High Sierra Trail above Middle Fork Kaweah River, Sequoia N.P.

Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park

In Backpacking, Family Adventures, National Park Adventures   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   34 Comments

By Michael Lanza

I stare at the backpack on the ground in front of me. At 85 liters, with every milliliter of it stuffed with about 60 pounds of gear and food, it looks like something that should be lowered by a crane into a container ship rather than attached to a person’s back. If it had legs, teeth, and an appetite for meat, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

In fact, standing at the Sawtooth Trailhead at 7,820 feet in Sequoia National Park, looking up at the ascent we’re about to begin to 9,511-foot Timber Gap, I’m thinking the chances that I’ll have an easy time of it are very, very slim.

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34 Responses to Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park

  1. daniel   |  August 18, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    hi, thanks for the information provided here Michael and i hope you’re still doing well. =) I’m trying to start the trip in a couple of weeks and already have the permits. Just trying to figure out where this Sawtooth Trailhead is exactly and don’t see it anywhere. I don’t think it exists so I’m guessing I just drive to the end of the Mineral Kings Road 2.6 miles pass the Mineral King Ranger station?

    • MichaelALanza   |  August 21, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Hi Daniel, read the Make It Happen section at the bottom of the story (above these comments), the Sawtooth Trailhead is a short distance before the end of Mineral King Road. You can’t miss it. You’ll see on the map that you climb 0.6 mile from the trailhead to a fork in the trail; to the left is Timber Gap (the direction we hiked), to the right are Monarch Lakes and Sawtooth Pass.

      Have fun.

  2. Michael   |  August 18, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    I ran across your site recently when searching for backpack loops in Sequoia and thankfully found this loop you and your family did – looks absolutely amazing! Will be doing this with a small group of young, relatively fit, adults in early September and will for the most part follow your route, although due to permit availability issues, we’ll be doing it in the opposite direction (going up Sawtooth pass on the first day). If we wanted to extend the trip to 40 or 45 miles (over 6 days), do you have any suggestions on adding some mileage onto this route at any point? Thank you!

    • MichaelALanza   |  August 21, 2016 at 10:48 am

      Hi Michael, thanks for following my blog, I hope you subscribe (see box at bottom of the story, above these comments). You’ll love this hike. But be forewarned: The ascent to Sawtooth Pass is off-trail, steep, and loose above Monarch Lakes. Try to find any user trail you can and the lowest-angle route, and plan on it being slow and laborious. Better to do it as early as possible, for cooler temps. Descending from Sawtooth Pass to Columbine Lake is much easier.

      The loop is nearly 40 miles, so to extend it to 45 miles doesn’t add much distance. If you have the time, I would suggest just exploring off-trail up into the Nine Lake Basin, maybe camping at one of the upper lakes; it looks nice from Kaweah Gap. Or take the short side hike from Little Five Lakes to Black Rock Pass (as I did early one morning), or hike in to the Big Five Lakes.

      Good luck.

  3. Noel   |  July 27, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    On behalf of Aaron, Matt and Mike (friends that went with me on the trip), we thank you for posting your trip on your website and giving us the idea to do the same trip. It was hard but very rewarding trip and we would not hesitate doing it again. Camping at Hamilton Lake afforded million $$ view and deserves a couple of nights. Equally impressive were Columbine Lake, walking thru the high alpine meadows with the wildflowers in full bloom and several thunderous waterfalls.

    I salute your kids for accomplishing such an epic feat. It was more than a walk in the park.

    • michaellanza   |  July 27, 2016 at 12:41 pm

      Hey Noel, Aaron, Matt and Mike, I’m delighted you guys had a good time. Tough but beautiful hike.

  4. Fred Carbone   |  July 8, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Great story and adventure. We too have brought our Kids backpacking but now they are 18 and 20 and go on their own. My wife and I plan on doing this loop in August of this year. We would like to camp in Redwood Meadow under the Giant Sequoia our first night. Do you have some insight on the closest water source?

