Rae Lakes Loop – Kings Canyon National Park Backpacking (41 mile loop)

 

Trip Overview: ~41 mile backpacking loop from the Roads End Trailhead in Kings Canyon National Park. +/- 8,400 feet of elevation with a starting elevation of 5,050 feet and a peak elevation of 12,000 feet. Highlights include alpine lakes, expansive granite canyon views, and scenic lake-side campsites. We completed this trip over 4 days in July of 2016.

Overall map of the Rae Lakes Loop with the starting point at Roads End. Day 1 (blue), Day 2 (black), Day 3 (red) and Day 4 (yellow).
Overall map of the Rae Lakes Loop with the starting point at Roads End. Day 1 (blue), Day 2 (black), Day 3 (red) and Day 4 (yellow).

Jump to Day 1: Road’s End Trailhead to Junction Meadow
Jump to Day 2: Junction Meadow to Rae Lakes
Jump to Day 3: Rae Lakes to Woods Creek Crossing
Jump to Day 4: Woods Creek Crossing to Roads End Trailhead

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Preparations:

Permits: The Rae Lakes Loop is one of the most popular backpacking loops in the Sierra, so permits are required and the number of permits is limited. You likely want to secure a permit to do the hike in either July, August, or September.  The rivers can be very high and impassable in May and June, and the Glen Pass can be snow covered into mid July.  Basic information about the loop can be found on the NPS website.

You can apply for permits by e-mail or US mail starting at 12:01am on March 1st.  On the permit you need to specify the trailheads you will enter/exit through and your party size (limited to 15 people).  If you want to do the loop clockwise, you enter via Woods Creek and exit via Bubbs Creek.  If you want to hike counter-clockwise, it’s the opposite. Information about the reservation process can be found here and the wilderness permit application is here.  The cost per permit is $10 plus a $5 per person camping fee.  You pay your fees online after you receive an e-mail confirming your permit is secured.

If you are able to reserve a permit and pay your fee, the next step is to pick up the permit from the Roads End Ranger Wilderness Permit Station (36.794690, -118.583116).  You can get your permit after 1 pm the day before you hike or before 9 am the day of your hike.  If you cannot get to the permit station before 9 am on the day of your hike, you must notify the Wilderness Office (559-565-3766) or they will cancel your permit and release it to walk-up hikers after 9 am.

Logistics: We decided to camp near the Roads End Permit Station the night before our trek.  There are multiple campsites on Highway 180 including Sentinel, Canyon View, and Moraine Campgrounds.  Sentinel and Canyon View allow reservations via recreation.gov and Moraine is 1st come, 1st served.  Camping the night before allows you to acclimate a bit to the elevation and will allow you to easily get to the permit station before 9 am.

At the Roads End Wilderness Permit Station there are some bear vaults to store leftover food, and there is a potable water source to fill up your water bottles or camelbacks.  The permit station is hard to miss and you can ask the ranger about current conditions.  You can park your car near the permit station when you first get there, but may need to move your car to a nearby lot if you are parking for multiple days.

Weather and Trail Conditions: It is important to check the trail conditions before taking off on this trek.  You can find the conditions of the Woods Creek and Bubbs Creek Trails and the Glen Pass here.  It is important to make sure the stream crossing are manageable and make sure the Glen Pass is not dangerous. Crossing a fast moving stream can be very dangerous, so listen to the rangers and take their advice.  Beyond that, the trails are well maintained so it’s easy to find your way.

You will want to start this trek early because Kings Canyon gets very warm in the afternoon.  The trailhead is only at 5,000 feet, so the first day of the trek is likely to be quite warm after ~11 am.

Difficulty: If you are doing this loop is 4 or fewer days, expect a moderately tough hike.  Each day will be close to 10 miles and 2 of the days will have serious climbs.  Note that if you extend the hike to more than 4 days, many popular lakes on the trail have camping restrictions that limit visitors to 2 consecutive nights.  You can build a rest day at Rae Lakes into your itinerary, but must leave after your second night.

