Running from the weather: Rae Lakes and more

I finally made it to Rae Lakes this year, after a wind event halted my hike there via Baxter Pass a few weeks ago. My goal was to enjoy Sixty Lake Basin, which I absolutely did, and I had varying weather to the point of confusion but overall it was sunny and warm.

I am going to post the semi-wonky Garmin GPS links for each day before I describe it. I am having issues where charts show different distances that the main stats and I’m not sure either are correct. But, it’s not a race so ballpark is fine, if annoying.

My starting pack weight was under 21 pounds (20.8 when measured then I added a cord and maybe something else) and that included a liter of water and snacks plus dehydrated meals for 3 days and nights.

Packed gear list:

  • ZPacks Arc Air ROBIC 60L Backpack
  • Bare Boxer bear can
  • Optimus cup / pot (it has a spout, so required for pouring water), extending spoon, and Crux Lite stove with a small MSR fuel can and cheap lighter
  • Smart Water bottle
  • 1/2 liter HydraPak bottle with Sawyer Squeeze attached for filtering water
  • Garmin GPS handheld 66i
  • Ricoh GRIIIX camera attached to backpack straps with Peak Design Capture 3.0
  • Anker 10k battery and a couple of small cords
  • Outdoor Research Dry Isolation Pack for day hikes and holding stuff in the big pack
  • The most excellent Warbonnet hammock with underquilt and Black Diamond LiteWire carabineers I keep attached for a fast hang
  • Kammock tarp (with the 4 stakes it came with +2 Nemo Air Pins) and their very light hammock straps
  • Western Mountaineering UltraLite (down, +30F) bag and a silk liner
  • Sea to Summit Aeros Premium pillow, with cover and some foam bits added from my home pillow filler
  • The Duece trowel I never seem to use
  • Tiny first aid kit and emergency blanket
  • BioLite headlamp

This gets me to about 13 pounds before adding water (2.2lb) and excellent dehydrated dinners by Next Mile Meals plus various bars and nut things for snacks and lunches I never seem to eat. I came out with about 75% of the food I went in with. I also start with cheese, muesli bread rounds, and a boiled egg for ‘real’ food the first day. I should have brought an apple, too – a fruit I only really like while hiking in warm weather. I also add 1 set of backup socks (Darn Tough), underwear (ExOfficio give-and-go), and bra (Icebreaker), plus my travel toothbrush, small toothpaste, some dental floss, a small cloth from REI, and not a few zip baggies for snacks and trash.

I get a some shocked responses to the lightweight of my pack, but I also wonder what everyone else is bringing. My other overnight pack is a Granite Gear Blaze 60 and that adds nearly 1.5lb so I am able to push to 24lb pretty easy using that one and some more clothes or wet food, and winter adds a few things where I end up near 28lb. I wouldn’t use the ZPack for more than what I was carrying this trip, since it’s not very stable, but I often wonder what y’all are bringing that weighs so much? It has to be said that I’m still passed up on the trail a lot – even day hiking I have heavy packs walk past me. I don’t know how people walk so fast: I’m 1.6 – 2.2 mph depending on elevation gain and how hot it is.

Forgotten and sorely misses was a Kula Cloth (for the pee-pees) so I used some of my facial tissue (and into a trash bag) until I ran out. I also forgot a pocket knife, but, luckily, never needed it. I felt a bit naked without both, though. I also forgot sandals to let my feet breathe on the return to the car later, which was sad. So my typical ‘3 things I forgot’ list wasn’t as severe as when I forgot a fuel can, but it was still sad.

Day 1 – Onion Valley to Rae Lakes

GPS: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/9310804389

Since I drove over four hours in the morning to get to Onion Valley, I started the day a bit late and it was, as is typical for east-facing trails with little shade, very, very, too much hot. (-; It was lovely and started out uneventful with clear mountains (no fire smoke) and monsoonal clouds sticking behind the mountains. There were a lot of trail rumors of a bear, when I mentioned it others said ‘word travels fast’ and we giggled. I did see the creature, fairly good sized, as I turned around the meadow before heading to Heart Lake. It was headed downhill and wasn’t interested in my clapping hands (I was along for a stretch). I heard whistles after that – many people were breaking and snacking down there above Flower Lake. I wondered if the bear was off to harass the parking lot and find a car that didn’t move food into a box or if it had other plans.

