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!

We continued to climb up surprisingly well graded switchbacks as the sun continued to rise.  One thing I had started noticing the day before was the smell of a specific plant, which you can see in the picture above.  If you can identify this plant by name, let me know – I want to avoid it for the rest of my life.  To me, it smells like overcooked fried shrimp.  To Evyn, it smells like dog poop.  Mindy didn’t like the smell, but I can’t remember if it smelled like something specific to her!

After an hour or so of hiking, we hit 10,000 feet!  I was super excited – 10,000 may not be so much for people who regularly hike in the high country, but for me, this was a big accomplishment.  I was feeling good, we were dipping in and out of the shade of Foxtail Pines and Sierra Junipers.  We twice crossed the outlet to Bullfrog Lake, which rests 600 feet above the trail.  This creek flows into Bubb’s Creek near our previous night’s campsite.

No fires above 10,000 feet

East Vidette Peak seemed to tower over the valley below, but when we checked out the map, it sits ‘only’ 12,350 feet above sea level – a mere 350 feet higher than we’d be standing tomorrow on the top of Glen Pass! We continued to climb and reached the intersection to the Bullfrog Lake Trail – we were getting close!  Soon, the trees began to thin and the fauna changed drastically.  This dry landscape above 10,000 feet felt really alien to me – I’m much more familiar with rolling hills and beaver dams.

East Vidette in the distance towers over the valleys created by Bubb’s Creek and Vidette Creek

We had been wavering on whether or not we wanted to stay at Charlotte Lake or push over Glen’s Pass to the Rae Lakes to get back “on schedule” all morning.  I was feeling pretty good when we got to the Kearsarge Pass junction, but we were all a bit pooped from our 2 mile 1,250 foot climb, so we sat on some rocks, checked on our trusty map, and watched no fewer than 10 groups go by over the course of half an hour, including a ranger.

Mindy dwarfed by the sky at the Kearsarge Pass junction on a very comfortable rock

Not just landscapes – lots of fun!

It was still early, but after I forced down my favorite trail snack ever (Oloves – seriously the only thing I was actually excited to eat for several days), Evyn, Mindy and I decided not to push the 4 miles in the sun over Glen Pass to the Rae Lakes and instead spend a relaxing afternoon at Charlotte Lake and get up super early to tackle the pass before it got too hot.  Mindy and Evyn were also concerned about pushing me to 12,000 feet after having spent the previous night at only 9,500 feet.  We’d also heard from our friends at camp the night before that there was a trail from Charlotte Lake that connected directly with the trail at about 1,000 feet up, knocking off a mile and a half from the next day’s hike.

We strapped our packs back on and raced down the trail to Charlotte Lake, where we planned to swim!  We were flying down the trail, taking the downhill switchbacks to the lake in less than half an hour.  The Kearsarge Pass Junction was crazy because it was so sandy and desert like, but if you go any direction, you’ll run into a beautiful landscape.

On approach to Charlotte Lake

We got to Charlotte Lake by 1:30 and were the first ones there.  The afternoon breeze was just picking up as we got to the lake, which was super blue and beautiful.  We had our pick of campsites, so we chose a site a bit past the ranger residence, set up our tent, and got down to the serious business of relaxing.  Mindy and Evyn filtered water while I stripped down and read a bit on my sleeping pad in our tent.  The weather was awesome, but I was starting to feel a little bit sunburned.  Little did I remember that sun sensitivity is a side effect of Diamox.  More on that in a future post.

Mindy and Evyn were more intent on jumping in the lake than I was and did so very quickly, but after a bit I too put on my swimsuit and got into the cold water.  It felt great to scrub off some of the dirt and sweat from the past few days and to wring out my Buff, which was definitely looking a little dingy.  Slowly, other groups started filtering into camp and the ranger came by to check our permit.  We asked her about the shortcut trail that we’d struggled to find earlier in the afternoon, and she said while there was an unmaintained trail, there would be a decent amount of scrambling to get up it.  That definitely knocked that out of consideration for the next day.

A lazy, beautiful afternoon

While we were making plans for the next morning, we ate dinner.  This dinner was probably my worst of the trip, but it was edible and not too bad.  Dinner was soba noodles cooked with sesame oil, sriracha, and peanut butter topped with peanuts.  Like I said, not my greatest creation, but something I was happy to eat.  We decided we’d leave camp early – 6:30 AM, waking up at 5:30.  We did a much better job of getting our stuff gathered before bed and knew the earlier we got over Glen Pass, the better.  We decided to shoot for Baxter Creek the next day, which was about 3 miles short of our previously intended target, the Wood’s Creek bridge.  We wanted to still get the opportunity to spend time at the Rae Lakes, but not force ourselves into a 15 mile day on Wednesday.  We went to bed as it was getting dark, again without the fly, excited to get to Rae Lakes in the morning.

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