Tuesday Quiz: Find the Adjacent U.S. State

During our Trekking the Planet NPS journey, we will be traveling through over 30 states! How well do you know what state is adjacent to others in the United States? Take this week’s quiz and find out.

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A Walk on the Wild Side: Petrified Forest National Park

Although petrified wood can be found in all 50 U.S. States, Petrified Forest National Park has some of the highest concentrations in the world. We spent two days exploring this park as well as taking two overnight backpacking trips in the north and south wilderness areas.

Scientists believe that two hundred million years ago the area where the Petrified Forest National Park lies today was located at the latitude of Costa Rica. It was a rainforest and part of the supercontinent Pangaea. When trees were downed they accumulated in rivers and were periodically buried by volcanic ash. Water dissolved the ash and transferred it into the logs, forming quartz crystals and petrifying the wood. Eventually the land moved north to its present location.

Petrified Forest became a national park in 1962. It was visited by about 643,000 people in 2016, making it the 29th-most visited park. We entered at the south end and stopped at the Rainbow Forest Museum to view some of the biggest petrified logs. We also picked up our free backcountry permit. The wilderness access point was about two miles down the road, and we parked our car for the night and began hiking.

Petrified wood outside the Rainbow Forest Museum

The park has two wilderness areas, one in the south part and one in the northern portion. There are no trails; you must hike a certain distance from the road and then can camp anywhere. Darren led the way, and we aimed for a small butte in the distance. We had to climb up and down several piles of rocks before things opened up. As we walked, we noticed occasional pieces of petrified wood around us. We also saw pronghorn prints in the sand. The pronghorn is North America’s fastest land animal and can sprint up to 60 miles per hour.

Pieces of petrified wood near our camp

Around the corner from the butte we were hiking toward was the end of a canyon. We set up our camp admist the amphitheater of rocks and spent a peaceful night there. In the morning we hiked back toward the road to meet up with our car. In all, we trekked about 1.5 miles there and about 1 mile back.

Darren outside our tent at sunset

Our tent lit up against the night sky

Back in the car, we continued north on the park road and stopped at several of the viewpoints. We hiked around Crystal Forest, viewed Jasper Forest from above and drove through Blue Mesa.

Crystal Forest

Jasper Forest

Blue Mesa

Besides the petrified wood we saw at each stop, we also toured the ruins of Puerco Pueblo. Between about 1250 and 1400 the Puebloan people lived in a 100 room structure built around an open plaza. Besides the remains of the structure, there were also petroglyphs on the nearby rocks. It is just one of about 600 archeological sites in the park.

Puerco Pueblo ruins

Puerco Pueblo petroglyphs

After crossing Interstate 40 and old Route 66, we reached the northern portion of the park. Here, the piles of petrified wood were replaced with badlands and what is known as the Painted Desert. The brilliant colored rocks stretch from the east end of the Grand Canyon. After obtaining our permits we drove to the Painted Desert inn. This historic building was operated as a Harvey House from 1947 to 1963 and is a museum today.

Painted Desert

The northern park wilderness hiking starts from the inn. A trail leads down into the Painted Desert then stops. As this is a much larger area than its southern counterpart, Darren used his phone to drop pins in a mapping app so that we could easily find out way back. We needed to cross Lithodendron Wash before camping was allowed. Similar to the previous day, Darren aimed for a rock tower in the distance.

Water in Lithodendron Wash

We hiked through a maze of other washes before arriving at the tower. It was fairly windy so we spent a few minutes finding a spot that could shield us from the burnt of the gusts. It continued to be windy until sunset and then the gusts subsided. The next day, as we hiked back to the Painted Desert Inn and our car, the pieces of petrified wood around us glistened like broken glass in the early morning sun. Total hiking distance was about 4.5 miles. 

Sunset view from our tent

Sunrise the next morning

Our time in Petrified Forest National Park provided us with the opportunity to observe the stark beauty of the wood, tour ruins and explore its wild side through two overnight backpacking trips.

Next, we will continue north to the Great Basin Desert and Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

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A Unique Cactus: Saguaro National Park

There are four deserts in North America: the Mojave, Great Basin, Chihuahuan and Sonoran. While at Joshua Tree National Park, we visited the Mojave and Colorado (part of the Sonoran) deserts. The Sonoran Desert is the most complex and diverse of its counterparts, with its physical features ranging from mountain ranges to arid plains to grassy plateaus to lava flows. It also contains a catcus found nowhere else: the saguaro. 

