5 days - 4 nights
6,943 elevation gain
High point: 11,978
Bill and Julie
I have wanted to do the Rae Lakes Loop for several years now. I also wanted to take five days rather than the four many folks do it in. When we were camping in Big Sur - Bill finally agreed to do it with me in July. This would be our longest backpacking trip together. It was a serious undertaking for us - 43 miles with an almost 7,000 foot elevation gain including hiking an almost 12,000 foot pass with full packs.
Our friend Steve who is the signmaker at Sequoia - Kings Canyon National Park and who has done the Rae Lakes Loop many times was our consultant, cheerleader and logistics guy. He gave us maps, permit forms, inspiring photos and crucial advice on the best route and campsites.
Both Bill and I filled our backpacks with weights and walked the hills of Lompico to train for the trip.
I spent the first part of July in Redding. I did a lot of hiking at elevation at both Mt. Shasta and Lassen. While in Redding I visited a Tibetan Buddhist Temple in the mountains with my mom and dad. I bought a peace prayer flag that you hang and the wind takes the prayer into the world. It is traditional to hang a prayer flag before large undertakings. There are certain days that are auspicious and certain days it is bad luck to hang the flag. My mom checked the website and found that July 20th, the day after I got back to Santa Cruz was an auspicious day. Bill and I hung the prayer flag with it's message of peace on our deck where we can watch it fluttering in the breezes. It sent blessings on our upcoming trip.
As usual - I procrastinated on getting our permits. When I finally submitted our request, two weeks before departure - I found out all advance permits had already been issued. The ranger told me five walk up permits were issued each day at 1:00 p.m. We decided to take our chances and just show up early on Sunday to get our permit. I thought if we arrived at noon, an hour before the office opened, we would have a good chance.
We left Lompico at 7:15 a.m. We usually drive through Los Banos, but looking at the map decided to take I-5 and then cut over on a little side road. We stopped at a busy rest area on I-5. When I got to the restroom there was a line and who was waiting but Mary! I couldn't believe it. She was on her way to Baja for three weeks with her family. The timing was incredible that we ran into each other. It was the first sign that this was going to be an interesting trip.
We got to the entrance of Kings Canyon at a little after noon - but it takes another hour to drive the narrow, windy road to Cedar Grove and Roads End. As I pulled over to let cars pass - I wondered whether they were going to get permits and would beat us to it. I thought good thoughts and kept my my fingers crossed.
We got to the permit office at 1:20 p.m. The ranger was busy talking patiently to a family of day hikers. When it was our turn I asked if we could get permits for the Rae Lakes Loop starting the next day. "No, I don't think so", she said. My heart sank. She asked how many in our party and we explained it was just the two of us. She did a lot of checking and then said - "I can get you two in, but that's it for the day." I was overjoyed.
She was very thorough discussing our route and the terrain. She was clear on what to expect. She told us at one of our planned stops - Junction Meadows - there was a very large, very fearless bear. He had not been intimidated by 15 trail crew members shouting at him. She told us the weather forecast was cloudy, but rain wasn't in the forecast - though you never know in the mountains. The temperatures she listed were very mild - including 40 degrees on the summit of Glen Pass. Since heat was one of Bill's biggest concerns, this was a huge relief to us. We bought our $15 permit and rented two bear canisters for $5.00 a piece. $25.00 for five days seemed extremely reasonable - though she said many people complain about it.
She told us there were bear lockers at each site as well - but they were trying to phase them out - because other people left them unlocked, used them as drop offs for larger trips and left garbage in them. You needed to put anything with scent - toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, etc. in either the canister or locker. We were thankful for the lockers, since our two bear canisters were completely packed with food when we first started out.
We went and found a shady campsite at Sheep's Creek campground. We reorganized our packs with the bear canisters. We planned to get an early start the next morning to avoid the heat.
Roads End - Upper Paradise Valley
hiking time: 6 hours
We were on the trail head at 7:30 with our full packs - but feeling good. The first two miles are completely flat and not too interesting. I knew it would be long coming back this way at the end of the trip. It's a little under five miles to Mist Falls and the ranger said it takes most backpackers about two hours to get there. We got there in an hour and a half, which was encouraging.
