Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop in Sequoia Kings Canyon

Sunrise at Upper Rae Lake, Rae Lakes Loop, Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. Photo by SomewhereSierra

Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park (SEKI) is about 39 miles. This loop can be done clockwise or counterclockwise depending on the permit you get. The trail is normally completed in 3-5 days and has an elevation gain of 7,670 feet.

This trail is rated as hard and can be a challenge for even experienced backpackers. The highest point on the trail crossed up and over Glen Pass on the JMT/PCT. It features incredibly beautiful lakes, meadows, and wildlife while taking you through some of the most remote sections of Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park.

Permits

Wilderness Permits are required for all overnight trips in SEKI and obtaining the permits to backpack the Rae Lakes Loop can be tricky to get. These permits are extremely sought after, and often go quickly. To backpack the loop clockwise, you will start at Woods Creek and to backpack Rae Lakes counterclockwise you will hike from Bubbs Creek.

From late May to late September, the trail quota is limited and you must reserve a permit. Permits are released 6 months ahead of time on a rolling basis through rec.gov at 7am PST.

During the fall and winter season, it is the non-quota period. Self-issue wilderness permits available at visitors centers and not subject to daily entry limits or fee.

To enter Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park, you must pay an additional entrance fee or have a pass.

Trail Information

↟ Many people choose to backpack the Rae Lakes Loop in the clockwise direction because the elevation gain is gradual. We chose to do backpack to Rae Lakes counterclockwise, and I would recommend counterclockwise to others. We got the elevation gain out of the way within a day and a half, and hiked the rest of the trail downhill. I also found the Woods Creek section to be more rocky and exposed to the sun, and was glad we were descending on that section of trail.

↟ This trail is frequently done from Sequoia Kings Canyon but can also be accessed from Kearsarge Pass. Doing the trail this way is challenging, with a lot of additional elevation, and will be just over 50 miles long if completing the full loop.

↟ Weather conditions change frequently and quickly in the Sierra. Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent in this area. Make sure to not attempt Glen Pass during a storm. The safest area to be is around a group of similarly sized trees at a low point.

↟ The soil in SEKI is very arid and rocky, and does not break down materials easily. Because of this, you are required to pack out your toilet paper. There were numerous areas we passed where TP was visible from people not packing it out- please adhere to this rule to keep the landscape beautiful.

↟ Campfires are not allowed above 10,000’ elevation

↟ Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park is home to lots of wildlife! Black Bears frequent this area, but are honestly just trash pandas. You are required to carry a bear can with you throughout your trip, and various campsites along the trail have bear boxes you can use. Carrying or using of bear spray is illegal.

↟ We did encounter a rattlesnake along the Bubbs Creek section just below Lower Paradise. Make sure to stay alert on trail and give them space.

↟ Choose a campsite at least 100 feet away from lakes, streams, or trails.  It is very important to do this in order to protect fragile ecosystems. There were a lot of folks who were camping in the middle (literally) of the trail, or right on the waters edge- don’t be that guy.

↟ Recreate Responsibly, and Leave No Trace. Stay on trail, don’t cut switchbacks, pack out your TP and trash, and be a good nature-loving individual.

Packing For The Rae Lakes Loop

Rain Jacket & Rain Pants: These were essential in the afternoon during the common thunderstorms that can roll into the Sierra. Despite a sunny forecast, thunderstorms are extremely likely and can roll in at any time. They usually don’t last long, but if you want to complete a couple more miles, enjoy the rain near Rae Lakes, or keep the mosquitos away-a few pieces of rain gear are super handy. I use a Marmot Precip Jacket and wore it every day at some point. For rain pants I have the Columbia Storm Surge, that do a great job.

Blister Tape: With the consistent ups and downs on trail, I did come away with a few blisters. I have been able to avoid them throughout the summer but after the first day of only uphill, I already had a few hot spots. I tend to stay away from Hydrocolloid blister bandages because I find they can rub off easily in socks, or stop sticking with water, so I have started using strips of KT Tape. The brand also makes KT Tape BFF Blister Prevention Tape, that comes in strips and is specifically designed for it- but I have also just cut strips myself from larger pieces.

