Rocky Mountain National Park Overnight – July 2018

After a year without a single backpacking trip, I was ready and excited to hit the trail again. We had planned a family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park with Andrew’s family, and I knew while we were there that in addition to day hiking I wanted to spend at least one night in a tent. Because we were visiting with family that we only get to see once or twice a year, we decided to stick with an overnight instead of a lengthy excursion. While Andrew had hiked in the Rockies with the Boy Scouts growing up, I had never been to the Rockies before. After my brush with altitude sickness on the Rae Lakes Loop, I also wanted to select a hike with a reasonable amount of elevation gain.

We chose a point to point hike from the Bear Lake trailhead to the Fern Creek trailhead. Rocky Mountain National Park has an incredible free shuttle system that makes point-to-point hiking significantly easier. With an elevation gain of 1200 feet and a maximum altitude of nearly 10,700 feet, we booked our permit for Wednesday night to allow us to acclimate to the elevation for a few days. We were staying at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, so we spent 3 nights above 8,000 feet before heading out on the trail. I had booked our permit back in April, and we were extremely lucky with the weather while we were on the trail. Most afternoons, we had pop up thunderstorms, but the day we were out there were no storms in sight.

Our Route

We picked up our wilderness permit from the office around 8:30 and set off into the park. There was a huge amount of traffic going into the park. I have heard people complain that Iceland is busy but we probably saw more people that day in RMNP than we did at all of the attractions in Iceland combined on our trip a few weeks previous! We grabbed on of the last spots at the Park and Ride and hopped on the very full shuttle to Bear Lake. It was a good thing we got there when we did because there were only a few spots in the parking lot left! We got on the trail at 10 AM and started to climb. The trail around Bear Lake is very flat and accessible, so it was almost overrun with people while we were there. As soon as we took a right off the Bear Lake loop, the trail began to climb almost immediately and we saw (and heard) far fewer people. As we went up, we had views of Bierstadt Lake, Steep Mountain, and even parts of Estes Park.

Mountain views

Rocky Mountain National Park is bear country, so we had to carry a hard sided bear canister. We didn’t see any bears on our hike, but we did see lots of rodents, including a pika, ground squirrels, and least chipmunks. The trail started to level out a bit after about a mile, where the trail splits. There is a route to go to Flattop Mountain that remains steep, but we headed towards Odessa Lake and Lake Helene.

I had heard that there was an unmarked trail to a beautiful lake, Lake Helene, just as the trail crests over the saddle between the Bear Lake basin and the Fern Creek basin. We planned to stop for lunch there. We saw a social trail through some pines when it felt like things had leveled out and took it! We walked down towards and incredible blue-green alpine lake with incredibly clear water. We sat down and started in on lunch – some nuts, almond butter, and Wheat Thins.

Two Rivers Lake

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 6 & Wrap Up – Middle Paradise Valley to Road’s End

Previous: Day 5

Today’s Miles: 7 Miles Total Miles: 45 Miles

We woke up on our very last day on the trail super early – we had plans to try to get to Fresno by 2:30 at the latest, and we definitely wanted time to shower and eat in that time.  We were up at 5:30 and heading down the trail at 6:15, when it was still dark enough that we needed our headlamps.  The sky quickly started to brighten as we moved through the quiet pine forest between Middle and Lower Paradise Valley.  Above Lower Paradise Valley, we stopped for a minute or two to appreciate how beautiful the Valley around us was. The descent brought us close to but still above Wood’s Creek, which had definitely picked up some speed as we dropped in altitude.  We’d asked the ladies who rushed up to camp late last night if the trail was up-and-down or mostly descent to Lower Paradise, and they said it would be a straight descent all the way to Road’s End.  Music to my ears!

Paradise Valley with The Sphinx drenched in morning sun

We stuck together this last morning on the trail, with me leading the way in some sections.  There were plenty of places where we’d look to our left and Wood’s Creek would be slowly moving around big boulders, and then suddenly we’d see a giant log jam and rapids.  It’s clear that earlier in the season, each Bubb’s and Wood’s Creeks would be roaring.  We didn’t spend a lot of time to stop for pictures this morning, but if you’d like to see what the trail looked like, this 360 degree view captured it pretty well.

We passed Lower Paradise Valley just a half hour into our hike.  We knew we’d made the right decision to stay at Middle Paradise the night before – the swimming, company, and the site selection all made Middle Paradise a better choice for us.  A half mile or so after we passed Lower Paradise, we saw a large group of tents in a clearing.  There is no camping allowed in Paradise Valley below Lower Paradise, so we weren’t sure if these people thought they’d made it to Lower Paradise or were simply disregarding the rules.

