Mineral, Needham, Sawtooth Loop

Mineral King is a high glacial valley at the south end of the Sierra Nevada nestled beneath the Great Western Divide. The valley has a long history of human interaction dating back to 19th century silver mining, and more recently, aspirations to turn the valley into a ski resort by Walt Disney. Fortunately, preservationists won this battle and Mineral King was protected for future generations by adding it to Sequoia National Park in 1978. While the entire valley is now a within the park, many structures remain as descendants from the original mining families continue to inhabit cabins. Fortunately, the cabins do not distract from the remote and wild feeling of the valley with its spectacular meadows and prominent granite peaks. Through late July, the valley is teaming with hungry marmots that have unfortunately developed an appetite for antifreeze fluid and it’s strongly recommended that all visitors wrap their car with a tarp. This is still a beautiful time to visit, but be mindful of the extra hassle.  In late summer the marmots are no longer a problem.  In late September and early October, groves of aspen which are fairly rare on the west side of the Sierra provide lovely fall colors. Gone are the days when of mining and ski resort speculation, Mineral King is now most popular with hikers and backpackers who are willing to brave the 20+ mile narrow and winding road to enjoy the natural splendor of the valley and the rugged granitescape beyond. There are many options for on-trail and off-trail hikes and numerous objectives in the region, but the following describes a very aesthetic loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain and Sawtooth Peak.  More photos here.    Beginning at the Sawtooth Peak Trailhead take the trail up to the turnoff for Crystal Lake. The Sawtooth Peak Trail was cut along a forested hillside with very gradual switchbacks. The moderate grade makes for a pleasant run of what would otherwise be a frustratingly slow walk. Open meadows and firs at the bottom transition to southern foxtail pines which are always a pleasure to walk among. The Crystal Lake Trail gets much less use than the Sawtooth Peak Trail that leads to the Monarch Lakes and after a traverse begins a moderately steep climb up to a small notch along the west ridge of Mineral Peak. From this notch, the trail traverses into meadows above Crystal Creek before making a series of switchbacks up the final headwall to Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake is not conveniently walked along it’s shores; instead a pass north of the lake leads to a small tarn beneath Mineral Peak. The climb up to Mineral Peak is fairly straightforward with a mix of sand, talus and a short scramble that is mostly class 2 with a few class 3 moves depending on the exact route chosen. Aptly-named Mineral Peak is a relatively small mountain composed of several different colors of rock ranging from red to white. Owing to its centralized location, the view from the summit is fantastic and includes Sawtooth Peak rising steeply above Monarch Lake, Crystal Lake, the Mineral King Valley and the southern end of the Great Western Divide around Mount Florence. From Mineral Peak retrace steps down the scramble portion to the sandy slopes above the Crystal Lake tarn and then traverse slabs and sand to a broad pass above Amphitheater Lake. A few easy class 3 moves are found on either side of this pass. Take a moment at the pass to marvel at the striking curvature of the granite along the crest of the ridge. The descent to Ampitheater Lake is somewhat tricky as direct access to the lakeshore below is barred by steep and smooth granite slabs. Instead making a direct descent to the lake, traverse in a southerly direction along talus staying below cliffs of the crest and above the steep slabs descending to the lake. Eventually a small gully with grass patches and talus enables a descent down to the southwest corner of Ampitheater Lake.      Ampitheater is a somewhat common name in the Sierra and the Amphitheather Lake of Sawtooth Peak is not to be confused with the Ampitheater Lake which lies beneath Ampitheater Peak at the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Kings Canyon. What these two Ampitheater Lakes share in common is striking beauty and both are gems of the Sierra Nevada. As one would expect, there is definitely an amphitheater feeling with the rugged ridge from Needham Mountain to Sawtooth Peak and down to Peak 12,109 surrounding the lake. Rounding the south and east shores of Ampitheater Lake, one obtains a close up view of picturesque granite islands with such clear waters that one can easily see rocks at the lake bottom. From Ampitheater Lake pleasant slabs and meadows lead to the base of Needham Mountain. From here, Needham Mountain becomes a bit of a slog with some sandy slopes and loose rocks. Staying near the ridge crest on more solid rocks eliminates some of the slog but it’s not a very stimulating climb. The summit block is a somewhat nondescript with several different pinnacles vying for the highest point. What Needham lakes in climbing aesthetics it makes up with excellent 360 degree views including the Whitney Zone area, the Kaweah Peaks Ridge and the Great Western Divide. Moreover, the sandy slopes make for a enjoyable plunge step descent.To continue the loop to Sawtooth Peak, traverse sand and slabs and then climb talus slopes up to Sawtooth Peak, the most famous and most sought after summit in the region. Sawtooth has equally impressive views, particularly of the many lakes that surround its rocky slopes including Ampitheater Lake, Crystal Lake, the Monarch lakes to the south and the large Columbine Lake to the north. Mineral Peak takes on a particularly impressive profile from this angle. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge continue to play a star role in the view, as they do from virtually any high point in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada. From Sawtooth Peak I’ve found it’s best to descend below the crest of the ridge and take sandy use paths toward Sawtooth Pass. Unfortunately this sandy open terrain promotes a lot of braiding paths and even the designated trail is somewhat difficult to spot and stay on as there are so many different interconnecting paths.  The good news is one does not even need to find the Sawtooth Pass trail as the most efficient way down to Mineral King is directly down from Glacier Pass to Monarch Creek. The beginning of this descent is largely cross country but bits of old trail become more defined as one descends. At meadows ~9,600 ft, the old trail becomes much more defined as it traverses the final headwall down to the designated Sawtooth Peak Trail where the loop is complete and only a short bit of trail leads back down to the trailhead.   

