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!
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.
After a few minutes, we yelled and whistled so the bear would know we were there and get out of our way. The bear actually started moving the same direction as us, toward Mist Falls. Great. After a few minutes of following the bear, it scampered up the rocks and closer to the woods, presumably to get us off its back and to find some more tasty berries. I’d never seen a bear before, so this was an exciting first encounter that felt relatively safe!
We continued to switchback over exposed granite down to Mist Falls, about 500 feet below where we’d seen the bear. We stopped quickly after a few hours of hiking to take in the view and eat a little bit of breakfast when the Swansons caught up to us. We asked if they’d seen the bear and they said no, though they had seen on their first or second night. However, at Middle Paradise Valley, while they were hanging out the night before, they’d seen a rattlesnake near their campsite! I was really glad I hadn’t seen that – I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep yet again, but instead I slept like a bump on a log. We said goodbye and moved down the trail to Mist Falls, which only misted us with mosquitoes.
We very briefly stopped at Mist Falls to apply bug spray and sunscreen for the last four miles of our trip and hit the gas on our descent. It’d taken us an hour and a half, even with our bear break, to make it from Middle Paradise to Mist Falls. We descended the final 700 feet in an hour and twenty minutes to the sandy junction with the trail to Road’s End. We’d seen a few people starting to move up the trail around 8:30 – several with backpacks, but a few day hikers too. The exchange was always the same: “Are you guys just getting done with the loop?” “Yeah! Have fun – it’s beautiful out there!” Like the day before, we guessed a lot of people were taking advantage of the long weekend to complete the 42ish mile loop.
Trail signs still lying (at Mist Falls it said 13 miles to the JMT when it was really about 10), we reached the sunny, sandy trail we’d started on days earlier a little after 9 AM. We hiked as fast as we could in the sand (with a bathroom break) back to the ranger station and were in front of the parking lot just before 10 AM. We’d made it! We were tired and really dirty and sunburned, but we’d completed the Rae Lakes Loop!
As Mindy was getting the car, about 15 minutes after we’d finished, we saw the Swansons. We congratulated them, took a group picture for them and said our goodbyes as we unpacked our rented bear can, checked in on Andrew’s flight using my InReach, and prepared for some showers. While Mindy was in the parking lot, a guy had come up to her asking for a ride into town. He was doing some “freestyle hiking” (his words, not mine) and had forgotten to get fuel on his resupply. Instead of giving him a ride, we gave him the unused can of fuel we’d bought on the trail on the very first day of our trip. We wound up not having to use it at all, even though we’d cooked lots of meals and had made lots of Chai Tea! From now on, I think I’ll weigh fuel cans to figure out how much is in them. It’s just too hard to tell otherwise, and apparently Pocket Rockets are super efficient.
We were in the showers at Cedar Grove by 11 AM, happy to have clean, cool, soapy water. I looked in the mirror for the first time in a week, drank an overpriced Diet Coke, and then we were off to Fresno to go our separate ways. Andrew would be joining me for a few days of “traditional vacation” in Napa, Big Sur, and San Francisco for the long weekend, Evyn would be flying out of Fresno the next morning for a family reunion, and Mindy would drive to LA that night before heading to Thailand with her boyfriend the next day.
These were the toughest days of hiking of my life so far, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without my incredible hiking partners. So thanks, Mindy and Evyn, for carrying a bunch of weight you didn’t ask for and putting up with me being on the strugglebus. I’d never met Evyn before this trip, so she deserves a particular shout out. Mindy and I have known each other since 8th grade, so she knew what to expect, but Evyn put up with a lot and was a great “trail mom” for me, reminding me to take some Diamox and offering sunscreen and aloe when needed. Mindy stayed behind with me when I was moving at a snail’s pace, which made me feel safe, secure, and like I hadn’t ruined everything even when I was feeling like crap.
The Rae Lakes Loop is a great hike, and I would do it again after some training. If I could plan my ideal lazy Rae Lakes trip, I would go clockwise and camp for 6 nights at Middle Paradise, Wood’s Creek, Arrowhead Lake, Upper Rae Lake, Vidette Meadow, and Sphinx Junction. There are plenty of people who complete the full loop over a long weekend camping at Upper Paradise Valley, Middle Rae Lake and Junction Meadow, but that’s not a pace that I would have fun with. Almost every campsite we passed had swimming opportunities, and if I had it to do over again, I would have jumped in at every one, even when I was tired, just to clean up and get some dirt off. The Sierras are incredible with tons of diverse and unique hiking, and it does make me jealous that Mindy and Evyn live in LA, which is for all intents and purposes a stone’s throw away from the most incredible backpacking on the planet.
I’m always curious about what gear people carried and didn’t use, so here’s my list: About 6 pounds of snacks including a half a dozen Kind Bars, a dozen Clif Bars, Graham Crackers, Granola, bourbon (this was the worst because it was so heavy), first aid kit (but I would never go without it), a can of fuel, my rain coat, a razor, decks of cards, and my notebook. I should have used my GoPro more and should have brought more sunscreen, chapstick, and my lighter 30 degree sleeping bag instead of my 15 degree bag. The gear MVPs of the trip were my sleeping pad (oh so comfortable, even when I wasn’t sleeping), my Platypus Gravity Filter, and my InReach. Each of these deserves its own post on why they were so incredible, which I hope to do this spring.
- King’s Canyon Rae Lakes Loop Website
- Permits – You should really get a permit in advance for the Rae Lakes Loop. They are available starting March 1st for all dates – if you’re dead set to hike over holiday weekends, be ready to email stuff in on March 1st. All the information about permits is here.
- Be bear aware. This is a big deal at many popular campsites on the loop – you really don’t want to be the person who leaves toothpaste in your pocket and attracts a bear to sniff around the door to your tent.
- Weather – The weather in the high country is very different than the weather in the low country. Most summers, there are very few rainy days. Highs were in the low 80s and it dropped down to the upper 30s at night while we were there at the very end of August. I like this forecast from the National Weather Service.
- Hiking Season – The hiking season for the Rae Lakes Loop is typically early July to the end of September, but early in the season you’ll deal with high river crossings, bugs, and snow on Glen Pass, while in late September you’ll deal with very cold nights and possibly get snowed on. I thought our trip, right before Labor Day, was a great time to go.
- Cost – Once you get to San Francisco, Fresno, or LA, it’s pretty easy and inexpensive to get to Kings Canyon.
- $18/night to camp at the modern campsites in Sequoia/Kings Canyon
- $30 entrance fee valid for up to 7 days
- $10 + $5 per person reservation fee for the permit
- $1 for 5 minutes of shower time at Cedar Grove