We now started our descent in earnest, heading down a series of switchbacks that gave incredible views of the Valley.  I was in the lead when I turned a switchback and came face to face with what I assume was the adolescent bear that the women spotted the night before!  I froze, panicked for a second (even though the bear was a good 40 feet from me) and blew into the whistle built into my pack.  Mindy and Evyn rushed down to see what was wrong as I was waving my trekking poles and yelling “Hey bear!!!!” The bear looked at me and meandered about 15 feet further away to another berry patch.  With my heart rate down, we decided to take a few minutes to watch and photograph the bear before scaring it off on its way.

Bear sighting!

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 5 – Baxter Creek to Middle Paradise Valley

Previous: Day 4

Today’s Mileage: 10 Miles Total Mileage: 38 Miles

After another sleepless night for me, we got up and broke down camp fairly early.  We were getting into a routine – someone would gather water to filter, we’d put our stuff in our packs, we’d take down the tent, snap a picture, and be on our way.  We hit the trail around 7:30, excited for a few landmarks of the day.  First, we’d hit the “Golden Gate of the Sierra,” a very long suspension bridge that marked where we’d depart from the John Muir Trail, then we’d get down to Upper Paradise Valley, where the King’s River combines with Wood’s Creek.

Ready for another day of pretty big miles. You can see my sunburn starting to take shape, particularly on my nose.

It was cool and quiet as we started down the trail, and the views were spectacular.  We passed through the first (and only) marshy area of the trail and saw several deer who didn’t run off until we were about 15 feet away from them as our trekking poles clicked on the soft ground.

Headed down the JMT

As the sun began to rise, we passed a few people who were headed up to the Rae Lakes.  “Is it as beautiful as everyone has said?” one person asked us.  We assured him that yes, the Rae Lakes were every bit as beautiful as people talk about.  By 9 AM, Mount Ruskin, directly across the Wood’s Creek Bridge, was looming in front of us and we knew we were getting close.

Stopping to appreciate Mount Ruskin, Pyramid Peak and Window Peak (left to right) in the distance

The trail started to level out and we passed someone who told us the bridge was just a hundred yards ahead!  We were thrilled we were making great time and ready to go over one of the most unusual backcountry engineering structures around.  The guy we passed was definitely a liar – it was more like a half mile to the bridge, but we were (mostly) too excited to care.  We snaked through the large campsite and passed a few people who were still packing up for the morning.  They were headed to the Rae Lakes that day and asked if it was going to be uphill all day.  Yes, we answered, it was.  We suggested they take a break at Baxter Creek and filter some water, and they thanked us and went on their way.  I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made if we’d started hiking every day at 7 or 7:30 instead of 9 or 10, but I don’t think I’ll take that chance again – I’d rather get to where I’m going early than sleep in, especially when I’m not sleeping well.

Finally, we could see it – a bridge, more than 100 feet long, in the middle of the Sierra backcountry.  What a sight!

The Wood’s Creek Bridge!

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 4 – Charlotte Lake to Baxter Creek

Previous: Day 3

Today’s Mileage: 9 Miles Total Mileage: 28 Miles

We woke up at 5:30 in the morning on our fourth day on the trail ready to tackle our biggest challenge on the trip – 11,970 foot high Glen Pass.  We were up before the sun had even begun to rise, and even though I hadn’t been sleeping much on this trip at all, I hadn’t really taken the time to look up at the stars.  I definitely regret not taking the time to appreciate the fact that you can actually see the Milky Way on our trip.  We were in good spirits as we headed out of the Charlotte Lake area just as the light started to really shine through around 6:30.

Moving along in the cold morning air

As we headed up the trail, for the first time I wasn’t last – I was actually keeping up with Evyn, who I’d taken to calling Marmot because of her uncanny ability to quickly ascend to new heights.  I felt cool, crisp air in my lungs and even though I hadn’t really slept and could only think about Aaron Burr wanting to know what got discussed (What did they say to you to get you to sell New York City down the river?), I was even in a bit of a goofy mood.  We were on the lookout for wildlife, as we’d only seen a few gutsy squirrels and the one deer at our previous campsite.  Headed up the wooded switchbacks, I saw a weird looking log and briefly thought it was a bear.  Evyn and I waited for Mindy to catch up from taking pictures and formulated our plan – clearly, we would tell Mindy it was a bear and she’d want to rush up to see it!

