>Rae Lakes Loop
On a recent trip back to my homestate of Florida I was kayak fishing the beautiful Mosquito Lagoon with an old friend of mine. Passing the time in conversation I mentioned to him that if he came out to visit me in California I would “blow his mind” with an adventure of epic proportions. As I imagined he would, my friend (Doug) instantly replied,
“When should I show up?”
The game was afoot. I told him July would be a great month to show up. I was planning on the snow being fairly melted off by then and hoping to show him the amazing high sierras.
Little did I imagine that while I was enjoying a 85F day on the sunny flats of FL, the mountains back home were getting hit with record breaking amounts of snowfall.
Around May I started researching a trip. I stumbled upon a route I had been eyeballing ever since I first moved out to CA and got into backpacking. The Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. I first read about this loop on Kevin Gong’s site, highly recommended well organized site. [url]http://kevingong.com/Hiking/RaeLakesLoop.html[/url]
Rae Lakes Loop is 50 mile long loop that climbs from 5035Ft at Roads End (trailhead) all the way up to ~12,000ft at the top of Glen Pass. It is considered one of the most scenic backpacking trips in all of the Sierras.
Normally in July the snow has mainly melted off and this hike does not pose any real technical threats aside from the elevation climb. However this was not a normal year, snow was still reported to be holding anywhere above 8000ft, we were headed to 12,000Ft! I scoured the internet for any information I could find, unfortunately there was very little out there. A few hikers had made it to Glen Pass and turned around, high swift river crossings and deep snow seemed to be the only info I could glean. Undeterred I decided to stick with our plans, knowing if things got too crazy we could always turn around and head back the way we came.
Bears are very active along this loop and bear canisters are mandatory gear. After wrestling with the massive bastards of canisters that the park rents to hikers I decided to purchase my own. I picked up 2 Bare Boxer canisters which luckily arrived 2 days before our trip. I also wanted to trim down my baseweight before this hike, I ditched my awesome Marmot Limelight 2P (~5lb) in favor a lightweight Tarptent DoubleRainbow (~2.5lb)
Doug’s plane landed at SFO around 945AM on July 2nd, 2011. I scooped him up and we headed back to my place in Orinda for some last minute packing and weight-culling of Doug’s pack. I think we trimmed at least 5Lbs of gear out. After the packs were set we loaded up the Jeep and hit the road.
Doug was getting a good tour of the wild and wacky climates of Northern California as we left airport (75F), headed into SF (55F), headed to Orinda (85F), then eventually made it to Fresno (106F!) then all the way up to Kings Canyon (75F). ..And he thought I was crazy when I told him to pack for everything from freezing snow temps to scorching desert blazes.
We wound up the 180 crossing the central valley before heading up into the Sierra mountains. Eventually arriving at the Ranger station for Kings Canyon.
I finally broke down and purchased an “America the Beautiful” annual pass for the all US park systems for $80. I figure I have spent at least $100+ or so in the past months on various park admission. It was a painless process, just pay for it and receive the card, no paperwork nonsense. Highly recommended if you spend as much time as we do bouncing around our Nations parks.
The day was getting late as we wound our way up the mountain and eventually back down Kings Canyon headed toward Cedar Grove. The road turned from deep woods into a gorgeous huge canyon lined with high sierra peaks, the sunset lighting was perfect, we pulled over and took a few quick snaps before heading further into the canyon.
Knowing we weren’t going to make it to the trailhead in time to hike to a campspot before nightfall we started to scope out some of the “established” campgrounds. Well… good luck trying to find a campspot on 4th of July weekend. Every single campsite was full to the gills with weekend warriors, BBQ grills, and boomboxes. No thanks.
As we continued our search for a campsite I spotted a bear meandering through the woods from the car. We flipped a quick Uturn and jumped out to snap a few pictures. It was a momma bear and her 2 cubs. Unfortunately the sun was going down and they were too far away for a flash shot.
crappy bear pic
I followed them for a bit and noticed they were making a beeline up towards the road and looked as if they were planning to cross. Thinking this would be the perfect time for a photo-op I stood right in the middle of the road and waited. Sure enough up come the bears to the roads edge, Mom bear went to cross, when out of NOWHERE a car comes screaming down the road. I swear to God this guy did not slow down or brake at all, even with a man and a damn bear standing in the middle of the street. I freaked out thinking he was going to plow the bear right in front of me. Somehow he managed to miss the bear and just kept right on going. Now I am standing in the middle of the road, Mom on one side of the street, 2 cubs on the other. This is a bad situation. It took about 1/4 of second before I turned tail and hauled ass doing the 100 yard dash in .0002 seconds. I was planning on swan diving into the down window of the Jeep however a quick running glance over the shoulder showed that would not be necessary as the cubs were peacefully crossing the street to join Mom. Back in the car after calming down a bit I started to look through my camera to see if I got any decent bear pics, too my surprise I found this one which I guess I snapped right as this asshole almost hit the bear.