Supplies: There are black bears in the park, so you need to bring a bear canister. Bear spray is not allowed, so do not bother bringing that. When I spoke with the rangers at the park they discouraged hanging food because they said the bears have gotten smart enough to knock food out of trees. Your results may vary, but a bear canister is the safest option.

You likely will want bug spray because the mosquitoes can be out in force in certain areas of the trek. I prefer a picaridin based spray because it does not damage plastics and synthetic fibers like high concentration DEET sprays do. I also like to pre-treat my clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of spray you need to put on your skin.

Below is a list of the gear I brought on Rae Lakes Loop:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

There are also plenty of lakes along the trail and some good trout fishing spots, so bringing fishing gear if you are into that!

 

Day 0: To start the trip we made the long drive to Kings Canyon National Park the day before leaving on the trek.  The drive along Highway 180 when you enter the park is very scenic and has great views if you get there before the sun goes down.

Highway 180 in Kings Canyon National Park
Highway 180 in Kings Canyon National Park. (credit: David Prasad)
Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park
Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park (credit: Kirk Y)

 

We ended up getting a campsite at Moraine Campground, which is the closest to the Roads End. The sites were nice and had potable water, so we had no complaints.  We made dinner, had some drinks, and then got some rest before getting up early in the morning.

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Day 1: 10.5 miles; +3,600 feet / -500 feet; Roads End Trailhead to Junction Meadow

Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 hike (blue)
Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 hike (blue)

Map of Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 Hike (pdf)

 

Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 hike.
Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 1 hike.

 

After making breakfast and packing up, we made it to the permit station at about 8:30am.  We grabbed the permit and got a report on the conditions and rules from the ranger.  We planned to leave at 9 am, but half our party showed up late.  Unfortunately, we didn’t actually start hiking until about 10:45 am.  I would advise starting before 9 am if possible because it was really warm in the afternoon.

We initially thought our permit was for hiking the loop clockwise, but the ranger said we actually reserved a permit for a counter-clockwise trek.  So, we did some quick planning and decided we would camp at Junction Meadow on the first night (~10.5 miles away). There is some debate about which direction is best. I have not hiked the clockwise direction, so I cannot directly compare.  Our trek was great though and it was very rewarding to descend down Glen Pass on the way to Rae Lakes.  We liked being able to see Rae Lakes in the distance and use it as motivation.

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Moraine Campground is only a 5 mile drive to the Roads End Station.

 

The trailhead is right next to the permit station.  The first part of the trek is a ~2 mile hike along the Kanawyers Trail.  This trail was super sandy and dusty, so the footing is tough.  Eventually you reach a bridge and start on the Bubbs Creek Trail.  The footing here is normal.  Once you are on the Bubbs Creek Trail, it is about a 8 mile hike to get to Junction Meadow. The trail follows the Bubbs Creek through a canyon and provides some nice views. The views are nothing compared to what comes on the 2nd and 3rd days though.

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The Rae Lakes Loop starts with ~2 miles along the sandy and hot Kanawyers Trail. (credit: Phillip Kendall)
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After 2 miles you reach the Bubbs Creek Trail, climb steeply, and get the first views of Kings Canyon from above.
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Hiking along the Bubbs Creek Trail. (pictured:  Kelty Women’s 60 Liter Backpack)
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View along the Bubbs Creek Trail on the Rae Lakes Loop. (credit: Tom Hilton)
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View along the Bubbs Creek Trail. (credit: Tom Hilton)
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Hiking East on the Bubbs Creek Trail. (pictured: Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles)
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Rock structures along the trail.
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Areas by streams and creeks were full of mosquitoes. The trail was also fairly dusty. Luckily a bandana makes for a great air filter and bug guard! (pictured: Levi’s Bandana and Columbia Silver Ridge Long Sleeve Shirt)
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We made camp the first night in the Junction Meadow are near a stream.

