Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Columbine Lake (Sequoia National Park)

Sawtooth Peak above Columbine Lake
13.5 miles round trip, 5000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Narrow road to trailhead with unpaved sections; Sequoia National Park entrance fee required

The intense blue waters of Columbine Lake, set in a desolate granite bowl beneath the gnashing spires of the Great Western Divide, make for one of the most scenic destinations in the entire Sierra Nevada. The hike to reach this lake, which starts in Sequoia National Park’s Mineral King Valley, is an extremely challenging slog over rocky Sawtooth Pass that can be done in a very long day or as a backpacking trip. Along this trail, hikers are treated to constantly spectacular scenery, from the views over Mineral King to Black Wolf Falls to the sparkling waters of Lower Monarch Lake beneath Mineral Peak to the views of Mount Whitney from Sawtooth Pass. While the hike is straightforward through Lower Monarch Lake, the crossing of Sawtooth Pass utilizes an excessively route that I can not in good conscience characterize as a hiking trail; the closest comparison I can make here is to the climb up Asgard Pass in Washington State’s Enchantments region. Additionally, as Columbine Lake is on the other side of the Great Western Divide from Mineral King, day hikers must cross Sawtooth Pass not just once but twice(!) in one day. Sawtooth Pass is also at a high elevation, topping out at over 11700 feet, so acclimatization prior to the hike is recommended and altitude sickness can be a real concern. Additionally, the road to Mineral King is notoriously narrow and winding. Hikers who can deal with this trail’s challenges and the tough drive to get here will be treated to an extraordinary High Sierra outing.

I hiked to Columbine Lake during a Labor Day weekend trip to Sequoia National Park. I had initially hoped to head to the Eastern Sierra that weekend, but a statewide US Forest Service closure meant that Sequoia National Park was one of the few spots in the Sierra Nevada that I could visit without reserving a permit. I chose to hike in the Mineral King region, which I had loved when I first visited during my middle school years but had not returned to since. As this was a very strenuous hike and there was just a bit over 12 hours of daylight at that point in the year, I planned to hit the trail before sunrise so that I could maximize my time in the high alpine environs of the Great Western Divide.

Mineral King Valley is more than four hours driving from either the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area, so it requires at least a full weekend commitment for most people. To reach Mineral King, I left Highway 99 in the Central Valley at exit 97 for Highway 198, which I followed east past Visalia and Three Rivers. About five miles after passing the Village Market/Pizza Factory area in Three Rivers, I made a right turn onto the Mineral King Road. I followed Mineral King Road for the next 24 miles until I arrived at the Sawtooth Trailhead, just short of the road’s end at the Franklin/Eagle Lakes Trailhead. Mineral King Road is infamous for its windiness: the road makes nearly 400 curves on its way up from Three Rivers into the valley of the East Fork Kaweah River. There are no lane divides along most of this road and in some areas it’s wide enough for only a single car; as the road climbs through incredibly steep terrain, there are frequently sheer drop-offs to the south side of the road. The road is paved until the Atwell Mill area but the final 8 miles of the road is alternatingly paved and unpaved, with some bumpy portions. Standard sedans should be able to handle this road fine- just drive slowly and expect to spend an hour and a half driving up.

The Timber Gap Trail departs from the north side of the Mineral King Road at the Sawtooth Trailhead, although there are parking areas on both sides of the road here as this is probably the most popular backcountry trailhead at Mineral King. I started out on the Timber Gap Trail, which ascended aggressively up the brushy, open slopes on the south side of Empire Mountain. Views of Mineral King Valley immediately began opening up behind me, including that iconic scene of aspen-dotted meadows in the valley beneath the pyramidal form of Vandever Peak. At the end of a broad switchback in the trail, I had a nice view of a couple tiers of Black Wolf Falls, a stair-step cascade along Monarch Creek that gradually tumbles down the mountain. The falls were not terribly impressive late in the summer, so long after the end of the snowmelt, but when I had seen them in a past June visit to Mineral King these falls had been roaring.

Mineral King Valley
After 0.6 miles, I arrived at a junction: while the Timber Gap Trail continued ahead, the Monarch Lakes Trail turned sharply to the right here. I took the Monarch Lakes Trail, which began cutting to the east along the lower slopes of Empire Mountain. The very best views of Mineral King Valley along this hike came here, but they gradually faded as the Monarch Lakes Trail began winding into the ravine carved by Monarch Creek. The ascent along the trail was initially fairly gentle leaving the junction with the Timber Gap Trail but got steeper as the trail entered the ravine. This stretch of the trail passed a few pretty drops along Monarch Creek, including a waterfall on a tributary stream that tumbled down a 15-cascade directly into Monarch Creek.