Bill was off racing ahead. My only request was that he keep me in sight. He prefers to move quickly and take longer breaks, while I prefer slow and steady with shorter breaks. I resigned myself to the fact that I may not see much of him on the trail.
The other two times I have been to Mist Falls it has earned it's name. Even standing hundreds of feet away - you would get soaked from the mist. Not so this year, with our lack of rainfall. After Mist Falls the elevation and heat began. Bill started feeling his heavy pack. He appreciated my slower pace with lots of breaks and we stayed together for the rest of the trip with me setting the pace.
We were hiking up a beautiful valley. When you turned around it was like a miniature Yosemite. There are three campsites in Paradise Valley. Both the ranger and Steve had recommended going to the Upper Valley, if we could make it. I was hiking in front and suddenly heard a rattling sound. On a rock next to the trail was a BIG rattlesnake. Bill had never seen one before. He kept calling it a cobra - which was just as exotic to him.
We watched as it slithered off the trail and we quickly walked by. I appreciated his warning me that he was there. We made lots of noise while hiking the next part of the trail. We walked through the Lower campsites without stopping and headed for the middle campground. For these campgrounds, you need to camp in designated sites. There was a little map showing where all the campsites were located - which was really helpful.
No one was in the Lower or Middle campground where we stopped for lunch. I went and looked at all the campsites - logs, rocks and fire rings. They were all very nice. The whole Paradise Vally is beautiful surrounded by granite cliffs and the river.
We sat on a rock eating our lunch and watching a chipmunk. He would run down the hill and come back with a load of duff, the size of his head in his mouth. He would put it in his hole and then repeat the exact same process - always following the same trail. He was so cute with his mouth stuffed. We admired his persistence. We felt the same way.
There was about 300 feet elevation gain on the two miles to Upper Paradise Valley. It seemed like more. We kept thinking - this must be the campsite - no, this must be the campsite. Finally, we were there.
We dropped packs and Bill relaxed. I went off to find the best site. I'm much more picky about campsites - so Bill let's me go look at all the choices and then decide. We were the first in camp - so I had lots of choices. I found a great site and we set up camp. I went and played in the river. Bill went to explore a beautiful new log bridge. The view of the cliffs was incredible. A completely different view in each direction.
There were yellow flowers dotting the riverside. Eventually more hikers arrived. Since this is a loop trail - you see the same folks at every camp. Our immediate neighbors were a preacher and his wife from Fresno with her musician brother who liked his "medicine" in the form of spiked lemonade.
There was a young brother/sister team who I thought at first were a couple. She was from San Diego, he was visiting from Connecticut. They set up their camp and then went to scramble up a giant rock wall behind us. Oh, to be young! Bill and I were quite content to play dice in our campsite. We had done enough hiking for the day.
Three guys did their cooking on the bear locker. One of them had a great thermarest chair. I definitely had chair envy after sitting in it.
It had been so warm before the trip - that Bill hadn't wanted to take the rainfly for the tent - but I had insisted. He laughed at me for wanting to carry my rain gear. That night it sprinkled all night. My side of the rain fly wasn't properly staked so my sleeping bag was fairly wet in the morning. Funny how that worked out. :-)
Upper Paradise Valley - Woods Creek Crossing
Once again we were up and on the trail early. It was only 6 miles to Woods Creek Crossing - but I didn't want to push the 14 miles to Rae Lakes. We leap frogged with the brother-sister team. Our original plan was to camp at Dollar Lake - which would have been 9 miles - but the ranger told us the area was closed to camping for restoration.
The brother-sister team were going to push on. They got to the campsite right before us. She was nursing a huge blister, so I gave her one of my blister donuts.
There is a swinging suspension bridge before the campsite. For those who know about my suspension bridge dreams and the the previous hike when we went in search for such a bridge - this was a treat. Only one person at a time was supposed to be on the bridge. It definitely swayed as you walked and though you knew you couldn't fall through the gaps - it was eerie. Steve told me this is a famous back country bridge - because it is so well constructed. It is beautiful. I ended up walking back and forth across this bridge to overcome my fear. By the next day - I had it down.
