The hike to the Rae Lakes is usually done in multiple days because they
are very far from every trailhead. However, it is possible to reach them
in a day hike. Below the three main ways to get there.
The Rae Lakes are touristy and overcrowded. The real attraction in this region is the Sixty Lakes Basin.
Rae Lakes via Baxter Pass, continuing to 60 Lakes BasinLooking at the map, one would think that the easiest way to reach the Rae Lakes is via Baxter Pass (3740m) although very few people use this approach.
The Baxter Pass trailhead is located one hour south of Bishop. If you are coming from Bishop, drive south on highway 395 and turn right (west) onto Fish Hatchery Road about 3 kms before (north) the town of Independence (about 30 minutes south of Big Pine). A few minutes later turn right onto North Oak Creek Road. Drive 8 kms to the dead end of North Oak Creek Road. The pavement ends soon but the dirt road is wide and in excellent conditions (2013). There is plenty of room to park and camp at the trailhead (elevation 1900 meters).
The trail is in poor conditions (as of 2012). After the second creek crossing it is easy to lose it. However, it is not true that the trail does not exist on the other side. It is intuitive how to get to Baxter Lake and beyond that point the trail is occasionally very visible. In fact, once you are out of the forest (after crossing the creek), the trail is in better conditions than most. In 2015 someone had left huge cairns all the way, literally every 50 meters, the most artistic cairns i've ever seen.
The trail is 13 kms to the pass (3740m), with almost 2000 meters of elevation gain. There are two major creek crossings, one easily done over stones and the other one over logs. This is one of those Sierra trails that starts from the desert, so expect little or no shade. The pass is NOT where the creek comes down from. If you simply follow the creek you will end up way to the left, whereas the pass is way to the right.
For the record, the mountain to the left of Baxter Pass, Diamond Peak (4001m), is famous for the views. Leave the trail before the pass, just before it turns sharply right/north, and it's easy class 2 to the top.
On the other side of Baxter Pass, the trail descends to the right of the Baxter lakes (if you see the Baxter lakes, it means that you lost the trail because the trail stays far enough from the water that you should never see them). Eventually the trail crosses the creek right to left and heads towards the John Muir trail, losing as little elevation as possible. I don't think you can outsmart the trail: it is designed to avoid moraines, bushwhacking, etc. It hits the John Muir trail at Dollar Lake (8kms, 3100m). A sign is posted there to warn that the Baxter Pass trail is not maintained. Turn left into the John Muir trail and within ten minutes you will see Arrowlake (3137m). This is a huge lake. One useful reference point is the Finn Dome, clearly visible down south. Underneath this dome is the first Rae Lake (3212m).
The Rae Lakes are likely to be crowded. They are very popular and most people reach them from Kearsarge Pass or from Roads End.
Personally i think that the Rae Lakes do not compare with the 60 Lakes Basin. Just before reaching Arrowlake, leave the John Muir trail and head west cross-country. There is an obvious lower point in the western ridge. The 60 Lakes Basin is on the other side of that ridge. From the top of the ridge you have great views of the lakes. It is easy to descend to the basin. Look for a trail that runs the length of the basin. Once on that trail, you can hit one lake after the other. This trail continues uphill to a pass that is just about to the right (south) of Finn Dome. Then the trail descends steeply to the Rae Lakes. Once at the Rae Lakes, you can take the John Muir trail to get back to Dollar Lake.
Rae Lakes via Kearsarge PassThe trailhead is at Onion Valley. From the Bay Area, drive through Yosemite on 120 east. Drive south on 395 to Independence. TUrn right towards Onion Valley and drive to the end of the road (the campground).
A steep trail leads to Kearsarge Pass. Take the northern branch of the trail towards Charlotte Lake and turn right into the John Muir trail. This will take you to the Rae Lakes ranger station. Turn left to the "Sixty Lake" region. At some point turn left cross-country towards the ridge on the West. From the top of the ridge one has a view of both basins: the Gardiner Basin on the west and the Sixty Lakes basin on the right. Then head south along the ridge and drop down towards Charlotte Lake. There is a well-maintained trail from Charlotte Lake back to the John Muir trail and to the junction with the Kearsarge Pass trail.
(Click on maps)
Rae Lakes via Roads EndThis is a long and steep approach. The trail is steep from Junction Meadow to Glen Pass (a total elevation of 1,200 meters). After the junction with the Charlotte Lake trail, the trail passes two lakes and then climbs 14 switchbacks. The view from the top is one of the legendary views of the Eastern Sierra.
Distances (and 2009 times)
Sixty Lakes Basin via Roads EndThe approach is very long and it involves massive elevation gain between Junction Meadow and Glen Pass.
The blue line is the big cross-country loop, The purple line shows the shorter loop avoiding Gardiner Creek.
From Glen Pass you can follow the trail to Rae Lakes and then take the regular trail to Sixty Lakes Basin; or you can walk down a few switchbacks and then coast the first lake by the trail (directly north from Glen Pass) and climb the ridge to the north of it. This ridge takes you left (west). We named it Mt Summer. Then follow its northern ridge towards the Sixty Lake Basin. This ridge affords views on both the Sixty Lake Basin (up north) and the Gardiner Basin (to the left).
Pictures of this hike