Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Introduction and Planning

The Rae Lakes Loop is a popular loop hike in King’s Canyon National Park.  Many John Muir Trail hikers consider the Rae Lakes the most beautiful part of the trail.  The loop traverses (depending upon which signs you believe) 40 to 45 miles of incredible Sierra high country, starting and finishing at the Road’s End trailhead.  It’s a hike that takes you up to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level through forests, meandering near riverbeds, passing waterfalls, and up over the tree line.


After realizing that the JMT wasn’t going to happen for me in 2016, I was very disappointed.  I was angry with myself for not being able to get my butt in gear and get into good enough shape to spend three weeks in the wilderness, partly on my own.  I knew I wanted to do something big, so after a good bit of research, I decided on the Rae Lakes Loop.  Permits are required for all backcountry travel in King’s Canyon, and the loop is quite popular.  By the time we decided to go, we had to settle for a counterclockwise permit instead of the traditional, easier clockwise route, but we were excited to get out into the wilderness!

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A Change of Plans

I have found it very hard to post anything for the past several months because I didn’t know how to start.  I have made hiking a part of my life and personality over the past several years.  When I get a hobby, I dive head first.  In the last year, I have made hiking the JMT a core part of my plans.  And now I’ve changed my plans.

Several things have happened since my last post, and I think the universe is telling me not to hike the JMT this year.  It took me a long time to come to this realization, but I believe I made the right choice.  There have been good things that have gotten in the way (we’re buying a house, and Andrew switched jobs to one he is better suited for and will enjoy more) and not so good things (a complete failure of a training hike, not getting a southbound permit and settling for a northbound one) that have led me to believe the JMT isn’t for me in 2016.  I am not in shape enough to hike 12 to 15 miles every day at an altitude I’ve never been at before, and I definitely don’t want to have this once in a lifetime experience without my husband, who is my best friend and patient hiking partner.

Instead, I will be hiking the Rae Lakes Loop with one of my good friends from high school and her roommate.  Rather than heading from Glen Pass to Woods Creek in just one day, passing through the Rae Lakes in a blur, we’ll have a lot more time to enjoy one of the most beautiful stretches of the JMT.  We’ll take 7 days to explore the beauty of the area, jump in alpine lakes, wonder at waterfalls, and hike an average of 8 miles a day.

After the jump, read more about what will happen with this blog and what my future plans are.

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Dealing with Permit Rejections

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten plenty of emails that look like this recently:

The disappointing email

A Disappointing Email


This is the email Yosemite sends when you don’t get a permit for the John Muir trail.  I’ve got 19 of them sitting in my inbox, and will probably get another one this afternoon.  I have 16 chances left to get a permit for the John Muir Trail, and Sunday’s submission marks the start of our “ideal” window, where we’ll get a bonus vacation day off because of Labor Day.  We can’t do the trail late in September because of a work event, so I have a true hard stop deadline for the JMT.  I’ve seen lots of others get their permits for the JMT, when I’ve come up empty handed.  And that’s okay.

When I look at the Yahoo group or Facebook groups for the JMT, I see the panic that some people have about getting their permits.  Yes, I want to hike the JMT because it’s a classic trail in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.  I like that every day on the trail is different and that hikers don’t cross a road for hundreds of miles.  But there are other places that can be done too, with equally beautiful views.  I will be disappointed if, come March 14th, I get my 36th permit rejection, but then it’s time to submit for Wonderland Trail permits!  And if that doesn’t work, that’s okay too.

Checking on Snowfall

One of the things I’m watching closely this year is the Sierra snowpack.  For the past several years with the drought, it was perfectly possible to tackle the JMT in June.  Snow on the JMT means that you’ll spend more time hiking up and down passes, as they’ll be slick and the trail may not be visible.  It also means you’ll be dealing with swift, high stream crossings, which can be very dangerous.

