In mid-October I had the opportunity to take a quick trip to California, so we began researching short, 2-day backpacks in Kings Canyon/Sequoia. Turns out that you can’t do much justice to backpacking in these parks with only 2 days, but we tried our best with a backpack up the Lakes Trail, and my old friend from high school came along for her FIRST BACKPACK EVER!
It’s challenging to backpack in California, first because the best trails require many days to access, and second because it seems that EVERYONE IN THE STATE also likes to backpack, and permits are booked up months in advance for almost any trail you could think of, anywhere in the state (or so it seemed to me when I was trying to find permits!!)! So, with limited time and no permits to be had, we set our sights on the Lakes Trail in Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks. It was late enough in the season that the park had no quota system for number of permits issued, so we were free to self-register and head on up the trail. We quickly figured out that about 500 of our closest friends also had the same idea! 😀
As I mentioned above, my old friend from high school, Lily, joined us on this trip for her first backpacking experience. The relatively gentle incline of the trail, combined with the short distance (around ~6 miles one way to Pear lake) and single night out, makes the lakes trail a perfect intro to backpacking.
After driving to the Lodgepole visitor center and realizing it was closed for the season, then driving to the Giant Forest Museum to grab our self-registration permit, we finally drove to the trailhead and arrived around 1pm. The parking lot is massive and we found a spot easily, but there were also a LOT of cars there, y’all! It’s almost like everyone in a several-hour radius of Kings Canyon/Sequoia with only a weekend to spare chooses the lakes trail backpack!
We geared up and headed out, Lily having equipped herself with some Amazon bargains that somehow made her backpack way lighter than mine or David’s (wtf!?!?). The weather was rather moody with some low clouds, but no rain was in the forecast. As mentioned, the trail has a very steady, manageable incline, and at no point does it become overly steep.
We plodded through the forest, taking breaks to stuff oreos or nutella sandwiches in our faces (why yes, my backpacking diet is about 50% sugar, why do you ask?). Hints of a view open up rather quickly, but due to the low clouds, we knew we’d be getting a much better view the next day.
At the junction of the Watchtower and Hump trail, we decided to take the Hump trail on the way in, and we’d do Watchtower on the way out. This was not smart. If we had done even 5 extra seconds of research we would’ve figured out that the Hump trail has NONE OF THE VIEWS and the Watchtower trail has ALL OF THE VIEWS. Don’t be like us, do an extra 5 seconds of research! Luckily, because of the low clouds that day, all the mountains had their heads chopped off anyway (so we didn’t miss much), but there is really no reason to do the Hump trail unless you are hiking this in winter.
As we got closer to our final destination, we were pretty concerned about the gaggles of backpackers all along the trail. Arriving at Emerald lake, we decided to look for an open spot there instead of heading up to Pear lake. At around 4:30pm, we grabbed one of the last two open campsites at Emerald! This place was busy, y’all! We heard later that there was a very large group up at Pear lake that took almost all of the campsites, so I think we made the right decision!
We set up our tent and had some gourmet Backpacker’s Pantry freeze dried dinners (I’m lazy, cooking is for non-lazy people). Heading further up the trail past the campsite, we watched the sunset over Emerald lake and chatted with some fellow friendly backpackers (and uhm, saw some very irresponsible backpackers lighting fires when there was a sign at the campsite saying NO FIRES). After the sun went down it was rather chilly, but not unbearably so (I believe the nightly forecast had a low in the mid 30s). Layered up in our puffers, we sat around drinking tea, and Lily soon retreated to the warmth of her sleeping bag (which apparently was not sufficiently warm, thanks for nothing, Amazon!).
David and I stayed out a bit longer and saw a pretty decent showing of the Milky Way, which I failed miserably at taking pictures of (someday I will learn this thing, what do you call it? Photography?). We eventually retreated to the tent and got in our winter sleeping bags. I brought my insane -30°F Feathered Friends bag because I have no circulation, and it took probably an hour or so for the bag to warm up before I could comfortably fall asleep (and it was in the mid 30s, which is not that cold…). For the record, Lily said it was actually VERY COLD and spent a lot of time freezing her butt off in her supposedly 0°F bag. Oops…
The next morning we were greeted with sunshine, and no low clouds chopping the heads off of mountains, so we headed up to Pear lake to get the view we missed the day before. Lily wore about 100 layers on the hike up to the lake, and quickly warmed up when the sun hit us. She left a few clothing items stacked neatly on the side of the trail, to be retrieved later. We got to Pear lake, took many many pictures, and headed back towards Emerald. But alas… the clothing pile was nowhere to be found! David backtracked up the trail to double check while we headed back to camp, and I asked our camp neighbors if they happened to see anyone with a puffer and fleece walking down the trail. They DID happen to see someone with a puffer strapped to their backpack, so when David got back, the decision was made that he’d run down the trail while Lily and I packed up camp and headed down after him.
Luckily, David is insane, so while Lily and I leisurely strolled down the trail, he ran and caught up with the person carrying all of Lily’s layers and retrieved them. It turns out that they were trying to be a good samaritan and were going to deposit the clothing at a “lost and found”, aka a ranger station (in this situation at this time of year, the nearest open ranger station is NOWHERE NEAR THE TRAILHEAD). FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, if you take clothing that you assume has been abandoned on the trail, please, leave it at the trailhead! If David hadn’t caught this person and they proceeded to drop the clothing at a ranger station, we would’ve never known where it was (we also learned the important lesson of never leaving anything unattended on the side of the trail EVER).
At any rate, clothing retrieved and everyone happy, we descended via the Watchtower trail, which has awesome views as it hugs the side of the hill with some rather impressive drop-offs (I can see why it’s closed in winter!). David and I took a slight detour to climb the Watchtower itself, which is a very short and easy “scramble” (if you even want to call it that) from the back side.
We tra-la-laed down the rest of the trail and were back to the car with enough time to show Lily the General Sherman tree. Hooray! I’m pretty sure Lily didn’t totally hate her backpacking experience, at least not enough to be deterred from ever doing it again (plus, she has to get her money’s worth out of her equipment purchases!!!). Mission accomplished?!?!