Charlotte Lake, incredibly still at 6 AM

Our plan almost worked, but after Mindy’s eyes widened, she said “Wait… that’s just a log!”  Oh well, plot foiled.  We were moving along at a good pace of about until about 8:30.  By that point, we’d passed through Kearsarge Junction again and were up past 11,000 feet.  We overlooked Charlotte Lake as we climbed, still in the shade of the morning.

Kearsarge Junction early in the morning

Evyn, marmot that she is, decided to move ahead of Mindy and I and scamper up to Glen Pass as early as possible.  We used the radio to keep in touch with her and make sure things were going well.  We also planned that for the last couple hundred feet or so, Evyn would probably come back down and carry up my pack so I wouldn’t be completely wiped out for the rest of the day at the top of the pass.  I had been sure to take my Diamox in the morning, and for the most part, I was feeling okay, but Mindy had passed on ibuprofen which seemed to come back and bite her a bit later.

Climbing several hundred feet above Charlotte Lake

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 3 – Lower Vidette Meadow to Charlotte Lake

Previous: Day 2

Today’s Mileage: 4 Miles Total Mileage: 18 Miles

We woke up much earlier on Monday (around 7), and as soon as I started stirring, Evyn whispered “look outside the tent.”  There was a big buck less than 15 feet from our tent door on the edge of the meadow.  He saw us looking at him and slowly walked away.  This was the first of many deer we’d see in the Sierra high country.  Another thing I would become familiar with over the next few days would be a lack of sleep.  At altitude, I had a terrible time getting to sleep, tossing and turning all night.  I’d felt like I had slept for an hour or two, not the eight hours that had actually passed.

We got up and started breaking down camp at a quarter to 8 and were on the trail by 9 AM – a good bit earlier than the previous two days!  We set off with a fluid plan with three options for the day.  Option 1 was to make up the distance and get over Glen Pass, which we weren’t counting on.  Option two was to camp along the trail going up to Glen Pass near one of the small tarns pointed out in Elizabeth Wenk’s amazing JMT guide at 11,500 feet.  The third option, and the one that we knew we’d probably wind up at, was Charlotte Lake.  This would be the first day that I actually felt good hiking, even without sleep.  I was able to look at my surroundings, put one foot in front of the other, and push forward.  It helped that the views were only getting more and more spectacular.

Carrying a 40 pound pack is hard! Stretching while water filters in the background.

We hit the trail at 9 AM, ready to get above 10,000 feet for the very first time.  A few minutes after hitting the trail, we hit the official John Muir Trail.  Super exciting.  Considering that plans changed for this trip a half a dozen times and initially started with Andrew and I thru-hiking the John Muir trail with Mindy and Evyn joining us for a 7 to 10 day stretch, it was exciting to hit part of our original plan, even if it was only for 15 miles.

Officially on the John Muir Trail!

It was great to be climbing the switchbacks with relative ease compared to the previous few days.  It was still slow going, but it was a much more pleasant, less prone to dry heaving slow going.  My spirits were high, and for the first time I think Mindy and Evyn actually believed that I wasn’t going to ruin their vacation! (I’m only kind of kidding – I can’t believe what they put up with those first two days).  We very quickly started seeing people on the trail headed down to Vidette Meadow.  A few people we’d said hello to were hoping to get all the way over Forester Pass that day, 9 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain later, after already having done Glen Pass earlier that day.  Suffice to say I was glad I wasn’t on that pace!

Checking in with our trusty map

The first time we could really see above the tree line

I would say we’d probably seen 5 or so groups each of the two previous days (not including the large number of people before the trail split 2 miles from Road’s End).  Now we saw 5 groups over the course of an hour.  People said the Rae Lakes Loop is busy, but in my estimation, it’s the John Muir Trail that is busy.  The loop itself was much less crowded – or maybe we caught everyone while we were in the Rae Lakes region itself.

This was the view I was promised!

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 2 – Charlotte Creek to Lower Vidette Meadow

Previous: Day 1

Day’s Mileage: 5 Miles Total: 12 Miles

We woke up on Sunday around 8 and revised our plan.  None of us wanted to get up as we watched the sun begin to drench the canyon around us from our tent.  We slept fly off because we were all alone, the weather was great, and if we were going to have to change things around, we wanted to still have fun.

