About the Author: Vicky is a weekend warrior (pharmacy technician) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Starting at age 6, she has been hiking on the trails of the Midwest. The favorite family spot is Red River Gorge, Kentucky, where she has been leading group day-hikes and overnight backpacking trips for the past year. Vicky is also an active volunteer in the Sheltowee Trace Association serving on their Board of Directors, managing their website, and doing trail maintenance on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail in Kentucky and Tennessee. She also backpacks all over the United States, her favorite places being Death Valley, California, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, California, and Grayson Highlands, Virginia.
Trail Info: 52 mile loop trail starting at the Onion Valley trailhead near Independence, California. Half of the loop is on the PCT/JMT. The elevation gains and losses are diverse. The trail is very rocky with an occasional marshy meadow section. Water sources are everywhere, but so is the sun. Hydration and sun protection are key, even in September with temps in the 30’s at night. I recommend planning to complete this route in 5 days if you are not used to the climate and altitude.
Third time’s the charm for us on the Rae Lakes Loop. After much planning and anticipation, my boyfriend, Mason, and I flew out to LA and spent 10 days in the beautiful Eastern Sierra. The big plan was to spend 4 of those days backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop among other site-seeing activities like camping in Mammoth Lakes, visiting their brewery, hiking in Alabama Hills, fishing in the Owens River, and hiking through Horseshoe Meadows. We had attempted this loop twice before and bailed both times due to sickness, but this time we were prepared with more Diamox and a better hydration system.
The night before our big trip, we packed our packs out of our big suitcases in our motel room in Independence. We weighed our packs, repacked many times, and carefully selected what food to put in our bear ball. Early in the morning, we set out on Onion Valley road to begin a 52 mile hike. Of course, the sky was blue and the sun shining bright. We both felt confident as we climbed up to Kearsarge Pass. We stopped for lunch at 11,709 feet in elevation and met a happy group of PCT thru-hikers making up the Sierra section they had to skip in May or June. They were chatting about how many days in a row they hiked 20 miles. Our itinerary called for 15 miles in a day at the most. I sat there looking out over Kings Canyon (you could see for MILES) daydreaming about when my time would come to thru-hike this trail and do 20 mile days. We left shortly after the thru-hiker group did and on we went down to Bullfrog Lake and followed the trail next to Bubbs Creek. It was a strenuous and steep declining trail and we didn’t go further than our itinerary planned for. We got a secluded camping spot and kept thinking about how this would be a perfect place for mountain lions to hang out.
Not seeing any wildlife other than some singing birds, we packed up in the cold morning air and set out to do the hardest part of the loop- Lower Paradise Valley. While the hike past Mist Falls is always beautiful, the trail becomes a long, gradual, uphill climb involving man-made steps. We think it was designed for horses and mules. The mileage doesn’t seem like it would wear you out, but it really does. This is the part of the trail where we bailed last time. We ended up camping in the same spot we did 2 years ago in Lower Paradise right next to the beautiful South Fork of the Kings River. We were hoping to go 5 miles further, but gave up hoping we could make up the mileage tomorrow. Among the troubling terrain, we had tent zipper issues that night that certainly did not put us in a good mood to knock out big miles the next day.
The next morning, we were still not in good spirits, but packed up and headed up the trail hoping to surpass the point we turned around 2 years ago. I was excited to see new scenery and get to Rae Lakes- the highlight of the loop. Paradise Valley and the Woods Creek section was beautiful with lush meadows and towering mountains of both sides of you, but the trail didn’t get any easier. We got to the point where we were thinking about how we could turn this into a 5-day trip without running out of food. Backpacking can be really really hard. I was discouraged and frustrated that I could hardly enjoy my surroundings. If we had brought a few more Clif bars and that extra freeze-dried meal that wouldn’t fit in the bear ball, we could have made it into a 5-day trip.
We hiked up Woods Creek and finally made it to the junction of the John Muir Trail. There were a few campsites right off the trail next to a cool suspension bridge and beautiful creek where Mason caught a few trout. We had seriously thought about trying to fry them up, but the trout in the creek were too small and had too many bones. We had to make a decision right there to camp, hike the rest of the 19 miles the next day, or try to camp another night before Kearsarge Pass. We were very discouraged by having to make this decision. I was getting sick, having stomach pains and throwing up every time I tried to eat my Clif bar or a bite of trail mix.