Hydration Packets: Whether it’s Nuun Tablets or Liquid IV, I always take some form of Electrolyte with me on trail. This time I chose some Passion Fruit flavored Liquid IV, that I dilute in 2x the water. I find a whole packet for the suggested 16oz way too sweet.

30% DEET Spray: Having something to repel mosquitos was something I wanted to make sure we had before heading out on trail this time of year. Luckily, we were able to avoid them for about 90% of our trip, but I was glad to have a DEET spray for the sections of trail that they were bad. I like this Bens 30% Spray (1.25oz) for it’s compact packaging and effectiveness.

Wash Cloth/ Multi-Use Towel: In addition to drying off post alpine lake or river dip, I found my multi-use towel to come in handy on the hot sections of trail. Whenever we pass a stream or river, I take out my Multi-Use REI Towel Mini and dip it in the cold water, placing it at the back of my neck. In recent years, I have started to sweat more on trail and this helps me lower my body temperature.

Things I Didn’t Bring, That I Wish I Had… there were a couple of things I either forgot to bring, or just didn’t think I would need on the 4 day trip. I forgot to bring an extra shirt for post-hikes around camp, and was stuck in my sports bra and puffy jacket or my dirty sun hoody for most of the trek. I also completely spaced on the correct shorts I usually hike in, the Baleaf 5 inch Shorts, and was wearing a pair that are on the shorter side for me. This unfortunately caused some major chaffing the first day of the hike, and I was in some serious pain for a few days because of it.


Trail Report

Trip Dates: July 27th-July 31t

Total Mileage: 40

Trail Type: Loop

Trailhead: Bubbs Creek

We made it just outside of the Sequoia Kings Canyon entrance around 11pm. I was able to find a camp spot off of a National Forest road about an hour from Roads End, the starting place of our trip. We had already stopped for dinner and groceries along the way, and we were eager to get our permits the next morning.

Thursday (Roads End to Vidette Meadow, 13 miles)

The drive into the park took a while and glided down the canyon walls of the National Park. We could see high concentrations of storm clouds in the distance, and thunder was forecasted each day we were supposed to be out on trail. The parking lot was nearly full around 10am, and we joined a few other people at the Ranger hut at the start of the trailhead for a quick LNT talk. I was impressed by how thorough these Rangers were about protecting the environment and educating everyone that came through. The went as far as to grab our pack and tent colors, and InReach number before we went out on trail, something the Yosemite Rangers had never asked us for.

We gave our bear can a quick knock for the Ranger before starting the trail. The first two miles were sandy and flat as they joined the 37 mile circle we would be on for the next 3 days. It was early afternoon before we started our first ascent up the canyon. Our direction, counterclockwise, would take us up the steeper side of the trail called Woods Creek, before descending for the remainder after Glen Pass. Our hope was to get the elevation gain out of the way within a day and a half, and then have another 2 days of downhill to enjoy.

Our goal was to get to Vidette Meadows to camp for the night, nearly 13 miles from the parking lot and 5000 feet of gain. The gain, through spread out over a sizable distance, was still brutal in some spots. The 3rd and 4th mile gained elevation quickly through the switchbacks. Though I wasn’t physically tiring quickly, the heat from the afternoon sun was brutally hot and slowed me down significantly. After about 5 miles, we took lunch near a clearing by the river to cool off and take a quick dip. The cold water brought a bit of pep back into my step, before continuing up the trail.

We played a bit of a yo-yo game with another couple for several miles, passing them on the flat sections before they would eventually pass me on the uphills. Around mile 8 or 9, I saw our first Black Bear of the trip stalking in the dense brush towards the river, so focused he didn’t seem to notice us. Shortly after, storm clouds started gathering above us, (thankfully) dropping the temperature rapidly.

