Hello from the Top! Tips for Hiking Rae Lakes
Last week Emily and I hiked the Rae Lakes Loop in Sequoia National Park. This trail has been heavily documented by others which was a huge boon to us when getting ready. Building on those great write-ups, I thought I’d share a few things we learned on our trip.
- Bring crampons, gaiters and poles if hiking before July.
- Hike the trail over five days to leave room for downtime.
- Hiking counter-clockwise is much tougher than clockwise. However if Glen Pass is covered in snow, a counter-clockwise ascent / descent can be easier.
- If hiking counter-clockwise, stay at Junction Pass the first night. The next section to Vidette Meadow entails a steep elevation gain.
- There is zero data or cellular network coverage inside the park.
- Fording deep streams is unavoidable. Camp shoes with traction are useful in keeping your boots dry.
- Carry no more than 1- 1.5 liters of water per person given abundant water sources.
- Don’t bring beans. They take forever to cook and eat up your fuel.
- You will need duct tape for something.
Planning the Trip
The Rae Lakes Loop is a 40–50 mile trail in Sequoia National Park and is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in California. Beginning at the Road’s End station trail head (5,000 ft), the hike loops through multiple climates on the way up to and down from Glen Pass (12,000 ft).
On your drive down Route 180, there are three identical campgrounds (Moraine, Sentinel, Sheep Creek) about twenty minutes from the trail head. The night before our hike, we stayed at Sentinel ($18 per night) closest to the Cedar Grove Visitors Center which offers limited supplies, maps, food, internet access and public showers.
There is a daily quota for the number of hikers that can leave from the Road’s End. Most of the quota is allocated to hikers who reserve months ahead and a limited number are issued on a first-come-first-serve basis. If you are not there to pick up your permit by 900am, your spot is released. Permits fill up quickly for the July — September months so call ahead to check on availability for your dates.
The next morning, we left the Sentinel campground and drove to the long-term lot at Road’s End. After some fiddling with packs, we picked up our permit at the ranger’s station. Given the time of year, we were the only ones at the station and no one was waiting for a last minute opening.
Most hikers head out in a clockwise direction as it is an easier ascent during the period with the heaviest pack. A clockwise direction involves a three day gradual ascent up Glen Pass and a one day descent. We chose to go counter-clockwise which meant a challenging first day hike to the Vidette Meadow campsite. I’d highly recommend stopping at Junction Meadow for the first night instead as the short leg from Junction to Vidette was a tough elevation gain.
When to go depends entirely on your appetite for snow and rock climbing. Through late June, the section from Charlotte Lake through Dollar Lake can be covered in deep snow including the steep ascent over Glen Pass. If there’s snow on the ground, tackle this section early in the morning to take advantage of the frozen surface.
During our hike through Glen Pass, the three switch back paths were completely hidden which meant hiking, rock climbing and scrambling directly up the summit. We found Glen Pass easier counter-clockwise given we were hiking up the steeper south face and down the more gentle north face. However without crampons, poles & gaiters, this section was still difficult and added a ton of time. We made it down to Rae Lake later than expected which was a tricky area to navigate in the low light.
We hiked the loop in four days stopping at Vidette Meadow, Rae Lakes and Middle Paradise Valley. With the added difficulty of snow, we arrived at camp around 600pm each night without much downtime. We could have completed the loop in three days by hiking from Rae Lake directly to Road’s End which would have made for a long (~25 miles) but descending hike. Regardless of conditions, four days can be a tight schedule. Most hikers choose to spend five days hiking the trail which leaves more time for swimming, fishing or exploring the lake region.
What To Bring
I carried a 65L bag with about 35 pounds of food and gear (full list below) while Emily carried a 50L bag. The weight was manageable and we used almost everything. Our tent poles snapped the first night but we fashioned a duct tape / tent spike splint that lasted the whole hike. Definitely add crampons, gaiters and poles to your pack if hiking before July.
We didn’t see a single bear which was a bit of a bummer given our indestructible bear canister. There were a few rattle snakes during the early, sandy sections but the major threat throughout were mosquitoes. Head nets are a dorky necessity in the Paradise Valley.
Full Gear List
(rating: green — great; yellow — OK; red — poor; grey — n/a)
(grey highlighted weights are estimated)