September 14-18, 2013 All Photos by Douglas and Carol Cornell
Over the last few years Carol and I have had the pleasure of doing some day-hiking and one overnight hike in the High Sierra of California. We have gained interest in the Pacific Crest Trail, and hope to someday complete a through-hike on this trail that takes the hiker from Mexico to Canada (or vice-versa).
While researching loop hikes on the High Sierra, one trail kept popping up on Google: The Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. Gorp.com ranks this loop number two on their list of the best National Park loop hikes in the USA. The loop is between 40 and 50 miles, depending on the number of side-trips the hiker explores.
We applied for our backcountry permit in March and received an acceptance letter a couple of weeks later. After booking our flight reservations (arrival at Fresno, California is recommended), rental car, and lodging, we began to plan and prepare for our early September hike.
We spent the summer hiking and bicycling with the full knowledge that this hike would require us to climb to elevations nearing 12,000 ft. Bicycling is an excellent cardio workout, and backpacking in Tenessee, Canada, and northern Michigan got us used to carrying our packs.
We upgraded some equipment for this hike, dropping 7 pounds of pack weight each by buying new ultra-light packs and down sleeping bags. We were also obsessive about what we would carry. We left the camp chairs, saw, and other non-essentials at home. See our list of the gear we used for this trip here.
Our plane hit the ground in Fresno at 1 PM on Friday. 30 minutes later we had our bags loaded into our rental car and we headed to the nearest sporting goods store to by cooking fuel (you cannot bring butane on the plane!). Kings Canyon is about 1.5 hours due east of Fresno. The drive is fun – there are nearly infinite twists and turns on the narrow 2-lane highway. We spent our first night in a tent-cabin in Grant Grove, which was about 1 hour from the trailhead at Road’s End. This location, which is at 8,000 ft. elevation, allowed us to acclimate while we were doing light activities and sleeping. We spent the afternoon looking at the giant Sequoias, including the General Grant, one of the largest and oldest trees in the US. After dinner we loaded our packs and hit the sack early.
After a fun and beautiful drive into the canyon the next morning, we arrived at the backcountry office and obtained our permit. Our plan was to hike the loop clockwise – which is much, much easier than going counter-clockwise (which requires 2 days of climbing from 5,000 ft. to 12,000 ft.)
Day 1: Trailhead to Upper Paradise Valley. 11.6 miles, 6,158 ft. total climbing, 4,290 ft. total descending, 1,867 ft. elevation gain.
We set out on the trail at an easy pace, with the initial elevation of around 5,000 ft. not stressing us at all, The trail starts out wide and flat, with a surface that is worked up by the numerous horses and mules that use the trail for recreation and supply purposes. Massive canyon walls were visible on both sides of the trail as we walked under groves of ponderosa pine, incense-cedar, and white fir, At mile 2 the trail splits, and we headed left (north) towards Mist Falls. At first, hiking next to the Kings River was easy, but after reaching the beautiful falls (which had plenty of water but weren’t exactly misty in the late Summer), we faced bright sunshine and steeper climbs. Looking backwards down the trail, we smiled at the view of The Sphinx, one of the dominant rock features in the canyon,
There is nothing here that requires scrambling, yet good boots and trekking poles make the hike safer and more enjoyable. We eventually descended into a beautiful high-country meadow and just stood there, staring at the beauty in front of us, After snapping some photos, we headed back into the woods and continued for another 3 miles where we found the first group of campsites at Lower Paradise Valley. After chatting with some campers, we decided to push on to Upper Paradise Valley, as it was considered to be a beautiful place to spend the night. We passed the empty Middle Paradise Valley campsite a half-hour later, and finally reached our campsite around 3 PM, tired but still feeling very good about our endurance on this long, hard day,
Our campsite was near the river, and we enjoyed a nice evening with a small campfire (allowed below 10,000 ft) before turning in for the night. The sound of the river quickly lulled us to an excellent night of sleeping.
Day 2: Upper Paradise Valley to Arrowhead Lake. 11.3 miles, 5,046 ft. total climbing, 1,683 ft. total descending, 3,362 ft. elevation gain.
