Four of my closest friends and I recently (September 2017) spent 4 days and 4 nights in Kings Canyon National Park. We backpacked 41 miles along Rae Lakes Loop, and were absolutely blown away by the breathtaking views around every turn.
This was the best backpacking trip I have ever done. I felt more prepared than ever before, both physically and in regards to gear, and the scenery was stunning the entire way.
I was pretty excited leaving work that afternoon, knowing that my wife and friends were waiting for me back home.
We had a celebratory beer at Fieldwork and then went home to pack the car. It took some strategic packing to fit 5 dudes and gear into my little SUV. It was going to be a cozy ride.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this crew that an icing occurred before we hit the road.
We ended leaving a little later than anticipated. Not a big deal, as our only objective for the evening was to find a campsite near the trailhead so that we could hit the trail early in the morning.
About 2 hours into the drive, we stopped to get gas.
I stepped out of the car in my flip flops and was hit with the sudden realization that I left my brand new hiking boots in the living room.
Luckily we were a mere 5 minutes away from a Big 5 sporting goods store… and they were closing in 10 minutes.
At this point all of my shoe research went out the window, and “fits my foot” was the only criteria. I wasn’t exactly choosing from the pick of the litter, but I made it work.
Many laughs were had at my expense, and rightfully so. I quickly snagged a pair of Columbia boots and we were on our way.
After we passed through Fresno and started climbing on the 180, things got real. It was cold! We stopped for gas somewhere along the climb and I was reminded of what 40 degrees felt like in shorts and flip-flops. We watched the car thermostat drop a digit at a time as we continued to gain elevation.
After entering the park and driving through Kings Canyon for a bit, we began to pass campsites around 2am.
Vacant sites were not in abundance. We were lucky to find a spot in Sentinel Campground. Everyone was eager to get out of the car and start setting up sleeping arrangements.
I stepped out, took a big breath of crisp fresh air, marveled at the brilliant stars above, cracked open a cold beer, and felt extremely content. It was late, but my tent could wait a few minutes.
Around 3am, after a few beers and a sore neck from stargazing, I decided to call it a night.
I got up to pee around 5:30 and it was unbelievably cold – I’d guess it was around 15 degrees.
Day 1: Roads End to Upper Paradise Valley (9.9 mi, 2,717′)
After discussing how cold it had been that first night, we decided that it’d be best to share tents for the rest of the trip. I was excited to use my new lightweight MSR tent, but not if it was going to be that cold… And thus, our four tents became two.
We made coffee and breakfast, checked in at the ranger station, and hit the trail!
I was immediately in awe of my surroundings: massive rock walls, huge boulders, and falling water.
It wasn’t long until we started climbing, and the scenery began to change. A massive crag of granite (known as the “Sphinx”) came into view.
This was my first real “wow” moment. We all agreed that we needed to stop here and process the view. We sat down and had some snacks while taking it all in.
Our snack session was quickly interrupted by our first black bear sighting. We weren’t even done processing our awe from the sphinx… This was sensory overload!
The bear paid us no mind and slowly made his way past us. It sure seemed like he was used to humans.
This was our first bear encounter, but would not be our last.
As we continued on our way, it became clear that most of our elevation would be done via steps. A lot of these steps were steep. This grew tiring pretty quickly, and left me wishing for switchbacks or regular old incline trails.
We were all moving at a similar pace and were making decent time. It was nice to be able to stop and enjoy the spectacular views along the way without feeling rushed.
Our plan was to camp at Upper Paradise Valley that night. We passed through Lower and Middle Paradise Valley first, and saw another bear on the side of the trail while making our way past some campgrounds.
When we finally arrived at Paradise Valley, we found a great campsite right by the water.
Paul gathered some wood and built a killer fire while we set up the tents.
Andy and I enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the creek while pumping water for camp. We discussed how our packs seemed a bit too heavy that day, and decided we could lighten them by drinking some of the heavy beers that we packed in with us.
I brought a few beers over to cool in the water – they were cold in no time!
The fire provided ample heat and light to cook our dinners.
Everyone was in great spirits, and we had a great time hanging around the campfire, discussing our plans for the following day.
It rained and snowed that night. I remember waking up, hearing the rain, and knowing that my boots were outside getting wet. I laid there for a split second, dreading getting out of my warm sleeping bag. As I was about to get up, I heard Braydon opening my rainfly and placing my boots inside to stay dry. My hero!
Day 2: Upper Paradise Valley to Arrowhead Lake (10.9mi, 3,758′)
Throughout the night I heard loud things falling through the trees and hitting the ground. The following morning I realized they were massive fresh pinecones.
