Rae Lakes loop is a scenic Sierra multiday loop and truly a backpacking trip that has it all. Stunning lake basins, rushing waterfalls, and splendidly carved canyons envelop your being for the three to six days necessary to complete the circuit in Kings Canyon National Park. The mountainscapes encountered here will entice you to begin scheduling your John Muir Trail permit and scouring the High Sierra maps for your next multiday excurions. For these reasons and more, the parking lot at Road’s End in King’s Canyon is large enough to accommodate a small amusement park. The loop is one of the most popular in the Sierra, often requiring permits to be reserved in advance. Odds for the greatest solitude are best if you schedule your trip for midweek or wait until autumn. And don't forget that a bear canister is required for this trip.
The loop can also be completed from the east side of the range using the Onion Valley Trailhead, but the majority of backpackers will begin at Road’s End, which also affords the opportunity to drive the incredible Kings Canyon Highway/180.
Although hikable in either direction, looping north to south affords a more gradual elevation change. The trip starts with just more than a mile along the dry soils of the valley floor, but it quickly changes once you enter the lush scenery that approaches Mist Falls. This area, due to the water and shade of the canyon wall, remains shrouded and damp year round. Once past Mist Falls the trail ascends into lower Paradise Valley, where the first campsites are found. This area would be an ideal first night for the late starter or a traveler more inclined to leisurely days.
The weaving rise into Upper Paradise provides a more expanded view as steep canyon walls give way to glimpses of the approaching alpine terrain. Upper Paradise is where most hikers choose to spend the first night. There is an incredible private creekside campsite tucked away about 100 yards past the main sites.
The suspension bridge crossing and junction with the JMT signals the ascent through Upper Woods Creek to Dollar Lake. The grade is perfectly pitched to take in the golden valley walls and stunning foxtail pines without stumbling or missing a step. It’s easy on this portion of trail to plan for your JMT hike or next adventure without a missed step or errant stride.
The glimpse of Fin Dome is your signal that the final ridge to the Rae Lakes Basin has been cleared. Perfect campsites surround the three lakes in the basin, and the trail to the alpine Sixty Lake Basin leaves from the eastern shores. Take your time at this incredible destination. Breathe deep, be rejuvenated by where you are, what you’ve accomplished, and all that lies ahead. Glen Pass is up next!
On this meticulously maintained, gradually climbing loop, Glen Pass is the lone major steep obstacle. Yet even on the 2,000-foot ascent, switchbacks are smooth and the trail is not overly abusive. The climb reveals the ridges of the Great Western Divide, among other alpine basins and 13,000-foot peaks. Descend past Charlotte Lake and descent into Bubbs Creek, clearly marked with a quick left at the Charlotte Lake junction.
The descent to Vidette Meadow is an unexpected highlight of this trip, winding along the headwaters of Bubbs Creek with tantalizing views into a myriad of alpine valleys and the High Sierra Crest. Bid farewell to the JMT at Vidette Meadow and turn west for the descent of Bubbs Creek and, for most, the final night of camping. Watching the alpenglow creep across the spires above this valley will make both the casual packer and wilderness expert rethink ending their trip the next day.
The remaining 12 miles from Upper Bubbs to Road’s End is, once again, mostly perfectly graded trail with only one section of switchbacks to navigate. The Sphinx is your backdrop as you follow the rushing water to your destination. At the valley floor and junction of Bubbs and Woods creek various streams braid together to form the headwaters of Kings River. Take your time and make noise in this area to avoid startling any local bear. It's not a surprise party!
Upon departing the area by car, you'll see Kings Canyon Lodge just after Highway 180 leaves the curves of Kings Canyon proper, and this is an excellent stop to have a beverage and snack before the journey home.