The Rae Lakes Loop Trail has been on my wish list since I heard about it in 2020. The caveat is that you need a permit to backpack this trail, which can be difficult to obtain. We backpacked the trail right before the permit season kicked in at the end of May. During the non-permit season, which runs from mid-September to the end of May, only a self-issued permit is required. The quota season limits the number of people on the trail.
The park only issues 10 walk up permits per day during the quota season, making these permits highly sought after. We completed the trail in late May and it was a three day adventure which totaled 42 miles. We camped at Upper Paradise Valley on the first night and Middle Rae Lake on the second. I clocked in 8,100~ feet of elevation gain along the trail.
The best way to do this trail is to camp for a minimum of three nights. We were on a time crunch, so we only camped for two. It was still a great time! This loop intersects with the John Muir Trail (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), so we ran into a ton of thru-hikers. Two of my close friends from college joined me. We have been long time buddies and grew closer over the years. They were not as experienced as me, so I led the group.
I also supplied them with some of the essential gear like a backpack and sleeping tent. It absolutely makes a big difference when you hike these trails with good company – it gives you an opportunity to connect on a deeper level away from all the distractions of life. We really enjoyed each other’s company and are already planning our next trekking adventure!
Reserve your Permits in Advance
To stay overnight, you will need to obtain a wilderness permit from Kings Canyon National Park (managed conjointly with Sequoia National Park). At the time of writing this, May 16th to September 26th is the quota period for permits. The park limits the number of visitors during these days, for those who are departing from a specific trailhead on a certain day.
Outside of the quota period, there aren’t any restrictions to hike the Rae Lakes Loop Trail but conditions are less suitable for backcountry hiking. Self-issue permits are available from the Kings Canyon Visitor Center in Grant Grove and from the Road’s End Ranger Station east of Cedar Grove. However, given this route’s popularity, I recommend reserving your permits well in advance, as there is no guarantee that walk-up permits are available.
Scenery on the Rae Lakes Loop Trail
The Rae Lakes Loop takes hikers along two rivers through the canyon. We pitched our tents at Upper Paradise Valley on the first night of our trek and at Middle Rae Lake on the second night. The campgrounds at Middle Rae Lake offer incredible views and are considered the highlight of the trek. Each step contains spectacular scenery and views of the mountains.
Three trails interconnect with each other and provide ample opportunities for gazing at glacially-carved canyons, picturesque valleys, lush meadows, shimmering blue lakes, majestic waterfalls and jaw-dropping mountain passes along the way. The views on this trail, for every single mile, are some of the best that California and the United States as a whole has to offer!
We didn’t get a chance to go swimming in the lakes, unfortunately. The water was too cold. Also, we arrived at our camp towards sundown, so we didn’t have much time left at Middle Rae Lake. It started snowing the next morning and we had to start early to finish off the trail. When we went, it was towards the tail end of spring and therefore the water was very cold.
July and August are the best months to go swimming. The water temperature (even in summer) is cold since it’s an alpine lake sitting at 10,500 feet but this can make it refreshing after a long hike under the hot sun. These lakes are considered to be some of the cleanest in the world but you still want to filter your water if you plan on drinking from the lake.
Highlights of the Rae Lakes Loop Trail
For me, the most epic section of the Rae Lakes Loop Trail was when we connected onto the John Muir Trail (JMT) leading up to Rae Lakes. The JMT is world famous for astonishing views of the Sierra Nevada. The most iconic mountains that come to mind were the peaks sitting right above Rae Lakes such as Painted Lady, Mount Gould, Dragon Peak and Mount Rixford.
The backdrop of these mountains sitting above Rae Lakes is a remarkable sight. Another notable mountain as you approach Rae Lakes was Fin Dome (off to your right). The orange alpine glow at sunset over these mountains was a sight that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Need to Know Before you Go
This was a tough hike but I think anyone with moderate hiking experience can do it since the trek can be split up into several days. You will need to take safety precautions, like any high-altitude trek. Things like heat stroke, altitude sickness, exhaustion and dehydration can occur if you are ill prepared. The weight you carry in your backpack can also cause tiredness, so ensure you pack light and only the essentials. This is a strenuous hike!
One thing to keep in mind is not to bring too much water. Having a water filtration device will keep your weight down. You can source water from the streams along the Rae Lakes Loop Trail. Practicing Leave No Trace principles is a given. Please stick to the established campsites or appropriate flat ground for your camping needs and be mindful of the vegetation as you go. All rubbish and toilet paper should be packed out.
Glen Pass (the high point) can have snow on it. Microspikes are recommended but I didn’t wear them. Get up and over the pass before 9am while the snow is still firm (if any is present). You can book permits here: recreation.gov/permits/445857. This trail is one of the most beautiful in the Sierra Nevada so make sure you add it to your itinerary. Happy trails!