Rae Lakes Loop 1

2005 August 8 to 10

Rae Lakes Loop


It was with no small amount of relief that I canceled my 5-day, 100-mile solo hike and instead started planning a leisurely 5-day, 40-mile jaunt with my wife. She unexpectedly had been given a week off and I wasted no time in convincing her that spending almost all of it high in the sierras would be a wonderful idea. So Sunday morning the adventure began as we zoomed from my parents house in the Santa Cruz mountains south down Highway 1 then east on Highway 152 all the way until it ended at Highway 99 (we love our '92 Toyota Camry but with the AC on the fritz my parent's Jetta wins every time, thanks Mom and Dad). From there we zipped south the Fresno where we turned east on Highway 180 and didn't stop until it ended, at Road's End (incidentally).

Because the drive went quickly we arrived at the ranger station before 3 pm and were able to get our permit for the hike and buy a map right away rather than waiting for the station to open up the following morning. It is worth noting that we didn't have a reservation and the map, despite costing only $4, was a very high quality contour map printed on plastic paper.

With all of our "to do" items crossed off we had to decide how to spend the night. An expensive hotel room at Cedar Grove ($109.00 for 2 queen size beds, $139.00 for a double room with patio, but the campsite was $18.00), 6 miles west of the trailhead at Road's End, was selected to simplify matters. That night we ate a decent meal at the Cedar Grove lodge and had fun repacking the bear canister.

One of my goals for the trip was to use only one bear canister for our 5-day, 4-night trip. Of course the first days food need not go in the canister but that still leaves 4 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 4 snacks, and 3 dinners (dinner on the last day isn't required), all for two people. Our food was as follows:

  • breakfast: oatmeal premixed with powdered milk, brown sugar, 25 raisins, and salt
  • lunch: flatbread with peanut butter/jam and Ovaltine premixed with powdered milk
  • dinner: chili mac (pasta, vegi chili mix, refried bean mix, olive oil, salt, Tabasco)
  • snacks: peanut M&M's, honey sesame sticks, Good & Plenty, pepperoni sticks, & Gatorade

According to my food spreadsheet this would provide 2626 calories per day and weigh 1.4 pounds per person per day. The actual weight was closer to 1.7 pounds per day; I guess the nutritional information on the food packaging isn't that accurate.

And after several attempts we got it all to fit. We even packed it in reverse order so the food we needed was always on top.

Day 1

By 7 am we were storming down the trail having driven the 6 miles from Cedar Grove to the trailhead at Road's End while eating our breakfast in the car (Starbucks bottled Frappucino® TMmochas, a banana, and a few Lu cookies). Emily set the tone for the entire trip by setting a fierce pace and by 8:30 am we stopped for a break at Mist Falls, some 3.8 miles from the trailhead. Indeed, for the entire trip Em led the way and at times it was all I could do to keep up.

Em studies the map at Mist Falls, our first stop some 3.8 miles from the trailhead. The breezes out on the exposed rock were a welcome relief from the flies and gnats that hounded us on the way up the trail early that morning.

Here's another shot of our studious cartographer along with a view looking down the South Fork of the Kings River. During our trip a large fire was burning out of control so at lower elevations the canyon was a bit smoky.

This swimming hole in the Kings River at the southern end of Paradise Valley was our favorite of the entire trip. Just look at the water...

Another shot of our favorite swimming hole featuring a naked man in a 70's style egg type chair.

We continued up Paradise Valley, stopping for another dunking at 11:15 am just downstream of a fisherman, until we reached the designated campgrounds in Upper Paradise Valley around noon. We once again got wet, ate lunch, and took naps, in that order. After our rest it seemed way to early to stop for the night, plus the swimming was not good, so we started up Woods Creek.

After a nice lunch in Upper Paradise Valley we took a nap on our un-inflated air mattresses. Emily chose to sleep with a hand over her ear to keep the flies out.

When one leaves the Upper Paradise Valley designated camping area you cross the river via this debris pile, as Em is doing in the picture. Prior to our lunch we dunked in pool on the upstream side of the log jam but were afraid to swim for fear of getting out in the current and being sucked into the logs.

