Backpacking the 42 Mile Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon – Full Guide
A few years ago, I rallied my brother into backpacking Rae Lakes Loop with me. He didn’t train correctly, and two days in, he was clearly miserable. Instead of tormenting him for another 3 days and what would turn out to be a very intense and steep few days, I decided that we should turn around and head home maybe a mile before the junction with the John Muir Trail at Bubbs Creek.
I had taken time off work, I was still in my digital marketing 9-5 job back then, and I was so upset with him, I decided to channel my anger in a productive way and finally launch this blog! I was sitting on it for maybe 6 months waiting to do it out of fear. Now I look back and think what was the big deal, should have started sooner. But at least now there’s a fun story with Rae Lakes Loop and Limitless Hiker.
After many years of trying to go back and finish this backpacking trip and life getting in the way, I finally went back and did it. Six months after I was on crutches and in a knee brace with my injury. That’s what correct training will do for ya. Added bonus, it was steep, but I made it down without any knee pain!
But this hike is seriously one of my favorites. I can’t even put words to how beautiful it was from the peaks to the lakes. It was worth all 42 miles of hiking.
Where is Rae Lakes Loop
Rae Lakes Loop starts at Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park and then looks around through Bubbs Creek to the John Muir Trail, then to Woods Creek and back to Roads End. Or you can do it vice versa.
It’s argued that Rae Lakes Loop has some of the most stunning views in California. I’ve hiked through a good part of this state, and honestly, I’d have to agree.
Getting Rae Lakes Loop Permits
Getting Rae Lakes Loop permits can be a challenge… so most people say. Personally, I’ve never had an issue with getting a Rae Lakes Loop permit.
That’s one of the differences between a Nervous Hiker and a Limitless Hiker. Aside from being unprepared (like my brother was on my first trip), a Nervous Hiker can’t get a permit… they just throw their hands up, give up, say it’s too hard, and use that as an excuse not to do the trails they want to.
Vs a Limitless Hiker, knows how to work the permit system to ensure they get a permit, no matter how popular of a trail that is. That’s part of being prepared, is understanding if you even need permits and if you do, how do you get them.
Let’s break down how to get permits for Rae Lakes Loop so you can be a Limitless Hiker.
There are two ways to get them, in advance through Recreation.gov or as a walk up on the day you’re hoping to start hiking.
Most people, myself included, prefer getting permits in advance. If you’re like most, you like having the time to plan, you need to request time off work, etc.
Through Recreation.gov, look up “Sequoia and Kings Canyon Wilderness Permits” (or click here). You’re going to click “Explore Available Permits” and then add in your date and how many people are joining you.
The way it works for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park wilderness permits is you get permits for the starting trailhead.
For Rae Lakes Loop, you’re going to be getting either a Bubbs Creek or a Woods Creek permit.
Woods Creek goes clockwise and Bubbs Creek goes counterclockwise. Clockwise it’s a more mellow uphill and it’s a steeper downhill. Counterclockwise, it’s steeper uphill, but it’s more mellow downhill.
I did it counterclockwise, which originally I picked to protect my knees. But since getting the permits, I’ve learned that the best way to protect your knees, is now how steep the trail is or KT tape, is how you train.
Oftentimes our knee pain and injuries happen because your legs and glutes are undeveloped and not strong enough to handle what we want our bodies to do. Which is why training correctly and especially doing the right kind of strength training makes all of the difference. Which is why I was able to finish 42 miles with a pack that was a bit heavier than 40lbs (I carry 7lbs of camera gear on me on every trip) without even a bit of knee pain. Just 6 months after being on crutches.
Even knees aside, I still recommend going counterclockwise because you get the miserable uphill over with much faster so you can just coast downhill.
At the end of the day, get whichever permit you get. It’s a popular trail, so if you get Woods Creek, take it. If you get Bubbs Creek, take it also.
Sample Backpacking Itineraries
Here are a couple of sample backpacking itineraries for Rae Lakes Loop. Now these are going to be counter clockwise, but you can use them even if you do this trail clockwise.
Rae Lakes Loop in 3 Days
Roads End to the base of Glen Pass (17 Miles)
Glen Pass to Woods Creek Junction (10 Miles)
Woods Creek Junction to Roads End (15 Miles)
Rae Lakes Loop in 4 Days
Roads End to Vidette Meadow (11 miles)
Vidette Meadow to Rae Lakes (8 miles)
Rae Lakes to Upper Paradise (13 miles)
Upper Paradise to Roads End (10 miles)
Rae Lakes Loop in 5 Days
Roads End to Junction Meadow (9 Miles)
Junction Meadow to the base of Glen Pass (7.5 Miles)
The base of Glen Pass to Dollar Lake (6 Miles)
Dollar Lake to Upper Paradise (9.5 Miles)
Upper Paradise to Roads End (10 Miles)
Overall Tips For Hiking Rae Lakes Loop
#1: Start Early
The days will be long and hard, and there are a lot of exposed sections. The summer months can be hot, especially when you’re lugging gear up, and at altitude. My best advice is to start early. By that I mean, start hiking at sunrise, or even before. Especially if you know that you’re heading on a section that will be an exposed and long one.