At 1.3 miles, I arrived at Groundhog Meadows, a small but pretty meadow nestled beneath the awesome cliffs of Empire Mountain. Here, the trail crossed Monarch Creek and then began a long climb up the slopes on the south side of the creek. The trail ascended about 1200 feet over the next 2 miles through steady switchbacks, which kept the grade reasonable and prevented this stretch of trail from being too steep. The trail alternated between forest and meadows, with a mix of rocky and dirt trail treads, although forest with a comfortable dirt tread was dominant here. I had a few nice views west towards Paradise Peak and the mouth of Mineral King Valley as well as glimpses to the northeast of Empire Mountain across the ravine of Monarch Creek.

Empire Mountain rising over Monarch Creek's valley
At 3.3 miles, the trail wrapped around a ridge and entered an open, sloped meadow with lovely views of the Eagle Crest and White Chief Mountain across Mineral King Valley. A few grouses going about their morning business were startled as I hiked by and scurried into the bushes. Shortly afterwards, at about 3.4 miles from the trailhead, I came to a junction with the Crystal Lake Trail, which branched off to the right. I stayed on the Monarch Lake Trail, which continued ascending through switchbacks until rounding a ridge at elevation 10100. The forest that had covered the previous stretch of the trail suddenly ended as the trail emerged on a rugged, rocky mountainside with massive Empire Mountain directly across a valley below and the white granite wall of Sawtooth Peak rising straight ahead. For the following three-quarters mile, the trail was cut into the steep mountainside, a dramatic balcony trail with continually fantastic and open views. Looking back to the west, many of Sequoia-Kings Canyon’s notable features- including Castle Rocks and Big Baldy- were visible in the distance.

Sawtooth Peak and the trail to Monarch Lakes
The great wall of Sawtooth Peak towered before me, with the precarious path to Sawtooth Pass visible to the left (north) of the summit. I spotted the route climbing up through a loose scree slope, then cutting to the left and switchbacking uphill before disappearing as it climbed ever higher.

Preview of the loose scree approach to Sawtooth Pass
At the far end of the dramatically cut trail, I entered a small, colorful basin dotted with ancient foxtail pines, with sharp Mineral King rising overhead. The reddish color of the rock here is due to the underlying metamorphic rock that characterizes Mineral Peak and parts of the Mineral King Valley- these colorful rocks were once mined for silver by early European American arrivals, who named this valley for mining promises that never truly panned out. The foxtail pines here were gnarled and shaped by the wind- these trees are cousins of the more elderly bristlecone pines, and while foxtail pines can live for a long time, too- recorded specimens exceed 2000 years in age- they aren’t even the oldest trees in Sequoia National Park, where a number of 3000 year old giant sequoias have been found.

Colorful Mineral Peak rising above the Monarch Lakes basin
At 4.5 miles, I arrived at Lower Monarch Lake, a small but pretty natural lake nestled in a colorful basin between sharp Mineral Peak on one side and the white granite wall of Sawtooth Peak on the other side. Upper Monarch Lake- a larger lake held back by a dam- lies uphill of the lower lake, but I skipped it on my trip as my focus was on crossing Sawtooth Pass and reaching Columbine Lake. Lower Monarch Lake is a popular backcountry camping area and even has an exposed toilet to the northeast side of the lake.

Lower Monarch Lake
The Sawtooth Pass Trail left from near the toilet at Lower Monarch Lakes, heading to the north along the base of the Sawtooth granite wall. The trail was initially flat but soon entered a boulder field where it began to ascend aggressively via switchbacks. Here, the trail began to lose definition and devolved into multiple sets of social paths; most of these carry you up to Sawtooth Pass, but it’s a good idea to stick to the most established path to avoid dead-ends and less forgiving terrain.

The trail from Lower Monarch Lake to Sawtooth Pass ascends 1300 feet in less than a mile- it is excessively steep. The primary path switchbacked up into a loose, gravelly, and steep slope of miniature scree to start; as footing here was quite loose, I felt as though I was sliding back a step for every two steps I hiked forward. After a handful of switchbacks, I came to an unmarked fork in the path below a large rock outcrop. This was the split between the two most commonly used paths up to the pass; the slightly easier primary path branched to the left here, even though the right fork seemed more obvious at the junction. Ascending via the left fork briefly diverted me away from the steep sandy slope and onto more solid, rocky ground; however, this was not to last, as I was soon back to switchbacking up sandy (if slightly less steep) terrain. This was a brutal, grueling ascent- I was surprised that such an ascent is so frequently used by backpackers, as carrying a heavy pack up this route seemed like it would be nothing less than torture.