Looks like everyone is OK
We found a safe spot on the side of the road to park and hiked down a bit to a nice flat area near a small side-stream of the Kings River to camp for the night.
Woke up and broke down camp, headed down to the Roads End station and grabbed our permit. We were on the trail around 9AM. I encountered a hiker who was coming out of the trail.
He said streams were very high, some thigh to waist deep. Snow was also very deep and slushy. He looked exhausted. He was also equipped with cramp-ons and an iceaxe. 2 pieces of equipment we did not bring. Hmmm… Well lets cross that bridge when we get there.
Heading up the Paradise valley trail we mingled with tons of day hikers as I expected, it is 4th of July weekend after all. The trail sticks close to the Kings River which was RAGING with all the snowmelt and apparently a recent rain (oh boy!)
We eventually made it up to Mist Falls and stopped for a snack, the falls were certainly living up to there name soaking everything in sight.
Pressing on further up the trail we ran into a few hikers coming down from the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) Like most long-distance hikers they were eager to chat with anyone who would talk to them. They told us wild tales of bears, rattlesnakes, lost trails, swift rivers, and slushy deep snow crossing. It was almost as if they were encouraging us to give up already. One guy just about lost it when he realized we were planning to do it without best hiking poles. NO POLES!? He kept screaming as we marched further up the trail, undettered by PCT naysayers.
About 5 miles up the trail we are climbing down a set of rock stairs, Lauren in front. She steps over a step when I hear the distinct sound of rattler. I look down and see a 2-3ft rattlesnake wedged up next to the rock I am mid-stride coming down. My body instantly freezes up, too late to go backwards I bonzai jump about 200ft forward clearing the snake and tumbling into Lauren. I turn around in time to see the snake slither off into the rocks. Doug carefully steps to the other side of the trail and we continue on. Hmmm.. Maybe those PCT guys arent so crazy after all. We were all a little more observant of our footing after that.
We pressed on, stopping for a snack at Middle Paradise Valley, beautiful area where the river spread out and slowed down. Unfortunately it was also swarming with mosquitoes, who enjoyed a nice lunch feasting on Laurens uncovered arms and back. We also ran into a ranger who asked if we were “attempting” the Rae Lakes loop. We told her “But of course!” and Doug proceeded to swing around and smack me square in the face with his bear canister. Haha! Ranger gave us a the “your doomed” look and headed down the trail.
Hoping for a campsite a little less buggy we headed up to Upper Paradise Valley, a few established campsites were setup here and we found one tucked away from the other 2 backpackers who were also calling it a night. We setup camp as the sun was going down. Some deer decided we picked a nice spot as well and came walking right up into camp as we sat around. They were close enough to slap on the ass. Did not seem to mind being around humans at all.
ps: when you see it you will shit bricks
We boiled up some water and cooked up a delicious freezer bag meal of Salmon Pesto Pasta, Lauren is quickly becoming a gourmet backcountry chef, she is always surprising me with the amazing meals she conjurs up for us to enjoy on the trail. The sun dropped behind the mountain, just as soon as the sun dipped, the mercury started to fall fast. Out came the thermals and down. I believe it probably hit around 50F or so that night. Elevation ~7500 Elevation gain: ~2000ft Mileage: 12 miles
I awoke the next morning to Doug and Lauren up and about prepping coffee. Doug actually stopped by Starbucks before we got to Kings Canyon and had some beans freshly ground, he has a cool single cup MSR coffee filter which was worth its weight in gold on the trail. Downed a cup of joe and some apple+cinnamon oatmeal, broke camp, and got back on the trail.
Trail crews have somewhat recently built a bridge over the Kings River here which was great. The river was way too big and fast to even attempt any sort of crossing, from looking at some older maps it appears you used to have to rely on downed trees jamming up the river to make it across. Thanks trail crew!