    • MichaelALanza   |  July 9, 2016 at 7:05 am

      Thanks, Fred. We also backpacked this route in August. Of course, water sources can vary from year to year, but I don’t recall there being any water in or near the Redwood Meadow Grove. Cliff Creek, which you cross about three miles southeast of the grove, had a strong flow, and I think some of those tributary creeks you cross between Cliff Creek and the grove had water, but I can’t say for certain what you’ll find. I believe we got our next water from the creeks reached within 30 minutes or so beyond the grove. I’d carry enough water to the grove to get through the night. It would be a nice place to camp. Good luck.

    • Noel   |  July 27, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      Good Morning Fred:

      We just did the trip this July. There is no water source at Redwood Meadow. The ranger will tell you that too when you get your permit. The next water source is Granite Creek which is no more than 30min away with moderate elevation gain/loss. Highly recommended getting to Granite Creek as early as you can. There are 3 campsites where you are more than 25′ from the water and one that is questionable. If you don’t mind the thundering water of Granite Creek while you are sleeping, its as good as any campsite that is near flowing water and there are some swimming holes as well.

      • michaellanza   |  July 27, 2016 at 12:43 pm

        Thanks for those details, Noel. I do remember Granite Creek and those campsites, nice spot, actually. I love sleeping by running water.

  5. Lucrecia Santibanez   |  June 25, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Great Story and trip. You have inspired me to take my three kids hiking this year! Do you think this hike can be shortened to 4 days only? (our little one is 7 years old). Perhaps exiting at one of the points in the route? Thanks!

    • MichaelALanza   |  June 26, 2016 at 3:40 am

      Hi Lucretia, thanks. Look at a map and you’ll see that you can shorten this loop by returning via Black Rock Pass instead of Sawtooth Pass (which, in addition to being longer, is a hard, off-trail descent). I have calculated how much you’ll reduce the total distance by, but I believe it would be shorter. You’ll need a good topo map to compare, but look at this online map and you’ll get an overview of the area: https://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/upload/SEKImap1_MapoftheParks-2.pdf. You can also hike a loop over Black Rock Pass to Sawtooth Pass that’s clearly shorter.

      Good luck, it’s a beautiful hike.

    • noel   |  July 27, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Hello Lucrecia:

      We found out that the map doesn’t tell the whole story. The elevation gains and losses plus the altitude makes the trip challenging. We were averaging 1 mile/hr and were grown men. The ranger also told us the distances on the map are wrong and the trail signs shows the distances a bit further. As for shortening the trip to 3 nights/4 days, you’ll find the last day to be a real bear if you go through Black Rock Pass from Little Five Lakes back to Mineral King Trailhead. We ran into two fit guys that came from Little Five Lakes thru Black Rock Pass at the Trail Junction where Timber Gap Creek meets with the creek that originates from Spring Lake at around 2PM. These guys still have to climb another 2500 ft and over 4 miles back to the trailhead. Suggest extending the time rather than shortening it so that trip will be more enjoyable rather than a death march.

  6. Cathy   |  April 27, 2016 at 8:32 am

    I was looking for a trip to do in Sequoia, and you have it all planned out for me!!! This looks great, and I’m really looking forward to doing something similar in early September. What trail maps would you recommend?

    • MichaelALanza   |  April 27, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Hi Cathy, early September is an ideal time of year in the High Sierra. See the Make It Happen section at the bottom of the story, which refers to the Tom Harrison map covering this area. Have fun.

  7. Liz Simpson Chin   |  September 14, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! My husband and I just got married this Summer and are planning on starting a family. Depending on how things go we realized pretty late in the season that we might not get a chance to go backpacking in the High Sierra for awhile. So we decided to rearrange our Fall plans and squeeze a last minute backpacking trip in.

