The Rae Lakes Loop is a 38 mile, ~8,000 ft elevation gain loop that, even with those statistics, makes it maybe the easiest loop in SEKI. Not only that, it hosts strikingly wide valley views of lake filled meadows contrasted with high sierra alpine. Finally, the whole loop is abundant in water either from large rivers or larger lakes 90% of its length. I discovered, on trail, these are the reasons the Rae Lakes Loop is a common name among outdoor enthusiasts who are often used to the steep High Sierra in a water starved California.
I’ve been in a weird way ever since I got back to the Bay Area six months ago and took some great advice that I should join other people on their trips that they are excited about more. This trip was exactly that. The brainchild of my compatriots Brian and Dana. Great views, conversations, people encounters and a few fun stories. The whole loop can be done in three days, but can be done more easily (with a drive out) in four. Which is what we did.
Driving down the morning of, we hit the trailhead at 12:30pm going counter clockwise. This was the atypical (apparently) way since it is a little steeper, but our group and the ranger agreed that steeper uphill is preferable to steeper downhill.
The first day consisted of hiking up through lush forest in a wide valley buffeted by first broken, tree-strewn but then solid blocks of granite. After branching off down Bubbs Creek we noticed a small fire generating an average amount of smoke a ways up the left slope from us. We were told it was a natural fire being let burn and not to worry, however, everyone we passed this first day heading out was definitely interested in the current conditions.
At mile seven we passed Charolette dome which hosts one of the most classic High Sierra routes and I was glad not to be carrying another 10 lbs of climbing gear. I had done incredibly well this trip with a full pack weight (water and food) of 31 lbs. In the past it would have been at least 40 for a four day trip. Yay!
The first night, laying in the open under the trees with just a ground sheet below, the sky above and a rushing river beside me. I felt a part of this wilderness, not separate. It was wonderful.
The second day took us higher, with better views and eventually the High Sierra alpine as we joined the John Muir Trail. Emerging from the deep green forest of the last day and a half we were entering the starkly contrasted, light tan moonscape of the alpine. Around this time we also started leapfrogging with two on horseback who were headed to Bishops Pass 100 miles away.
Feeling the thin air, we were soon at 12,000 ft, the highest point of our trail. Standing there, I thought of how in all of the lower 48 its only in SEKI and likely Colorado’s Rockies you can find meager passes, not mountains at 12,000 ft. It was literally all downhill from here with no more elevation gain as we started descending back into green foliage surrounded by massive lakes.
We decided to cut the day short and stay at Rae Lake after our gawking slowed our pass. The valley containing Rae Lakes was amazing. You just couldn’t take a bad picture. Its wide valleys, colorfully streaked mountains and contrast of landscapes reminded me of the mountain vastness of my time in Peru on the Huayhuash, although without the incessant diarrhea.
There isn’t really a trip without a gear malfunction story so that night my sleeping bad cooperated and its zipping component began to refuse to merge the zipper together to close myself in warmth. At 10,500 ft it was a little colder than I had expected, only bringing a single shirt and single rain jacket since I thought 40 degrees would be the low. By headlamp, I began trying to fix the zipper from within the remaining warmth until I finally gave up and ejected into the night’s chill to “get serious”.
Repositioning my sleeping bag in red lamplight I noticed a strange dark shape appear near the zipper a little bigger than a golf ball. The shape was a mouse! A dead mouse! Already cursing my sleeping bag, I launched a new volly as I flipped the corpse onto the nearby gravel. “Is that working out?”, my friends inquire about the sleeping bag from their tent. “Not really, but I found a dead mouse in my bag”, I responded casually. “What?”, a confused response returns.
I mean, we were all confused and the next day I told by my friends that most people would be more upset about the mouse than the sleeping bag. Counter to my own attitude of trying to forget the mouse and focus keeping my sleeping bag operational. A short while after jink’ing the zipper closed, the zipping component disintegrated and I had to sleep the entire night on my touchy shoulder, wrapping the sleeping bag together to prevent my body heat venting to the void.
Explanations of ‘the dead mouse visitor’ varied the next morning, but we finally aligned on: the mouse had crawled into the nice, warm, down, vacant home of my sleeping bag around dusk. Until a 6’6” Minnesotan Sasquatch crashed its party and rolled 200 lbs on top of it. I marked the spot of our unfortunate companion with a big rock, naming them “Mr. Feathers” before heading out.
On day three we cruised on a gradual downhill for 15 miles, but not as fast as a couple speed hiking the entire loop in a single day (their second time doing so). They had started in the dark at 4:30am and were refilling their water from a small stream 6 hours later (10:30am) at mile 18. They still had a lot of elevation to go, but dang. We were impressed.
Late in the day we decided to make it to the last camping spot allowed at Lower Paradise Valley, leaving a six mile hike out the final day. A short time before dropping camp in a huge open area, we chatted with ‘John Muir’s Ghost’. A man past middle age with tanned and tighten skin from years of sun. On his head, a small cowboy hat with two inch-sized fangs pointing towards each other. On his hip, a four-inch fixed-blade knife holstered in tanned hide and stitched with thick azul, red and soft yellow thread, reminding me of the art of southwestern indigenous peoples. He called this place his backyard, while chatting up everyone on the trail in a relaxed and disarming manner. He felt like a true native, nature loving Californian from the cloth and history of ranch culture.
Brian and I both came to California in the middle of the drought when rangers would scold you to not even picture a fire in your head while in the backcountry. Trained that campfires in California were typically not allowed but coming from campfire heavy outdoor culture (Minnesota and Massachusetts) we were elated to light one up. California fires are predictably easy to light with almost zero moisture in the air and yielded a fun, comforting and giggling atmosphere for the night.
Our last day we again cruised downhill and saw some increased fire smoke as we shed the last of our elevation gain and emerged into a larger valley. Passing by the permit station, (positioned at the entrance of the trail) we heard that Bubbs Creek had just been closed to the fire that day. Apparently, the fire had reached the trail and the park was considering air dropping some MREs to hikers back there and asking them to wait it out. Its a good thing we went counter clock-wise otherwise those stranded hikers would have been us!
A pair of backpackers asked us if were going through Fresno on our way out and luckily we had the room for Cathy and Larry. The two Ultra runners in their 60s used to run an ultra every month and now just ran an ultra every three months! They had come from Onion Creek on the Eastern Sierra and would eventually need to buy a plane ticket and then rent a car to get back to their trailhead before driving home to San Diego. They were pretty relaxed and light hearted about the whole thing as we took them along to see the General Grant Tree and eat tacos before dropping them at the Fresno airport.
This trip was exactly what I needed. It was fun, but unambitious (for me). It had enough terrain, views and elevation to keep things interesting. I left feeling filled with energy and finally back on track.