Sequoia NP Tablelands
Travel-wise 2021 was a weird year for us, to say the least. Aside all the other turmoil in the world, we had to make some hard choices. No weeklong backpack was one. Then some trips we had to schedule for the busiest days of the year, something we usually try to avoid.
First was the three-nighter to Ansel Lake in the Mineral King area over Memorial Day weekend. Great trip.
Then we found out we have to work on July 5 (a Monday), but we'll finish early the Thursday before and we don't have to work Friday. What to do? Of course, all permits were taken everywhere. However, as I mentioned in another post, Sequoia National Park still does walk-up permits the day of.
For years, we kept wanting to explore the Tablelands, the fabled region between the Tokopah Valley (Lodgepole area) and Deadman Canyon, the headwaters of the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. The idea was to see if we could drive up to the park Thursday evening, sleep in the car, then get a permit Friday morning and do three nights in the Tablelands. We hashed out several versions, but the main plan was to start at Wolverton, go to Moose Lake, then over to the Tablelands Proper and back via Pear Lake.
By sheer luck, I found a spot at Lodgepole, our favorite front-country campground, for Thursday night. Somebody must have just cancelled it. I took it right away – at least we din't have to worry about where to sleep, and the wilderness permit office is right there at the visitor center next door. Um, nope. You'll see.
Weather forecast looked good, no chance of rain. Quite the opposite, it was supposed to be unseasonably hot.
Day 0 – L.A. to Lodgepole
Things worked out well. We packed the day before. Backpacks had everything in them and separately we packed our old three-person tent and mattresses for the first night. I finalized everything while Em was still at work in the morning. Leaving town was way less bad than Memorial Day weekend, when we left Friday. There was somewhat heavy traffic, but by 4pm, we were over the Grapevine and then entered the park around 7pm. It was such a nice feeling to see Morro Rock again, glowing in the sunset light. Then past the huge sequoias, always a treat. We arrived at Lodgepole at 8pm. I had the presence of mind to stop by the visitor center and scout for the next morning. Turned out it was the best decision: the visitor center was closed indefinitely, with a sign saying wilderness permits are issued at the Giant Forest Museum (which is about 4 miles back on the 198). Funny thing is, their website still said the Lodgepole visitor center and wilderness desk are open during regular business hours.
This was crucial information, as we planned on me walking here in the morning while Em packs up. We would have lost precious time and possibly the permits.
Lodgepole Campground was as nice as we remembered it, but we both remarked that being amongst all the people feels a bit strange. I think last time we actually stayed here was before the Trans-Sierra trip in 2013. This time the one great thing was the absence of smoke. The forest service issued a total woodfire ban in the entire region, starting that day.
We set up the tent, ate dinner, took a short walk around, then went to sleep so we can get up early in the morning.
Day 1 – Lodgepole – Giant Forest – Wolverton – Moose Lake
Up at 6am. Pack quickly, drive to Giant Forest. Em parked the car, I ran to the wilderness desk's entrance. Two people were already in line and two more came right after. Thank goodness, none of them was looking for the same trailhead, so we had good chances, though theoretically all walk-ups could have been issued the afternoon before.
Em brought me breakfast and we waited and waited. Finally, the ranger came and soon we got our permit. Plan A: enter Wolverton, exit Pear Lake.
About this time, Em realized she forgot her beanie. Not a huge deal, and it wasn't supposed to be very cold, but still. The gift shop also opened and she bought a cheesy Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park-branded beanie. Expensive and flimsy, but better than nothing.
We drove to Wolverton's huge parking lot, about half empty this time, and parked close to the trailhead. It was almost 9am by the time we left.
The first part of the trail is relatively non-descript, heading south-west in the forest, climbing a bit. After 2.3 miles, we passed the junction to the Watchtower and Pear Lake – this is from where we're supposed to return eventually. Somewhat later, there's the turnoff to Pear Lake via the Hump. This route to Pear Lake is shorter than the one via the Watchtower, but it's less scenic and there's a lot more elevation gain.
