The days of debating were over: I decided I was going to day hike to a view of Rae Lakes, where I was supposed to be backpacking if the first two days weren’t horribly windy, if it killed me. The shortest, and I think easiest, way there is out of Onion Valley, where I had debated a shorter overnight trip Saturday evening before bailing due to winds again before bailing and heading up to Bishop Creek instead. Based on the prior day’s hike, which was also mild elevation gain, I wasn’t sure if I could make it down to the lakes and have daylight on the way back nor that I wanted to do 24 miles in a day and included coming back up Glen Pass from that side. I set my sights on just getting atop Glen Pass for the views, settling on just under 20 miles.
The first 4.4 miles up to Kearsarge Pass are so familiar as to nearly be boring – except it’s always stunning. I had woken up very, very early as birds were pretty loud at the first hint of sun. I cuddled in my bag in the cold, again, but wanted to have all the advantages summer daylight hours provided so sucked it up and finally got moving at 6:40am. Facing east, the first switchbacks were in the sun and I dropped my outer puffy at Little Pothole Lake just 1.5 miles in. I like this body of water, often passed up by hikers: the steep surrounding mountains includes up to 3 waterfalls (more like tall drainage tumbles) feeding the bowl. It’s green and a nice mix of sweetness and gentle times under rocky and brutal looking mountains.
At the pass is where I learned there were Dutch stories and a German documentary on the PCT which explained the unusually high percentage of them through-hiking this year. I had driven a sweet German couple up here a day and a half ago but we had just talked trail stuffs and I completely neglected to inquire why they decided to travel here for this. I left quickly worried for time, but was happy thus far. The new insoles I’d bought the night before were really making a difference: my feet felt way better!
5 miles in I stayed on the high road, officially still the Kearsarge Pass Trail, and enjoyed the stunning views of lakes and mountains all around. I’d been here last winter when all the lakes were frozen, but melting and making loud PING sounds. It is always nice to revisit a familiar place in a different season. Another 2.2 miles and I was at a junction: down to meet the PCT and head south, which I had done in winter a bit, or west to Charlotte Lake, or straight which was new to me! Woo-hoo! A bit later is the second cut off, the official PCT, and I was at 7.5 miles and 3:50 in.
Actually, despite amazing views above Charlotte Lake and into Kings Canyon, the path is exposed in a sparse pine forest on a sandy, dry mountainside. Some pauses to catch my break and a snack and water break halfway – supposedly the mild climb is 0.9 miles but it felt 3x that both directions. Once up to a pass of lakes and very steep rocky mountains all around, it was supposedly less than 3 miles all the way over and down to Rae Lakes but the effort felt twice that. It’s not even terribly steep – maybe a sunny, dry day and long miles were taking a toll.
All along the trail, especially as the day worn on, I was surrounded by through-hikers and had many chats or, at least, hellos and well-wishing. I walked past little melt lakes that were shallow in the sand and filled with rocks which strongly reminded me of an early scene in Return to Oz where Dorothy and the chicken watched the river they thought they were on dry into the Deadly Desert and had to stay on the rocks to exit to safety.
It was maybe 1.2 miles all said to the top of the pass – a ridiculous fact that doesn’t match up with perception in the slightest. On the way I passed a melt lake of incredible blue that was mostly frozen and a PCTer from Alabama who’d never seen a frozen lake before (look, he should have by now but it’s a warm, dry year) and he had tried to walk on it but it was thin and he was drying his shoe now. It was very warm and there was a little bit of water draining and filterable from the upper lake so a few pairs of hikers were resting and enjoying the day with each other after various switchbacks near it.
The upper lake is very lovely and it was certainly nicer to look at then whatever the hell Glen Pass is. If you want the surprise, as a hiker on top reminded is nice to have hiking, stop reading. I have never seen a pass like this before. I immediately starting thinking “Glen Not-A-Pass” and looked around wondering why the trail went that way as it seemed crazy. Kearsarge is a classic pass. Others are almost like wide saddles. The Mono Pass I was on out of rock creek you’d call a ‘pass’ without thinking about it – it passed between two steeps mountains. Not Glen. No. This “pass” was a ridge, and not even the lowest or most accessible point in view. WTH? Actually, on a topo map it does look basic and a bit of a dent in the ridge – once again, a map that just does reality no justice to the place. Once up there, though, it made sense why some of the other paths couldn’t be taken, but this was really something and I have to imagine rockslides destroy the trail on both sides from time to time. I had some excellent conversations on top with a fun, talkative man that was waiting for the Alabama man mentioned earlier plus another couple.
The return trip followed the exact same path but it was all lovely and new again with the different position of the sun in the afternoon. There were much more PCTers around, borderline crowded, as I came down and many didn’t speak and seemed grumpy with full packs and feeling the afternoon heat. I ate half a sandwich (the joys of day hiking include real, bulky food) back at the junction, chatted about fire damage on a long stretch of trail up north, then headed back for the 7.5 mile return.
After some rest breaks, I made it back over Kearsarge Pass and didn’t stop in the slightest. I walked down the long, exposed stretch and waited until quite a few switchbacks down the other side before a break to eat the rest of my sandwich with a lovely view of Heart Lake. Actually, I had stopped earlier and an overnighter reminded me the view of the lake was so good further down and she was correct. I remembered I had brought Reese’s Pieces and enjoyed those a bit as I drank the last of my filtered water. Time to get moving and finish the day up! Between the non-visible Flower Lake and Gilbert Lake there is a tumbling, shaded drainage and I grabbed some water and some mosquitos found me, though they were not yet biting much.
There were still some late arrivals heading back onto the PCT nearly the entire way, and a few coming down late. When I got to the last slog of switchbacks where you can see your car but still have to lose a lot of elevation to get there, I was just pushing through as best I could and noticing when I was just plodding and pushed myself a bit to move. There was a treasure, though! I heard a grouse (males make a sound like blowing on the top of a bottle) and it seemed close. I never see these dang birds, that finally changed. Around a corner, there he was! He paused and considered me, then made quite the show. A few more deep blowy sounds, puffed out his cheek things to show the yellow behind, flared his tail feathers and did a slow spin: it was all very dramatic and I could have watched longer but I was ready to be done, haha. I whispered a ‘thanks and good luck with the ladies’ and continued.
It felt good to finally be off the trail. It was a 20 mile day but I was happy with the time and my speed: less than 12 hours out which is nearly the same as the prior day’s less mileage hike. The trailhead is about 9,200′ and the highest I got was just below 12k atop Glen Pass, but coming up and down both led to a day’s gain of 5300′ overall. I was also happy that I felt so good. Health is a great commodity and being able to do this long hikes is deeply appreciated by me. Chats at the parking lot as I grab my stuff out of a bear box. Bathroom breaks and beverages, stretches and packing up. It was end of day and it was time to find dinner a place to stay the night before heading home the next day.