The Rae Lakes Loop Days 1 and 2
***The following is Brian’s account of his hike of the Rae Lakes Loop with a group of close friends in 2014. Please consult the NPS website for details as many things might have changed since he hiked.
With darkness approaching I found myself clutching to my sleeping pad inside my now flooded tent, it was the only remaining piece of dry real estate. Outside the heavens had unleashed a torrent, pouring cats and dogs and buckets…so much for sunny California. The tent had leaked…despite the fact that I had completely replaced the entire rain fly just prior leaving home. I had not thought of the bottom of the tent, and how it might ship water through the old and fraying seams…just like it was now generously doing.
Outside the temperature was falling as the light went, and would soon plunge below freezing. There was no possibility of evacuation now…no going anywhere but where I was. The nearest road was at least two days walk away, and to walk out of such a remote place now in darkness was folly.
As the flood waters rose around me, I did what little I could. I rolled my pack and all of my remaining dry clothing, sleeping bag and gear into a ball, placed it close to my body as possible, and huddled on the questionable island shelter afforded by my Thermarest sleeping pad…which stood a towering one inch off the soggy. bottom of the tent No leaks had appeared above my head, yet. If I were lucky, maybe I could keep the remaining stuff dry until it stopped raining. I had high hopes of fashioning an impromptu dry floor out of a space blanket.
I had a plan, but for the plan to work, it had to stop raining, and it was showing no signs of doing anything but rain. This I had no control over, none at all. This was the backcountry, and there is no off switch for bad weather. So I huddled in my waterlogged tent as darkness fell hard upon the camp, 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada. Depending on how dry I could keep things, there was a reasonable chance I might make it to morning alive. Or, so I hoped.
Some years back I decided to hike the Rae Lakes Loop in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At one point I had toyed with section hiking the Appalachian Trail, or parts of the AT, but soon abandoned the idea for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that, by my calculations, doing the trail in two-week sections would take me at least twenty years to finish.) I decided instead to pursue a more diverse group of shorter, more focused destinations that would represent the best that the US…and eventually the world…could offer.
One of my first attempts at this had been a crossing of the Grand Canyon in 2003 with some of the same friends. This trip had been a success, and so we followed it up with a trip to Glacier NP in 2004, and then a visit to Mt. St. Helens in 2008. Between this we did week longs stints on the AT in Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as a attempt (somewhat less successful) at the White Mountains Pemi Traverse.
I had expended to overseas expeditions with a trek to Machu Picchu via Salkantay in 2011 accompanied by Sylvia. In 2013, we followed this up by hiking into the crater of Hawaii’s Haleakala Volcano.
The Rae Lakes idea gained steam after a visit to Kings Canyon in 2009 that left me just incredibly impressed with the place. I wanted to see the parts of it I had not yuet seen…namely, the backcountry.
Rae Lakes would be the biggest and boldest thing I had personally attempted. True, in the past I had done backpacking trips equivalent to it both in miles and days in the field, and at least one at even greater elevations. But I had never carried a pack this heavy through mountains this big for this number of days. To make matters worse, my ‘trick knee’ was showing signs of entering a knew phase of ruin lately. Prior to the start of the trip I was forced to give up running entirely, leaving me unsure if my conditioning was where it needed to be.
For this trip (as with the Grand Canyon and St. Helens) I was accompanied by old friends John and Val Murphy from New Hampshire, who I knew to be capable and skilled hikers. For any difficult trip where the outcome is not sure, its very important to pick the right companions, ones you can trust and rely upon.
Prior to the trip we had decided to move our start time to early September and add an additional day onto our itinerary, giving us six days to complete the trip. Partly this was to allow for more time for exploration, but mostly it was just to simply keep the miles down. We were all hikers of a ‘certain age.’
We arrived in California in the middle of a record drought and heat wave. Even though it was relatively late in the season by Sierra standards, temperatures in the flat lands were topping out in the high 80’s and 90’s. We had also hoped that delaying till after labor day might help with the heat, but this, like so many human hopes, proved unrealized.
This trip was to be memorable for its bad luck. Almost everything that could go badly did so on this trip…weather, health, logistics. Luck is like an avalanche…when it starts to go against you, first just a few things go wrong; then it cascades, and pretty soon the whole thing is rocketing downhill faster than you can keep up with.
The first bit of bad luck arrived in the form of delays to my flight that caused me to arrive a couple hours later than expected. Add to this a brutal traffic jam on the highway south of San Francisco, which telescoped out the usual three and a half hour drive to the park to more than five. We would arrive at Kings Canyon’s Cedar Grove lodge well after dark; only because of the kindness of the lodge staff were we able to sneak in after the store had closed and procure some much needed food and supplies before bedtime. The woman who ran the place was an absolute saint and had pity on us. Pressed as we were for time, we had had nothing to eat since departing the airport.
