so you might need to add 1-2 days to your itinerary to account for travel time.

Advice
- I recommend doing this in the clockwise direction from Timber Gap if possible. The first day is a slog and while pretty, it doesn't live up to the next 3 days. In the clockwise direction, the views improve with every day!
- Trail is well marked with a few exceptions. 1) If you're planning on camping at Pinto Lake, know that the lake is not signposted nor visible from the trail if you're coming from Timber Gap (i.e. from downhill). We initially missed and passed by it. Keep track of your location on the map and be on the lookout for a marshy area with trees in an otherwise completely sun-exposed area. 2) The detour to Upper Big Five Lakes fizzles out at one point, but you can keep on going deep into the canyon off the trail. 3) When going from Upper Big Five Lakes to Lost Canyon, when you reach the last lake, you will need to cross the creek to the other side. The trail not clearly marked, stay close to the edge of the lake on the opposite and look out for cairns. 4) The trail between Columbine and Monarch Lakes is not well established. At the top near Sawtooth Pass, there are use trails in the decomposed granite, but the trail lower down near the lakes requires scrambling over rocks and some pathfinding.
- The NPS rangers will recommend against camping at Columbine Lake as there are few campsites and the area has been "abused" by hikers (e.g. leaving trash, illegally camping next to the lake, etc). The will instead advise hikers to camp in Upper Lost Canyon, where there are some sun-exposed sites near the switchbacks leading to Columbine Lake, or covered sites in the forested area before the switchbacks. We ended up camping at Columbine Lake unintentionally and it was incredible. If you do too, please respect the space!

1 month ago

This is a beautiful loop! We went clockwise and I would certainly recommend that direction; first day camping spots are better and scree skiing down Sawtooth is much better than trying to scramble up it from Monarch Lakes. I agree with others that noted the All Trails distances are off. Red numbers on map are more accurate than the All Trails lines and better match the trail signs. Rangers were still recommending marmot precautions as of 8/1/18. Trail crews did a good job of addressing the washout west of Pinto Lake and were actively fixing the one east of Pinto. Water was available pretty much throughout the loop. The only real tough patch was from Pinto to Little 5 Lakes. There's a stream at about 10,200 feet right before some switchbacks. Next water is 3+ miles away, over Big Rock Pass and down at Little 5 (the last lake is the cleanest). Mosquitoes were out around both Little and Big 5 Lakes but weren't really a problem. Caught trout all around the loop, but they were small and only good for the story. Nymphs seemed to be key. Hope this helps! Have a great trip!

2 months ago

Spectacular. Went late June. Saw 12 people in four days (including a kind ranger). Did the loop counterclockwise, which is recommended unless you are otherwise itching to crawl/scramble/struggle up the skree of Sawtooth Pass. Camped Cliff Creek, Middle Lower Five Lakes, and Upper-Middle Lost Canyon. Mosquitos were out and about, but with the year’s lighter snowpack, we may have faced the worst of it. To be safe, bring ample Deet and invest in mosquito resistant clothing (including face netting). With some long stretches out of tree-cover, also bring ample sunscreen (though 3oz was more than enough for two of us).

If you’re young and/or in tip-top shape (and, more importantly, very prepared and carrying a light pack), you could do this in two days, though take caution with altitude sickness over some of these passes. Otherwise, take your time and enjoy this underappreciated escape.

hiking
2 months ago

Hard, but not overly painfully so. I have asthma and had to stop many times for air, but there was no need for a fast pace. Even with my slowness, we planned for four days but did it in there. Aside from normal backcountry gear, bring A LOT of sunscreen and zinc and GOOD mosquito repellant. Our GPS recorder logged significantly more miles than as posted on this and other trail sites. This map has the trail going in straight lines that do not exist. Expect closer to 35 miles maybe.

Day 1: Timber Gap Trail to Timber Gap. The trail is moderately steep out of the parking lot and continues so for some time. Reaching the top of Timber Gap has nice views with plenty of shade. Descend fast to the junction with Cliff Creek. This is the most psychologically challenging parts of the trip—to descend to below where you started and then have to climb for miles with a tall pass at the end of it. At the junction with Cliff Creek there is the most beautiful creek passing with several little pools. I wish it wouldn’t have been a waste to camp there, otherwise we would have. Have lunch. Walk along the creek and through the dry bed (which can be confusing—some cairns arranged; alternatively look for mule poop) as you pass epic waterfalls as you approach the switchbacks to climb to the Pinto Lake Area. At Pinto Lake, full water in stream that is clearly audible. Several campsites in front of and across the path from the bear box area. Choose a site on the rocks above the bear box—the breeze up there keeps the mosquitos away and the sunset is incredible.