We camped in a developed campsite we found near Junction Meadow.  The sites were nearby the junction of two streams and made for a pleasant spot to do some fishing.  We caught one or two trout, but the fishing wasn’t super easy here. The bugs here were pretty annoying, so I’d suggest using repellent or bundling up. There were some deer in the area too, so it’s best not to hang salty clothes up overnight or they may get stolen.

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Day 2: 8.6 miles; +4,000 feet / -1,600 feet; Junction Meadow to Rae Lakes

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Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 2 Hike (black)

Map of Rae Lakes Loop Day 2 hike (pdf)

 

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Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 2 hike.

The day 2 hike was the most beautiful but also the most difficult.  In the first ~6.5 miles, you climb up 4,000 feet and reach the top of Glen Pass.  The views along the climb are spectacular, but be prepared for lots of dry, dusty switchbacks.  During the first 3 miles, you hike alongside the Bubbs Creek and get to walk close to a waterfall.  Eventually the trail leaves the creek and begins to climb towards Glen Pass.  At this point you are hiking along the John Muir Trail and will run into some PCT through hikers.

The trail ascending Glen Pass is really pretty with blue lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ridges. At the top of the pass you likely will see many people taking a break.  Some members of our party were feeling a big sick from the altitude (12,000 feet), so be sure to take care of yourself.  After taking some pictures and drinking water we started the descent. The north side of the pass still had some snow on it, so we had to carefully hike through snow on some of the switchbacks.  Some people slid down the snowy slopes, but this technique is not a good idea unless you really know what you are doing.

Along the descent you see several snow melt lakes.  As you get closer to Rae Lakes, the trail switches from gravel and granite to a dirt and grass trail.  We followed this trail to the isthmus between two of the lakes and found some nice campsites there.

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Leaving Junction Meadow in the morning to hike along the Bubbs Creek Trail to the John Muir Trail.
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The Bubbs Creek Trail starts off with a climb towards Lower Vidette Meadow (pictured: Osprey Atmos 65 Liter pack)
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Continuing along to climb up the Bubbs Creek Trail. The views start to get better the higher you climb  (pictured: Columbia Silver Ridge Long Sleeve Shirt)
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When you reach Lower Vidette Meadow you are near the junction with the John Muit Trail (credit: Miguel Vieira).
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You then begin the climb up the John Muir Tral towards Glen Pass. There are great views of the surrounding valley on this section of the trail.
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The trail meanders along a creek and some cascades in certain sections (credit Kirk Y)
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Trail junction with turn offs for Charlotte and Bullfrog Lake.
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More climbing along the dusty trail. (pictured: prAna Stretch Zion Pants)
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As you reach higher elevation the views open up again.
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View looking back toward Vidette Meadow with the East Vidette Mountain in the center.
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View of the East Vidette mountain from the John Muir Trail.
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The John Muir Trail continues to climb switchbacks before finally approaching a plateau before the turn off for Charlotte Lake.
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After all that climbing, there is a brief break when you hike along the flat area near the Charlotte Lake Junction.
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Charlotte Lake junction, from here you have the final push to Rae Lakes and must get over Glen Pass.
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View from the John Muir Trail as you follow a ridge above Charlotte Lake.
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Charlotte Lake and the Charlotte Creek Valley (pictured: Icebreaker merino wool half zip pullover)
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View of the Charlotte Creek Valley from the ridge above Charlotte Lake.
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After you pass the Charlotte Lake Valley, the trail begins a steady climb up through a valley and to Glen Pass (prAna women’s halle pants)
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View of the Valley you hike into before reaching the final climb to Glen Pass.
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There are some small drainage ponds and lakes within the valley, which makes for great views.
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Hiking along the trail towards the Glen Pass.
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Looking back at the reflections
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Before the final ascent up Glen Pass you reach a lake that has crystal blue water. This is a nice spot for a short break. The lake sits at 11,260 feet.
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The water of the 11,260 foot elevation lake was so clear.
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You then hike up the ascent to Glen Pass. This view is looking back at some hikers climbing up the pass. The lake in view sits at 11.530 feet. The climb is tough and steep, but the views from Glen Pass are worth it!
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Group of hikers enjoying the view from the top of Glen Pass at 11.926 feet elevation.
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View looking down at the Rae Lakes basin from the top of Glen Pass.
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You then hike down the other side of Glen Pass to reach Rae Lakes. The trail cross the snow patch on the right side of this image. There are many switchbacks on the way down.
kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-hiking-down-glen-pass
After the switchbacks, the trail reaches a ridge above Rae Lakes and slowly works its way down to the shore of the lakes (pictured: Osprey Atmos 65 Liter pack).
kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-down-glen-pass-streams
As you make the final descent to Rae Lakes, the trail crosses several streams that feed into the lakes.
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View of the streams and meadow near Rae Lakes with the Painted Lake rock structure in the background.
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There is a land bridge between the two Rae Lakes that the trail crosses. We camped on the land bridge and there are several developed campsites there.
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View of the Painted Lady from the shore of one of the Rae Lakes.
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Setting up camp near one of the Rae Lakes. We camped on the Isthmus between the first two lakes (pictured: MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent) (credit: Ben Chen)
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The trout fishing was excellent at Rae Lakes though the mosquitoes were out in force Pendleton Wool Long Sleeve Board Shirt and Minus33 Merino Wool Kancamagus Midweight Leggings)
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View of our Rae Lakes campsite at night with the Milky Way above.

