The Rae Lakes Loop is one of the legendary backpacking routes of the Sierra Nevada. It essentially makes a big circle around the center of Kings Canyon National Park, and features four amazing canyons and one of the epic sections of the John Muir Trail (JMT). The beauty of this trail is considered by many to be one of the most scenic in all the Sierra. It includes such famous sites as Mist Falls, the Woods Creek Suspension Bridge, the Sphinx, Fin Dome, Glen Pass and the Painted Lady overlooking the Rae Lakes. It is also a fantastic first-time backpacker route due to its manageable length. And, because the entire trail is horse/mule accessible, the ascents are all very reasonable. In short, it is a must do backpacking trip!
Why enter via Kearsarge Pass?
- We had one week available to us, so we wanted to extend the mileage and days
- We like to have an acclimation / gear shakedown day/night prior to starting the trip, and the Onion Valley Campground at 9,500 feet of elevation gives us a great high-altitude sleep before we start
- The Eastern Sierra is a faster and easier drive from Los Angeles than driving up into Kings Canyon National Park
- The permitting system for Inyo National Forest is through Recreation.gov, and is much easier than the dedicated Sequoia/Kings Canyon (SEKI) permitting system
Rae Lakes Loop via Kearsarge Pass Map
Planning the Trip
We booked both our wilderness permit and our Onion Valley Campground permit on the first day possible via Recreation.gov. The map we used to plan our route was the Tom Harrison Kearsarge Pass Rae Lakes Loop Map. This one map shows the entire route. We chose the following schedule for our trip:
- Travel Day: Drive to Lone Pine, CA and pick up the backcountry permit. Eat lunch in Lone Pine. Drive to Onion Valley and pitch camp for the night / acclimation sleep
- Day One – 8.5 miles: Hike Onion Valley West/up to Kearsarge Pass, then down to the JMT junction and then down to Charlotte Lake.
- Day Two – 8.5 miles: Hike Charlotte Lake back up to JMT, then South to Vidette Meadow, turn off the JMT and on to the Bubbs Creek Trail hiking West to Junction Meadow and the Charlotte Creek junction.
- Day Three – 11.1 miles: Hike Charlotte Creek West and down to the Kings River Bridge and then north/up the Kings River trail to Middle Paradise Valley.
- Day Four – 7.7 miles: Hike Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek Bridge and then west/up Woods Creek to the Woods Creek suspension bridge and the JMT junction.
- Day Five – 6.5 miles: Hike south on the JMT to Rae Lakes. Optional 4-mile day hike from Rae Lakes to the 60 Lakes Basin Saddle and back.
- Day Six – 12 miles: Hike Rae Lakes Southwest up over Glen Pass then over Kearsarge Pass and then west/down back to Onion Valley.
Total Hiking: 54.3 Miles
Day One – Onion Valley Trailhead to Kearsarge Pass and Charlotte Lake
The trail starts immediately upward on long switchbacks. Once over the first ridge, the trail ascends to a series of five lakes. First is Little Pothole Lake, followed by Gilbert Lake – which is a very popular camping spot and fishing spot. Then comes Flower Lake, the beautiful Heart Lake (yes, it’s shaped like a Heart) and finally Big Pothole Lake just before cresting Kearsarge Pass at 11,835 feet and the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park.
Kearsarge Pass is a very popular day-hike, as well as one of the most popular JMT re-supply outlets, so expect to have lots of company on this trail.
Once over the pass, some backpackers will head down a lower trail to the Kearsarge Lakes to camp at the base of the gorgeous peaks known as the Kearsarge Pinnacles, while others (including us) will take the standard upper trail and head on to the John Muir Trail. The upper trail follows a high line that features great views of the Sierra and Bullfrog Lake as you head west towards the JMT. We encountered a ranger on the trail towards the JMT, checking permits and warning everyone of multiple bear encounters.
Once you reach the JMT junction, you can either go north or south on the JMT or continue west for 1.3 miles down to Charlotte Lake. At 10,370 feet, Charlotte Lake is a gorgeous place to camp, with nice campsites, a bear box, and easy access to the lake for swimming, fishing and water filtration. And because it’s 2.6 miles round trip off the JMT, it is not very crowded. There is a ranger station located here, manned full-time during the summer season.
