Sandy provides an update on our PCT progress, as we reach the Cascades, end our time in Northern California and cross the Oregon border.
The Cascade Range of mountains extend about 700 miles from British Columbia, Canada to Northern California. The Cascades differ from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in their series of volcanic peaks dotting Northern California, Oregon and Washington. In fact, all of the volcanic eruptions over the past 200 years in the contiguous United States have taken place in the Cascades, notably in Mount Lassen in 1914 and Mount St Helens in 1980. The Pacific Crest Trail passes close to some of the range’s most prominent peaks and includes traverses through Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park.
The volcanic nature of the Cascades became apparent to us right away after leaving Belden, California as we noticed the lava rock along the trail.
We also had another new challenge to contend with, as our schedule had us increasing our hiking miles to between 17 and 24 a day. Our plan was to build upon the greater conditioning we gained from trekking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, ensuring that we would reach Canada before cold weather hit. Although we had skipped 290 trail miles in the mountains, making our conditioning level less than optimal, we decided to stick with our new schedule.
It was another big climb for us leaving Belden and the Feather River, gaining 6,000 feet on our first day of hiking. We had a setback almost immediately, as Darren slipped on some rocks while crossing a river. He pulled a muscle in his lower back, making it painful to carry his pack full of seven days of food. Rather than cover the scheduled 18 miles, we stopped at 14 that day to give him a chance to recover. With 130 miles to go until the next resupply point and half-day break, we were concerned whether Darren would make it, but, thankfully, his back recovered over the next few days.
Soon after leaving Belden, we saw our first view of Mount Lassen in the distance. We tracked our progress north as the peak got closer to us.
During our hike, we were on alert for dangerous animals, such as bears and mountain lions. We never saw a bear and caught a just fleeting glimpse of a mountain lion. Ironically, we had the most animal trouble with the deer in Northern California. One night we were camping by ourselves and I woke up to a commotion outside of our tent. It was obvious that several large animals were just outside our walls. Terrified, I woke Darren up. We weren’t sure what the animals were, but we could hear them breathing next to us and running back and forth. If we made some noise they were scared away, but would return a few hours later. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep well that night.
The next morning we noticed deer prints in the dirt. Confused as to why deer would be interested in us, we asked a local woman later in the day. We were told that the deer were attracted to our salt, which they could get from our urine or anything sweaty that we left outside. As a rule, we don’t leave much outside our tent, but had peed the night before not too far away from where we slept. So we made sure that we did our business further away from our tent and brought all our items inside with us. We had a couple more deer issues in the ensuing nights, but at least we knew that they couldn’t take anything. Other hikers told us stories of losing shirts, socks, and even trekking poles to deer who ended up carrying them away during the night.
The PCT went through 19 miles of Lassen Volcanic National Park. We took a side trip to Boiling Springs, a colorful hydro thermal lake with a water temperature of 125 degrees.
One thing that surprised us about Northern California was the lack of water sources. We expected long carries in the desert, but didn’t realize that we would need to contend with water issues here as well. The longest stretch without reliable water was 29 miles as we traversed Hat Creek Rim. The rim sits over 900 feet above a valley, and the PCT climbs up and travels along its edge, with views of Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta.
The temperature was in the 80s and there was little shade, so we decided to tackle most of the ridge in one long day. We climbed up to the rim the afternoon before and camped on the top to prepare for an early start. The next day we covered 28 miles, our longest distance of the entire trek. We each carried six liters, supplemented by a small water cache and some shade that we encountered at lunchtime. It provided us with the opportunity to “camel” a liter each before continuing our hike.
Taking a half-day break at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park was a highlight for us. California’s second-oldest state park features a 129-foot waterfall, as well as a campground and general store. The store was a welcome sight for us. Our long days of hiking made us much more hungry, and we needed to supplement our resupply boxes with additional food. We added snacks, as well as second breakfasts of oatmeal and pre-dinners of ramen noodles.
The PCT traveled mostly west after leaving the state park, as we headed towards Interstate 5 and the town of Dunsmuir. Our view north was dominated by Mount Shasta, the second tallest mountain in the Cascades and fifth highest in California.
