|Where:||Sequoia National Park|
|Elevation gain:||3000 ft|
To get to the trailhead: From Visalia take the 198 East for 31.5 miles. Turn right onto Mineral King Road. It is not easy to find, but if you hit the Park Entrance where you have to pay to get in you have gone too far. There is a green sign on the side of the road at the turn that says “Mineral King 25 miles”. Take Mineral King Road all the way to Timber Gap & Sawtooth parking areas. There are two parking areas on both sides of the road. Trailhead is located on the north-side of the parking area. There is a big sign “Sawtooth Trailhead”.
Mineral King is an extremely windy road. It is a one way road, but is a very picturesque drive. Once we finally got to the trailhead, we parked. The lot was pretty full being that it was already 10am, because we missed the turn and went too far and had to turn back around to find Mineral King Rd. It was okay because the hike wasn’t too long in just above 5 miles to the first of the lakes.
The first mile or so was unforgiving as there were many steep switchbacks that got you breathing hard and your heart pumping. A little less than a mile in there is a junction to either go to Timber Gap or Sawtooth Pass. Turn right onto the Sawtooth Pass trail. The area had no trees giving us shade and it was getting quite hot. This area is known as home to the yellow-bellied Marmots.
After a strenuous mile and a quarter climb there is a perfect spot to take a break and have a snack. We crossed over a small creek, before realizing there was a beautiful waterfall just above us hidden by all the green scenery around. This is where you hit the shadier part of the trail. We took a small break right by the creek and after cooling down headed onward. All I wanted to do was get up there, set up the tents and jump in the lakes. That’s what was on my mind.
The ascent was a little easier at this point turning away from the valley below (carved by the East Fork of the Kaweah River). There are a series of switchbacks in this DENSE forest area that we had to climb. About 1000 feet over 1.7 miles. Along these switchback you can catch glimpses of jagged peaks through the trees. The climb was interesting because the switchbacks were pretty long and one second we turned north and the other west. One way you were able to see Timber Gap and the other direction Mineral King Valley.
Before hitting another junction the trail sort of straightens out in elevation into a bowl called “Chihuahua Bowl”. The junction is about 3.5 miles in. One way leads to Cobalt and Crystal Lakes and if you continue straight it will lead straight up to Monarch Lakes. There are a few more switchbacks after the junction and the trail then finally hits Monarch Creek drainage. This area was very picturesque as we walked over several areas of the creek drainage and the trees were more scarce but you could find fox tail pines here and there. Gorgeous trees I must say. You could feel the cooler air from the lake above. 1 mile later we took our last few steps away from the site of the valley below and found the western shore of Lower Monarch Lake which sits at 10,390 feet.
It was time for us to find a campsite. There weren’t that many people around which was nice, but we found a perfect spot with a view of the lake. Remember you have to camp at least 100 feet away from any water source. The lake sits in a perfect bowl shaped area surround by orange, red and brown rock formations. What’s nice about this camp is that they have a bear box where you can put all of your food and scented items for the night. Once we set up a camp, we packed up a day pack and headed up the trail to Upper Monarch Lake 300 feet above its sister. There is a lot of scrambling and we lost the trail a few times, but finally hit the lake about 15-20 min later.
Southern California Edison built a dam for this lake and is used to hold back water. There was a small family (Dad and two daughters) who had just been fishing. The smaller one of the daughters was holding about 4 to 5 fish up and said to us “look what my dad caught. we’re going to have them for dinner, would you like to share with us?” She was quite the chatter box and invited us for dinner a few times. After a fun quick dip in the extremely cold water of Upper Monarch we headed back down to Lower Monarch and also took a swim there. This lake was much warmer and we stayed in the water a lot longer. There are a few places where you can jump off rocks.
That night we cooked some mac and cheese, unfortunately we dropped a lot of it as I was passing it on. We ate other snacks that we had and shared whatever bit of the mac and cheese we could save. Too bad I was a clutz because it tasted so good. All two bites that we each got (shared between 4). There were several groups around watching the sunset on the west. It was incredible as you can see in the pictures we took. This is one of the four of us that I’d like to blow up on canvas and throw up on a wall somewhere in my place.
The nights sleep was quiet and the next morning we headed down the trail early. I’d like to come back to this area and explore the other lakes and peaks around.
Note to self: Get up there earlier in order to hike up to Sawtooth Pass or hike into Crystal Lakes before heading up to Monarch.