True to the forecast, it was way warmer than usual. We were happy with the partial shade provided by the sparse forest. In a small meadow, a beautiful sight: a few dozen tiger lilies in bloom, another favorite flower of ours. Soon we got to the bottom of Panther Gap, with the mini-pass clearly visible above. The climb is not steep at all, the trail makes a few longish switchbacks.
We crested the rise and went off-trail to the south by a hundred feet to enjoy the view. The valley of the Kaweah River's Middle Fork lay in front, with a portion of the San Joaquin Valley to the right. Even the Mineral King area is visible from here, off to the left, with a sort of sideways look at Timber Gap. Farewell Gap is obscured, but Vandever Mountain and Florence Peak make its location obvious. I mentioned to Em we should get a much better view of that later as we proceed west.
Which is what we did, contouring on the mountainside, the trail alternating between manzanita groves and thin forest. This was hotter than the other side, with full southern exposure and less shade. The amazing scenery compensated for the heat, though.
Of course, it was impossible not to keep stopping for photos of the view, the wildflowers and even some butterflies and bugs. At one point, we got a glimpse of Morro Rock's top and a sliver of Lake Kaweah in the back.
At 11:30am, we walked past the junction to the High Sierra Trail which at this point meandered about 1,200' lower in the valley. Mehrten Meadow and the junction to Alta Peak trail is a bit past here. This would be a scenic place to camp with deep views on one side and Alta Peak looming opposite, but unfortunately, there was no water.
Alta Meadows is another .9 miles, and that's where we stopped for lunch. The creek, barely flowing, crossed the trail just before the meadow. We got some water, then walked another few hundred yards to the near side and found a few tent sites in the trees, off the trail. A perfect spot to sit down. The main meadow is east of this, large and strange. Much more tilted than most Sierra meadows, it's perched on the side of the hill, somewhat below the tree line and above a steeper drop-off. Gorgeous, of course.
The official trail ends less than half a mile from where we had lunch. We had to traverse east and slowly turn north. From our lunch spot, a beeline would have taken us off trail right away, contouring on the side. However, that part was very overgrown, it made perfect sense to follow the trail a little bit, then abandon it somewhat lower. We started climbing again in a section of the manzanita bushes where it was less dense, working our way through a cornflower field. They were not in bloom yet, but I'm sure they look great later.
It was somewhat slow, but easy going. The vegetation thinned out as we gained some elevation, traversing what you could call the upper reaches of the meadow. In the distance, Timber Gap and Farewell Gap lined up perfectly. I thought I can even make out some snow above the Eagle Lake where we almost got in trouble a month before.
Four more people appeared above us in the thicker parts. They looked like they were trying to hurry, but the route they chose was much harder. We made better progress by being a bit more deliberate. The closest they got was about 150 feet, and we yelled some greetings and route suggestions to each other. They were headed to Moose Lake, too, and two have been there before, but from the other side.
We tried to keep a relatively straight line, aiming for a small depression in the tree-covered spine in front of us. This we reached with ease, then traversed another section of the hillside with even less vegetation, but bigger rocks. Then came a small, ice-carved bowl. We got lucky by entering it at the perfect elevation. To the left (north) it was much steeper and rockier, to the right (south), it was flatter, but more jumbled with big rocks, manzanita, and a deep trough carved by the seasonal flow of water.
A very nice, almost sidewalk-like crack traversed the rocks, taking us exactly where we wanted to go: the upper quarter of the tree group on the far side. From what I saw on satellite pictures, this was a sweet spot to get on the spine above the valley.
That's exactly what happened. We found the faint remnants of the old trail, almost invisible, going up the spine. The south-west side of this hump features a dramatic, very steep drop-off with great views. A bit west-ish, two small lakes are nestled in side of the mountain, the closer (and smaller) one about 300 feet lower.
The faint trail petered out after a few dozen yards, and we were looking for the route. One option was descending to that first lake – this looked relatively easy, but we would have lost a lot of altitude. Climbing higher on the right looked too rocky. We started contouring on the side, looking for the path of least resistance.
Em stayed lower, I ventured higher. It looked easier first, but then it got worse with each step. I was about 60' above Em, getting cliffed out. After descending back to her, we kept contouring, hopping on the boulders or circumnavigating them.
