Rae Lakes Loop – Kings Canyon National Park Backpacking

 

 

Trip Overview: ~41 mile backpacking loop from the Roads End Trailhead in Kings Canyon National Park. +/- 8,400 feet of elevation with a starting elevation of 5,050 feet and a peak elevation of 12,000 feet. Highlights include alpine lakes, expansive granite canyon views, and scenic lake-side campsites. We completed this trip over 4 days in July of 2016.

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Overall map of the Rae Lakes Loop with the starting point at Roads End. Day 1 (blue), Day 2 (black), Day 3 (red) and Day 4 (yellow).

Jump to Day 1: Road’s End Trailhead to Junction Meadow
Jump to Day 2: Junction Meadow to Rae Lakes
Jump to Day 3: Rae Lakes to Woods Creek Crossing
Jump to Day 4: Woods Creek Crossing to Roads End Trailhead

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Preparations:

Permits: The Rae Lakes Loop is one of the most popular backpacking loops in the Sierra, so permits are required and the number of permits is limited. You likely want to secure a permit to do the hike in either July, August, or September.  The rivers can be very high and impassable in May and June, and the Glen Pass can be snow covered into mid July.  Basic information about the loop can be found on the NPS website.

You can apply for permits by e-mail or US mail starting at 12:01am on March 1st.  On the permit you need to specify the trailheads you will enter/exit through and your party size (limited to 15 people).  If you want to do the loop clockwise, you enter via Woods Creek and exit via Bubbs Creek.  If you want to hike counter-clockwise, it’s the opposite. Information about the reservation process can be found here and the wilderness permit application is here.  The cost per permit is $10 plus a $5 per person camping fee.  You pay your fees online after you receive an e-mail confirming your permit is secured.

If you are able to reserve a permit and pay your fee, the next step is to pick up the permit from the Roads End Ranger Wilderness Permit Station (36.794690, -118.583116).  You can get your permit after 1 pm the day before you hike or before 9 am the day of your hike.  If you cannot get to the permit station before 9 am on the day of your hike, you must notify the Wilderness Office (559-565-3766) or they will cancel your permit and release it to walk-up hikers after 9 am.

Logistics: We decided to camp near the Roads End Permit Station the night before our trek.  There are multiple campsites on Highway 180 including Sentinel, Canyon View, and Moraine Campgrounds.  Sentinel and Canyon View allow reservations via recreation.gov and Moraine is 1st come, 1st served.  Camping the night before allows you to acclimate a bit to the elevation and will allow you to easily get to the permit station before 9 am.

At the Roads End Wilderness Permit Station there are some bear vaults to store leftover food, and there is a potable water source to fill up your water bottles or camelbacks.  The permit station is hard to miss and you can ask the ranger about current conditions.  You can park your car near the permit station when you first get there, but may need to move your car to a nearby lot if you are parking for multiple days.

Weather and Trail Conditions: It is important to check the trail conditions before taking off on this trek.  You can find the conditions of the Woods Creek and Bubbs Creek Trails and the Glen Pass here.  It is important to make sure the stream crossing are manageable and make sure the Glen Pass is not dangerous. Crossing a fast moving stream can be very dangerous, so listen to the rangers and take their advice.  Beyond that, the trails are well maintained so it’s easy to find your way.

You will want to start this trek early because Kings Canyon gets very warm in the afternoon.  The trailhead is only at 5,000 feet, so the first day of the trek is likely to be quite warm after ~11 am.

Difficulty: If you are doing this loop is 4 or fewer days, expect a moderately tough hike.  Each day will be close to 10 miles and 2 of the days will have serious climbs.  Note that if you extend the hike to more than 4 days, many popular lakes on the trail have camping restrictions that limit visitors to 2 consecutive nights.  You can build a rest day at Rae Lakes into your itinerary, but must leave after your second night.

Supplies: There are black bears in the park, so you need to bring a bear canister. Bear spray is not allowed, so do not bother bringing that. When I spoke with the rangers at the park they discouraged hanging food because they said the bears have gotten smart enough to knock food out of trees. Your results may vary, but a bear canister is the safest option.

