A Backpacker's Guide to the Little Five & Big Five Lakes Loop
Trip report, gear essentials, and do's and don'ts for hiking this lightly traveled yet tough Eastern Sierra trail
To celebrate my partner's recent return to the Bay Area after a year in Philadelphia on assignment, we waisted no time before heading into the backcountry. She arrived home at midnight, and by 4am we were up and on the road, hoping to reach Sequoia National Park before sun-up.
At the Timber Pass trailhead we met two other couples and began our four day hike up through Blackrock Pass, down to The Little Five Lakes and up through Sawtooth Pass. I really can’t imagine a better way to get back into the swing of things in California after a year out east.
This loop is everything one could ask for. It’s roughly 30 miles and has just under 10,000 feet of elevation gain. You find yourself winding through lush pine forests, up incredible switchbacks, dipping your toes into lakes and summiting two peaks right around 11,600 feet. Once, on top of Blackrock Pass you get your first glimpse at Mount Whitney and a beautiful view of the Sierra Range. Trails like this are good at reminding you that the simple things in life are the best—each step on the long ascents are like a form of meditation.
At these altitudes the weather begins to find a way to be slightly unpredictable and precarious, and this should taken into account. We of course, did not take this into account. I checked the forecast plenty prior to heading out, and it looked like the nights would be chilly, getting down into the mid to low 40’s. We decided to pack some layers but figured we didn’t want to carry tons of extra weigh. We’d be fine, we said to ourselves. Then two of the nights found their way down to the low 30’s—or a bit below that. One day we even encountered a bit of hail & snow.
For the record, there really wasn’t any precipitation in the forecast. Despite having mostly proficient gear we still learned that the extra weight of a beanie, gloves and some solid base layers are a must during almost all times of the year out there in the Sierra.
Ultimately, the Little Five & Big Five Lakes Loop can be quite challenging at times, and very rewarding. I probably wouldn’t have written this if that wasn’t the case. You will find the trailhead 1.5 hrs up a winding, steep, mis-managed and at times single lane road, deep in the forest. The trail isn’t a secret, but it is lightly traveled, and special.
Read on for more intel if you plan to see the zone for yourself. And as always, it’s best to show the highest respect for nature and follow the rules created by the Park Rangers. Be smart, be careful and have fun!
5 Gear Essentials for Backpacking in Sequoia National Park
1. On Running Cloudrock Shoes, $230
By the end of our 30 mile loop I had zero blisters. These shoes are waterproof, comfortable and breathable.
2. Sawyer Mini Water Filter, $20
A compact lightweight favorite of mine. It’s not the fastest pump but it allows you to bring extra unfiltered water inside the Sawyer bags once you’ve filled your bottle.
3. Dragontail Shadowfire 365 12’ Tenkara Rod, $99
It collapses down to 20.5 inches and it’s easy to setup and use. For me fishing while backpacking is a great pass-time and even as an amateur fisherman it’s hard not to get excited about some of the areas I find myself in while backpacking.
4. Osprey Aether AG 70 Backpack, $310
Ergonomically this is a great bag and while it’s maybe a tad on the large size it’s nice to have plenty of room for things.
5. Patagonia Nano Puff Bivy Pullover, $219
Ripstop, water repellent, warm and packs light…say no more.
7 Do’s & Don’ts of Hiking the Little Five & Big Five Lakes Loop
DO make sure your fuel fits your Jet Boil. ** One of our friends purchased new fuel that wasn’t proprietary Jetboil fuel and the rubber flange was too large! Luckily for him it fit our MSR pocket rocket so we swapped fuel.
DON’T bring bear spray. It’s not permitted by the Park Rangers. However, a safe alternative is placing a bear bell on your pack.
DO stop at Pinto Lake or maybe even the first large river crossing for your first night. The second day up Blackrock Pass is strenuous and best done as a shorter mileage day.
DON’T forget gloves, a beanie and warm layers!
DO use a tarp to wrap around your wheel wells on your vehicle. Marmots have chewed up important bits so bad that hikers will get back to a car that won’t turn on. There is a limited amount of free tarps provided by the Rangers that can be found in the long term food locker across from the Ranger station.
DON’T start the loop on the Sawtooth Pass Trail. If this is the case you will have to climb up Sawtooth Pass on very loose gravel/sand where there is hardly a visible trail. Make sure you start on the Timber Gap Trail (left at the fork .6 miles into the hike).
DO insulate your water filter if you expect temps to drop below freezing. Last thing you want is water to freeze and expand inside, breaking your filter and leaving you filterless in the backcountry.