Switchbacks, exposed rocky paths, mountain and lake views, then up and over familiar Kearsarge Pass, a small snack, then down the switchbacks on the other side. I was repeating the recent day hike to Glen Pass and back, but today I’d go over it and stay the night at new-to-me Rae Lakes. It seems the year of Onion Valley to me and it’s comfortably familiar now.

I paused to watch a pika run to the only waterway running on this side to grab what I thought was a lot of grass for its small mouth, run back to the rocks and pull them in backwards. This amused me for a long while but I needed to keep moving, I guess, so kept going west There weren’t any more PCT through-hikers, but some section and loop hikers were about – the rest were like me: short excursions.

The mountain views were as astounding as ever, but no more snow was visible. Somewhere away southwest it was raining and dark clouds threatened here and there but seemed distant for the moment. It was warm climbing up past Charlotte Lake and the few lakes left in the places below Glen Pass. Mostly it was drying out and, since my prior visit, the creeks had ceased to run. It felt very difficult to have any place to filter water the entire day, a sentiment echoed by another hiker during a quick chat.

Glen Pass, the more-ridge-than-pass, loomed above as did some clouds at 6:30 and 7.75mi in for the day thus far. It didn’t seem like a storm was imminent but I knew I was pushing it with the weather being it was so late in the afternoon (about 4:10pm). I just wanted to get to Rae Lakes proper for the night. A couple tents were on the lake’s southern shore and one waved me over indicating they didn’t mind if I stayed with them, or maybe it was something else. I suspect they didn’t think it was a good idea to go over the pass in any case, and a guy came down in a hurry asking where was the closest place he could stay the night. I’m not very risk adverse in these situations, so the rain that started to fall that wasn’t strong enough to warrant putting on a coat didn’t bother me. I did quicken my steps, but it seemed like the clouds were moving a bit west and seemed to be passing: some blue skies ahead to match all that had been behind…

So I crested and realized I wasn’t in danger, exactly, but a big storm was pushing fast towards where I was. It was over Sixty Lakes Basin and it was clearly raining there. I didn’t pause on top very long, just enough to take in the views and snap a few photos, then I tried to make my way down the rocky switchbacks fast. Not fast enough. Very soon the cloud was above me and the rain had stopped, like a calmness – a breathe – then the crack of thunder. Several cracks, getting louder and closer all the time until one felt overhead and the hail started. The wide expanse of granite below was looking very exposed and the lakes that dot the place were rough as the little balls of ice also landed on their surface. Jacket on. In fact, tarp over my pack and shoulders. It’s so difficult to walk on rocks. I didn’t see any ground strikes, but they can happen 10 miles away and I was in it. Yikes!

I did have to cross that expanse in the thunderstorm, so you’ll understand if I was moving fast and ducking a bit as I felt like the tallest thing out there: a target. 😳 Then it just stopped, it had passed, and it was very calm: back to a nice summer day! I stopped to filter water that was coming out of the ground – delicious spring that was probably pristine on its own. Some hail was un-melted in the corner of a step of reddish rock. The creeks were running very sweetly, lined with green and flowers. Now pine trees were about and I felt safe, if very foot-sore. I thought about staying up here, away from the crowds, but wanted to be lower and more sheltered.

It felt like a long time, though, descending to the lakes. The sight was lovely though: I didn’t think much of Rae Lakes from atop Glen Pass, but they are apparently best viewed lower down. Across the PCT a bit and I found a spot to hang for the night between upper and middle lakes as the light started to fade. It was near 7pm and I was pooped so I just snacked and passed out.

