Ahhhh, Mineral King.
This subalpine valley on the southern end of Sequoia National Park features all of the sights and sounds that make a mountain lover’s heart sing. Here you will find shimmering alpine lakes nestled into colorful glacial basins, thundering waterfalls, sweeping meadows seasoned liberally with wildflowers, dense coniferous forests, plentiful options for backpacking, and even groves of quaking aspens that paint the valley in brilliant gold every October. One particular route wraps all of that up into a memorable and utterly satisfying journey: the Franklin Pass Trail to Franklin Lake.
Hikers seeking to camp at the lakes will need to obtain a wilderness permit in advance from the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness Permit office. To do so, download the wilderness permit application and email it to [email protected] no earlier than midnight on March 1st. The permit office will respond to your request and grant you whichever dates are available. From that point, you need only obtain the physical permit from the Mineral King Ranger Station prior to your hike. Yes, you can take your chances with a walk-up permit on the day of your hike, but the Franklin Pass Trail routinely reaches its quota, and there’s no guarantee you’ll have a permit available. Always best to be prepared.
After working out how to get from the parking area for the Eagle-Mosquito Trailhead to the Franklin Pass Trailhead, set out nearly due south on a wide dirt road that leads toward stables. The view down the valley toward Farewell Gap already impresses, and you will enjoy the evolution of these vistas as you progress south toward Farewell Junction.
The dirt road narrows into single track just past the stables at 0.25 mile, and from here it will travel upstream along the meandering course of the East Fork Kaweah River. At times, the trail dips into dense copses of black cottonwood and red fir, and at other times the trail progresses through sunny meadows dotted with sagebrush and wildflowers. A crossing of several braids of Crystal Creek at 1.0 mile may be a soggy ford early in the season, but by July you can manage it with some careful rock hopping.
Just slightly less than 0.1 mile beyond Crystal Creek, look for a disused path that diverges on the right. This is the old trail that leads to Aspen Flat, which contains a large grove of aspen trees crowding the banks of the river. I didn’t attempt to follow this old trail, and what I could see of it appeared to be pretty overgrown. However, you could attempt to work your way across country toward the grove for some rare Western Sierra fall color viewing. The Eastern Sierra gets all of the glory for its aspen groves, but Mineral King puts on a respectable show early in October.
The incline becomes more noticeable past this junction as the trail begins to pick up elevation on the way to a crossing of Franklin Creek at 1.8 miles. A beautiful multi-tiered waterfall spills into a pool just above the crossing, making this a great place to take your first break. Beyond the crossing, the trail begins a prolonged series of switchbacks along a ridge dividing Franklin Creek from the nascent East Fork Kaweah River, and the open, grassy slopes allow for good views that get better as you climb.
At 2.6 miles, the switchbacks cease for a while as the trail continues climbing along the lip of Farewell Canyon. The grassy slopes rising up to Farewell Pass and Vandever Mountain make the area appear more like Scottish Highlands than the typical alpine Sierra scenery, particularly in early summer when the grass is still bright green.
At 3.1 miles, the trail begins another shorter set of switchbacks that lead over more grassy slopes to Farewell Junction where the Farewell Gap Trail and Franklin Pass Trails diverge at 3.7 miles. The views down canyon toward Mineral King and Timber Gap are exceptional from this spot, and with 3.7 miles and 1,500 feet of climbing already under your belt, this is a great spot to stop and rest before the taxing final ascent to the lake.
Turn left onto the Franklin Pass Trail and continue the moderate climb now heading north toward a grove of red fir, Western white pine, and lodgepole pine. The trail wraps around this wooded slope, arcing to the east as it climbs into Franklin Lake’s hanging valley. For those not familiar with hanging valleys, several smaller glaciers carved out the higher elevations before spilling abruptly into Mineral King Valley. When those glaciers retreated, they left valleys that appeared to empty out onto a cliff. Geology aside, the impression upon entering one of these hanging valleys is that of leaving behind one world for a completely different, hidden world full of secrets and surprises.
That’s exactly what lies ahead when you cross Franklin Creek for a second time at 4.7 miles. Tree cover thins, and dark metamorphic slopes compete with the usual gray Sierra granite on the hills surrounding you. Views into Mineral King Valley disappear as the crenellated ramparts of the Great Western Divide emerge into view. As you ascend toward a final switchback at 5.2 miles, see if you can spot the concrete dam spanning the outlet of Franklin Creek.
Like the dams found at Crystal Lake, Monarch Lake, and Eagle Lake, Franklin Lake’s dam is the product of the Whitney Power Company’s efforts to control water flow along the East Fork Kaweah River. Unlike the larger and deeper Middle Fork, the East Fork’s flow was unreliable for power production, and the power company used the strategy of damming some of the lakes in the high country in an attempt to dole out the water in a more controlled manner. At the 5.2 mile switchback, you can follow a short spur trail past campsites and a food storage locker on an uphill course toward the dam, from which point you can enjoy the full reveal of Franklin Lake.
Otherwise, you will continue climbing along the main trail as it rises up and over a slope about 60 feet higher than the dam. Once atop this slope, you get a full reveal of the lake’s pristine waters filling a spacious bowl beneath Florence Peak. The red slopes of Tulare Peak swell on the right, continuing the contrast of dark red rock against light gray.
At 5.6 miles just past a massive rock outcrop, look for an informal trail that leads downhill toward a towering foxtail pine. In addition to some good campsites (no food storage locker, though), you will find plenty of comfortable places to rest and relax while you enjoy the views. If you want to continue toward a second set of campsites and another food storage locker, continue along the main trail past this spur for another 0.2 mile.
If you’re overnighting, you could consider an additional day hike up to Franklin Pass. This steep climb is no joke as it picks up another 1,350 feet over another 2 miles. However, the rarified air and sublime scenery make it a worthy diversion. It’s a bit far for most dayhikers, so the lake is the turnaround point. The return journey is almost as enjoyable as the approach, especially since gravity is your friend again. Plus, you can consider the views you enjoyed on the way up as the light shifts into afternoon and possibly even into evening if you spent a lot of time dallying by Franklin Lake.