This Labor Day weekend, Elizabeth and I went on our longest backpacking trip yet: the 46-mile Rae Lakes Loop, one of the most famous and most popular backcountry trips in the Sierra Nevada.
We left home at seven in the evening, which would have put us at the trailhead in the middle of the night if we drove there directly. But I’m not a fan of driving unfamiliar mountain roads or stumbling around campgrounds in the dark looking for a site, so we stopped at a motel in Fresno instead.
Friday: Road’s End to Lower Vidette Meadow
14 miles. 4,500 feet up.
We woke up before dawn and drove east to Road’s End, where the road ends on the rugged western flank of the Sierra Nevada and the hike begins. The drive there was more scenic than I expected, climbing from parched foothills with chaparral and yuccas into mountains with cool, shady conifers, all the while curving under spectacular granite cliffs thousands of feet high.
Before Road’s End we drove by the Sheep Fire, a wildfire started by lightning six weeks ago that has been burning ever since. The Park Service decided the fire wasn’t dangerous, so it has been left to burn naturally and might keep going until the wet-season rain arrives.
We put on our packs and hiked into the wilderness, not to return from it for four days.
We would hike the loop counterclockwise, even though clockwise is preferred since it gets you to the highpoint in 27.5 miles instead of 17.5. But clockwise permits were gone by the time we got ours, so we had no choice but to tough it out on the more aggressive climb.
The hike started in a woodland of oaks and pines, offering big views of three-thousand-foot granite cliffs on both sides of the trail. The cliff tops faded into a gauzy haze from the smoke being drawn up the canyon by rising hot air.
We got on the Bubbs Creek trail and began a stiff climb. The sun beat down on me through the oaks. Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed around my face. The smoke tickled my lungs. Things could only get better.
Once we got above 6,000 feet, the climb let up and the forests became denser.
The granite cliffs were still there, but now their distant pinnacles moved slowly above treetops as we walked.
In the early afternoon, we saw some good-looking campsites below Junction Meadow, but Elizabeth and I were feeling good, so we continued to Lower Vidette Meadow, two miles away and 1,000 feet higher.
We climbed farther up Bubbs Creek, the trees becoming more sparse and the scenery more alpine. The landscape was lit by a faint orange glow as the sun sank in the smoky sky.
We got to Lower Vidette Meadow at sunset. The campsite itself was idyllic, set under a grove of pines beside a broad meadow. A clear stream ran by the site and a short walk into the meadow revealed views of 12,000-foot peaks in all directions.
We had outdone ourselves hiking in, and now, 14 miles and 4,500 feet of climbing later, our joints and heads were aching. We made a quick dinner and tried to get comfortable, but our camp was cold, dark, and lonely.
Three more days. I was already tired and homesick.
Sitting in the dark, we noticed a raging campfire across the meadow with a raucous group of people around it. Although we both wanted to go to sleep, I convinced Elizabeth to come with me to say hello.
It turned out the people at the other campsite were part of a trail crew working on a nearby section of the John Muir Trail. They’d been living and working in the wilderness for 5 months, getting resupplied by pack mules once a week. Their only contacts with civilization were weekly letters and an occasional copy of the Fresno Bee. Their weekend had just started.
We sat at the fire and talked with them until we were about to leave for our camp, at which point they invited us to stay with them. We happily accepted.
We fell asleep to the sounds of talking and laughing as the fire’s light flickered on our tent.
Saturday: Lower Vidette Meadow to Middle Rae Lake
7 miles. 2,500 feet up, 1,400 feet down.
The night was mild, with the temperature only getting down to 46. By sunrise the smoke from the previous evening had cleared completely. It seemed to be following a pattern, being drawn up into the mountains by warm, ascending air during the day and blown out by cold, descending air during the night. The smoke made a formerly invisible cycle visible; it let us see the mountains breathing.
Since we’d made it as far as Lower Vidette Meadow on Friday, we had a mere seven miles to the Rae Lakes today. All we had to do was hike over 11,798-foot Glen Pass. With an early start, we’d probably be able to cruise into camp after lunch, right?
Climbing toward Charlotte and Bullfrog lakes, the view was exceptional. The morning air was smoke-free, and the pyramidal silver mountains that surrounded us were unobscured by distance.
The vegetation disappeared as the trail climbed, leaving us surrounded only by granite and ice. The gullies in the mountains were choked with snow and enormous boulders. The lakes were dark and lifeless.
Tired, we stopped for a rest. Some passing hikers pointed out the pass to us: a tiny notch high on a huge wall of granite; we couldn’t believe how much farther and higher it was.
We made one last push to the pass and, surprisingly, got there in twenty minutes. It turned out that the unusual landscape and the thin air had made it look much farther than it really was. Now we were at the high point of the loop, and only a long, gradual descent back to Road’s End remained.
The Rae Lakes Loop has two halves, at least in terms of effort: a short, steep half on Bubbs Creek, and a long, moderate half on the Kings River South Fork and Woods Creek. Choosing clockwise or counterclockwise only changes which half you do first. Personally, I prefer steep climbs to steep descents, so I’m glad we did it counterclockwise.