This would turn out to be a fairly hot, dusty, and waterless trail despite following a creek the entire way. It should be mentioned however, that Woods Creek would be considered a raging river in many parts of the world. However, we plugged along and by 4 pm we reached a drift fence indicated on the map and things became much easier as we entered Castle Domes Meadow. We would later agree that the stretch from Upper Paradise Valley to the first drift gate was the least pleasurable of the entire trip.

The Castle Dome looms large on Em's left, almost obscured by smoke from a distant wildfire, as we climbed a dry, dusty section of trail following Woods Creek. This photo was taken just before we reached the drift gate.

In Castle Domes Meadow Hugh pauses to reflect on the benefits of hiking all day in long silk pajama pants. Photo by Bunny.

It was at 5 pm that we reached the PCT/JMT, crossed the huge wooden suspension bridge, and set up camp for the night, joining about 20 people that were already there. This turned out to be a wonderful place to camp since it was close to water and for some reason had no bugs. Despite the large number of people we didn't at all feel cramped and it was nice to talk to some other people after a day spent almost entirely amongst ourselves. Among the characters we met were an Englishman from Blackburn (near Manchester) who was hiking the entire JMT and moved very slowly around the campground, twin teenage brothers who had a broken stove and had to cook dinner over an open fire, and solitary older man who only went a few miles each day and packed everything but the kitchen sink.

Day 2

We were up early to start our second day and pleased to find that the tent and fly didn't have any condensation which made packing much easier. Skipping breakfast at camp, as usual, we headed up a spectacular section of trail to Dollar Lake, the first lake of the trip, where we cooked our oatmeal at 8:30 am. Although the trail to the lake was magnificent the lake was disappointing and suffering a bit from mosquitoes.

Em and I both really enjoyed the hike up to Dollar Lake from our campsite at Woods Creek Crossing. There is something special about hiking early in the morning and watching the colors change as the sun rises and basks the Castles Domes in light. Note that I am not using my hip-belt since I found the pack to be very comfortable without it, even carrying all of the food.

Wow! If we 'liked' the trail up to Dollar Lake we 'loved' the trail leading to Rae Lakes. Look at this scenery, spectacular 5 feet or 5 miles away. The highest point in the background is the Fin Dome, topping out at 13,126 feet.

From the lake the trail continued to be amazing and at 10:15 am we were in the heart of Rae Lakes at the sign post indicating the trail that led to the Ranger Station. We continued on and pitched our tent just south and east of the log bridge that connects the two main lakes. Our site was perched directly on a flat granite slab (hooray for our 2.5" thick Big Agnes air mattresses) overlooking the southern Rae Lake, the rock formation called the Painted Lady, and 12,000-foot Glen Pass.

After setting up the tent we left most of the gear inside, packed some food, and began the ascent to the Sixty Lakes Basin which required a climb from our current elevation of 10,700 feet to 11,200 feet before heading down to the lakes. Although the skies had been blue when arrived at Rae Lakes they were now gray and the four trail workers we passed told us they had had thunderstorms everyday for the last two weeks. Hey, I was all for that but instead of a spectacular light show the sky barely spit, we heard thunder perhaps 5 times, and saw no lightning. In fact, the only thing the thunderstorm did was make the sky gray, boo hoo.

So it was under these conditions that we headed up to the Sixty Lakes Basin. By the time we reached the summit and looked down at the lakes we had no desire to continue so we took some photos and headed back down to the Rae Lakes. However, on the way back we had cause for celebration as Emily made her first dookie in the woods. She also found a leather work glove, certainly left by a trail worker, but when she carried it down and returned it he seemed more annoyed than anything else and muttered something about burning it.

Here I am, without long silk pajamas, at the pass connecting Rae Lakes to the Sixty Lakes Basin. The visible lake is the largest of the sixty lakes.

Em was feeling her oats at the pass leading to Sixty Lakes Basin.

Say Poobie, what's under that rock and why do you look so relieved and happy?

What a view! This is southern Rae Lake as viewed from the trail leading to the Sixty Lake Basin. The peak at the far right is called the Painted Lady although the colors don't really 'pop' in this picture due to the gray thunderstorm skies.

Back down at Rae Lakes we found a nice place to swim but, alas, the lakes were a bit too cold to be enjoyable so after quickly cleaning ourselves we washed our clothes and then went back to our campsite to enjoy the scenery. During this time the JMT hiker from Manchester ambled by, said hello, and began to climb the pass. And this is were it all began to go wrong...

