Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon California

30 Jul

Kings Canyon 1st night

Kings Canyon, Rae Lakes Loop is one of the most raw, rugged and awesome displays of pristine nature that I’ve seen in all of my years of hiking back country wilderness.  It doesn’t have the sheer beauty of Yosemite, but it’s untamed, untrampled and unspoiled wildness seems more wild than pretty.  The sheer size and magnitude of the surrounding mountains and rock faces are hard to put into perspective since everything is so enormous.

The first part of the hike was very hot, sandy and kinda boring, but within 2 miles we were into a green and lush forest with the raging Kings river running next to us the entire 10 miles to our first camp site at Paradise Valley.  Nothing to note worthy except the glacier polished cliff faces and the unforgiving treacherous roar of King’s river.  The water pouring out of the mountain with such force and volume was frightening at times.  There seem to be a pulse or a rhythm to its sound and flow that if I sat back at watched it for a few minutes I could see it like waves in an ocean.

Baby squrrils running around our site

Baby squirrels running around our site

We met a young kid that kinda looks homeless named Ryan.  I actually met him when I noticed he was trying to get a fire going with just pine cones and needles the night before.  I took pity and offered up some extra wood that we could not possibly go through in one night.  I offered up a few nice pieces and introduced myself.  It wasn’t until I was up close did I realize this could possibly be a big mistake.  He had that sort of crazed look on his face like Charles Manson and he had the long hair and equally long beard to reinforce my stereotype of a crazy person.  This guy had literally nothing with him.  He had a day pack that wasn’t even full and was wearing what looked like old ski pant and extra heavy winter jacket.  I made this initial introduction as brief as possible and said good night.  We sat around the fire for an hour or so more and had another drink before bed.

We had a nice camp site surrounded by giant Ponderosa Pines near the beautiful river and a view of cathedral like peaks in the back ground.  It was nothing outstanding in our experience, but gorgeous none the less.

Kings Canyon, California

Next day after coffee and breakfast of instant oatmeal we set out for another hard day and a couple thousand more feet of elevation gain in the hot sun to Woods Creek.  More high Sierra terrain that I’ve come to really enjoy, which is glacier polished granite, monstrous Ponderosa pines and some Bristle Cone Pines sprinkled in sparingly.  Another thing that I’ve really come to enjoy is that every day is the same; a strictly blue sky, warm sun and no clouds.  Perfect!  I am really starting to fall in love with Northern California.

The Woods creek campground isn’t anything spectacular, but very nice none the less.  We camp next to the suspension bridge, which has a good fire ring and some flat rocks that we use as a dining table.  It’s hot and we’re tired and dirty.  We head down stream for a dip in the freezing cold snow melt river.  It takes my breath away as I submerge myself in the only deep spot available in a very swift pool behind a large boulder.  I go under again just to wash up the privates and get one good rinse through the hair and clothes.  Ahh man oh man that feels good.  I get out and sit on a rock naked to air dry.  Jen get inspired and does the same after a lame attempt at a dunk under earlier.  I don’t blame her, since growing up on Lake Superior I feel that I’ve built up a tolerance to freezing cold water.

Kings Canyon, California - Rae Lakes

We sit there naked by the river side and are dry within minutes.  This is a very new experience coming from Seattle where it’s never this dry or hot.  At least in the mountains it isn’t.  I tend to jump into any water available while camping in the Northwest, but to be warm and dry within minutes is a big surprise to me.  Oh my look at the time.  We’re missing H.H. by 15 minutes, so we get dressed and head back to camp.  We make the first of our 2 drink limit and head down to the river side again to sit by another crystal clear fishing hole under the suspension bridge.  Jen seems to be getting into this nature thing by going Au-natural.  I have a nice view, so life in the back country is good.

We invite our neighbors over to enjoy our small fire.  Luckily this time I get to see them in the day light and have a brief chat before making the same mistake as last night.  Actually we see Ryan come into camp a full 3.5 hours after us wearing the same old ski outfit when it’s at least 85 degrees out.  He isn’t the first person we’ve seen like this either.  It seems like everyone is dressed head to toe in long sleeves, long pants and some sort of sombrero type sun hat.  It’s bizarre, but what do I care.  I found that my method of bathing and washing out my clothes as soon as I get to camp keeps the mosquitoes away.  If that doesn’t work I usually smoke myself out next to the fire and that does the trick.  These people would rather suffer under what seems an unusual amount of clothing in hot sun while climbing thousands of feet in elevation than get bit by one or two bugs.  Have you heard of Deet before?  I mean that bugs are bad, but for crying out loud man get a clue.  Wait, I forgot I’ve stopped trying to figure people out.  It’s a waste of time, but sometimes I  have a good laugh.

