Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rae Lakes Loop - Kings Canyon National Park

Within the rugged back country of majestic Kings Canyon National Park, lies a beautiful 46 mile hike popularly known as the Rae Lakes Loop.

This hike has been on my ever-growing to-do list, since I ever started one. I have applied, gotten approved and cancelled a permit a couple of times due to various reasons before finally being able to complete it and then repeated. Because it's such a beautiful hike, I'd still do it all over again! The first trip was my doing and the second was an invite, and on both occasions doing the same direction and same length of days.

The loop can be done by either a clockwise direction or a counter clockwise, which I think both have its merits. I haven't completed a counter clockwise of this hike, but have hiked up to a certain point in that direction and camped at about 8 miles in.

The itinerary posted below will feature the more popular clockwise route.

Even though the trail is described as a loop, it is more of a "lollipop" kind of route. It still starts and ends at the same point, but the full circle meets with another 2 more miles to the trail head.

This hike can be done in lengths dependent on your preference of what you'd like out of the trip. I've heard of hikers doing this loop in 24 hours, some have done as an overnight. But for a more leisurely pace, 5 days is just about right and 7 days is luxurious. We had more than enough days to soak in everything with both our 7 day trips.

I'll be posting a chart below to summarize our daily mileage and elevation loss and gains with information to help plans yours!


The clockwise route, via Woods Creek Trail, is the more popular route due to the elevation you'll gain is somewhat easier than the counter clockwise route. To give a visual, on your first 8 mile hike via the clockwise route, you'd have gained about 1,600 feet of elevation. Whereas, doing the counter clockwise route, via Bubbs Creek Trail, your first 8 miles gains you about 2,225 feet elevation.

Given its popularity and if doing this hike during the peak, quota period, I strongly recommend submitting your permit applications very well in advance. I'm a stickler for this and send applications on the first day the park service opens their calendars for reservations, which is usually th 1st day of March. There are no phone reservations nor online (yet), all are required to submit via fax or mail.

I mail. I love old school mail and I love stamps!

Here's a link for a copy of the permit: Wilderness Permit Application. Please read the instructions carefully and make sure to fill out your other choices of entry dates (or places, if you prefer), in case the first doesn't pan out.


Here's a link to NOAA's website, pinpointed on the area at the start of the loop trail. Pan the map on the right hand side to get an updated weather report on a specific area of the loop.

Food Storage

Bear canisters are required in this area. Bring them if you already own one or rent one from several places, like your local REI store, Bearikade rents their product through their website, or you can also rent one from the Road's End permit station.

On hindsight, I should have rented one from the permit station and left my Garcia. From observation, I think the permit station rents out the ever so light Bearikade!

Although there are available bear/food lockers located by the popular places camp sites to use, these lockers should not always be relied upon. They can get filled up fast for several reasons, and especially on areas with high foot traffic and along the trail where thru-hikers pass.

Getting there

Kings Canyon National Park is in central California. The entrance can be accessed via the CA SR-180 in Fresno, CA. If you do not have a National Parks Annual (or Senior) Pass, the entrance fee to the park is $20 for one vehicle (all passengers included) or $5 per person on foot/bike, and it's valid for 7 days.

Head on straight past the entrance and take the left fork on the road when you get to the "Y". Drive straight along the 180/General's Highway and enjoy the 45 minute scenic drive to Roads End.

There are several camp grounds along the route if you'd like to arrive a day or 2 before your jump off day to acclimate especially if you're coming from sea level (like us!). And some camp grounds have coin operated shower facilities (get those quarters ready!) for those who'd like to have a last shower before giving up indoor plumbing for a few days.

Our itinerary

TH - Road's End5,0350.0
Paradise/ Bubbs Creek Junction5,0352.0
Mist Falls5,6634.0No camping
Lower Paradise Valley6,6006.0Standard bear box
Middle Paradise Valley6,6318.01,5968.0Standard bear box
Upper Paradise Valley6,91611.0Large + Standard bear box
Castle Dome Meadow8,173
Woods Creek Crossing8,50017.01,5849.0Standard bear box
Dollar Lake/ Arrowhead Lake10,30022.0Standard bear box @ Arrowhead
Lower Rae Lake10,538
Rae Lakes10,59625.02,0968.0Large + Standard bear box
Glen Pass11,97827.5
Charlotte Lake Junction10,61930.0
Vidette Meadow9,62932.0Standard bear box
Lower Vidette Meadow9,482
Junction Meadow8,15635.0Standard bear box
Charlotte Creek7,26038.5-4,71813.5Standard bear box
Sphinx Creek Junction6,31642.0Standard bear box
Paradise/ Bubbs Creek Junction5,03544.0
TH - Road's End5,03546.0-2,2257.5

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rae Lakes Loop Part 5: Charlotte Creek to Roads End

Charlotte Creek to Roads End: 7.5 miles - 2,225 feet elevation loss

Trudged back up on the trail then crossing Charlotte Creek, the last leg of the trip begins.