At the lakes we all pulled out our fishing gear and went after the trout.  I caught about 8 small trout and we filleted and ate a handful of them. I had good luck with Panther Martin Spinners. For tackle, I used my 4 piece travel fishing rod and a compact reel. Some people were fly fishing and they also had good luck.

After fishing and dinner, we relaxed and hung out by the lakes at dawn.  When the sun was totally down, the stars put on a great show.

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Day 3: 12.7 miles; +400 feet / -4,000 feet; Rae Lakes to Woods Creek Crossing

kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-Day-3-map
Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 3 Hike (red)

Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 3 Hike (pdf)

kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-day-3-elevation
Approximate elevation profile for the Rae Lakes Loop Day 3 hike.

 

The hike on the 3rd day was the longest (~13 miles) but was mostly downhill.  The main issue was that it got very hot near the end of the hike. Other than that, the hike was manageable.

The hike begins with a ~7 mile trek out of the Rae Lakes Basin area before meeting up with Woods Creek.  At Woods Creek you cross a suspension bridge, and then take the Woods Creek Trail the remaining ~6 miles until you reach the South Fork of the Kings River.  We crossed the bridge (actually it’s damaged as of August 2017) over the Kings River and then made camp in the trees nearby the river.  There is a nice area of the Kings river that pools near the bride and is great for taking a dip and rinsing off.

This hike was very scenic and had some great views.  At the beginning you get to hike past several lakes in the Rae Lakes area.  Then, as you follow the Woods Creek you get to see some very impressive rock structures.

kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-morning-view
Reflections in the still water at Rae Lakes in the morning.
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The trail continues across the land bridge and along the shore of the Rae Lakes (credit: Kirk Y)
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The trail then goes along the east edge of the second Rae Lake. You get nice views of the Fin Dome along the way.
kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-fin-dome-reflection
Reflection from the Fin Dome on the still water of one of the Rae Lakes.
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Looking back at the land bridge between the two Rae Lakes.
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After you make it beyond the Rae Lakes, the trail goes through a meadow before reaching Arrowhead Lake.
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The first inlet for Arrowhead Lake.
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Panoramic view of the inlet to Arrowhead Lake.
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Arrowhead Lake along the Rae Lakes Loop.
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After hiking past Arrowhead Lake, the trail skirts by Dollar Lake (credit: Kirk Y)
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After passing Dollar Lake, the trail meanders into a large valley with mountains on either side. The views in the canyon are fantastic.
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Panoramic shot of the trail meandering through the valley.
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Hiking through the South Fork valley towards the Woods Creek Bridge.
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The trail begins a descent into the valley as you approach the Woods Creek suspension bridge.
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The suspension bridge that crosses Woods Creek (credit: Kirk Y). You reach this at roughly the 7 mile mark. After crossing you take the trail that follows Woods Creek to the west.
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The trail follows the Woods Creek west through a valley. Eventually you reach the Castle Domes Meadow.
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The Castle Domes rock structure can be seen from the valley (credit: Kirk Y.)
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The trail eventually reaches a crossing of the South Fork of the Kings River. This bridge used to cross the river, but has been washed out since 2017. A new bridge is expected in 2020.
kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-crossing-kings-river-Miguel_Vieira
View of the Kings River and mountain background from the bridge (credit: Miguel V). Shortly after crossing the bridge, the trail enters the forest and there are some developed campsites.

