Rae Lakes

As my permit dates for Rae Lakes began approaching, I started watching the weather forecasts with more interest. Initially, this was to figure out what I might need to pack. But as the days became closer and closer, I became more concerned about the conditions I might find myself in. This was going to be my first multi-day solo trip, so I was trending toward being extra cautious about the journey. Initially, the forecast called for a warm start, followed by a 20% chance of thunderstorms for the rest of the trip. That is manageable, as thunderstorms are common in the latter part of the day. But each day, the forecast kept trending in the wrong direction. That 20-30% chance became 30-40%, then 40-50%. In addition, the weather service also issued a Fire Weather Warning (which was later changed to a Red Flag Warning) for late Monday afternoon through Tuesday evening. They warned of dry lightning triggering fires and the high winds creating the possibility of it becoming fast-moving. Not really the conditions that I looked forward to hiking into. As I sat in my hotel in Visalia, I reached out to some of my more experienced backpacking buddies (David & Leslie/Mike) to get their take. They all agreed that it did not look like it was going to be a fun trip. The general consensus was to go ahead, get up early as planned and drive the 2 hours to Road’s End and consult with the ranger. If I liked what I heard, continue on to the first campsite and spend the night. Then I could make the call and decide if I want to continue or simply turn back. With that, I set my alarm for 4 am, and hit the pillow.

When I woke up. I checked the latest weather report and saw that it was looking more like 50-60% of thunderstorms and showers as well were now in the forecast. Given I had not camped in the rain, doing it for multiple days seemed like a poor option. I got to the permit station just a touch after 7 am. I spoke with Ranger Mary about the forecast and what her thoughts were. She basically asked, “How much do you like being wet?” That settled it, no loop for me this time, but I was still game for one night in the wilderness! So, I parked in the long-term lot, finished getting ready, and hit the trailhead just before 8 am. The forecast for Upper Paradise was to be in the low 80s, with a light breeze. I had hoped that my early start would let me stay ahead of the heat. I had not paid attention to the forecasted high, so I had no idea exactly what I might be racing against.

The trail is fairly flat for the first 1.9 miles until it reaches the junction of the Kings River and Bubbs Creek. Here I would take the left fork and begin ascending toward Paradise Valley. The sounds of the river were so refreshing. The views were as incredible as I had imagined. It was getting warmer as I pushed on. I had a liter of water in my interior water bladder, a liter in a side bottle, and 1 liter of Gatorade. I could feel my pace slow. At first, I thought I might be the added weight of 5 days of food, the extra clothing, and other items making it tougher. But, as I felt the sweat begin to soak my shirt, I knew that day was warmer than I had hoped for. 

At Mist Falls I took an extended break. Ate some of the oranges I brought for the first day and drank some more fluids. I decided to spend a bit of time in the shade and recharge before pressing on. Most everyone here were day-hikers. Oh, how I coveted their small light packs… I pressed on, being mindful of the temperatures. I dug out my cooling towel and wrapped it around my neck. 

I kept finding myself looking for a place to sit under some shade for a bit. I checked my position and the topography ahead of me. I gave serious consideration to throwing in the towel and bailing. I found another rest stop and refilled my side bottle with some cool water from the river (properly filtered of course). I finished my oranges but still could not think about having my proper lunch. I knew that this was not a good sign, so I tore open one of my goos and forced it down. 

As I made my way across the exposed switchbacks, I estimated the temperatures were either in the upper 80s or low 90s. This was going to take some serious effort if I was actually going to make camp. My spirits were getting crushed. I would move from shady section to shady section, pausing for a bit almost every time. Once I reached the southern end of the valley, I took another break and was able to eat my lunch. I again went to the river to filter more water, as my bladder had been completely emptied by this point. Rechecking the map, I was not too far from Middle Paradise campsite, so I pressed on. 

Passing through Lower Paradise, I could see the numerous dead trees and why this campsite is currently closed. I then spied the bear locker at Middle Paradise and said this was as far as I was going to go. I was the only one here, so picked a nice spot a bit back from the water, hoping the bugs would not be an issue. Thankfully, for most of the hike, they were not too bad.

I got some more water and then began to set up camp for the night. It was only 3:30 or so, but I just did not have the energy to hike another 2 or so miles to Upper Paradise. Eventually, 3 other hikers joined me at the site. And not soon after that, a doe strolled past us with not a care in the world. While soaking my feet in the cool water, I used my InReach to report in with my wife and give her my status.

My site had a fire ring, so I had planned for a small fire to pass the time later. I gathered some starter material and placed the pine needles in the pit. I then set off to find some downed wood that I could use. I started to smell the familiar smell of a campfire. I figured it must be from further down the trail. According to GaiaGPS, the Middle Paradise campsite was further north. I then looked over to the fire pit, and the started material had begun to smolder on its own! It seems the last users of this firepit had not properly put it out. Thankfully, I took care of it, but I was pissed. 