Day 2 – Rae Lakes to Sixty Lake Basin

GPS: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/9310804406

@terraelise

First lake via trail way to 60 Lakes Basin was so calm in the morning. #whyihike #reflection #hiking #easternsierra #california

♬ original sound – Terra’s Adventures

I was up before the sun officially was. The lakes were calm and I took a couple photos then started the trail up over the pass then down to Sixty Lakes Basin. I wanted to have a full day before afternoon storms rolled in and be hiking up in the cool morning without the sun beating down on me. It didn’t seem like many other people were up before 6am. Nice. Birds were having a fun little time darting about the flowers and brush and I stopped to watch them. They seems to be rather irritated I was on the trail and kept moving up and I kept coming upon them again: repeat.

There was a calm lake and before the final incline and I stopped on the far side, just below where the sun was now at, to take a break for some water and general enjoyment. Butterflies, hummingbird, critters, bees, the mountains reflecting in the water’s surface: nice.

A few more steps and I was over a mild pass and started the descent into Sixty Lakes Basin. The far southern end I didn’t visit, but it held a large lake and high peaks. If not for the previous evening’s storm, I was going to visit via cross-country path over a pass on that side. The trail kept losing elevation and eventually skirted near one of many lakes. The entire basin is just lovely with quiet bodies of water between gentle outflows. There is much more to see off-trail when looking at maps than I saw on this visit. Sometimes I’d jump up some large rock pile to get a better view and could see strips of other lakes – it was just lovely. It was also very quiet and I only saw or heard a couple people my entire trek north.

Admiring lakes near and far, staring at peaks, and breathing the fresh air went on for a long while. My only haste was a concern for late afternoon weather but I wanted to savor the moment. Tiny side ponds were filled with grass. Larger lakes pour into one another with a small waterfall. I stopped down near where the official trail ends at a water crossing and ate a snack in the silence at the green shores watching the sun glint in the surface. I debated where to go. I both wanted to go further north and knew the easiest loop out was a semi-frequented pass to Arrowhead Lake. I decided on the hard way. In fact, I think I choose the hardest way…

@terraelise

Sixty Lake Basin isn’t kidding and the north end was cherry on top. #whyihike #sierranevada #mountains #nature #beautifulview

♬ original sound – Terra’s Adventures

But first, the grassy, marshy, rocky no-trail hike north to what turned out to be a wonderfully larger lake dotted with rock islands under beautiful mountains and one side very much looking like an infinity pool. Then I went rogue and slid down a dry, steep watershed. I never regretted not having a helmet or rope, but it was slow going. I sat and put my hand on a sadly abundant plant with spines as I picked my way carefully down, trying not to cause some mini avalanche. Eventually I was “down” but needed to find my way back east and onto the PCT again. It wasn’t what I was expecting on my GPS map, the danger of map reading and best guesses especially with a 100k map, but I managed to not get cliffed out.

Instead, I saw a lake down below and it’s long, green valley housed a small creek. As I turned south to find a way to Dollar Lake the creek became a nice tumbling waterfall. I wasn’t sure of the best way to get up it, but when I got close it was easy. The east was rather sheer rock and pine trees, the west was a tumble of boulders, the middle was lush and flower-filled. I filtered water halfway up, it was pretty tasty if not totally cold, and paused to enjoy the lovely place.

Above the falls, I followed the water for a bit but realized I had to find my way up and over the hill east so found a crossing and just walked straight up. Again, a 100k GPS map isn’t terribly helpful in these situations – increments of 100ft elevation don’t help cross-country planning as it could mean 90ft climbs are invisible. Just have to play it by sight and hope for the best. After a couple scrambles I was on top and cut northeast to catch the PCT just south of Dollar Lake. I walked north a bit for a view, then headed south and back to camp.

I thought Arrowhead Lake was very lovely, but most of the trail was exposed and a bit of a slog here. Fin Dome really stood out the entire time – weird poke of smooth granite compared to all the rocky mountains around. As I got closer there were several watersheds wet and filterable basically all around the path near the ranger station. Eventually, a bit tired and behind schedule due to slow pathfinding earlier, I got to Rae Lakes and the junction to get back to camp. I paused there and rested my feet while looking out over a meadow and the beach-like northern shores of the upper lake beneath the red and black peaks and debated what I was up for.

