The trail to Monarch Lakes begins at Sawtooth Trailhead in Sequoia National Park's scenic Mineral King Valley. The hike up to Lower Monarch Lake is a great day hike option that climbs steadily up one of the valley's west facing slopes. The trail passes through a diverse mix of Sierra terrain and ecology, from creekside cascades to old-growth forest to alpine lakes, and it offers stellar views over the Mineral King's valley and peaks.
Climbing 2,600 feet over 4.2 miles, the trail begins a steep ascent with switchbacks near the Monarch Creek drainage and passes Black Wolf Falls before encountering a junction with Timber Gap. Head right at the junction and follow signs for Monarch Lake. Continue up to Groundhog Meadow where the trail crosses Monarch Creek. After the meadow the trail switchbacks through clusters of old-growth red fir forest before hitting a second junction, this time for Crystal Lake. Stay left for Monarch Lake. The trail’s steep grade soon flattens as it rounds a rocky corner into a talus-lined basin below with views opening up to Sawtooth Pass and the high point on the ridgeline, Sawtooth Peak. The trail contours around the basin's southern slopes before crossing Monarch Creek a second time and emerging at Lower Monarch Lake.
Set in a picturesque alpine granite bowl, Lower Monarch Lake lies at the base of Sawthooth Peak’s west slope. Rising above the lake’s southern edge is Mineral Peak, a popular scramble for peak baggers. On the far shore of the lake is the drainage for Upper Monarch Lake, where a cascade can be seen flowing down the granite bowl into the lower lake. Interestingly, the upper lake is dammed and used by Southern California Edison for downstream power generation.
Lower Monarch Lake offers a picturesque lunch spot before returning to the trailhead or scenic rest stop if you are continuing up the strenuous 1,200-foot climb to Sawtooth Pass to access Sawtooth Peak or Columbine Lake. Backcountry campsites are available, as is a vault toilet. Beware of leaving unaccompanied food out at Lower Monarch Lake as the resident marmots are far from shy.
Upper Monarch Lake can be accessed via a trail leading up from the east shore of Lower Monarch Lake.
• Mineral King Road, which provides access to Mineral King Valley, is typically open between end of May through October. Check the park's road conditions page for status.
• Backcountry permits and bear canisters are required for overnight trips in Sequoia National Park. Both are available at the Mineral King ranger station during peak months (June through September). If you are heading out in spring or fall, self-issued permits can be obtained outside the ranger station and bear canisters can be rented from numerous outdoor gear shops in Visalia, Fresno, and elsewhere. Be prepared to see rangers, as they are out and about on trails.
• Marmots have posed a serious problem for a few unlucky hikers who park their cars at Mineral King trailheads in the late spring and early summer months. They have been known to crawl up into engine compartments and chew on everything from electrical wiring to hoses, disabling some vehicles. This is thought to occur due to a lack of salt content in the Marmot’s natural food source until later in summer, and the threat seems to decrease after mid-July. To avoid this potential issue, either park your car near the ranger station a mile from the Sawtooth Trailhead (marmots seem to stay higher up the valley), or wrap the lower third of your vehicle in a tarp diaper, which helps prevent marmots from climbing into the engine compartment via wheel wells. For the latter method, you’ll need a tarp large enough to allow you to drive onto it; you then wrap the tarp above the wheel wells around the entire vehicle. Secure in a diaper fashion with lanyard or rope.