The saguaro (pronounced sah-WAH-row) is the largest catcus in the United States. They can grow higher than 50 feet tall and weigh more than 4,500 pounds. The classic catcus has arms; these don’t begin to grow until a saguaro is about 50 years old. Some may live as long as 200 years. 

Catcus in Saguaro National Park

 Like Joshua Tree National Park, Saguaro was elevated from national monument to park status in 1994. In 2016 Saguaro National Park was 25th in visitation (about 820,000 people) out of 59 parks. This park has two parts, separated by 30 miles and with the city of Tucson, Arizona between them. We visited the west, or Tucson Mountain, section first. This portion of the park has the greatest concentration of saguaros and it was evident in the hike that we took. We made a “lollipop” loop of three different trails climbing to the top of Wasson Peak (4,687 feet). 

Hiking in the Tucson Mountain section

The trail ahead to Wasson Peak

As we hiked up the hillsides we marveled at all the saguaros around us. They reminded us of people, each different in their own way. Some had no arms, others one, still others had multiple, and the limbs were in many different shapes. 

Looking st the many saguaros on the hillside

It was another hot day in the low 90s F, and we were tired at the end of our 9.6 mile trek. We cooled off by driving the park’s scenic loop and pausing at several viewpoints. Signal Hill was a favorite of Darren’s as it contained many petroglyphs. The Hohokam people carved them 800 to 1,000 years ago while hunting and gathering. 

Some of the Hohokam petroglyphs at Signal Hill

The next day we ventured to the east side of the park. The Rincon Mountain section is twice as big as the west district and it comprises six eco-zones, ranging from low desert to mountain peaks. We opted for a 8 mile hike through the catcus forest. The terrain was a contrast from the Tucson Mountain side, as the saguaros here were interspersed with many other plants and some blooming flowers. We even saw a Gila monster and a roadrunner. 

Hiking in the Rincon Mountain section

Hiking through the catcus forest 

Gila monster spied from the trail

With our time in the Sonoran Desert at an end, we are heading north to another of Arizona’s national parks at Petrified Forest on the Colorado Plateau.

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Tuesday Quiz: Match the National Park to its Picture

NPS Quiz

This quiz will test your knowledge of the U.S. National Parks in pictures. You will have six minutes to correctly identify 20 parks. Good luck on this week’s Tuesday Quiz!

NPS Quiz

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A Tale of Two Deserts: Joshua Tree National Park

The focus of our Trekking the Planet NPS journey is to venture to new and lesser known U.S. national parks. However, for our first park we chose a familiar place: Joshua Tree National Park, which is only a one hour drive from our home in Palm Desert, CA. The park is unique in that it features plants and wildlife from two deserts: the Mojave and Colorado. The Mojave, characterized by higher elevations, features rock formations and the namesake Joshua trees, while the Colorado is known for lower elevations and plants such as cholla and ocotillo.

Being only a short distance away from Joshua Tree allowed us to time our arrival in the late morning, increasing our chances of finding a place to camp, since most sites can not be reserved. Joshua Tree was the 11th most visited park in 2016, and it became evident to us as we arrived. There were many cars lined up at the entrance gate, and we had to wait about 20 minutes to buy our annual pass, covering admission at this park and the 26 others we plan to visit.

There are nine campgrounds in the park and we chose to try to camp at Hidden Valley, which provided good access to the hikes we wanted to do in the area. Arriving in late morning paid off, as we were able to obtain a site that someone was just leaving. We had a picnic table with a great view of the valley and Joshua trees around us, as well as a trash dumpster and pit toilet just a few steps away. It felt luxurious after 4 ½ months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last year. 

Early morning view from our Hidden Valley campsite

Hidden Valley is a popular campsite for the many rock climbers who visit Joshua Tree, with thousands of formations to climb in the park. Campers on both sides of us were rock climbing, and we enjoyed hearing their stories. However, we were here to hike. As soon as we set up our camp, we headed out to our first trailhead.
We have visited Joshua Tree many times. Some of those occasions were prior to it gaining national park status in 1994. The park is comprised of 790,636 acres and is the size of the state of Rhode Island, so there are many trails we have not yet completed. Our first hike in the Mojave took us through valleys full of Joshua trees on our way to an area of oaks and pines. 