You likely will want bug spray because the mosquitoes can be out in force in certain areas of the trek. I prefer a picaridin based spray because it does not damage plastics and synthetic fibers like high concentration DEET sprays do. I also like to pre-treat my clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of spray you need to put on your skin.

Below is a list of the gear I brought on Rae Lakes Loop:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

There are also plenty of lakes along the trail and some good trout fishing spots, so bringing fishing gear if you are into that!

 

Day 0: To start the trip we made the long drive to Kings Canyon National Park the day before leaving on the trek.  The drive along Highway 180 when you enter the park is very scenic and has great views if you get there before the sun goes down.

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Highway 180 in Kings Canyon National Park. (credit: David Prasad)

We ended up getting a campsite at Moraine Campground, which is the closest to the Roads End. The sites were nice and had potable water, so we had no complaints.  We made dinner, had some drinks, and then got some rest before getting up early in the morning.

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Day 1: 10.5 miles; +3,600 feet / -500 feet; Roads End Trailhead to Junction Meadow

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Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 hike (blue)

Map of Rae Lakes Day 1 Hike (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 hike.

After making breakfast and packing up, we made it to the permit station at about 8:30am.  We grabbed the permit and got a report on the conditions and rules from the ranger.  We planned to leave at 9 am, but half our party showed up late.  Unfortunately, we didn’t actually start hiking until about 10:45 am.  I would advise starting before 9 am if possible because it was really warm in the afternoon.

We initially thought our permit was for hiking the loop clockwise, but the ranger said we actually reserved a permit for a counter-clockwise trek.  So, we did some quick planning and decided we would camp at Junction Meadow on the first night (~10.5 miles away). There is some debate about which direction is best. I have not hiked the clockwise direction, so I cannot directly compare.  Our trek was great though and it was very rewarding to descend down Glen Pass on the way to Rae Lakes.  We liked being able to see Rae Lakes in the distance and use it as motivation.

Camping
Moraine Campground is only a 5 mile drive to the Roads End Station.

The trailhead is right next to the permit station.  The first part of the trek is a ~2 mile hike along the Kanawyers Trail.  This trail was super sandy and dusty, so the footing is tough.  Eventually you reach a bridge and start on the Bubbs Creek Trail.  The footing here is normal.  Once you are on the Bubbs Creek Trail, it is about a 8 mile hike to get to Junction Meadow. The trail follows the Bubbs Creek through a canyon and provides some nice views. The views are nothing compared to what comes on the 2nd and 3rd days though.

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The Rae Lakes Loop starts with ~2 miles along the sandy and hot Kanawyers Trail. (credit: Phillip Kendall)
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After 2 miles you reach the Bubbs Creek Trail, climb steeply, and get the first views of Kings Canyon from above.
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Hiking along the Bubbs Creek Trail. (pictured: Kelty Women’s 60 Liter Backpack)
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View along the Bubbs Creek Trail on the Rae Lakes Loop. (credit: Tom Hilton)
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View along the Bubbs Creek Trail. (credit: Tom Hilton)
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Hiking East on the Bubbs Creek Trail. (picture: Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles)
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Rock structures along the trail.
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Areas by streams and creeks were full of mosquitoes.  The trail was also fairly dusty.  Luckily a bandana makes for a great air filter and bug guard!  (pictured: Levi’s Bandana and Columbia Silver Ridge Long Sleeve Shirt)
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We made camp the first night in the Junction Meadow are near a stream.

We camped in a developed campsite we found near Junction Meadow.  The sites were nearby the junction of two streams and made for a pleasant spot to do some fishing.  We caught one or two trout, but the fishing wasn’t super easy here. The bugs here were pretty annoying, so I’d suggest using repellent or bundling up. There were some deer in the area too, so it’s best not to hang salty clothes up overnight or they may get stolen.

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Day 2: 8.6 miles; +4,000 feet / -1,600 feet; Junction Meadow to Rae Lakes

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Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 2 Hike (black)

Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 2 Hike (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 2 hike.