This steep section was short, but it took a while. However, soon we got to an easier part with a somewhat gentler slope and more grassy bits between the rocks. The old trail appeared again, still faint, but leading up to the hump above Moose Lake.
It's been a long day, it was hot, we were at altitude. We took it slow, and about half an hour later we crested the final rise to get our first view of Moose Lake. It looked gorgeous, with very little vegetation on the sides and lots of small islands around the western end. Dramatic clouds enhanced the view, though rain didn't seem likely.
Two other people were on the shore to the west of us, but they were far away we didn't bother each other. We had to find a camp spot. Right up there on the rock, there was room for the tent, but the water, though close, was very hard to access. Descending to the shore was no simple feat, we had to go east before finding a series of steps and ledges that led us down.
We decided to keep going left, but hoped to camp on this side of the lake. The opposite shore looked flatter with way more room, but it was also more exposed to the wind. After wandering around a bit, we got lucky: a perfect spot on the shore, not too close to the water and reasonably sheltered from the wind.
While still warm from the hike, I jumped into the lake to wash off the sweat and the dirt. Oh, did it feel good. Em only waded in a bit, then we both showered quickly, enjoying some late sunshine.
It was time to fish. I couldn't wait to try my new Tenkara rod. I never fly-fished before, and I don't think real fly-fishing is really for me, but the idea of the Tenkara intrigued me: it's a simple, long rod without a reel or any such thing. A fly line with a leader is attached to the tip of the rod and that's it.
After buying a somewhat basic, but ok-looking Tenkara setup, I tried it once in the small swimming pool of our apartment building – with very discouraging results. Needless to say, casting with this is very different from what I was used to. By the pool there wasn't much room and the whole thing felt off. However, I was determined to take it on this trip and see if it works better in real life.
Boy, did it work, indeed. The conditions were perfect. Almost no wind, lots of clearance on every side and hundreds of extremely active trout in the water. I realized I had to cast with way more force than I thought and the fly flew to the almost exact spot I wanted it to. Not that it mattered much, the fish practically fought each other for it. I had one hooked on the very first real cast. As there's no reel, bringing the fish in was strange at first, but I lifted the rod, grabbed the line and lifted the victim onto the rocks. Cast, repeat.
It was exhilarating. I had to throw back a few as they were too small (not a problem with the barbless hook), and in 15 minutes, we had enough nice sized ones. After I cleaned them, Em did her usual magic with garlic powder and soy sauce and we enjoyed them as dinner's first course.
The guys we saw earlier walked by us, then trudged to the other side of the lake and set up. We were so happy not to have gone there.
Sunset was gorgeous. Most clouds dissipated, but enough remained to look stunning in the colorful light of the setting sun, mirrored in the calm waters.
Like most of the time, we had the main dinner in the dark. The air was very warm considering we were at 11,600'.
Day 2 – Moose Lake to High Table Lake
The day's plan was a short hike, only about five miles, but all cross-country on questionable terrain. The alarm went off at 7am and we got up to a partly cloudy morning with a gentle morning breeze stirring the water.
After packing up, we continued on the lakeshore, following the path those other guys took the day before. They set up on the flat peninsula, a totally exposed, but gorgeous spot. We walked by them and waved. Then we saw another tent on the far side, by the outlet, set up right on the rock. It was even more exposed, but also even more scenic, I guess.
We continued on the shore. From maps and satellite, I saw there's a ramp around the north-eastern corner of the lake, leading up. This turned out to be correct, we found it and started climbing, first about 120' to the edge of a small bowl, with great views of the lake. Then turning almost 180° and following a gentle spine north-west, we got up another 150' or so to the side of the next (much bigger bowl). The next section was obvious enough: we contoured a bit around the bowl's western edge, even sitting down on a perfectly sized ledge for an energy bar.
A few minutes later, we emerged on the clifftop, looking down into Table Meadows. This is yet another ice-carved bowl, pretty big, featuring a longish lake and a few groups of trees. Absolutely gorgeous.