After crossing over the bridge we were met with 3 different trails, none following the map or the GPS. After a bit of route finding we determined we actually need to stick close to the rock-wall next to the Kings River (the maps follow the old logjam river crossing method/trail) and scramble through some downed trees to find the trail. This area of trail was extremely torn up, down trees everywhere. Lots of belly crawling, walking down huge down trees, pushing through brush. It wasnt too bad and ended after about 1/4-1/2 mile.
We were now following the Woods Creek trail. This trail follows Woods Creek (suprise, suprise…) up out of Paradise Valley, we were walking through some beautiful pine forest with intermixed aspen trees.
The trail climbed for a while before opening up into the beautiful expansive Castle Domes meadow.
We ambled through the meadow enjoying the scenery, stopped to filter some water. We heard a low rumble off in the distance. Thunder! I have not heard any thunder since I moved out west almost 1.5 years ago. I had heard rumor of afternoon storms being fairly common in the high sierras. The sky did look a bit grey but nothing to worry about. We pressed on, admiring all the beautiful yellow flowers (Wooly Sunflower?) soon receiving a small sprinkling that was over in about 10 minutes.
We also ran into another couple who were hiking the loop in the opposite direction. They advised us there were some large river crossings coming up, the female was pretty shook up saying “Please tell me no more river crossings” We advise her there were a few but nothing too rough and the trail was pretty smooth sailing back down to Roads End. They seemed relieved and continued on down the trail.
We soon encountered our first decent stream crossing, while not too deep (a little over shin) it was fairly fast moving. Picking through the rocks slowly with my feet facing forward into the current I was able to get across. The water was so cold my feet almost instantly went numb. When I reached the other side I was walking on pins and needles kicking the air trying to get some blood flow to my toes. OK, so that was supposed to be the “easy” crossing… I think.
Soon enough we encountered a junction sign for the John Muir Trail, we turned off of the Woods Creek trail and headed down the JMT. We quickly arrived at Woods Creek itself where an awesome suspension bridge has been constructed for crossing the creek. We played around on the bridge for a while. The sign says only one at a time but I couldn’t resist running about and swaying the bridge scaring the crap out of Lauren while she was crossing.
There were a few JMT/PCT hikers camped out across the bridge, seemed everyone was asleep so we pressed on.
After about 2 more miles we came to a much much wider and much faster water crossing. This was the one we had been hearing about. The river was about 25ft wide and running extremely fast. You could not see bottom to tell where to place your feet or your depth. A prior hiker that past told us not to bother searching for a safer place to cross.
There is a large waterfall upstream and nothing but deep rapids downstream. Doug was equipped with hiking poles and with the famous last words of “It ain’t gettin’ any shallower!” he stepped off into the river. The water inched further and further up his body until he was thigh deep in the rapids. He slowly picked his way across and I watched him teeter and tumble a few times almost losing his balance and going into the drink. Lauren and I repeating OH SHIT over and over on the bank. Luckily he was able to recover
using his hiking poles and eventually made it to the otherside.
With Doug safely across it was up to Lauren and I to make it over. We were going up and down the stream bank hoping to find someplace easier. No luck. There was about a zillion mosquitos as well eating us alive on the bank. At the last minute we grabbed two sturdy sticks and started into the water.
This was scary stuff. Lauren was right behind me following my lead as I slowly attempted to find decent footing under the rapids. With every step my feet were getting picked up in the swift current and pulled out from underneath me. I quickly learned to ensure I always had at least 1 foot and the stick planted or both feet planted before attempting to move at all. The water is freezing cold and soon you could not feel your feet whatsoever. We slowly inched our way across the river bottom, occasionally getting a foot trapped underneath rocks that were being swept downstream. Lauren lost her footing and almost started to go over, luckily she was right next to me and I grabbed her and got her stabilized before she could fall. After what seemed like an eternity we reached the shallows of the other side. SUCCESS! We did a mini-victory dance on the bank dumping loads of adrenaline and trying vainly to bring some life back into our feet.
