Litetrail.com's own Jhaura Wachsman and I teamed up for a quick, last minute hike of the Rae Lakes Loop in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park over this last weekend.
I've been on a bit of a run of bad luck with trying to put together a successful late summer/fall kickoff trip, so when Jhaura posted that he was looking for a last minute partner, I jumped at the chance to finally break my streak.
This is the second time Jhaura and I have teamed up for a hike this year, the first time being a quick 47-mile overnight loop through the Sespe Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest over the winter. While our philosophies on gear choices differ (him being more inclined to SUL, I'm more inclined to UL/LW + photo gear), our speed and endurance is pretty well matched, so we can hang together and knock out the miles.
With that, we took off from Ojai, CA early Friday morning and arrived at the Wilderness Permit office about 11:00 a.m. Friday was the last day of the year to register with the NPS for backcountry permits (starting Saturday it went to self-register), but surprisingly many of the walk-up permits were taken. We got lucky still and scored a walk-up permit for a clockwise loop. We were on the trail by noon.
Jhaura has a well thought out kit. It's light (base weight of just over 6lbs for this trip), durable/dependable and it includes a lot of "luxuries" that might be stripped out of other "SUL" kits. For instance, he carries a Golite umbrella both for sun and rain protection in addition to a basic ball cap and dri ducks jacket.
We made quick time down the initial couple miles of trail through Zumwalt Meadows and took a left at the junction of Paradise Valley and the Bubbs Creek Valley to begin following the South Fork of the Kings River upstream.
Conditions were surprisingly warm at the lower elevations (~5,000'); easily in the 80s and mostly sunny without much breeze. It was not the conditions I typically encounter in the Sierra in the fall. We each carried 1 liter of water and had to make numerous stops along the way to refill and stay hydrated as we steadily gained elevation. Bandanas soaked in the creek made for nice, cool neck shades.
Water levels throughout the hike were low... by Sierra standards. Compared to my local stomping grounds in the southern Los Padres NF (where just the weekend before I had to abort a trip and hike out in the cool, dark of night due to the "perennial" creek I was to follow having run dry), it still seemed like a lush oasis.
As we continued up Paradise Valley and got out of the trees for a moment, the views improved dramatically. This is looking back down Paradise Valley.
It wasn't too long before we had our first of several bear encounters along the South Fork. I couldn't get to the camera fast enough to grab a shot, but the bears seem to be actively working the lower elevation sections of Paradise Valley looking for berries and what not in the lush, green canyon bottoms.
Fall colors are starting to show, especially as we climbed higher in elevation. The willows and alders are beginning to go gold.
Jhaura accidentally left his Aquamira drops at home, so we relied on my Sawyer Squeeze and a 2L Evernew bladder for all of our water filtering needs. For a water scoop, we used the smallest of the squeeze bags that came with the Sawyer filter, of which I had cut off the top spout to make a nice, small and light scooper. Both the filter and scoop worked great and did not show any signs of slowing over the course of the trip.
By late afternoon we crossed the South Fork Kings and began following Woods Creek toward the JMT junction.
And stopped for dinner somewhere along Woods Creek below Castle Domes Meadow. Jhaura was using the new Lite Trail titanium solid fuel stove kit for all of his cooking needs. He's been fine tuning his kit for the last few years and really has this system dialed. He's quick, efficient and keeps everything simple and organized. One esbit cube was more than enough fuel to heat water for a soup, main course and hot tea or cocoa.
I even made it into a photo or two! You can see my cook kit in the background (600ml pot, Caldera Sidewinder in esbit mode). The caldera system is so efficient, had I eaten more hot meals on this trip, I think I could have done all four of my "cooked" meals (2 breakfasts, 2 dinners) with one cube.
The joys of going light!
You can see another cool little piece of Jhaura's kit; a couple of small cuben shoulder pockets with waterproof zippers attached to the shoulder straps of his pack. He used these to carry his iphone (navigation and camera), repair/first aid kit, etc. They seemed like a handy little idea.
You'll also notice... no waist belt on his pack. For the lighter loads he typically carries, he finds them unecessary.
We hiked another mile or two into twilight before setting up camp in Castle Domes Meadow just in time for a dramatic sunset.
We woke up early the next morning to catch the sunrise over the peaks that ring the meadow. We both knocked down our shelters early to be able to enjoy the full granduer of the area.
Breakfast in bed. Jhaura's sleep system was made up of a Katabatic 22* quilt, NeoAir Xlite (small) and 1/8" GG thinlight pad. My kit was similar: 32* Katabatic quilt, original NeoAir (medium) and 1/4" GG thinlight pad. Both of us were more than warm enough overnight.
