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

Charlotte Lake and Mount Bago drenched in morning light

As Mindy and I hiked, we saw nobody else.  We knew that we’d be coming up on the two alpine tarns soon, and then we’d be able to see the pass!  It was quiet when we hit what Mindy was sure was a tarn and I was sure was a puddle at 8:30.  We’d left so quickly in the morning Mindy needed to go to the bathroom and put on sunscreen, so we paused for 10 minutes.  This was also a good opportunity for me to catch my breath.  We radioed Evyn, and she was several hundred feet above us and could see the pass ahead of her!

A big puddle at 11,250 feet

There were very few flat spaces to take advantage of during our hike, so we knew we’d made the right decision in staying at Charlotte Lake the day before.  As we continued to climb, we saw the first actual tarn – much more beautiful than the puddle we’d seen before!  The water in the tarns were super clear – it was incredible to see how the bottom of the little lakes, carved out by glaciers, could be seen 40 feet below the surface.  As the sun continued to rise, the water only looked clearer.

The first of the two clear blue tarns on the way up to Glen Pass and a smidge of snow that lasted all the way to the end of August

As we paused for a break, we got a report from Evyn (who had just made it up to Glen Pass) – One more climb from the first lake to the second, then the final 400 foot or so push up to Glen Pass.  She said it looked incredible from up there, so we started making our way up to the switchbacks to the sencod tarn.  While we were making our way up, we saw our first people of the day – two groups making their way down from the pass, both headed towards Forester Pass.  Once we made it to the second tarn, Evyn dumped her pack and started to scurry down the switchbacks to us to pick up my pack.

Taking in the moonscape before slackpacking up the pass

The sun was just starting to warm us up as we moved up the switchbacks.  Evyn and Mindy were pushing ahead with heavy packs while I was only carrying my water, In Reach, and trekking poles, but because they took that on, we were over the pass in a little over 20 minutes.  This morning, we knew we were going to get to finish our hike, and it 100% wouldn’t have happened without Mindy and Evyn.  Evyn said “hiking is a team sport!” and I really thank her for that!

We got to the pass at 10:20, about 4 hours after leaving Charlotte Lake that morning.  While we were at the top of the pass, we saw more JMT hikers and a few groups doing the loop like us.  You could kind of tell who was who – the JMT hikers took a few pictures and moved on, while for the most part the loop hikers were eating a snack and hanging out for a while before moving on.

We made it! WORK!

We sat down, drank some water, and ate a snack.  I was feeling pretty good for being twice as high as the highest point I’d ever been in my life up until this trip.  We hung out at checked out the most incredible view I’d ever seen.

Glen Pass Panorama – click the picture for a bigger version of this photo

As we were taking in the view, we chatted with three guys who were taking the loop clockwise.  They had a package of oreos and powdered milk that they were chowing down on which they offered to share.  Evyn and I declined, but Mindy drank some powdered milk.  Not my idea of a tasty treat, but for Mindy, it was just what she needed.  We sat on the 8 foot wide pass for about 45 minutes taking pictures and hanging out before we headed down the trail.

We started to head down the trail at close to 11 and started flying down the downhill sections.  Mindy was feeling some altitude effects, feeling tired and a little loopy, but we were racing down the switchbacks to the Rae Lakes.

Looking off to the west headed down from Glen Pass

We passed several John Muir Trail thru-hikers on our way down from the pass.  Many of them planned to head over Kearsarge Pass that afternoon to get a resupply and a shower.  As the morning progressed, the hikers who were heading up the pass seemed more and more miserable.  I was so happy that we’d gone up the pass early – it made the rest of our day so much easier!  The descent off of Glen Pass is no joke, with lots of loose rock for a pretty dry section of trail.  Although going counter-clockwise is typically considered more difficult on the Rae Lakes loop, at least the ascent to Glen Pass felt doable.  We got passed by several northbound JMT thru-hikers who said Glen Pass had been a really hard morning for them, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that we’d done it too!  We all relied heavily on our trekking poles headed downhill, but there were a few thru-hikers that went without.  My knees were very happy that I wasn’t like them.

Looking back at the people taking in the view on Glen Pass

Mindy and I stayed back and Evyn raced towards the lake.  Mindy wasn’t feeling that well, but I was in a great mood – I was headed downhill for the first time in several days and I was ready to swim in the lake!

Looking down on Upper Rae Lake

It took us about two hours to hike the three miles down to Upper Rae Lake.  The lake was truly the most incredible landscape I’ve seen in my life.  It was sapphire blue, incredibly clear, and significantly bigger than I’d imagined.