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Day 4: 9.6 miles; +450 feet / -2,300 feet; Woods Creek to Roads End

kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-Day-4-map
Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 4 Hike (yellow)

Map of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 4 Hike (pdf)

 

kings-canyon-rae-lakes-loop-day-4-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Rae Lakes Loop Day 4 hike.

The last day’s hike is again mostly downhill along the Paradise Valley Trail.  I didn’t take too many pictures on this hike because my battery was nearly dead. The trail meanders alongside the South Fork of the Kings River and goes in and out of the forest.  Some of the forest areas were full of mosquitoes, so be sure to choose your lunch spots carefully.

The highlight of the hike was stopping at Mist Falls, which is ~5.5 miles into the hike.  Once you reach the falls, there is a very short scramble from the trail down to the base of the waterfall.  At the base there are some nice rocks to sit on and have lunch.  It makes for a great spot to take a break.  The last 4 miles of the hike have some nice views of The Sphynx rock structure and of the Kings River.  We encountered a rattle snake and a black bear in this area though, so be alert.

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First views of the Sphynx from the Paradise Valley Trail. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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The Paradise Valley Trail goes in and out of the forest. (credit: Miguel Vieira)
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The trail continues through the valley and you get varying views of The Sphinx (credit: Kirk Y)
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View of the Sphinx from area of the trail that reaches a large granite outcrop.
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The top of Mist Falls as seen from the Paradise Valley Trail (credit: Kirk Y)
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Trail that leads down to Mist Falls (credit: Gabriel Rodriguez)
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View of Mist Falls from the side trail that leads down to the bottom of the falls (credit: Kirk Y.)
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Mist Falls, a great lunch spot about 4 miles from Roads End along the Paradise Valley Trail. (credit: Vlad Butsky)
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Paradise Valley Trail along the Kings River. (credit: Gabriel Rodriguez)
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Paradise Valley Trail along the Kings River. (credit: Kirk Y)
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Towards the end of the trail, the Paradise Valley Trail re-enters the forest. (credit: Miguel Vieira)

Eventually the Paradise Valley Trail meets up with the Kanawyers Trail.  For the final 2 miles you must hike on this sandy and hot trail before reaching the Roads End station.  The sandy footing was especially annoying with sore knees and hips after a 40 mile loop.  Soon we reached the trailhead though and drank a bunch of water.

After we finished up the hike, we walked ~5 minutes to the Kings River right near the Roads End parking lot.  There was a nice pebble beach here and we got in the river to cool down and rinse off.  This felt great after finishing up the last hike of the loop.

kings-canyon-rae-lakes-beach-roads-end
There is a pebble beach located right near the Ranger Station and parking lot.

All in all, this is a great backpacking loop.  The scenery is great and the route is set up perfectly for a 40 mile loop.  The only disadvantage in my mind is that the loop is so popular it can be difficult to find solitude.

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7 Replies to “Rae Lakes Loop – Kings Canyon National Park Backpacking (41 mile loop)”

  1. This is such a helpful resource. Thank you for putting it together! I’m hiking the Rae Lakes Loop counterclockwise in July and am so glad to find such an informative guide to this trip. Thanks again!

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    1. I hope you have a great trip in July! Just remember that the bridge at the South Fork Kings River is still out and you will need to ford the river to cross. The water levels may be down in July, but it’s always good to check with the rangers ahead of time!

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