The view from our tent on Sunday morning

Even with the Diamox, it would be incredibly difficult for me to make the altitude change up to Charlotte Lake.  Based on the pace from the day before, we’d also be pulling into Charlotte Lake after 10 or so hours of hiking.  We’d padded our trip to spend more time at the Rae Lakes, but in the interest of being able to complete the trip, we decided to give up a lazy day at Rae Lakes.  Instead of gaining 3,500 feet of elevation over 9 miles, we would stop at Vidette Meadow for the evening.  This would still put us gaining 2,000 feet over the course of 5 miles, but it would give me a bit more time to acclimate.  This was still going to be a hard day for me – with every step we took I was reaching a point higher than I’d ever been.

Setting of into the unknown on day 2

We got off to another late start after breakfast, breaking up camp around 10:30.  I’m not sure what Mindy and Evyn had to eat, but I forced down a Clif bar with my Diamox, which I immediately regretted.  It was important for me to eat, don’t get me wrong – I just got very nauseated and felt junky for the first mile of our day.  We were moving slowly, once again, but this day was all about taking it slow and making sure that we were (okay, I was) feeling okay.  Mindy and Evyn were each hauling 40 pound packs, and even though I’d off loaded a lot of stuff I still had about 18 or 20 pounds on my back.  I was taking advantage of my inhaler fairly regularly too – I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without it.

Heading up the trail to Junction Meadow

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 1 – Road’s End to Charlotte Creek

Previous: Day 0

Today’s Miles: 7 Miles  Total Miles: 7 Miles

We woke up slowly, snuggled in our sleeping bags together in my REI Quarter Dome 3.  By the time we got up, it was already pretty light out.  We had brought real breakfast food to eat during our last day of semi-civilization – eggs!  Mindy and Evyn were also drinking some chai tea to warm themselves up in the morning.  We were packed up and headed to the restrooms/small store in Cedar Grove at 9 AM.  All we needed was a canister of isobutane fuel, but they didn’t have any!  We were concerned – Mindy and Evyn definitely wanted water for chai tea, and I had dehydrated most of our food, so we clearly needed warm water for that.  We figured someone nice might help us out if they had some extra fuel.

We drove the ten or so miles to the Road’s End Ranger Station and started dividing up our gear.  I took a moderate amount of weight and my pack wound up weighing about 30 pounds.  I’ve hiked with that amount before, and though it’s not pleasant, I knew it would be temporary, as we’d eat through (literally!) a good portion of it on the trail.  At the ranger station, we got briefed on bear safety, leave no trace principles, and where the legal campsites were.  Although we were pretty sure we’d be able to fit everything in my bear can, the ranger said we needed to rent another because we’d be on the trail so long. Because we’d gotten our permit relatively late, we had to go counter-clockwise, and the ranger told us we were in for a pretty tough first day.  At 11 AM, a bit later than we’d wanted, we were ready to hit the trail!

Clean and ready to hit the trail!

The first two miles took us all of 45 minutes – the trail was flat, sunny, and sandy until we hit our first bridge.  The water was so clear, and if you stuck your hand in, it was freezing!  It was clear we’d be drinking crisp, cold water all week – my favorite on a long hike.

Clear rushing water

Off we go!

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Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Day 0

Previous: Introduction and Planning

I flew into LA to meet up with Mindy and Evyn on Thursday night, and we were hoping to get to King’s Canyon at a reasonable hour on Friday.  I had brought lots of gear and was responsible for all of our food, so we would need to do some shuffling when we got to King’s Canyon to even things out.

We got a later start than expected on our way out of LA, and I did lots of the driving on the highway portion of our trip.  After a stop at REI for a Buff for me (I always lose my buffs) and a Hydroflask for Mindy (long story), we got to the entrance of King’s Canyon around 4 PM.  As soon as you enter the park, you really quickly run into Grant Grove, which we spent a few minutes exploring.  The tree is HUGE!

After checking out Grant Grove, Evyn drove us up and down the windy road to our first come, first serve campsite for the night in the Cedar Grove area.  These sites were about 4,600 feet above sea level and about an hour from the Grant Grove.  We stayed in the Sentinel Campground surrounded by trees way bigger than what I’m used to in Wisconsin.

We chowed down on some tasty ramen with lots of dehydrated fixings and realized that we were low on fuel.  Mindy had what we thought was a 1/2 used large fuel canister and a new little one, but after we made dinner, we realized that the half used one was now actually empty!  We made a plan to hit up the store nearby in the morning and grab a new fuel canister so we’d have enough.

We put all of our stuff in the bear box and went to bed early, ready for an exciting first day of hiking.  I took a dose of Diamox as well.  Diamox is a medication that is used to speed up acclimatization, and as a flatlander, I was concerned that I would have some problems being so high up.