The Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon NP
One of the best hikes in the United States is the Rae Lakes Loop in the Sierra Nevada. This challenging backpacking trip requires five or more days to complete and takes hikers through some of the best – and most remote – country the High Sierra has to offer. For much of its length it follows the John Muir Trail, and this is in fact the section where the grandest scenery is found. However, this section also crosses Glen Pass, an imposing barrier of rock nearly twelve thousand feet high.
To call the Rae Lakes loop challenging is certainly an understatement. There is the pass which cannot be avoided. There is the fact that for the entire length of it no realistic chance of resupply exists, meaning the hiker must carry everything they need, including food, clothing and shelter. There are numerous swift stream crossings along the way, some of which can be dangerous if the water is high.
There are bears and rattlesnakes, and some of the footway is rough, or exposed to bad weather, or the full force of the hot summer sun. And there is the unavoidable fact that once in the backcountry, there is no easy way to get out. There will be times when the hiker is two days or more walk from any road.
Despite all the above, the Rae Lakes Loop is quite popular in season, as its scenic pleasures – particularly those of Sixty Lakes Basin – are more than enough to offset the challenges. The first valley you will visit on the hike is called, aptly, Paradise. And the best parts of the hike truly lie beyond Paradise itself.
For the experienced backpacker, the challenges of the Rae Lakes Loop are actually considered quite moderate. Apart from the pass – which presents no serious problem for a well-conditioned and acclimated hiker – the trail itself is not especially difficult. Violent thunderstorms do roll through, but still, the weather here in summer season is about as moderate as any mountain range gets, with far more sunny days than bad.
The water crossings are typically a serious threat only in the early summer when the snow mass is melting, or after heavy downpours, and can most often be avoided. And the bears pose no serious threat if food is stored properly. Finally, because it is a loop, no shuttle or hitchhike is required. You simply arrive back where you started, some days later.
Many of the challenges of this hike are purely logistical, and this includes getting there. The trailhead is accessed via State Route 180, at the appropriately named Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park. Roads End is thirty winding and scenic miles from Grant Grove visitor center, which is itself over an hour from the nearest major city, Fresno.
Once at Grant Grove, hikers must pick up a wilderness permit in order to stay in the backcountry overnight. These permits can be applied for in advance in some cases, but even if you do, the permit MUST be picked up the morning of the hike, no exceptions. Most trails that access the backcountry in Kings Canyon are subject to quotas limiting the number of hikers in season, and Road’s End is no exception.
With the permits out of the way comes the next item which is the rules and regulations. There are many of these, but the most important deal with bear safety. All Hikers MUST carry a park sanctioned bear-proof canister with them. Again, there are no exceptions. No ‘bear bags’ hung by ropes etc are allowed. You either bring a bear canister or you risk having your permit revoked…which means, you don’t hike.
From the park website…
“…Wilderness visitors must use portable park-approved animal-resistant food-storage containers within the Rae Lakes Loop vicinity, North Dome, the Dusy & Palisades basins, and the Rock Creek drainage. This requirement is in effect from May 1 through October 31. All garbage, scented items & food must be stored in the containers. Where containers are required, the counter-balancing technique of hanging food is prohibited…”
And by the way, if you hike anywhere between October 31 and May 1, you had better bring snowshoes, heavy snow gear, ice ax, crampons, and the requisite knowledge on how to use them. Snowfall in the High Sierra is measured in yards, not feet.
Despite all of these logistical challenges, thousands of hikers every year opt to take this loop, largely because whatever the obstacles, the Rae Lakes Loop is still FAR less of a challenge than the complete John Muir Trail. There is no easy road to Paradise, but this is the easi-EST way.
In 2014 Brian completed the Rae Lakes Loop with friends, taking six days to do so. It was an especially challenging hike that pushed he and his gear to the very limits. Over the following days we will post an account of this epic journey through John Muir’s celebrated range of light…the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. To Paradise, and beyond.
Next Up…Road’s End.