Location: Fresno County, CA
Established: March 4, 1940
Size: 461,901 acres
Annual visitors: 566,810 (2011)
Backcountry fee: $10 per permit
Times visited: 3
The most popular backpacking route in the park, and for good reason, is a 41-mile loop trail that takes hikers through lush meadows, past gorgeous alpine lakes, and over a nearly 12,000 foot pass: the Rae Lakes Loop.
The traditional and most popular start of the loop is from Road's End, coming into the park from Fresno on the western side of the Sierras. Trailhead quotas are in place, as well as limits on how many nights you can camp at certain designated campgrounds. There is also the option to access the loop from the east side of the range, via Kearsarge Pass, plus a number of one-way access points (often over challenging high passes.)
While my only approach to the area has been along the John Muir Trail, my husband has hiked the Rae Lakes Loop and adjoining areas on a couple different occasions.
After our time on the John Muir Trail, we were lucky enough to have time to loop around to the east side of Kings Canyon National Park and explore the car-accessible areas. We also did a day hike which took us along the the first section of trail that most Rae Lakes Loopers take, climbing towards Paradise Valley along the Kings River.
You know you're getting close when you reach Dollar Lake. We enjoyed a late lunch there but many hikers elect to camp there in the wide, sandy campsites. It's apparently rather famous for mosquitos, but we had few issues with them. Instead, we enjoyed some cool shade and the great view of Fin Dome in the distance.
I definitely regret only having the one night at Rae Lakes. Whether thru-hiking or loop-hiking, I highly recommend spending a layover day in the Rae Lakes Basin. As it was, we had to push on in order to meet my father-in-law with our next food drop.
The hardest section of the loop trail was next: the two-mile, switchbacking climb to the nearly 12,000 foot Glen Pass. The trail crosses an isthmus between Upper and Middle Rae Lakes and then starts a steady climb out of the tree line.
The trail continues it's descent, following alongside Bubbs Creek. You pass through Junction Meadow with great views of North Guard and Mt. Brewer.
The Rae Lakes Loop Trail is a wonderful way to get a taste of the Kings Canyon backcountry. While the trail is challenging at times, overall it is quite accessible and could be done at an easy pace by hikers of varying abilities. Perhaps the best part of the trail is the opportunity to travel through all the different climate zones of Kings Canyon, from the hot, low-elevation Kings Canyon through to the nealy 12,000-foot Glen Pass, surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks.
I hope you get a chance to take a week off from everyday life and jump off into the backcountry of Kings Canyon.