Rae Lakes and the Kings Canyon High Country, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14146A, Backpack


  • Cross the Sierra crest to hike a spectacular segment of the John Muir Trail
  • Enjoy expansive vistas and sparkling lakes
  • Climb a peak, explore, or relax on a planned layover day


  • Great meals for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike
  • All group cooking gear and bear canisters
  • Dinner and campsite before the hike


DatesAug 30–Sep 6, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffDave Bugay

Trip Overview

The Trip

We enter the Kings Canyon high country from the east side of the Sierra Nevada, starting at 9,200-foot Onion Valley and crossing the Sierra crest at 11,800-foot Kearsarge Pass on our very first day. Eight days later, we’ll again cross the Sierra crest -- this time over 11,300-foot Sawmill Pass -- and exit by way of the seldom-used Sawmill Creek Trail. In between, we stay high to sample some of the very best of the Kings Canyon high country. We’ll cross 11,942-foot Glen Pass, with expansive views in all directions, and journey alongside the Sierra crest for most of three days on a beautiful section of the John Muir Trail.

We will spend two nights in the spectacular Rae Lakes area -- a short move of our campsite is required. Several days will have short hikes, which will allow afternoons for exploring, peak bagging, or just relaxing in camp. We’ll camp above 10,000 feet every night but one. Join us if you seek the adventure and wonder of hiking a high, mostly-on-trail route through some truly spectacular scenery.

Our hiking schedule is not rigid. How far we get each day and where we camp depends on how we feel, the weather, and other factors outside of our control. There may be portions of the route that were not scouted by the leaders before the trip -- some additional scouting may be required during the trip. Flexibility is important. The itinerary described here should be taken as a general plan, and the actual route and schedule may well depart from this plan.


Day 1: Our trip officially starts at 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 30 when we will meet at a campground (campsites and dinner are provided for this evening) near the Onion Valley trailhead. We will have to shuttle a few cars to the Sawmill trailhead, which is our exit location. In the morning, we will serve an early breakfast and prepare to start our hike.

Day 2: After breakfast, we will drive to the trailhead, where we will begin the climb to Kearsarge Pass. The distance is not great (about 4.5 miles), but we will ascend nearly 2,700 feet with our heaviest packs of the trip, so we will take it slow and easy. From the pass, we will continue another two miles to Kearsarge Lakes, where we will make our first camp.

Day 3: Our second hiking day takes us up over Glen Pass (11,978 feet) to our destination at Rae Lakes. The distance is 8 miles, but we will climb 1,200 feet and descend 1,400 feet.

Day 4: Today will require a short move of our camp, as regulations will limit our stay at a single campsite to one night. After setting up camp, we will have the remainder of the day to explore the Rae Lakes area, visit Sixty Lake Basin (limit of eight), or just relax in camp.

Day 5: For the next four days we head generally northward, hiking parallel to the Sierra crest on the John Muir Trail. We leave Rae Lakes and continue north on the Muir Trail. We start by descending until we get to Woods Creek; from there we climb 1.5 miles to camp near Woods Creek. Distance: 8 miles; losing 2,000 feet, gaining 600 feet.

Day 6: Today we hike to the Sawmill Pass Trail. We intend to camp for the evening near Woods Lake.  Total hiking distance is 4.5 miles. Elevation gain is 1,800 feet.  Our plan is to arrive in camp early to allow for afternoon exploring or just enjoying the beautiful scenery. 

Day 7: We will climb over Sawmill Pass and we will camp at Sawmill Lake. Distance 4 miles; gaining 500 feet, losing 1,300 feet. 

Day 8: On the final day we will descend along Sawmill Creek to our exit trailhead. We will descend 5,400 feet over 8.5 miles.



Getting There

Our trip officially starts at 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 30 when we will meet at a campground near the Onion Valley trailhead. The trip will end as we exit on the Sawmill Pass Trail on September 6.  Please remember to not book return flights until September 7 or later.

Onion Valley is located a few miles west of the town of Independence, CA, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada -- about 225 miles from Los Angeles, 240 miles from Las Vegas, 245 miles from Reno, or 340 miles from San Francisco. Trip members arriving from other parts of the country should explore the option of flying to one of these major cities and sharing a rental car or arranging a ride. We will send a trip roster to all participants well before the trip in order to help facilitate ride-sharing. Specific driving directions will also be sent before departure.

Accommodations and Food

We will plan a diverse and appealing menu to accommodate both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. We plan to include dairy, but not gluten free. Responsibility for cooking will be shared among the trip members. Our first meal will be dinner the evening of Saturday, August 30, and our last meal will be a light lunch on September 6.

Trip Difficulty

The overall trip is rated 3 on the 1-5 rating scale. This trip is physically very demanding. A training and conditioning program will be necessary to achieve the required level of fitness.