#2: Be Prepare for Storms
Both times I’ve done this trail, it’s rained on me. This last time when I actually finished, it rained almost daily. Thunderstorms are normal in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the summer months, especially in July. The clouds get too heavy to pass the mountains, so it rains. Make sure you’re prepared for that. Bring a rain jacket and pack cover. Rain paints and water proof shoes are not necessary unless the weather shows it will be raining non-stop. It usually rains in the afternoon and clears up by evening when you need to set up camp.
#3: Bring Bear Canisters
Some of the camping spots have bear lockers, which makes it’s a lot easier, but bear canisters are required in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I know they suck, but bring them anyways.
#4: Train, Train and Train Some More
This is not an easy hike. Even with all of the training I did beforehand, I still had more to improve on. You’re going uphill for days on end, with a heavy pack, make sure you’re training. Here’s my blog with more training tips.
#5: Stretch Daily
I didn’t focus enough on this every day, until the last few days when I was really sore. I cannot recommend spending time during lunch breaks, in the morning while you’re making breakfast, and in the evenings while you’re waiting for dinner to stretch. You’re going to feel better and your body will perform better.
Trail and Trip Breakdown Going Counterclockwise
Now let’s dive into the actual trail report so you get an idea of what to expect on the trail itself.
Day 1 – Roads End to Junction Meadow via Bubbs Creek
I drove in the night before and slept in the parking lot at the trailhead in my car. This way I’m already there for morning and I’ve spent a night at altitude, which coming from sea level is very important.
From there, woke up, had breakfast, packed up, picked up my permit at the ranger station and started hiking.
The first two miles of the trail are flat. You’ll see backpackers there, and people who are not hikers just enjoying the national park. In the beginning, these two miles fly by, on your way back to the car… fair warning… they will be miserable and you’ll be asking yourself “are we there yet?”
Two miles in, you’ll come to a junction. You’ll head to the left if you’re going clockwise, and you’ll head to the right to go counterclockwise. I went counterclockwise, so this blog will be detailing that version of the trail. Either way, you’ll encounter the same thing.
After that, you’re going to cross a bridge, and the trail will continue to be mellow.
There is a bridge that blew out a few years ago, so if it’s a high snow year and there’s a lot of water, your first major water crossings might be around 3 miles in. If not, just cross on the rocks. When I went, it was a very low snow year in 2021, so we just crossed.
From there, the trail starts to climb up and doesn’t stop until after Glen Pass. You’re going to start with a series of switchbacks.There also isn’t much water here, so make sure to fill up before you leave the car.
The trail is easy to follow, so just keep going up.
You’ll pass a couple campgrounds along the way for weekend backpackers. Part of this section is exposed, but for the most part, you’ll be in and out of trees throughout. Be aware though, the sections with a lot of vegetation and ferns, you’ll encounter a lot of mosquitos.
There are plenty of flat spots to camp along this section. You’re also going to see rad mountain views along the way.
Now, I know the post says we camped at Junction Meadow, but we really were around half a mile to a mile away from Junction Meadow itself. There is nowhere to camp at Junction. Vs before, there are flat spots with a bear locker and easy access to water. I recommend stopping there.
That afternoon, it rained on us, we got drenched and it stopped right in time to dry everything out before setting up camp. That night we also met two amazing ladies hiking it solo and camped with them. The four of us had a little women’s party that night before heading to bed by “hikers midnight” which is really when the sun sets.
Day 2 – Junction to Bottom of Glen Pass
Alright, made it to day two!
Filter up some water, make breakfast, and I recommend getting out of camp pretty early. This was a long and brutal day. Honestly probably the hardest and longest of the trip. Most of the day was all uphill and there were a lot of exposed sections.
We were supposed to make it over Glen Pass and to Rae Lakes, but we were so beat, we decided to stop below the pass and get over in the morning.
Make sure to know the signs of altitude sickness and heat exhaustion. This way, if you start feeling them, you can respond quickly.
From camp, you keep going in and out of forests and through meadows. Make sure to follow Leave No Trace and stick to the trail in meadows.
Then the trail starts to climb further out of the canyon to where it meets the John Muir Trail. There is water all over this trail, I even went during a dry year in the Sierra’s and we didn’t need to hike long to get to water when I ran out.
Make sure to stop and look around, the views during this day are mind blowing. We stopped for lunch along the switchbacks on the JMT and somehow I managed to rip my pants right down the middle in the back. I spent the rest of the trip with a hole on my butt. I say on pine needles and it seems that they must have ripped my pants.