Day 2: Fill your water. Then have fun figuring out how to get across the marsh and connect with the trail. Once you find it, begin the 3000 vertical feet in 3 miles to the top of Blackrock Pass. You’ll pass a steam going down the side of the mountain near the beginning of the climb up the switchbacks. Fill water here as it is the last water on this side and there won’t be mosquito free water for a bit on the other side. Then get ready—if you look straight up the mountain, slightly behind the stream, you can see the pass. It looks forever away. It sucked. I had to stop often (every 20-30 steps) to catch my breath. The grade is steep most of the way. But the views are the best views of the trip, as you see Columbine Lake and Spring Lake and the other lake across the valley. Take your time getting to the top and then enjoy the pass. The views are also quite good, as you look down on Little 5 lakes below. As you descend, turn around and look at the pass and you’ll understand why it’s called Blackrock—all of the rock to the right off the pass is sand colored. Get down, enjoy the view of the first couple of Little 5 lakes from above, but then put on your turbo boosters and get past them as fast as possible—horrible mosquitos. There is a creek draining from one of the lakes at the trail junction that takes you to the ranger station. Bugs were slightly less horrible there if you need water. Continue onto Big 5. You’ll hit a junction for Lower or Upper Big 5. Just know that if you choose Lower Big 5, you likely won’t come back to see Upper Big 5–there are quite a few switchbacks on the one mile trail to lower Big 5 and elevation to get back up to Upper Big 5 would suck. Lower Big 5 has some nice camping spots near the bear box and other spots across the lake on a small shoulder above where we were told there was a nice pond. AND YOU CAN HAVE FIRES HERE! Remember—no wood larger than you’re forearm.

Day 3: We had a leisurely morning of breakfast, a couple of swims, cards, and snacks. We slowly packed up, departed at 1230, and began the moderate climb to start, then mostly easy going hike to the end of Upper Lost Canyon. The creek and valley are absolutely stunning with Sawtooth and a couple other peaks in the background. We camped at a small, cleared area just a few switchbacks up the trail at the start of the climb to Columbine. We were directly next to one stream with another up the side of the mountain. Take your time along here—you’re in no rush and the valley is picturesque.

Day 4: after sleep, the hike up to Columbine from the base of the switchbacks wasn’t too bad—took maybe 45 minutes. The views are incredible; you can see the switchbacks up Blackrock Pass Trail. Contrary to what the rangers say, there are plenty of camping spots up there. When you reach the lake, follow the trail to the right, over the stream and you’ll find over a dozen great spots. The hike up to the pass is steep and challenging in sections, but the views are top notch and scree skiing down the mountain is so, so fun. Gaters and poles are a must for the descent. There isn’t really a trail for a while, so just choose a good skiing spot and keep your eyes open for the use trail toward the bottom on the way to monarch lake.

backpacking
3 months ago

This loop was more difficult than I anticipated and more beautiful than I could have imagined. The pictures don't do it justice. The altitude and the grade of the slopes make it difficult and the distances were longer than what is stated on the trail guides. I tracked my progress with my Garmin GPS watch and racked up considerably more distance than indicated on the maps. Maybe the maps don't account for the switchbacks or when the trail goes up and down in elevation? The snow also added to the difficulty and made it a bit more dangerous. I think I could do the loop more easily now that I know what lays ahead of me and I also think it would be easier when the snow melts off the slopes. I highly recommend this trail. Its one of those adventures that will make you ask "What was I thinking" during the hike and a week after you get home and recover you'll be trying to figure out how you can return and do it again.

hiking
3 months ago

Did half of it late may, I had to take the shortcut at sawtooth since I was doing this as a day hike. Went counterclock. I think it'd be doable to do the whoel thing as day hike without the snow, but with the snow it was very hard to have good speed. There is some pathfinding needed. And sawtooth is really hard to climb because of the terrain. The shortcut was hard to negotiate due to snow and lack of marks, but it was fun.

backpacking
8 months ago

Great trip. Going over black rock pass is challenging but completely worth the effort to get to little five lakes on the other side.

hiking
9 months ago

Amazing hike, lots of climbing but so worth it. I hiked back to mosquito lake and did some fishing for a couple hours and then hiked back out. Made for a long day but the views were amazing. The lakes surrounded by granite are a site to see and the wild life is everywhere.

backpacking
Sunday, September 03, 2017

I see the world differently now. I was a boy, and now I am a man. The world of mountaineering opened before me, in a haze of altitude induced euphoria.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Very hard but most rewarding. Done it twice.
Love this trail! Best part is the last leg.. walking through Lost Canyon and up to Columbine Lake with an Amazing view of Sawtooth Peak.

hiking
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I highly recommend starting this loop via Timber Gap and ending coming out over Sawtooth. When making a permit reservation ask for Timber Gap as your Trail head instead of Sawtooth. They both start at the same trail and parking lot, but .6 miles up the trail they split. You'll be glad you started with Timber Gap.

