The tail end of Vidette Meadows is nestled in what feels like a small corner of the Sierra, tucked between the Bubb's Creek drainage south, the rise of Glen Pass to the north, and the valley holding the Bubb's Creek outflow west, to the great Kings River. With the exception of the creek run, it's a pocket, the bottom of a bowl, nowhere to go but up. In the morning, it is calm, wet with a bit of fog from the nearby water, shrouded in darkness until the sun crests the mountaintops. The trees provide a blanket of soft pine needles, the undergrowth delights in the moisture along the creek. It's the greenest area southbound until New Army Pass, and Cottonwood. Until then, it's all granite and open skies. And the occasional marmot.
I woke up with the world still dark, with the first hint of sun just touching the peaks. Triumphant from an easy climb up Forester, I ignored Elizabeth Wenk's words about giving Glen Pass its respect. At under 12,000', how could it possibly stack up with the huge climb of yesterday? This is-- specifically-- the situation warned about. Having learned my lesson from previous days, I set out after a hearty breakfast. A deer kept me company, a few switchbacks ahead for about a half mile. We would stop to take snack breaks every now and again-- it was made clear that she set the pace. Any time I'd get going before she was ready, I received a look that just said 'really?' as though I was a nagging parent. A fawn ran onto the trail and they headed east together. While unlikely, it may have been because, at this very moment, a backpacker was playing tug-of-war with an adolescent black bear over a backpack full of food at nearby Charlotte Lake-- my planned camping spot for the previous night. I would later hear a very lively retelling of these events by associated parties at Sandy Junction, a fraction of a mile away from the lake, all parties safe. I wondered if bears like olive oil; my bottle didn't fit in my bear can yet, and with the planned camp being Charlotte-- well, as they say-- the trail provides.
The trail turned away from the verdant glacial valleys, the sun now fully illuminating the slopes, King's Canyon visible to the west, and turned up toward Glen itself. Wind-gnarled pine trees scattered themselves across the boulder fields, campsites tucked between. The sun grew hot as I approached Glen; as with Forester, the path was not clear, but as I climbed into narrower and higher bowls, the ridge revealed itself, made of the same striated rock that made the nearby Painted Lady so iconic. Rows of a sedimentary red run alongside crumbling yellows and sharp greys, hints of green, hints of blue. A stunningly clear, deep tarn was tucked away in the highest reach of the climb, with the pass in sight. Were Rae Lakes not so close on the far side, and with the hardest part of the ascent underway, maybe it would've made for a scenic swim.
Lake 11532. Glen Pass is the notch at the top left. The trail gains the ridge out of image. The final few switchbacks are visible top-left, just left of the steepest scree.
The view from the top of Glen Pass was worth the difficult climb. Back south, the view was largely blocked by the circuitous route upward. But northward, Rae Lakes lay beyond a plateau of tarns, the tarns deep blue in the peculiar lifeless way that the High Sierra can be, Rae Lakes appearing as one large continuous body criss-crossed with narrow fingers of land, little peninsulas breaking up the water mass. In keeping with the trend of pass north faces, the descent was largely treeless, and the day was only getting hotter. While it was unfortunate that the unseasonably warm weather was continuing as I moved north, the promise of cool water promised some reprieve.
Glen Pass north, Rae Lakes beyond the plateau.
As I tore downward, rushing with the intent to get out of the heat, the scree gave way to talus, the talus to brush, the brush to trees, in the now-familiar cadence of altitude bands. Sipping on my last quarter liter of water, I looked forward to filtering at Rae Lakes. The crowds had increased, too. Where the back side of Whitney through Forester was relatively off the beaten path, Kearsarge Pass, near Charlotte Lake, was one of the most popular entry points into the Sierra east. And with Rae Lakes so accessible, I understand why-- it's a gem of the backcountry made within a day's journey from the parking lot. The Rae Lakes Loop is the most popular hike in the Sierra, often starting just past my camp, out of Road's End. So between JMT section hikes, Loop hikers, day-trip ultrarunners, and SHRs starting or ending, the trail was 'busy'. Heading north at a decent clip, I saw nearly everyone, maybe 15 folks spread out over 6 groups. In a normal year, I'd expect double, triple that, easily, but COVID, the heat wave, and the threatening fires dissuaded many would-be hikers. Two of the SOBO JMT groups were woefully short on food, days ahead of schedule and needing to press some long miles to finish in time. The lack of a hiker box at MTR or Red's was hitting people hard.
