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.

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Day 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

The 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 and 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 Lakes 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 Basin 

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 Lakes.  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 recommendation.

Day 4:  Day Hike in Sixty Lakes Basin

We woke 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.  A 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.

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