Climbing into a stark granite landscape studded with glacially-formed lakes, the Pear Lake Trail offers some real alpine scenery that’s only about four miles from the Wolverton trailhead. Admittedly it’s a somewhat challenging four miles, but this is still the most popular high country hike in Sequoia National Park.
The one thing missing from this trail are sweeping mountainous views; the trail never climbs out of the Tokopah Valley and the views are mostly limited to the valley.
The Watchtower Trail is closed in the winter and the trail can be covered with snow well into summer. Check the park’s trail conditions web page before hiking.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
The well-used trail starts at the Wolverton parking lot and immediately begins climbing through somewhat dull woodland. The scenery gradually improves as a rushing creek comes into earshot and the the trail crosses a small meadow.
Turn left at the trail to Pear Lake. The trail climbs more insistently, and the dense pine forest opens up a little and becomes more scenic. There are climpses of the hills and granite outcroppings across the Tokopah Valley.
At the next intersection, you can either take the "Watchtower" route to the left or the "Hump" route to the right. The Watchtower route is far more interesting, and quite a bit easier too. However, it’s often closed as late as July due to persistent snow on its shady north-facing slopes. Fortunately for those who have to take the Hump route, the best scenery doesn’t come until after the two trails re-join.
The Watchtower route continues to climb through pine forest, finally breaking out of the woods right at the point where it reaches the Watchtower. You can only see the back of the watchtower and it’s nothing special; of more interest is the expansive view of Tokopah Falls from above.
The trail switchbacks up the hill, then passes through two vertiginous stretches where it’s carved into the side of a steep granite hill. The trail is about 4 to 6 feet wide so it doesn’t seem especially dangerous on dry late-summer days, but you wouldn’t want to be here when it’s covered with ice or snow.
The trail continues to be cut into the hillside, although the hill isn’t quite as steep. Soon the trail reaches the junction with the Hump route, and shortly after that, the trail curves around Heather Lake.
Heather Lake is, I think, the most attractive (if also the most ordinary) of the lakes in this area, since it’s pleasantly wooded. The other lakes are somewhat more barren-looking, being surrounded mostly by bare granite. For some reason there’s no camping at Heather Lake.
The trail climbs over a low rise. Some of the pines that manage to grow on the rocky hills are Foxtail Pines, a rare treeline species that can live for thousands of years and is related to the Bristlecone Pine, the world’s oldest tree. They lack the distinctive gnarled appearance seen elsewhere, maybe because they’re sheltered in this valley.
The trail then descends toward the Emerald Lake campground, which has an exceptionally picturesque outhouse, a handsome stone structure set on a low rise among the alpine scenery.
After the campground, the trail begins climbing again. Foot traffic on the trail seems to drop off at this point and you’re not likely to see anyone until you reach Pear Lake. The trail is rocky and can be a little slow to negotiate. Curving around a ridge, the trail offers some nice views of the Watchtower and the Tokopah valley.
A spur trail to the left descends to the ranger station, which is another handsome stone structure set next to a sort of mini-waterfall where a creek cascades over some low step-like rock formations. It’s a nice location but I’m not sure why it’s called a ranger station, since there aren’t any actual rangers there. The structure is more accurately called the Pear Lake Backcountry Ski Hut. The one-room (maybe two) hut is closed in the summer, but from December 15 to April 9 hardy skiers can apparently stay overnight by reservation.
The main trail continues to climb up to Pear Lake, crossing the most barren, rocky landscape of the hike. Amazingly there are still trees, though, especially around the campsites. The lake is a classic tarn, set in a distinctive glacially-carved granite bowl or cirque. It’s the most stark and otherworldly of the lakes on this trail and although it’s actually a fairly popular destination, it feels very remote.
© 2011 David Baselt