About 4 to 6 other hikers passed on through, pushing on toward Upper Paradise. I would say now that I had an extended break here, I probably could have pushed on. But, I was fine spending the night here. Later in the early evening, two more hikers also decided to find a spot to pitch their tents. It was one of them who spotted the bear as it passed around us. We watched it as it took a look at us. It looked to be about 2-3 years old and did not seem to have any tags or collar. Eventually, it wandered away. I certainly was going to be a bit more cautious for the evening. Since I was not needing 5 days of food I treated myself to a double dinner, being a bit more mindful of any unwanted company. 

With plenty of water to manage my fire, I sat and enjoyed the flames. I reflected on what I had overcome. I let the fire die down until only the embers remained, I doused it with my water pouches and made sure it was out. I had really wanted to gaze up at the night sky from Rae Lakes, but this view would have to do. The night was pleasant, I slept without the cover on my tent and just my camp shirt on. Once the moon rose, it did wake me once, but even that was a welcomed sight. As the pre-dawn broke, I found myself rested and ready to head back out. The other folks were going to continue on to Woods Creek and then see what the weather held. I did briefly consider it, but in the end, felt it best to stick to the one night.

I repacked my bag, trying to be mindful of the other campers. I knew I was hiking down into the heat, so I wanted an earlier start. Not ten minutes on the trail, I spotted that same bear dashing in front of me and then stopping a safe distance away. I kept my face toward him as I continued carefully down the trail. Two hikers passed me before I reach Lower Paradise, and I gave them each a heads up about my earlier bear sighting. Upon reaching Lower Paradise there were two folks who had ignored the closure notice and camped there. I let them know as well. 

The miles slipped by much easier, the pack a little lighter, the temperatures pleasant and mostly going downhill. I stopped at Mist Falls, and this time the entire area was empty. I sat a listened to the roar of the river tumbling down. When I went to put my pack back on, the sternum strap snapped. Crud! Maybe this was a sign that turning back was a good idea. Also, I did discover a hole in one of my pairs of Darn Tough Socks…. About ¾ of a mile past Mist Falls, I meet my first day-hikers. A family was taking a break and politely asked if I had bug spray. The bugs had been worse today. In fact, at Mist Falls, I broke out the bug net. I turned around and told the father which pocket to find it in. They were so happy. We chatted some before we each headed our separate ways. 

As I made my way along the trail, a mule train was making its way up, I assume to resupply the ranger station at Rae Lakes. I stepped aside and let them pass. Now I would watch out for fresh droppings on the trail. A bit further down, I met two more day-hikers, they told me they just encountered a rattlesnake slithering off the trail. Sure, enough it was just off to the side, minding its own business. I safely snapped a photo or two and continued on. 

I started to encounter a mix of day-hikers and those still heading out to attempt the loop. I let the backpackers know about my bear sighting at Middle Paradise and wished them well. Soon, I found myself back at the junction of Bubbs Creek and the Kings River. I hoped to cross that bridge upon my return from the loop. But this time just a quick stroll on it would have to do.

The day was getting much warmer, and I could feel the need to drink more and more as I covered the last couple of miles. I found myself drifting from shady section to shady section again. I was guessing it was in the mid to upper 80s. I would know soon enough once I got to the car. It was about 10:30, and I met someone just heading out. We chatted a bit, he had just landed a walk-up permit. He had hoped to have the ability to send a message to his wife, but couldn’t. So I offered to pass along his itinerary for him once I was able to.

Finally, the permit station came into view. I spoke with the ranger and gave him my bear sighting information, as well as the camping at Lower Paradise and the fire issue. The area is now at Stage 3 fire restrictions, so the small fire I had is no longer allowed.  Once at the car, I cleaned up some, then threw on some shorts and a t-shirt. Unfortunately, I also developed a nice blister on my toe. I had felt something earlier, but when I checked my foot, I did not see it. I guess it was another sign that I made the right call. I picked out some snacks for the ride home, but the trail mix was not going to be one of the options, as it had melted into a mass of goo. Yeah, it had been warm on this hike. As I pulled away, heading toward Cedar Grove for some cold soda and a snack, I waited for the car’s thermometer to settle down. It read 95°F at 11 am. Yikes! That would explain why I had so much trouble, it was even hotter than I planned. 

As I drove up out of Kings Canyon, I pulled over at a nice vista and could see the start of the clouds forming in the distance. I decided to take the long way home and drive through Sequoia National Park. I did not plan to stop, I just wanted to enjoy the trees and views. Once back off the mountain, I headed back through Bakersfield, this time stopping at Dewar’s to pick up some chews for the family. All in all, it was an adventure to build on. Except for the one-two punch of the heat and the predicted rain, the trip went mostly well. Maybe in the early fall, I might find an opportunity to try again…

The forecast on Monday.

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