The day 2 hike was the most beautiful but also the most difficult.  In the first ~6.5 miles, you climb up 4,000 feet and reach the top of Glen Pass.  The views along the climb are spectacular, but be prepared for lots of dry, dusty switchbacks.  During the first 3 miles, you hike alongside the Bubbs Creek and get to walk close to a waterfall.  Eventually the trail leaves the creek and begins to climb towards Glen Pass.  At this point you are hiking along the John Muir Trail and will run into some PCT through hikers.

The trail ascending Glen Pass is really pretty with blue lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ridges. At the top of the pass you likely will see many people taking a break.  Some members of our party were feeling a big sick from the altitude (12,000 feet), so be sure to take care of yourself.  After taking some pictures and drinking water we started the descent. The north side of the pass still had some snow on it, so we had to carefully hike through snow on some of the switchbacks.  Some people slid down the snowy slopes, but this technique is not a good idea unless you really know what you are doing.

Along the descent you see several snow melt lakes.  As you get closer to Rae Lakes, the trail switches from gravel and granite to a dirt and grass trail.  We followed this trail to the isthmus between two of the lakes and found some nice campsites there.

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Leaving Junction Meadow in the morning.
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The trail quickly begins to climb, but the views get better as you go up. (pictured: Columbia Silver Ridge Long Sleeve Shirt)
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Climbing up on the Bubbs Creek Trail as we trekked to Rae Lakes.
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As you climb, the trail tracks along side the Bubbs Creek waterfall. (credit: Kirk Y.)
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Lower Vidette Meadow as seen from the Bubbs Creek Trail. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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Continuing the climb along Bubbs Creek towards the Glen Pass and Rae Lakes.
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Trail sign near Charlotte and Bullfrog Lakes.  Around here the trail merges with the John Muir Trail / PCT.
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More climbing along the dusty trail. (pictured: prAna Stretch Zion Pants)
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View looking back toward Vidette Meadow with the East Vidette Mountain in the center.
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Hiking along a brief flat area before the junction with the Charlotte Lake trail.
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Junction with the turn off to Charlotte Lake.
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Looking down at Charlotte Lake. (pictured: Kelty Lakota 65 Liter Backpack)
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Charlotte Lake and the Charlotte Creek Valley. (pictured: Pentax K-50 Waterproof DSLR Camera)
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Then the steep climb to Glen Pass begins.
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Clear blue lake on the way to Glen Pass at ~11,260 feet elevation.
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The water was crystal clear.
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Looking back at a different lake (at 11,530 feet) after traveling ~0.5 miles further up the trail.
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The view from the top of Glen Pass looking down towards the Rae Lakes Basin.
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View of the Painted Lady Mountain after descending down Glen Pass.
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Painted Lady as seen from across one of the Rae Lakes.
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Setting up camp near one of the Rae Lakes.  We camped on the Isthmus between the first two lakes. (pictured: MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent) (credit: Ben Chen)
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The trout fishing was excellent at Rae Lakes. (pictured: Pendleton Wool Long Sleeve Board Shirt)

At the lakes we all pulled out our fishing gear and went after the trout.  I caught about 8 small trout and we filleted and ate a handful of them. I had good luck with Panther Martin Spinners. For tackle, I used my 4 piece travel fishing rod and a compact reel. Some people were fly fishing and they also had good luck.

After fishing and dinner, we relaxed and hung out by the lakes at dawn.  When the sun was totally down, the stars put on a great show.

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Campsite at night with the Milky Way above. (pictured: MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 Person Tent) (credit: Ben Chen)

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Day 3: 12.7 miles; +400 feet / -4,000 feet; Rae Lakes to Woods Creek Crossing

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Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 3 Hike (red)

Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 3 Hike (pdf)

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Approximate elevation profile for the Rae Lakes Loop Day 3 hike.

The hike on the 3rd day was the longest (~13 miles) but was mostly downhill.  The main issue was that it got very hot near the end of the hike. Other than that, the hike was manageable.