This trip was based on Kevin Gong's trip (KevinGong.com) and the exact same trip my co-worker Henrik took in which they spent 6 or 7 days for the entire loop. Based on that timetable, we planned on getting to Rae Lakes on our 2nd night and spending the entire 3rd day there, with a day trip to the Sixty Lakes Basin and an ascent of Glen Pass early on the 4th day. However, here it was, early afternoon on the 2nd day and we had already done everything we had planned for the first 3 days. And, as I said before, Em was leading the way the entire time.

The solution was obvious so we packed up the tent, bid a fond farewell to our unused campsite and began the climb up Glen Pass, Em's first high sierra pass, at 3:30 pm. We made solid progress, gaining about 1,300 feet along the 2.8 mile trail to the pass and at 4:45 pm we reached the knife-edge pass. Em was ecstatic. We had now climbed about 7,000 feet vertically in under two days so the rest of the trip would be downhill. As a bonus the skies where blue on the southern side of the pass, a pleasant change from the gray that had dominated the Rae Lakes region.

It was hard to leave our campsite at Rae Lakes but Glen Pass beckoned. Our tent was pitched on the rock directly where Em is standing. It was a superior site with views of the southern Rae Lake and its island, the Painted Lady, and Glen Pass. It was also breezy enough to keep all bugs away. From this picture it's easy to see why we were mistaken for day hikers. Em's pack, with the entire tent, a 2.5" thick full length air mattress, a complete rain suit, and lots of extra clothes was 12 pounds.

As we neared the 12,000-foot summit of Glen Pass (11,978 feet technically) Em was fascinated by the purity of the water flowing down the trail. In this particular spot the trail builders did a fantastic job with the stairs.

And just before the summit we had to cross this snowfield. Although it wasn't difficult a fall could have been fatal.

Hooray, we made it to the pass! This photo is taken looking west and we are headed south, to the left. The drops on either side of the pass are pretty treacherous.

This is one of my favorite shots of the entire trip, switchbacks on the southern face just below Glen Pass. Perhaps Em should wear the yellow rain jacket more often.

And we named it "Teal Lake" and deemed it to be the prettiest lake on the entire trip. This is the first lake you encounter while heading south from Glen Pass.

We descended at a leisurely pace, with no goals in mind and at some point, right in the middle of the trail, decided to make dinner. This was a waterless site but our chili-mac only required 2.5 cups of water so it didn't matter. Perhaps it was the altitude, or maybe I just brought too much food, but we were only able to eat about 2/3 of dinner and ended up flinging the rest down the cliff. I used another cup of water to wash out the pot and then we hit the trail again, not stopping until we set up camp.

Our selected campsite was just adjacent to the JMT/PCT between the junctions that lead to Kearsarge Pass and Charlotte Lake and was an area unlike anything I had ever seen in the sierras. It was very flat and open yet covered with sand and fine rocks rather than meadows. We both considered it to be a fine place to spend the night and after using our remaining water to wet our bandanas and wipe our grubby faces, necks, and arms we went to bed.

While snug in the tent we laughed at how I jumped up and down and cursed when we poured our precious water onto my carefully folded bandana for our sponge bath only to watch it bead up and run off. What the hell kind of cotton is it made of? Emily also had a chance to play her favorite tent game, waiting for mosquitoes to land on the netting and then "sending them into orbit" with a flick of her finger. We were having a grand time.

Day 3

There was no doubt that today would be our last, the only question was at what time would we reach the trailhead. With this in mind Em set a rapid pace but we still had time to see amazing ripe gooseberries (all spiky like old time water mines, but bright red), wildflowers, and a waterfall along Bubbs Creek that reminded us of Trummelbach Falls in Switzerland. I especially enjoyed a section along Bubbs Creek where a rock slide had slid down from the north face and seemed to go halfway up the south face of the canyon. It looked as if the slide could have happened a few days ago, based on the freshness(?) of the rocks but this was clearly not the case since Bubbs Creek had carved a path through it. We headed through this area in the morning with the sun at our backs and it was just magical.

Unlike our trip up Paradise Valley on the first day, this trail had areas which Em described as a "tropical forest" but she plowed through it like a woman possessed. At one point while passing by a tree with an abundance of red fruit we heard a large crash and conjectured that we startled a bear. Dookie on the trail not far away seemed to back up our suspicion.

