The jewel at the center of the Rae Lakes Loop
My regular hiking buddy, Sam, had mentioned a place in the central Sierra he'd visited decades ago and suggested it as a neat place to take a summer hike: Gardiner Basin. I looked it up on the web (amazing how quickly we've adapted to tools like Google Maps) and saw that it is a series of high mountain cirques at the center of the popular Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. I made a stab at a trip plan (see my Google Maps proposal) and mailed it off to Sam. He gave a thumb's up, and we had a summer hike goal!
Since our daughter is off at college with our second car, how to rendezvous with Sam was a potential roadblock. Rent a car? Take the bus? I considered the distance (about 150 miles) and decided to buzz up to Sam's on my Ninja 250; he had volunteered to drive from his place onwards. With a bit of trepidation, I kissed Jane goodbye, put in my earplugs (to stave off wind noise; the bike itself is very quiet), donned my riding gear, and set out northwards. I decided to take a slightly longer but less-trafficked route, going over Angeles Crest and through the Antelope Valley to Tehachapi Pass and onwards to Bakersfield. As I cruised along, this part of the trip became less and less worrisome. The willing little 250 had no problem keeping up with traffic, the tankbag containing my hiking clothes was a perfect pillow for my chest, my hiking pack snuggled up against my back caused no turbulence, and the Ninja's fairing serenely parted the air with little fuss. I found myself thinking that this get-up could be a quite satisfactory way to go touring. 70 MPG @ 70 MPH, all my camping gear, a week's worth of food, and a panoramic view of the countryside: this could work, and it very definitely did work to get me comfortably up to Sam's. (Motorbike photo by Jane Allen)
The following AM Sam and I set off for the mountains. We stopped for gas while still down in the Valley. The gas-station lady asked me "Going to work?" "No, going hiking", I said. She gave me a puzzled look. "In the Mountains" I said, pointing east. She shook her head and shrugged.
I was a little worried we might get to Roads End and not be able to get a wilderness permit. In the crush of work, Jane's hip replacement surgery (!), and all the other details of life, I had forgotten to make a reservation and we were planning to go out of one of the most popular trailheads in the Sierra at the peak of the summer season. But there was no problem whatsoever, other than the permit-writer indicating that our legal bearcans were no longer legal because they lacked a particular Red Sticker. Hmmm, funny, I had specifically checked the Park Service website beforehand and had verified they were legal. In the end we just said we'd check to make sure our bearcans had the proper-sized Red Stickers, decided Well By Gosh They Did, and started hiking. I doubt the bears are quite so obedient as to check for stickers before gnawing on something. The unfortunate reality is that anything short of a locked bank vault will not keep bears out of your food given a combination of human ineptitude (wups, forgot to screw the lid all the way on!) and sufficient time for the bear to gnaw, pummel, fling off a cliff, and otherwise assault your bear can.
The first couple of miles of our hike were flat and, except for the towering granitic walls to north and south, probably not all that interesting. Yet I remember my feeling of eager joy: Going Walking! In the Mountains! For a Week! Yeah! This is Going To be So Great! This IS So Great! Some readers may wonder what it's like to go on a hike with me. Here's a small sample: yack, yack, yackity yack Energy Policies yack yack yack Religion yackity-yack Political Contests yack yack yack yack hiking gear yack yack Bears and the Park Service yackity-yackity yack yack Solar-Powered Blimp yack yack Friends & Family yack yack yack yack yack Work Insanity yack yack yackity Cool Electronic Gadget!, and so on. Sam is remarkably tolerant… and well, he does his share of talking too.
The trail soon comes to a junction both of footpaths and water courses. The South Fork of the Rio de los Santos Reyes heads north and Bubbs Creek heads east. The junction is a a cool and relaxing stopping point.
Suitably refreshed after quaffing our fill of sparkling water, changing our socks, and drenching strategic items of clothing (sleeves, pant legs, and hats), we started up the switchbacks of the Bubbs Creek trail. It was already getting pretty warm; I was glad the trail was mostly shaded. There were not a lot of other hikers but we did see a few. One group that we caught up to was going to Whitney and we met one twosome returning from Whitney having started at Roads End seven days before. Mount Whitney is definitely like a candle flame attracting moths (the moths in this case being hikers) in this part of the Sierra. Having hiked up Whitney the previous year at the end of my Muir Trail hike, I could share in their anticipation (going towards) or pleasure (coming back from.) On the other hand, there's a lot more to the southern Sierra than just Mount Whitney.
The Bubbs Creek trail switchbacks up 1200 feet of altitude in short order. It's nicely graded; we were able to cruise on up it, pausing occasionally to admire the view back west towards our starting point (while sweating and panting a bit.) Ascending is where I notice the biggest benefit of lightweight hiking; it's more like being on a stroll than a death march. We met over the course of our hike some remarkably overloaded hikers: packs looming higher than their heads, numerous items strapped on the outside of their bulging packs, and bulky boots looking more suited to walking on the Moon than strolling in the Sierra. Some of these folks, men and women both, had packs that seemed physically bigger than themselves. I cannot fathom how they could put their packs on without help either from a burly friend or a nearby construction crane.
Notice in the photo of Sam above that his pack comes nowhere close to this description. Several times on this trip I marveled at the size of another hiker's pack and asked them how long they were out for. All were going out, or had been out, for about as long as we were planning to be. There's no nice way to say this, folks: a Big Car may make you look cool (that's debatable, yet great legions of people seem to believe so), but a Big Pack just makes you look like a fool. Now I AM a fool, but at least my svelte backpack doesn't broadcast that fact to the entire planet.
We stopped for a lunch break, then continued climbing up a much gentler gradient. Occasional small cool streams descended from the slope to our north, garlanded with flowers and even furnished here and there with mountain raspberries. Drinking, picture-taking, and eating were accompanied by the requisite contented noises: slurp!, [shutter-click!], yum! The temperature was still in the 90s but with the small streams and the nearly-constant shade we were doing mostly OK. Well, I was doing great but Sam was definitely fading a bit so we kept an easier pace. We really didn't have a particular schedule to maintain; we could just amble along and enjoy the surroundings. "Be Here Now", as it were.
As the afternoon lengthened, we started scouting for a campsite. Junction Meadow (one of several so-named in the Sierra, by the way, so I'd advise against trying to rendezvous with friends at "Junction Meadow" unless you're very specific) was ahead but I wasn't sure how much further ahead. A couple of established campsites near Bubbs Creek came into view; I set my pack by a tree, with Sam watching over it, and jogged up the trail a bit further. Nope, no meadow, and to tell the truth meadows, though scenic, have the dual flaw of being cold-traps and mosquito havens.
We set up our tents, I cooked dinner, and later made an entry in my electronic journal summarizing the day. An extract:
Nice hike to here, though was kinda hot, max around 93 degrees. Sam was fading at the end, but actually I was too; got a bit dizzy setting up camp. [Post-hike note to self: next time it'd be wiser to skip donating blood a week before a major hike at altitude.] Had a good dinner, Punjabi Choli packet and hickory-smoked tuna, yum. Sam had a protein chocolate packet of mine. I also had a Clif Apple Cider electrolyte recovery packet, pretty good if a bit salty tasting. Tomorrow to Charlotte Lake and perhaps beyond.