Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon

September 2014

About the Rae Lakes Loops:
Total distance: 42 mi
Total elevation gain: 6,943 ft
Maximum elevation: 11,978 ft at Glen Pass

One day Dmitriy was playing around with google maps and randomly came across Kings Canyon. It looked really cool, so we decided to plan a trip there. I found the Rae Lakes Loop, and it looked like a good first-backpacking trip. Originally I somehow figured it was ~40km, although it turns out it is really ~40 miles. That was a bit of a surprise, but we just added one more day to the trip.

Pre-trip planning

We applied for a back-country permit sometime in July, and got our second choice of dates. Considering how late we applied, we were really happy about this. Wilderness / backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays in the wilderness, and for really popular places, such as Yosemite Valley, you need to apply in March (and even then it is a random draw for who gets them).

A couple days before the trip, we made a visit to REI. We needed to get backpacks (which are horribly expensive), a camping stove + gas, a water filter, and we decided it was time to invest in a light-weight tent. There is something super nice and fun about going to camping stores. We spent several hours trying on bags and trying to decide which the best ones were.

This was our first back-packing experience, so we weren’t entirely sure how to prepare. Our main concern was being adequately prepared with food. Dmitriy made clarified butter, by boiling it so the milk products solidify and can be removed. This prevents it from spoiling when un-refrigerated on the trail.

We also stocked up on foods. Below is all the food we brought for the trip. Dmitriy was prone to bringing too much food and I was prone to bringing too little, but together we came pretty near perfect! By the end of our trip we ate all dinner foods, most breakfast foods, and part of the snacks. Next time we will bring a bit more dinner food and less snacks. The best snack was the turkey jerky, which we will definitely bring again. We might change the breakfasts. While I am usually starving come breakfast time, for whatever reason I found it really hard to eat solid food for breakfast and only ever had chicken broth for breakfast (sometimes with butter added for calories). Dmitriy always had a hearty meal of oatmeal with dried cherries.

Day 1

Elevation at canyon floor: 5035 ft

As soon as school “ended” for the day (at 5pm), we went home and packed our bags. I was surprised by how little actually fits in one of the backpacking bags – most of the space was filled up by my sleeping bag. As soon as we finished, we packed up Jane Silver and headed off. It was Jane’s first long distance trip, and while we were pretty sure she would make it, we were really glad when she did. The drive took between 4-5 hours, and we got there around 11. The first campsite we looked at was completely empty, and we later noticed only for groups of 7+ people. We ended up camping at Sheep Creek Campsite, which was also amazingly empty. Neither of us could sleep when we got there because we were really scared of bears! Every time anything made a noise outside I was sure it was a bear.

Day 2

Distance travelled: 8.2 mi
Elevation gained: 1,876 ft

It was a  rough night, and we were tired, but happy when morning came.

The National Park Service (NPS) will only hold your permit reservation until 9am, so we got up at 8 sharp and packed up camp. Permits are picked up at the Road’s End Ranger Station (where the road ends). The view on the way over was great!

While getting the permit, we also rented a large bear canister and bought a map. Maps are $10! Crazy! It was well worth it to have a map, but I would recommend printing your own (although theirs are waterproof, which is a nice feature). We rented a large bear canister, which is $5 + $3/night. You are required to have a bear canister by law, although there are several bear boxes along the way. We could not fit all our food into it, so we were dependent on the bear boxes for the first couple nights.

You are allowed to camp anywhere you want in the backcountry, but there are certain sites that are commonly used. These are typically super beautiful, near water, on a cleared space (i.e. few branches or rocks), and have a bear box. The NPS does not care when you actually exit, they permits are only for the day you enter. They also do not care where you camp, but will make suggestions and like to have a rough idea of what your plan is. Before getting stated though, we needed to finish off some nasty old bananas we bought and didn’t want to bring on the trip. They were gross, and Dmitriy was a champ!

The first few miles are flat. The view was still really cool – way more jagged and closed in than Yosemite Valley. We also saw some neat trees.

              

Kings Canyon is awesome. While on flat land, the view is impressive. As soon as you start ascending, it gets even more so. We couldn’t have been more than 1-2 hours into our hike at this point. Here is The Sphinx in back of us:

There were a lot of western fence lizards around (common name blue bellies). Dmitriy got a really good picture. Their bellies were super blue!

