Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop

Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop

By Natalie Bladis, TMS Ambassador

The Rae Lakes Loop through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is one of the premier backpacking loops in the high sierra. The loop is typically 41.4 miles if you start from Roads End on the west side of the sierras. A more beautiful version of the loop starts at Onion Valley out of Lone Pine on the east side of the sierra. This is a more desirable starting point for many Truckee/Tahoe locals for a variety of reasons. First, the loop is slightly longer this way (54.2 miles) and ascends the stunning Kearsarge pass. Second, you can get a free permit through the US Forest Service, bypassing the red tape of the national parks (but still getting to legally enjoy them). The easiest place to obtain last minute permits in the White Mountain Public Lands Information Center located at 798 North Main Street in Bishop, CA, they are open from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily in the summers. I suggest getting there bright and early (there is usually a line) and sending one person in your party across the street to Schatt’s Bakery for breakfast/pastries/day old goods to take on the trail with you. 

Once on the trail, I recommend doing the loop counterclockwise. Our itinerary was as follows:

Day 1 – 14.4 Miles, Onion Valley Trailhead to Kearsarge pass, over Glen Pass and down to Rae Lakes.

We camped right in the thick of the Rae Lakes underneath the Painted Lady Massif. 

Image from the descent off of Kearsarge Pass heading toward Glen Pass. 
The Painted Lady Massif as seen from our first campsite on Rae Lakes. 

Day 2 – 13.8 Miles, Rae Lakes to Castle Valley Domes.

We camped right below the castle Valley Domes, which have a few remote alpine trad climbs on them that we wanted to gaze up at. Special Note – We attempted to link the Sixty Lakes Trail to the Gardiner Lake Tail by going over a small pass off trail. The snow was too steep for our micro spikes to feel comfortable so we bailed off this loop and opted to finish the traditional Rae Lakes Loop. I will be back to try this loop again. 

View of the sixty lakes from our failed attempt to get to Gardiner Lake. 
Lounging on one of the many Rae Lakes. 
Lower Rae Lakes as seen from the hike down to Castle Valley. 
Sunrise on the Castle Valley Domes for our second campsite. 

Day 3 – 27.2 Miles, Castle Valley Domes to Bull Frog Lake.

We choose to have three small days and this one big milage day because the trail in this section is considerable less beautiful (it is sub-alpine for most of it). You are along a creek the whole time but we opted to hike far and fast to reach the alpine again.

Late the third day on mile 26 (or so) looking back towards the east and west spur. Day 4 – 7.3 Miles, Bullfrog Lake over Kearsarge Pass back to Onion Valley.
View of Kearsarge Lakes on the way back up the pass looking out over the Kearsarge Pinnacles. 

This loop is one I have been meaning to do for years and it did not disappoint. Our final mileage total for the 4 days was 62.7 with the detour up to Sixty Lakes trying to get to Gardiner pass on the second day. Gear Recommendations for the loop – Ice axes and Micro Spikes for Glen Pass in the early season or high snow year. 

Natalie descending Kearsarge Pass. 

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Natalie is a backcountry skier, climber, mountaineer and trail runner based in Truckee, CA. She is a middle school and high school math and art teacher at Tahoe Expedition Academy. In her spare time, she gardens, does yoga, and is a potter.


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