The last year with a considerably above normal snowpack was 2011.  That year, there was snow on passes into August.  If you want to check up on how the snowpack is, I like the following two links:

California Snow Water Equivalent Map

This site gives regional information about the percentage of the normal amount of snow the Sierra has gotten compared to this date in an average year and as compared to April 1st.

California Snow Water Content Chart

A great visualization where you can compare past years to this year.  Check out 1997-1998 for a similar El Nino year – looks like we’re on track for a snowy year!

Planning your first Backpacking Trip

When I first started backpacking, Andrew was already comfortable with camping and hiking.  He was an Eagle Scout and had planned (or helped plan) everything from overnight excursion to multi-day wilderness experiences.  I had been camping a few times as a child, but only in established modern campgrounds.  I have some tips on how to plan your first backpacking trip if you’ve never been before.

Go Car Camping First

Car camping is absolutely essential to do before backpacking for the first time.  It’s much lower stress, you can bring what you want, and you can bail if needed.  You can also more easily repurpose things you already have so you don’t have to purchase much before going out for the first time.  I would recommend going out at least two car camping trips before heading into the backcountry for the first time.

Across the country, there are different meanings for the word “campground.”  Generally, a “modernized” campground will have some spaces with electrical hookup for RVs, potable water, and full bathrooms.  These sites may be very tightly packed together or may be relatively quiet.  A “primitive” campground generally has no running water and definitely no electrical hookup.  These campsites tend to be more secluded and quiet and have less of a party atmosphere on busy summer weekends.

I like finding campsites for car camping that are shaded so my tent doesn’t overheat during the day.  I also like staying at tent only sites.  Your state’s state parks are a great place to start if you want to find interesting places to camp with a variety of  types of sites.

Find a Place to Go

After you’ve gone car camping a few times, you’ll need to find a place to go backpacking!  For your first trip, I highly recommend keeping the mileage low (less than 5 miles a day) and doing either an out and back or a loop for an overnight.  It can be difficult, depending upon where you live, to figure out where to go on your first trip.  Here’s some places to start:

  • Meetup.com has backpacking groups around the country.  Even if you don’t want to go with others, I still find that these groups have a wealth of information on past trips that are usually just a few hours drive away.  For example, in Wisconsin, the Fox Cities Backpacking group has years of past trips laid out, organized by difficulty.
  • State parks and forests, depending upon the state, may offer some short or long backpacking trails.  In Wisconsin, these sites are fairly limited, but there are few places to hike 2-3 miles in to a site, great for a first trip.
  • National forests offer dispersed (camp where you want) camping within some guidelines, such as being 200 feet off trail and away from water.  National forest land is available in many states, but tends to be more difficult to plan, and trails may double as logging roads or ATV trails.
  • National Parks are amazing, but may be significantly more difficult to plan.  Most parks with extensive backcountry trails expect that you’ve done some sort of backpacking before, so it may be easier to start elsewhere.

Once you’ve found where you want to go, ensure that you’re prepared to get any permits that you need for trip.  You will likely need to check in at some sort of a ranger station, who may have maps available.  Know if they do before you go!

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How to Get a Southbound John Muir Trail Permit in 2016

I’m now about eight months from being on the John Muir Trail.  I have had a really hard time keeping the blog up to date, because I’m not sure what the likelihood of us getting permits is.  It’s an easy excuse to not train when I have nothing forcing me to.  Permit submission is upcoming, though!  I though I’d dedicate a post to the permitting process for the JMT for 2016.  Of note – I’m talking in this post only about southbound permits, because 80 to 90 percent of hikers move from north to south.

A Single* Permit

One of the wonderful things about the John Muir Trail that makes it not terrible to plan is that even though it goes through several national parks and wilderness areas, you only need a single permit to hike the trail in its entirety, including climbing Mount Whitney, provided you stay on the John Muir Trail for the entirety of your trip.  You are allowed to leave the JMT for 24 hours to resupply, but if you stay off trail for more than that, you will need a second permit.  As you’ll see from below, I don’t think the headache is worth it.