As we neared Dunsmuir, I proposed to Darren that we take a “zero” (a full day break) there. I explained that we hadn’t taken a entire day off for 400 miles (since South Lake Tahoe), and that I unsure whether I could continue without a respite. Darren wanted to maintain our momentum and wait until we reached the Oregon border, but he reluctantly agreed with me. Refreshed after two nights in a real bed, he later admitted that he welcomed the break too.
Besides being tired from the increased mileage and limited downtime, I was becoming increasingly concerned about my weight. I had steadily been losing weight, which was to be expected when hiking eight to ten hours a day. However, I was losing pounds even faster since we increased our daily mileage. While in Dunsmuir, I ate as much as I could, having huge breakfast burritos and large lunches and dinners in an attempt to stop some of my weight loss. And we stocked up on even more snacks and extra meals as we set out on an eight-day food carry to the very top of Northern California.
This section of the PCT presented us with some of the most difficult hiking we had experienced since the Sierras. We climbed sharply on rocky trails through the Castle Crags Wilderness.
The steep climbs continued as we entered the Trinity Alps Wilderness. We also encountered some snow on a few sections of the trail. Even though the Trinity Alps featured stunning mountain, meadow and lake views and had some of the best scenery we had seen on the PCT, we both looked forward to Oregon, which we were told was “much flatter” than California.
Unfortunately, two of the wilderness areas we passed through (Marble Mountain and Russian) had significant fire damage along the trail.
We were excited to be getting closer to Oregon and had been counting down the days since leaving Belden. Our last California resupply point was in Seiad Valley, located only about 35 trail miles from the border. We had a 24-mile hike planned the day before to get us in position to arrive in Seiad Valley for a half-day break. Darren was walking that morning with “Slim Jim”, a former Green Beret and member of a Special Forces unit, who had done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than trying to keep up with the two of them, I decided to stay back and hike with a young woman who was having some trouble. It was hot (in the low 90s) and Darren and I agreed to meet at a certain stream to filter some water and take a lunch break.
Figuring I was walking too slow, I eventually left the young woman and picked up my pace. I was surprised to arrive at the stream with Darren nowhere in sight. Figuring he went to find some shade to wait for me, I continued a short distance up the trail. There was shade and other hikers, but no one had seen him or Slim Jim. As there was no cell service, I sent word to people hiking past me in both directions to let Darren know where I was. I sat and waited. It had been over three hours since I had last seen him, and I was getting worried. Was Darren way ahead of me? Or had he fallen down somewhere behind me, as the trail had traveled along several steep ridges?
Finally, after another 30 minutes, I saw him coming my way. Slim Jim had taken a wrong turn off the PCT and Darren had followed him. It took them a while to realize their mistake, by which time I had passed their location, so Darren had run several miles up hill to get back on the trail and find me. We were overjoyed to be reunited and to continue hiking. It made for a long day to cover our remaining miles, but we got to camp just as it was getting dark at 8:45 pm. Later that night we discussed what had happened, and we agreed to hike closer together for the rest of our trek.
We had already completed several large elevation climbs out of Sierra City, Belden and Dunsmuir, and we were fortunate that the weather had not been too hot. Our luck ran out when we left Seiad Valley, as we climbed 5,000 feet over 11 miles in 100-degree heat. Even with an early start it was difficult, and I was having trouble. I had no energy and felt dizzy. We took several breaks on the way up, which helped, but I was worried. Climbs did not usually affect me that much – was my weight loss contributing to my lack of stamina?
I felt a little better in the ensuing days, but did not have the same energy levels I was accustomed to in the past. We had stocked up on extra food in Seiad Valley, and I continued to eat as much as I possibly could. Oregon would not have the steep elevation gains we had experienced in Northern California, and I hoped I could slow the weight loss I was experiencing by expending less calories each day.
The moment we had looked forward to for several weeks came two days out of Seiad Valley, as we crossed into Oregon at PCT mile 1689. Although we had not covered every mile in California, we were still excited to complete the state, having hiked over 80% of its total distance during the past 3 1/2 months. And Oregon, with 455 miles of trail, would go a lot faster than our traverse of California, putting us that much closer to Canada.