In honour of the U.S. National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary, I’ve introduced a feature called “Find Your Park,” named after the popular hashtag the NPS has been using this year to promote the parks. Each unique post features one of the U.S. National Parks that I have had the chance to visit.
Park: Kings Canyon National Park
Location: Fresno County, CA
Established: March 4, 1940
Size: 461,901 acres
Annual visitors: 566,810 (2011)
Backcountry fee: $10 per permit
Times visited: 3
This past summer’s thru-hike of the John Muir Trail took me through a large swath of Kings Canyon National Park. We travelled along the western corridor of the park for eight full days, giving me a great sense of appreciation and awe for all that the Park protects.
The most popular backpacking route in the park, and for good reason, is a 41-mile loop trail that takes hikers through lush meadows, past gorgeous alpine lakes, and over a nearly 12,000 foot pass: the Rae Lakes Loop.
The traditional and most popular start of the loop is from Road’s End, coming into the park from Fresno on the western side of the Sierras. Trailhead quotas are in place, as well as limits on how many nights you can camp at certain designated campgrounds. There is also the option to access the loop from the east side of the range, via Kearsarge Pass, plus a number of one-way access points (often over challenging high passes.)
While my only approach to the area has been along the John Muir Trail, my husband has hiked the Rae Lakes Loop and adjoining areas on a couple different occasions.
Most hikers take 5-6 days to complete the 41.4 mile loop, with many choosing to spend a layover day in the Rae Lakes basin. The loop is most commonly hiked clockwise, in order to spread out the nearly 7000 feet of elevation gain and to avoid some particularly steep climbs.
After our time on the John Muir Trail, we were lucky enough to have time to loop around to the east side of Kings Canyon National Park and explore the car-accessible areas. We also did a day hike which took us along the the first section of trail that most Rae Lakes Loopers take, climbing towards Paradise Valley along the Kings River.
For those starting out from Road’s End, the first night is often spent in Paradise Valley, about 10 miles from trailhead. To get there, the trail climbs about 2000 feet, following the Kings River through forest, across open granite, past sparkling waterfalls (including Mist Falls) to arrive in a lush river valley between high granite walls. There are three campgrounds to choose from and all are nestled among tall trees with the river nearby.
For the second day on trail you follow alongside Woods Creek, which flows into the Kings River in Paradise Valley. About 6 miles from Upper Paradise Campground you cross Woods Creek on a decades-old, rickety and yet iconic suspension bridge. This is also the junction with the John Muir Trail.
The next 7 miles travel gradually upward, gaining another 2000 feet to the Rae Lakes Basin. We were grateful for the shade of the lodgepole pines in the lower end of the valley, as the day was heating up fast. The trail crosses a number of streams and drainages. Eventually the tall lodgepole pines give way to the unique, bushy foxtail pine trees and the trail travels more on granite slab then on dirt.
You know you’re getting close when you reach Dollar Lake. We enjoyed a late lunch there but many hikers elect to camp there in the wide, sandy campsites. It’s apparently rather famous for mosquitos, but we had few issues with them. Instead, we enjoyed some cool shade and the great view of Fin Dome in the distance.
The trail grade eases beyond Dollar Lake as you work your way past Arrowhead Lake and then Lower Rae Lake which is nestled below Fin Dome.
The whole area is terribly photogenic, with dozens of 13,000 foot peaks surrounding the basin. We reached the main campground at Middle Rae Lake in the early afternoon, allowing us prime choice of campsite. I definitely suggest you drop your pack and have a good look around as there are dozens of campsites to choose from. We were lucky to find a great site on a shelf above the lake, looking south towards the Painted Lady.
We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at Rae Lakes. We swam in the cool, clear waters, and fished for our dinner. We also enjoyed a stunning sunset, watching as the colours of the Painted Lady changed in the fading light.
I definitely regret only having the one night at Rae Lakes. Whether thru-hiking or loop-hiking, I highly recommend spending a layover day in the Rae Lakes Basin. As it was, we had to push on in order to meet my father-in-law with our next food drop.
The hardest section of the loop trail was next: the two-mile, switchbacking climb to the nearly 12,000 foot Glen Pass. The trail crosses an isthmus between Upper and Middle Rae Lakes and then starts a steady climb out of the tree line.
The climb to Glen Pass is definitely challenging. We quickly left the tree line and worked our way up switchback after switchback. There was a brief change in trail as we crossed small streams in a high alpine meadow. Beyond the meadow, the trail changes to rock; small, pointy, ankle-twisting rocks. Thankfully there were lots of excuses to stop, as the view only got better and better as we climbed.
On the other side of Glen Pass the trail drops steeply down more switchbacks to a pristine alpine lake, and then follows its outlet down between high canyon-like walls. We were also treated to one of the most beautifully coloured lakes we’ve seen in the Sierras, an unnamed lake nestled below the high walls of the cirque.
The view starts to open up more beyond the lake as it reaches the tree line and curves around the western base of Mt. Rixford. The most awesome part of the view was looking west towards Charlotte Dome. The trail eventually loops around into that far valley to pass below the awesome dome.
Over the next couple miles the trail drops gently through sparse lodgepole forest. The junction with the Kearsarge Pass trail is in a sparse, sandy meadow. There is a small campsite near the junction, or a much better campground at Charlotte Lake, 2 miles west of the junction. If you’ve built in some extra time, a jaunt up to Kearsarge Pass will reward you with great views west towards Bullfrog Lake, and east towards Onion Valley.
From the Kearsarge Pass Junction, the trail drops steeply, descending over 2000 feet in about 2.5 miles. There is a brief view south towards Forester Pass and then the rest of the descent is through forest. You criss-cross streams before finally reaching the valley floor and the lush, wildflower-filled Vidette Meadows.
There are a number of good campsites beside Lower Vidette Meadow. From here, the JMT continues southward, but those on the loop trail head west, with only a dozen miles to go to reach Road’s End.
The trail continues it’s descent, following alongside Bubbs Creek. You pass through Junction Meadow with great views of North Guard and Mt. Brewer.
The trail grade eases significantly beyond Junction Meadow taking nearly 7 miles to descend 2000 feet. There is one last steep descent to reach the junction with the Kings River, closing the loop with only two mile miles left to the trailhead at Road’s End.
The Rae Lakes Loop Trail is a wonderful way to get a taste of the Kings Canyon backcountry. While the trail is challenging at times, overall it is quite accessible and could be done at an easy pace by hikers of varying abilities. Perhaps the best part of the trail is the opportunity to travel through all the different climate zones of Kings Canyon, from the hot, low-elevation Kings Canyon through to the nealy 12,000-foot Glen Pass, surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks.
I hope you get a chance to take a week off from everyday life and jump off into the backcountry of Kings Canyon.