They truly sounded like bricks when they hit the ground. We’re lucky that none of then landed on our tents overnight.
We all woke up feeling a little sore on day two. This initial soreness was no match for some good old-fashioned stretching! Braydon looked a little lonely stretching by himself, so I joined him.
We heated up some solid trail breakfast (oatmeal, peanut butter and trail mix) and then hit the trail.
Our hike started off with a river crossing. The primary bridge (Woods Creek Bridge) was out, so we crossed the water over a downed tree instead.
The next bridge we encountered (a suspension bridge) was still intact, and I’m glad it was, because it was a lot of fun to cross.
We sat down for a snack break on the other side of the bridge. While seated, we chatted with a few groups as they passed us.
First was a pair of runners who were doing the entire Rae Lakes Loop in one day – all 41 miles of it. Not only that, but they were doing it counter-clockwise, which meant that they tackled the majority of their elevation right in the beginning.
Soon after the runners passed us, we encountered a pair of hikers that were also attempting the entire loop in one stretch, and had started at 1am. Inspiring stuff.
This was already a long day for us, with a good bit of elevation, so these undertakings were that much more impressive and humbling. We finished our snacks and continued towards the Rae Lakes.
The scenery between the bridge and the lakes was ridiculous. At several points I had to stop in my tracks to take it all in. Photos truly can’t do it justice, but:
We first spotted snow on the ground around 9,000′. This was a nice reminder that we were in for a cold night, as we’d be camping above 10,000′, where campfires are not permitted.
We had originally planned to end our day at Upper Rae Lake, but we were running behind schedule. The sun was starting to set, and it was getting cold.
We finally reached our first lake of the day, Dollar Lake.
We stopped to rest and enjoy the view, but only for a moment. Sunlight was running out and it had been a long day… We were getting tired.
The epic views continued and clouds started to roll in…
One of the most beautiful moments that I experienced on this trip was about 20 minutes before we reached Arrowhead Lake. I was a bit ahead of the group and decided to stop for a moment to take in the view.
For a moment I felt overwhelmed by all of the beauty in front of me. I stood there in complete silence and took it all in for a moment. In an attempt to capture the breathtaking scene in front of me, I recorded a short video:
As we approached Arrowhead Lake, we decided to set up camp there for the night. Since we wouldn’t have a campfire to keep us warm, we wanted to get our tents set up and get changed into warmer clothes before daylight was totally gone.
Arrowhead Lake was incredible, and we had it all to ourselves. We chose a spot right next to the lake, surrounded by 12-13,000′ peaks.
As we started setting up our tents, it began to snow. After the sun set, the temperature dropped quite a bit.
I was concerned about sleeping through the night, and then I remembered a trick I had seen on some tacky Buzzfeed article. I boiled a pot of water and poured it into my nalgene bottle. I put the nalgene inside of a wool sock and put it inside my sleeping bag. This worked out nicely! My feet were nice and toasty, and I slept well that night.
Day 3: Arrowhead Lake, Over Glen Pass to Junction Meadow (11.9mi, 1,945′)
We woke in the morning to find icicles hanging off of our tents. I’m used to shaking dew off of my rainfly in the morning… Brushing icicles off was a little easier. The icicles legitimized the cold that we felt the night prior. I didn’t check the temperature, but I’d guess it was in the low 20s.
As I went about my morning routine – breaking down the tent, cooking breakfast, pumping water – sparkling white patches of frozen grass loudly crunched under my boots.
The scenery was stunning from the start. We left Arrowhead Lake and passed Lower and Middle Rae Lake.
I had read that Upper Rae Lake was incredibly scenic, and it didn’t disappoint. The water was impossibly blue.
We relaxed on the west shore of the lake for a bit, as we knew that a hellish ascent was waiting for us ahead. Paul caught some brook trout.
Right before we headed off to Glen Pass, a nice couple took a group photo for us.
We left the streams and scattered pines behind us and approached an intimidating wall of granite.
Everyone got quiet once we began our climb up. We gradually spread apart as we all moved at our own paces.
I think we all knew that this would be the most challenging part of the hike, so we were prepared for whatever it would throw at us.
The trail had snow on it, but not enough to be problematic. I think we started our ascent at the right time of day; it was crunchy enough to provide traction, and nothing seemed slippery to the point of being dangerous.
I opted for a moderate, deliberate pace, and was very in tune with my body as I was watching for signs of altitude sickness. One switchback at a time.
This climb reminded me a bit of the more difficult parts of the Big Sur Marathon. 10 miles into the course, runners encounter “Hurricane Point“, a 600 foot climb spread across 2 miles. I knew it was coming, and it was certainly a challenge, but the views were compelling enough to distract me from pain. I suppose the intoxicating effects of adrenaline and extreme gratitude tend to overwhelm any nagging physical discomfort.