We were just passing Junction Meadow, the first large established campsite on the Woods Creek side, when the storm started. Many people we saw starting the trail decided to stop here for the night, but we had about 3 more miles until Vidette Meadow. Of all of our days on trail, the storm this first day was the worst. I could see flashes of lightning in the daylight, and the ground would shake with the sounds of thunder echoing down the canyon walls. I’ve always made a habit of counting the amount of time when I see lightning, and the quickest was about 5 seconds. We threw on our rain gear, waiting a few minutes for the downpour to slow, and continued up the trail towards Vidette.

I walked into the Vidette camping area extremely fatigued. 13 miles was our longest day our on trail so far this year, and the 5,000 feet really took a beating on my calves. We set up camp quickly and broke out our bear can to demolish our first meal. Reid feasted on his tuna packet and couscous, but I had almost entirely lost my appetite from the exertion and heat of the day. I made my meal, instant rice and chow mein, and it was the worst tasting thing I have ever made on trail. I forced in the calories unwillingly, and nearly got sick trying to force the last spoonful’s down. We filtered some water to make breakfast the next morning quicker and I washed off the dirt and sweat from the day in a nearby river. I hobbled into the tent and fell into a 20 minutes in-20 minutes out sleep pattern for the remainder of the night.

Friday (Vidette Meadow to Upper Rae Lakes, 6 miles)

The next morning I felt ill rested. Physically I felt a bit better, but my restlessness during the night was taking a toll. I was eager to start the trail early to attempt Glen Pass before the storms or heat rolled in for the day. By 7:30 we we’re out of camp and joined the John Muir Trail.

The miles between Vidette Meadows and the summit of Glen Pass were undoubtedly the steepest. We passed a turnoff that led to Kearsarge Pass and Kearsarge Lakes, a trail we had just done about 2 months ago, and walked towards Charlotte Lake. About a mile in, we encountered a Wilderness Ranger, the one stationed at Charlotte Lake, and showed her our permits. There were several groups of people whom we had passed on the first few miles of the day, all of which were headed the same direction as us.

Around lunch time, we finally got to the top of Glen Pass. The leading trail was rocky and exposed, but thankfully the clouds were keeping the temperature at bay. I stopped nearly every switchback to try and will my legs to keep moving. I was tired, and ready for downhills to start.

After stopping at the top of Glen to enjoy the views and our lunch, we were finally descending down into Rae Lakes. It felt like the 2 miles took no time at all, and by the time we reached the lake there were already around a dozen people setting up camp for the night. We found a spot in the land bridge area near Middle Rae, away from most other folks. After setting our packs down we ran down to the lake to take a quick dip before making camp. Our timing was near perfect, because just as our tent was finished, the storms had started to turn for the worse- forcing us inside the tent for the next 2 hours. We napped and snacked on gummy bears until the storm had passed. I was eager to explore the lakes.

Compared to photos I had seen of Rae Lakes, the peaks were much more majestic. Fin Dome sat proudly at the far end of Middle Rae, with a few neighboring mountains just beyond that you could make out towards Mather Pass. There were dozens more people camping near Middle Rae at the bear box area, an area that provided incredible views. The clouds lingered in the sky, letting out rain for a few minutes at a time.

I ran around during sunset, enjoying the cloudy conditions, before heading back to camp to make dinner- a Backpackers Pantry Chana Masala (quite bougie for me). We packed away our smells in the bear can and walked it a few yards from our tent before crawling in for the night. I was eager to wake up for sunrise and hopeful that my rest was going to improve the next day. I spent a while checking out our route for Saturday, a 12 mile downhill to Upper Paradise Valley. My goal was to try and start on the early side to avoid the sun during the afternoon.

Saturday (Upper Rae Lake to Upper Paradise Valley, 12 miles)

The clouds were incredible in the morning just as the sun was starting to come up. Once I started to see color on them, I rushed out of the tent and ran towards the Upper Lake. Only about 20 minutes later, and the sun was completely blocked by the clouds, graying any alpenglow that colored the Painted Lady on the opposite side of Upper Rae Lake.

