Trip Report - Rae Lakes Loop

Fin Dome from Dollar Lake (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

Immediately following my resignation from IRI, most of my thoughts were consumed with some nerve-wracking questions: How am I going to find a new job? What do I want to do with my life? How will I get health insurance? In general, there was a lot of gut checking, self worth questioning, and general worrying about what was around the bend. I left IRI without another job lined up - acknowledging that some decompression time was in order and a clear head would be necessary to think about my career direction.

I'm actually surprised that it took me as long as it did to realize that I was going to have quite a bit of free time on my hands. It wasn't long before I decided to spend a few days by myself outside. When I first started backpacking in college, I didn't know anyone else that was interested - so all my trips were solo affairs. I now refer to these as the pre-Benson years. It had been probably eight years and 20+ trips since I hit the trail by myself. And while I knew I would miss Jody (the greatest wife, trail partner, and bed warmer on God's green earth), I was actually looking forward to going it alone this time.

Driving through King's Canyon NP on my way to the Road's End trailhead, I started to get concerned about the amount of smoke in the air. It hung heavy over the canyon, choking out the views and filtering the morning light into an eerie orange glow. When I arrived at the trailhead, I was relieved to find out that, despite the copious smoke, the fires were rather small and nowhere near my planned route. I grabbed my permit, dialed in my pack and hit the trail as soon as possible; not quite sure how my neglected body was going to respond to a long day on the trail.

Hiking In - Paradise Valley

Starting at 5,000' amidst the sequoias, the hike up to Paradise Valley was beautiful. With my back to the towering presence of the Sphinx, I slowly climbed along the Kings River, passing Mist Falls en route. Once I reached Lower Paradise Valley, the trail leveled off, but the final three miles to Upper Paradise sure did seem to drag. Once there, I found a nice campsite and promptly met an intrepid soul named Camilla - a teacher from Washington D.C. who used to work at Kings Canyon NP. She too was hiking alone, but her itinerary put mine to shame. While I was taking five or six days to complete the loop, she would do it in four with a large cross-country "short cut" through the interior. That evening I also met Chuck and Paul, a father and son pair from Lake County whom I would hang out with most nights for the rest of the trip.

I was up and on the trail early Wednesday morning. I had been toying with the idea of trying to knock out the hike in four days and this was the best day to swallow a double dose of trail miles. After six or seven miles of hiking, I arrived at Woods Creek Crossing and laid to rest my plans for a four day trip. I just didn't have it in me to pull off a long day. And why the hell was I in such a hurry? The weight of my pack had been a major frustration from day one. I was accustomed to splitting some of the camp gear with Jody and my efforts to leave some weight at home didn't seem to have a major effect.

I spent my afternoon soaking in the cool water of Woods Creek and taking naps in my tent. I photographed every detail of the suspension trail bridge for my bridge-engineer father-in-law. I was now camped along the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail, so hiker traffic was a little higher. I met a collection of salty old hikers that put my knowledge of the Sierra to shame. It seemed they could name every pass, lake, mountain, and trailhead in the High Sierra. It gave me a glimpse of what I would probably be like in another twenty-five years.

On to The Rae Lakes

Thursday morning came early and I was on the trail by 7AM. Despite the short distance, the seven mile hike to Rae Lakes wore me down, much like the day before. I took plenty of breaks along the trail and enjoyed the view as Fin Dome and Painted Lady grew larger in front of me. Crossing the 10,000 foot mark felt good as well, knowing that Friday would be my last day with any climbing. Every morning my pack felt a bit lighter, and I looked forward to a cool soak after each day of hiking. I found a nice campsite along the trail near the Rae Lakes and spent my long afternoon taking photos and trying to guess the route up and over Glen Pass.

The Rae Lakes region is pretty deep - at least a two day hike for an average hiker. I definitely got the sense that I wasn't close to anywhere, but the regular foot traffic reminded me that I was also in one of the most popular sections of the High Sierra. It's heartening to see so many like-minded people enjoying the mountains, investing the time and effort to see this area. The Rae Lakes, while crowded, offer a beautiful setting to chill out and soak up the high mountain vibe.

Up and Over Glen Pass

I broke camp early on Friday morning, hoping to get up and over Glen Pass (11,978') before the sun climbed too high. I paced myself on the hike over the pass, knowing that I should take some time to enjoy the view. The switchbacks up the craggy pass proved challenging, but I topped out before long and spent some time up top soaking it all up - the granite, the glaciers, the lakes - damn the Sierra is beautiful.

I made good time coming down the backside of Glen Pass. I felt strong, and by the time I got to Vidette Meadow I started having more thoughts about finishing up in four days, which would have required a twenty mile day with fifteen hundred feet of climbing and seven thousand feet of descending. The next three miles cured me of that idea as I dropped another fifteen hundred feet over three miles in the blazing sun. By the time I dropped my pack at Junction Meadow, I was quite certain that five days was a much more reasonable goal. I was busted down, broken, and thoroughly dehydrated. I matched my personal best from day 1 of the hike and drank eight liters of water over the course of the day.

One Last Night on the Trail

Before long I was joined in camp by Chuck and Paul, who proved again to be good company. Shortly after setting up camp, we met guy who had just hiked up from Roads End. He worked for Sequoia as a bear technician and was heading to Center Basin to investigate some aggressive bears that had been charging hikers. I was totally interested by this guy's job, and he explained that most of his time was spent in the front country dealing with bears that pester people around the big campgrounds and picnic areas. In those situations he has a partner and a rifle with rubber bullets. In the backcountry all he has is a can of pepper spray and a slingshot. His plan was to track this bear down and basically haze it until it's scared of him. I've gotta give the guy credit - he's got balls. He was also testing some prototype bear canisters for Ursack. Over the course of the summer he had already tallied 150+ bear sightings. I, on the other hand, hadn't seen a bear yet on this hike, which is pretty rare in this part of the Sierra.

Breaking down camp for the last time on Saturday morning, I was eager to complete the hike, but sad that it was all coming to an end. I had really enjoyed myself, but I missed my girl and was anxious to re-acquaint myself with a fresh pair of boxers. Speaking of dirty, I passed my fair share of Fresno locals on the way down that could stand to meet the business end of a bar of soap - "Pool or pond. Pond would be good for you." (Whoa - cheap shot!) Despite the steep descent, the miles clicked by pretty fast and I was back at my car by noon. I said goodbye to Chuck and Paul and settled in for the long drive back to San Francisco.

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