Also, Pinto Lake and Columbine are heavily used. Columbine only has space for a few ( 2 or 3) tents very close to each other. Also, there isn't any vegetation in terms of privacy or going to the bathroom. I suggest camping before the switchbacks in Lost Canyon. Its a gorgeous canyon.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Great fun. Screw down Sawtooth pass ridiculous

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Beautiful hike. If you don't know your limits and you have the arrogance of two 23 year olds that are never going to die. I highly recommend trying to do the loop in less than 48 hours. But if not take the extra few days to really enjoy your surroundings. There are picturesque camp sites at big and little five lakes as well as at the head of lost canyon. We stayed at pinto lake and Columbine lake which were both great. Clockwise is the way to go. However, if you go up the front of sawtooth there is some terrible skree but in talking to a gentleman, he said that there is a better route from monarch if you can find it, but he said it took him years to find.

backpacking
Thursday, June 22, 2017

I did this hike back in september 2016 with a group of 6. we caught some trout in little five, hiked down to pinto lake to campfire cook them, then finished off the loop through timber gap. Counterclockwise was worth the pain of going up and over Sawtooth. 4 days total, with drive up and back from Los Angeles.

backpacking
Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Awesome trail.

backpacking
Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Incredible journey and well worth the effort. We did the trail in a clockwise direction, which is definitely the way to go only because of the difficulty of climbing Sawtooth Pass from the front side. Scree city! Otherwise the views are incredible from Sawtooth and Black Rock pass, where you can see Mt Whitney! It's one of the few places you can see Whitney from the west. Alpine lakes are incredible (Columbine, Monarch and any of the Big Lakes) and there are plenty of water sources everywhere from lakes to creeks.

backpacking
Monday, August 15, 2016

Really great trail! My brother and I did the loop clockwise and it was quite challenging going over the ridge but well worth it! Plenty of water sources throughout the trail which made it easier to hike without carrying a lot of water weight.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Amazing

backpacking
Thursday, June 09, 2016

We hiked this the opposite way of most, going over Sawtooth pass. While doing this with full weighted packs on day 1 can be daunting, we really felt that the views were spectacular throughout. And I like empty trails, so I tend to choose the less popular routes.

Mind your pace. Two other 20-30 something guys paced faster than us, then pooped out on Sawtooth and wound up turning around the next day instead of finishing the 4 day hike as planned. Moral: don't blow your load and ruin the trip.

Every day had another amazing meadow or lake, and I will definitely come back to Mineral King for more (and longer) hikes.

hiking
Monday, October 05, 2015

We traveled up to Eagle Lake and it was fantastic! Panoramic views in every direction. The hike is not for the faint of heart. This is a serious trail and though you are only ascending about 2300 plus feet, it feels like more. The drive in to Eagle Lake-Mosquito Lake trail head is about 23 miles on a one lane road from Three Rivers. You are doing most of your ascending at this point in the car. This does not give your body time to acclimate to the altitude. Eagle Lake sits at 10008 feet. It is beautiful but rest and pace yourself. Also check the weather. At that altitude, the weather can change on a dime. We got about an inch of snow the following morning in about 45 minutes. Well worth the trip!

hiking
Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Awesome hike. Did the same loop as Dan S (see his Tracks) but in reverse. Highlights:

Camping at Monarch Lakes (if you're coming from Sawtooth pass, make sure you go to the second of the lakes) is breathtaking. You're in a bowl surrounded by peaks next to a lake and a waterfall. The 3-walled outhouse provides one of the best toilet views you'll ever see. Go tentless and sleep under the stars if warm enough.

Avoid camping at pinto lake if possible. Kind of a bog with mosquitos - we opted to camp at the intersection of timber gap creek and cliff creek instead, even though it was less convenient distance-wise, and were very glad we did. We found a nice campsite right along the rushing river.

We did this very early in the season. Recommend going a bit later to avoid snow, as that made some parts very tough - especially sawtooth pass descent (or ascent if you do the reverse of what we did), which makes the trail impossible to follow - so you're left scurrying over rocks and it's fairly challenging, given the lack of a trail. Though I'd imagine this would still be pretty challenging even without as much snow.

hiking
Thursday, January 01, 2015

Went in late Sept. Was cold and got snowed on. Lucky for us not to bad just a couple inches. When we came out we learned that several hikers got trapped on Whitney from the same snow.

camping
Friday, September 06, 2013

A couple things to note:
$20 per car to drive into the park now. $12 for a trailhead campsite.
Route is just a nice as the last visit six years ago. We did Timber gap to Pinto lake, Blackrock pass to upper big five, columbine to sawtooth pass and out. 9 trout of Big Five lake, and spotted a bear above Pinto.

hiking
Saturday, August 13, 2011

Just got back from this loop. Absolutely beautiful scenery, comfortable hiking weather. Black Rock Pass, my own personal Everest, was the most strenuous, albeit most rewarding part of the trip. Couldn't have asked for a more delightful week. The trout are delicious out there.

hiking
Thursday, January 20, 2011

I did this hike at 15 now bear in mind I climbed Mt. Whitney in the fall at 13! We took the Black Rock Pass and did a loop over to Sawtooth pass. This is a demanding + hike so be prepared for anything including cold weather even in the middle of summer.

backpacking
24 days ago

hiking
2 months ago

3 months ago

Load More