Mt Kaweah, Sequoia National Park

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | California hikes
Mt Kaweah (4209m) is far from any trailhead and therefore requires a long approach. The most common route starts at the Sawtooth Pass trailhead, which is almost at the end of Mineral Springs Rd. Only speed climbers can do it in one day.

From Fresco drive on highway 198 west through the town of Three Rivers. At the small village of Hammond, turn right into Mineral King Road. This road is only 40 kms, but it takes longer than one hour. Make sure you don't miss any of the "Mineral King" signs at the various junctions because you may end up on other roads. There is a pay station to pay the entrance fee to the national park. The road is in good conditions all paved to the end, just very winding. When you get to the Mineral King Ranger Station, you are not far from the Sawtooth Pass trailhead, about 500 meters. It is a large parking lot and the trailhead is well marked (the road continues, so pay attention to the parking lot).

  • Vistalia
  • Three Rivers 13'
  • Turnoff to Mineral King 25'
  • Bridge 50'
  • Pay station of national park 1h
  • Atwell campground 1h25'
  • Coldspring 1h40'
  • Trailhead 1h45'
Note: marmots are known to damage cars in the spring. Some cars had to be towed away.

The trailhead is at 2400m of elevation. The trail to Sawtooth Pass (before reaching that pass) goes through Glacier Pass (3413m). However there is a very popular shortcut that is highly recommended, firstly because it saves quite a bit of kms and secondly because it goes through an easier pass: when you get to the sign "Sawtooth Pass" (about 40 minutes into the hike), there is an obvious unmarked trail on the left and a few meters later a sign "Unmaintained trail". This trail is not in good conditions but it should be obvious where it goes: first it makes a long semicircle around the gulley, then it briefly climbs along a series of waterfalls, then it leaves the creek and moves to the left to gain a very wide chute that ends in a well-marked pass. On the other side of this pass (Glacier Pass) there is a good trail that leads to Spring Lake. (If you took the regular trail, when it makes a sharp 180-degree turn from north to south you have to continue straight for about 300 meters to find Glacier Pass).

From Spring Lake there are many ways to reach Mt Kaweah and i'll describe the one that maximizes comfort, not the shortest one. (Some descriptions favor the route through what they call "Hands and Knees Pass": even assuming that such a pass exists, and that it got such a silly name, it is a deadly exercise). As you descend towards Spring Lake (heading for its left-hand side), you should be able to spot the trail that climbs Black Rock Pass thanks to its very long switchbacks: it climbs the mountain north of Spring Lake and it goes higher than the pass you are coming from.
The use trail from Glacier Pass will take you to the left side of the lake (or you can just take any shortcut to bypass the lake to the left). You have to do a bit of bushwhacking and bouldering to cross the creek and reach the trail to Black Rock Pass. When you reach this Black Rock Pass (3535m), the Kaweah ridge is very visible and Mt Kaweah is the rightmost (and biggest) of those mountains.
The Kaweah ridge:

This trail then descends into the Little Five Lakes basin. There is a good trail that heads north towards the High Sierra trail. This trail eventually starts descending steeply towards the Big Arroyo (which is not big enough, and usually crossed by just using a combination of logs and rocks). On the other side there is an abandoned cabin (in really good conditions but locked). From the cabin take the High Sierra trail southeast (this is a bit confusing because the trail that leaves the cabin goes left, but after 200 meters it hits the High Sierra trail and you go right). There are several places where you can leave the trail. If you are good on steep terrain, best is probably after the second running creek (the others are usually dry in the summer), that comes down from the lakes just below Red Kaweah. Then climb northeast towards Mt Kaweah. At some point its huge mass will become very visible. If you prefer a gentle ascent, continue to a point where the trail makes a sharp left turn and the terrain above you is class 1 and foresty (this is about 1h15' from the cabin). Whichever point you left the trail, scramble up towards the rocky southern ridge that comes down from the left (west) side of Mt Kaweah. This ridge takes you to the saddle between Mt Kaweah and its western neighbor (Second Kaweah). Traverse the saddle to the right and you hit the summit block. You want to be as near the crest as possible to minimize the rock climbing that is coming up.
The route:

The bad news is that what you see is a false summit. When you get to the top, you realize that there are several peaklets before the real summit (about 500 meters southeast of the false western summit).
The real summit:

Unless you have binoculars, the views are hard to decipher. North: you are looking at the Great Western Divide. Straight north of Mt Kaweah is Milestone Mt, usually a very visible landmark of the High Sierra, but good luck recognizing it. Even more difficult (to the east) is to recognize any of the Eastern Sierra, except for the highest that has to be Mt Whitney.

Roughly (and assuming that you stay on trails wherever possible):

  • Mineral King trailhead (2286m) to first junction (20')
  • First junction to Sawtooth Pass sign (40')
  • Mineral King to shortcut north of Glacier Pass: 4 Km, +1139m -115m (2h40')
  • Spring Lake (3h25')
  • Glacier pass to Black Rock Pass: 4 Km, +550m -380m (5h10')
  • Black Rock Pass to Little Five Lakes: 3.2km (5h40')
  • Fork to Big Five Lakes (6h10')
  • Little Five Lakes to Big Arroyo Cabin: 4.4Km, +86, -364 (7h10')
  • 30 minutes break (7h40')
  • Leaving the High Sierra Trail (8h55')
  • Big Arroyo Cabin to Mt Kaewah: 6.7km +1167m (12h40')
  • Grand total: 22.3Km each way (almost 13 hours up and 9 hours down for me in 2012)

1AA + 1AB is the only sensible route:

1BA would involve climbing the Hands and Knees Pass, which is a colossal waste of time if possible at all.
2 involves a lot of cross-country hiking and a big drop to cross the Big Arroyo.
Ditto for 1AA without the 1AB variation.