Day Two – Charlotte Lake to Vidette Meadow, Junction Meadow and the Bubbs Creek Trail to Charlotte Creek
After a mile of steep switchbacks you reach the junction of the JMT and the Bubbs Creek Trail. We wave goodbye to the JMT (for a few days anyway) and head west on the Bubbs Creek Trail. Bubbs Creek is a good size river that flows all year round, with great water features and falls as you head down the canyon. After you pass the Junction Meadow campground, the canyon opens up a bit and we found an amazing spot right off the trail to have lunch on granite slabs right at the top of a waterfall. We ate, drank, soaked our feet and enjoyed the view.
Back on the trail, the canyon heads almost straight down to the west along the north side of the creek. Here is where we had our first of two bear sightings. This one was a smallish but beautiful cinnamon colored bear. We didn’t get too close, Kevin got some photos while Barb and I made noise and asked it to leave the trail. It moved on and so did we.
Eventually we arrived at a large camping area right at the junction of Bubbs Creek and Charlotte Creek, with the beautiful 10,672 foot Charlotte Dome overlooking the camping area. We chose a great campsite with logs and a fire pit very close to the Bubbs Creek water source and pitched camp. Kevin took a swim in Bubbs Creek and Barb and I filtered water and gathered firewood. It started to rain about 4 p.m. and we put up the rainflies on the tents. Thunder passed over us but no lightning strikes. Eventually it cleared up to a beautiful night.
Day Three – Bubbs Creek / Charlotte Creek Campground to Sphinx Junction, Kings River Bridge, Mist Falls and Middle Paradise Valley
We started the morning continuing our hike west and down Bubbs Creek. We started at 7,200 feet at the campground, and were headed all the way down to 5,120 feet at the Kings River Bridge, before climbing up the Kings River Canyon towards Middle Paradise Valley at 6,680 feet.
The hike down Bubbs Creek would take us through an active fire zone – where a 200-acre fire had just been put out four days before we arrived! It was on both sides of the trail and we even found several logs that were still smoldering. But god bless the firefighters, as they got this one out before it was able to spread!
Then we arrived at Sphinx Junction – a trail that heads south towards Avalanche Pass. As you look up and to the South/left, you see The Sphinx – an incredible rock formation that looks similar to the Sphinx from Egypt! Needless to say, we took a lot of photos of The Sphinx. No sooner do you finish staring at The Sphinx than the trail opens up on a spectacular view looking down on the canyon that heads west towards Roads End. And, as you look off to the north/right, you see the Kings River Canyon that you are about to start hiking up in an hour or two. It’s another breathtaking view at the top of a set of steep switchbacks.
Once at the bottom, you cross a number of small wooden bridges on the way to a large steel bridge that crosses the Kings River. It was in this area that the ‘little black gnats’ started flying all around our heads – and so the head nets went on! They aren’t mosquitos so they don’t really bite, but they can fly in your nose, ears and mouth – and the head nets were a welcome accessory.
Once across the bridge, the trail turns left towards Roads End and right/north towards the Mist Falls and Paradise Valley, up the Kings River canyon. Mist Falls is a very popular day hiking destination from Roads End, and even though this was a Tuesday, there were still a few dozen people sunbathing at the falls. We took a bunch of photos, a few videos, and met some guys on vacation from Israel. It is a gorgeous spot.
From Mist Falls, it’s a straight up climb to Paradise Valley. The trail features first-class granite stairway-style trail building and is very consistent in its ascent.
Prior to arriving at Lower Paradise Valley, the thunder and lightning hit! We put on our rain jackets and pack rain covers as fast as we could. Barb said it was the loudest thunder she’d ever heard and swore that the lightning went right in front of her face! Good thing it was over quickly.
Paradise Valley is a gorgeous flat valley featuring big trees and the Kings River. It is about 3 miles long, and has three campgrounds – lower, middle and upper. We decided to camp at Middle Paradise Valley and got a great spot near the river with a fire pit and logs that was somewhat sheltered from the rain so it wasn’t too muddy. Unfortunately, the wood all around was pretty wet, but we eventually got the fire going and had a great camping night. The next morning we would have to shake out the tents and footprints pretty well to get the water off, but nothing too nasty.