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Eisen & Lippincott

Mount Eisen and Lippincott Mountain are two peaks along a remote stretch of the Great Western Divide between Black Rock Pass and Kaweah Gap. Both peaks are perfectly situated to provide jaw-dropping views of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge that dominate the view to the east. As Bob Burd showed in 2007, a fairly efficient traverse can be made between Eisen and Lipppincott enabling both peaks to be climbed in a long day from Mineral King. My last visit to Mineral King was way back in 2007 for a climb of Black Kaweah. I had been wanting to climb Eisen & Lippincott every since, but was deterred by the infamous Mineral King marmots that eat through hosing and have disabled cars from spring through August. I had pegged a late season visit when the marmots were gone, but each time other parts of the range called me elsewhere.

Nine years later, I was ready to drive the very curvy road up to Mineral King and climb Eisen & Lippincott. My route taken largely follows Bob’s 2007 trip. The only non-minor deviation was cutting over toward Eisen half way up the switchbacks to the Black Rock Pass. This allowed me to avoid some of the ridge traverse and extra elevation gain, likely saving a few minutes. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge commands attention for most of the day and this collection of rugged rocks is so inspiring that I easily took over 1,000 photos of it with my iPhone and dedicated camera. Despite culling the majority, there’s probably still way too many Kaweah photos posted here. The following day I did a very nice loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain, Amphitheater Lake and Sawtooth Peak which I look forward to sharing on the blog soon. It took nine years between visits to Mineral King and I hope the next time will be much sooner!  Full photo albums: Camera; iPhone 

The route to reach Eisen & Lippincott begins in the charming Mineral King valley. After an initial climb on the Sawtooth Pass Trail, the most efficient route to Glacier Pass leaves the maintained trail at a small meadow and begins a traversing climb on an old unmaintainted trail. There’s some brush and some boulder hoping in sections, but the old path is followable all the way up to another meadow area above a headwall of Monarch Creek. The path disappears in this meadow, but veer left into a broad gully that leads toward Glacier Pass. On the left side of this broad gully the use path can be regained. With careful routefinding the use path can be followed most of the way to Glacier Pass.  Alternatively, one may stay on the maintained Sawtooth Pass Trail which reaches the Glacier Pass vicinity after a long series of gradual switchbacks, a circuitous trip to the lower Monarch Lakes and an annoyingly sandy climb. The correct crossing of Glacier Pass is slightly south and above the low point.