We gradually climb down to Sphinx Creek Junction. The trail follows the the flow of Bubbs Creek on the left of us. 4 miles later, we arrive at the junction. There's a sign pointing to the direction of getting to Avalanche Pass and Roaring River, where you can find a bridge to cross Bubbs Creek and continue on that trail.

This is also another camp site here that offers a more tucked away area from the trail than Charlotte Creek's. The trail to camp is on the right (when you're coming out). The camp also has a bear/food locker to share among the other campers.

Lookin' like a Sphinx up top, no?

I love this part of the trail, pass the Sphinx Creek Junction. The ground is softly padded by the leaves that have fallen on the ground, on one side the mountain slopes down and the trees branches spread out like a canopy as you walk under.

Not long after, the trail changes into a more rocky ground with views of the valley  in front of us. Then the switchback down begins. It's switchback after switchback to get back down to the trail head.

Somewhere out there our ride home awaits!

Then we start to see the first of the several small bridges we will be crossing. Most of them atop dry creek beds. But from previous weekend trips in this area, the sign of the bridges means we're getting close to our final destination. We crossed the last wooden bridge that gets us across Bubbs Creek.

From here there's but one more bridge to cross, a steel bridge named Bailey Bridge, then we're back at the trail that we took on our first day of this trip. And back to the sandy part of the trail.

Bailey Bridge.

Hiking on sand with feet constantly sinking, and under the heat of the midday sun is not easy! Especially when your mind knows the end is near and a good shower, hot meal and a bed that night awaits.

We made back to the trail head and bee lined to the closest shower facilities, on Cedar Grove.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rae Lakes Loop Part 4: Rae Lakes, Glen Pass to Charlotte Creek

Rae Lakes, Glen Pass to Charlotte Creek: 13.5 miles - 1,434 feet elevation gain/ 4,718 feet elevation loss

Up and over! Best to leave early and avoid the scorching sun
climbing up to Glen Pass at 11,978 feet.
Hopping back on the trail from our camp site, the trail circles around the middle lake and eventually comes up to the Rae Lake crossing, where the upper lake feeds the middle. I've heard on other, previously wet seasons, that this can be a hard crossing to navigate. The logs serving as a bridge to cross were open for us to use on both our separate trips.

Upper Rae Lake in the morning sun.
Just beyond the water crossing is the trail junction to Sixty Lakes Basin. Might try to camp out there on my next visit! Solitude seekers would have better luck spending the night here, as what we've been recommended by several hikers on separate occasions and trips.

It's not long after, the trail begins to ascend. The grueling 2.5 mile climb up to the pass starts. Every clamber up was either a beautiful lush green trail or a beautiful view of the lake we left.

Then we started leaving the greenery and entered the steep rocky terrain.  It's a slow and steep climb. Climbing up on mostly exposed switchbacks with rocks obscuring where the next switchback is located. Occasional dots of other hikers above help see where we were headed.

Usually around early to mid July, even though it is well in the summer months already, the pass may still be covered with snow. But on the 1st week of July in 2012, the whole trail was clear. Small patches of snow can still be found  around, but none to be too concerned about. Might be significantly different if the winter that passed had been a big snow season.

Views of Rae Lakes slowly become smaller and smaller, making it a bit incredible to believe we were just there a few hours ago. It was starting to feel far and away. But to our amusement, were replaced by finding other alpine lakes along the trail produced by earlier snow melts. Their colors remind me of blue crystal jewels!

Slowly but surely (more like processional pace for me!), we got to the top of the pass. The view is spectacular. That 360 degree view? Yeah, got it! A 180 degree view of where we came from and a 180 degree view of where we were headed for the rest of the day. It seemed so surreal. Stopped for a few photos and considered a long meal break, but it seems most folks coming from both directions have the same idea, so it became just a short snack break. It got crowded pretty quick. It is, after all, a spectacular view to take a good long break.. as long as storm clouds don't start up!

