Sawtooth Peak (12,343 ft) in Mineral King is a difficult hike. Climbing to the top of Sawtooth Pass reveals views of alpine glacial gems like Columbine Lake, Monarch Lakes, and Mineral King Valley. Overnight backpacking or camping is a must when visiting Mineral King. Wildlife is abundant and the landscape is massive. A vast range of attributes including the geology, forest, and glacial lakes make this hike unique.
- 12 miles roundtrip to the top of Sawtooth Pass
- Moderately difficult to get to Monarch Lakes, very strenuous to the top of the pass.
- Backcountry overnight permits are required which you can get at the Mineral King Ranger Station.
- Trail head close to Cold Springs and Atwell Mill Campgrounds.
- Nearby Franklin Lakes trail.
- 23 miles up Mineral King Rd from 198, steep, twisty, narrow. Allow 90 minutes to drive it. No trailers or RVs.
It was the end of summer in Mineral King; the ranger station was closed until spring, the water would be turned off at the campgrounds, the road would soon be closed, and a storm had just dumped some snow on elevations above 9,000 feet. From my office in civilization, I checked the Mineral King webcam and saw the snow line descend from Farewell Gap. I started getting worried that the backpacking trip I had planned with friends Sasha, James, and Ross would have to be relocated.
The weather broke on Friday evening. Low temperatures were projected to be between 28 – 31 degrees at 8,000 feet. We packed the car and set out after work, hoping for the best. By the time we reached Mineral King Rd, it was the dead of night. I had read about the road and knew what I was in for: a twisty, narrow, steep, bumpy grade that took over an hour to drive 23 miles. That was no problem for me, but for two of my passengers it was.
We arrived safely, set up at Cold Springs Campground and hit the hay. The next morning I was the first one up. I stepped out of the tent and into the cold morning air, 31 degrees. To my surprise, Sawtooth Peak was clearly visible from our site, #5, despite being surrounded by trees. I watched golden sunlight melt from it’s tip and down the pass.
We were on the trail (7,500 ft), at 9:30, a bit late, but we had a nice breakfast and were well prepared. We began ascending out of the valley, immediately gaining elevation and a better vantage of Farewell Gap. At the first fork, we took a right toward Sawtooth, left goes to Timber Gap. The sun had warmed up the valley considerably and we shed our layers.
We crossed Monarch Creek and Black Wolf Falls and wandered through mature pine forests and meadows. The condition of this section was phenomenal and a pleasure to walk on. Reaching another fork, we took a left; right goes to Crystal Lakes. Along the ascent of Mineral Peak, the rock becomes much more chiseled and defined as you leave the last reaches of the woods. The concentration of minerals in this area create interesting textures in moss and deposits. Mineral Peak is a massive monument that overlooks the Monarch Lakes on the southwest side of Sawtooth Peak. Its footprint is impressive and reminiscent of forms seen in Glacier National Park.
The temperature was very comfortable and all of us hiked in our base layer. There was still snow on the northern slopes, but only scattered shallow pockets. We had perfect weather, and hardly anyone was there. From the window of my computer, it had looked like freezing temperatures and lots of snow would have bogged us down. But, the hiking conditions we had were optimal.
At 10,600 ft, the Monarch Lakes are two emerald gems tucked between Sawtooth Peak and Mineral Peak. We stopped to filter cold, glacial lake water and were thrilled to see an open air toilet facing toward the expansive view. We each had an energy bar and sandwich, and then started the long, tough slog up Sawtooth Pass.
The ascent of Sawtooth Pass was grueling. Endless switchbacks cut through sand and rock slides on an exposed face. By the time we reached the top, three of us had headaches and were feeling lightheaded from the strain and the altitude. We took a break to take in the view of Columbine Lake, Lost Canyon, and peaks in the Mt. Whitney range. The serrated edge of the ridge leading to the peak looked like a moderate scramble from the pass, but it was longer and harder than we anticipated.
We attempted to get to the peak but opted not to summit due to the time of day, the condition of the group, and the level of alertness and strength that it demanded. We made it 3/4 of the way from the pass to the peak and turned around. It was a decision that we all felt good about later. The way you’d want to do Sawtooth Peak is to camp in the backcountry at Monarch or Columbine, and attempt to do it with a full day. We needed to get back down to Cold Springs Campground for the night and didn’t want to risk one of us getting hurt.
We made it to 12,000 feet, which I was proud of, and we got to see an inspiring display of alpenglow on the way down through Mineral King. We scrambled out to legendary landings to take in the infinite range of hues and textures. It was impossible to keep hiking by such exhilarating vistas, and darkness quickly crept upon us. We spent more than an hour hiking under the stars and our headlamps.
The temperature dropped a bit that night, but it was still very comfortable. We cooked up some delicious burgers and passed out with the satisfaction of knowing we had earned a good rest.
There are many other trails in Mineral King that I’d love to check out this spring. Those include hiking over Farewell Gap, and Timber Gap.