Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Lakes Trail (Sequoia NP)

Alta Peak rises above the granite bowl of Pear Lake
12.5 miles round trip, 2800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

The Lakes Trail in California’s Sequoia National Park certainly lives up to its name: over its six-mile journey from Wolverton Trailhead, the hike visits four High Sierra alpine lakes, each more beautiful than the last, until culminating in the exquisite polished-granite scenery of Pear Lake. En route, the trail delivers great views of the cascading waters and granite walls of Tokopah Valley, with a thrilling stretch of trail cut into the cliffs near a soaring granite spire known as the Watchtower. Although by no means an easy hike, most visitors to Sequoia National Park may find this slightly long but very doable day hike to be the easiest way to access the park’s famed but notoriously hard-to-reach High Sierra backcountry. That makes the Lakes Trail an extremely popular hike- so expect to share the trail with hundreds of fellow hikers on nice summer weekends.

Around 2 miles in, the Lakes Trail splits into the Watchtower Trail and the Hump Trail; the Hump Trail is typically open for travel all year while the Watchtower Trail is closed through winter until snow and ice melt out on the route in late spring or early summer. I’ll describe a route to the lakes that takes the Watchtower Trail both on the outbound and return legs of the hike, as the Watchtower Trail is far more scenic; but early season hikers may find that they will need to the Hump Trail instead, adding some elevation gain (but no additional distance) to this hike.

I hiked the Lakes Trail to Pear Lake on a June weekend during a year with lower than normal Sierra Nevada snowpack. The hike started from the Wolverton Trailhead in Sequoia National Park, which can be accessed from the Central Valley by either taking Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park or Highway 198 into Sequoia National Park. Both routes require taking Generals Highway to the stretch between Giant Forest and Lodgepole; the turnoff for Wolverton is well marked and heads east from Generals Highway. I followed Wolverton Road for about two miles to its end, passing the turnoff for the General Sherman Tree parking area along the way. There is a long parking lot with room for well over a hundred cars at the end of the Wolverton Road; the Lakes Trail starts from the segment of the parking lot just to the left of the entrance to the lot.

Leaving the Wolverton Trailhead, I started out by following the Lakes Trail north from the parking lot. The trail climbed briefly and in a hundred meters reached the crest of a ridge; here, the trail turned towards the right and began following the ridge to the east. The trail climbed steadily over the next 2/3 of a mile as it ascended along this forested ridge, passing patches of early summer wildflowers that provided the main interest in this opening stretch of the hike. There were occasional peeks of rocky Mount Silliman rising on the other side of Tokopah Valley through the trees, but otherwise there were no real views to speak of.

Wildflowers on the trail
Early summer wildflowers
At a mile into the hike, the trail leveled out for a stretch and soon left the top of the ridge, instead passing through forested mountain slopes above Wolverton Creek while again ascending steadily. The forest gave way to some grassy and brushy clearings as the trail crossed a small creek; while passing through the clearing, I heard some rustling in the bushes downhill from the trail and realized I was standing perhaps just 50 feet from a black bear! We locked eyes for a moment, before the bear, seemingly annoyed that I had disrupted his meal, lumbered off a little farther downhill to continue nibbling on the vegetation, still within eyesight.

Out of focus bear amongst the aspens
At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, I came to a fork in the trail: the Lakes Trail continued to the left while the Panther Gap Trail headed to the right. I continued on the Lakes Trail, taking the left fork, which began a more aggressive climb through the forest. At 2.1 miles from the trailhead, I came to another fork in the trail, where the Lakes Trail split into the Watchtower and the Hump Trails. Both of these trails lead to Heather Lake and beyond; however, the Watchtower Trail is far more scenic and has less elevation gain so it is the preferred route despite being slightly longer. Early in the summer, before snow has melted sufficiently, the Watchtower Trail may be closed and it may be necessary to take the Hump Trail instead. Hikers with a fear of heights may also prefer the Hump Trail, as it skips over the cliff-edge route of the Watchtower Trail.

Lakes Trail winding through the pines
The Watchtower Trail marked the start of the spectacular scenery that characterizes the latter half of this hike. After initially following the Watchtower Trail for 1.1 miles through the forest, ascending steadily from the junction with the Hump Trail, the trail very suddenly broke out of the forest at 3.2 miles from the trailhead, coming to the south rim of Tokopah Valley right next to the Watchtower, a massive granite battlement that rose imperiously above the canyon below. Mount Silliman’s granite massif lay across Tokopah Valley, with Tokopah Falls- a continuous cascade plunging some 1200 feet over the course of half a mile- lay far below at the bottom of the valley. Granite peaks of the Tableland rose to the east.

Tokopah Valley from the Watchtower Overlook
Tokopah Falls
The Watchtower
Leaving the initial viewpoint, the Watchtower Trail generally stayed out in the open over the next 0.8 miles, at one point hugging the walls of Tokopah Valley on a trail blasted into the granite cliffs. The views here were airy and breathtaking: whenever I looked over the edge, I could see the granite walls of the canyon plunging to meet the cascading waters of Tokopah Falls. At 3.8 miles from the trailhead, the Watchtower Trail rounded a corner and turned right, leaving its perch above Tokopah Valley and heading in towards the basin that nestled Heather Lake. The Watchtower Trail joined back up with the Hump Trail at 4.1 miles from the trailhead (hikers taking the Hump Trail will be 3.7 miles from the trailhead but will have to add an additional 250 feet of elevation gain to this hike for the round trip).