We originally brought a lot of water with us, as well-prepared campers. We soon realized that almost the entire route was right next to a river / lakes, and jettisoned the majority of our water supply. We decided to only keep our bota bag full of water. Below is Dmitriy about to filter some water from a stream. We were pretty sure from the start that the water was so clear and clean that we didn’t really need to filter it. On our last day, we realized we hadn’t been boiling it properly, so our suspicions were confirmed. In any case, we tried.

A bit later we stopped for lunch on the side of the stream/river. The colour was very vibrant. I jumped in for a dip.

It was super cold (I couldn’t breathe, it was so cold) and we also realized that I had some pretty major irritation from my backpack. It got better on subsequent days, either because I broke the bag in or learned to adjust it better (probably a combination).

Right about when the sun went below the mountain, we made it to our campsite in Upper Paradise Valley.

We were really happy to see that people before us has left an huge pile of wood for burning. I made an initial attempt at a fire which only made smoke, but Dmitriy fixed it up and got some serious flames going. We were mostly using tree bark, which gave a long, slow burn.

The FIRE MASTER!

We were really hungry, and got dinner going. For my birthday, my mom gave us some backpacking food. On this night, we tried the sweet & sour pork with rice, followed by chocolate pudding. The next night we had chicken-a-la-king and creme brûlée, which was our favourite of the two meals we had from this brand.

         

We stayed up watching the fire, and were really paranoid about bears. Apparently black bears are pretty skittish, and you don’t have to worry as long as you don’t have food on you… but we were still scared. Eventually we put out the fire, read some Huckleberry Fin, and tried to go to bed, but pretty soon thereafter we heard something big moving right outside our tent. We also heard these weird whining/crying noises around then. We weren’t sure what it was, but we started banging together our shovel and axe, and got out of the tent to try and scare away whatever it was. There was nothing there by the time we got out. Later in the night, I got out to go to the bathroom, and right after I got back into the tent I heard something shuffling outside the tent again. The next morning, I found deer prints, dog-like prints (coyote or wolf), and a big bear print right around our campsite and bear box (the photo didn’t turn out super well, but in real life you could see marks from each pad on its foot and its claws).

Day 3

Distance travelled: 10 mi
Elevation gained: 3,444 ft

We headed off bright and early. Again, the view was pretty spectacular.

There was a campsite in the middle of this meadow, surrounded by these mountains. If I were to do the Rae Lakes Loop again, I would try to push hard the first day and camp there (there was a really nice campsite by the river with a fire pit).

We made it to the intersection of our trail with the John Muir Trail (~200 miles from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney).

After crossing the bridge, we stopped for lunch in front of Castle Dome.

There was a 20% chance of thunderstorms that day, but our luck held out for the afternoon. We passed the 10,000ft elevation mark, after which point fires are no longer permitted.

One of the major pastimes on this trip was looking at the map.

When we got to our campsite for the night, by Arrowhead lake, I was freezing cold! The increase in altitude made a huge difference. I was so cold I got into an exposure blanket, and tried to tie a shirt onto my head for warmth. Dmitriy stuffed me full of chocolate. I was woefully unprepared for the cold. That night, there were a couple other people camping in the same vicinity. I liked having some other people around. We met one German guy, also on his first backpacking trip, but he had decided to do the full John Muir Trail.

At night Dmitriy got really into taking some long exposure photos.

I love this one, with the stars!

Soon after that, the predicted thunderstorm struck. It was unbelievable. The lightening was right over us (no delay between lightening and thunder) and then it started to hail. The hail was pea-sized! I was impressed with the integrity of our tent, because I was worried it would blow away and/or leak.

Day 4

Distance travelled: ~2 mi
Elevation gained: 240 ft

Day 4 was our planned easy-day. We only had to hike about 2 miles to the next campsite, at the Rae Lakes. Dmitriy, in particular, was keen on camping here as it is the namesake for the entire loop. Given how short our hike was, we took it easy in the morning.