The hike begins with a ~7 mile trek out of the Rae Lakes Basin area before meeting up with Woods Creek.  At Woods Creek you cross a suspension bridge, and then take the Woods Creek Trail the remaining ~6 miles until you reach the South Fork of the Kings River.  We crossed the bridge (actually it’s damaged as of August 2017) over the Kings River and then made camp in the trees nearby the river.  There is a nice area of the Kings river that pools near the bride and is great for taking a dip and rinsing off.

This hike was very scenic and had some great views.  At the beginning you get to hike past several lakes in the Rae Lakes area.  Then, as you follow the Woods Creek you get to see some very impressive rock structures.

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View of Rae Lakes as we were leaving in the morning.
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The Fin Dome as seen from across one the Rae Lakes.
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Fin Dome and its reflection on Rae lakes.
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Looking back at the Painted Lady and Rae Lakes.
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Looking down at the last of the Rae Lakes as we hiked out.
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Panoramic view of the mountain peaks to the West of Rae Lakes.
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After you leave the lakes basin, you hike into a valley with granite peaks on both sides.
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The view ahead is great as you hike down the trail.
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At the ~7 mile mark, you will reach the suspension bridge that crosses Woods Creek.
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You then hike along the Woods Creek and get great views of the Castle Domes to the North.
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Castle Domes Meadow along the Woods Creek Trail.
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View from the bridge crossing the Kings River. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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Group photo on the Kings River Bridge. (Credit: Ben Chen)

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Day 4: 9.6 miles; +450 feet / -2,300 feet; Woods Creek to Roads End

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Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 4 Hike (yellow)

Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 4 Hike (pdf)

day4_elev
Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 4 hike.

The last day’s hike is again mostly downhill along the Paradise Valley Trail.  I didn’t take too many pictures on this hike because my battery was nearly dead. The trail meanders alongside the South Fork of the Kings River and goes in and out of the forest.  Some of the forest areas were full of mosquitoes, so be sure to choose your lunch spots carefully.

The highlight of the hike was stopping at Mist Falls, which is ~5.5 miles into the hike.  Once you reach the falls, there is a very short scramble from the trail down to the base of the waterfall.  At the base there are some nice rocks to sit on and have lunch.  It makes for a great spot to take a break.  The last 4 miles of the hike have some nice views of The Sphynx rock structure and of the Kings River.  We encountered a rattle snake and a black bear in this area though, so be alert.

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First views of the Sphynx from the Paradise Valley Trail. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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The Paradise Valley Trail goes in and out of the forest. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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View of The Sphynx from the Paradise Valley Trail.
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The top of Mist Falls as seen from the Paradise Valley Trail (credit: Kirk Y)
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Trail that leads down to Mist Falls (credit: Gabriel Rodriguez)
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Mist Falls, a great lunch spot about 4 miles from Roads End along the Paradise Valley Trail. (credit: Vlad Butsky)
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Going through the forest on the Paradise Valley Trail. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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Paradise Valley Trail along the Kings River. (credit: Gabriel Rodriguez)

Eventually the Paradise Valley Trail meets up with the Kanawyers Trail.  For the final 2 miles you must hike on this sandy and hot trail before reaching the Roads End station.  The sandy footing was especially annoying with sore knees and hips after a 40 mile loop.  Soon we reached the trailhead though and drank a bunch of water.

After we finished up the hike, we walked ~5 minutes to the Kings River right near the Roads End parking lot.  There was a nice pebble beach here and we got in the river to cool down and rinse off.  This felt great after finishing up the last hike of the loop.

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There is a pebble beach located right near the Ranger Station and parking lot.

All in all, this is a great backpacking loop.  The scenery is great and the route is set up perfectly for a 40 mile loop.  The only disadvantage in my mind is that the loop is so popular it can be difficult to find solitude.

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7 Replies to “Rae Lakes Loop – Kings Canyon National Park Backpacking”

  1. This is such a helpful resource. Thank you for putting it together! I’m hiking the Rae Lakes Loop counterclockwise in July and am so glad to find such an informative guide to this trip. Thanks again!

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    1. I hope you have a great trip in July! Just remember that the bridge at the South Fork Kings River is still out and you will need to ford the river to cross. The water levels may be down in July, but it’s always good to check with the rangers ahead of time!

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