    My Dad is a naturalist and was a backcountry ranger back in the day and definitely inspired a love of exploring the outdoors in me. He was mostly stationed at Crabtree, but has a special fondness for Mineral King and the area you covered on your trip.

    As I planned our trip the Mineral King bug he put in my ear caused my attention to keep coming back to this area. None of the trips I read about in our backpacking books were quite right so I began collaging together a trip based on snippets I read in these books, my own reading of the area maps and what I thought we could comfortably do in 6 days. As usual, when I can’t find quite what I’m looking for, I turned to Google and the Internet hive-mind. I was delighted to find your post! It shaped up and confirmed that the trip I had been imagining was the right one.

    It was such a great trip I’d need to write my own blog post to properly describe it!

    We followed your itinerary closely, however chose to do a bit of cross-country travel on the 5th day. Instead of staying at Columbine Lake, we decided to stay at lower Spring Lake via Black Rock Pass from Little 5 Lakes exiting over Glacier Pass the last day.

    We also almost shied away from the area because our books urged travelers to be in ‘top shape’. We didn’t feel in top shape at the time, but when I found your post I was confident we could do it if a Dad carrying a 60lb. pack and his kids could do it. Your family and a 10yr old girl we met on our trip gives us hope that we will be exploring the backcountry with our own family sooner than we might have thought.

    We met the amazing Isabella at Precipice Lake as the sun rose. We were just waking up when she and her Dad arrived having hiked up from Hamilton Lake starting at 4am. They had hiked the tunnel and scariest parts of the trail in the dark! It was Isabella’s first backpacking trip and she carried her fair share of the gear. Precipice was the pinnacle of their trip and sadly the reflective, clear emerald waters were asleep without light on the lake yet.

    Thanks again for your adventurous blog – keep up the good work! Just donated!

  8. Dan O   |  August 31, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Wow, excellent photos and great information! Our permit for Rae Lakes was just canceled because of fires in Kings Canyon, and we moved our permit to this trail. A little last minute for planning, but I think it will be amazing. This entry is certainly getting me in the mood!

    • michaellanza   |  August 31, 2015 at 11:20 am

      Thanks Dan, have a great hike.

  9. boothv   |  August 20, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    I just decided to take a week off in September and thought SEKI would be a winner. Ran a search for some loop options and BOOM. The first link I opened was EXACTLY what I wanted.

    Damn. That was easy. 🙂

    EXCELLENT job with this. The perfect blend of trail info and descriptions. Really appreciate it.

    I’ll be visiting Tom Harrison tomorrow.

    • michaellanza   |  August 21, 2015 at 6:55 am

      Thanks, I’m glad you found my website. Get in touch anytime.

  10. marty   |  August 6, 2015 at 1:57 am

    hey, what permits did you need, and did you need a permit for each trail.

    Also do you have a map of this trip, i can’t seem to retrace your steps and i plan on doing almost the same trip next week!

    • MichaelALanza   |  August 7, 2015 at 5:08 am

      Hi Marty, info about permits and the map are in the Make It Happen section above. You only need one permit.

  11. Brian and Laurie Earp   |  July 30, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Hello Michael. Early in 2015 I contacted you about the Sierra/Kings Canyon loop you blogged about. At that time you provided excellent suggestions for our planning. This July Laurie and I celebrated our 41st anniversary on Sawtooth Pass. It was a great trip and your article really helped pave the way for us. We arrived July 14. We had our share of adventure.