Steep trail to Sawtooth Pass
Luckily, constant- and constantly improving- views rewarded my efforts. At times during my climb, I was able to look back and spot both Lower and Upper Monarch Lakes beneath Mineral Peak; higher in the climb, I could see many of the peaks that bound Mineral King Valley, including colorful Empire Mountain and the granite of Eagle Crest.
Upper and Lower Monarch Lakes below Mineral Peak
Empire Mountain
After a tortuous climb that took well over an hour from Monarch Lake, I arrived at Sawtooth Pass along the crest of the Great Western Divide, more than 11700 feet above sea level and 5.5 miles from the trailhead. Sawtooth Pass is a little higher up and further north than the actual low point on Sawtooth Ridge, as the low point of the ridge has cliffs on its eastern side and is not suitable for crossing the Great Western Divide. Quite a few hikers had made their way up here- a few were day hikers from Mineral King but most were backpackers who had camped at Lower Monarch Lake.

The views from Sawtooth Pass were stupendous. The views of Mineral King to the west were now supplemented by the panorama to the east of the Great Western Divide and the Sierra crest. Jagged Sawtooth Ridge led south like a dragon’s scaly spine up to the menacing summit of Sawtooth Peak, which, along with craggy Needham Mountain nearby, towered over the deep blue waters of Columbine Lake below. Forested plateaus hid Kern Canyon beyond Columbine Lake, but they couldn’t hide the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada that rose beyond: Mount Whitney, the highest point in the 48 states at 14494 feet, anchored the left (northern) end of this string of peaks, which also included Mount Langley, another 14er, and Cirque Peak, the last major granite summit of the High Sierra. To the northeast, I could spot the corner of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge, a spur of metamorphic rock summits off the Great Western Divide that included a number of very colorful and very rugged peaks. It is an absolutely stunning view; this is one of only two trail accessible passes along the Great Western Divide (the other being Franklin Pass, slightly south of here) that can be reached via a day hike.
Peaks of Mineral King from Sawtooth Pass
Needham and Sawtooth Peaks from Sawtooth Pass
Mount Whitney, Mount Langley, and Columbine Lake from Sawtooth Pass
Kaweah Peaks
After taking a break from the climb to enjoy the views here, I began descending down the trail to Columbine Lake on the eastern side of the pass. The descent on this side was somewhat less aggressive than the ascent on the west side of the pass, although the trail was still often quite steep; overall, the trail dropped 900 feet over one mile on its way to the lake. The trail was well-marked with cairns as it first switchbacked down a sandy slope and then descended through a gully; as the trail arrived at the cliffs above Columbine Lake, it briefly ascended again as it circumvented cliffs to the left of the trail and emerged on a low ridge. A small and unnamed but very pretty alpine pond lay below this ridge, with the Kaweah Peaks forming a spectacular backdrop to the pond’s impossibly blue waters.

Kaweah Peaks above an unnamed pond
Continuing onwards, the trail- which was not always obvious here- followed cairns down the exposed rocky ledges here until reaching the shores of Columbine Lake near the lake’s outlet, about 6.5 miles from the trailhead. The best views of Columbine Lake were had on the opposite shore of the outlet, so I scrambled around the area and crossed the outlet stream until reaching a small, rocky peninsula that reached into the lake and delivered fantastic views of Sawtooth Peak and Needham Mountain rising above the lake’s inky waters. The scene was both beautiful and austere: the colors were extreme, with barren, white granite contrasting with the deep blues of the sky and water. The dramatic profiles of the peaks and ridges behind the lake made this a memorable view; this is certainly among the more beautiful places I’ve been in the Sierra Nevada.

Needham Mountain above Columbine Lake
Columbine Lake
Columbine Lake
Oddly enough, Columbine Lake- despite being over Sawtooth Pass- is actually in the Kaweah River watershed rather than the Kern watershed, as it drains to the north through Cyclamen and Spring Lakes and eventually into the Middle Fork Kaweah. The low ridge on the eastern side of the lake represents the true watershed divide, but after such an exhausting journey I was in no mood to explore further.

On the return trip, I had to make another arduous ascent back to Sawtooth Pass before descending down the precariously steep path to Lower Monarch Lake; from there, the smoother trail made things straightforward and I booked my way back to the trailhead so I could make it to Three Rivers in time for dinner.

Columbine Lake is an exceptional destination in the Sierra Nevada, but the hike and overall journey to get there is also exceptionally challenging. The hike is never crowded, although the trailhead can be quite popular and parking may overflow (I arrived prior to sunrise on a holiday weekend and the lot was already completely full). Most day hikers to the region will be content to visit Monarch Lakes, but those willing to put in far more effort will find one of the crown jewels of the Sierra Nevada.

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