By 7:30 am we were back on the trail. Nearly all the backpackers we saw at Middle Rae were packing up for the day, eager to hit the trail or start Glen Pass before the storms rolled in again. The miles seemed to fly by, but every so often I could feel blisters clinging to my feet. We didn’t stop to really rest until the Woods Creek/JMT Junction about 7 miles down the trail. There was a small, but extremely nice campsite, with bear boxes here just next to the swinging bridge to cross the river. We stopped at had lunch here, eating a lot of our smaller snacks we had brought on the trail like flavored pistachios and a bag of parmesan chips. By the time we finished a few others groups had rolled into the campsite as well to enjoy lunch down by the river.

After crossing the bridge we had several more miles before our proposed stop for the night Upper Paradise Valley. The trail was still almost entirely downhill, and we only passed a small few people headed the opposite direction. By this time, it started to get hot on the trail, and even though each valley we descended into seemed to have tree cover, it remained exposed and rocky for the majority of miles. By the 10th mile I desperately needed to stop and cool off in the river. We took a short siesta, and jumped in the river at the first accessible point on the trail.

2 miles later we finally made it into Upper Paradise Valley. There was a river crossing here that was a bit large ( the bridge was demolished ) and a huge number of campsites on the opposite side of the river. There were a few other people around the area, but no one had set up camp from what we could see. We chose a small spot near a log by the river and pitched our tent. A few moments later, it seemed like about a half a dozen tents were pitched for the night as well, two of which were camped annoying close to ours in a vast area of campsites. The rain started shortly after, and instead of retreating back into the tent, we threw on our rain jackets and sat atop a log down at the rivers edge watching the storm. We passed the remainder of the night by playing cards, making dinner and trying to clear out the rest of the bear can.

Sunday (Upper Paradise Valley to Roads End, 9 miles)

We set our alarms early to try and hit the trail as quickly as possible. Only one other backpacker was awake and enjoying their breakfast, the rest were still fast asleep. We made our last packets of oatmeal and Oregon Chai Tea packet, packing up camp as we went. A small pink snake was curled up under Reid’s backpack and we watched it slither around for a few minutes trying to seek another shelter.

Shortly after we were packed up and hit the trail. We passed Middle Paradise Valley and its inhabitants within a few miles, and then Lower Paradise Valley after that. Lower Paradise was closed to campers, and we were glad we chose Upper Paradise Valley after seeing nearly all the backpackers at Middle Paradise in their rain gear to repel the mosquitos.

Just after Lower Paradise Valley we got swarmed by mosquitos. Throughout the entire trail we were bothered by the face flies that seem to know exactly where to land to hit your eye or they just go straight into your throat. But after stopping for a quick breath, Reid realized that they weren’t face flies at all, and we were being swarmed by mosquitos coming from a stagnant section from the stream. We doused ourselves in DEET and luckily they subsided.

Between Lower Paradise Valley and Mist Falls (only a few miles from Roads End) there were steep, rocky sections with huge boulders we walked through. At this point, I was fed up with the face flies and decided to wear my bug net to keep them from landing on my cornea. About 10 minutes later, I was leading us down the trail when I saw something large slither across the trail to a huge boulder, a Pacific Rattlesnake. It didn’t rattle at me, and my adrenaline kicked in before jumping about 4 feet back onto the trail. The snake was watching us cautiously and was in a strike position right next to the trail. We climbed on top of the rock it was under, about a 6 by 6 foot boulder, and tried to jump off on the other side to avoid it.

By the time we reached Mist Falls, we were starting to encounter day hikers, which meant the trail was nearly done. We collapsed our trekking poles and joined the sandy of section of trail we had started with, and made it to Roads End before noon. Our journey ended with a dip in the river to wash off the remaining sweat and dirt from the trail, and driving towards Fresno for some much deserved iced coffee and food. It was an absolutely breathtaking trail, and we can’t wait to visit it again- the next time to 60 lakes basin.

fin


Have any questions or comments about backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop? Leave them below!

Happy Hikin’!


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