The Return of the King

The Rae Lakes Loop Days Five and Six

The most scenic parts of the hike, and the hardest parts, were now behind us. By we were by no means finished. In fact, we had still had more than a third of the hike in front of us. Fortunately, it was very nearly all downhill.

One of the pleasant things about the Rae Lakes Loop is, there is very little “Up and Down” hiking. The trail rises, with mostly modest grades, all the way to Glen Pass…then a sharp crossing of the pass, and an equally sharp downhill on the other side. Beyond this, it angles downhill, again with mostly modest grades. Most hikers don’t like going uphill. Many (like myself, with my ‘trick knee’) don’t like going downhill. But I think it’s far to say that ALL hikers dislike up and down hiking. It seems unfair of the world to ask you to do over all the work you have already done.

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I believe those are the Kearsarge Pinnacles.

We packed up our camp at Bullfrog Lake trailhead knowing that a fairly steep downhill lay ahead of us, as the trail turns downhill and a series of zigzags to reach Vidette Meadows, where the JMP and PCT break off for Forester Pass and Mount Whitney. The Rae Lakes Loop then follows the Bubbs Creek Trail along the bottom half of the loop, passing the last few campsites and eventually returning a junction with the outbound leg of the loop (the Kanawyers Trail) some two miles from Roads End. Here, the hiker makes the celebrated return to the floor of King’s Canyon…assuming they are still walking, that is.

That morning while breaking camp he discovered a few supply caches stashed by the trailhead, probably by JMT or PCT hikers. At least one of these – a bear canister – had been hauled out of the bushes and slapped with a warning label by the rangers. If you are going to cache supplies, best to hide it well out off sight. Preferably put it in a bear box somewhere if you can.

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This day would prove as bright and sunny as the previous, except that, being as we were shedding altitude, it would be warmer. But at least we had the knowledge that most of the walking would be downhill. In fact, it’s entirely possible to do this whole leg of the trip in a single day (it would be about 14 miles, or less if one pushed on further the previous day.)

 

The descent begins almost immediately after the Bullfrog Lake Trail head but was not as steep as I had feared. We wound down first through woods, and then over partially exposed ridgelines toward the junction where the JMT trail leaves going south. Vidette Meadows proper can be reached by following this trail a bit south, but in fact there are campsites right here at the junction.

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Beyond this the trail turns off and begins to follow the Bubbs Creek Watershed and is more exposed. If you think from the name that Bubb’s Creek doesn’t sound very impressive, well, you could be accused of being you don’t know Bubb. The waterfalls and rapids of this creek are extremely impressive, especially this particular cataract, one of the tallest I have ever seen.

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It is in this area that the trail, angling slowly downward, enters some treeless, shade-less areas that can really cook the tired hiker when its hot. For this reason alone I would not recommend the Rae Lakes Loop in the counter-clockwise direction…having to climb these exposed sections is a severe slog. We saw a lot of people struggling up and few of them looked happy.

 

A couple miles after the JMT junction we arrived at Junction Meadow. This is a pleasant, shaded campsite in a grove of trees by the creek that is often used by livestock, as is obvious by the horseshoes lying around. The junction is with an apparently unnamed and unmaintained trail that leads to East and Reflection Lakes.

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Could this restore our good luck?

We had some lunch, did some minor gear repairs and pushed on. Our destination was the last campsite on the trail…Sphinx Creek. It is only four miles past there to Road’s end and we probably could have pushed on, but the whole point of this trip was NOT to be a race.

The section of trail between Junction Meadow and Sphinx Creek proved to be hot, tiring, of modest scenic pleasure, and much of it in the trees. There were a few minor uphills and one water crossing (the creek was mostly still, more a beaver flooded area) but for the most part it was not difficult at all, merely tiring for hikers with heavy packs late in the fifth day of hiking.

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One the hot open ridges we looked for rattlesnakes but did not see any; nor did we see any snakes on this trip. Somewhat odd because on my first hike up to Mist Fall many years ago, all of eight miles total, we saw two…and one was a rattler. But this trip would prove snake-less. In fact we saw little wildlife of any kind that I can recall.

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These slithery hikers were observed in 2009…but none were spotted on the full RLL. 

More people seem to stop at Sphinx Creek than Junction Meadow…or, this was the case when we hiked. We were able to secure a fine spot by the river, but unfortunately my tent was beneath a rather precariously leaning tree. I moved it as much out of the tilting monarch’s path as I could, but it was still somewhat unnerving. In the even the tree did not fall.

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Just four miles and changes and it’s over.

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I was a bit uneasy about spending the night under THAT.

This was probably the night my cold bothered my the most…I was strung out after five days on the trail hadn’t gotten the rest I needed. But I was able to fall asleep eventually, awoken by a couple of grand coughing fits.

The next morning, our sixth day on the trail, promised needed rest, showers, food, and no walking for a while. We were eager to get going. It was mostly uneventful…my shaky knees, which were on their last gasp, held together enough to get my down the last steep descent via tight switchbacks to the floor of Kings Canyon. Here, at last, we reached a suspension Bridge. It was the King River…it was the Return of the King. Or rather, we had returned to the King, but that doesn’t make as catchy a headline.

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From the bridge back to roads end was just one seemingly never ending two mile slog back down the same annoyingly sandy trail we had approached on, passing busloads of day hikers on the way out.

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The Return to the King (River.)

It had been an exhausting but fulfilling six days…not other hikes had ever demanded of me more than this one. (Many years later, the Tour du Mont Blanc would demand yet more…but that’s another story.) It pushed me to my physical and mental limits, caused me to improvise, to deal with poor health, pushed me to make creative use of all the gear I had, especially when my shelter had failed…even forced me to lug a big canister in my pack. All of the challenges had been overcome.

The Rae Lakes Loop was complete!

*Postscript*

The hike ended back at Road’s End, but our bad luck did not. In fact it was just beginning.

Upon returning back to our rental car, which was parked in the overflow lot due to construction in the main lot, we found to our intense dismay that the big window was gone…replaced by a piece of cardboard. We noticed several other cars in the lot had been given the same treatment. A note on the windshield informed us to call the rangers.

We had been the victims of some sort of hasty smash and grab robbery. AT the ranger station, a very kind and sympathetic ranger informed us that, yes, all of our luggage was gone, and nom we would never likely see it again. But we did fill out police reports, just in case.

(In point of fact, they were never recovered to our knowledge. I lost some clothing and a hat, no big loss…but Val also lost some electronics.)

Now we had lost all of our extra clothing. We had only what was on our backs or in our packs…all of which was completely filthy. But fortunately, there were laundry facilities in Grant Grove…I had used them in 2009.

Wrong. ☹ There were no longer public laundry facilities in Grant Grove…or anywhere else nearby. We would be forced to do all our laundry in the tiny sink at our cabin in Grant Grove…and then air dry them. It was a tedious, laborious process for people already sick, exhausted, smarting and dejected.

Val and I were forced to drive 70 miles back to Fresno in a jury-rigged car with no visibility out the back to go pick up another rental. That monkey shine cost us most of a day. We also drove out to a nearby campgorund to see if we could get some clothes on short notice. And that’s how I ended up owning a pair of sweat pants that says “Hume Lake Christian Camp Established 1946” on them. I still have them to this day.

And Sylvia, who was nervous about me being away for a week to begin with, got a call – after three days of hearing nothing from me – from a man identifying himself as a backcountry ranger in Kings Canyon National park, “…And would you be the wife of Brian Regan?” She thought I had gone missing, and was understandably distressed.

Thank goodness the store in Grant Grove still had a supply of beer for sale.

*End Postscript*

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