Then something happened that I will remember for the rest of my life. My boyfriend made the decision of a lifetime. While I thought he would have waited until we reached the top of Glenn Pass or another place with an expansive vista, he wanted to change the mood and temperament for the rest of the trip. After setting up camp, I sat on a rock and soaked in the sun. Mason suddenly asked me if he could ask me a question. I said, “Yes, what is it?” He then dug in his pack, pulled out a small wooden box, got down on one knee in front of me, and asked for my hand in marriage. All the emotions of frustration and disappointment at the trail fled my body and pure dopamine flooded through me. Of course I said yes. We’ve been in love for 7 years now. He put the ring on my finger as it brilliantly sparkled in the California sun. It was quite distracting the rest of the trip and I kept glancing down at my hand around my trekking pole. I guess I see now why he chose that timing. We made a pasta meal for dinner and went to bed early as many other thru hikers piled in the camp in the dark. They had hiked much longer days than us, but we were so tired, sore, and feeling weak because we weren’t eating enough. One more day left.
We woke up freezing and I bitched and moaned about getting up and going. I just wanted to sleep and stay in my super warm sleeping bag until the sun came out. After most of the other backpackers had left camp, we set out to complete the loop- 19 miles ahead of us. We quickly shed layers as the sun warmed the air. This part of the loop was now on the John Muir Trail and it was the most beautiful part. I will never backpack the other part of this loop, but I would love to go back to the John Muir Trail. The trail became so easy somehow. Even though there were significant elevation lines on my topo map, the climb from Woods Creek to Rae Lakes was smooth and not strenuous. We stopped at Arrowhead Lake to nap and eat one of the last Clif bars we had. As we followed the trail to Rae Lakes, my breath was truly taken away. The biggest, most southern lake reminded me of the beautiful water in Michigan. There were some pretty significant waves crashing on the shore. I would have loved to explore the other side of the shore with a kayak. Mason loved watching the trout swim around, but resisted getting out his fishing pole. We had a bajillion more miles to go and were about to climb Glen Pass- the highest point on the loop.
The climb up to Glen Pass was somehow easier than the climb up to Kearsarge Pass. There were a good amount of switchbacks making for a less steep ascent. The views changed as we climbed higher and higher and could see further and further. We saw many other glistening alpine lakes in addition to looking back on the Rae Lakes. It was very windy on top of Glen Pass- 11,926 feet in elevation. We took a picture and bolted down, soaking in the warm sun as the wind rushed over my legs and cheeks. I felt like the hardest part was behind us and could feel our spirits lifting. We could finish this. We came back around the loop and saw the familiar Charlotte Lake- where we camped on our first attempt at the loop in 2016.
With 7 miles to go and the sun beginning to set, we boiled up our ramen and ate the rest of our food stash. We reached the John Muir Trail’s junction with the Kearsarge Pass trail and hiked above Bullfrog Lake again. I took the most jaw dropping picture I’ve ever captured in all my years of traveling with my camera. Small, fluffy clouds rolled in, contrasting against a pink and orange sky. The lake’s blue water reflected the pine trees as the shadows grew darker down around it’s shore. The sun cast a purely golden glow on the towering granite mountains behind the lake. We continued on up and over Kearsarge Pass just as the light vanished from the sky. The last 5 miles down from Kearsarge Pass were by far the most difficult miles I’ve ever had to hike through. Descending down almost 3,000 feet in elevation in pitch-black darkness with only a headlamp actually made me a little nauseous. Tunnel vision was an understatement. It was a mind game- one foot in front of the other. The last 3 miles I kept thinking we were almost there. It really seemed to keep going on forever. I was getting dizzy with hunger as we trotted down the stone stairs back into Onion Valley.
When we landed in the parking lot, I dropped my pack and laid flat on the paved blacktop. Gazing up at the many sparkling stars in the sky, I thought of what this accomplishment meant to us. We had failed twice before and now won. We barely made it out, but we made it. And with a new shiny rock on my finger. This accomplishment represented a celebration of the love between us and of our love for backpacking.
I would not do the Rae Lakes Loop again, but I will pass by the familiar sights on my future JMT thru-hike.