When I got to the top of the pass, I thought to myself “that wasn’t so bad!”
The view was breathtaking, and as the rest of the group arrived one by one, we all acknowledged how awesome it was up there, looking out 360 degrees from 12,000 feet.
Hanging out at the top of Glen Pass was the highlight of the trip at that point. We cracked a delicious IPA from Fieldwork and passed it around.
We only hung at the top for 10 minutes or so, but I won’t soon forget the time spent up there. I felt incredibly grateful to be in such an epic spot with 4 of my favorite people on the planet, all of us in complete awe of the panoramic views.
A couple that had been behind us that day were making their way towards the top of the pass. We decided to surrender our little slice of heaven and continue on our way.
The descent was aggressive and steep. About 500′ down we reached Charlotte Lake, which was a beautiful shade of blue.
We debated how cold the water might be, and then someone (not me) mustered the fortitude to disrobe and find out.
I did dip my hand in the water. It was shockingly cold. I can’t even imagine what skinnydipping felt like.
As we continued to descend, our surroundings got more beautiful with every step. After awhile, stopping for pictures felt pointless. The beauty was never-ending. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.
Some parts of the trail were perfect single track, and I fantasized about trail running. I’ve done some epic trail runs, but never anywhere as beautiful as this.
We were running out of daylight, so we started to hustle for the last few miles so that we wouldn’t be setting up camp in the dark.
As soon as we got to Junction Meadow, we found a campsite and started gathering wood for a fire.
This campsite was the best one yet. We were surrounded by massive trees and had plenty of room to spread out. The few neighbors we saw on our way in were pretty far from us. We were right next to a roaring river, and the sky was full of brilliant stars. I must have spent 20% of my night staring up at the Milky Way.
This was our final night together in the park, so we spent awhile gathered around the campfire.
The river next to us provided some excellent white noise. I think we all slept well that night.
Day 4: Junction Meadow to Roads End (9.9mi, 3,200′ descent)
I woke up at 7am, incredibly sore, unenthusiastic about hiking another 10 miles. I suppose 4 nights on a thin air mattress finally caught up with me.
Once I started moving around and had some breakfast my morale returned.
Half a mile into the hike, I realized that I didn’t have a hat on. Crap! I had left my hat at the campsite. This hat belonged to Kyle, who is no longer with us, so I had no choice but to run back and get it.
I dropped my pack and started running back towards the campsite. All uphill, naturally.
As I mentioned, I had been fantasizing about trail running in King’s Canyon the prior afternoon… Well, I got my wish! My legs were incredibly sore at this point, and “be careful what you wish for” smacked me in the head.
Once I retrieved the hat, I jogged back to catch up with the rest of the guys. Downhill on the return, not so bad. A little short of breath, but now I was fully warmed up and ready to hit the trail.
We were all in great spirits on this final day of hiking. Our conversations centered around what type of food we’d be eating on the way out. Someone proposed doing a “bang bang” and we all agreed it was a great idea.
This last day of our trip was a breeze. We had nowhere to go but down. 3,200 feet down, to be precise.
The river was next to the trail most of the time. It was interesting to watch the vegetation change as we descended.
I didn’t take many photos on the way out, as I was having a blast bombing down switchbacks.
When we finally got back to the car, Nick got me back with a Smirnoff Ice. The long con. I couldn’t believe it.
I was not happy to drink warm sugary booze after 4 days of strenuous hiking, but had to give him props for his planning.
We checked out General Sherman on our way back. It was pretty cool to finally see this massive tree in person, but we were all equally excited to get a solid meal.
We ultimately decided on Cheesecake Factory in Fresno… Maybe not the best idea in hindsight, but we discovered that the Factory is adorned in middle earth decor… check out the Eye of Sauron!
We got out of Fresno as quickly as possible and continued our longish ride back to the Bay. We were all tired but in great spirits from an awesome trip.
I spent a lot of time in my head over these 4 days, particularly during difficult portions of the trail when there was less talking. Similar to long trail runs, I found myself in a meditative state, and over the course of several days this left me feeling appreciative for where I am in life, and for the amazing people in it.
I can’t recommend Rae Lakes Loop enough. There was an abundance of breathtaking scenery, with vistas in constant view. We did the loop counter-clockwise and it seemed to get progressively more beautiful with each passing day. Cold, moving water was abundant the entire way. There were no annoying bugs, and I don’t recall seeing any poison ivy/oak.
The route was physically challenging at times, and if you’re not feeling ambitious, it may be a good idea to plan it as a 5 day trip.