While packing up our food in the bear box, I bumped into a ranger. He was checking that campsites were in order and that bear boxes were being used properly (in particular, I think he was checking that there wasn’t food being stored/left in them longterm for people doing the JMT, and that there wasn’t trash left around the sites). He explained that the reason campfires aren’t permitted after 10,000 ft is that there is an endangered species of tree, the foxtail pine, that only grows above 10,000ft. If people pick up all the wood to burn, they disrupt the natural life cycle of the pine tree. He told me the way to identify the foxtail pine vs. lodge pole pine is by the number of pine needles/bunch growing off the branches. Foxtails have 5, whereas lodge poles only have 2.

    

Dmitriy with a foxtail pine:

Dmitriy found some really cool tree roots:

Here was our first view of the Rae Lakes. The middle mountain is the Painted Lady, one of the landmarks of the Rae Lakes Loop.

The campsite was very picturesque. We spent the day wrapped up in warm clothes and sleeping bags, taking in the view and eating! Kraft mac has never tasted so good! We also went for a quick dip into the lake, although the water was super cold and it was overcast and windy. Every time we met anybody else on the trail, the first thing that came up was the last night’s storm. Below is a picture with Fin Dome in the background.

Making Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, as the clouds rolled in:

Sunset:

At night we bundled up and looked at the stars. It was the best star gazing ever! You could see the reflection of the stars in the lake.

Day 5

Distance travelled: 11.6 mi
Elevation gained ascending Glen Pass 1,418 ft
Elevation dropped descending from Glen Pass: 4,618 ft

I had the worst night’s sleep ever. I was so cold, I spent the whole night awake and shivering. In the morning, there was frost and ice all over our tent, so it must have gone below freezing. Dmitriy made me some chicken broth with copious amounts of butter to warm me up, and had some oatmeal for himself.

The lake water was perfectly still.

We started our ascent of Glen Pass, which is the highest point on the loop, at 11,978 ft. As we got higher up, it became increasingly inhospitable and rocky, but there were still little pools of water.

I love this photo of Dmitriy because it shows some of the scale. We were going to the top of this mountain, and this was the final stretch.

We made it to the top!

The descent was equally beautiful, and the view was completely different from the other side. Even the vegetation was different-looking.

Charlotte Lake:

We stopped for lunch on a rock out cropping, and talked about how awesome Kings Canyon is, while looking out over Vidette Meadows.

That day we pushed pretty hard to make it to a lower elevation, both so it wouldn’t be so cold that night and so we wouldn’t have too long of a hike the next (last) day. We set up camp, got fire wood, and made the last of our dinner foods. After night fall, right about when we were going to go to bed, I heard a twig snap in the forest. I turned my headlamp on, and there were two green dots staring back at me from the forest. It was a bear cub. I grabbed up a pot and shovel, and started smacking them together and screaming like a crazy person. Dmitriy joined me, and picked up some small stones (recommended park policy is to throw small rocks at their backsides). It was really unnerving chasing away the bears, because while they tell you the bears are scared of noises, its quite the leap of faith to take on a bear armed solely with a small pot and shovel. We didn’t have that problem though – the cub turned and ran away, and we heard a big shuffling noise in some ferns nearby that was undoubtedly its mom. Later, some guys who were camping near us (but doing a night climb/hike at the time) confirmed that there had been sightings of a mother and cub in the area. The whole time we had been hoping to see a bear on the last day, since we wanted to see one but not have to be worried about them at night. Ultimately I’m glad we saw one at all. Here is my bear-scaring equipment, the next day. I was pretty enthusiastic about banging them together.

Day 6

Distance travelled: 7.3 mi
Elevation dropped: 2,310 ft

On our last morning we were sad to be leaving, but also really excited to shower and get into clean clothes. I also had really bad blisters on my feet. We finished off the hike, and the view was great to the end.

Here is us passing the sign were the loop splits in two:

     

The last two miles on flat ground were the longest, hardest part of the hike. It felt great to reach Jane and take off the packs and shoes!

We also saw this collection of heart-shaped rocks in the parking lot:

Once we finished, we headed to the lodge and had BBQ for lunch.

Kings Canyon is a really nice National Park. It is much less touristic than Yosemite, and (we think) way nicer. The canyon is more nestled, and has really sharp, jagged, picturesque peaks.  It was a really great trip, and we are both looking forward to the next one!

Lastly, here is the view driving out of the park: