The Rae Lakes Loop (Counterclockwise)

It had been 26 years since I’d hiked the John Muir Trail, and I never thought it’d be this long before I got up into the High Sierra again. Working for the season with the park service at Cedar Grove I listened to backcountry traffic on the park radio and I longed for a return, even just a long weekend. Permit secured, it was my turn. Like many, I initially wanted to start on Woods Creek, but the permit I got was for a Bubbs Creek start. It turned out to be just perfect. This hike took place from August 6th – August 9th, 2020.

*This was a personal journey and all views expressed are mine, not of the NPS.

View from the switchbacks on Bubbs Creek

I started from Road’s End before 6:30am and by 7:30am I was on the switchbacks leading up towards the canyon Bubbs Creek flows through. There were 18 switchbacks, I counted, and two more about half a mile later. The switchbacks immediately allowed enough gain in altitude for views looking back up the canyon. It was a most promising start.

Indian Paintbrush

I heard several people along the journey deride the hike along Bubbs Creek and all I could think was, “Weren’t you paying attention, that hike was incredible.” Sure, part of it is through forest, without broad views, but the forest is lovely and there were small stream crossings adorning the morning accented by various wildflowers.

Footbridge over Charlotte Creek

The little bridge over Charlotte Creek reminded me of walks in Pakistan. It was so good to see some backcountry craftsmanship.

Bubbs Creek

While the big sweeping vistas weren’t there just yet, there were promises ahead of things to come. All you have to do is step out to the creek for a moment.

Junction Meadow

Many people camp here, at Junction Meadow, on Night 1 but I’d arrived around 12:30pm and saw no reason to end a day when I could gain a view more miles and a bit more altitude. If you get a late start and this becomes your campsite, you won’t be disappointed, it’s a gorgeous place to camp.

Along Bubbs Creek

Those 2.5 miles to Vidette Meadow, they were a kicker. The grade of the trail is simply brutal and every mile is hard fought for. That afternoon would prove to be the hardest of the entire journey for me. Perhaps because it was late in the day, I don’t know. This one thing I do know, getting those few miles behind me on Day 1, sure paid off on Day 2.

Monkshood

It seemed like whenever I needed a break, there would be some wildflowers to brighten the path. These Monkshood whispered that I wouldn’t die, I was only about a half mile from Lower Vidette Meadow.

Vidette Meadows

At Vidette Meadows I was on the cusp of walking along the John Muir Trail once again. It was a lovely evening as deer fed along the edges of the meadow and evening light cast a glow on the high peaks.

California Mule Deer

I was like a kid that night, waiting for the morning to come. I’ve always liked hiking early in the day, before the heat kicks in, and you can actually find a bit of solitude, even on a busy trail. I was walking before 6:30am again and had a couple of hours alone, save for the mule deer with whom I exchanged morning greetings.

West Vidette the John Muir Trail

Once again, I was on the John Muir Trail, watching the morning come. Back in 1994, I’d miscalculated the mileage we had to hike to South Lake where one friend had to depart the trail and I was to resupply with my other friend. Recalculating, we realized we’d need to hike 16-18 miles a day in order to make our destination in time. We awoke the moment the last star faded out of the sky and were walking shortly after, stopping to make breakfast after a couple of hours. I got right back into the old habit and watched the morning come as I hiked. I wasn’t about to walk that many miles though. I’d need a week on the trail to regain those legs.

Little Oasis

Enough streams cross the trail that you wouldn’t need to carry much water at all, but I usually fill up two liters worth so I don’t have to stop to refill during the morning. I did pause by the little stream, which was like an oasis along a dusty trail.

East Vidette

Coming out of Vidette Meadows, you’re immediately met with a lot more “up.” Years ago when hiking with an Outward Bound group, a young woman remarked during a tough hike, “I’m tired of up.” Her comment comes to mind often on switchbacks, but views like East Vidette were so glorious, you looked forward to getting higher and higher and seeing more and more.

A lovely plateau on the way past Charlotte Lake

Eventually you pass the junction with the Kearsarge Lakes Trail and immediately ascend even more switchbacks. By having hiked all the way to Vidette Meadows the day before it gave you the energy of the morning to actually enjoy the walk. Finally you gain a plateau and basically contour for a period of time across a broad meadow. The mountains of Glen Pass come into view for the first time. You’re officially in the high country. And you suddenly started writing in the third person.

The trail stays above Charlotte Lake. I couldn’t help but think that less than 24 hours ago I’d passed across Charlotte Creek, which comes from this lake.

Heading towards Glen Pass

After passing Charlotte Lake the trail reaches the edge of timberline and begins the windy route towards Glen Pass.

There seemed to always be some wildflowers tucked along the trail, even on the switchbacks. I’m not resting, just stopping to make a photograph.

Glen Pass looking towards Forester Pass to the north

Right around 9:30am I gained the summit of the pass. One thing I’ve found that’s held true over many years and many hikes in many other places, is that every step, no matter how difficult, no matter the struggle, fades away and is always worth it once you’ve reached your destination.

