MAY 28

Day One

It was 7am when we decided to give up on trying to sleep and head over to pick up our permit. We arrived at the park at 3am the previous night and instead of worrying about setting up camp, we instead elected to sleep in our rented PT Cruiser. The results were less than spectacular but we were more than ready to start our journey. We had selected the Rae Lakes loop, regarded as one of the most popular hikes in the Sierra Nevadas. To beat the crowds, we decided to go early in the season. The only problem was this season was colder than typical and the weather was nearly a month behind schedule. That would mean lots of snow and cold temperatures.

When we walked up to the ranger station, a line was already formed. We waited our turn and heard the ranger explain to the person in front of us that the Rae Lakes loop wasn't possible, and the furthest you could probably get is the JMT junction, maybe a little further. The deterrent worked, and the hiker decided to do a different route. When it was our turn, we decided that we wanted to see how far we could get. mist fallsAfter all, we did have crampons and ice axes with us. The hiker that changed her itinerary overheard us saying we would still try the loop and asked if we had snow shoes. "Nope." The ranger informed us that Rae Lakes was 100% snow. "Cool." Then the ranger asked what was the brightest backpack color and tent color in case they had to come look for us. Comforting.

So we were off. Right away, you cross a bridge and can see the water pouring under your feet. There's a lot of snow in the park and with the temperatures quickly rising, a lot of it would be making its way down very soon. A few feet after the bridge crossing, there's another stream that requires log hopping to get across. This is going to get interesting over the next couple of days.

The two mile hike from Road's End to the loop is fairly uneventful. A wide trail that gives you a taste of what's to come. Once we arrived at the split, we headed left to do the loop campfireclockwise. After a couple of miles of hiking along the South Fork of the Kings River, you come to Mist Falls. The river was gushing which meant the falls would be extra misty. We dropped our packs and enjoyed the falls with the dozen or so other hikers. As you approach the falls from the base, you quickly see the giant plume of mist coming off a rock that is hidden away by the rapids. After enjoying the refreshing spray for a while, we were back on the trail.

Shortly after Mist Falls, we arrived at Lower Paradise Valley. It looked like a nice campground and already had several groups of people with camp set up. We continued on and came across Middle Paradise Valley shortly after, which also seemed nice but was deserted. The hike from Middle to Upper seemed much longer and along the way, we talked to a ranger who mentioned that there was another group also attempting the loop but they were turned back at Dollar Lake on account of the heavy snow cover. He looked kings canyon traildown at our boots and called out Dale for the tear between the toe box and the sole. He mentioned that snow will get in there and that we might have troubles trying the loop. We thanked him and then kept going.

We finally arrived at Upper Paradise Valley and took one of the few remaining sites. There's six in all, and all of them would be occupied by the time night would fall. We set up camp and scrounged for firewood. Everything was pretty well picked over and we had to trudge deep into the woods to find anything worth burning. Once the campfire was going and dinner was devoured, I climbed the rocks behind the campsites and was treated to a wonderful sunset over Paradise Valley. After that, it was time to crash.

Day Two

pond at upper paradiseWe woke up refreshed and knew today would be a short hike. It was only about six miles to the Woods Creek Crossing, so we were in no hurry. Dale, Thomas and I all scaled the rocks behind the campsite so I could share with them the view from the previous night. While exploring around, we discovered a pond and a fire ring, which means this would have been a much more ideal campsite than what was 100 feet below. Too late now, but we made a mental note of it for next time we came through (which we weren't sure if it would be in a couple of days or sometime much further in the future).

After playing around on the rocks, it was time to get a move on. We packed everything up and started our hike. The scenery for the second day was better than that of the first. We were still hiking along a gushing river, but the canyon was a bit wider, there were more stream crossings to keep things interesting, there were some nice meadows and we also had a great view of Castle Domes. We also saw several deer and a bunch of bear tracks (but no bears). On this day, the number of hikers we saw dropped off considerably. There were a bridgefew hikers from the Upper Paradise Valley that were day hiking to the JMT junction. We also encountered a group of guys that just came from the JMT that suggested we should check out at least the first half mile. By the time we got to the junction and crossed the suspension bridge, we were finally alone to enjoy total solitude.

After setting up camp and gathering a nice stack of firewood, we followed the JMT hikers advice and took a short trip north on the JMT. After a few minutes of hiking, we encountered a nice portion of the river where it looked almost like a water slide. Resisting the urge to jump in, we instead enjoyed the river and then headed back to camp. After sitting by the fire, it was time to retire for the night.

