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Monarch Lake

Sequoia National Park

July 2nd, 2014

10.0 miles
2570 vertical feet
Total Time: 8:04

Starting elevation
7817 feet
Max elevation
10408 feet

Rating: 8/10

Directions: From Visalia, take Highway 198 east to Three Rivers. Turn right onto Mineral King Road. Follow the road for about 24 miles to the Sawtooth trailhead parking area, which is past the Cold Springs campground and the ranger station, but before you reach the end of the road. The parking area is on both the left and right sides; the trailhead is on the left.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

It was another warm summer morning when we reached the Sawtooth parking area. A solo backpacker prepped next to us as we tarped our car. He seemed unconcerned about marmots; they didn't seem to be a big problem at this time, but we didn't mind being cautious. Another couple drove in and also tarped their car, so we weren't alone in that regard.

The trail climbs immediately, steeply - in fact this is the steepest part of the hike. Along the way were wildflowers and numerous caterpillars. A few caterpillars could be seen on the ground, but we eventually spotted hundreds of them in tents in bushes next to the trail.

Sawtooth parking area

Looking back toward Farewell Gap

We shortly came to a view of Black Wolf Falls on the right, part of Monarch Creek. It was nice, but nothing spectacular. After about 0.7 miles, we reached the first trail intersection. To the left is the trail to Timber Gap. We took the right fork toward Crystal and Monarch Lakes.

Black Wolf Falls

Continuing up the trail

Caterpillar tent

The trail continues to climb, then briefly descends to cross Monarch Creek (easily rock-hopped at this time) at Groundhog Meadow, then starts climbing on a series of switchbacks. I have to say that the switchbacks were overly conservative, going back and forth so much at a low grade that I was tempted to question the trail builders. My guess is that it was done this way for the benefit of horses, but I can't say for sure.

Groundhog Meadow

View from the trail

This part of the trail is mostly shaded. We stopped on one of the switchbacks for a break. A solo hiker passed us at this point - one of only a few people we'd see on the trail today. We continued on the trail and the views started to open up. After what seemed like longer than it should have been, we reached the next trail intersection. To the right is the trail to Crystal Lake. We took the left fork toward Monarch Lake.

View from the trail

After a few minutes on this trail, we stopped for a final break before the lake. Confusingly, the same solo hiker who'd passed us before now passed us again in the same direction. I can't be sure, but my guess is that he took the right fork to visit the Chihuahua Mine ruins, then backtracked and continued on toward Monarch Lake. At the rate that he was going, there was no way he could have gone all the way to Crystal Lake and back, so that's my best guess.

We got up and started the final stretch. The trail mostly levels out at this point. We followed the trail, literally turned a corner and then were met with this other world. We'd been hiking in open forest, but ahead of us was now mostly barren rocky slopes. It was quite an impressive sight.

Starting the final barren stretch

Final stretch toward the lake

Looking back along the trail

We continued on for about a mile past the intersection. As we crossed Monarch Creek, we ran into the couple who had tarped their car just after us. They had passed us early on the hike and were now returning. I asked them if they had visited the larger upper Monarch Lake, and they said they had. But when I asked them if it was worth it, they hesitated then said yes but were unconvincing.

We shortly came to the lower Monarch Lake, and it was a bit of a visual disappointment. It's a small lake and there's pretty much no shade to be found anywhere. The upper lake is dammed and is much larger, but it's about 300+ feet higher in elevation and there's no official trail to it -- it looks like it involves a bit of scrambling over granite to get there. By this time it was already 2:45pm, and I had no ammunition to convince my family to head to the upper lake.

Lower Monarch Lake

Lower Monarch Lake

Still, we had lunch at the lake and watched as a couple of hikers jumped into the lake for a quick dip. We dipped our toes in the water and skipped rocks. It was nice, though not nearly as nice a scene as Eagle Lake.

Marmot at Monarch Lake

We finally left the lake at 4:20pm. It took us 2 hours and 15 minutes to descend the way we came. Since the grade wasn't steep, the descent was very easy. When we reached Groundhog Meadow we were surprised to find a solo backpacker there. His tent was much too close to the water, and we didn't know why someone would camp so close to the trailhead. In any case, there were mosquitoes in the area so we didn't stick around to ask him.

Heading back along the trail

Trees next to the trail

Groundhog Meadow

We descended the slippery steep part at the bottom, reaching the parking lot where our tarp was still intact.

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