Words + Photos by April B. Note: This post about hiking the Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park contains affiliate links for some of the suggested gear.
Hiking the Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park is perhaps the most epic and unforgettable trek you can do in the entire park.
The towering giants that give Sequoia National Park its name are mesmerizing.
Standing next to a sequoia fills you with wonder, making you realize that there are indeed things in life much bigger than you.
But not many people realize that Sequoia National Park is more than its sequoias. It is also a gateway to the western portion of the Sierra Nevadas, a mountain range in California and Nevada. By the way, if you haven’t done it, hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains is truly an inspiring experience.
Because of this, Sequoia National Park has hundreds of remarkable hiking trails. Yet many visitors opt to see the sequoias and then spend the rest of their time in the nearby Yosemite National Park hiking Sentinel Dome to Glacier Point, the Nevada Falls Loop, and Columbia Rock (the perfect Yosemite 3 day itinerary!) or climbing Mt Whitney — or even heading to Northern California to hike the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon.
My alternative recommendation:
Put on your hiking boots and opt to see another side to Sequoia National Park that few see, particularly by embarking on the Lakes Trail, one of the best hikes in Sequoia National Park and one of the best hiking trails in the world!
Quick tip: Need help planning your national park trip? Fellow blogger and outdoor adventure expert Alex on the Map offers custom national park trip itinerary planning. Click here to learn more about her services!
About Sequoia National Park
When talking about attractions in Sequoia National Park, the sequoia trees are really the reason people visit.
Sequoia trees are the world’s largest living organism and can live for over 3,000 years. These remarkable trees are only found in a small portion of the Sierra Nevadas in California.
That area of Sequoia became a U.S. national park in 1890. Its nearby neighbor, Kings Canyon National Park, joined in 1940.
These two parks are connected by Highway 198, better known as the Generals Highway.
It is on the Generals Highway — a road filled with endless curves and bends offering adventure at every turn — that you get to know Sequoia National Park. That being said, if you stay on the Generals Highway, you are missing half of what makes Sequoia so special.
Because hiking in Sequoia National Park lets you see the various landscapes found in the park.
And nowhere is that more evident than when hiking the Lakes Trail, where you can experience one of the country’s stunning active travel adventures. Even if you only have one day in Sequoia National Park, this hike should be on your itinerary.
Getting To The Lakes Trail
To get to the start of the Lakes Trail, turn off the Generals Highway at Wolverton Road. It’s the same road marked for the General Sherman Tree/Congress Trail.
However, continue on the Wolverton Road passing the turn to the General Sherman Tree. And stay on it until the very end — about a five-minute drive. The road terminates at a large parking lot.
To be close to the trailhead, you will want to park on the left side. Restrooms are available in the parking area. Bear boxes are also available and should be used for any food you may have in your car.
The trailhead is located in the middle of the left side of the parking lot.
What To Know Before Hiking The Lakes Trail
An adventure awaits any hiker who tackles the Lakes Trail, truly one of the best hikes in Sequoia National Park and a must-do when traveling California.
That being said, there are a couple of things that need consideration before starting out, especially in terms of heights and altitude.
Personally, I had experiences with both while attempting to hike the Lakes Trail. This is the only trail that has taken me three attempts to complete.
As you can tell, I’m slightly stubborn and determined.
First off, let’s talk about heights when it comes to hiking the Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park.
For those who may have a fear of heights, there is one portion of the trail that follows an exposed cliff face, right along the massive rock feature known as the Watchtower.
This is one of the most epic Sequoia National Park attractions, with a bird’s eye vista of the Tokopah Valley stretching out in front of you.
However, there is an important warning here:
The trail has no guard rail nor a protective wall. It’s a straight 1,000-foot drop to the valley floor. The first time I attempted the trail, I had to turn back as I found myself badly shaking from my fear of heights.
Are you afraid of heights, too?
You can still hike the full Lakes Trail without going on the exposed cliff face portion. There is a connector trail that bypasses that part called the Hump Trail. Rather than go along the Watchtower, the Hump Trail goes behind it.
