I’ve been wanting to hike the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park for about two years. I tried to take the trip before I hiked the AT, but an early snow storm closed the access road to the trail head.
Since I had four days off for July 4th, I figured it would be a great time to hike the 42 mile loop, known as one of the more beautiful backpacking trips in the US. A perfect way to celebrate our Independence Day.
I drove up to Kings Canyon National Park and arrived around 4pm. I first stopped by a visitor’s center and bought a patch, which is a must do for me at every National Park I visit.
Half a mile down the road was one of the park’s biggest attractions; The General Grant Tree. The General Grant Tree is the third largest tree (by volume) in the world. Some quick facts on the tree itself:
– Estimated to be 1700 years old
– 268 feet tall
– Maximum diameter is 40 feet
– If the trunk was a gas tank on a car that got 25 mpg, you could drive the circumference of the world 350 times!
I drove 35 miles on a road that weaved through canyons, had sheer drops to one side and followed a raging river for a portion. My destination was a place called Road’s End, which is literal. There is nothing there other than a ranger’s station and a few parking lots.
Road’s End is where my trail head was located. I parked my car in the overnight hiker’s lot, made dinner, tried to avoid the vicious mosquitoes and made camp in the back of my truck.
I woke up at 6:00, packed my gear and walked up to the ranger’s station. You need a permit camp overnight in the National Park, and I had yet to obtain one. The park allows a certain number of hikers to reserve a spot, but I had missed that opportunity. I was left to hope there was an open spot available.
The station opened at 7:00, so I figured I’d get there by 6:30, assuming I’d be the first one to arrive. My plan worked, and I was first in line.
The ranger opened up and delivered the goods news that there was an open spot for me. I filled out some paperwork, gave my itinerary and proved I had an approved bear canister (similar to DOT stickers on motorcycle helmets, a bear canister needs to pass certain restrictions).
The Rae Lakes Loop is not only known for it’s beauty, distance and elevation, but also for the amount of bears and rattlesnakes on the trail. Bears are highly active and have little to no fear of humans in this area. This is the main reason why the National Parks require a bear canister. When a bear learns it can get food from a human, it will then pursue humans for their food. This of course causes bears to lose their fear of humans, which in turn forces the park service to kill that bear. Bear canisters are designed to keep the smell of food low and impossible for a bear to break into it. The negative, is that you are left with a bulky, plastic container weighing about 2.5 pounds. Now 2.5 pounds might not seem like a lot, but considering my base weight for my gear is 10.5 pounds, adding another 2.5 is a big difference.
My plan for the 42 mile loop was to split it up into three days; two days of 16 miles and a day of 10 miles. The caveat to these miles is the elevation gain and loss of this hike. The trail head is at 5,035 feet and the highest point on the hike, Glen Pass, is 11,978 feet.
The highest I have been is on Mt. Baldy, which stands at 10,084 feet. I’ve hiked Baldy four times, and never had any side effects from the elevation. I was a bit nervous to hike up to 12,000 feet, knowing Glen Pass was at the halfway point. This meant I would have no option but to keep hiking even if I fell ill with altitude sickness.
I started hiking around 7:30. It was a bit chilly, but I still wore shorts and a t-shirt, knowing it would warm up within an hour. The first 2 miles were flat, as I was hiking on a dried river bed. I was on loose sand, similar to a beach, which made each step feel like 1.5 steps.
Mist Falls was the first notable view on the hike. It was a waterfall that cascaded down a granite slope. The way it hits the rocks created a mist in the air. Unfortunately, it was far enough away from the trail that I could not feel the relief from this cooling effect.
I next passed the first three campsites; Lower, Middle and Upper Paradise. These are primitive campsites, meaning a flat piece of ground near water. No amenities are provided. They are all separated by about 2 miles. Upper is 10 miles into the hike.
I then hiked through Castle Domes Meadow, which was about 2 miles long and 1/2 mile wide. It was surrounded by sharp peaks, known as Castle Domes, hence the meadow’s name.
The sun was reaching full strength and temperatures were rising to the mid 80’s. It was about 1:30 and I had not stopped for lunch yet. My original plan was to finish my day at Woods Creak Crossing, which was 15.7 miles from the start of the hike. I was about a mile away as I hiked through the meadow.
I approached a suspension bridge that stretched over a river. The bridge was about 100 feet long and 50 feet above the river. There was a sign on the bridge that read “One person on the bridge at a time”. While crossing it, I realized why. The bridge started to sway back and forth and only became worse with each step. The wood planks that made up the walking surface were thin, some were cracked and some were missing. I have immense respect for those who engineer these structures, and crossed it with confidence, burying the obvious feelings aside.