Lush foliage in Junction Meadow, I think.

Past Junction Meadow, while following Bubbs Creek we started to look for a nice place to eat breakfast. It was around 9 am and we had only eaten our leftover snacks from the previous day so I was starting to get hungry and maybe a little cranky. What was driving me bonkers was mainly the fact that we could always hear the water but access would come and go and most spots weren't suitable for a nice pit stop. It was especially infuriating since when we could actually see Bubbs Creek though an opening in the forest superb spots were waiting for us, but on the other side of the un-crossable river. I think it was around 9:30 am that we actually found a nice little spot with a sandy beach along the river. The forest canopy was too thick for any sun to penetrate so Em was worried about mosquitoes but after we killed the ones that had been following us we had a very nice little break. The oatmeal was superb, hitting the spot nicely, and complimenting the cold river that I dunked myself and rinsed my clothes in.

At 11:30 am we reached the Sphinx Creek Trail Junction were I made my second dookie of the trip and then took another dunk in the river. It was also in this area that we were mistaken for day hikers for about the 5th time on the trip. On this occasion a couple of fit 40-ish men commented to us how nice it must be to be a day hiker. Em and I looked at each other, smiled, and told them that we were just about to finish the loop at which point one of them said "What the hell are we doing wrong?". The answer is quite simple, "you're carrying too much shit" but I just smiled and said nothing. The reader may be interested to know that Em's base pack weight, everything but food or water, was about 12 pounds while mine was 10 pounds including the bear canister. Before I get accused of not treating my wife well it is worth noting that I carried all of the food so my pack started out at about 27 pounds (including food for 2 people for 5 days).

After leaving the junction we started down our last switchbacks and were treated to amazing canyon views at the intersection of Bubbs Creek and the South Fork of the Kings River. At 1:30 pm we were back at the Road's End trailhead and after a no-soap bath in the river (near Muir rock) with all of the tourists and fresh cotton clothes we zipped from one paradise to another, stopping only at Ocampo's in Fresno for an early dinner (delicious fajita tostada salad and albondigas). You see, making quick work of the loop meant that we could, and did, spend 4 glorious days lounging at my parents house in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

40 plus miles and 54.5 hours later we are back to the trailhead. My only regret is that I finished with 8.5 pounds of food.

Our packs served us well. Emily carried the GVP G4 on the left while I used the newer Gossamer Gear Mariposa. To see what was in our packs and how light they were see the following page.

Cheap ethnic food, our favorite. At this newly opened Fresno establishment Em and I shared an excellent fajita tostada and a bowl of albondigas.

Conclusion / Gear List

We completed the loop much more quickly than planned, in half the time actually, but we never rushed, except for a little bit on the last day, but that's to be expected (yep, I'm like a horse that smells home at the end of a trip). I would like to go on a long trip in the future and this experience has taught me that unless it has good swimming holes I might as well plan high mileage days from the start.

One thing that surprised me was our food intake, specifically on the second day, our only day where we only ate the food we brought. I was worried that with our strenuous activity the ~ 2600 calories per day would not be enough but on day 2 we only ate about 2/3 of our dinner and didn't finish all of our snacks. It may have been the altitude but I'm inclined to think that I just brought too much food. Next time I'll bring less.

The items that we carried in our packs are listed in the table below, excluding food, water, and clothes worn or items carried in our pockets.

In addition to Em's base weight she sometimes carried up to 1 liter of water (2.2 pounds) and the food that we would consume that day (~ 3 pounds), stored in an inside out Mylar (to keep UV light or heat from the sun out) potato chip bag on the outside of her pack for easy access. I carried the remaining food, 1 fluid ounce of denatured alcohol for each of our 4 breakfasts and 3 dinners, and also up to 1 liter of water. We almost never carried more than 1 liter of water combined.

Both of us wore similar clothes while walking; running shoes, thin synthetic ankle socks, synthetic shorts with built in underwear, synthetic tee shirts, visors, cotton bandanas, prescription glasses with transition lenses, and we each carried one 5-ounce homemade trekking pole. Other than this I had a watch and Em carried 2 ounces of 100% DEET in a pump spray bottle in her pocket for easy access. She also sometime wore a bathing suit bottom, top, and synthetic tank top.

With our recipe for success, keeping everything simple and light, you can't go wrong!