    The first four days, one to acclimate and day hike, and three on the trail, experienced beautiful weather. The ranger gave us a forecast that the weather might deteriorate the last three days of the trip and that we would need to make a decision about holding up in Lost Canyon or pushing over Sawtooth to Monarch Lake to avoid exposure at Columbine Lake. Rain, Thunderstorms and hail started at Little Five Lakes so, after sheltering under a large boulder, we decided to lengthen Day 4 and push on to the first Big Five Lake. After a wet night the weather cleared and we started for Columbine. We had spitting rain on and off but the weather held. That is, until we reached the banks of Columbine. Rain, hail and the summit shrouded in fog obscured the trail to the summit. We sheltered and waited for a window. When we saw one we started up. Half way to Sawtooth Pass the thunderstorm returned. We sheltered again and waited. Another window and we gave it everything we had. We couldn’t linger at Sawtooth and so pushed on and completed the loop on Day 5. On the descent we passed a large conifer totally engulfed in flames from a lightning strike. Exhausted but happily safe at our marmot-proof rental car we made our way back down Mineral King Road as night fell. We have a truckload of pictures and a host of new memories to share with family and friends.

    All in all it was a beautiful trip. I thought of your children at the most challenging points. They must be real troopers to make those trips. Not easy.

    Thank you for your knowledgeable articles and guidance for us all. We deeply appreciate it.

    • michaellanza   |  July 30, 2015 at 7:49 pm

      Hey Brian and Laurie, good to hear from you again. What a great story. I’m delighted you made the trip and had such an adventure, and that my story was helpful to you. Yes, my kids are troopers. Get in touch anytime.

  12. Nate   |  May 25, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Great post! We’re thinking about a similar hike, also in Mid-July. What was the weather like at those elevations? The pics look hot during the day, but did it get cold at those elevations at night?


    • michaellanza   |  May 26, 2015 at 5:30 am

      Thanks, Nate, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, afternoons were hot, nights got down into the 40s or 30s, and mornings are comfortably cool and ideal for hiking, all of which is typical of the High Sierra in July and August. Good luck with your trip.

  13. Katrina@juggling5monkeys   |  November 10, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Awesome photos! This is definitely on my dream list now! Our little ones (ages 6 and 3 1/2) aren’t able to make such a long hike, but we practice doing short 2-4 miles hikes as day adventures and they love them! Can’t wait to try a multi day trip! Did you have any animal deterrents along besides just being safe and carrying the bear boxes?

    • michaellanza   |  November 11, 2014 at 7:08 pm

      Hi Katrina, glad you enjoyed this story. Keep up hiking with your young kids and they’ll become great backpackers. We did carry bear canisters but I only carry pepper spray in grizzly country (and there are only black bears in the High Sierra). However, I suspect a lightweight air horn is a good deterrent, although I have not had occasion to test that theory. The one I like is this: http://www.falconsignal.com/shop/sound-911-horn.

      • Katrina@juggling5monkeys   |  November 12, 2014 at 10:10 am

        Awesome! Definitely need a couple of these to make me feel better about hiking in ‘Big Kitty’ territory of central Cali with children

  14. Derek Collins   |  September 24, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Really great trip. My daughter would appreciate Alex’s enthusiasm for post-adventure milkshakes.

  15. Joseph "Joe" Johnson   |  September 12, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Michael, thanks for the engaging account and excellent photos of your backpacking adventure. I solo hiked the High Sierra Trail in the last week of September 2012 and it was an absolutely amazing journey. The story I tell others closely reflects the experience you had with your family. I am now spending time outdoors canoeing, camping and hiking with my oldest grand kids and plan in 3 years to return to the High Sierra with at least 2, possibly 3, of my grand kids and hike the trail again. By the way, The campsites at Upper Hamilton Lake are fantastic, it is a great place to camp and would have likely made your list of all time favorites to camp at, as you mentioned it made your list of favorites to walk by. Again, thanks for bringing great memories of the HST flooding back to my mind and making it feel like I just finished the backpacking trip a couple of days ago instead of 2 years ago.

  16. tran phan   |  September 3, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    What an amazing adventure this must of been. Love the nice photos to document your journey. Will have to bookmark this for when my kids are old enough to tackle it.

  17. Heather Antonacci   |  August 29, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    This sounds FANTASTIC. Hmmmmmm, might have to do this one with the kids…….

  18. Greg S (SocalAdventures)   |  August 27, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Incredible post. This should be in a magazine!

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