After our last day hike ended at an unexpected 22 miles, I was eagerly on the hunt for a backpacking trip in which everyone in the party would enjoy. After reading and hearing so much about the Sierra Nevada I was eager to take a dip into the famous mountain range. The challenge was this: I had to find a trail that ideally had little elevation gain (or elevation spread over several miles), a trail camp or campground at or around ten miles, and a diverse scenery that breached more than just forest. Originally I was looking at doing Mineral King but after a post in r/WildernessBackpacking I had several recommendations on my hands, the most favorable being Lakes Trail with the destination being Pear Lake.
Lakes Trail begins at the Wolverton parking lot in Lodgepole, California. Permits are only necessary for overnight camping and are walk-up only. The permits are available outside of the Giant Museum rather than the Lodgepole visitor’s center, which differs from what is stated online. To my knowledge, during the peak season they only distribute permits for approximately 25 persons per campground at a first come first serve basis. However, since we came after peak season ended this was not the case.
From the trail head it is approximately 5.8 miles to Pear Lake passing Heather, Aster, and Emerald Lake before coming to the end of the trail at Pear Lake. It begins in thick forest working its way up to a fork in the trail where you can either take “The Hump” or “The Watchtower” to the point where the trail reconnects. The Watchtower is commonly closed during the winter and early season due to ice and snow build up. While the Hump is actually shorter in distance to the re-connection point, it’s views are said to be far less spectacular than the latter. After the trail re-connects you are quickly met with the view of Heather Lake, followed by Aster Lake. Camping is not allowed at either of these lakes for reasons unknown. Shortly after you will find Emerald Lake with Pear lake about .8 miles uphill further down the trail. Both lakes offer camping with vault toilets as well as community bear vaults to store your bear cans in.
After laying out the plan to Jacob, who was excited after seeing photo’s of Pear Lake and hearing we did not have to climb a mountain, we set the plan in stone to leave the night of September 28th. We originally planned to car camp out of South Fork Campground the night of the 28th and head up to Lodgepole the following morning but we ended up time crunching too many things last minute and (much to my distaste…) we decided to leave early the following morning. We woke up at 3:30 am, threw our packs in the car, filled our water bottles, and were on the road with our destination being Sequoia National Park.
We arrived around 9am and stopped to fill out our permits and checked out the inside of Giant Museum which is small and simple with a lot of information on the benefits of wildfires and of course the giant Sequoia’s.
Inside Giant Museum there were John Muir quotes posted everywhere! A dream come true. This was one of my favorites. “By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs- now a floor of fire, now a flood of ice…and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life…”
The hike down to General Sherman was .8 of a mile so we considered it a warm up and headed down to the Giant in slippers and sweatpants. Typically we tend to try and stay away from the touristy attractions, but having grown up in the Chicago Suburbs for most of my life, this was something I did not want to pass up…and of course…there were a ton of people.
General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. Fun fact, the tree is neither the tallest or widest tree in the world. It does, however, have the largest mass.
The trail was a nice little warm up and we then headed to the Wolverton parking lot, parked the car and did a quick gear check. Still being new to backpacking, we have been building up on gear slowly but surely. We were avid car campers for a couple years but I personally love the idea (and the reality) of backpacking more so than car camping. Luckily for Jacob, his grandpa has put hundreds of miles in and he was able to get hand me down’s on a lot of his gear. It is by no means the lightest or newest technology, but it works and was free. As for me, I’ve been slowly building up my gear. I picked up at Deuter ACT lite 60 + 10 SL which weighs about 4lb 3oz in itself and have also upgraded my sleeping bag to a Kelty Cosmic Down 20 that is a bright purple that I thoroughly enjoy. We have also upgraded our stove (Jetboil MightyMo Backpacking Stove) and water filtration system (Sawyer Squeeze). The small upgrades in combination with having flowing water on the trail saved us several pounds on our base weight which was relieving compared to our first trip. Putting our packs on and getting situated was effortless and just like that we were at the trail head!
Trail head and general information. Jacob found the perfect hiking stick left here and they also encourage you to brush off your boots to prevent unnatural and invasive plants/weeds from growing and taking over the area.
To Pear Lake was a 5.8 mile hike and after hiking 22 miles round trip to the summit of San Jacinto…this seemed like a piece of cake. The beginning of the trail is beautiful as it slowly climbs uphill through the forest. The trail is well maintained and extremely easy to follow. For the twenty minutes or so we did not see anyone on the trail but then came across a steady amount of groups hiking in and out of the trail, most with day packs. The trees were turning shades of amber and brown and some of them were thick with moss. At 1.7 miles you reach the trail junction with Panther Gap.