Day Three

castle domesWe woke knowing that today would be a true test. According to everyone we talked to, nobody had been further than Dollar Lake, and we were determined to out do that. About a mile away from camp, we finally encountered a decent amount of snow. We didn't worry about putting on crampons since it was a gradual climb and nothing too daunting. Finding the trail was now more difficult and we used a rule of thumb that we would always head up.

After a couple of miles, the snow started to build up so we put on our gaiters. That helped keep the snow out of the top of our shoes, but Dale still had a problem with his sole separating from the rest of the shoe. To remedy the problem, Dale tried to use duct tape to seal off the boot. It didn't work. We were still able to push on and we after a few hairy stream crossings that involved getting the boots snowwet, we found ourselves at a frozen solid Dollar Lake. It was an eerie blue color that just screamed "COLD!".

We were now above 10,000 feet which meant no more campfires and a lot more snow. The inability to see the trail finally started causing havoc. We attempted to get around Dollar Lake the only way we could see how, which was over a small outcrop the ran along the side of it. The idea of falling in the lake kept us far away from the edges. We later learned we were nowhere near the trail, but we were still able to make it around. We were officially further than anyone else that year, which allowed us to feel a bit like explorers.

fin dome and snowWe continued to bumble around in the snow in an effort to make it to the Rae Lakes campsites. Somewhere around this point, the stream crossings became much more interesting in that you could no longer see the stream, but you could still hear it running underneath your feet. We kept waiting to drop through the ice and into the cold water, but it never happened. We still had no idea where the trail was, but kept making progress. After checking the map a few dozen more times, we finally spotted a sign post. It was getting late so seeing the indications of the campsite was a welcome feeling.

Turns out the sign was pointing to the location for the bear lockers, which we never found. We did start scouring the area looking for the best place to camp. Lucky for us, around some of the trees, the snow had melted away and provided for a little ground to place the tent. And since there wasn't going to be any fire that night, we quickly set everything up, cooked dinner and hopped in the tent. And after filling our bellies with food and laying down, we realized just how tired we were. Walking in the snow proved to be more tiring than we expected.

Day Four

ice axe and cramponsThe intention was to get an early start, but it turned out to be 8:15 before we broke camp. This time, we started off with the crampons and gaiters on our feet, and an ice axe in our hand. We had a mountain to climb! So we made our way around Rae Lakes, stopping to take off the crampons to make it across the stream separating two of the lakes. From there, we lost the trail. We surveyed the area and compared it to the map. It appeared there was an area leading up behind Painted Lady, so we decided to wing it and start heading up.

Making our way up the mountain was very exhausting. It was nearly impossible to try and go straight up, kick stepping all the way. Instead, we started making switchbacks through the snow. While this made it a little more tolerable, it still required snowy switchbacksconstant stops for rest. It was really no different than being at the bottom of a ski slope and trying to walk up to the top. Everywhere we looked was just more snow. The conversations amongst us slowed as we each concentrated on getting up the mountain, putting one foot in front of the other.

After about five hours of treacherous hiking, we finally were making some progress. We were nearly to the point where we could see Glen Pass. At nearly 12,000 feet, it would be the tallest point of the trip. The area was now getting a little rocky and at one point, we removed our crampons and scrambled up the rocks. It was a much easier way to gain elevation. Once at the top of the rocks however, we began to question if we were going the right way. All the possibilities looked extremely sixty lakes basindaunting and impassible. We broke out the GPS for the first time and found out we had overshot Glen Pass. Disappointed, we backtracked and headed in the right direction. We were now seeing more frozen lakes and more eerie blue snow that was to be avoided. We started up another slope, zig zagging all the way. As we neared the top, we again checked the GPS. Once again, we weren't near Glen Pass. We decided to take a look at the top of the slope we were on just to make sure the GPS wasn't wrong. What we saw was Sixty Lakes Basin, which we shouldn't be looking at. At this point, it was 4:30 and we've been hiking for 8 hours straight and we still weren't sure where Glen Pass was. To make matters worse, storm clouds were rolling in. As much as we didn't want to, we made the call to throw in the towel and head back to the previous night's campsite. In near silence, we started back down the mountain.glen pass

With GPS in hand, we were now determined to find the actual trail. After a while, we realized why we missed the trail. After heading down steep slopes, the trail dropped us along the edge of Rae Lake. It required hiking three feet from the lake on a 45 degree incline of snow and ice. We were extra careful, making sure to plant the ice axe, take a step, plant the ice axe, repeat. A slip into the lake could be big trouble so we took it nice and easy.