Climbing from Castle Domes toward the JMT junction the trail passes over an open granite slab dotted with a couple of gnarled old Foxtail Pines. We stopped for a moment to pay tribute.
We reached the JMT junction at the great swing bridge over Woods Creek just in time to run into a couple of late season JMT thru-hikers, a young guy from the Carribean by way of San Luis Obispo, CA and another from Portland, OR. We ended up hiking with them off and on to Rae Lakes and lunched with them there before heading our separate ways.
Saturday had a little bit of weather, providing some great lighting and clouds to add to the already overwhelming scenery.
Continuing on toward Dollar Lake. We stopped for a quick break at Dollar Lake and enjoyed the views with Fin Dome towering in the background.
We hit the trail again shortly thereafter and passed through some pretty meadows with a meandering creek and Arrowhead Lake on our way to Rae Lakes.
This whole area was amazing. We both wished we had an extra day in our itinerary that we could have spent around Rae Lakes. As it was, we had to settle for a lakeside lunch and nap before continuing on.
The climb up to Glen Pass (~12,000') really took it out of us. Having only been on the trail for just over 24 hours at this point, neither of us were acclimated to the thin air (we both live at sea level). Still, the scenery was amazing and it was easy to stop and enjoy the sights while climbing our way up to the high point of the loop hike.
The view back over the Rae Lakes from near the top of the pass.
Cresting the pass, the view to the south was equally impressive.
From the top of Glen Pass, the trail is all downhill back to the start. We needed to make some distance so that Sunday's hike would be short and quick. A break for some jellybeans while overlooking Charlotte Lake helped boost the morale.
Continuing downhill into the meadow near Bullfrog Lake and the junction with the trail to Kearsarge Pass in the warm afternoon light.
And continuing on toward Vidette Meadow. The amount of descent on this day was truly incredible. No matter how far we went, we just kept dropping and dropping.
A close-up view of Jhaura's clean, stripped down Exodus pack. This was its maiden voyage and it seemd like he was pleased with how it performed. Below it is my HMG Porter. I've used this pack for all of my trips this year and have been very pleased with it. Durable and comfortable. For this trip I added the HMG stuff pocket to the back of the pack, a couple of wand pockets (one for water bottle, one for a larger camera lens), a couple of Zpacks cuben hip belt pockets (one for snacks, one for camera equipment) and a Zpack multi-pack (for the rest of my camera equipment). It was a lot of extra pockets and buckles to fuss with but it made it easy to have everything handy and easily within reach while walking and shooting.
As we continued downhill, following Bubbs Creek toward Junction Meadow, the sun started to sink low in the sky and shine straight up the canyon.
We hiked on into dusk and watched the moon rise over the peaks that separate the East Lake drainage from the Vidette Meadows area.
I was beat from the long day, ate a couple of pieces of salami and some chocolate and hit the sack. I didn't even bother with a proper dinner. Jhaura took the time to cook up a meal, but wasn't too far behind in getting camp set up and getting to bed.
Sunday dawned sorta' gray and we were a bit slow to get up and get going. Here you can see Jhaura's Gatewood Cape shelter. He doesn't carry trekking poles or a shelter pole and instead relies on finding a nearby stick to prop up his shelter. I was too lazy to get up so I shot this from my quilt under my Spinntwinn tarp.
We spent a bit of time lounging around camp and down along the creek before getting moving again.
Jhaura's stove brewing up another mug of hot water for breakfast.
In addition to our multiple bear sightings, we also ran into a lot of deer. They must not know it's deer hunting season in CA... Or, on second thought, maybe they do know and that's why they're all in the National Park where they're protected.
This morning we seemed to have been set up amidst a busy deer grazing area. Numerous deer wandered through camp while several large bucks raced back and forth through the woods behind, crashing through the brush.
Sunday's walk out went quick and pleasant. The trail mostly stays in the trees and is shady and cool. Occasional openings between the trees afforded views of the surrounding granite peaks.
Before we knew it, we had reached the final set of switchbacks back down to the confluence of Bubbs Creek and the South Fork Kings River.
We stopped for a swim at the trail junction to wash off the dirt and stink of the last couple of days before knocking out the last couple of miles back to the car.
We arrived back at the trailhead, 46 miles and 49 hours after we started. Feeling good and having thoroughly enjoyed our walk.
All in all, this trip was a success. My kit worked well and I felt good despite our somewhat hurried pace. I think Jhaura was similarly pleased with his setup and the trip. Finally, after three tries this year, I have a successful fall kickoff trip under my belt! One more trip to come in a couple of weeks... fingers crossed...
EDIT: fixed to note BG's correction about the tree in image 19. It's likely a Foxtail rather than Bristlecone, Pine.