Day Four – Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek Junction Bridge, Castle Domes Meadow and the Woods Creek Suspension Bridge / JMT Junction
Day 4 would be our shortest day, but it would be all ascending and would include some beautiful Sierra landscapes. We started off the morning by finishing our walk through Paradise Valley to Upper Paradise Valley campground. Here, the trail then turns from north to east and crosses the Kings River over a bridge….but there’s just one problem…the entire bridge was washed out in the big snow year of 2017! We had been a bit concerned about this through the spring and early summer, but by the time we got there the crossing where the bridge once stood wasn’t even knee deep and was quite easy. The good news is that for next season – 2019 – the Forest Service expects to have a NEW bridge in place! So I guess our photos of the bridge pedestals on each side of the river with NO bridge in between could be considered ‘collectors items’ in the future!
After the bridge crossing, the trail follows Woods Creek up the canyon and into a gorgeous meadow called Castle Domes Meadow. On our North/left are the massive 10,000+ foot Castle Domes that overlook the meadow. Although Woods Creek is quite a bit to the South of the trail for most of this ascent, we found one spot where the trail comes quite close and we were able to hike down a use trail to the rivers edge and have a great lunch / soak on some granite slabs. As it was quite hot that day, we appreciated the cool break.
Ascending up to almost 8,500 feet, we then reached the junction of the JMT, where the famous Woods Creek suspension bridge takes hikers across Woods Creek. Again, at this time of year we could have just walked through the creek at knee deep or less, but the suspension bridge is one of the highlights of the JMT! I walked across first (one person at a time on this bridge) and took a video, then took photos of Barb coming across after me. It swings and sways and is just another one of those epic landmarks on the JMT.
When Kevin arrived shortly after us, he had seen another bear. This one was in a tree and Barb and I apparently walked right by it without seeing it. When it almost dropped a pine cone on Kevin’s head, he looked up and saw it. It came down and Kevin watched is it ate its prize. What a story that was around the campfire.
On the other side of the Woods Creek bridge are all the improved campsites. We chose a good one that had a nice water source, good fire pit and logs for sitting and spreading out gear. Again, dry wood was a challenge but we finally got a campfire going strong. By the time dinner rolled around, this junction had no less than 20 tents pitched in it, maybe even 30! It is definitely a busy campground for JMTers going SOBO and NOBO. It became a tent city! The rain never came and the clouds parted to a beautiful sunset and a gorgeous (and a bit chilly) night.
Day Five – Woods Creek Suspension Bridge / JMT Junction to Dollar Lake, Arrowhead Lake and Rae Lakes (with a day hike to the 60 Lakes Basin Saddle)
Day 5 began with a beautiful clear and cool morning. We were excited, because today was the day we would get to see the Rae Lakes…and judge for ourselves if it is really one of the most beautiful places on the JMT.
The hike starts up and south as you ascend up the canyon of the South Fork of Woods Creek. As you climb up from 8,500 feet to over 10,000 feet, you get an incredible view backwards from where we came looking down the canyon. Soon we arrived at Dollar Lake – a gorgeous round lake teaming with Golden Trout! We stopped and had a snack by the lake and watched the fish swim around right in front of us. The trail then wraps around the West side of the lake and heads South again towards Arrowhead Lake. There’s a nice campsite and bear box at Arrowhead Lake, and now you get amazing views of Fin Dome off to the right/West. At 11,693 feet, Fin Dome towers over Arrowhead Lake and is absolutely stunning. We got a great photo of Fin Dome reflecting in the lake.
Another mile down this beautiful trail brings you to the Rae Lakes – a set of three lakes. Middle Rae Lake is where the ranger station is located and most of the camp sites, including a bear box. Overlooking the lakes is The Painted Lady, a 12,119-foot pyramid shaped peak that has amazing colors running through the rock, giving it its name. We found the BEST campsite overlooking the middle lake towards the South and the Painted Lady and pitched camp.
Once our gear was secured, Barb and I headed out on a separate day hike while Kevin napped and went swimming. Our destination: around the middle lake to the junction of the 60 Lakes Basin Trail and up the mountain South of Fin Dome to the saddle in hopes of looking down into 60 Lakes Basin.
It’s about a 2-mile ascent from 10,565 up to about 11,200 feet where you reach the saddle and the trail heads back down the other side into the less explored 60 Lakes Basin. We had a beautiful view of 3 or 4 of the lakes to the South – and we knew right then that someday we’ll have to come back and hike all the way down into the basin and explore the lakes.