Why the asterisk?  If you want to hike Half Dome as a side trip, you will need a separate permit that you can apply for alongside your JMT permit.

Why Quotas?

The John Muir Trail is one of the most popular long trails in the US.  It starts in Yosemite National Park, which is the third most visited national park in the United States.  Most visitors never stray into the backcountry to camp, but even if 1 percent do, that would be over 30,000 people annually.  To ensure that the wilderness actually stays wilderness, the parks and forests in the area limit the number of groups that can enter the backcountry.

Graph showing increase in use on the JMT since 1998.

The popularity of the John Muir Trail, like other American long trails, has exploded in the past decade.  More and more people every year are backpacking, including people like me.  I wasn’t raised in a family of outdoorsy people, but I joined in my husband’s hobby after deciding I wanted to spend more time away from my computer and outside.

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Kickapoo Valley Reserve Overnight

For us, fall hiking is a tradeoff – do we really want to miss a day of football to go hang out in the woods?  We are die hard Texas A&M Aggie fans, so often the answer is no.  However, last weekend we had a bye week and the only game that we were actually interested in was the Red River Shootout, which we were very confident Texas would lose (… c’mon OU!), so we decided to take what we figured would be our last trip of the year out to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  We had planned this about a month in advance, but got really lucky with some outstanding weather.

The Kickapoo Reserve is a really beautiful protected part of the driftless area of Wisconsin.  The driftless area is a geologically unique area within the Midwest – instead of being overpowered by glaciation during the last Ice Age, this region has remained uncovered for at least the last 500,000 years.  That makes the region much hillier than the rest of the state, with interesting bluffs and ridges.  The Kickapoo Reserve itself has an interesting political history – in the 1960s, the federal government planned to dam the Kickapoo River, which caused flooding downstream.  Using eminent domain, 149 families were forced to move out of the flood zone.  However, the environmental movement of the 1970s, along with poor economic planning, caused the project to be abandoned by 1979.  After a bunch of fighting about what to do with the land (full details here), it was given to the HoChunk Nation and State of Wisconsin as a nature preserve.

We set out on Saturday morning bright and early from Madison on the two hour drive.  With the fall foliage on the bluffs and hills, it was beautiful – it felt like we weren’t in the Midwest, but instead in Vermont or upstate New York.  We stopped at the visitor center to pay for our permit and drove up to Rockton to hit the trail.  We planned to hike about 6 miles on day one and 7 on day two, taking a long scenic route to site F, one of the most remote sites in the park.  We would take the Rockton trail to the Old Highway 131 trail to the Little Canada trail and Ice Cave trail on Saturday, and the Hanson Rock Loop to Ma & Pa’s Trail to the Black Hawk Rock trail back to our car on Sunday.  We were worried that the campsite would be taken, as there are no reservations at the Kickapoo reserve, even for backcountry sites, but excitedly hit the trail around 10:30 AM.


Our Planned Route

The trailhead for the Rockton trail is kind of hard to find – you have to park at the boat landing and then walk up the road almost into “town” (aka two bars) to hit the trail.  The hike started with a level hike through a cornfield before winding into the woods at the junction to the Indian Creek Trail.


Rockton Trail

We crossed over a bridge and saw our first horses of the day!  The Kickapoo Reserve really seems to cater to equestrians – there were lots of people out riding.  This was a new experience for us, and we made sure to talk to the riders and yield to them as they passed.  The Old Highway 131 Trail is literally half of the road that used to snake around and over the Kickapoo river.  You could still see the faint outline of the old double yellow line in some places!  The weather was very pleasant in the mid sixities, and the woolybear caterpillars were out sunning themselves on the warm asphalt.  We saw a few that were all black and some that had a very narrow brown stripe – must mean we’re in for a rough winter.

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