Trail cut into the granite walls of Tokopah Valley
Shortly after the two trails rejoined, the Lakes Trail arrived at Heather Lake, now 4 miles from the trailhead. The main trail stayed north of the lakeshore except for briefly accessing the lake at the lake’s outlet; for the best views, I followed a spur trail to the lake that broke off shortly before reaching the outlet. Heather Lake was idyllic and pretty, ringed with trees and with a granite cliff rising behind it; ultimately, it was also the most pedestrian of the lakes. While hikers looking for a shorter outing might want to visit Heather Lake and then head back, I strongly encourage hikers who have the time and energy to continue out to Pear Lake if they’ve already come out this far.

Heather Lake
Leaving Heather Lake, the trail climbed slightly and contoured around a low ridge separating Heather Lake from the Emerald and Aster Lake watershed. Entering the Emerald Lake basin, the scenery was already more spectacular than at Heather Lake: the jagged cliffs of Alta Peak rose at the head of the basin.

The trail descended slightly as it entered Emerald Lake’s basin and came to a junction at 5.1 miles. Here, a spur trail split to the right of the trail, leading 150 meters slightly uphill and crossing the outlet stream of Emerald Lake to reach the shores of Emerald Lake itself. Emerald Lake is perhaps the quietest of the three main lakes, with fewer visitors than the constant flow of visitors who make it to Heather Lake but also fewer than Pear Lake as most hikers coming this far make a beeline for the end of the trail. However, despite its relative quiet, Emerald Lake is a gorgeous spot: granite outcrops by the shoreline provided a perfect spot for me to enjoy views of this gem of a lake with a backdrop of Alta Peak’s granite ramparts.

Emerald Lake
Continuing on the Lakes Trail from the Emerald Lake spur, I passed through a meadow with some nice views of Alta Peak to the back before entering a landscape of barren granite. The mountains were extremely bright at midday, with the pinks and the greys of the granite reflecting the harsh sunlight from all directions. As the trail contoured around the base of another ridge, I had outstanding views of Aster Lake nestled in the basin below the trail, with the twin granite peaks of Mount Silliman rising across Tokopah Valley.

Mount Silliman rising over Aster Lake
Ridges of Alta Peak rising above meadow near Emerald Lake
As the trail ascended gently and wrapped around the granite slopes, better views unfurled all around. To the west, the Watchtower came back into view, its peak now appearing more sharp and pronounced as it towered over Tokopah Valley. Big Baldy, a granite dome in neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, popped out as well. To the east and north, I had my closest look at the Tableland, a high plateau of barren granite that lies to the northeast of Alta Peak. At 5.8 miles, I passed a junction with a trail descending to the Pear Lake Ranger Station, which is actually a backcountry ski hut for hardy winter visitors. The broader views evaporated as I entered the basin containing Pear Lake, but I still had memorable views over Pear Lake’s outlet stream cascading down bare granite ledges to meet the Marble Fork Kaweah River. Alta Peak rose ahead, towering above the basin with foxtail pines dotting the attendant ridges. Finally, at 6.3 miles, the Lakes Trail ended at the northwest shore of Pear Lake. There was plenty of room for hikers who made it this far to spread out and enjoy the view.

Looking out to the Watchtower and Big Baldy
The bare granite of the Tableland
Pear Lake was the crown jewel of this hike, with beauty that affirms its status as a true High Sierra alpine lake. The lake is set in a granite bowl at the base of Alta Peak’s rocky crest, with foxtail pines dotting the basin around the lake. Pear Lake’s hourglass shape- which prompted earlier visitors to name it after a similarly shaped fruit- made the lake particularly attractive. A few patches of snow still dotted Alta Peak but the mountain’s snowpack was worryingly low considering my early June visit, an early portent of the dry conditions that year that would later spark the KNP Complex Fire which devastated Sequoia National Park.

Alta Peak rises over Pear Lake
Pear Lake is a popular camping destination, so there are bear boxes and a vault toilet on the northwest shore of the lake. It’s possible to venture along the east shore of the lake from the campsites and explore open granite slopes that run down to the lake: it’s much quieter here with equally good views. I found nice views from further along the shore of Mount Silliman rising above Pear Lake.

Mount Silliman rises above Pear Lake
Although this hike is somewhat longer and moderately difficult, it is still a very popular hike, as it provides the easiest access to the High Sierra in Sequoia National Park. Thus, I saw many hikers over the course of the day, with probably over 20 hikers at Pear Lake during my time there and over a hundred hikers on the trail over the course of the day. Despite the hike’s popularity, the fine scenery along this trail recommends this hike in Sequoia National Park as one of the better day hikes accessible by a paved road from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

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