Joshua trees along the trail

Pine and oak trees on our hike

Many Joshua trees (actually a variety of the yucca plant) were in bloom. The temperature was in the 80s F and there was no shade, so we carried plenty of water. Even though we were in the desert, we could see and hear birds as we hiked. There are actually over 200 bird species in the park. We even surprised several quail who flew out of a bush in front of us. Towards the end of our 9 mile hike, Darren spied a hare and was able to photograph him as he hopped away.

Hare running away

The next day, a second Mojave hike connected several trails in the northwest portion of the park to form a 6 mile loop. The trail had some steep elevation gain and loss and it was another hot day. We took a break in some shade and then proceeded into a beautiful section that wound through several rock formations. The heavy winter rains made the ground greener than usual and was a nice contrast to the rock formations surrounding us. It was another satisfying hike. 

Darren hiking through the rock formations

Green grasses and bushes along the hike

On our third day at Joshua Tree we left the Mojave and drove to the southern part of the park, entering the Colorado Desert. After securing a campsite at the Cottonwood Campground, we set out on our final hike to Lost Palms Oasis. The California fan palm is the only palm native to the state and can be found in five different oases in Joshua Tree. The largest concentration of palms is located in Lost Palms Canyon, a 3.5 mile hike each way. While walking, we could appreciate the difference between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The Joshua trees in the Mojave were replaced with yucca, cholla and ocotillo along the trail here. There were more blooming plants too, including a sea of purple flowers in a wash that we passed.

Sandy hiking through the yucca and ocotillo

Blooming flowers

Purple flowers in the wash

Another hot day of hiking was rewarded when we reached the canyon and could see the palms below us. It was a steep climb down, but we enjoyed the shade from the trees while eating a lunch of salami, cheese, dried fruit and sun tea.

Lost Palms Oasis

The 22 miles of hiking in Joshua Tree National Park gave us the opportunity to experience two different deserts and the unique flora and fauna of each. Our travels will now take us to the Sonoran Desert and a unique type of caucus in Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

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Tuesday Quiz: Find the location of the U.S. National Parks

NPS Quiz

As we begin our travels to 27 U.S. National Parks, this week’s quiz challenges you to identify a national park based on its location on a map. How many can you accurately find?

NPS Quiz

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Dueling Plans: Preparing for our National Parks and PCT Adventures

Sandy details our planning process, as we prepare for both our National Parks and PCT journeys.

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

If you have been following us for any length of time, you know that we are planners. We like to know where we are going, and what we will be doing for each day of a journey. Our upcoming United States National Parks (TTP NPS) adventure is no different. But what made things more challenging this time was that we need to concurrently sort out the logistics for this trip as well as our return to the Pacific Crest Trail.

After we completed a little over 1,800 miles of the PCT last year, it became a priority for us to finish the trail. We have about 7 1/2 weeks of hiking left in California and Washington to complete the 2,650-mile distance, and we felt it was not realistic to do it all in one season. So we decided to hike the 3 weeks in California this year and the 4 1/2 weeks in Washington at another time. The optimal time to do both these hikes is in August – when most of the snow will have melted and the river flows will have subsided.

National Park Journey Planning

In the past, Darren and I had talked journeying to our country’s national parks, highlighting the significance of each place. At the end of last year, we discussed it again and felt that 2017 was a good year for that travel. Having already visited than half of the 59 total national parks, we prioritized those we had not been to on this trip. If everything goes to plan, we will have visited all 47 national parks in the lower 48 states by the time we return home.

Using the filters of unvisited national parks and hiking opportunities, I built a spreadsheet with sections for each park. I gathered information about treks in each location and was even able to download gpx tracks for many of the hikes that we plan to take. We can load the gpx files into our phones to guide us as we walk. In all, we plan to hike about 300 miles in the 27 parks that we visit.

Planned Hiking Miles by National Park – Click to Expand

To keep to a reasonable budget, we are camping in our modified Toyota 4Runner. From my research, I determined how much time to spend at each national park and what camping opportunities were available. We also plan to do some overnight backpacking for about 15 nights. Since most national park campgrounds don’t have showers or laundry, we booked some hotels, at 7 to 10 day intervals, to have some occasional creature comforts. We are also staying with some family and close friends along the way.

