Rae Lakes is a serene string of High Sierra lakes, nestled among the peaks of Kings Canyon National Park. The Rae Lakes loop is one of the most popular backpack trips in the Sierra Nevada, given its striking scenery and well-marked trail. It had been on my bucket list for a while.
In October, I was offered a ride to Kings Canyon, so I made a rather spontaneous decision to run the 42 mile loop, even though I hadn’t been training too much. A little research showed that although the loop is frequently done as a 3-5 day backpack, in the clock-wise direction, it is better to run it counter-clockwise for a steeper but shorter ascent and a long descent.
After camping overnight on the valley floor, my friend and I hit Bubbs Creek trail at 4:18am (per my Garmin fenix3). We began by jogging the flat part of the trail together, but split ways after a mile or two, as he headed south to climb a few peaks.
My favorite trail watch: Garmin Fenix3
The valley floor was a pleasant 45˚ when I started, but the temperature plummeted as I climbed. I covered the first section mostly in the dark, with my hands and ears getting colder and colder as I climbed. Gloves are a must, and I was glad I always brought mine with me. Same went for my neck warmer that I had been so certain I wouldn’t need but was glad I brought.
My favorite gloves: Sugoi LT Run Gloves
Shop all Neck & Face Warmers
Junction Meadows is about 11 miles in and 3,000+ feet up from the start, and from there a steeper climb brings you up to Vidette Meadows. Here the sun started to rise, thankfully thawing my frozen fingers.
One of my favorite sights in the world is alpine glow lighting the tips of mountain peaks on fire in the early morning.
Following the John Muir Trail along the shores of Lake Charlotte was peaceful in the morning light. This section was rolling upwards but definitely runnable, which was a nice boost for both my self-esteem and my sea-level lungs. The trail wound upward, toward base of Gen Pass, the high point of the loop.
At just under 12,000 feet, Glen Pass provides an incredible view of the Sierra Crest. This late in the year, most of the snow was gone and the view was the classic Sierra scene of jagged granite peaks jutting up from lakes so dark they were barely distinguishable from shadows. I took several moments up here to take in this serene, stark landscape.
After eating a Clif Nut Butter Bar and saying hi to the first person I had seen thus far, I began my quick descent into the Rae Lakes basin. And oh boy, was that fun! If you enjoy a good heart-thumping downhill scamper, this trail does not disappoint. Thankfully I was wearing a new pair of my favorite shoes and felt super confident on the steep talus rock. Plenty of switchbacks later, after passing a few groups toiling up to Glen Pass (and more than a few comments like “You are doing this whole loop in a day?!”), I wound my way down to the namesake of the trail: the Rae Lakes.
My snack of choice: Clif Nut Butter Bar
My favorite shoes for big rocks and talus: Salomon S-Lab Wings 8
My favorite pack for a long day run: Salomon S-Lab 5 Set Pack
The lakes were incredibly peaceful, serene, and striking. I took a good break here to eat, refill my reservoir and take in the scenery. Crystal blue water below towering peaks, lush vegetation and flowers abounding, the quiet trickle of water flowing from lake to lake…
Oddly, the Rae Lakes aren’t even halfway into the trip, but for me, that felt like the beginning of the end. The rest was an easy, rolling downhill for miles and miles. I could really get moving on this section, and my quads felt it after. I caught gorgeous views of aspen, some wildflowers, and waterfalls. Although relatively uneventful, the last 20 miles of this trip were lovely, and made me itch to come back when there is snow on the ground.
Side note: I think it’s worth noting that one of the biggest victories for me was the nutrition aspect. As the longest run I’ve completed (time-wise), I planned ahead in this area by dialing-in a nutrition strategy. I committed to eating whenever I was hungry, but also one gel per hour, regardless of when I had last eaten.
The only gel I could imagine eating for 12 hours straight: VFuel Energy Gels
I cruised back into the parking lot after about 11 hours, and honestly felt great. Tired, but great. The sun was glancing through the trees on its journey down the valley, birds were still chirping in the trees, and people were packing in late picnics from their cars.
Life is marked by these quiet moments – the ones at the top of the peak and the ones at the end of the trail. But it’s the moments in between that give these high points their meaning. I’m so thankful for the ability to run, the desire to adventure, and the guts to head out for 11 hours alone in the wilderness. There are few things as special as spending precious time in the beauty of creation, feeling small and knowing that life is important. Get out there and have your adventure.
Juli is known around Running Warehouse for her vast knowledge of running product, from shoes to hydration to nutrition to… well just about anything running related. With a background in food science (Read: Bachelor’s degree and an addiction to scholarly journal articles on exercise nutrition), she’s also a trail lover that fiends for long runs in beautiful places.