Want special access to some of the most beautiful lakes in the Sierra Nevada? Grab your backpack and lace up your hiking boots for a multi-night journey on Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon. On the agenda: spiky granite peaks, rivers and lakes for refreshing swims, high mountain passes, and starry nights. This popular backpacking trip traverses parts of the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Get a permit (by reservation or walk-up) and start from “Roads End” in Kings Canyon. The switchbacks amid aspens and cottonwoods are a solid challenge as you head up to Mist Falls through Paradise Valley. The South Fork of the Kings River parallels the trail, so take splash-water-on-your-face breaks.
Camp the first night at Middle Paradise Valley; it has a nice beach and several campsites. The photogenic payoff of the trip (Rae Lakes) is still 13.5 miles from here. Hike to it in one day (or spend your second night at Woods Creek for a more leisurely pace). You’ll make your way through the ponderosa pines of Upper Paradise Valley, the avalanche-formed Castle Dome Meadow, and plenty more cottonwoods and aspens. Now it’s time to join the famed John Muir Trail through the granite high country of Rae Lakes. At 10,538 feet, you’ll feel the elevation and the elation! Sky-blue lakes with granite islands sparkle in the craggy High Sierra basin. Not in a hurry? Spend a couple of nights up in this beautiful area (the potential buzz kill: mosquitoes).
Leaving Rae Lakes and heading up the grueling talus switchbacks to Glen Pass (11,978 elevation) is a thigh-burning sweat inducer, but the views are banner: The Great Western Divide opens to north and south in granite and snowy-peaked splendor. Spend the last night on the trail in Junction Meadow along Bubbs Creek with campsites among the lodgepole pines and red firs. It’s 10.5 miles back to Roads End. Loop of a lifetime!
The entire Rae Lakes Loop is 41.4 miles long and climbs 5,035 feet. Consider camping the night before in Cedar Grove. Get reservation information here. The South Fork Kings River Bridge above Paradise Valley washed out during the winter of 2016-2017. Construction of a replacement bridge will not begin before 2019. The entire route is usually free of snow from mid June to mid September, but weather can come in at any time. No dogs.