JMT, Day 9: Over Glen Pass and Beyond Rae Lakes

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Charlotte Lake to Dollar Lake, 8.5 miles

We both slept solidly last night, and it is hard to get moving at 6 when the alarm goes off. We are eager to get to Rae Lakes, so we reluctantly get moving and hit the trail by 8. First comes the 1.5 mile/600’ climb out of Charlotte Lake and back to the main trail. We hop back on the JMT at Sandy Junction, and soon we are hiking up high above Charlotte Lake and last night’s campsite. We also catch a glimpse of Charlotte Dome (at least we think) where last night’s neighbors are climbing today. Matt looks for them with his binoculars but cannot spot them yet.

The trail today takes us up, up, up towards 12,000’ Glen Pass, and we pass two beautiful trail-side tarns. The first one is the prettiest body of water we have seen so far on the JMT. It is so icy blue in color that it almost looks fake. It’s hard to keep our eyes off of it as we start switchbacking up the side of the mountain.

Glen Pass is now our 4th big challenge on the JMT, and, even though it is lower than Forester Pass and Mt. Whitney, we find this pass to be a lot tougher. The trail is made up mostly of rocky steps—some small, some giant—and it’s really difficult to get a good rhythm going. I have to stop and catch my breath often with this unsteady pace, and, though we are both eager to get to the top, we move slowly.

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About halfway up the pass, we run into Susan again. At 65, she is slow and steady, and we are really impressed by her stamina and determination. She swears by Gu Energy Gels and insists on giving us a couple to try for when we really need them somewhere later down the trail. Thanks, Susan!

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The pass itself is a long, thin fin, and there are a few other hikers staked out on commanding, rocky perches at the top. The views down to Rae Lakes are jaw-dropping, and we sit a spell to take it all in.

The descent begins with a tricky scramble to get to the section in the snow that has been cut out for hikers. The snow is waist high on either side of us, so we are grateful to the kind soul (a park ranger, perhaps?) who dug this path out for us.

For the next 1.9 miles we descend 1500’ over an equally steep and rocky path that takes us to the strikingly colorful peak known as the Painted Lady and the enchanting Rae Lakes, a definite scenic highlight of the JMT. We are excited to get there, but this scenery isn’t too shabby either.

We stop for an enjoyable picnic lunch just a few hundred feet above the lakes and then begin the final descent which takes us across the isthmus between them. We go slowly as we keep having to stop and take photos of the iconic scene—the spectacular Painted Lady with jewel blue waters in front and a few rocky islands thrown into the foreground for good measure. What a scene!

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It comes as no surprise that camping at these lakes is super popular with backpackers, and, as we make our way around them, it appears that most of the campsites here are already claimed. There are folks swimming and relaxing in the warm sun, and we are eager to join them. We walk all around the lakes and eventually find an awesome campsite, but we are not sure if we are ready to stop yet for the day. We decide to go for a swim and see if we feel like moving on or not afterward.

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Just below us is a sandy cove that looks shallow and maybe even a little warm, we hope. We hike down, strip down to our underwear and quickly discover that looks indeed are deceiving as this is definitely not the case with this water! Matt is braver than I am and submerges completely. I am a wimp and can only get thigh high, timidly splashing the rest of my body with the freezing cold water. Our afternoon swim turns into a pretty quick affair, but it’s refreshing and as close to a shower as we will come for a long time. You’ve got a take what nature gives you, right?!

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After our quick dip, we decide it would be best to move up the trail a bit to get us within range of Pinchot Pass tomorrow. We hope to hike over the pass and on to Lake Marjorie, so we need to cover some more territory this afternoon to make tomorrow’s hike more manageable. Both Team Alabama and Susan leap frog us while we are getting packed up again and that adds a little friendly competition to our search for available campsites up the trail.

We head up to Arrowhead Lake but find it crowded with loads of campers and few available flat tent pads. Team Alabama and Susan have already called it quits for the day and have squeezed their tents in among the other campers. There’s not a whole lot of personal space going on here.

We decide to press our luck and go a little further, thinking (based on the map) that there will be several potential spots ahead where we can camp. We cross a creek that flows toward Arrowhead where beavers have clearly been at work. The sun is getting low, and the shadows are getting long. While the scenery is stunning, the campsites are not materializing. At one point, Matt explores an alternate trail but fails to find any viable sites, so we press on.

Finally we get to Dollar Lake and find a nice spot with an impressive view of Fin Dome, the shark-fin shaped peak that Kings Canyon National Park is best known for. Dollar Lake is small, and we get some nice reflection shots of the famous peak before the sun goes down. We eat dinner beside the lake as darkness descends.

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Once again, we are the last to arrive in camp and the last to turn in for the night, but we don’t mind as we also feel like we are taking full advantage of every moment on the JMT. The sunrise is also supposed to be attractive here, so we will see what the morning brings.

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