We could have downclimbed almost directly into the meadow, but our plan was to go to a lake on the north side of this bowl. The lake is unnamed on all the maps I have, but if anybody has a name for it, please let me know. I'll call it High Table Lake for now.
As the bee flies, the lake was only about a mile away, directly across the bowl. We turned right, following the ridgeline west-north-west. After a few hundred yards, the top became too hard to navigate, it was easier to keep a bit to the far side (right), losing sight of the meadow and dropping a few dozen feet. The going was much easier here, but we still took it slow, exploring. After passing a few small, scenic tarns, surrounded by fresh green grass, the route took us west, curving to the north side of the bowl.
A great show unfolded before our eyes: a mama marmot playing with her offspring. The little one kept pouncing on mom, and they wrestled delightfully. We kept our distance, not wanting to disturb them. This went on for quite a few minutes, but then mom had enough and gently shooed the child away and started grooming herself. The kid came closer to us, checking out these two strange creatures, but it wasn't even close to as curious as one we encountered on Colby Pass. I remember one of the two small marmots there almost climbed on our boots, it was us who had to shoo it away.
We were now on the far side, getting a great view from where we first crested the rise. The easiest direct downclimb route to the meadow was very well visible, the same one we scouted from above.
Continuing west, we crossed a few more grassy areas and passed some tiny tarns. It was gorgeous. Weaving our way through the obstacles and negotiating small ups and downs, High Table Lake soon came into view.
The lake is about a third of a mile long, its shape is very irregular, following the jumbled terrain. It consists of two parts, the north-eastern one smaller, shallower and buggier. A very narrow strip of water leads downstream to the south-western side, a bit deeper and with a relatively big island in the middle. There's also a small tarn about 100 yards from the southern shore.
Like always, first we had to figure out where to camp. There were many possibilities, and we were intent on find a good spot as we planned on staying two nights. I realized the narrow part between the two lake sections could be crossed by hopping a few rocks, so I even went over there to check it out. However, the southern shore was much better. We selected a very nice area with great views of the lake, flat rocks nearby to sit on, and very easy access to the water. It was somewhat breezy, but tolerably so.
As soon as we got to pitching the tent and eating lunch, a few local marmots appeared, curious and friendly. Almost too friendly. We didn't give them any food, of course, but they did what all high-mountain marmots do: they nibbled the dirt where we peed. As I mentioned this several times in other articles, this might sound gross, but it's completely normal, the animals in the high country are chronically deprived of minerals and they get it from wherever they can. That's why they chew on the straps of backpacks and hiking poles: they want the salt from your sweat.
We took some photos of the marmots, but left them alone and sat on the rocks, appreciating the opportunity to observe them close up.
I was very stoked to do some more fishing with my amazing new rod, but unfortunately, we realized quickly that this lake is fishless. I think they removed all trout from the Tablelands. Usually they do this to protect the native frog species. Yosemite has a large program like that, too.
Clouds came up, but most of them were to the north-west and it looked like might even rain a few miles away. We got spared, though. Around 3pm, we went for a walk on the south shore. We spied some man-made things in the water. First we thought it's junk, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be scientific equipment placed on the lakebed in a few feet of water. I can only guess they're sensors to measure the water quality.
Then we climbed the big hump on the south side of the lake's outlet. This little hill is about 100' tall and it provides excellent views in all directions. It was beautiful, with nobody else in sight. From this perfect vantage point, we scouted the best way to go down to Tableland Meadow, the spine to the north for a possible climb, and finally, the route we'll eventually take down towards Pear Lake.
After descending from the hill, we crossed the outlet and circumnavigated the lake from the north, exploring the boggier and greener far side before returning to the tent.
I felt weak and tired, mostly from sleeping badly for a few nights before the trip. A nap was in order, splayed on a nice, flat rock. The marmots returned, and Em kept taking pictures of them. Though I couldn't really sleep, the rest was very refreshing. However, the wind became stronger, and we decided to move. Em found another spot, about halfway between the lake and the tarn to the south. The view was not as perfect, but it was in the lee of the hump's east side and not very far away from the water.
