One of the reasons why I love Mineral King Valley is for day hiking! Yeah, you could say that about the whole of Sequoia National Park, but there is something to be said about the collection of hikes that this area has to offer. Since this is a valley, each hike is almost strictly uphill. However, nearly all of them end at beautiful alpine lakes! So which lake do you pick?
There are seven different lake hikes in Mineral King Valley, and all of them are reputedly beautiful. But if you have limited time, you should definitely pick this hike. Not only is the scenery magnificent, the hike is relatively easier compared to other hikes in the area.
4.7 miles one way (out and back, 9.4 miles total)
6 hours with breaks
• Well established trail
• Vault toilet at the trailhead
• There is an option to hike another 0.5 miles to Upper Monarch Lake, though the trail becomes much less-established.
• From Upper Monarch Lake, you can continue another 1.3 miles to reach Sawtooth Pass. This path is all scree and not for the faint of heart.
• This hike is part of the “Mineral King Loop,” a 27-mile backpacking trip that includes Glacier Pass, Sawtooth Pass, and the Big Five Lakes area. You will probably see a bunch of backpackers, some of which may be camping at Monarch Lake. Needless to say, this trip is high on my bucket list. Next summer hopefully.
The hike to Lower Monarch Lake is easily split up into 3 sections.
The first section of the trail has you climbing up the face of a hill. Long, gentle switchbacks carve their way into the fully exposed side, which you can see from afar. Other hikers may be visible, dotting the hillside as the trail climbs. My hiking partners and I gulped (kiddingly), and exchanged “…on second thought” glances. But seriously, don’t let seeing this discourage you. While steep, this beginning section is only about a mile and not as hard as it would seem. And as you climb, the view of the valley gets better with each step.
After a mile or so, you reach a sign that points the way to Sawtooth Pass, which you will follow.
The next section towards Lower Monarch Lake takes you through an old-growth red fir forest, which offers partial shade and a gentler incline. At this point, when we were playing see-saw with a couple of young, determined, male backpackers on the trail, I suddenly heard a weird hooting sound. Was this an owl? No. It was an alpine chicken, also known as, a Sooty Grouse (as one of the backpackers, a know-it-all, snootily told me). Unfortunately, you meet the occasional backpacking-bro on the trail. You know, that kind that won’t stop talking about gear and being “lightweight” etc. But I digress. Moving on.
The last part comes after you break through the treeline. Once you round the bend, you start traversing a rock-laden canyon towards Lower Monarch Lake. This section is relatively flat. Loose rocks cover the cliffside above and continue below, which might make you feel like a rockslide will happen. Do not toss one pebble down the cliff. One of my partners did so, and I swore I heard a deep rumble. And no, I not being overly paranoid. I’ve seen a rockslide avalanche happen on the cliffs above Eagle Lake.
Nevertheless, proceed with caution and enjoy the views.
Arriving at Lower Monarch Lake is nothing short of glorious. Blue-green shallow areas greet your arrival, where you may see small fish swimming around. Colorful alpine plants line the path around the lake which also borders a group of large boulders. I saw a cheeky little marmot sunbathing on one of the rocks, eyeing my daypack as I dumped it on the ground.
Thankfully, we didn’t get hit with a ton of bugs and were able to eat lunch without a problem. I was sad to leave, but the clouds were coming in. Though I had adequate rain gear, neither of my other partners brought any. Nevertheless, I really hurried down the trail, and we managed to make it back before torrential downpour.
Hiking to Lower Monarch Lake really rewards you for climbing nearly 5 miles uphill. Even though there is the option to travel further to Upper Monarch Lake and Sawtooth Pass, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything, and let me say – my fear of missing out on any hike is pretty substantial. Lower Monarch Lake was spectacular enough to call it a final destination.