Atop Glen Pass!
We flew on our downhill getting off the  pass. Enjoying our speedy momentum, the exact opposite of what we were doing not too long ago, sluggish and slow. We passed a few more unnamed alpine lakes with beautiful blue hues and colorful little "gardens".

Start seeing Charlotte Lake.
It was an almost never ending switchback before the steep downhill climb lets up a bit to a more gradual one. We would start to see Charlotte Lake in the distance below us. A beautiful blue lake surrounded by lots of trees and if we'd look carefully, we could see the Charlotte Lake ranger station below, somewhere between us and the lake.

Charlotte Lake is an optional spot to camp for a night. It is only a marked 0.7 miles veer off the Rae Lakes Loops route and offers a bear/food locker and a ranger station.

After 7 miles and 3,000 feet later from where we started is Vidette Meadow. We found a bear/ food locker here but beware of getting mauled by mosquitoes in case of planning to camp here. We merely stopped mid-afternoon for a quick map check and we got pounced on!

A couple of miles along is Junction Meadow, where it is marked by a sign indicating a.. wait for it.. trail junction! How fitting the name was, hahaha. There is a trail that veers off from here to East Lake and Reflection Lake, some 3 and 5 miles, respectively.

Passing through beautiful Junction Meadow.
Some 13 miles later, arriving at Charlotte Creek in time to set-up camp and have an early dinner. Like most spots we camped in, there is one bear/ food locker here to share. And the closest water source is Bubbs creek, towards braving the forest of ferns close to camp, that are swarming with mosquitoes or back on the trail passing the camp site, is Charlotte creek that cuts across the trail.

Similar to Paradise Valley, this "opposite side" of the loop is also known for a very active bear area. We caught a glimpse of one in the late afternoon, back up on the trail, strolling.

Tried to capture at least the butt-end of a cinnamon colored bear.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rae Lakes Loop Part 3: Woods Creek Crossing to Rae Lake

Woods Creek Crossing to Rae Lake: 8 miles - 2,096 feet elevation gain

This is, and I think will always be, my favorite part of this route. If I enjoyed the first 2 parts of our hikes on this loop, this part I was in awe. 

After hiking up a bit, we entered a very dense forest of ferns. The colors were beautiful, colorful wild flowers were in bloom highlighted by the lush greens from the ferns. It was lively and alive! And so were the mosquitoes, hungry and newly hatched, I'd suspect!

On one season, we had to quickly whip out our head nets to protect our faces from all the mutant looking mosquitoes that just swarmed around us. We only had a short period of time to admire all the greens and colorful flowers sans head nets. On another season, we just ran through this portion, waving our hands in front of our faces like lunatics. No photos for that one, thank goodness!

About a mile in our hike for the day, the trail started to climb up on some switch backs before eventually getting to a quick short climb down to a wooden platform leading into a lush green meadow. Watch out for more mosquitoes!

Further along and climbing up from the meadow we passed through, there's a good spot to take a quick meal break, on the left side of the trail. A huge flat topped rock provides an expansive view of the gorgeous valley we climbed out of.

It was difficult to tear away from sitting and enjoying the scenery before us but more beautiful things await us for the day. And not too long after leaving that little break spot, we reached the 10,000 foot elevation mark reminding us of the fire restriction at this elevation in Kings Canyon National Park. And then, it was just a tad bit of a climb before we can get to our first lake of the trip!

At 10,300 feet elevation, by the (not maintained trail) Baxter Pass trail junction, Dollar Lake came into view. The flat terrain by this side of lake is closed for camping and have signs from the park service that they are restoring vegetation in that area.

The trail continues and skirts around the lake, opening up to a picturesque open space of lush greenery with a creek meandering through it. Eventually crossing the creek that feeds the Dollar lake, Arrowhead Lake comes into view. There is a bear/food locker by Arrowhead Lake but vigilance may be needed if staying. Keep an eye out for those fluffy, adorable marmots as they abound this area.

It is a gradual climb beyond Arrowhead Lake, then Lower Rae Lake will eventually come into view. It's a lake galore kind of day! Spaces to camp can be found, along with a bear/food locker. Though, it is a bit exposed along the trail but guaranteed will not be as crowded as at Middle Rae Lake.

Lower Rae Lake camp site with bear/food locker
Beautiful Rae Lake from along the trail.
The back country ranger station can be found on a spur trail up to the left side, a little ways pass Lower Rae. We popped in to say hi and was only able to catch the ranger once. But the cabin itself is worth a visit! It's an adorable tiny house, fit to be occupied by the ranger throughout the hiking season. I wouldn't mind living there in solitary.. ever!