I picked our next campsite and we had all afternoon here. People started pouring in - because this is also the junction of the John Muir trail. All the hikers from all three Paradise Valley campsites stopped here as well. Then a large group of high school kids and their six pack horses arrived. It was cool to see the horses go by.
The brother-sister team had decided to stay. The brother went off to climb one of the surrounding peaks. Their campsite was overrun by the large group who wanted to "share" it and they were thinking about moving. Finally the group found a distant site and disappeared. It quieted down. The sky was black and it looked like a big storm was headed our way. We battened down the hatches - but it ended up disappearing over a ridge.
I started reading "Three Cups of Tea". A hardback book I debated about carrying in. It was for book club the following week, so I decided to carry the weight. It was definitely worth it. The first chapter is about Greg Mortensen attempting to climb K2 in Pakistan and spending the night on a glacier with just a blanket. I read it aloud to Bill. It was a perfect book for this trip.
Woods Creek Crossing -Rae Lakes
We woke up to clear skies. Since we knew everyone would be heading to Rae lakes we were up early again. We always got a strong start, avoided the heat of the day - important to Bill and got the best campsite - important to me.
We hiked through a beautiful valley and finally arrived at Dollar Lake. We were the first ones there - I was able to skinny dip in the surprisingly warm water. I thought I would dip in and out - but the water was great. To have this gem of a lake to myself was a special treat indeed. You could see "the Fin" which is right about Rae Lakes. I ended up cutting the bottom of my foot - but the swim was worth it. I bled on a rock, enjoying the sun. Luckily this cut didn't bother me for the rest of the trip.
We packed off to Rae Lakes. A mile beyond Dollar Lake there was a bear locker and campsite at an unnamed lake. (Steve later told me this was Arrow Lake). Next time I would camp here instead of Woods Creek.
We arrived at Rae Lakes - beautiful lake dominated by the "Fin" and the the "Painted Lady". I found an amazing campsite right above the lake with great views of the lake. The campsite was open but rocks had been piled up as a windscreen. There was a tree at one end of the campsite. It started to cloud over so Bill put up the tent and we put the sleeping bags out to dry.
The rain started unexpectedly and although I got my sleeping bag inside in time - Bill's got pretty wet. It was just sprinkling, so I went for a walk to the upper lake. When I got back to camp there was a crack of lightening followed almost immediately by a clap of thunder. It was CLOSE! Then it started really pouring.
Bill and I at this point were so wet we didn't want to get into the tent and get the sleeping bags wet. We huddled under trees trying to get out of the brunt of the rain. We waited probably an hour and then it became clear it wasn't going to let up. We decided we would make a dash for the tent. I went in first - leaving my soaked rain jacket outside. Everything was relatively dry. The tent was holding up well. Bill came in. It is a very small tent - just room for the two of us and we huddled in the center - trying not to touch the sides of the tent.
I read Three Cups of Tea. Bill tried not move. I was taking serious inventory of what clothes were dry and planning what to do if it rained all night. We talked about whether we should try the pass the next day and decided to wait and see.
After three hours, the rain petered off and then stopped. We emerged thankfully from the tent. Slowly the sky cleared. We ate dinner and Bill called it a night. I watched the alpine glow on the Painted Lady and watched the moon rise over the lake.
The preacher, his wife and the brother who had way too much "medicine" and I played a card game called Wizard. It was like spades - but with two extra wild cards. We stopped the game long enough to watch a spectacular sunset.
I was really cold that night until I zipped the sleeping bag all the way to my chin. Then I warmed up. I was anxious to see what the morning would bring.
Rae Lakes - Junction Meadows
This was the big day. It was a little overcast when we woke up. We tried to decide whether to do the pass or not. We heard a long rockslide in the distance.Our packs were wet and heavy - but the weather seemed to be clearing. Of course - it had been perfectly clear the previous morning. I didn't want any lightening or rain while we were climbing the pass. We decided to go for it.