Hiking through a small meadow where you can see some of the different colors of autumn…
Shortly after the trail junction you come to a split in the trail. To the left is the “Watchtower” and to the right is the “Hump”. The Watchtower is only .2 miles longer than the Hump and was said to have the best views so we went with that route as it was open.
A split in the trail…with two terrible decision-making Libra’s. Thankfully the rumor of phenomenal views made it an easy choice.
I was expecting the trail to break through to the granite portion at any time and by checking my Gaia GPS I was able to pinpoint about where we would hit it. At this point we were both beginning to get a little hangry… We pushed on hoping to be able to hold off lunch until we find a spot with a great view. Not even ten minutes after we had decided to push onward, we pulled off the trail and gobbled down our lunch. Trail mix, tuna with mayo and olive oil, and some Mio flavored water did the trick and we were back on the trail, complaint free in no time. At this point the trail seemed to get a lot steeper and Jacob kept asking me when it would level out as if I were the trail God and knew the elevation of every point on the trail. From what I had read online I had taken in the idea that the first part of the trail was steeper, when in my opinion it was definitely the last part before heading down to the lakes that was the steepest.
Before hitting the granite portion of the trail we were met with absolutely breathtaking views of the upper end of Tokopah Valley and the Kaweah River. I suddenly felt as if I could not possibly take in everything that surrounded me by looking at it as a whole and quickly became a little dizzy. We found ourselves a nice seat at the very edge of the cliff and spent some time *trying* to take it all in. It was absolutely stunning, and the first time my Midwestern ass had ever seen something of it’s kind. Living in SoCal the last couple of years I’ve experienced the San Gabriel’s, Idyllwild and Big bear which are nothing in comparison to what I was experiencing at this moment. We stopped here for quite some time gawking, snacking, and taking some photos.
Views of the Tokopah Valley and the Kaweah River.
A photo of Jacob and I posing next to the edge of the cliff. The photo does not do it justice.
After a nice break we continued on up the trail, eager to hit the Watchtower. It climbed steadily upward, keeping the view of the valley on the left hand side. We soon hit the granite portion of the trail which I had originally been quite nervous about. Typically, I am very scared of heights. There were a few times on the PCT through Angeles National Forest where I would begin to get nervous and stare directly at the trail instead of the views surrounding. I surprised myself with my lack of anxiety at this point on the trail. Aside from one tiny portion of it, I passed by embracing the view without any stinkin’ thinkin’.
Looking back on a portion of the trail as we continue on to the Watch Tower.
The calories from lunch had kicked in and with alpine lakes in mind, our pace quickened. At this point the trail begins to level out and even begins to climb downhill which was a refreshing change after hiking uphill the rest of the trail. Leading the way, I came around a corner and was met with views of Heather lake. It was quiet, the water was still and tranquil. Still being fairly early in the morning there was only one other person here, wading in the water. We took the trail leading to the lake front and spent a few minutes enjoying the stillness.
Heather Lake. No camping is permitted here, though there is an access trail to the lake front.
With our legs objecting we continued on and up the trail towards Aster Lake. This lake is located further down hill and away from the trail. There is an access trail closer towards Emerald Lake but we were too tired at this point to wander down to the lake. Instead we enjoyed views from above, admiring the beauty of the surrounding rocky terrain.
View of Aster lake from the trail.
Bending our way around the lake, our next destination was Emerald Lake which was the first opportunity to find a campsite. Emerald Lake holds roughly 10 campsites, though there were several other groups of people camping in undesignated areas surrounding. Walking to the lake we came up on the vault toilets, which were actually extremely well cared for much to my surprise. These are composting toilets and it should be noted that toilet paper is considered trash and should not be disposed of here and should instead be packed out. Following the exploration of the toilets, you pass ponds that are made of run off water from Emerald Lake. The first campsite that you walk past sits next to this little pond.
The first campsite you walk past is to the right of this photograph. Beautiful spot, but pretty close to the pond…even though the campsites were all filled, no one would use this site during our stay.
Jacob hiking into Emerald Lake, the view coming in was amazing.
Emerald Lake was already filling up quickly by the time we arrived. All designated campsites aside from the one next to the pond, and number 10 were already filled up. This reality combined with exhaustion drove us to the conclusion that we would take spot #10, set up camp, and cook up some food and spend the night here instead of Pear Lake. From what I had read online Emerald Lake had nicer campsites than Pear Lake. We also had another two days to explore the surrounding areas so we were not worried about hiking up to the last lake.