As I reached Rae Lakes, I peeled off the trail at the first available opportunity to get in the water. A small use trail led steeply down a bank to a sandy beach, the sand trailing away into the immediately-deep water, down to the deep-blue vanishing point. Small fish flitted around water striders, a stray mosquito buzzed here and there, a gentle breeze kept the bug pressure low. An island beckoned, the tumbled granite on the far side of the lake seemed to have been tossed there carelessly by a glacier long-past. The water was cool, and I swam for a few minutes, exiting the lake feeling refreshed. I complain about being cold all the time in temperate LA, so I'm sure the lake was amazing swimming for those more inclined. A few minutes was more than good enough for me!
My peaceful little beach, the island blending in with the right-side far shore.
In my mind, I had crossed Rae Lakes off the list, and was ready to get underway toward the next destination. But I wasn't anticipating the sheer beauty of the next section of trail. The path winds its way along the banks of Rae Lakes, crossing the main body of water here and there. In many sections, the trail winds directly above the surface of the water, balanced between a granite slab and the lake. The breeze making ripples in the water, the ever-present mountains in the background, and the immaculate water made for an incredible scene. I had wrongly assumed Rae Lakes was all hype-- and while I stand by the statement that it may be too busy to be worth the while during a standard year, I can't deny that I was blown away by the beauty; it was absolutely stunning. If you're on a longer hike that brings you in the neighborhood, it's definitely worth a stop. I maintain that other areas of the Sierra like the Tablelands, or the high basins of the Triple Divide and the Black Divide, have a higher grandeur/crowd ratio-- I'm sure my bias for Lodgepole is evident. I also think I'm more crowd-averse than the average hiker, even without COVID, so take that as context.
A walk along Rae Lakes.
The descent from Rae Lakes once past Arrowhead and Dollar lakes went slower than I expected. The heat was brutal, as I dropped in elevation, and though I had planned to end up just shy of Pinchot Pass, the weather was calling that plan into question. This was the first of several slog-like descents on the JMT that I struggled to find the joy in. The heat, the often-poor footing, the monotonous descent, and nascent knee pain all combined to sap a little joy out of the experience. Luckily, it's hard to get too disheartened on the trail-- a quick breather and a glance at the scenery are more often that not a quick return to high spirits. It was a long way down, but a pleasant surprise was waiting at the bottom: that one bridge from every PCT/JMT vlog! Turns out it's at the Woods Creek junction. So, when in Rome:
Near the end of the day, feeling a bit ragged, and still slightly behind the pace, I recommitted myself to the uphill. Ideally, and according to plan, I'd set up a handful of miles below Pinchot, hitting the pass first thing in the morning; as always, flexibility and some degree of kindness to my body had to take precedence. But as the sun tucked itself behind the east ridge, quickly replaced by a gathering thunderstorm, my decision got made for me. Hopper and I-- oh, more on him later-- hurried toward the stand of trees a mile or two up the trail, racing the rain. While water is easily accessible on this section of trail, parallel to the Woods Creek north tributary, campsites with good water access are less so. The canyon walls rise sharply from the water, and until that stand of trees, sites are either dry, exposed, too close to the river (per SEKI rules and best practices), or all of these things. And so we hurried on, clouds darkening, thundercracks pealing out over the mountaintops, the sun fading behind the ridge. Mercifully, as the first drops of rain splattered onto the ground, the storm took a hard turn over the ridge. The trail provides.
Despite the weather factor being removed, it was too much to ask our tired legs to charge further up the hill having found an excellent site. Word on the street was that sites past the grove deteriorated in quality quickly, becoming far too exposed for comfort. We found the site occupied, but Timmy and Katie-- more on them later-- kindly offered us some space. We all settled in, treated to an incredible sunset as the clouds threw shadow and color on the rocks down the Woods Creek drainage.
Woods Creek south, a few miles south of Pinchot Pass
Stats for the day:
+4100' / -4300'