After surviving the bridge that should have been in a carnival’s fun house, I had reached my planned destination for the night. It was only 2:00 PM and there were already five tents set up. Two older men were walking around and it looked like they had been there for a little bit. I first fetched some water and then sat down in some shade to eat lunch. It was still early, and I was considering to push on another 4 miles to Dollar Lake.
One man came over and introduced himself to me. We chatted while I ate lunch. He explained that a group he was with was hiking the loop, but one got sick the night before. They thought it was altitude sickness (we were at 8,500 feet), but he felt better in the morning. The little I know about altitude sickness is that the only way to get better is to go to a lower elevation. Either way, they had decided to not continue hiking the loop. Three of the members of the group had gone on a day hike and the sick man and the man I was talking with stayed at camp for the day.
After chatting for about 30 minutes, I decided to stay the night. From hiking the AT, I’m so use to pushing miles and hiking until late afternoon. It felt unnatural to stop hiking with so much daylight left in the day.
I setup my tent under a tree and took an hour long nap. I then sat around, shared stories with my new friend and greeted hikers as they arrived into camp.
I feel uncomfortable talking about my hiking speed with other hikers. Most of the topic from the day before was about the miles I hiked and the time I arrived at camp. I was looked at as a wonder child in most of the camp dweller’s eyes. What I had hiked in one day was what most did in two. Most hikers plan to hike the loop in 5 days and I had planned three. It reminded me of the “celebrity” moments I received while hiking the AT. I won’t lie, it’s a good feeling, but it gets old when that’s all someone can focus on.
The other hot (hut*, inside joke for Risscuit) topic was my pack weight. My pack was significantly smaller and lighter than everyone else’s pack. So much, that I would say it was half the size of the average pack that I saw. Hikers tried to figure out what was so different between my setup and and their own gear. I kept trying to tell them that other than not carrying a stove, I had all the necessary gear. The difference was all the luxury items that other hikers carried. For example, most hikers carry camp shoes, a cup, a bowl, a plate…etc. In my opinion, those are not needed. Most hikers cannot leave their home without those comforts, but the negative side is a heavier pack and agonizing miles. Those are the choices you need to make before leaving on a trip. Would you rather be comfortable while hiking for 10 hours or comfortable while being at camp for a few hours?
I woke up at 5:45 and was packed and hiking by 6:00. I tried a new method of packing my gear this trip which significantly reduced my packing up time. I only brought one stuff sac and used it for my clothes. My tent, sleeping bag, air mattress and everything else was just stuffed into my backpack. Normally, all those items are stored in their individual sacs and then placed in your backpack. I had brought a 35 liter backpack on this trip, (I carried a 65 liter when I hiked the AT) so every cubic inch of the pack was needed. By not using stuff sacs, this saved space because instead of trying to cram odd shaped items around each other, every item molded into the other.
The idea behind stuff sacs is good, it keeps things dry in case it rains and it keeps things organized. I lined my entire bag with a thick trash bag and rolled it up at the top. All the gear inside was now protected from water. This also meant I didn’t need to carry a pack cover, which saved a few hundred grams.
I reached Dollar Lake in good time. I stopped and had a quick snack and then kept going. The next five miles were what made this loop so beautiful. I hiked in and around meadows that were surrounded by huge granite peaks. Streams flowed through the tall grass, wild flowers lined the trail and animals dashed across the open field when they heard me approaching. There were about 4 or 5 lakes within these five miles. The water was ice blue in color and very clear.
I then started my ascent up Glen Pass. I knew I was in for some nasty switchbacks and about 1500 feet of climbing in 2 miles. I reached a saddle, which had some patches of snow still remaining. This was my only rest and it only lasted a few hundred yards. I looked up and could see some people standing on a ridge line that looked impossible to reach. The distance and the steepness of the rock seemed unmanageable. I was thinking to myself that those people must have got up there from another trail, but deep down, I knew that was where the trail was taking me.
The switchbacks were steep are short. They were only about 10 yards long and gained about 25 feet on each level. I was at about 11,000 feet and was feeling my body begging for energy. I needed to stop and take quick breaks after every two or three switchback turns. I would look up at the people and wonder if they were looking back down at me.
Once I reached the top, I approached a man in a red jacket that I had seen from below. I told him that I needed to apologize because I had called him some bad names when I saw him from down below. I told him that he was alright in my book now, though.
I sat on top of Glen Pass for about 30 minutes and ate lunch. It was around 11:00 and I had hiked about 9 miles and gained 3,500 feet in elevation. I had about 17 miles left to complete the loop. All 17 miles would be downhill or flat and I would need to descend a total of 7,000 feet. Since it was only 11:00, I did the math quickly and figured I could finish the loop by 5 or 6 PM. The thought of completing the loop in two days suddenly became appealing to me and I set out on the mission to do so.