Our campsite after setting up. It had some nice shade, was completely flat and even had a log to sit on.
After setting up camp, we ate a few snacks while we boiled up water for our Mountain House meals. On our previous trip, we relied on these solely for major meals such as breakfast and dinner. This time around, I wanted to spend less money but still receive the same amount of nutrition (or more). We bought only 2 freeze dried meals and instead bought packets of tuna and chicken. Managing Subway’s, I have access to a plethora of condiment packets which are easy to add to any meal, and also add calories. Jacob had Lasagna while I ate the chicken fried rice meal which happens to be my favorite. In completion, we were both extremely full and extremely tired and it was not even 6pm yet. The temperature began to drop rapidly as the sun fell behind the peak sitting behind Emerald Lake. We bundled up and, too tired to keep ourselves awake, we crawled into our sleeping bags. Jacob laughed at me as I kept falling asleep and snoring within seconds of my eyes closing.
I was able to sleep in leggings and a long sleeve comfortably in my new Kelty sleeping bag. I awoke early in the morning to the sounds of birds cawing. The night had been extremely quiet aside from someone (or something according to Jacob) messing with the bear vaults in the middle of the night. Jacob had been up for hours, apparently pretty cold. I heated up some water, poured it in an old mountain house bag, sealed it up and gave it to him as a heating pad to warm up. He fell back asleep and I set out to explore the area, taking some early morning pictures and stretching on a rock next to the lake. Early mornings are my favorite; the sun rising above the surrounding areas and the feeling of tranquility pair to create the perfect ambiance.
Emerald Lake in my favorite photo of the trip.
Another one of my favorite photos, looking back towards Aster Lake.
Jacob had woken up by the time I got back to camp. We replenished our water bottles with filtered water from the stream nearby and came back to camp to make breakfast. Breakfast was a combination of blueberry flax granola and Carnation powdered milk. Just add water (warm or cold) and it’s a better-than-oatmeal breakfast. I made these in small Ziploc bags and Jacob ended up putting the bag into our stainless steel cup to make scooping out of it easier since the bag has no form.
Balancing on a log after filling up my squeeze pouches from the stream running through camp.
After some digesting and hula-hooping we grabbed a few key items and started back on the trail towards Pear Lake. We decided that since so many camp sites were taken, we would just make Pear Lake a short day hike instead of lugging our gear up there to reset up camp. The trail from Emerald to Pear Lake is mostly uphill and almost entirely made up of granite. Unfortunately, by this point both of our phones had died and our solar charger was failing us so we were unable to get any photos. We made it to Pear Lake, which was much bigger than the previous lakes we had passed. We washed our hands and splashed our faces, noticing several fish swimming in the water. The campsites up here offered little to no shade and were mostly on granite so we were not sad in our decision to leave our gear at Emerald Lake.
We spent some time staring at the lake and made our way back down to our camp, which went much quicker than our hike there. It was probably around 10:30am when we got back to camp and we pondered ideas of what to do all day. Typically we bring a deck of cards, download movies onto our phones, or have other people to entertain ourselves with. This time it was just us and we had already explored the area surrounding us. We are the type of people who go crazy when we don’t have something to do. At times, we are able to just sit and enjoy doing nothing but for the most part we like to keep ourselves busy. So…we decided to pack up camp and hike back to the car.
We reached the car in no time, taking maybe only 2 hours to hike back seeing as it was entirely downhill aside from one portion at the beginning. Hiking back we met at least 20 other groups hiking up to camp for the weekend so we felt reassured that we had made the right decision in hiking out. There weren’t many camp sites and sharing is caring. Also…our general theory is the less people the better.
Overall, Lakes Trail was a phenomenal hiking experience. It’s views were some of the best I have had the pleasure of experiencing in my life and the trail was moderate, but not so challenging that either one of us were uncomfortable or not enjoying it. I think late September was the perfect time to go, as the temperatures during the day made for a comfortable hiking temperature and the temperatures at night were easily bearable. Not to mention, the snow had almost completely melted with only small patches of snow or ice here and there. Since the trail is so popular, I would recommend coming in the middle of the week if solitude is important to you. I feel that this was the perfect first backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada as it had parts of trail in the forest, steep trail drop off’s, views of four alpine lakes, and phenomenal views of the Tokopah Valley. We hope to visit this area again in the future.