Another backpacker walked into the meadow to a side inlet creek and started filtering. A very small marmot darted about. I decided I had enough gas to make it up to Dragon Lake. I joined the other hiker and filtered water – it was clean and cool and the area was peaceful there. Other critters were about and lived there a long time if the amount of poo was any indication. It did look like a great place to live!

The trail up to Dragon Lake didn’t seem like something that was built – more of a consensus on how to make it directly uphill. The bottom was the most difficult because people walked all over and it caused confusion, but there were markers and with a patient eye it was easy to figure the common way to go. It did go straight up, absolutely no nonsense, a calf burner. But it was short and after cresting it was a short walk on varied terrain to the lake. The winds were a bit stronger here and the clouds started to look threatening, so I didn’t pause very long. The water was lovely and the peaks dramatic – Dragon Peak seemed immense, a few passes were obvious. Interesting place and worth the visit.

As steep as it was, it was a pretty easy downhill – just a few spots to be careful with. In short order I was back in camp. I had a snack and then the rain started. It wasn’t terribly heavy, but it did last a long while. No thunder, just cuddled in my hammock listening to the sound of rain on my fly and the ground and the lakes. I napped until it stopped. It was sunny again and things dried off quickly.

The chatter was about unpredictable weather and not knowing what to wear. Someone’s sleeping pad was very noisy with every movement. Nearby a mountain climb was being planned but someone wasn’t feeling great. Views, dinner, generally enjoying the time, sunset, sleep.

Day 3 – Rae Lakes to Onion Valley

GPS: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/9310804419

Not too much to report except I didn’t stay the third night. This is pretty typical: if I am within 12 miles or so of an exit and I did all the day hikes I wanted already I just can’t bring myself to hang out all day I just feel like I can hike while there’s daylight and would rather have a nice, hydrated meal. Getting up Glen Pass from the north was rough for me. Two other backpackers, women, passed me and another, a man, nearly did. I felt so slow and took so many breaks and it felt so very long. The views were lovely and I was very glad I started early and did this trek in the shade.

Happy to crest I didn’t rest and came down the other side’s steep switchbacks quickly. Paused at the lake to filter water and spoke to the women who passed me earlier for a bit. We were headed the same way and I’d see them several times: they were faster but took longer breaks. The views over Charlotte lake and the weird granite slope that serves as the entrance to Kings Canyon from there were nice as ever.

I didn’t break at the PCT junction. I waited another mile or so for a spot to sit looking at the lovely opening full of mountains to the south. The wind suddenly picked up and annoyingly chilled me but I forced myself to sit for 15 minutes by looking at my watch, snacking and drinking and looking out over beautiful Bullfrog Lake.

It felt so long to get back up to Kearsarge Pass, but I do like this stretch of trail, colloquially referred to as The High Road but it’s just Kearsarge Pass Trail. The terrain changes a lot and the views are always nice – mountains south, mountains west, lakes below.

I was walking pretty fast for me until the switchbacks, then it seemed like people came out of nowhere and started passing me. I sometimes cannot believe how fast people with really big packs are walking – I’m never much more than 2mph no matter how hard I try. I made an SOS joke to someone coming down and we giggled. Then I was up and over and cruising down the other side.

The paths are very rocky and my feet were complaining. I waited a few switchbacks until reaching the nice, pine tree shaded spot overlooking Heart Lake. Then I plopped down, dropped pack, and ate lunch. I watched the poofy white clouds roll by quickly, changing shape as they went west. Actually, I watched too long and freaked myself out, haha. I changed my focus to the lake and the shadows of the clouds on the steep mountain peaks. People passing up and down all paused to see the view – it was a lovely spot.

The rest is standard and familiar: rocks and switchbacks, dirt and trees, lakes and creeks. It was very hot near the end and the soil is dark and my feet were mad. A kid with some parents on a day hike cried and I shared the sentiment. Shortly after I had my typical breakdown during my exit-early day where I felt overheated and nearly cried on a rock in some precious shade. I will-powered myself back on my feet and pushed down the trail. I enjoyed the flowers and waterfalls and was very happy to exit. It’s “only” a 12 mile day, but it felt every bit like 16. Up and down two passes was more difficult today than 2 days prior for the exact same hike but it was truly a great trip. Now for the drive home…

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