I was so glad once I saw the numbers of people hiking from the Rae Lakes side up to Glen Pass, that I was hiking in a counterclockwise direction. For one I wasn’t competing with the hordes for camping sites and I didn’t see many others hiking my direction. Now I had some fine conversations with people hiking clockwise, and even made a few friends, but if you ended up concerned with having to hike counterclockwise, don’t be. I actually think it’s the way to go. I wasn’t half-way through Day 2 and I was already on top of Glen Pass. Those hiking the other direction don’t see it until their 3rd day, and their every step has been up.

Of course it’s human nature anytime you’re hiking down a pass to feel for those unfortunate souls hiking up what you’re hiking down. So it almost always feels like you’re hiking in the better direction, and I guess that’s a good thing. As for me, I was so glad that it was all downhill from here.

60 Lakes Basin and Rae Lakes from Glen Pass
Looking again towards Forester Pass
Hikers ascending Glen Pass from the Rae Lakes side
Trail Wildflowers
Joe

The very first morning, before I’d hiked two miles, I met a man named Rick who was 79. Later that morning, after the 18 switchbacks, I met Pam who was 72. On the descent from Glen Pass I stopped and talked with Joe, 73. They inspire me. May I be as fortunate.

Painted Lady

Later on the descent from the pass Painted Lady becomes a prominent feature of the landscape.

Rae lakes

Almost there, I’d be camping on the land between the two lakes.

Painted Lady and Rae Lake

Thanks to an alpine start I was setting up my tent by noon. I took a long rest and awoke hardly able to walk. haha.

Upper Rae Lake, 5:32pm
Upper Rae Lake, 5:45pm
The land between the lakes 5:52pm
Campsite, Rae Lakes, 7:30pm
Map of the Rae Lakes Loop
Rae Lakes, 8:10pm
Milky Way and Perseids above Painted Lady, 9:14pm

Most trekkers are understandably exhausted and are in their tents by 8pm. You’ve got to fight it, and stay up long enough to catch the night sky. I used a nearby rock as a tripod and caught the Milky Way and the Perseid Meteor Shower before it got too late.

The Fin from Lower Rae Lake

While I was out early again on Day 3, I took my time, wanting to catch morning light on some of the prominent features and to soak in every step of the high country.

Painted Lady from Lower Rae Lake

On the John Muir Trail all those years ago, I remember telling a friend that after two weeks mostly above 10,000 feet, that my soul just couldn’t soak in any more beauty. I’d lost the capacity to take in any more. It’s just that overwhelming. On this short trip I truly wanted to soak in every bit of it. After leaving Rae Lakes there are a series of lakes and golden meadows and every bit of it is absolutely blissful to engage with. I stopped and had a morning devotional and offered due praise to the Maker of these mountains. For if I did not, even the rocks would cry out.

Golden Meadows, tranquil streams and The Fin

When I reached the top of Dollar Lake it was still in shadow in the canyon. It would mark the descent from the high country. I simply didn’t want to leave. So I walked back 5 minutes to where you cross a stream, pulled out my stove and made my morning coffee and some noodles. I thought, “I’m not going to rush this day, I’m going to stay here and take this all into my soul.” I metaphorically cried knowing I was going to have to leave the high country.

The Fin
Mt Cotter and Mt Clarence King with a waning moon
The Fin, Mt Cotter and Mt Clarence King, waning moon, and tarn
Dollar Lake once the morning light had come
Jeffrey Pines

After Dollar Lake there was still some magic, a stand of Jeffrey Pines made for a walk through a veritable fairy land.

American Marten hunting for chipmunks

I ran across a scene most uncommon just before crossing the Woods Creek Bridge. An American Marten was out hunting for chipmunks! Such a rare sighting. I had one image of its little face looking at me through the rocks, which in my anxiousness to share with another trekker, accidentally deleted. It is a great loss, but it remains in my mind and it’s now only between me and God, and no other. Fortunately I kept this image of the Marten looking in the crevasses for the chipmunks. While I didn’t see it catch one, I did hear it. They are the cutest, and most vicious of creatures.

The descent from Woods Creek towards Upper Paradise
Leaving Upper Paradise

Leaving Upper Paradise on the morning of Day 4.

Buck Peak from Lower Paradise

John Muir called Paradise Valley a rival of the Yosemite. There is no question. What a glorious day of hiking the final day would prove to be! This place absolutely rivals Yosemite Valley, and without the crowds.

Paradise Valley with The Sphinx in the distance and Buck Peak just showing
Paradise Valley
Woods Creek and The Sphinx
The slope leading to Mist Falls
Mist Falls

Mist Falls is a popular day hike and it proved fortuitous once again to have gotten the early start. It wasn’t until a while after Mist Falls that I began to encounter the day hiking crowds.

Paradise Valley
The trail along Woods Creek
Western Pacific Rattlesnake

The hike along Woods Creek is truly lovely and wildlife is often seen. Rattlesnakes do abound so it’s wise to use caution before plopping down on a rock or a log.

Woods Creek
American Black Bear

The Black bears are mostly habituated to people, so as long as you keep your distance and give them their space you can enjoy watching them.

Woods Creek and The Sphinx

As the trip wound down the only thing left to look forward to was the hot shower and the burger up to follow. What an incredible four days. May it not be so long before I’m in the High Sierra once again.

11 thoughts on “The Rae Lakes Loop (Counterclockwise)

  1. While snuggled with my baby here in hot and humid south Florida, I loved reading every single word of this.

    I dream of this trail often and one day long to be there. One day. Thank you so much!!!!

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