We plan to hike seven or fewer miles on all days except days three, five, and eight. Our trip will be almost entirely on trails.

Our greatest elevation gain comes on the first day, when we will climb about 2,700 feet on a well-graded trail to cross Kearsarge Pass. Two subsequent days will also have elevation gains greater than 1,500 feet. The total elevation gain summed over all moving days will be about 8,200 feet. We will descend 5,400 feet on the last day of our trip. Except for one segment on day five, we will be above 10,000 feet from the morning of the first day until the morning of the final day. The high elevation of the hike also contributes to the difficulty of the trip.

In years with high snowfall, late-melting snow on the high passes may also make hiking more difficult.

Participation in this outing requires that you be in good shape and have backpacking experience. Very good aerobic conditioning is essential. Our objectives are to enjoy some spectacular country and to complete the trip safely as a group.

Equipment and Clothing

A list of suggested personal equipment will be sent to all participants. (If you would like the list before signing up, let the leader know and he will send you a copy.) Each person should keep the weight of personal gear (including your backpack) below 25 pounds so that, with the addition of approximately 15 to 20 pounds of commissary equipment and food, total pack weight will be less than 45 pounds at the start.

We will provide all food and cooking equipment, although you must bring your own eating utensils. Some of the group equipment is relatively bulky; particularly pot sets and bear canisters. Your pack should be sufficiently large to carry an item about the size of a full paper grocery bag (alternatively, four or five one-gallon milk jugs) in addition to your personal gear.

A couple of additional remarks on shelter and raingear: although Sierra summers are generally relatively dry, you still must be prepared for rain. For shelter, tents with rainflys are strongly encouraged, and lightweight waterproof tarps are the required minimum. Where possible, we will help participants contact other trip members who want to share shelters. For clothing, you should bring a waterproof jacket and rainpants rather than a poncho.


Please plan on bringing your own map and compass -- not only is this a matter of safety, but you will have a better appreciation of where we are going and where we have been.


Maps covering our route include:

  • Four U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute quadrangles: Mt. Pinchot, Mt. Clarence King, Aberdeen, and Kearsarge Peak.
  • The Kings Canyon High Country map published by Tom Harrison Maps.
  • The two-sheet map set for the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia/Kings Canyon Wilderness published by the U.S. Forest Service.
  • The out-of-print U.S.G.S. 15-rninute Mt. Pinchot quadrangle.


  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada . The California Academy of Sciences. An excellent guide to the plants and wildlife of the Sierra Nevada.
  • Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. The Mountaineers. An excellent general reference to trails and climbing routes in the Sierra Nevada.


The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines "wilderness" as "an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor." This important act first established the National Wilderness Preservation System, originally protecting nine million acres of national forest lands. It's notable that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of this important legislation.  Over the years the system was expanded significantly; the last expansion took place in March 2009 when congress expanded the Wilderness system by another two million acres. Today some 108 million acres are encompassed by the system, including the John Muir Wilderness and the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, where we will be "visitors" for most of our trip.

The magnificent wildlands of the Eastern Sierra are home to over 35% of California’s native species, 200 endemic plants and unique animals, and some of the most spectacular scenery and recreational opportunities in the world. Upwards of 90% of the land in the Eastern Sierra is public land managed either by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service. However, although much of the high and mountainous portion of the Eastern Sierra -- such as the region we visit on our trip -- has been designated as Wilderness, the vast majority of these Eastern Sierra public lands still do not have Wilderness designation. This land where the desert meets the mountains deserves diligent protection.

The Sierra Club is currently working extensively on the concept of resilient habitats. Its website explains: "Climate change is the largest threat that our natural heritage has ever faced. The effects of climate disruption are already being felt on even our most pristine landscapes. Setting aside areas where development is restricted is no longer enough -- we must now actively work to create resilient habitats where plants, animals, and people are able to survive and thrive on a warmer planet." The vision of the Sierra Club is to create climate-resilient habitats in 10 targeted ecosystems by 2020. One of these areas is the Sierra Nevada, where we will spend our entire trip.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.


Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest.



Dave is a relative newcomer to backpacking, having led a group of Boy Scouts through Philmont in 1998. Dave resumed backpacking in 2001 as a Sierra Club participant, and has been on several trips since. Dave has led or assisted Sierra Club trips each year, starting in 2007. Each year Dave looks forward to trekking the High Sierra with like-minded people from around the country.

Assistant Leader:

An outdoor enthusiast, Lisa Tobe has been backpacking for over 20 years in various places, among them the 211-mile John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevadas. Lisa enjoys playing ultimate disc, telemark and water skiing, mountain and road biking, rock climbing, and peak bagging. She helped lead her first Sierra Club outing in 1997 and rejoined the National Outing group in 2005. Lisa, a spoken word artist from Kentucky, uses words to explore her life and her surroundings through memoir, poetry, and theatrical sketches.

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