Thus, we decided to move. The wind was too strong for us to carry the tent assembled, but even so, the feat was completed in less than half an hour.
The air was warm, way warmer than usual, and despite the late hour – it was 6:30pm – I went for a swim in the tarn. Most of it was relatively sheltered from the wind and its shallow water warmed up nicely during the day. We found that there's additional equipment in the tarn, some sensor or emitter even protruding from the water. I could have swum up to it for closer examination, but it didn't want to risk damaging anything.
After showering, we decided to do laundry with the usual division of labor: me hauling the water in the bear canister and Em doing the washing. There was less than half an hour of sunlight left, but we knew the clothes will easily finish drying the next day.
The wind died down somewhat, most clouds dissipated, and a beautiful sunset came upon us.
A nice Indian curry for dinner, followed by another walk around the lake, enjoying the evening. It was still very warm, over 50°, very unusual for this elevation in the Sierra.
We secured everything from the marmots as best as we could, then went to bed. There was no point in getting up early, but we knew the sun will hit the tent early, waking and baking us.
Day 3 – High Table Lake to Table Meadows, Tableland Crest and back
Sure enough, at 6:30am the tent became bright and hot as an oven. It took less than a minute. It would have been nice to snooze for another bit, but no luck. We got out and put on sunscreen, but then had a very lazy morning, eating breakfast and watching the marmots.
After packing up a few items, we finally left around 10am, walking down towards Table Meadows. It was absolutely stunning, first descending on the slabs, then between a few trees, navigating a boggy area with small tarns and the creek's numerous braids.
The lake is another few dozen feet down from the main meadow, surrounded by trees on one side and steep rocks on the other.
As I was still hoping the catch fish, we brought the whole setup to cook them. Alas, no luck again, this lake was fishless, too. We sat on the beautiful shore for a little bit, ate a snack, but then decided to go back to camp for lunch. On purpose, we took a different route back, keeping an eye open for bears or other interesting animals.
The only mammals we saw were the guys from the day before, descending the crossing the meadow, headed for Pear Lake. Most were too far away, but we briefly spoke to one of them and he sounded like they're having a great time.
After lunch, it was time for the next plan of the day: to climb the crest to the north, see if we get a glimpse of the Sierra's true interior.
We left around 1:30pm, first ascending about 300' on a relatively steep, but still very easy incline to the next "step", a somewhat inclined, plateau-like expanse, about half a mile wide. This led to another plateau, much more level. We kept right, north-east, walking to the edge of the plateau, around some big rocks to get a view. Oh, my! Talk about mountains is all directions. After identifying a few peaks and canyons, we walked up to the other ridgeline, scrambling a bit on the rocks to get another view, this one more like north-west. More mountains and mountains, with an (as far as I know) unnamed lake right below, the cirque's crown adorned with huge spiky rock outcroppings. A visual feast, to say the least. Some more light scrambling ensued, taking us closer to those spikes so we can get a dizzying view down their side plunging into the cirque.
The sky was almost clear, with some big clouds visible only all they way to the north.
It was time to head back, descending back towards our lake, but much further west from where we ascended. The grade was relatively gentle, but all sorts of gullies and large cracks made straight-line travel impossible (not that it was a goal).
About half an hour later, we were down by the lake's west end, checking out some more weather equipment, mounted on a tall pole. If I'm not mistaken, the data is not sent by radio, but via a small, solar-powered microwave transmitter pointed down the valley. I'll have to find someone at the Park Service and learn some more about these setups.
Food was in order, meaning we ate our usual afternoon soup. The weather was somewhat breezy, but still unseasonably hot. The shower, after sitting in the sun all day, had great, almost warm water, so after a quick rinse in the tarn, we showered again, then just lounged on the rocks and walked around a bit. The wind died down, evening was unbelievably serene with clear skies, silence and the colors getting warmer by the minute, only to turn cool again right after sunset.
The colors turned cool all right, but the temperature did not. Even at 9pm, I was still only wearing a windbreaker. Em put on her puffy jacket for a bit just so she can say she didn't lug it around for nothing.
We knew the following day was going to be long, so bedtime was early, at least for us: we managed to turn ourselves in at 9:30pm.