We were on the trail at 7:15 a.m. We wanted to get over that pass fast. A group of Canadians and Europeans passed us. We played leap frog with them all the way to the top. The pass was brutal. A little under 1,200 foot elevation gain but over 2.5 miles. But you were climbing from 10,800 to right under 12,000 feet! You could feel the air getting thinner as you climbed. My climbing method is to make small goals - the end of a switchback or a tree up ahead - something reachable. Then stop and take three breaths. Others would climb farther, faster, but my technique worked for Bill and I.
We passed another group who were trying to dry out their sleeping bags and tents in the sun. They had been out for 28 days and had started in Lake Tahoe. The group ahead of us had stopped. One of the guys had a GPS and said "only 500 feet to go!" I knew 500 feet was still a very long way. The switchbacks seemed endless. The woman in front of us called to her teammate far above us, "Can you see the top?" "What did he say?" I asked. "Not yet" she replied.
Even when we could see the top - progress was slow. The last 50 feet were the steepest but suddenly we were there! The views in both directions were spectacular. What a feeling of accomplishment. We had arrived at 9:15. The other two groups had been on top for awhile and were taking summit shops. After one of the photos, the digital camera got dropped and broken. There was a big silence. What a bummer! One of the women took our summit shots. In one direction you could see the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sierras. Unfortunately - her thumb covered most of the picture. (At least she didn't break the camera).
The wind felt good at the summit - but we were ready to head down. It was all downhill from here. In addition to the cut on my foot, I had developed blisters on my toes and a boil on my neck where the backpack rubbed me. It felt great to be going downhill. The trail crew was working on fixing a rockslide that affected part of the trail. They had climbed up with shovels and were working away clearing the path. I thanked each of them as we hiked by.
We came down the mountain quickly. I started getting a shin splint on my left leg. Bill wanted to hike at least to Spinx Creek (17 miles) or all the way out (21 miles). I finally convinced him this was not in the cards for me. I was beat and we barely made it to Junction Meadows.
I hadn't eaten anything but a cheese stick and I lost it while we were looking for the campground. Bill finally chose a campsite for us. He chose a great spot next to the river with a great view of a rock formation. He set up the tent because it looked like more rain be coming our way. I went to soak my feet in the river and collapsed on a flat rock. Bill built a smoky fire - thinking it might discourage the bear from coming around. I read and relaxed and recovered my good spirits. I was thankful we stopped here so I could get a fresh start in the morning. I sat by the fire enjoying the sunset.
When I got in the tent we heard the guys in the next campsite banging pots together. We stuck our heads out of the tent to see the bear loping down the trail. He didn't come back and Bill and I slept like logs.
Junction Meadows - Roads End
We both woke refreshed. My shin splint was better. The packs felt light and we were off. The trail was great down meadows at a gentle slope. We both felt strong and covered ground quickly. I could appreciate the scenery and started singing as we went. We reached the Sphinx Creek campground. We caught up to the preacher and company. We leap frogged with a father-son team from Pennsylvania and a group of guys from Atlanta. The view of the valley was great.
The pack had finally merged into my body. We completed the loop and headed over the last two flat miles. Even here I felt strong, like the horse heading for the stables. We started running into the day hikers and we felt like real backpackers which we were.
We made it out in four hours. We turned in our bear canisters and headed to the snack bar and store. I ordered a well deserved cheeseburger and onion rings. Delicious! We saw every group we had seen on the trail (except the brother-sister team). There was a real feeling of camaraderie. We all knew what we have been through.
It was an amazing trip in a truly gorgeous place. We both felt so blessed to be able to experience the constant beauty. Bill loved the trip as much as I did. We both came out high on nature. We didn't even mind the six hour drive back to Lompico - though we were stiff every time we got out of the car. We just relived the trip and counted our blessings.
Lessons Learned: Don't procrastinate on getting permits. Always pack your rain gear and expect the worst weather, no matter what the forecast. A good book is worth it's weight. More whiskey - less beer. Next time I'm buying a thermarest chair!