Kings Canyon, October 2013
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The Late Trip! Due to
scheduling difficulties, we were not able to go this year until the
first week in October. This meant no wildflowers, low streams,
and wicked cold nights. We were, however, blessed with crystal
clear skies and warm days.
The route I chose was partially on the Rae Lakes Loop, the most popular
backpacking loop in the Sierras. I figured if there were a time to
do this route, October was it. This proved to be a good
call: although we saw lots of JMT hikers during the day, we had a
lake to ourselves every night of the trip. This resulted in me
having to eat three hats.
1: Onion Valley to Flower Lake
We tried something
different this year: after driving up in the morning, we hiked in
just 2.5 miles for our first night. Both Alex and I thought this
worked well. We saved on a motel and began acclimating to the
altitude one night earlier.
We met around 2:30 at the Still Life Cafe in Independence, CA, then
drove up to the Onion Valley Trailhead to distribute food and
pack. We hit the trail around 4:00. The short hike up to
Flower Lake was pleasant in the evening light. We made camp and
finished dinner just as the sun was setting at 7:00.
Day 2: Flower Lake to Charlotte Lake
morning was chilly and
our side of the lake was in shadow, so we carried our breakfast around
to the north side to sit in the sun while we ate. The sun was so
powerful that we soon stripped down to our underwear and had to carry
mounds of clothing back around the lake when we were done eating.
We slowly packed up camp and set out up the trail at around
11:00. The climb to Kearsarge Pass
was fairly gentle and no real
problem, though we were puffing from the altitude. On the way,
the trail passes above beautiful, appropriately-named Heart Lake
likewise-named Big Pothole Lake
. We stopped for lunch at the pass.
While eating, we met Jan, a 65-year-old cancer survivor who was doing
the Loop one last time. He asked me to take a picture to prove to
his friends that he’d made it up. We were pretty impressed, and I
worried about him making it over the other passes on the Loop.
After lunch, we slipped down the west side of the pass and turned right
onto the high trail. This trail traverses across the north flank
of the Kearsarge Valley
, providing great views down onto the Kearsarge
and Bullfrog Lake
, before descending to the PCT/JMT
in a broad
meadow. We crossed the PCT/JMT
and climbed down a short, steep
hill to the shores of Charlotte Lake
, where we made camp for the
night. After dinner, the air became still and the lake reflected
a perfect sunset.
Day 3: Charlotte Lake to Sixty Lakes
After a chilly night, we packed up quickly and climbed back up the hill
to the PCT/JMT. Turning north, we followed the PCT/JMT up around
the shoulder of a mountain and into a high, rocky valley. There
were supposed to be two lakes in this valley, but nothing remained of
the lower of the two but a damp depression in the tallus. The
upper lake was full, though, and starkly beautiful. We passed to
the left of it and continued up endless switchbacks to the knife edge
of Glen Pass.
After eating lunch huddled away from the wind, we started down the
north side of Glen Pass. Almost immediately, the buckle on my
waist strap of my backpack broke. The waist strap is what holds
nearly all of the weight of the pack, and continuing without it
would’ve been impossible. Alex came to the rescue and produced
from the bowels of his pack an extra strap with which we were able to
cinch the buckle together. This remarkable kludge held up
beautifully the rest of the trip. It was a little awkward to don
and doff the pack, though -- I felt a little like a bride being sewn
into his wedding dress.
The north side of Glen Pass was another set of endless switchbacks
leading down to a plateau supporting a handful of beautiful greenish
blue lakes rimmed by brilliant white granite. From there, the
trail descended again to the shores of Upper Rae Lake, where we found
the junction to the Sixty Lakes Basin Trail. We also found two
guys dressed in head-to-toe cold-weather gear -- one entirely black,
the other entirely white. Good vs. Evil?
The trail climbed northwest away from the Rae Lakes. About
halfway up, we ran into Jan again, coming down. He’d beaten us
over the pass, but had made a wrong turn and was just now heading back
down to continue the Loop. He complained about rubbery legs, but
looked remarkable perky and unperturbed.
We soon crested a broad pass and descended to the nearest of the Sixty
As we rounded the nose the ridge that divides the upper basin in half,
we met two guys who raved about a great camp site on the
shores of the islanded lake just ahead. Sounded good to us, so we
continued there and set up. The site was just OK, though.