Back on trail, we climbed higher still headed up towards Dollar Lake. The trail soon opened up out of the trees and we were surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges once more. Our first view of the high sierras and Fin dome
A little further up the trail we ran into another river crossing. This one was very gentle however it was deep. Doug again took the lead on this one and I saw all the life drain out of his face as the water came up and over his sensitive man parts. He made it across and yelled that he could feel his body starting to go into shock from the cold water toward the end. Lauren and I hiked our packs up as high as they could go and packed the electronics up tight. The water came up to a little over our waist but we eventually made it across as well.
With the majority of water crossings behind us we now hiked with a new confidence towards Dollar Lake. Normally this is a great campsite however this time it was completely flooded out due to the snow melt.
This was also where we first started to regularly encounter snow on the trail. Hoping to ease into the snow hiking we actually started cutting our teeth fairly quickly. We were soon crawling up the side of a steep snow bank with the frigid mouth of Dollar Lake below us waiting for us to slip and fall. Doug took the lead with his magical and mystical hiking poles and made quick work. Lauren opted for the crawling approach while I grabbed one of natures hiking poles and brought up the rear.
Dont eat red snow
With Dollar Lake fading as well as our energy we decided to make camp at the upcoming Arrowhead Lake. Supposedly there are bearboxes here somewhere, we never were able to find them. We eventually found a nice dry camp site and setup shop. Snapped a few pics, changed into thermals, had an awesome meal of Salmon Pilaf w/ fresh blueberries and drifted off to sleep. I also broke my damn sandal hiking around camp that night Slept a little rough at 10,300ft, felt like I couldn’t breathe very well and tossed and turned most of the night. Turns out we all had the same problem.
Amazing view of fin dome from Arrowhead lake
The next morning Lauren comes and tells me Doug is catching fish and I should get up. I hurried out of the tent and sure enough there stood Doug with his retractable fishing pole landing trout after trout. It seemed you could have just thrown a hook in the water and get a fish on. They were small but it was still fun. We caught a few and threw them back enjoying the beautiful scenery around us.
We lazed around most of the morning taking our time to break down camp. On this day we had planned to hike up to the Sixty Lakes basin and take it easy. It was only about 4 miles from our current campsite so we were in no hurry. Eventually we got on the trail and headed up past beautiful Rae Lakes, stopping to take pictures and have some snacks along the way.
We were standing around setting up a shot of Glen pass when 2 serious looking geared-out fellows came by on the trail. They asked if we had about the weather? We had not… They said the rangers told them a bad storm was moving in later on and it was going to be raining buckets. They suggested we get up and over the pass as soon as we could or else we might get stuck in the storm or possibly not even be able to get over the pass if we waited till after.
Well…. that puts a wrench in our plans. We had a team huddle and discussed the situation. We hadnt really planned on going up the pass today but if these guys were right we did not want to get stuck at Rae Lakes. We decided to scrap Sixty Lakes basin, sack up, and hit the pass.
The guys who went ahead of us had full snow gear, gaiters, crampons, iceaxes, etc. We had… trailrunners? and… some sticks? Oh well, we have come this far. If it gets too sketch we will turn around and head back out the way we came.
So we suited up in our full rain/”snow”gear fully expecting a deluge of rain, snow, and ice during our journey over the pass. I grabbed Lauren and myself two sturdy sticks and declared us ready for the expedition. Doug put on his gaiters and deployed his super poles. Lets do it!
Doug suits up
We hit the trail about 30 minutes after the 2 serious guys passed us up, turns out it is a good thing they went ahead of us. The snow had covered the trail in most places and the only guide we had aside from GPS was their footprints. We got lost a few times but eventually found ourselves at yet another water crossing. This one was DEEP way to deep to walk across as it would be overhead. Luckily there was some sketchily placed downed trees jammed up at one part of the river. It took some not-so-flattering belly/butt dragging across the logs but we eventually made our way across. ONTO THE PASS!
From the bottom we could not see much, just a depression of footprints that seemingly lead up into the clouds.
Doug took the lead pressing his way through the sun cupped snow. The snow was soft but not too bad. We stepped in the footprints of those who went before us and managed to get into somewhat of a stride. Natures ice axe’s actually worked out pretty well for Lauren and I, keeping us balanced and stopping us when we did start to slide in the snow. The sky overhead was darkening quickly. We all hoped this wasnt the storm we had heard about it.
Eventually we got to the bottom of a large hill of skree that was not covered with snow. There was a trail of snow footprints that went along side the skree but we decided to rock scramble up the skree/boulders as opposed to continue snow hiking.