We finally made it back to the camp site and set up camp. It was basically a repeat of the previous night and we heated up dinner and jumped in the tent. It was only 7pm or so and our bodies were completely done for, but our minds were still racing with everything we just put ourselves through. We broke out a deck of cards and played 31 for a couple of hours. We discussed what the plan was for the next day and looked at mileage. We knew it was over 20 miles to get to the car and out of the park. Daunting, but something we would sleep on.

Day Five

busted fingerWe decided to start this day off with the crampons strapped to our feet. We hiked this section uphill without them, but we saw on the previous day how much easier it was to maneuver with them on. We also decided to keep the GPS on and try to stick to the trail. A difficult task to say the least. The GPS isn't 100% accurate so a lot of times it was a wild guess as to whether we were actually on the trail. We hiked along, making adjustments to our route as we progressed. There would be instances where we hiked in our own tracks from two days earlier, and others where we didn't see our tracks for miles. By 11am, we were back at the JMT junction and out of the snow. We were fairly relieved to be back on solid ground with an easy to find trail. The previous three days had started taking a toll on our psyche, whether we were willing to admit it or not. We took a break at our prior campsite, with the leftover fire wood enticing us to stay longer. We filled up our water and rested for about an hour. Then it was time to push on.rattlesnake

Along the way, we noticed that the rivers and streams were swelling. The high temperatures had been in the 60s and 70s the previous few days so it wasn't a surprise at all, but we knew it would make things more challenging. At one particular stream crossing, the water was gushing everywhere. A few days prior, we were able to easily hop across a few rocks. Now, there were venomous rapids that were ready to sweep us down the mountain. We hiked up a few feet and didn't see any better place to cross. I dropped my pack and went exploring. About 100 feet upstream, I found an area where the stream was split into three sections with a giant log reaching across most of it. The only problem was the log ended about about 5 feet from the bank and the gap was filled in with a log about four inches in diameter. It would be risky, but the alternative was to camp where we stood and cross in the morning.

more stream crossingsI headed back to the guys and told them we could cross upstream. I said, "It's sketchy, but doable". I put my money where my mouth was and bounced across the giant log and onto the tiny log, grabbing some tree branches near the bank for support. Without the tree branches, I might have easily fallen in and been swept away. Thomas and Dale soon followed, and afterwards we felt a huge rush. Words and pictures simply don't do the feat justice. Finally on the other side of the stream, we were back on the trail and continued to head down.

When we arrived at Upper Paradise, the water was literally coming out of the banks. The bottom step of the bridge that was several feet above the water was now disappearing. We pushed upstream after crossing the bridge to find enough dry land to make it into the campground. It was now 6pm. We informed one of the campers we were going to push on towards Road's End, to which she replied, "But that's eight miles away!" Yep. After filling up on water, we were ready for our final push.

bearShortly after Upper Paradise, we were hiking along the trail when we heard a loud splash sound. Up from the watery bog popped a huge bear. At first, it didn't appear it saw us so I started clapping my hands and yelping a little to make sure we didn't startle it. It eventually peered over at us, stared for a moment then trotted a few feet away from us. It paused, turned and stared and then moved further away. After observing the bear for a few minutes, we decided it was time to move on. We were extremely stoked that we finally saw a bear, and we were only a few miles away from leaving the park.

As we neared the end of our trek, the sun started to set and darkness crept over the mountains. We ended up having to don headlamps for the last three miles. Luckily the trail was nice and wide and easy to navigate. The stream crossings were primarily behind us and we safely made it to the car. Exhausted, the only thing we could think about was food. It was 9pm and it would take us to Fresno before we would find any open restaurants. It sure felt great to be sitting down in the car though.

Overall, it was a great trip and we encountered a ton of new challenges. The entire time though, I kept imagining how beautiful the place would be if it was covered with wildflowers instead of snow. Now that would be a loop worth doing! Instead, we'll hold our heads high knowing we were the first ones of the season to reach Rae Lakes.

Type: Loop
Dogs: Nope
Trailhead: Google
Trail Map: link
Vertical Profile: link

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