After a quick breakfast of coffee and a homemade oatmeal/honey/peanutbutter/pecan breakfast bar, we headed out for our second day of hiking. We were excited to get going as today we would reach the famous John Muir Trail in a few hours. We began climbing uphill right away and crested several small ridges, each time being rewarded with stunning views of the river and meadows below. Eventually the trees became scarce and the sky opened to a massive vista. At about the five-mile mark we entered a grove of trees and made a swing to the south. Just ahead of us is the famous swinging bridge that marks the intersection of the JMT and Paradise Valley trails. We ate a quick lunch on the bank of the river, then headed out and up on the JMT and the High Sierra.
Words cannot do justice to the immense beauty of this section of trail. 13,000 foot peaks (including the iconic Fin Dome) rose on either side of us, and looking backwards we could see the entire valley that we had just climbed out of. A creek meandered on either side of us, so water would not be a problem. At mile 10 we crossed the 10,000 ft. elevation marker and reached Dollar Lake, where JMT hikers were fishing for their dinner. We continued on, and after walking through a sublimely peaceful high-country meadow, we reached Arrowhead Lake. We pitched our tent next to a bear box and immediately went to the lake for a brief yet refreshing splash in the water.
Day 3: Arrowhead Lake to Charlotte Lake. 8.1 miles, 2,866 ft. total climbing, 2,780 ft. total descending, 86 ft. elevation gain.
We awoke to a cold frost. Two mule deer munched on grass near our campsite as we ate breakfast. The trail headed uphill for a mile before reaching the first of the Rae Lakes. Most of the backpackers on this trip elected to camp here, and many were able to fish for their supper. Fin Dome stalked us for the next mile, and looming before us was Glen Pass, where we would reach our maximum elevation of 11,926 feet.
As the morning warmed we stripped off our layers and began the climb. Multiple switchbacks passed small lakes and breathtaking views. The climb was tough – a 10 on a one to 10 scale, yet we managed to reach the very top in 1.5 hours. Our breathing was labored yet in control. We had a snack, took some pictures, and by 11 am we were descending. We watched Charlotte Lake below us as we hiked easily down the trail, drenched in bright sunlight and a refreshing breeze. After reaching another major trail intersection, we headed right towards Charlotte Lake to find a campsite.
Charlotte Lake, which is located at just over 10,000 feet, is a cold, beautiful lake that rests against a high ridge on it’s south shore. We settled on the last campsite on the west side of the lake and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of reading, napping, and eating. We didn’t have a bear box here, so I wedged our bear canister between a log and a rock. So far we hadn’t seen or heard a bear, which we were told were numerous on this trial.
Day 4: Charlotte Lake to Sphinx Creek Junction. 12 miles, 2,063 ft. total climbing, 5,976 ft. total descending, 3,912 ft. elevation loss.
We packed up our unmolested bear canister and headed out into another frosty morning. After about 30 minutes we began descending back into the Bubbs Creek Valley, where we trekked past Vidette Meadow and then later, Junction Meadow. We were treated to dramatic waterfalls, extreme gorges, and glimpsed the Sphinx ahead, knowing that we were nearing the end of this trip.
Walking downhill is much easier than going uphill, but we have yet to find an exercise that gets our legs ready for 10 miles of descending! Eventually we left the big sky behind and entered a forested section, where we found a place to camp for our final evening.
We enjoyed a small campfire and hit the sack early, listening to the roaring creek just feet away from our tent.
Day 5: Sphinx Creek Junction to trail head. 4.4 miles, 874 ft. total climbing, 2,130 ft. total descending, 1,256 ft. elevation loss.
We ate a cold breakfast and hit the trail before 7:30 am, with a goal of reaching Cedar Grove Village in time for a hot plate of French toast, bacon, hash browns, eggs and coffee. Even though we had more than enough food with us, we had been talking about food for the last two days. A backpacker has odd cravings, and for some reason I wanted carrots and Fritos. I settled for some Milk Duds that I still had left.
We continued to descend next to Bubbs Creek, then we reached the introspection of Bubbs and the Kings River South Fork. After crossing a couple of foot bridges, we emerged onto the main trail that we’d left behind 5 days earlier. We were quiet as we walked the last 2 miles, thinking about the beauty we were fortunate to see and the obstacles we had overcome.
We soon reached the trailhead and parking lot, stowed our gear in the car, and headed off to enjoy a hot breakfast and purchase Fritos,
This trip left us longing for more High Sierra adventure, and we plan to return soon to explore more of the region.