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  • Brian Johnson

Kings Canyon National Park: Hiking the Rae Lakes Loop - Part 1

Updated: May 15

July 24-27, 2018


The heart wants what it wants, without regard to reason or logic, facts or sense. So it was when my friend Kim, who was driving, pointed out the sign announcing the upcoming turn to Yosemite National Park, and asked if he should take the turn, temptation almost overwhelmed me. My son Ben, who was in the back seat, perked up in anticipation.

For the better part of a year I had planned for a life list backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park. I had secured a permit for a prime trip through the heart of the park, including a permit to climb Half Dome, arranged the shuttle to the trailhead, bought the map, and plotted out the hike to the last detail. Then, about a week before the trip, a massive fire broke out on the edge of the park, and all my plans went up in smoke, pun intended. In the morning before we left our hotel in Sonora I had called the wilderness information office at Yosemite, in the forlorn hope that some last minute miracle had blown away the smoke which blanketed the area we wanted to visit. I spoke with a nice young ranger and when she described the conditions as “gnarly”, my heart sank. Then, when during the course of the conversation she used the word gnarly a second time, all hope died. When you get a double gnarly there’s nothing left to do but accept reality. So as we passed the sign pointing the turn to Yosemite, I gazed with wistful longing into the hazy distance, but remained silent. Sometimes you just have to take the loss and move on down the road.

It turns out to have been a good decision, as it turns out they closed the park that morning. Fortunately I had a backup plan for a trip to hike the Rae Lakes loop in Kings Canyon National Park, which I had also planned to the last detail. I had always been aware that fire conditions in California being what they are in summer that a backup plan would be a good investment. We arrived at the park entrance visitor’s center just after 3 pm, hoping to pick up our permit, but the ranger told us we had to pick up the permit at the Road’s End station at the trailhead, but that it closes at 3:30. It is a 35 mile drive to that station, through a curving mountain road, that takes about an hour to negotiate. This set off a mad, white knuckle dash through the mountains which put us at the appropriately named Road’s End minutes before the ranger station closed.

Permit in hand we drove to the nearby campground and secured our site for the night. From here on the trip became a matter of numbers: 42, for the total miles we would need to hike; 7,000, for the total feet of elevation we would need to hike up from the 5,000 foot starting point; and 55, as in how old this flatlander from northern climes is. And my buddy Kim is even 2 years older than I am.

So how did it turn out? Read on.

July 24

I awoke at 6 a.m., ready to tackle the challenge ahead. The day promised to be clear and warm. I made enough noise packing up that Kim and Ben eventually roused themselves and joined me. We decided we would stop at the little snack bar at the nearby lodge for a hearty breakfast before we set off. It was a beautiful setting as we sat on a balcony overlooking the river. While there we encountered one of those odd little footnotes that sometimes come up in our adventures. Below us sitting at a picnic table by the river we observed an old gentleman, deep in serious conversation with someone across the table from him, seemingly oblivious to all around him. Except there was no one there. Or at least, no one that we could see. Kim thought maybe he was having an “episode” of some kind, perhaps associated with mental illness. I ventured that maybe he was a widower, and he and his wife had always wanted to come to this beautiful park, and after her death he came alone and was now telling her all about it. Kim suggested I was a romantic. Be that as it may, the point is that we can never really know the true backstory of a stranger, the loss and longing, joy and sorrow, grief and triumph, pain and hope, that inform our being. Sometimes we don’t even know these things about people we love and hold dear.

After breakfast we drove to the trailhead at Road’s End and, after last minute pack adjustments, set off down the trail. The last week had been difficult for me, with much work stress, and worrying about the California fires, and a car breakdown, but as we walked into the woods I felt the shackles of civilization slip from my soul. For the next glorious week it would take an extraordinary effort to find me, and my only worries would be the basic human activities of walking, eating, and sleeping.

For the first two or three miles we hiked through old forest, redolent of pine and cedar, always following the South Fork Kings River as it tumbled down from the mountains above us. We passed a beautiful waterfall, which seemed to be the cutoff for day hikers as we saw no more after this. The climb began to steepen, with some expansive views, and after a couple of miles or so we came across our first bears, apparently a mother and young cub. I say apparently a mother because she herself appeared very young. Maybe it was the bear equivalent of a teenage pregnancy. Soon after we saw the first of many deer.

As the afternoon wore on the climb began to take its toll, with muscles and joints beginning to ache under the strain of a 48 pound pack. Our goal for the day was a place called Paradise Valley, a hike of about 7 miles with a gain of 1700 feet in elevation. We reached an idyllic camp next to the river surrounded by granite cliffs rising above the forest at about 5 p.m., in time for happy hour, otherwise known as medicine. The first day is always tough, and we were sore and tired, but Paradise Valley earned its name, and we slept soundly in our peaceful camp.

Continued below...

July 25

We awoke early to the dawning of another beautiful day. Today was a serious day, with a hike of 9 miles and and an elevation gain of almost 1900 feet. After a cold breakfast of granola and powdered milk, and instant iced coffee, we set off.

Our first challenge arrived after a hike of 2 or 3 miles in the form of a river crossing where the bridge is out. At this time of year the river is only about knee deep, but the flow is fast, over a bed of slippery stones, and the water was cold enough to make my lower legs go numb. Safely across, the trail began to climb steeply again. Climbing ever higher we were treated to expansive views of the surrounding mountains, always following the course of the river upstream through the glacially carved canyon, sometimes climbing high above it before it rose to meet us again. As the afternoon wore on exhaustion set in. We stopped to take a short break every hour or so but continued to grind out the miles.