Upper Rae Lake

As soon as Mindy and I got down to the lake, we immediately took off our packs and laid down on some flat, comfortable rocks.  I got my first sleep in 2 days, and Mindy was pooped from the altitude, and we each snoozed for an hour.  Evyn had gone ahead past the outlet to Upper Rae Lake and was on the isthmus between Upper and Middle Rae Lake and hopped in the water.  Evyn and Mindy had thought they may hike up to Sixty Lakes Basin, but I knew that I wouldn’t have it in me to get up there – it required a 1,000 foot climb in about a mile, which clearly wasn’t my strong suit.  Because Mindy and I took a nap, Mindy and Evyn didn’t wind up getting up there either, but we still had a nice afternoon.

Mindy was still exhausted when I got woken up by the sound of horses.  We had seen plenty of stock animal poop (but no stock animals themselves) by this point, so I was pretty excited to see the horses.  I knew Evyn was about a quarter-mile ahead, so I made sure Mindy had her radio on and followed the horses down towards Middle Rae Lake.  Three or four horses easily passed over the outlet to Upper Rae Lake while I put on my Tevas to ford the crossing.  When I found Evyn, she said she’d been hanging out for the past hour waiting for us to get up and catch up to her.  She and I spent the next hour or so watching the small trout in Upper Rae Lake swim, slowly being chased by slightly larger fish.  I’d really hoped to swim out to one of the small islands on the lakes, but I was so exhausted I knew it would be too dangerous.  During our downtime, Evyn and I also checked out our map and planned the rest of our afternoon.

It was very tempting to camp at the Rae Lakes, but we knew we needed to catch up on at least part of our schedule.  We didn’t really want to hike all the way down to the Wood’s Creek bridge, so after a consultation with Elizabeth Wenk’s trail guide, we decided to stop at Baxter Creek, about halfway between Arrowhead Lake and Wood’s Creek.  We hit the trail around 3 after a few hours of relaxing and wound our way down through Upper Rae Lake, Middle Rae Lake, Arrowhead Lake, and Dollar Lake.

Shortly after we started hiking, I started feeling warm – an hour-long nap in the sun had definitely given me a nasty sunburn!  Even with that discomfort, I felt good as we turned the corner to Middle Rae Lake and saw our second buck of the trip.

A young, unafraid buck hiding from the Rae Lakes afternoon sun

We were hiking much more quickly headed downhill and had made it to an overlook of Arrowhead Lake in about an hour.  We decided to sit down, use the bathroom and have some snacks around 4.  As we were sitting in the shade from the afternoon sun, we saw a two guys in what looked like matching white t-shirts headed our way.  The ranger at Charlotte Lake the day before had said that there were some Sierra Club folks out to do trail maintenance, so we all assumed it was them, until they got a bit closer.  Reading their shirts, it said “Swanson/Young Rae Lakes Loop 2016”!  As a Swanson myself, I had to stop them to comment!

The Swanson brothers were on their way down to Dollar Lake for the evening with their two other brothers, brother-in-law and nephew for the evening and had been on the trail as long as we had.  They asked me why I wasn’t blonde (I married into the Swansons, a family of Swedes) and chatted with us for a bit until their brothers caught up.  Of course, I had to take a group picture with the Swanson brothers!  The Youngs (the in-laws) were a little more reserved and chose not to be included in what wound up being one of my favorite pictures of the trip.

Swansons on the Rae Lakes Loop

The brothers scurried down the trail as Evyn, Mindy and I took a bit more time to get moving again.  We passed Arrowhead Lake and took the time to look back at where we’d come for the day – it was hard to believe we’d gone over Glen Pass just a few hours earlier!

Fin Dome in front of the outlet to Arrowhead Lake

Between Arrowhead Lake and Dollar Lake, we stopped to filter some water before crossing a log bridge to get to the east of the South Fork of Wood’s Creek.

Mindy over the Log Bridge

We passed by the Swansons’ campsite at Dollar Lake, said hello, and quickly began descending down towards Wood’s Creek.  After we’d gotten to the Rae Lakes, most of the day had been fairly flat (or slightly downhill), but now we started to drop drastically.  We quickly passed the 10,000 foot marker that said we’d be allowed to have a campfire if we wanted.  We’d seen close to 100 people during the day, but the crowds had started to thin by the time we passed Dollar Lake around 6 PM.  To our right Wood’s Creek started to get more turbulent, but it was nothing like roaring Bubb’s Creek the days before.  The sun was starting to set over the valley by the time we got to Baxter Creek around 7.  It had been a long day of hiking to get this far!

This was our only campsite of the trip that was not super regularly used, though it was definitely an established site.  There are two sites at Baxter Creek – one to the north of the crossing and one to the south.  Since we were northbound, we passed the southern one first, which was small and uneven.  The northern one was much better, with plenty of room for our tent and a nice flat area for cooking.  I was a bit worried about bears without a bear box, but our bear cans stayed secure throughout the night.  We chowed down on a dinner of black bean tacos and went to bed early listening to Baxter Creek as it joined with the outlet of Dollar Lake.  We’d follow this water for the next two days, all the way back to Road’s End.

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