There’s another day hike out to the East from Rae Lakes that goes up to Dragon Lake at 11,076 feet. We’d have to save that one for another trip as well.
When we got back to camp, the clouds were forming really beautiful shapes that gave way to a great sunset and some fabulous photos of The Painted Lady reflected in the lake. We took photos and prepared for a cold night. Since Day 6 would require a 12-mile, two-pass climb (Glen Pass and Kearsarge Pass), we decided to go to bed early and set our alarms for 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. start. That way we could get up both passes before the heat of the day.
Day Six – Rae Lakes to Glen Pass, Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley
The ascent from Rae Lakes up to Glen Pass is a 1,500 vertical foot, 2-mile hike up above the tree line and then on a series of Whitney-like switchbacks to a thin ridge. It’s really a beautiful hike that took us to the highest point of the week at 11,978 feet. You can scramble up a bit higher and get 12,000 on the GPS if you so choose. It’s the one part of the Rae Lakes Loop where you really feel like you’re on the moon.
There’s no sign, no trophy, no applause at the top of Glen Pass – just a thin ridge with enough room for a few people and grand views back towards Rae Lakes. We were the first ones up on the pass that morning but were soon joined by a few other JMT SOBOers. We all took each other’s photos, and then headed down the other side. More steep switchbacks on the other side pass by two pothole type lakes, and then Charlotte Lake comes into view – we realize we are headed home.
The trail goes high up over the west side of Charlotte Lake, until you come to a small crossover trail that leads you back to the Kearsarge Pass trail. This is where we stopped to have a snack and say goodbye to the John Muir Trail. We got to hike about 13 miles of the JMT on our trip, and what a great section it was!
Now it was time to climb again, up from 10,775 feet to the top of Kearsarge Pass at 11,835. It isn’t a lot of vertical feet, but with the sun out and after already ascending Glen Pass, we had to do some work to get up and over. The hike along the high trail gave us great views of Bullfrog Lake again, and we took some awesome photos. We met a number of day hikers at the top of Kearsarge Pass, including another ranger. Then it was the long 4.7 mile hike down to the car – past Big Pothole Lake, Heart Lake, Flower Lake, Gilbert Lake and Little Pothole Lake all over again.
When the cars finally came into view, we smiled big as thoughts of beans and chips, burgers and cold beers started coming front and center! The car was where we left it, safe and sound. We met a few PCTers at the trailhead, and then soaked our feet in the stream before packing up and driving back to Lone Pine.
Rae Lake Loop Tips and Notes
- Wilderness permits are required to enter via the Kearsarge Pass trailhead. Between May 1 and November 1, overnight visitors are limited to 60 people per day. Visit recreation.gov for more information.
- All of the campsites we chose included bear boxes for storage, but we carried bear canisters anyway for flexibility. Bears were very active during this trip, so best to be safe.
- We tracked the trip via Gaia GPS for iPhone.
- Water is very plentiful on this trail, as each of the main canyons it follows (Bubbs, Kings, Woods) have a large active creek.
- Although we chose not to fish, there are great places along this trail to fish for Golden Trout and other species – so plan accordingly with the proper gear and license if you choose to fish.
- Fires are permitted when the campsite is under 10,000 feet in elevation, so we were able to have fires on days two, three and four.
- We had light rain several afternoons and one thunderstorm. Rain gear is advisable.
- As this was the first week of September, stream crossings were quite low and easy and there was no snow on Glen Pass so we did not carry any sort of traction devices (micro-spikes).
For beginner backpackers, I can’t think of a better trail to start your adventure and hone your skills than the Rae Lakes Loop. For experienced backpackers, if you haven’t done this loop, take 4-6 days and do it – it’s so beautiful that you don’t want to miss it. If you don’t have three weeks to do the JMT, then section hiking is the way to go, and this is a great section to start off with.
Kings Canyon National Park may not be as popular as Yosemite or Sequoia, but in many ways is just as – if not more – beautiful in its own way. It just seems so unspoiled and so natural in its features and its views. And there is no better way to see Kings Canyon than the Rae Lakes Loop – that’s for sure!
Originally hiked on September 2-7, 2018 by Greg Glass, Barbara Hale and Kevin Muschter. All photos by the same.