But take care! Though the trail is through a forest, it is extremely steep — gaining an extra 200 feet in elevation — and you can burn a lot of energy hiking it.
It was on my second attempt that I hiked the Hump Trail. The exertion from hiking the steep trail quickly brought on symptoms for altitude sickness. So, I turned around after reaching the first lake.
It’s important to note that the Watchtower portion of the trail may be closed due to ice or snow during parts of the year. In that case, all hikers must take the Hump Trail. It’s best to check at a visitor center for trail conditions before setting out.
The second consideration when hiking The Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park is altitude.
The Lakes Trail begins at an elevation of 7,294 feet and reaches 9,555 feet at the end for a total elevation gain of 2,792 feet.
If you have never been at such elevation, it’s best to take a day exploring the smaller trails of Sequoia National Park to acclimate.
Altitude sickness is a serious condition that should be not be ignored if symptoms appear while on the trail. Symptoms include dizziness, pounding headache, and nausea. If you start to experience any of these conditions, do not continue. Head back down immediately.
Hydrating properly the night before and staying hydrated on the trail helps with altitude sickness, so make sure you have plenty of water with you before starting out.
Note that there is no drinking water on The Lakes Trail, so you’ll need to bring your own.
The closest water fountain to refill is at the trailhead to the Congress Trail/General Sherman Tree down Wolverton road.
The Lakes Trail Overview
Total Distance: 12.2 miles
Trail Level: Difficult
Best Time To Hike The Lakes Trail: June to October
Duration: 6 to 10 hours
Hiking the Lakes Trail is a strenuous day hike that takes you to three mountain lakes in Sequoia National Park:
- Heather Lake
- Emerald Lake
- and Pear Lake
Now, when it comes to things to see in Sequoia National Park, a major highlight of the Lakes Trail includes the epic views of the Tokopah Valley and granite peaks of the Sierra Nevadas along the way.
On the trail, you may encounter black bears, coyotes, deer, and marmots.
Hiking The Lakes Trail In Sequoia National Park
The Lakes Trail begins easily enough, giving you a chance to warm up before it really gets going. A short connector trail from the parking lot takes you to a junction. Making a right, you continue on the Lakes Trail.
All around you is a forest — sorry, no sequoias on this trail.
The sound of branches falling and squirrels scampering fill the air. And in this initial portion of the trail, you should be on the lookout for black bears.
The trail slowly begins its ascent as you make your way deeper in the forest. At around two miles, you come upon another junction, this one with the trail to Alta Peak. To stay on the Lakes Trail, make a left.
And now the Lakes Trail really begins to climb.
You can’t help but notice the incline now as you make your way through the forest towards the Watchtower. Along the way, there are large boulders and fallen trees that make for perfect makeshift picnic sites.
Soon, you’ll come upon the junction with the Hump Trail. If conditions are perfect and heights have no effect on you, continue straight. Walking on, the trail snakes its way uphill. The trees slowly begin to thin out as you emerge out onto the Watchtower portion.
And this is when hiking the Lakes Trail gets good, as you emerge onto a lookout with an epic panoramic vista across the Tokopah Valley.
Here, you should stop for a moment and really appreciate being in one of the best places in Sequoia National Park!
Welcome to the Sierra Nevadas! Now it’s truly clear why this is truly one of the best trails in Sequoia National Park.
This mountainous landscape of granite peaks is your playground for the rest of the Lakes Trail.
And if you’re hungry, this overlook is the perfect spot for a picnic — and a place to give yourself a much-deserved rest.
When you’re ready to continue, it’s time for some jaw-dropping views as you make your way around the Watchtower. This exposed section lasts for a half-mile.
Note that the trail does get quite rocky in places so make sure that you watch your step!
The views of the valley change and open up the further you walk along.
Then take a glance at the valley below. It’s a dizzying sight!
Heather Lake In Sequoia National Park
Luckily the trail grade levels off here so you can easily breathe in the views. Soon, you find yourself with solid ground on both sides of you. And you also come upon the other side of the Hump Trail.
Now, in no time, you arrive at the first of the three Sequoia National Park lakes, Heather Lake, sitting at 9,280 feet.
