Trip Type: Loop, recommend 5 days/4 nights. .
Total Trip Mileage 41.4 miles according to most sites. but if you follow the data on trail signs this is closer to 45 which is what my Garmin clocked.
Altitude Gain: 9685' gross
Trail Difficulty: Moderate, well marked and maintained trail.
Season: Mid to late Season
Trail Traffic: This is a high traffic area and includes a section of the JMT
WSH Trip Rating: 4 out of 5 stars: Rae Lakes is super beautiful and a must see. That said this loop is over rated. Hiking from Kings Canyon to Rae Lakes (clockwise through Paradise Valley) is relatively uninspiring and high traffic and significant bear encounters mark this one down a bit.
Cedar Grove Road End (Kings Canyon) to Upper Paradise Valley (~10 miles):
The hike out of Cedar Grove begins with about 2 miles of flat, wide open, pleasant trail. After 2 miles you reach the junction to Mist Falls/Paradise Valley and here you begin your climb...climbing about 500' over the next two miles to Mist Falls. During this section we experienced a lot of bugs... specifically gnats. Bring a head net of bugs bother you. From Mist Falls to Upper Paradise you'll climb another 1300' with spurts of steep up hill and granite stairs courtesy of the Park Service. Again mapping applications show this as about 9 miles, my Garmin clocked this distance at 12 miles. There are bear boxes at Upper Paradise. There are also bear boxes at both Lower and Middle Paradise as well as restrooms!
Upper Paradise Valley to Dollar/Arrowhead Lake (~10 miles): The hike from Upper Paradise begins with navigating across Arrow Creek; the bridge no longer exists. In early/mid season this could be tricky. Once across the trail(s) head in various directions but all seems to work out as they come together on the main trail within a few hundred yards. During the hike from here to Woods Creek (~6 miles) you walk under the watchful eye of Castle Domes... truly stunning as you finally emerge from the trees and reach the granite enscarpments that make the Sierra so unique. The suspension bridge at Woods Creek Crossing is a sight to behold. There is nice camping here and bear boxes for those that wish to call it a day. The hike from Woods Creek Crossing to Dollar and Arrowhead Lakes is not trivial as you'll put in another 5 miles and 1800' feet of gain over unforgiving and exposed terrain. The benefit of pushing on is the difference between spending a leisurely day at Woods Creek or a leisurely day at Rae Lakes. Your choice. Camping at Dollar is sparce and there are no bear boxes. If you do camp at Dollar check out the sites up the hill a little on the West side of the lake. Arrowhead has far more camping options
Dollar/Arrowhead Lake to Rae Lakes (2.5-3 miles): The hike from Dollar/Arrowhead Lakes is simply stunning and is the payoff for the first two days of work. Simply put, these are some of the most stunning views in the Sierra. There are huge and ample camping at the middle Rae Lake just past the Ranger Station. There are also sites on the peninsula between upper and middle Rae Lakes although you may experience more wind and condensation in this location. Assuming you pushed on to Dollar and Arrowhead Lakes you'll have the afternoon enjoy, day hike to Sixty Lakes Basin, do laundry, fish, or whatever your heart desires.
Rae Lakes to Junction Meadow (~10 miles) The climb from Rae Lakes to Glen Pass may sound like a big task to relatively new hikers but unless you hit this early season (snow) you'll find this 3 mile, 1500' climb really enjoyable. Probably because of the stunning views of Rae Lakes and all the tarns, but honestly, this climb is super fun and what a feeling of accomplishment you'll get once you hit the 12,000' pass. From here it's a relentless, 4000' descent to Junction Meadows. Staring with epic views of the large tarn below Glen Pass, then stunning views of beautiful Charlotte Lake, you drop down into Vidette and Junction Meadows along Bubbs Creek. Camping at Vidette Meadows is limited but there are multiple area to camp at Junction Meadows starting around mile 33 and continuing to mile 37.
Junction Meadow to Cedar Grove Road End (11 miles) OK, just word about this stretch of trail. If you were to think and picture what Bear Habitat would look like, this is it. During this stretch it's likely you'll not only come across bear scat but bears as well. You'll do well to talk with your friends or sing to yourself (outloud) if you're alone so the bears know you're coming. This 3000' descent back to Cedar Grove. Most of it seems relatively uninspiring after experiencing the sub-alpine views of Glen Pass but still beautiful and some great views of Kings Canyon during the final set of switch backs.
Trail Notes: BEARS! It's almost certain you'll encounter bears on this trip. We were actually fortunate and only had one bear encounter but parties often report seeing bears 2, 3, or more times on this loop. Bear boxes are available at most locations.