Visits to our national parks have grown from 62 million in 2007 to over 82 million in 2016, an increase of about 33%. I discovered this for myself when I began making reservations at national park campgrounds. Even in early January of this year, some places were already full for the dates we had in mind, necessitating changes to our schedule. Fortunately, with a few tweaks we still worked in most everything we had planned. We now have reserved every night that we could book, as there are a few campgrounds that don’t take reservations.

Visitors in 2007 and 2016 (Parks we are visiting in yellow) – Click to Expand

In our planning we also had to take weather into account. Summer has peak crowds at most parks; the heat also makes it is a bad time to visit parks in the Southern U.S. So we decided to leave as soon as daylight savings began (to get the later sunsets) and go south first. We still expect to have cold temperatures in Utah and Colorado at the end of March, but will be out of the South by the first part of May. Leaving in mid-March also means that we will be home at the end of July, avoiding most of the summer crowds and giving us time to backpack in the Sierra Nevada in the optimal August timeframe.

Pacific Crest Trail Preparation Revisited

Because we plan to backpack during our national parks journey, we needed the same gear that we would use on the PCT. One thing we learned from our Pacific Crest Trail adventure last year was that our total weight really mattered. So we bought new backpacks, sleeping bags, headlamps, changed our water filtering and cooking strategies to lighten our load, and pared down the amount of clothing we both planned to bring. Darren’s base pack weight (total not including food, water or fuel) when down 25%, from 23 to 17 pounds. We are hoping to feel the difference when we backpack during TTP NPS, as well as hit the PCT trail.

We will need to resupply four times during our PCT hike and some boxes must be sent ahead as soon as we arrive home at the end of July. This meant that we have had to plan (and buy) items for both journeys at the same time. We now have PCT food and supplies for those resupply boxes sitting in our closet, ready to go to the post office as soon as we get home. Planning for both trips has definitely added some complexity. Several times when Darren and I have discussed the need for an item we have had to double-check which trip we are talking about. It has been confusing at times!


With less than a week to go before we begin our national park odyssey, things are coming together and the list of things to do is getting smaller. We did have one more issue to address: with the near-record snow in the Sierras this winter, we needed to push our PCT start date as late as we could. So we will be home for about two weeks and then begin hiking the PCT on August 11. We have a family wedding the second weekend in September, so we will still have time to travel there at the conclusion of our hike.

During our national parks journey, be sure to follow our progress with the interactive map below. We will be updating our location as we travel from park to park. You can also click on any of the national park markers to learn more about a given place that we will be visiting. As always, we will be using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to communicate. We always love hearing from folks to please send any questions or comments that you may have!

Our Planned Route – Click to Interact with the Map on Our Website

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Tuesday Quiz: Do You Know What are the Most Popular National Parks?

During our Trekking the Planet RTW expedition, we published weekly quizzes to test your geography knowledge. We are reintroducing our Tuesday Geography Quizzes we travel around the United States over the next 4 1/2 months.

Before we leave next week to begin our journey, here is a Tuesday Quiz that will test your knowledge of America’s most visited national parks in 2015. Can you fill in the ten most popular park names in the time allotted?

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How we converted our 4Runner into a Camper

Camping is a main component of our U.S. National Parks journey, as we travel to 27 parks over four-and-a-half months. In fact, we plan to camp over 100 nights while driving round the United States. While planning this trip, Sandy and I discussed whether to buy a motorhome or 5th-wheel trailer. The problem was that we always returned to where we were going to store it when we aren’t traveling. As a result, being able to fit a vehicle into our garage became part of our criteria.

Both Sandy and I love the Mercedes Sprinter (also sold by Dodge). This vehicle has tons of room and gets great mileage to boot. But it won’t fit in our garage. The Ford Transit Connect also caught our eye. It was far cheaper, got even better mileage and it would fit into our garage. Then we realized that one thing we love about our current 4Runner vehicle is that we have the ability to go off road with its 4×4 capability. If we selected a Transit Connect, we would lose the 4-wheel drive capability of our 4Runner. In the end, we decided to simply convert our 4Runner into a camper van (of sorts), giving us the best of all worlds.

