Hiking the Lakes Trail | Sequoia National Park
Hiking the Lakes Trail | Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Sequoia National Park, well-known in part for its namesake giant trees, is also home to some fantastic alpine lakes. The Lakes Trail visits four such lakes: Heather, Aster, Emerald and Pear, and had been on our radar for the last couple of years.
Lakes Trail Sequoia: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 6,596 ft.
Distance: 14.5 miles (with plenty of walking around the lakes)
Elevation Gain: 2,844 ft.
Hike Type: Out and back, day-hike
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Permit: None required for day hiking. You will need a permit to camp at the lakes.
Date Hiked: August 24, 2019
Lakes Trail: Getting to the Trailhead
The Lakes Trail begins from the Wolverton area of Sequoia National Park, about 4.5 hours from the South Bay Area. For this particular trip, we broke up the drive by staying in Visalia on Friday night. The morning of our hike, we drove the 198E which eventually connects to Wolverton Road. If you can avoid it, we highly recommend coming in to the park via the 198W through Fresno and skipping the eastern route. We found the 198E to be an incredibly winding road, which was not at all an enjoyable drive. Coming in from the west is much more manageable and in our opinion, the better way to arrive in Sequoia.
Arriving at 9:00 a.m., there was plenty of parking available in the main lot near the trailhead. With this hike being a very popular one within Sequoia, we recommend arriving early to avoid crowds and ensure a good parking spot. Be sure to store any food and scented items in the bear lockers at the trailhead before you depart for your hike.
Hiking the Lakes Trail
This is a tough hike, make no mistake about it. Between the 6,500 foot elevation start, and consistent climbing throughout to reach the lakes, you will definitely earn your post-hike meal. The trail starts in the shade, as you wind up through the forest for about 2.5 miles and 1,000 feet of gain.
At this point we met with the junction for the Watchtower & Hump Trails. In the winter, or when snow is present, the Watchtower is inaccessible (there are some serious drop-offs) so the Hump Trail is your best bet. However, with perfect August conditions, we stayed left here and continued along the Watchtower trail.
Just past the 4 mile mark, we came out of the trees at the Watchtower, a large rock formation off to the left. From here, there are sweeping views of the granite filled valley below and Tokopah Falls in the distance. We stopped here to enjoy the sights, take a quick breather, and have a snack.
About a half mile later, the trail really begins to hug the ridge line and was very apparent to us that this would not be a safe place to be in any sort of inclement weather.
A little over 5 miles in to our hike, we arrived at Heather Lake, which is tucked behind some trees and rocks. The lake is pretty, but small, and there were a handful of other groups enjoying its shoreline with us. We made a brief stop here to take some quick photos before continuing on the trail to our next stop.
Aster & Emerald Lakes
We could see Aster Lake from above as we made our way further along the single track trail. The dark watered lake is surrounded by granite rock and peaks, and is stunning to view above. We opted not to stop at this point, and instead keep moving towards Emerald Lake. The latter lake is the first one that you are able to camp (in numbered sites only) at, and we saw a small number of tents on our way down to the lake.
Emerald Lake was mostly in shadow thanks to the clouds covering the overhead sun. Knowing we still had a some distance to cover to reach Pear Lake, we made only a brief stop here.
As we continued our hike to Pear Lake, the trail became rockier, and the views more incredible. Wildflowers, granite peaks, and a vast, sweeping landscape, made this section of the hike one of my favorites in recent memory. You can really sense how small your are standing are you are hiking through this section of the park.
At just over 7.5 miles, we reached the shores of Pear Lake, the largest of the four lakes. While we had only made brief stops at the first three lakes, we made a point to relax and enjoy ourselves at Pear Lake. I snacked on my sandwich while Julie waded in to icy waters, a welcome reward for the long first half of our day.
After spending about an hour at Pear Lake, we knew we had a long hike back to the car ahead of us, it was time to get back on the trail. Much as they were on the way up, the views on our descent were equally stunning.
For the most part, we moved quickly, stopping occasionally to take a few more photos. About a mile or so from the car, the day got a little more interesting as I looked to my left and noticed a bear. Just off to the left of the trail, I yelled out “oh, shit!” and immediately started to back up. The bear, equally as startled as I was, came up onto the trail and towards me. Julie, who was a few steps behind me, watched this unfold and began to yell “go away bear!” while loudly clapping her trekking poles together. When I reached her, I joined in and the bear, disinterested in us, continued up to the other side of the trail and acted as though we weren’t there. To make the situation more interesting, we looked up and noticed a smaller bear climbing down from a tree, apparently also startled by the humans and the noise they were making.
Once the bear was a safe distance away, we high-tailed it out of there and back down to the car. We hadn’t realized at the time, but as tired and eager as we were to get to the car, we had gotten quiet and weren’t making enough noise to alert the bears of our presence. This was certainly something we understood we needed to be better at in the future. An eventful end to a long day on the mountain and one we won’t soon forget!