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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