The first step in converting our 4Runner was to create a platform. The idea was to trade off headroom for storage space. This meant that we wouldn’t have to pull everything out of the car when it was time to go to sleep. Instead, we theoretically could leave the bed made up. Pots and pans and all our other gear would be stored underneath the bed in plastic storage containers.
In terms of construction, our design was simple. We would build a frame out of 2 by 4s and then added legs. Simple! As a final step, I used screws to attach some plywood to the top and finished the whole thing with some paint and scrap carpet. Our design called for the platform to rest on top of the wheel wells. It is just high enough to allow storage containers to side underneath. To make sure that the platform didn’t move around, I purchased additional hardware and attached one side to the car and the other side to the platform.

The entire contraption cost less than $200 to manufacture. We are excited about using it when we leave in just a few weeks.

Basic framework for platform. We used metal hardware to increase strength. It also allowed us to make changes easily.

Securing the platform. We used a screw eye, quick link and a turnbuckle on each corner to secure the platform to the inside of the 4Runner’s cabin.

Refreshments inside. We cut a hole in the platform to gain easy access to cold drinks and food. Here, you can see the top of our Koolatron P-20.

The final product. Here, you can see our luxurious platform in action. We’ve since add a 4-inch foam mattress. We’ll be spending over a hundred nights in our 4Runner this summer.

Tons of storage. Here’s a photo of our storage system. We used these storage containers in the back. We also have some that can be accessed from each of the side doors.

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Announcing Our Next Adventure – A Journey to 27 United States National Parks!

Sandy introduces our next journey and why U.S. National Parks are so special to her.

Sandy and her brother Jeff at Acadia National Park, Maine – 1971

When I was growing up, my parents were teachers, and we would spend our summers driving around the United States in a camper. Along the way, we traveled to many cities and historical places. However, my favorite memories were the national parks that we visited. The first one I remember was Maine’s Acadia National Park, which we visited in 1971. My parents took a picture of my brother and me with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop.

In subsequent years my family visited other parks such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Yosemite. The experience of camping and hiking in these parks still stays with me today.

After Darren and I got married and had children, we shared our love of the National Parks with them. When Kristen was three and Lauren was five, we took them on a trip to Grand Canyon and the Utah parks of Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Arches. At Arches National Park we even hiked with them to the iconic Delicate Arch.

Kristen and Lauren hiking to Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah – 1996

Sandy hiking to Delicate Arch with Kristen, Arches National Park, Utah – 1996

Darren and I continued to visit national parks, sometimes with our daughters and other times on our own. It seemed that with each new park we visited, I found a new favorite. Soon we had been to over 30 parks.

In 2016 the National Park Service celebrated its 100 anniversary. Most people are aware of the iconic parks of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. These are just three of the 59 National Parks found throughout the country. Our next journey, beginning in March 2017, will take us to 27 of the U.S. National Parks, over a 4 1/2 month period. The goal in visiting the national parks, similar to our other journeys, is to focus on the cultural and natural significance of what we see. So we plan to visit many of the more obscure and lesser known parks. For example, the number of yearly visitors to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan (where we plan to stop in June) is less than the number that visits Yellowstone in ONE day.

Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado – 1998

Hiking in Glacier National Park, Montana – 2004

Also true to our travels, we plan to hike over 300 miles while visiting the parks and take several overnight backpacking trips. Our mode of transportation will be our Toyota 4Runner 4×4 SUV. We have outfitted the back of our vehicle with a platform that provides storage space underneath a mattress where we will sleep those nights when we are not backpacking. Darren will be writing about our vehicle preparation in a future post.

Here is a list of the national parks that we plan to visit. Click on a green marker above to learn more about a park on the map:

  1. Joshua Tree National Park, California
  2. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
  3. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  4. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
  5. Arches National Park, Utah
  6. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colordao
  7. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
  8. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
  9. Big Bend National Park, Texas
  10. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  11. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
  12. Everglades National Park, Florida
  13. Biscayne National Park, Florida
  14. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
  15. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
  16. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina
  17. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
  18. Acadia National Park, Maine
  19. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
  20. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
  21. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
  22. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  23. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
  24. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
  25. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
  26. Pinnacles National Park, California
  27. Channel Islands National Park, California

We plan to leave on our Trekking the Planet NPS journey on March 13 and return home the end of July. In August we will be making another trip to two more national parks (Kings Canyon and Yosemite) as we continue our hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The plan is to complete the 300 miles in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that we had to skip last year, due to high river levels. Our hope is to finish the Washington State segment in the near future.