After passing over Glacier Pass, a use path descends to the gorgeous headwaters of Cliff Creek, one of the most enchanting places in the Sierra. The descent features picturesque small tarns and grizzled Southern Foxtail Pines with increasingly closer views of exquisite Spring Lake, which sports a spectacular blue color, particularly when contrasted with the red bark of the foxtail pines. Rising from Spring Lake’s shores is a impressive granite buttress which is the terminous of Sawtooth Peak’s north ridge. For Mount Eisen, follow Cliff Creek downstream from Spring Lake moving through a talus field and then easy meadows to join the Black Rock Pass trail. One may ascend the Black Rock Pass Trail all the way to the Pass or depart about halfway up the slope and angle toward Mount Eisen to save some time and extra elevation gain. Once the ridge is gained a false summit is reached with one of the most memorable views of the Kaweahs as Lake 10410 (one of the Little Five Lakes) is perfectly framed.  Some scrambling leads down to a pass between the false summit and Mount Eisen before the final scramble up Mount Eisen commences. Pursuing the summit register I learned that a ridge traverse from Eisen to Lippincott has been done in the past by staying right on the crest, but the easiest and most efficient route follows a route underneath the ridge.

From Eisen retreat back to the pass between Eisen and the false summit before picking one of many class 3 possibilities down the east side of the ridge to friendly granite slabs below. Traverse north to a gap along Eisen’s east ridge with a distinctive horn to the east of the gap and then descend a gully (likely containing snow) to a rockbound tarn. From here aim for a pass between the two unnamed peaks on the Great Western Divide that are between Eisen and Lippincott. There’s some slabs to descend followed by a large talus fields that leads to the pass. On the other side of this pass one is on the west side of the Great Western Divide and the traverse to Lippincott’s southeast ridge is fairly straightforward. It is recommended to loose some elevation to reach easier terrain versus remaining high. Lippincott’s southeast ridge is a fun class 3 scramble with lots of options to make it interesting on the ridge proper or tone down the difficulty by moving left off the ridge. Lippincott’s summit is a wonderful perch with views toward the Tablelands, Nine Lakes Basin and the Great Western Divide stretching to the north all the way to Mount Brewer and North Guard. The Kaweahs continue to command the greatest attention, particularly Black Kaweah and Red Kaweah, but with an added twist: at the base of Lippincott’s precipitous north face is an unnamed lake (“Lippincott Lake”) with a wonderful deep blue center ringed by a turquoise shoreline.

Some class 3 downclimbing is required on the upper part of the Lippincott’s east face, but it soons transitions into pleasant granite slabs. Following the drainage down leads to a wonderful parkland of Southern Foxtail Pines and small lakes. At the outlet of lake 10,295 curve to the south to reach the Big Arroyo Trail. The Big Arroyo Trail passes through one of the most pristine Southern Foxtail Pine woodlands in existence with some truly amazing trees. The scientific name for Southern Foxtail Pine is Pinus balfouriana subspecies austrina and it is endemic to the high country of the Southern Sierra Nevada. Most of the groves are within Sequoia National Park and the Big Arroyo and Upper Kern River watersheds contain the highest concentration of Southern Foxtail Pines anywhere. This fascinating tree occurs in nearly pure stands of widely spaced woodlands and the bark has a distinctive reddish color which is particularly striking in sunlight. The Foxtail Pine is slow growing and the arid, high-elevation conditions also mean it is slow to decay. Some living trees are thousands of years old and woody crowns can persist for much longer. In exposed places near tree line, numerous winter storms with high winds and ice sculpt and twist the trunk and branches into picturesque snags peeling away the bark to expose complex inner layers and striking colors. 

After some rolling hills through the Southern Foxtail Pine forest, the trail reaches Little Five Lakes with more great views of the Kaweahs. The shortest route back to Spring Lake and Glacier Pass is via an off trail traverse to Cyclamen Pass (point 11,145 on USGS). The east side of the pass is fairly straightforward with wonderful views down to the Big Five Lakes while the west side of the pass is a fairly arduous descent with sand in the upper part that transitions to talus below. Ultimately, one returns to beautiful Spring Lake where a use trail leads up to Glacier Pass. Here, the climbing is done for the day and it’s all downhill to Mineral King.