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!

We each took some time to take some pictures on the bridge and filter water on the northern side.  Several groups were also going over the bridge while we were hiking, and it was very similar to going over Glen Pass – everyone had a smile on their face, stopped to take at least a few pictures, and then went on their way.

One of the guys that passed us was filming everyone he’d met who would stop for a minute to chat with him while he thru-hiked the JMT.  We told him a bit about ourselves and hit the trail again around 10, ready to head into Paradise Valley.

The view from Wood’s Creek Bridge


We’d hit the official end of our trip on the John Muir Trail.  It was bittersweet, but knowing that in just a little over 24 hours we’d be showering and clean, we were pretty excited to turn left, away from the trail to Pinchot Pass, and down toward Road’s End.  We had about six miles to travel before we’d hit our next landmark – the junction with Upper Paradise Valley.  We were moving at a good clip, stopping for breaks much less regularly as we descended toward Paradise Valley.  With the Wood’s Creek moving quickly down hill, we lost 1,500 feet in about 6 miles.   Wood’s Creek is fed not just by the Rae Lakes, but also by several small, alpine lakes north of where we’d been hiking.  To see the water tumble down the steep valley walls was quite the sight.  Even though there wasn’t a lot of water in them when we were there at the very end of August, you could tell that in the spring there would be a huge volume of water rushing down, as there were no trees for 20 or so feet on either side of the streams.

An unnamed stream starting 2,000 feet above us just west of Window Peak

We followed the trail for several hours, taking in the views and passing a few people headed up towards the Wood’s Creek Bridge.  As soon as we left the JMT, the volume of people we saw decreased pretty drastically – but for the first time, we started seeing bugs.  I even put on my headnet for a brief amount of time.  We passed a few groups who were taking advantage of the long Labor Day weekend to tackle the Rae Lakes Loop – by this point it was Wednesday, so some of the slower moving groups were planning to spend 6 or 7 days on the trail including the long weekend.  Most people we passed on our trip had gear like us – 40 to 60 liter backpacks that were full but not busting out.  That was not the case for one family we passed!  All four of them had packs that were at least 90 liters full to the brim with plenty of stuff hanging off their packs.  The looked overloaded and miserable, and the boy, maybe 15 years old, was hiking in jeans!  Not my idea of a good time.

We also came up on something a bit different in this section – fences!  There were a few we passed through that we had to open up to get through.  We guessed that they were probably stock or grazing fences, but couldn’t be sure.  It was really weird to see a barbed wire fence in the middle of the wilderness!

Wood’s Creek at Upper Paradise Valley

We were all smiles as we pulled into Upper Paradise Valley at 1, in time for some lunch and relaxing.  Wood’s Creek here was rocky and slow-moving and incredibly clear.  Mindy wanted to jump in the water, while I wanted to cool my feet down and take a nap.  I still hadn’t slept much the previous night, and by this point I was very sunburned.  Upper Paradise Valley would be a great place to camp – there were tons of sites and it was really beautiful, but we knew that we needed to get to Road’s End early the next day as Andrew would be landing in Fresno at 2 PM.  We debated whether or not we wanted to stay at Middle or Lower Paradise Valley that night.  We’d heard that there was only one site at Lower Paradise Valley and that Middle Paradise Valley was prettier, so we decided on Middle Paradise Valley.

Mindy relaxing in the clear water

We got back on the trail just as the Swansons were making their way in around 3.  We had about 2 and a half miles until Middle Paradise Valley.  This was a frustrating two miles – we expected it to be totally downhill, but instead it was dry and lots of up and down.  We were gaining 50 feet and then losing 60 what felt like every quarter-mile.  The silly smelly plant made a resurgence here too – it seemed like it was taking forever to get to Middle Paradise!  This was our longest mileage day of hiking, and we were ready to get off the trail.  We passed a few day hikers who were carrying little more than a bottle of water – not something I would be comfortable doing so far from Road’s End.

We reached Middle Paradise Valley a very hot hour later and had our pick of campsites.  There was an older couple already there and we saw the two faster Swanson brothers again quickly.

Setting up camp after a long day of hiking

We had a spot overlooking the river, which had grown with additional tributaries pouring into it.  We were right by a fire ring, but we had decided not to use it – we wanted to get up nice and early the next day and get some sleep if we could!  Even at 4 PM, with a few hours of sunlight left, we started feeling the shade of the evening.  This was a good thing for me – I was very very sunburned by this point and already starting to peel!  I was definitely ready for a cool shower the next day.  I’d worn my long sleeve shirt all day and applied several layers of sunscreen, but my face was very burnt from my forehead to my nose and my shoulders were burnt from the previous days’ hiking.  Most surprisingly, the tops of my hands were burnt.  Using trekking poles meant they were out in the sun all day.  Having this bad of a sunburn on my hands was definitely a new experience, and I’ve had bad sunburns before.

Burned to a crisp and very, very dirty

We hopped down to the river to enjoy the end of the day and relax.  There was a small bend in the river at the edge of the our campsite that slowed the water down significantly.  We decided to lay there and hang out for a bit before cooking dinner, still humming the Hamilton song that’d been stuck in my head all week.

The Swanson brothers came down and chatted with us a bit more.  There was a reason that they were both so much faster than their brothers – even though they weren’t backpackers, they were trail runners.  They’d once done a rim-to-rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon in a single day – 12,000 feet of elevation gain and 58 miles.  Holy smokes!!! Not being ultralighters and knowing they only had 10 miles to tackle a day as opposed to their usual (literal) marathons, they had each brought some luxury items including a “couch” – an inflatable nylon sack that we used to float our private stretch of river!  Mindy and Evyn hopped in for a ride as we chatted with them, but I stuck at the water’s edge and took a more passive approach.  The Swansons told us how they got together as much as they could to participate in outdoor adventures with their siblings, a pretty cool tradition in my book.

Floating the river

Evyn’s turn with a very cold Swanson brother chasing after her

As we goofed around in the river, the older couple we’d said hello to earlier also started chatting with us.  The novelty of the couch intrigued them (honestly, who wouldn’t be curious), but started to talk to us more about their own adventure.  They were in their late sixties and were headed home after two weeks in the 60 Lakes Basin.  The stock animals we’d seen the day before, in fact, were hauling their stuff out.  They told us about their adventures over the past 40 years of hiking, backpacking, and attending what sounded like some really incredible concerts back in the late 60s and early 70s.  They also said that in their two weeks in the 60 Lakes Basin, they’d seen a total of ten people and hadn’t had a single day of rain.  It sounded incredible!

The incredible view from our final campsite

We were starting to cook dinner on the beach just as the sun was going down.  The rest of the Swanson clan made it over and we watched them all take a turn on the couch as well.  We were cooking our very last trail meal – homemade dehydrated chili.  My two liter pot was filled to the brim, and we thought we’d have to ask the Swansons to help us finish it, but we were so starving that we didn’t need any help at all!

Stomachs full, we started our bedtime routine as the sun really dipped below the mountain around 7:30.  Suddenly, we heard some more people joining us just as it started to get dark.  Two women were racing up the trail from Lower Paradise Valley!  They had been all ready to go to bed when they saw a bear poking around their campsite.  The women thought he was probably an adolescent bear and were very worried about the mama being somewhere near by, as he was curiously investigating their smellables in the bear box and there was nobody else at the campsite with them.  On that note, we helped them find a flat site, brushed our teeth far from where our tent was set up, and nervously went to bed for the last time on the Rae Lakes Loop.  This had definitely been our most social day on the trail – it was great to chat, meet new people, and get to share in the excitement of our cool adventures coming to a close.

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