Kings Canyon, California - Rae Lakes and the Painted Lady

Rachele, Rachele and Tim who are from England stop by for socializing and to enjoy our glorious fire.  It’s funny, but when you’re out in the middle of nature you come to really appreciate the little simple pleasures of life in the back country.  For example clean clothes, a cold drink, something sweet, a good fire, good food and friendly conversation with someone new.  These two have been on the trail for 3 weeks doing the John Muir Trail aka JMT.  Within minutes I could tell that had some interesting stories to tell, so I offer them a drink to share.  They tell me they haven’t had a luxury item for 12 days, so they gladly accept.  I make them one of my now famous Lemon Lime and Fruit Punch Gatorade combos with cold freshly pumped water, so it’s cold and strong.  They tell me the next day after we unexpectedly run into them on the trail that they’ve never slept so well in weeks.  Went right to sleep afterward, which 10,000’ + can sometimes be a challenge.  The night is filled with tales of the JMT and a glorious stop off at the JMT Ranch, which offers hot spring and hot meals for a hot price of $150 per person per night.

Next day is the much anticipated Rae Lakes.  It’s another brutalizing hike up in the hot sun and thousands of feet gained, but it’s beautiful as ever.  Glorious crystal clear lakes that are as blue as the skies above only darker.  The mountains look like a 3rd grader drew them with steep vertical lines rising straight out of the lakes and with lots of snow on top.

Once again I spot a camp site from a mile off and tell Jen that “I want to camp there.”  It’s a glorious spot at the tip of a small peninsula that is in the middle of upper Rae Lake.
It comes complete with a high cliff for jumping into the lake, along with a glorious view of the Painted Lady, Fin Dome and other 12,000’ peaks that surround us.  More skinny dipping and happy hour ensues soon afterwards.  The bugs are really bad here and even though we’ve gone in twice they’re still thirty for fresh blood.  We break out the Deet and they’re gone like that.

Kings Canyon, California - Rae Lakes

The next day is the dreaded hike over Glenn’s Pass.  It’s 12,000’ and we’re at 10,000.  From our camp site I have no clue of how we’re going to get over this enormous mountain, but we have to do it.  We pack up camp and get going.  The trail is gorgeous with High Mountain lakes that are mirror smooth reflecting the ginormous peaks that surround us.  It’s another glorious day and the bugs aren’t too bad this morning.  We start to climb.  “Oh it’s not too steep” I say, but then at the top of one ridge we see what we are about to climb.  It’s straight up.  No fucking way in hell can we do this.  We see people a thousand feet above us that look like ants lost in a snow field.  It’s intimidating to say the least, but I am more worried since we do not have any ice axes and there looks like a lot of snow at the top.  We climb and climb switch back after switchback and never seem to be getting any closer.  We finally make it to the top after a few sketchy snow field crossings, but we took it slow and made sure every step was solid.  The view from the top of Glenn’s Pass is truly impressive.  There is only one peak that is keeping us from having a full 360 view, but that only adds to the sense of scale.  We can see for hundreds of miles in almost all directions.  We sit and have lunch of made of Albacore tuna and surprise, surprise mayo and sweet relish from the condiment library along with some Triskets.

Kings Canyon, California - Glenn Pass

Kings Canyon, California - Jim Mercure on Glenn Pass Summit

The hike down is just the same switchback after switchback.  We pass a lake that looks like it’s been plugged in.  It’s so blue it seems to be glowing.  We trudge on up and up after taking the advice of the ranger that the upper trail is worth the elevation gain.  I am cursing that bastard as I can see a nice low trail with little to no elevation gain below us.  Yes, the view is amazing and after a long day I am glad we’ve made it to Kesearge Lakes.  This lake will go down in my memory as one of the best places I’ve ever camped, at least the most scenic.  Again, I spot the place I want to camp from high above and miles away.  This is where we run into our new friends Rochelle and Tim who decided to bail a few days early and have to go over two passes in the same day.  A big feat for those who’ve never done it and at elevation above 10,000’ where there is 70% of the oxygen at sea level.