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Update from PCT Mile 2144

Sandy provides a final update on our PCT progress, highlighting our time in Oregon.

The Pacific Crest Trail spans three states as it travels from Mexico to Canada: California, Oregon and Washington. The Oregon portion of the trail is the shortest of the three states, covering a distance of 455 miles. As we trekked closer to the California/Oregon border we heard all kinds of stories from other hikers. “Oregon is flat, and you can easily hike 25 to 30 miles each day,” one person told us. “It’s a “green tunnel” of shady forests with not many mountain views,” said another. All we knew was, after over 1,300 miles of hiking in California, we were ready to tackle a new state.

On Friday, July 29, we crossed the border from California to Oregon. A day and a half later we were outside of the town of Ashland. After an afternoon of resupplying and a night in a hotel, we were ready to continue our trek through the rest of the state, allotting a little over three weeks to complete the distance. As we walked, we passed through some forested areas, but had our share of ridge hiking, with views of Mount Shasta, now to the south of us. So much for the talk of no mountain vistas.

Our plan of completing about 20 miles a day continued, but we soon ran into many downed trees from the previous winter, which greatly slowed our progress. One hiker we spoke to counted over 400 trees that we needed to walk, climb, and sometimes even crawl under in one 40-mile stretch. The slow-going made us frustrated and resulted in taking all day to covered our scheduled distances.


Coming up to a group of downed trees


Crawling under downed trees

Another unexpected nuisance were the mosquitoes. We already had our share of them in the Northern Sierras, but were surprised to encounter so many mosquitoes in early August. Locals told us it was the worst mosquito year in recent memory. The conditions made camping uncomfortable, and we were even affected while hiking, as the mosquitoes would attack us as we walked. Our DEET spray and head nets greatly helped.


Wearing a mosquito net as I hiked

As we moved closer to Crater Lake National Park, we heard that a fire had started close to the PCT and that the trail had been closed. The only alternatives were either to road walk 25 miles around the affected area or to be driven to where the trail opened up again. When we arrived at the park at around noon on a Saturday, we confirmed that the trail was still closed. Disappointed, we made arrangements with a volunteer to be driven around the closure the next morning. We spent the afternoon doing laundry, showering and unpacking our resupply box. In the late afternoon a ranger came by an area where many hikers were congregated to inform us that the fire had subsided and the trail would be open again in the morning! We were happy to be able to continue walking through Oregon without any interruption.

The next morning we hiked up hill to the rim of Crater Lake. Created as a national park in 1902, Crater Lake is 1,949 feet deep, making it the deepest lake in the United States, the second deepest in North America and the ninth deepest in the world. The lake is known for its intense blue hue, and the vibrant color was apparent as we hiked along its rim.

The trail we walked on was designated as the hiker PCT until 2014, when the official PCT was moved inland to the equestrian alternative of the trail. However, most hikers still walk on the rim trail, since the official PCT has no views of the lake. Not only did we have clear lake vistas, unhindered by the fire, but the park roads were still closed to car traffic, so all the trail viewpoints were deserted, except for the other hikers on the trail with us. Our day along Crater Lake was one of our favorites of the entire PCT.


Crater Lake

Southern Oregon was dry, with many 10 mile sections without water, and even one 21 mile dry stretch near Crater Lake. The result was that the camping options were limited, making it imperative that we did not hike too late in the day, or we would risk having to walk in the dark to find another site, perhaps several more miles away. Some nights the camping areas resembled small tent cities as hikers jockeyed for a place to set up their space for the evening. We did get the opportunity to meet and talk with more people in Oregon than anywhere else on the trail, which we both greatly enjoyed.


Group of hiker tents near Crater Lake

The water situation improved as we continued north of Crater Lake and past a series of Cascade peaks. In successive days we hiked around Mount Thielsen (9,183 feet), Diamond Peak (8,743 feet), the Three Sisters (10,047 to 10,358 feet), Mount Washington (7,795 feet), Three Fingered Jack (7,844 feet) and Mount Jefferson (10,495 feet). Contrary to what we had heard, there were plenty of mountain views, which held our interest as we hiked. Unfortunately, we also encountered significant fire damage along the trail.