The lake was nice, but not exceptional, and the site was very exposed
to the howling winds that soon came up. We ended up taking
shelter in the tent before 7:00. If there’s one thing I’ve
learned from backpacking: you can never trust someone else’s
Day 4: Day Hike in Sixty Lakes Basin
to ice in our water bottles. The wind was still blowing strong,
so instead of climbing Mt. Cotter as we’d planned, we decided to
explore the Sixty Lakes Basin with an eye to finding a better campsite.
We started down the Basin on the unofficial trail that runs it’s
length. The Sixty Lakes Basin is a small incursion of the
northern Sierras in the south. It’s smooth granite slabs, pine
trees, and many lakes make it look plucked right out of Emigrant
Wilderness. This is good; we love Emigrant. We spent
the morning strolling leisurely from lake to beautiful lake. At
the far end of the Basin, we scoped out cross-country routes down the
slope to the PCT/JMT, then ate lunch at the shore of the northernmost
lake, baking in the hot sun.
After lunch, we meandered back up the Basin, still looking for camp
sites. Unlike Emigrant, there are very few campsites in the Sixty
Lakes Basin. We’d approach every sandy knoll over a lake with
high hopes, only to find nothing again and again. Finally, at the
end of our walk, we found an excellent site on a peninsula jutting into
the lake just below our current site. We packed up and carried
everything 15 minutes down the Basin to our new home.
The new site was stunning, and since there was no more wind by this
time, we watched the sun set and settled in to what we thought would be
a slightly warmer night.
Day 5: Sixty Lakes Basin to Rae Lakes
The night was the coldest yet -- Alex’s 2-liter water bottle froze
solid! Fortunately, the sun was as strong as ever in the morning,
and soon enough we were able to emerge from our sleeping bags.
We decided against any cross-country and instead followed the main
trail back down to the Rae Lakes.
We crossed the isthmus between
the upper and middle lakes and found a nice campsite on the east shore
of the middle lake. This area was as crowded with sites as a
state park’s drive-in campground, but amazingly we were completely
alone. We had lunch on the shore and then went for a walk.
We walked north along the shore until we rejoined the PCT/JMT.
little further on we came upon the ranger station, which was closed for
the season. It was a brand-new, beautifully-constructed
building. We then descended to the edge of the lower lake and
worked our way back south along the shoreline. It was a lovely,
lazy afternoon of exploring.
Day 6: Rae Lakes to Flower Lake
In the morning, as we were packing up, we encountered a tired-looking
JMT hiker. He had been attempting to break the speed record and
do the entire 211 miles in under four days. He was scuttling,
though, and his only comment was “Too much darkness.” I’m not
sure if he meant physical or mental.
After seeing him on his way, we set out, grimly anticipating the climb
back up Glen Pass. We were fresh and rested, though, and the
climb turned out to be no big deal. We descended to the lake just
south of the pass for lunch.
Feeling flush from conquering the pass, we decided to try to make it
all the way back to Flower Lake today instead of stopping at the
Kearsarge Lakes. This would get us home in time to see our
kids before bedtime. We descended the rest of the way from the pass, then
continued down to Bullfrog Lake. From there, the trail climbed
slowly up the canyon, staying fairly well above the Kearsarge
Lakes. Climbing more steeply as it progressed, the trail finally
reached Kearsarge Pass. Alex breezed right up this, but it was a
Death March for me.
We reached the pass around 5:00 and sailed quickly down the east side,
racing to beat the shadows and stay in the sun. We got to Flower
Lake around 6:00 and made camp.
Day 7: Flower Lake to Onion Valley
The last day of the trip was an easy 2.5 miles back down to the parking
lot. After a change of clothes, we drove into town for a hearty
lunch at Jenny’s Cafe, then headed our separate ways on US395.
My drive home over Tioga Pass was unusual in that Yosemite was closed
due to the government shutdown. The ranger at the entrance gate
wasn’t collecting fees, he was telling people that they could drive the
road -- but they couldn’t stop! Rangers patrolled the entire
length of the road, making sure nobody stopped to enjoy the view.
When I got home, I emailed Jan his picture. He made it.