Kings Canyon, California - The Southside of Glenn Pass

We spend two nights at this glorious little camp site that has just about everything.  It has a great view, it’s on the Eastside of the lake so we get an extra two hours of sunlight and has a glacier polished granite point complete with jumping off spot with a nice exit onto the hot rock to warm back up on.  What is so great about this spot is that alls that anyone would have to do is get their feet just a little wet to get here, but we’ve watched several people attempt this and turn back.  Ha, ha, we have the whole Eastside of the lake to ourselves and it’s just glorious.  We are bathing in the late afternoon sun while I look at people across the lake bundled up in the shade swatting flies.  I jump in to the lake naked again just to show that we’re living large over here with our cocktail and sun.  I feel like a rock star on some tropical island or something.

Kings Canyon, California - Kersearge Lakes

Kings Canyon, California - Kersearge Lakes

Kings Canyon, California - Kersearge Lakes

The next day wasn’t so glorious.  We decide that we’re going to try to make it out in one day which is 20+ miles and 4,500’+ elevation loss.  It’s brutally hot and dry and one of the hardest hikes I’ve done.  As were hiking down a baby bear gets between Jen and I and gets frightened and is running right toward me.  I have no clue because a mouse fart is louder than Jen’s loudest voice.  I miss it and am a little tiffed that she didn’t tell me there was a baby bear just a few feet away, and even more so that I have a camera around my neck.  Oh well that’s the way it goes.  She got a special treat by this encounter and that’s good enough.  A couple miles down the trail I hear the unmistakable sound of a baby bear’s cry.  I tell Jen “That’s a baby bear” and she’s like yeah right.  I tell her that I know for sure that there’s a baby bear just a few yards away in the brush somewhere, but she still doesn’t believe me.  All of a sudden just feet away the ferns start to move and then there we are face to face with big momma bear and baby bear right behind.  She gives me the stare down that gives me goose bumps.  Its fight or flight here.  I start talking, I am not sure what I said, but with all of the literature that we’ve read says that you should talk and fight back with black bears.  I try to get big, but she gives me that look that she’s not gonna take any BS from me.  They mosey on and cross the path just a few feet from us.  We try to sneak by, but I don’t know if she know that we’re just trying to pass since we see her again, but this time she doesn’t have that same look as if no problem, but more of a I gonna eat you for dinner if you take one more step closer.

Kings Canyon, California - Momma and baby bear

Well, we make it back and I have a cold beer in hand as I write this.  It’s hot out, I mean really hot and the beers are going down like they’ve evaporated before it hits my lips, so naturally I drink more, but to little relief of my thirst.  It must be that we need food, so we order up a bacon cheese burger and that does the trick.

If I could offer just a few tips for anyone who might be going on this hike is to do the loop clockwise.  Counter clockwise would just be so brutally hot and steep that it would just suck the fun right out of it.  Another is to go light as possible.  It rarely rains in the summer time, so just pack a large garbage bag in case it does and save the weight of a rain jacket.

We head back to the previous camp site just outside of the park, because after touring the available campsites in the park it just isn’t worth the $20 camping fee which is next to screaming kids, loud generators and probably the high fivin white guys we’ve seen before.  It’s always the price we have to pay coming back into civilization.



Leave a Reply


  1. mark burmeister

    May 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    great pics. sounds like you guys had an amazing time. we’ll be there in three weeks and i can’t wait!

  2. Ben

    August 5, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Great post, I love this area.. its my FAVORITE place to backpack… I’m glad you had a good time!!! You should also check out wonder lakes near lower lamarck lake as well as darwin canyon -> evolution valley. It’s amazing. 🙂

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    August 18, 2010 at 9:17 am


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  5. david

    December 29, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Great review and pics. I like in S Florida and do Yosemite every year, but I’m thinking about doing Rae Lakes this year. Is late April a good time to go?

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  7. Alex Montecino

    May 27, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    i love your pics….we have bever back pack beforw…im thinking of doing upper paradise first…and then move on to bigger and longer hikes…any tip you may have ..i wud really appreciated…:)

  8. Ulrike

    June 22, 2014 at 11:37 pm

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  9. Brett

    October 2, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    What is the round trip mileage?

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    January 25, 2015 at 9:15 pm


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    January 25, 2015 at 9:16 pm

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  12. dave misity

    March 2, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    lotsa screwballs in the back country. I once saw a guy hiking barefoot. once saw a gal hiking in a skirt. on the rae lakes loop, my group came across a single woman named gayle durham. we immediately began calling her bull durham, though not to her face. seems she had missed a link-up with friends and had been spooked the night before by bears. (they were making their own loop from charlotte lake all the way around, hitting hikers as they went. my group was one day behind them). we spent the night with gayle, then pushed on over glen pass. we met another single woman whose husband had gone ahead and found the cut off back to charlotte lake, leaving her behind and letting her miss the cut off. no idea whatever happened to her–or her husband once she got hold of him.