(Left to right) Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson in the distance


Hiking through the Three Sisters

Near the Three Sisters were several sections of lava fields. The rocky trails were tricky to walk on and resulted in Darren dropping his cell phone and cracking the screen. Fortunately his phone still worked. We also encountered some of our steepest climbs while hiking through these areas, counter to what we had heard about Oregon being relatively “flat”.


Walking through the lava fields

Once past the lava fields, the mosquitoes subsided and we came upon a series of stunning lakes. We enjoyed camped next to several of them. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the trail was around Mount Jefferson. We hiked through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness and were treated to gorgeous lake and mountain scenery. After climbing out of a valley and walking through our final snowbank in Oregon, we camped next to Olallie Lake. The view of Mount Jefferson at sunset was breathtaking.


Mount Jefferson Wilderness


Snowbank hiking


Sunset at Olallie Lake with Mount Jefferson in the background

Our days of hiking alternated between mountains, ridges, and the “green tunnel” forests, sometimes with a few blooming flowers. The forest sections were my favorite, as I never tired of seeing all the shades of green under the canopy of trees.


Hiking through the 'Green Tunnel' forest - Central Oregon

Throughout our time in Oregon we continued to eat as much as we could to slow our weight loss. Darren, who had not lost much weight in California, was now losing significant pounds, as evidenced by his baggy clothes. At one resupply point we bought a block of cheddar cheese. That night we cut half of it up and melted it over our dehydrated chili. It was tasty!


Melted cheese and chili for dinner

About halfway through the state, I began hiking one morning, only to discover that I had a terrible pain in my right shin. I had developed a shin splint, probably caused by day after day of 20-plus mile distances while carrying a 30-pound pack. It was painful and got worse if the trail went straight up/down or was rocky. Fortunately, the next few days of hiking were on mostly packed dirt tracks with no steep ascents or descents. We still needed to cover our daily distance, so I gutted it out, sometimes almost in tears. Several times I considered quitting. I needed a goal, so closed my eyes and thought of the Columbia River ahead of us, marking the boundary between Oregon and Washington. That vision kept me going day after day.

We also had an appointment we wanted to keep near Mount Hood (elevation 11,250 feet), the tallest and most northerly of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Our daughters Lauren and Kristen, along with their boyfriends, wanted to drive from Seattle to see us along the trail. We agreed to meet them at the town of Government Camp, a short distance from the PCT, and they booked a condo for all of us to spend a Saturday night together. We had a wonderful time with them, catching up over dinner and breakfast the next morning before rejoining the trail.


Dinner with our daughters and their boyfriends in Government Camp, Oregon

When we met our daughters, I asked Kristen to bring her scale so that we could weigh ourselves. We were surprised to learn that Darren was 30 pounds lighter, which was more weight than he had lost on the Race Across USA. Even more shocking was that I had lost 40 pounds! We expected to lose 20 to 30 pounds during the entire PCT and immediately became concerned, since we were not even finished with Oregon yet.

By the time we reached Government Camp, I had walked about 170 miles on my shin injury, and it wasn’t getting any better. Looking at the Washington elevation profiles, we knew there would be very steep sections of elevation gain and loss, with many uneven rocky trails. I couldn’t imagine walking 20 miles a day through Washington’s 505 miles under those conditions. Moreover, I was having some dizzy spells and stamina issues, making me exhausted at the end of each hiking day. And we couldn’t take a significant break or slow down because we would risk running into bad weather in Washington’s North Cascades.

Finally, while in Oregon, I began to experience some hair loss during those infrequent times I could take a shower and brush out my wet hair. An Internet search returned several results stating that “starvation” dieting was a possible cause. We read that, when losing a lot of weight in a short amount of time, the body may sense that starvation is not far behind. As a protective mechanism, the body directs its energy to essential needs, such as preserving muscle, and hair growth can be compromised.

After discussions during our family visit, as well as conversations between Darren and me, we came to the conclusion that it was not prudent to continue into Washington this year. With 55 more miles to hike from Government Camp to the border of Oregon, we could end our trek there, in three days’ time.

