The Watchtower is a popular trail in Sequoia National Park in California along The Lakes Trail. The trail offers beautiful views of alpine forests, wildlife, meadows, and granite valleys and mountains. The Watchtower is a great trail for those people in search of a great day hike in Sequoia National Park with moderate difficulty.
Hiking The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail
For those people in search of an incredible day hike within Sequoia National Park, The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail is one that doesn’t disappoint. The hike to The Watchtower begins at the Wolverton Trailhead and ends up at The Watchtower – an amazing vantage point approximately two-thirds through The Lakes Trail. The Watchtower itself, is a large granite peak that sticks out above Tokopah Valley below where many people go to view the Tokopah Falls from another access point in the park. The trail travels through alpine meadows, along granite ledges, and for those that want to continue, ends up at four alpine lakes suitable for camping at two of the four lakes with the exception being Aster and Heather Lake.
Hiking to The Watchtower takes just over seven miles in total and is part of a longer trail that leads to four different lakes. While the lakes are a good goal, nothing should be taken away from those who just want to reach The Watchtower. The title gets its name from the view of the tower in Tokopah Valley below where a prominent granite peak looks down on the valley. The Watchtower is an amazing place to stop and have a lunch to admire the views, pose for some pictures, and look across the valley to Mount Sillman which is just over 11,000 feet in elevation.
Completing The Lakes Trail past The Watchtower to Heather Lake will make for a great hike, about eight miles in total. To finish the entire Lake Trail to view all four lakes – Emerald, Aster, and Pear Lake – the total distance will be just over twelve miles. The Lake Trail is one of the most popular overnight trails in Sequoia National Park. Those wanting to camp will need an overnight permit which has some stiff competition for this particular trail. Anyone doing this trail out in back in the same day won’t need to worry about an overnight permit. To get more information about overnight permits for this trail, please check with the National Park Service.
Watchtower In Winter Months
The Watchtower is not accessible during the winter months as long as there is snow on the ground. However, the four lakes are still accessible via The Hump Trail. The Hump Trail is a fork in the trail from the same Wolverton Trailhead. Please see more on the best time of year to hike The Watchtower below.
On A Personal Note
While originally attempting this trail, the goal was to end up at Heather Lake – the first of a series of four lakes along The Lake Trail. Unfortunately, once we reached The Watchtower, inclement weather forced us to turn around. We had attempted this hike during the middle of a summer day and thunderstorms developed in the internal slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The storms caused rain and high winds where we were located. Once at The Watchtower the trail transforms from alpine forests and meadows to mostly open granite. The thought of being struck by lightning simply wasn’t worth the risk to continue along the trail.
Shortly past The Watchtower on the way to heather lake there is also a portion of the trail that was blasted out of the hard granite rock. Wet weather can make for slipper footing and a fall along the ledge would cause someone to fall to their death some two thousand feet in the Tokopah Valley below. We actually ran into a park ranger at the top of The Watchtower who advised against crossing across the ledge given the wet weather and high winds. We hope to return to the trail to complete going to Heather Lake one day.
Have you done this trail recently? Please share any pictures or trail updates in the comments below.
- Overall Difficulty: 65%
- Overall Views: 90%
The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail Quick Facts:
- Elevation: 9,119 feet.
- Elevation Gain: 1,759 feet.
- Estimated Distance: 7.4 miles.
- My Actual Distance: 7.4 miles.
- Estimated Time: 5-7 hours.
- My Moving Time: 3 hours 57 minutes.
The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail Directions:
Open in maps. Getting to the trailhead for The Watchtower is fairly simple. Parking is quite ample and is within The Wolverton Parking Lot where there is also a ski area and large picnic area. The main driving directions will be off of Wolverton Road which is a turnout off Generals Highway. Cost is the price of admission to the park. An America The Beautiful Pass will also work. Google Maps points out that the trailhead here is called the Alta Peak – that is somewhat of a half-truth. There is a sign in the parking lot that calls this the Wolverton Trailhead. This trailhead is the beginning of many destinations: the lakes, The Watchtower, and Alta Peak being a few of them. Regardless of what you want to call it, begin your hike here.
The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail Pictures:
Who The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail Is For:
Novice Hikers: This trail might be difficult for novice hikers. To reach The Watchtower it’s just over seven miles in total and twelve to complete the entire Lakes Trail. The elevation gain is steady so please be sure to have enough endurance to hike up from the Wolverton Parking Lot to the Watchtower. Wear suitable footwear, be prepared for changing weather conditions, bring two to three liters of water, and food. Completing the distance to The Watchtower will be worth the reward and a great way to build hiking experience for those who have some minor hiking experience under their belt.
For novice hikers doing this trail, I’d recommend going with someone advanced to navigate the trail. However, if you’re novice and doing it without someone more advanced, research this trail well beforehand. Don’t attempt this trail during the winter if there is snow on the ground. Going past The Watchtower might give people dizziness while traveling across the carved out ledge and especially those with a fear of heights. Check the weather before heading out to make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the conditions.
Advanced Hikers: For advanced hikers, this is a perfect day hike. Completing the entire lakes trail will give advanced hikers an ambitious day hike while just going to The Watchtower will be a nice challenge.
Expert Hikers: For expert hikers, this is a great trail. The distance will be more challenging than the elevation gain. If you’re wanting to increase your hiking experience, do the entire lakes trail. If you have ever thought of doing some overnight backpacking, this would be a great trail to attempt. The camping spots at the lakes feature a compostable bathroom, bear lockers, and given the lakes, there is also a source of drinking water.
It’s always a good idea to be aware of what type of hiking level you’re at.
Best Time Of Year To Hike The Watchtower via The Lakes Trail:
Late spring, summer, and early fall are undoubtedly the best time of year to hike this trail. In fact, during the winter months access to The Watchtower is closed and passing The Watchtower to the lakes is near impossible. Just past The Watchtower is a ledge that was blasted out of the side of the granite. A fall here would lead to your death a few thousand feet below. Ice on this portion of the trail makes for incredibly slippery conditions. In fact, hikers have died at this portion of the trail. Because of the elevation of The Watchtower, winter-like conditions can persist longer into the spring than other parts of the park lower in elevation. Don’t even try to attempt to cross this part during the winter. For more experienced hikers wanting to view the lakes during the winter, take The Hump Trail which bypasses The Watchtower altogether.
Despite the high elevation, summer months can be particularly hot in the exposed sun and with sun’s energy reflecting off of the rocks. Wear appropriate clothing for both the heat and cold. Depending on the time of day, year, and weather, layers would be appropriate. This is a type of trail where checking the weather forecast is a must. Winter conditions can persist late into the year and can begin early in fall. Thunderstorms can pop up during the summer months. The last thing you want is to be caught in weather that you weren’t prepared for.
Summer is going to be the most beautiful time of year at this trail with budding new growth, wildflowers, and visible wildlife.