Pass the ranger station, a sign pointing to where the food locker is located will come up to the left and then it's a walk down where the camp sites and a couple of bear/food lockers can be found, closer to Rae Lake.

Rae Lake with the Painted Lady in the back drop.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rae Lakes Loop Part 2: Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek Crossing

Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek Crossing: 9 miles - 1,584 feet elevation gain

Passing through Upper Paradise Valley, you'll come upon a bridge. If you're with someone, let them go ahead and take a picture of you on the bridge below the steps. It's an awesome photo op with spires of granite as your backdrop! After coming down from the bridge, the trail will continue on your right. If you didn't fill up with water before leaving camp, best to fill up now, it'll be a while before the next water source.

The trail continues on through and we enter again into the thicket of trees. As the trees started to get sparse, a series of switchback came into our view.

We came across a fence made of wire and wood while climbing up a switch back and questioned if we were trespassing on something, but there was no gate, just an open part of the fence for us to go through. Guessing, it was to mark park boundaries. Maybe. Since we came across another of the same fence not too long after. I felt we entered and exited someone's property. And if it was, what an awesome place to live! I imagined. The valley before us now came into view and camp should just be past the meadow. But the trail seem to go on forever.

Castle Dome Meadow was pretty. If only there was enough shade to rest under in! On our 2013 trip, most of the trees and brushes around were singed. Remnants of a previous fire, maybe or lightning strikes. The Castle Domes stand as granite walls to our left as we trudge along the trail to Woods Creek Crossing.

One of the best thing I loved about this hike was its abundance of bridges! Small, big and ones you can't stop marveling at. And by far, my favorite of all wilderness bridges was this hanging bridge at Woods Creek crossing. Turning right at junction to head south, where Woods Creek Trail meets with the JMT/PCT, we were to cross the hanging bridge to our camp site. The bridge was a bit trippy and hella fun to walk on, especially during our first time!

After crossing the bridge, camp sites abound and bear lockers. One bear locker can easily be found just on the left side of the trail and one or two more can be found off the trail to the right. Though one of those two stank of horse manure and I've come across a horse post not too far from it.

This is where we started meeting several thru-hikers since our route now has met up with the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, so there is a lot of access to this area coming from the west and the east side of the sierra. The area gets pretty busy. Folks hiking through, some setting up camps, others taking their breaks waiting for hiking friends and hikers helping hikers take their photos with the beautiful bridge.

Rae Lakes Loop Part 1: Road's End to Middle Paradise Valley

Road's End to Middle Paradise Valley: 8 miles - 1,596 feet of elevation gain

The trail starts with a very sandy stretch of a trail. Too excited of what lay ahead of us to be aware of how annoying it was, as it keeps sucking down every step we'd make. We would, however, notice it on our way out though!

It is about 2 miles until we hit the "Y" section (the end of the "stick" part of the lollipop, per se) , taking the left fork to Woods Creek Trail and leaving the left fork leading to a metal bridge towards Bubbs Creek Trail, for us to come back to. And from here it's a 2 mile climb up for our first real break at Mist Falls, where we'll also loose most of the hiking crowd doing their day hike to the waterfalls.

Mist Falls wasn't very "misty" July of 2012

More climbing had to be done before getting to our first camp site of the week, at Middle Paradise Valley. Past Mist Falls, the trail continues to climb up for about 1.5 miles before it evens out, giving a brief moment of respite before continuing on climbing up again.

Lower Paradise Valley, 2 miles from Mist Falls, is also an option to camp with a few sites and a bear box, but after arriving there in the afternoon without any sun shining through and it's thick with trees (and mosquitoes!), the place looks forlorn. A push for a couple of miles more along a flat terrain, the Middle Paradise was a better choice.

Ultimately though, Upper Paradise Valley was more ideal. It's a bit more open, has more than one bear box and 2 more miles closer to the next destination!

But we didn't want to shock our bodies for our first day and settled for midway through the valley. The camp site has one food lockers for everyone to use. A pit toilet is also tucked away somewhere to the west of the trail (north side). There was a sign pointing to its direction by the first camp site but we never got to check it out. And I didn't find (nor did I look for it) on our second trip.

Bears are also very active in this area. Bear proof your camp site and you should be fine! We got a visit from one who was much too busy rummaging the logs in quest for food, to give us much more than a glance. Probably helped that we were making too much noise and he deemed us more of an ear ache than food bringers. But in the midst of all the noise making we did, lots of photo-taking had to happen, of course!