If you’re looking for other campgrounds, there is one right before the John Muir Trail junction, right before the junction for bull frog lake, and there is dry camping past the switchbacks. There are also several places to camp along the way up to Glen Pass.
That night we dry camped, meaning we didn’t have access to water. But we planned for it, filtered enough beforehand, and then were able to make it to a lake on Glen Pass.
Day 3 – Before Glen Pass to Dollar Lake
We woke up at 4:30am to start hiking by 5:30am and this was the right call. We wanted to make it up and over the pass before the heat of the day started, and we also didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a storm at the top.
Fun fact, you should be off high mountain passes and peaks by 11am to 1pm because summer thunderstorms are common.
Make sure to stop and filter water at one of the lakes on the way up to the pass. There are not very many options for water until you get to the lakes.
The view going up to the pass is stunning. You have views of the Eastern Sierra to the east, stunning lakes, stunning mountains, and when you’re up at the top, 360 degree views that stretch for miles.
Take a moment and think about how far you’ve come. I know it’s easy to forget, especially when you’re on day 3 of little sleep and pushing yourself. But when you get to the pass, think about how far your legs have carried you so far. Look back at where the trail is from. Our bodies are truly amazing.
Once at the top, we stopped for breakfast, enjoyed the views, I took photos and we headed down.
The scree and loose rocks on the way down sucks, and it feels like it keeps going and going. But finally, you’re rewarded with stunning views of Rae Lakes. Here’s a little tip for the best views… head closer to the Rae Lakes Ranger Station instead of being closer to the pass. The views get more and more stunning with every step there. If you’re camping, this is the place to camp. There are also bear lockers here.
From there, it’s pretty flat to Dollar Lake. There’s some uphill and downhill, the mosquitos were bad here because we were going through a meadow. Arrowhead Lake is also stunning with a lot of flat options and bear lockers.
For Dollar Lake, we camped right off the side of the trail. It wasn’t ideal, but it was pretty much the only spot to camp. Other areas were closed for restoration. We tried to get as close to the Woods Creek Junction as possible to make the next day easier and somewhere by water. So Dollar Lake fits the bill.
Day 4 – Dollar Lake to Upper Paradise
This day overall was nice and mellow. We got up and started hiking out. There was some uphill, but for the most part, it was a pretty mellow downhill day.
The bridge at the Woods Creek and John Muir Trail junction was a bit freaky. If you’re afraid of heights, well this one will be hard. I recommend to suck it up and get through it because the rest of the trail is stunning and unless you want to risk going through the river, this is the only way across.
The bridge is freaky because it’s metal and it sways as you walk on it. Just put your poles away, and hold onto the sides as you walk across. Don’t look down, keep your eye on the other side and move slowly. Only one person can cross at a time.
There were bugs, but they were not bad.
From there, just keep going down. There are some viewpoints, but for the most part, the stunning part was on the other side.
Once you get to Upper Paradise, the bridge to cross was destroyed a few years ago and there is no news on when they will rebuild it. We were told there is a log somewhere, but we couldn’t find it. I was also very tired and ready to get to camp.
I put on my Keen Whisper water shoes and just crossed. I also cannot recommend this enough.
First, you should bring water shoes with you, and they double as camp shoes so you can take your boots off and let your feet chill at night. Second, you don’t want to cross barefoot, what happens if you step on a rock and injure your foot?
And I like my water shoes because my toes are covered, so if needed, I can hike in them and I don’t risk stubbing my toe during a crossing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up hiking in my water shoes.
There are many places to camp and lots of flat areas at Upper Paradise. It was one of the more crowded places we camped, but it was the last night and we were getting up at 1am the next day, so it was perfect.
The next place to camp is Middle Paradise, but it’s more crowded because people who are looking for easy backpacking trips or folks with families will stop there.
Day 5 – Upper Paradise to Roads End
Here we are! Last day of Rae Lakes Loop. It’s a bit bittersweet. I was very much looking forward to a shower and real food. But at the same time, this whole trip was an amazing experience.
We got up at 1am to start hiking at 1:30am. We decided we needed to be back at the car in the morning hours because we both still had a 5 hour drive home.
I know it sounds crazy to start hiking at 1:30am, but hear me out. I actually almost like it better, especially on long days.
Yes, in theory it sounds nuts. But when you start that early, your body and mind don’t register what you’re doing. You’re just in go mode, which makes it easier to cover miles. You have just as much of a chance of seeing a bear at night as you do at dusk. True you can’t see as well, but that’s where headlamps come in.
Plus you get to see the Milky Way which is nuts! We stopped along the way and took photos.
I know there is also this belief that hiking at night is more dangerous… let me ask you this… how?
For the most part, the downhill was also mellow, and the last two miles, even though they’re flat where pure misery. By that point, my body hurts, my mind is losing it, and I’m ready for food and to sit down.