We did not make happy hour, but were compensated by another bear sighting not far before we reached our destination. It was grubbing for something next to the trail, and we delayed for several minutes waiting for it to finally move off. It was just after 6 p.m. when we finally made camp after crossing the world’s greatest bridge at Woods Creek. We found a nice secluded camp in a basin not far from the bridge, with easy access to water.

I can hear you now saying wait, what, the world’s greatest bridge? Crazy. What about the Golden Gate Bridge, London Bridge, the famous bridges over the Yangtze River, etc, etc.? Yes, I know, but those are in civilized areas, built with unlimited resources and modern machinery. This was a cable suspension bridge, built by hand with tools and materials that had to be packed in by human or pack horse, in the middle of a wilderness where no bridge had a right to exist. It is also an adventure to cross, limited to one hiker at a time, and sways and bounces as you cross, with views on both sides of river and mountains, if you can tear your attention away from the step in front of you and loosen your grip on the cables. I stand by my judgment. In this age of hyperbole we live in, allow me my little quirk.

After an exhausting day we had little energy for anything but dinner and a shot of medicinal tequila. The night promised crisp and clear, with no clouds in sight, and I decided to sleep cowboy, my favorite way to sleep on these trips. My last conscious view was of a few bright stars coming out in a frame of tall pines, just as the full moon was rising over the mountain.

Continued below...

July 26

Day 3 was a layover day, to rest and recover before the final push to the high country. We slept in until 7:30 or so, then spent the morning lounging around camp, reading and taking pictures. I walked back to the bridge and crossed back over, taking pictures and a video the whole way. It was as thrilling a crossing as the first time. I was fascinated by the details of its construction and took lots of pictures from every angle. Eventually Kim joined me and I took some pictures of him crossing.

After playing on the bridge I walked up the trail a ways, and came across another bear who, like me, appeared out for a morning stroll. He was a handsome bear, sleek and well formed, unlike the last bear I had seen, who looked like a hobo. He paid me no attention whatever as he wandered between the large trees in the area, and I kept my distance from him as I put the zoom on my camera to good use.

After lunch I wandered through the woods above camp while Kim and Ben napped and read back at camp. It was my day for wandering. Presently I came upon a not unusual rock formation, other than that at one end there was a ledge at a perfect sitting height, with a flat back, like a throne carved purposefully into the stone. It wasn’t the most scenic seat in the world but existed in a perfect harmony, with views of mountains rising above the treetops, shaded but surrounded by dappled sunlight filtering through the trees and serenaded by birdsong, rhythm supplied by a nearby woodpecker and the buzz and hum of insects providing counterpoint, as the whisper of the breeze through the trees blended indistinguishably into the murmur of the creek. I sat for a golden hour in quiet contemplation, thinking thoughts large and small, upon the Sheldon seat of the universe.

I returned to camp in time for an early happy hour and we wiled away the afternoon playing acey deucey, a backgammon variation with a few twists. I beat Ben, Ben beat Kim, and Kim beat me, a pattern we would repeat every day. Harmony. After supper we star gazed and chatted the evening away until pleasantly sleepy we turned in, ready for the trek ahead.

Continued below...

July 27

We got a leisurely start at around 9 a.m., as the hike today would only be about six and a half miles, though with an elevation gain of 1800 feet. Our goal was the Rae Lakes region and a quiet camp next to a mountain lake. The trail began to climb almost immediately after we left Woods Creek, gradually rising out of the heavily forested areas into a less sparsely vegetated region, as the trees got smaller and stone began to dominate the landscape. As the day wore on the heat became intense under the bright radiant sunshine, and the rocks absorbed and radiated heat like an oven. Our shirts became sweat soaked and stained with white spots where the salt leached out.

Eventually we came to a park sign marking 10,000 feet elevation, and the start of the no campfire zone. This didn’t effect us since we never built one, but the sign was a milestone as it represented the highest elevation Ben had ever reached, so we stopped to take pictures. To this point we had gained a total of 5,000 feet in elevation since leaving the trailhead at Road’s End, with the toughest 2,000 feet yet to come.

Soon after this we reached Dollar Lake, the first of a series of alpine lakes we came to, each more lovely than the last. We stopped and took a long break for lunch, reveling in the alpine scenery and feeling like we had finally broken through to another world that had been hidden from us as we hiked up through the canyon. Rising beyond the lake in the distance was a pyramidal knob of stone, seemingly close by but we would hike towards it all afternoon as it stayed just tantalizingly beyond our reach. I don’t know what name the map gave it, but I called it Middle Finger Mountain.

Hiking on we eventually came to Arrow Lake and after climbing another 400 feet to Lower Rae Lake, and then finally to Middle Rae Lake, where we dropped packs at the end closest to Upper Rae Lake and began a diligent search for a campsite. There were a number of other campers around the lake and they had taken the most obvious sites near the water, although these had almost no privacy and were not to our taste. Our efforts were rewarded with a spacious and secluded site away from the main area, easy access to water, and logs and flat rocks for sitting and cooking.

The setting was awe inspiring, as the lakes were surrounded on all sides by towering granite peaks reaching into a baby blue sky decorated with cotton candy white clouds. As the sun went down we were treated to a light show as the changing angle of the sun reflected off the multi colored layers of stone in the peak known as the Painted Lady at the head of the lake. We relaxed and chatted, and simply enjoyed the setting as the mountain night fell, crisp and clear.

Continued in Part 2...

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