I flew down the other side of Glen Pass, passing people as they sucked for air on their way up. This side of the loop was more arid and desert like. The heat was rising and by 1:00 PM I was needing a rest. I stopped off by a creak to fill up water, had a snack and soaked my shirt and hat. It is amazing how much you can drop your body temperate by soaking your shirt. After about 10 minutes, I put my pack on and started hiking again.
I had a few trail junctions that I needed to keep an eye out for. Some were well marked and others were not. At one I had to study my map and look for identifiable points, then line them up with which way the trail was headed. I’ll admit, the crazy part was that I was not concerned with getting lost, but knowing if I made a mistake, that I would not complete the loop in two days.
I was coming down a grade and approaching a stream, when I caught something moving about 100 yards in front of me. A black bear, that was blond in color, was making its way up the trail towards me. (In western states that have mountain meadows and open park-like forests, over half the black bears (Ursus americanus cinnamomum) are brown, cinnamon, or blond. Light colored fur reduces heat stress in open sunlight and allows the bears to feed longer in open, food-rich habitats. The lighter colored fur may also camouflage them from predators in those open areas.*) I slowed my pace and kept walking toward it, keeping my eye on it. The bear kept its nose to the trail and did not appear to notice me. The wind was blowing into my face, so I knew the bear could not smell me. It was now about 75 yards away and as I was preparing to announce my presence to the bear, it took a right turn and went down by the stream. There was only about 15 yards between the stream and the trail, but I could no longer see the bear. I gingerly walked on the trail, and kept my eye out as I passed the area where the bear went off. I never saw it again and I figured the bear never knew I was there.
Once I hit the 20 mile mark on what I was hoping to be a 26 mile day, I started to feel the pains of long-distance hiking again. It was a flashback to hiking the AT. The bottoms of my feet were aching and my thighs were starting to burn from all the downhill. Remarkably, my knees were feeling fine.
I took a rest with 4 miles left to hike. I filled up on water and had a few snacks I had remaining. A family was sitting on a log next to the stream and looked at me wide eyed. I am not sure if they were scared of me or just wondering what I was doing. Looking back on the situation, I am sure they were very confused. I had come storming into their camp, threw my pack off, went down to the river, filled up my water, dunked my clothes, and then sat down for five minutes and shoved food in my mouth. I only said “hello” and “bye” to them.
With two miles left, I hit the final junction of the trail. I had hiked these two miles already, as this is where the trail split to start the loop. There were five hikers gathered at the junction and as I approached them I noticed it was the group with the sick hiker. They had hiked back the 16 miles and we just so happened to be at the same junction at the same time. It was such a coincidence to see them again. I had gone around the whole other side and met up with them. One member of their group thought I was lying when he asked where I had hiked for the day. He said I must have found a side trail that created a shortcut. I ignored his comment knowing that I had hiked the entire loop. I instead offered to show them views from Glen Pass because they did not have the opportunity to see it. Having shown I had made it up and over Glen Pass, proved to the naysayer I had hiked the entire loop. He rolled his eyes and pursed his lips when I was sharing the photos.
I strolled passed the rangers station at 5:30, which meant I had hiked the remaining 26 miles in 11 hours. My thighs were a little sore, but other than that, I felt good. I had kept up on my water and food consumption, so I still felt energized. I tried my best to wash up with some baby wipes, changed clothes and hopped in my car. I had a four hour drive ahead of me and I was ready to get into my bed.
Here is something I wrote before I left to hike The Rae Lakes Loop. It goes into the details about food, calories and weight:
As I was preparing for the 3 day, 42 mile hike on the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park, I was becoming curious about my food choices that I made. As I was driving back from the grocery store, having already purchased all the food, I thought “Am I getting enough calories? What is the real weight of my food? Am I just buying stuff that I like to eat or is it really helping me make my miles?”
I decided to break it all down and see what I was really taking in (calories) and what sacrifice (weight) I was making by carrying it all. I was pleasantly surprised by the results, knowing I had not planned anything other than thinking of my taste buds.
Below, I have listed every item of food I am taking, the amount of servings I will be taking and what bang for the buck the food offers. This is essentially what I ate while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The goal for a backpacker is to carry about 30 to 40 oz of food per day of your hike. This is of course an average, taking into the consideration your weight/height/pack weight..etc. The total weight of the food above (including the packaging) is 129.6 oz, which equals 43.2 oz a day. I am just a tad bit over, but again, I included packaging material in my weight.
The total calories of all the food is 11,520, which is 3,840 calories per day. I will most likely eat more food on days one and two because I will be doing more miles and gaining elevation. I figure I will eat around 4,000 calories on days one and two and 3,500 on day three.
I am guessing I will be burning around 5,000 calories each day. This is figured on my weight, height, pack weight, “strenuous” hiking conditions and total number of hours spent hiking. I used a few different calorie counting calculators I found from doing Google searches.