Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop :: Kings Canyon
and the important lessons I learned along the way...
When: July 2016
Where: Rae Lakes Loop
Duration: 3 Nights, 4 Days
Distance: 38-42 miles (park and maps differ on this)
Max Elevation: 11,926 feet
We had initially booked Dead Man's Canyon, but decided we couldn't take the time off needed for that trip (5-6 days). We ended up calling the park service to see if there were any other openings, and out of pure luck there was an opening for the Rae Lakes Loop. This is a well regarded trail within the Sierras and for good reason...most of the loop runs along the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and JMT (John Muir Trail) which are both designed to hit the most beautiful points in the Sierras. The Rae Lakes Loop therefore provides and easier glimpse into the High Sierras which is drop-dead gorgeous.
This was the longest backpacking trip I have ventured so far. Because of this, I learned many lessons the hard way. Even with the down falls, it was well worth the trip and was the most beautiful backpacking I have done in the US.
We decided to go the "backwards" way, starting at Bubbs Creek and looping around to Paradise Valley. I think this was a good call as Glen Pass is much steeper coming from Bubbs Creek and therefore would have been much harder on my knees if we went the other way. The first day, hiking along Bubbs Creek was also the most "boring" day, and therefore I was happy to get this out of the way and finish on a high note through Paradise Valley.
Day 1: Road's End to Bubbs Creek
Lesson :: If it is a nice spot, a bear may think so too.
We saw several bear on the trail, usually right by our campsite, as it was a very nice spot to camp.
As I said, this was the most "boring" day, so it only consisted of hiking along a beautiful river, gorgeous vistas and two bear encounters. For me this was also the most difficult day, as it was fairly steep elevation gain and LOTS of mosquitos in the dense forest sections. We decided to stop a bit earlier than the larger camping area along Bubbs since we had encountered a couple bear that decided to keep walking up the trail and we didn't particularly want to keep following them. We camped along the river which had a perfect viewpoint of some waterfalls, making for some fun long exposures come sunrise!
Day 2: Bubbs Creek to Rae Lakes
The second day was the big one, hiking over Glen Pass. We got an early start (thanks to our new stove...the MSR REACTOR...best investment yet) and hiked onward and upward. This was probably my favorite day as we got to go through incredible meadows full of butterflies and wildflowers, see enormous waterfalls cascading over smooth rock, and witness the open expanse of the high sierras peppered with bright blue pools of ice-water. For me, this is what backpacking is all about, seeing these hidden gems and being surrounded only by nature and very few people.
Recommended Packing Accessories
Extra Shoes (for stream crossings and emergencies)
As we were hiking through the peaks, it was difficult to determine when and where we would reach Glen Pass. Cory's go-to phrase was "It's just over the rise." The pass was visible after we stopped to get some water at the blue-est alpine lake I had ever seen.
Once we reached the pass, we encountered several people (including a family with two kids) that were on their 20th or so days doing the JMT and PCT. It was incredibly humbling hearing their stories after being throughly exhausted after just two days. So much admiration!
From the pass you can see the Rae Lakes. We started our way down slowly through the snow covered switchbacks and hiked about a mile and a half to an epic campsite that overlooked the lakes and up toward the Painted Lady.
Lesson :: No matter how hard the day, always think happy thoughts.
Since I am a hard-core Disney fan, my go-to hiking song is "Just a Spoonful of Sugar" from the oh-so wonderful and always wise Mary Poppins.
Day 3: Rae Lakes to Paradise Valley
Waking up to the sun highlighting the Painted Lady and a view of the lakes below, made for quite the peaceful and invigorating morning. Again, since this was another long day, we had an early start and weaved our way through the clear blue lakes (with tons of fish). The Rae Lakes section was probably the busiest of the trail as it has the most overlap between the loop, the PCT, and the JMT groups...it's because of this that we decided to find a campsite away from the hustle and bustle. Though as most backpackers are, everyone was very quiet and respectful throughout.
***After the lakes, there was a long dry section, so I highly recommend filling all water before the long decent towards the JMT junction. ***
Lesson :: Although sleep is important, always make time to see the stars and sunrise.
After the bridge junction where the Rae Lakes Loop meets with the JMT, we descended into a magnificent valley, with tall grass and peaks on all sides. We were shocked that this was not included on the JMT as it is one of the more jaw-dropping sites of the loop.
Since it was getting dark, we made camp about a mile before Paradise Valley. This wasn't the greatest plan as there were so many gnats and mosquitos and I'm pretty sure we camped in Bear Alley. Although there are lots of bear in the valley, I suggest pushing on to the Paradise Valley campsite if possible.
Day 4: Paradise Valley to Road's End
Lesson :: Always get an early start, as you never know what the day will bring.
Whether it is an injury, lots of photography, or a long lunch by the river that holds you up, building in extra time is key.
The last day was the easiest in terms of hiking, though the hardest in terms of endurance. I unfortunately had crippling tendonitis pop up in my ankle, which with my boots rubbing made it impossible to keep walking. Cory luckily had extra shoes that allowed me to hike out ok. It also helped that it was mostly flat, except for a few steep switchbacks, and there was an ice cold swimming hole that was perfect for an ice bath.
Aside from the painful ankle, the rest of the day was beautiful. The descent into the valley made for some epic vistas and the stop at Mist Falls was the perfect end to our great trip.
This was our last backpacking trip in the Sierras for a while as we have now moved out to Massachusetts...but what a send off it was! We will certainly be back.
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