We got to the top at 2:45. So much for getting to camp by lunchtime. By then the smoke had filled the air in the higher elevations, and the mountains we had seen so clearly in the morning had faded into the haze. Below us, to the north, were the Rae Lakes, the day’s goal.
Despite being at least a day’s walk from any road, the Rae Lakes are one of the most popular destinations in the Sierra Nevada, and on Saturday—a fine evening, in the middle of a three-day weekend, at the end of summer—hikers had converged there from all points east and west. Nevertheless, Elizabeth and I found an excellent campsite, right next to Middle Rae Lake and with a view of Fin Dome.
As we prepared dinner, a couple we’d seen on the way down from Glen Pass stopped by our camp. They were Jen and Greg, and they were on the same trip we were on. They sat with us while we ate, telling us about their hike and the bear they’d seen on Bubbs Creek. After our dinner, we went to their campsite, where we talked some more and split a bar of chocolate.
The sun set and the stars came out. A few lingering wisps of smoke blew east over the mountain tops and then disappeared. The mountains were exhaling, the cold air in the high elevations following the courses of rivers and streams down into the canyons, taking with it the smoke from the afternoon. At 10,600 feet, the lake was so still that we could see individual stars reflected in it. The granite was illuminated by the light of the Milky Way. The temperature fell to 26 degrees.
Sunday: Middle Rae Lake to Upper Paradise Valley.
14 miles. 3,600 feet down.
We woke up at sunrise to frost on our tent, backpacks, and sleeping bags.
The smoke was gone again and the sky was a clear, deep blue. Even after sunrise, the temperature still hovered below freezing. We hiked with our jackets and gloves on, crunching the frozen trail, getting chilled in the shade and warmed in the sun.
Our hiking was quick and easy, passing by Fin Dome, Arrowhead Lake, and Dollar Lake, as we gradually lost elevation on the way to Woods Creek Canyon.
We walked through a grove of short trees with massive trunks growing from a stark, rocky landscape. They were southern foxtail pines (Pinus balfouriana subsp. austrina)—a subspecies found only in remote parts of the southern Sierra Nevada, and relatives of the foxtail pines we’d seen in the Trinity Alps two weeks earlier (subsp. balfouriana).
It was warm and the sunlight reflecting off the granite cliffs made it feel warmer. The sky was hazy from the smoke that had begun to blow uphill. Elizabeth and I had made good progress, so, below Castle Domes, we rewarded ourselves with a break. We took off our shoes and lay down in the shade of a juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) to eat and drink.
An hour later, our energy was renewed and we continued hiking. We lost more elevation and the forest closed in. Around us were red fir (Abies magnifica), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), and juniper, the latter filling the air with its pungent scent.
Hiking down Woods Creek Canyon, we would pass hikers going up. Panting, their foreheads and shirts covered in sweat, they would ask us how far to the John Muir Trail, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them they still had hours of climbing to do. Instead I just pointed them in the general direction.
As we approached Paradise Valley, the smoke was so thick that only the silhouettes of the canyon walls were visible.
The bottomlands at the intersection of Woods Creek and the Kings River South Fork were home to an ancient forest of dense ferns and immense trees. The sun had set over the canyon walls and we walked through a dark, quiet, prehistoric forest of sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana), ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), and incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens).
Sunday’s hike felt longer than it was, and we were relieved to cross the bridge into Upper Paradise Valley. The campground was full, but we found Jen and Greg and set up camp next to them. We all had dinner together, sharing hiking stories around a small campfire.
We were 3,600 feet lower than we had been the night before at Rae Lakes. Gone were the granite landscape, the wide-open sky, and the bracing air. The sun set; the thick canopy of trees and the steep canyon walls made the darkness complete.
Monday: Upper Paradise Valley to Road’s End.
11 miles. 1,800 feet down.
The temperature never dropped below 46. Elizabeth and I woke up at dawn and packed our bags. We wanted to get some miles in before the heat and smoke arrived. Jen and Greg were waking up as we were about to leave; we said our goodbyes and set off down the trail.
Deep in the canyon, the sun didn’t rise until 10, and neither did the temperature. The forests were cool and silent. We didn’t see any hikers (or bears) for hours, although we kept expecting both. The smoke hadn’t started coming up the canyons yet and the views were clear and crisp.
Halfway down, we saw the Bubbs and South Fork junction—the place where we’d started the loop—for the first time in three days.
By 11, the air that had been warming in Kings Canyon started flowing uphill. It carried an enormous cloud of smoke that filled the entire Bubbs and South Fork junction. The mountains were inhaling, drawing up whatever the air in the lower elevations contained.
The smoke billowed toward us, thicker than ever before. Within minutes, the cliffs vanished and the sun turned faint and orange. The air burned our nostrils. I was worried enough that I asked some dayhikers if the fire had gotten out of control. Everything was OK, they said; they’d driven through it this morning.
We returned to Road’s End in a fog of yellow smoke. The hazy sun beat down on us and we were hot and tired. Ashes fell from the sky like snow flurries. The hike was starting to feel hellish.
By the time Elizabeth and I got to our car, we were happy to leave the smoke behind. But we were surprised to find ourselves a little sad to leave the wilderness and the people we’d met there. It was the longest hike we’d ever done, and we’d accomplished it just as we’d planned.
 The fire didn’t go out until October 25.