Day 4 – High Table Lake to Wolverton and back to L.A.
The alarm woke us at 6am to a windless morning, the temperature only 50°. "Our" marmots were out in full force again, of course, so eating breakfast and packing up was punctuated by more quick photo sessions. Despite all this, we somehow managed to pull ourselves together and leave at 8am. Yes, I have to always acknowledge: we're super-slow in the mornings.
As scouted the day before, we went to the lake's outflow, crossed it to the north side, then started descending on the slabs. It was medium steep. The other side is much worse.
A few minutes later we were down in the valley (or more like a narrow meadow), crossed the creek again, and continued downwards on the much gentler terrain past some exquisite little tarns and groups of trees. There was no trail, but the route was very easy to follow. It took only an hour to get to the point where we had to bear left.
The creek (actually a river, as this is the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River) on the right becomes very steep here with cascades. I think a non-technical descent, at least on the first part, wouldn't be very hard, but then one would have to climb back up.
There's an obvious hump here with an easy saddle on its left (south) side. We went up to the saddle first, but hurry or not, the hump's top first to get a nice view of the place. It was worth it. Looking back, we could see where we came from, in the opposite direction, all the way down into the San Joaquin Valley with the Watchtower prominently in front. Plus, the vantage point was great to confirm the obvious contouring route up the side of the canyon towards Pear Lake.
Which is what we did, descending from the hump, then walking south on the slabs, trying not to lose too much elevation. The going was easy, we just had to watch our footing. Less than 20 minutes later we emerged just below the lake, walking past the restroom. Compared to most backcountry toilets, this is a proper building with three stalls. No surprise here, given the enormous popularity and easy access.
Lots and lots of people were around, way too many for our taste. Some set up right by the water in a hugely illegal place. We even told them to better move before the ranger catches and tickets them. They pretended they didn't know (yeah, right), but moved camp.
It was time for an early lunch and as the weather was already hot, for a nice dip in the lake. I stripped down naked, giving a bit of a shock to two bucket-list girls taking selfies for their Tiktagram (sic). Em just waded in up to her knees. Then we sat on the warm rocks in the shade, eating, enjoying the view.
Despite our efforts to keep the break short, it took over half an hour, but finally, we put our packs on and left, taking up the trail on the west side of the canyon. A few minutes later, we spied the ranger station and ski hut, down in the trees. We keep planning on coming here in the winter, but it never worked out so far.
The impossibly scenic trail contours into the next canyon, passing between Aster and Emerald Lakes. The latter is also very popular, somewhat like a PCT/JMT tent city (we call them zoos) with dozens of people. Well, it's what it is. Heather Lake was next, small and tucked away in the trees. At least camping is not allowed in this neighborhood.
Here the trail splits, one going left over the Hump, one going right on the side of the canyon towards the Watchtower. As I mentioned before, the first one is shorter with a lot more elevation gain, the second is somewhat longer with almost no change in elevation. We've never been on this trail because each time we've been up there, it was closed for the winter. With good reason, it's almost Grand Canyon-like narrow, following the side of the canyon very high up with sheer drop -offs on the side. I'd say it's one of the most scenic trails in the park.
This section terminates in the Watchtower, the famous rock protruding about 1,500' above the Tokopah Valley. We stopped for a quick photo break at the base, then pressed on. It was getting hotter and hotter, but at least the shade in the forest gave us some reprieve.
Not much after 1pm, we were back at the car in Wolverton, bracing ourselves for the drive home. The CA-99 to I-5 connector was bad and there was a lot of traffic up the Grapevine, but just like on the way out, it was not as horrible as the Memorial Day weekend.
This trip will always be memorable for several reasons, including the very successful first trial of the Tenkara rod, the super-cool marmots, and most of all, the unbelievable scenery. Climbing the ridge on the north side of the Tablelands was the best.
On the downside, I'll also never forget the heat and how much it sapped our energy to make short days seem way longer than they really were. This was a valuable lesson, already informing some trip decisions later in similar circumstances. The way the weather is changing, I'm afraid this will be the new normal.