Only a six mile hike past an epic lookout overlooking a large granite valley and four gorgeous alpine lakes? No wonder this trail is so popular that it’s the only backpacking route in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park that is only first-come-first-serve and doesn’t accept reservations.
I finally got the chance to backpack to Pear Lake, the final destination six miles in on the Lakes Trail. Since this trail is normally walk up only, I had to wait until after the permit season ended, which was September 22nd for this year (Sequoia Kings Canyon wilderness permit info here). The expansive granite basin views surrounding each lake made it worth braving the brisk late-season temperatures! I think this trail makes the perfect intro to backpacking for any beginner, or anyone looking for a short backpacking trip near the Bay Area, CA.
Backpacking Trip Info
Dates: Oct 13 - Oct 14
Miles: 12.8 roundtrip
Elevation change: 3,416 ft
Trail type: Out and back
Permit: Required (first come first serve May - Sep, self issued Oct - May)
Trailhead: Google Maps
Because of its popularity, this is the only trail in Sequoia and Kings Canyon that does not have reservable overnight permits. Permits are only first come first serve, and they are available beginning at 1pm the day before your hike at the Lodgepole Visitor Center (I suggest arriving a little earlier to get in line!)
The permit is only for overnight backpackers, day hikers do not need a permit!
The shortest and easiest route to the lakes is via the Lakes Trail, which shares the same parking lot as the Alta Peak Trailhead. Although there are two large parking lots, this trailhead is very popular not only among backpackers, but especially among day hikers and even fishermen! There are several bear boxes at the start of the trail for you to store any scented items so you don’t leave them in your car.
Note - day hikers you can also get to the start of this trail from Lodgepole if needed (view the map above)
Since we were coming from the Bay Area and Los Angeles that morning, we didn’t get hiking until 1pm. We started off on the trail, which made switchbacks through the forest and slowly gained elevation. The beginning portion of this trail is nothing particularly special, but the forest did have that distinct dry and brown Sequoia forest feel, and I love the way forests like these smell - dry and cedar-like!
Early on in the trail we walked right by a group of five deer grazing calmly only about 15 feet from the trail! 1.75 miles in, we reached the first trail split. We opted for the Watchtower Trail and headed left at this fork. Even though this route is 0.4 miles longer we thought it would have better views.
About 1.5 miles from the split, we reached a clearing in the forest and suddenly found ourselves on the edge of a large cliff and an insane view of the mountain range in the distance. Most people hung out around the right cliff, shooting photos from here, but a few walked around the rim and out onto the spine of the Watchtower itself! The views all along this rim were spectacular, and looking down at the sheer, almost overhung, drop off below us definitely got our blood pumping!
After shooting plenty of pictures and exploring the area, we noticed the low-lying clouds drifting in quickly and decided to get moving towards the lakes. The next part of the hike is one of my favorites, as the trail hugs the side of the cliff and continues climbing above the valley below.
Once we reached Heather Lake (9,265’), it was only a mile more until Emerald Lake. On our way there, we also passed over Aster Lake (9,101’), a deep dark lake fed by Emerald Lake.
There is no camping at Heather or Aster, and when we finally reached Emerald Lake (9,229’) 5.3 miles from the trailhead, we saw there were quite a few backpackers who had already set up camp, so we decided to push on the final mile towards Pear Lake. This was the hardest part of the trail, as we actually lost some elevation heading down towards Emerald, and now had to climb up the steepest part around a bend to get to Pear Lake!
As we started to see Pear Lake (9,544’), the clouds also happened to clear, and we were finally able to see the tops of the surrounding mountains, giving us a true scale of how enormous the basin was.
In total, the hike in took us around 5.5 hours, which included plenty of stops to take photos and explore the Watchtower. 6.4 miles from the trailhead, we finally arrived right as the golden light started to hit the top of the mountains and create the most perfect reflection in Pear Lake, the largest lake in the area.
At both Emerald and Pear Lake, you are only allowed to camp in numbered sites to reduce the human impact all the foot traffic this place sees. There are also decent vault toilets and bear boxes at both (2019 update - these boxes can be locked and unavailable for use at any time, so it might be best to check before you go, or just always count on bringing your own bear canister).
My favorite view of the lake is actually towards the southwest shore. The sheer ridge almost looks like the side of a jigsaw puzzle, with lots of jagged, dramatic pieces jutting straight up.
As sun began to set, some fog began to drift into the valley, filling the basin with mist that lit up as the sun began to glow orange and red.
As it was pretty late in the season, the air got quite chilly once the sunset, and we were already in our tents by 8pm! The next morning we slept in a little before wandering around the shore of the lake one last time before leaving. I love the look of the rock slabs sloping straight into the brilliant blue waters.
After we warmed up under the sun a little, we started our journey back out. Today the sun was out in full force, and the same moody trail we hiked yesterday had an entirely different feel. We had clear views of the surrounding peaks, and the lakes we passed were even more blue under the bright sun and blue skies.
Two miles from Pear Lake, we arrived at Heather Lake just in time to see a guy dive head first into the brisk water! We enjoyed a snack here and spotted so many fish in the clear green waters.
We were making great time, so we decided to take the longer Watchtower route again. This time we got to take our time and enjoy the views of Tokopah Valley from this exposed section of the trail. Since the trail is entirely downhill back to the car, we made great timing and were back at our cars within three hours.
Our entire jaunt into the mountains took exactly 24 hours, and there is nothing like an overnight backpacking trip to make you feel like you had such a productive weekend! I can see why this Sequoia National Park trail is so popular - you get four alpine lakes and the Watchtower views all in an overnight trip.
If you decide to go, please practice Leave No Trace! This means packing out all your trash, only camping in designated sites, and not cutting switchbacks. Let’s all be better about treating gorgeous places like these with the love and respect they deserve.
Favorite gear for this trip: