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  • Writer's pictureBridget Houchins

Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop

As a kid I grew up camping in the Eastern Sierra with my dad, which is a tradition I continued with my husband Tim and our best friends as an adult. Tim and I had also spent the last nine years getting into backpacking, so it was a no brainer when a few coworkers asked if we wanted to go on a five day trek of the Rae Lakes Loop in the Sierra. For an area I have spent so much time exploring, it was surprising to most that the Sierra always consisted of a mountain range towering up over our campsite and never a place I had ventured deep into much by foot. I had done plenty of short day hikes and long drives along the 395, yet the deep Sierra rivers and lakes were mostly just something I had seen in photos and described by Pacific Crest Trail hikers I have followed over the years. Why did it feel like I was hiking everywhere but here? After being invited by coworkers who already had permits secured, there were no more excuses to make.

It started with around seven of us who were experienced backpackers, but quickly over the months of planning people started to drop off for various reasons. By the time we were ready to hit the 395 we were down to five, with one dropping off the day of due to issues with the high altitude. We started our journey with a night at the Onion Valley Campground outside of Independence, California so we could relax by campfire and hit the trail early-ish the next morning.

Day one we hiked up Kearsarge Pass, battling the altitude with each step, peering up over the rocky pass to see endless glimmering lakes. From here we hiked down along a few of the lakes, rolling down into canyons with the sky growing dark and the clouds briefly sprinkling rain. After about ten miles of hiking for the day, we camped next to a river under dark pine trees and a beautiful neon pink sunset.

Day two we continued hiking down canyons for most of the day, nervously wondering when we would go back up. I have a joke that I am cursed for seeing bears. Even if bears are roaming through camp I always miss them. I spent time in Tahoe, no bears. I backpacked in Colorado, no bears. Finally, here on the Rae Lakes Loop, we turn a corner right into a mom and baby bear. This sounds like a bad situation, but we gave them space and it was instantly clear through their body language that they wanted nothing to do with us. The mom nonchalantly took her time moving off trail, coming back to nudge baby to move on as well. The baby was standing on its hind legs trying to get a good look at us. It was cautious but mostly curious, as if it had never seen humans before. Seeing that baby black bear on its hind legs was one of the cutest things I've seen in my life, and was definitely a highlight of the entire trip.

iPhone Photo by Scott Allison

The views this day were incredible, reminding me of Yosemite Valley. Which makes sense seeing Yosemite is in the same mountain range, and we could technically even walk there if we went 140 miles north while intersecting the Pacific Crest Trail. Parts of the Rae Lake Loop join the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail. We took a quick lunch break at a river before ascending up never ending trail consisting of steep rocky steps. Eventually winding through dark forest once again until setting up camp, ready to sleep before sundown after a seventeen mile day.

Day three seemed easy enough, especially for being only a nine mile day, but I was slowed by downed trees, never ending steep rock stairs, and wet feet after a river crossing. My backpack was also still very heavy with food. Our camp spot was beautiful, next to a suspension bridge over a river, with little trickling streams, wildflowers, and walls of granite towering over us turning colors in golden hour.

Day four was a short day. We decided to walk under six miles to spend a half-day relaxing at the Rae Lakes. Again we were slowed by downed trees, rocky terrain, and creek crossings, but the scenery became unbelievable. Deer crossed the trail into sunny meadows, small trout swam along lakeside as we walked the trail, lakes sparkled, and mountains stood majestic over every turn in the trail. I worked hard to make it to such a serene and secluded space, and it felt like a privilege to do so. We spent the extra time we had eating extra food, rinsing dirty clothes in the lake, basking in the sunlight, and for some - swimming in the ice cold lake water.

Day five, our final day on trail. The three B's were in our future: bathroom, burgers, and beer. Our group split up since two were trying to make it back to San Diego by a decent hour. They left before sunrise, while Tim and I left not long after sunrise. We were staying in Mammoth that night so we didn't have as far to go once finishing the hike. It took us probably over an hour to walk the first mile. It was so beautiful we couldn't help but stop every few feet to take pictures, poke at dangling icicles over creek water, watch trout, and smell flowers. We passed a secluded off-the-grid ranger's cabin hidden in the trees, with smoke coming out of its chimney. It was cold, so not only did we wish to be inside the cabin by the fire, but we wished we could live there and adventure forever.

We crossed a creek then started making our ascent to Glen Pass up more steep rocky staircases of trail. We were told it was hard hike, weather conditions (such as wind) could be harsh, and that there was a possibly sketchy snow field to pass through at the top. We expected the worst and just took it slow, which usually makes things feel a bit easier than expected. The altitude was getting to us towards the top of the pass but besides that we were doing fine. We were taking it slow so we wouldn't get dizzy and to just enjoy the view. The snow patch was rock-hard slippery ice surrounded by jagged boulders on a steep mountainside. Hikers were bouldering down towards the bottom section of the snow to use a trail that had been mostly melted through the ice, then bouldering back up to the actual trail. Two people had warned us about the ice and told us to go that way. I was nervous and dizzy which was giving me anxiety, but I focused on one step at a time and blocked out everything else that I could. We made it to the top and I was anxious to make our way down, down to where the oxygen was. The weather was nice and cool but warm in the sun. It was feeling a bit hot coming down and I only had one sip of water left. We still had at least half of the day to go, and one more pass, back over Kearsarge and down to Onion Valley.

We were told of a trail to stay on that goes to Kearsarge Pass without losing much elevation, but we decided to skip it to take the long way and add a lot more elevation because we weren't sure if the shorter way had water to filter. This added to a long and tiring day, but the views coming down Kearsarge and seeing the mountains lit up by the golden hour sun kept every step exciting. I was also happy to not run out of water. After a fourteen mile day we made it to our car and then Mammoth, where we had a campsite at the RV park with a jacuzzi and enjoyed dinner at Mammoth Brewing. This might have been my first time seeing the magic of deep Sierra back country - being bitten by bugs, scratched and bruised and bloody from crawling over downed trees, walking miles with toes shriveled from crossing a river - but it will not be the last.

Find my adventures on Instagram at @realdesertgirlshit

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