Making matters worse, I had come down with a severe cold just prior to the trip. Travel did not improve my condition; in fact, by the time I reached San Francisco, I was suffering from quite a sharp pressurized cabin induced earache. By the time I reached the park, my throat was swollen like a potato and I barely could speak. And on top of this, we had to spend the whole night crammed into a single, stifling one room cabin with no air conditioning.
With the prospect of a restless night ahead of me, followed by six grueling days in the wild, things looked very bad. So bad that I actually begged John and Val to consider postponing the hike for a day, using our one extra day to do so. But in the event, I awoke the next morning feeling better and pronounced myself ready to go for it.
And so we went for it.
To even set out on this hike is a complex operation. Because of the previous night’s late ending, we had been unable to complete any of the hoped-for logistical details such as procuring one of the bear canisters that one is required to bring on the hike. Val and John had more wisely purchases theirs beforehand…I had opted to rent mine. As it turned out this was no issue, for they had plenty for rent at the ranger station. But it could have turned out far worse.
We secured our permits, got a briefing on trail conditions and a weather report, stuffed our bulky bear canister as best we could into our packs, and were off…the first part of the trail is a dusty but easy path along the bottom of scenic Zumwalt Meadows. Two miles in way we passed Bubbs Creek Trail cutoff where, six days hence, we’d be returning from the High Country.
At four miles in we passed majestic Mist Falls, which was the furthest I had ventured along this trail on my last visit. Past this point I had no real inkling of what to expect other what the guidebooks and trip reports said.
Being that it was late in the season, snowmelt was long over and Mist Falls was running at perhaps half the capacity, or even less, as to what I remembered during my visit in June of 2009. Then, it truly merited its name. This time, it might have more accurately been named drizzle falls.
Above Mist Falls the trail enters aptly named paradise valley. There are some steep sections through here, and there is very little shade. We had our first ‘heat emergency’ in this area and were forced to stop, hydrate and rest. For almost all of this hike, it would be either too hot, or (for one night anyway) too cold. Mostly, too hot.
We also were surrounded by some clouds of small flying insects…annoying because I had left my bug repellent at home. Whatever they were, we would see them often on this trip, but fortunately they did not seem to be biting.
We camped that night at the uppermost backcountry campsite in Paradise Valley, they one right near the crossing of the King River. Here was confirmed what a ranger had told us at Road’s End…This, and in fact every, backcountry campsite is equipped with several bear-proof boxes for storing food…rendering our bothersome bear canisters unnecessary.
Now, the need for the canisters is understandable…and had we visited in peak season when every campsite was occupied, probably we’d have needed them. But at this time of year most campsites are empty, and we had our pick at every single site…and needless to say, there was plenty of space in the bear boxes. This would have been nice information to know about beforehand but, for obvious reasons, the National Park Service does not widely publish this fact.
The bridge across the Kings River at the upper edge of Paradise Valley, which is reported to be washed out as of this writing.
At any rate we settled in to for a meal before hunkering down for the night. Darkness comes quickly this time of year, and with it, exhausted sleep;. Seldom did we stay up later than 7 pm at latest. We simply needed the rest.
I took some cold medications and got the best rest I could. Thankfully the dry air was a godsend.
Day two of the RLL is a relatively uneventful one, where one climbs steadily higher with some views of the approaching high peaks. The King River is still close by, and the hike is still mainly in the trees.
The one significant milestone of this day was that, late in it, we finally reached the John Muir Trail. Here at last we stood upon the legendary Footpath…which is also a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Our destination on this relatively short day was Woods Creek Crossing. We managed to get ourselves a good site not far from the stream and set up camp early for a change. Coming across the very rickety suspension bridge, we chanced upon a troop of JMT thru hikers whose average age was about 20. Being days out of the last road crossing, they were only now beginning to pass hikers who’d left civilization only in the last 48 hours. They asked us for news of the outside world.
I racked my brain for something to tell them and, perhaps with more excitement than was politic, told them that Joan Rivers had passed away. The sad news was greeted with all the sorrowful surprise I could have hoped for.
The next day was going to be a tough one…at least seven miles of hard uphill hiking to the Rae Lakes, crossing the 10,000 feet mark as we did. Our health and bodies had held together so far, the pack weight bad been manageable…they only issue had been the heat, and that was getting somewhat more tolerable as we went higher. But tomorrow, the real test would come. We would see, for the first time, the Lakes that give this hike its name.
Up Next: The Rae Lakes and the Soggy Night From Hell