This picturesque lake is surrounded by trees and willows and is cradled by a granite slope.
As many hikers plan only to go as far as Heather Lake, it is the most crowded of all the lakes.
Though there is no camping permitted at this lake, one of the most enjoyable things to do in Sequoia National Park is taking a dip in the water of this lake to cool down.
Continuing along the Lakes Trail, there are some amazing views, including that of Aster Lake, as you make your way towards Emerald Lake.
Now you start to feel like you’re doing a back-country trail as fewer hikers continue to the end of the Lakes Trail.
And the landscape — an endless sea of granite — gives you a feeling of being removed from civilization. For me, the remoteness is a very welcome feeling, as connecting with nature can truly help you discover yourself.
Emerald Lake In Sequoia National Park
The Lakes Trail then begins a slight descent through rocky terrain with Alta Peak towering in the distance. As the trail flattens out, you pass a spur trail to the shore of Aster Lake.
And, before reaching Emerald Lake, the second lake, there is a wonderful sight:
A pit toilet!
Toilets are rare on the trail, so definitely take the opportunity to use the restroom here.
To get to Emerald Lake, you must take a short side trail to its shore. Actually, this beautiful lake lies hidden until you reach its shores.
Emerald Lake, sitting at 9,230 feet, is stunning. Honestly, it’s possibly one of the most beautiful lakes in Sequoia National Park — and even the entire United States.
Maybe it’s because you never get a glimpse of it before you arrive at its shores, but there is something truly special about Emerald Lake.
A feeling of serenity floods you.
Visually, it’s the most appealing lake on the trail with trees and willows perfectly lining the shore.
Pear Lake In Sequoia National Park
When you can tear yourself away from Emerald Lake, it’s just one more mile until the end of the trail at Pear Lake.
Alas, that last mile is all uphill; but, thankfully, it’s a mild grade.
As you begin your ascent, there are phenomenal vistas over Aster Lake with views of the Watchtower in the distance.
The trail curves its way further uphill taking you deeper into the granite scenery. Mountain peaks surround you as you hike along the rocky terrain. Much like Emerald Lake, you don’t see Pear Lake — which sits at 9,550 feet — until you’re near the shore.
Simultaneously, you are filled with joy at reaching the end and by seeing the lake with Alta Peak towering over it.
Vegetation is not as lush at Pear Lake as the other lakes, providing you plenty of granite slabs to layout on, rest, and soak in the views.
After hiking for just over six miles, you likely won’t be in a rush to leave Pear Lake.
When you are ready, return the way you came back to the parking lot at the end of Wolverton Road.
The Lakes Trail can be done as a full day hike.
Alternatively, you can make it into an overnight stay. Campsites are available at Emerald and Pear Lakes (permits required). Pit toilets are located at both lakes, too.
What To Bring When Hiking The Lakes Trail
Pro tip: You can also rent gear from REI and other brands for a more sustainable trip.
A Hiking Backpack – Luckily there are many great affordable options. Here is a list featuring some of the best affordable hiking backpacks under $100!
Hiking Boots – When it comes to what to wear when you go hiking, footwear is extremely important. Due to the length and rocky terrain, you need proper hiking boots for hiking the Lakes Trail, protecting your feet and ankles as best you can from injury. Hiking boots will allow you to stay comfortable while enjoying all of the Sequoia National Park must-see views and experiences along the trail.
Water – Staying hydrated on the trail is necessary to make sure you can finish it, so have plenty of water with you. This large BPA-free Nalgene is a smart option. Keep in mind, according to REI you should bring 0.5-to-1 liter of water per hour, depending on the weather and how strenuous the hike is.
Food – Make sure you have more food than you will need with you on the trail, from packed meals to snacks. You will be out on the trail all day, and you will need to replenish your body’s energy along the way. These meal bars offer a great option.
Sun Protection – After reaching the Watchtower portion of the trail, the rest of the hike is exposed. And at the high elevation, the sun’s rays are much stronger. It’s best to have a hat as well as sunscreen with you. Make sure to apply sunscreen often.