After a long while of picking up the rocks we actually stumbled upon the trail itself, lucky us! The trail turned to switchbacks for a while and we spotted a hiker coming down from the top of the pass. There is life out there! We were so happy to see someone descending from the top of the pass. It meant fresh footprints and some 411 was headed our way. As we headed further up the switchbacks we eventually met up with the fellow who informed us that he had passed the other 2 guys at the top and too just follow in his footprints and we would be OK. Yessiree!
Looking back down the way we came
We eventually hit the top of the switchbacks where the trail turned back into snow. We were still about 500ft from the top of the pass.
The snow here turned south, it was very very soft and headed vertical. Any slip-up here would mean a very long snow slide of unknown consequences. Lauren and I were able to climb in the footprints fairly easily but Doug being heavier seemed to fall through to the abyss with every step. Eventually resorting to having to crawl on his hands and knees in the snow to make any progress. Finally being a scrawny bastard pays off!
After a long and strenuous snow climb we eventually made it up to the top of the pass. The sky was menacing, thunder was rumbling in the distance, and a slight drizzle had been going on for about 15 minutes before we got to the top. These less than ideal conditions did not give us time for any celebration of our feat. It was all business now, we wanted to get off this mountain before any lightning or serious downpours kicked up. Following the trail along the ridge for a little while led us to a series of switchbacks leading down the otherside.
We met a tired hiker who yelled “HALLELUJAH!” when we told him he was almost at the top. He advised us that the trail turned back into snow for quite a ways leading down to Charlotte Lake. Follow the footprints was our mantra. The GPS kept us fairly on track the few times we lost the prints.
It was pretty much all downhill from here. Our ankles and knees were soon calling out in protest. Turns out while uphill climbing is physically more strenuous; downhill takes its toll on your ankles and knees. We were hurting pretty bad by the time we made our camp near an unnamed lake nearby Charlotte Lake. We setup the tents and passed out. Eventually woke up sometime in the night to cook up some food and clean up camp. What a day. We were whooped.
Next morning we were all still pretty tired and took our time making breakfast and breaking down camp. We hit the trail around 11AM. Pretty uneventful, just alot more downhill.
Since we were leaving the snow, Lauren and I had a burial ceremony for our “ice axes”. You served us well mighty sticks.
We found this little chick roaming around, think it fell out of a nest or something.
It did start raining on us pretty heavily and we needed to break out the raingear. Somewhere along the way Doug’s backpack strap broke, what the hell! Word to the wise, Do not buy Gregory packs. He had 3 straps/clips break during this trip. A quick trail repair to get us to camp and we were back on our way.
Cool trail flowers
Eventually we ended up at Charlottes Creek.
A few other campers were posted up here, we crossed the creek and found a decent, somewhat buggy campsite. Gathering dry wood from underneath the bows of the Evergreens we were able to get a fire going in the rain which helped warm us up and drive off some of the mosquitos.
View from camp
Doug was able to rig up a pretty awesome trailrepair, should hold the rest of the way home.
Packed up the next morning and hit the trail early. It was a beautiful clear morning for our hike back to the trailhead. We were ambling warming up in the summer sun. Doug in front, Lauren behind me. Doug passes in front and I see something move. RATTLESNAKE! A big one! He was lying right next to the trail sunning himself on the rock. He never did rattle just sort of sat there looking at us while we took pictures. We gave him a wide-berth and headed on down the trail.
We ran into the trail maintenance crew as well, these guys are doing an amazing job of clearing up the trail. The area we were walking in today was devastated by an avalanche, freshly sawed downed trees lined the trail for about a mile.
Eventually we met up with the junction to head back toward Roads End AKA the longest 2-miles of our life.
Back at the the ranger station we checked in and gave our updated report. It was that same ranger who saw me get smacked in the head with the bear canister, she seemed pretty amazed that we were able to complete the loop. And in fact, so were we. With all the reports of high rivers and impassable snow we determined while it was pretty damn rough it was certainly doable by anyone with backcountry experience. We were happy, proud, and hungry. Loaded up the Jeep and hit the CedarGrove market for some much needed BEEF.
So my friends, thus we close the chapter on another one of our adventures. The Rae Lakes loop is by far the most amazing backpacking trip I have ever been on. The majesty of the high sierras is unmatched anywhere. Kings Canyon remains my favorite national park.