Insect Repellent – Depending on the time of year, there may be mosquitoes in the forested area of the Lakes Trail as well as at Heather Lake. So, it’s best to be prepared and have insect repellent with you.
Hiking Poles (optional) – Another way to protect your knees along the rocky terrain of the Lakes Trail is to use hiking poles, like these. It helps to relieve the stress of the hike on your body.
Bear Spray (optional) – If you are feeling uncertain about encountering a black bear on the trail, you can carry a can of bear spray with you. But you would only need to use it if a bear starts to charge you, which is unlikely.
First Aid Kit – You are on your own when hiking the Lakes Trail. I’ve only been able to receive a signal on the trail near the Watchtower. The rest of the time, don’t expect a signal. But there is access to a ranger station near Pear Lake. Here is a nice portable option.
Safety When Hiking The Lakes Trail In Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is home to black bears. Though they are called black, they can also be brown or cinnamon in color. Generally, they have no interest in humans, but you should know your bear safety tips before hitting the trail:
- Always keep at least 100 yards away from bears.
- While hiking, shout out every few minutes so nearby bears are aware of your presence. You never know how a startled bear will react. Twice, while hiking this trail, I’ve encountered a black bear. The first time was within the first minute of starting out. So, always be aware.
- Should a bear come near you, do NOT run. Slowly back away to a safe distance.
Finally, do not allow bears access to any of your food, both on the trail or in your car.
Bear boxes are available at the Lakes Trail trailhead, so place all food from your car into the bear boxes.
Bears have an amazing sense of smell, and they can easily break into vehicles in search of food — which insurance will not cover!
Beyond safety, also remember that you’re on Indigenous land.
The Mono (Monache), Yokut, Tübatulabal, Paiute, and Western Shoshone were the original inhabitants of the land that Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks reside on. These Indigenous peoples were displaced and/or forced to relocate.
Along with educating yourself on the history and culture of these tribes, consider making a donation to causes and charities that directly support them. Moreover, where possible hire Indigenous guides and purchase from Indigenous-owned businesses.
The Lakes Trail: One Of The Best Hikes In Sequoia National Park
Though there are countless hiking trails in Sequoia National Park, the Lakes Trail is in a class of its own.
If you love adventure and escaping into nature, no visit will be complete without hiking The Lakes Trail, truly an experience that should be on your Sequoia National Park things to do list and your USA bucket list!
Other Top California Hikes
Looking to explore other California hiking trails? A few not-to-miss trails include:
Where Should You Hike Next? [Game]
Lastly, I’ve got a fun game to help you choose your next hiking adventure — after the Lakes Trail, of course.
Here is how it works:
Press play and let the list of incredible hikes scroll.
Close your eyes while hovering your finger over the video’s pause button.
Then, when you feel moved to, press pause to reveal some additional hiking trail inspiration.
Hotels Near Sequoia National Park
Looking for accommodation for your Sequoia National Park trip?
Prefer self-contained stays?
You can also use the map below to search for local stays:
Renting A Car For Sequoia National Park
Most people who visit Sequoia National Park rent a car so that they can see all that the park and surrounding areas have to offer.
Use Discover Cars to quickly compare your car rental options.
Their comparison tool does the homework for you, so there’s no need to have up 10+ tabs trying to figure out which company is the most affordable. Actually, you can save up to 70% using their tool!
Sequoia National Park Travel Insurance
When visiting California — or anywhere else in the world — make sure to get travel insurance.
One of the best travel medical insurance for travelers is SafetyWing as they’ve got a large network and offer both short-term and long-term coverage — including coverage if you’re traveling for months as well as limited coverage in your home country).
Additionally, SafetyWing is budget-friendly and offers $250,000 worth of coverage with just one low overall deductible of $250.
Top California Hikes
Looking to explore other California hiking trails? A few not-to-miss trails include:
Have you enjoyed hiking the Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park?
About The Guest Author, April B.
April is a solo traveler passionate about inspiring other people to explore the world on their own, and showing them how easy it is to do. She loves exploring the outdoors and hiking, especially in Sequoia National Park.
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