During the final three days we came across several streams that required some of the trickiest crossings since the Sierras.


Crossing Russell Creek


Crossing Muddy Fork

On the second day of trekking after leaving our daughters, we set out to cover 21 miles, with over 4,000 of elevation gain. It was our last big day of hiking, and the weather was cold and windy. Late in the afternoon we paused for a break along a ridge. Ahead of us we could see three mountains: Mount St Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. For the first time it dawned on me that those mountains were in Washington, and we would not be hiking there this year. I began to cry; partly because we could not continue and partly because I was grateful we had made it so far.


View of Washington Mountains (Mount Rainier faintly behind the ridge on the left, Mount Adams on the right)

We woke up to clear weather on our final morning of hiking. After lingering over coffee and breakfast at our campsite at Wahtum Lake, we began hiking the final 16 miles to the Columbia River and the town of Cascade Locks.

Darren at our final campsite at Watum Lake

Darren at our final campsite at Wahtum Lake

The trail descended over 5,000 feet, and I was worried how my shin would hold up. Luckily, there were not many rocks, so I was able to hike without too much pain. As we continued downward, we got our first glimpse of the Columbia River below us. It was hard not to become emotional again as I looked at it. Even though I was still in pain from my shin, at least we could complete Oregon on our own terms. We had both been through so much during the past four months, as we hiked through the Southern California desert, portions of the Sierra Nevada Range, and the volcanic peaks of the Northern California and Oregon Cascade Mountains.


First views of the Columbia River

I was relieved to be finishing our trek, but it was bittersweet and sad not to continue. We were thankful to complete more than 1,800 miles of the 2,650-mile trail, gaining over 300,000 feet in the process. During 129 total days, we only took eight full rest days. And on those days we hiked, we averaged 15.5 miles and 2,500 feet in elevation gain each day.

While Darren had the mental and physical experience from running across the country last year, I did not. Instead, I faced my own set of difficulties from the hike. I am not the fastest, or the most gifted hiker, and have a real fear of heights and narrow ridges, making the trail a real challenge for me. Crossing raging streams and hiking along precarious ledges continually tested my will, and I felt great satisfaction in completing almost 70% of California and all of Oregon this year.

After reaching Cascade Locks, we spent the next 2 1/2 weeks traveling around the Pacific Northwest, first to Seattle to spend more time with our daughters, then on to Vancouver, British Columbia, to relax for a week in a rented downtown apartment. We delighted in sleeping in a real bed, having great food and taking daily showers, compared to our previous life on the trail.

Our travels concluded with a 35-hour train trip back to Southern California. While on the train, we sat in the dining car finishing our dinner and looking out the window at the Oregon scenery. We had already seen Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson earlier in the day, and the train was passing through a dense forest as the sun was beginning to set. The track took us next to a beautiful lake, and we both paused to look out the window. I opened the Google Maps app on my phone to see where we were. I was surprised to discover that we were traveling next to Odell Lake. We had hiked on its opposite side just a few weeks earlier, on our way to a resupply point at Shelter Cove Resort. Viewing the lake triggered a flood of memories and emotions, as I already missed the beauty and simplicity of the trail.

Our hope is that we will be able to complete the 290 miles that we skipped in the Sierras, as well as the state of Washington, at a later date. In the meantime, we are so appreciate the experience that we had, and the support from all of you following our latest Trekking the Planet journey.


Start of the PCT, Campo, CA - April 17, 2016


Finishing point, Cascade Locks, OR - August 23, 2016

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Update from PCT Mile 1689

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.


Major mountains in the Cascade Range (source: Wikipedia)

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.


Lava rock in the Cascades

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.


Darren climbing up the trail from Belden

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.


First views of Mount Lassen

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.


Deer at one of our campsites

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.


Boiling Springs Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park

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.

Entering Hat Creek Rim in the late afternoon

Entering Hat Creek Rim in the late afternoon


Looking down from Hat Creek Rim

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.


Lunch in the shade of a water cache along Hat Creek Rim

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.


McArthur-Burney Falls State Park

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.


Approaching Mount Shasta

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.


Dunsmuir, California

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.


Eating real food in Dunsmuir

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.


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.


Trinity Alps Wilderness

Unfortunately, two of the wilderness areas we passed through (Marble Mountain and Russian) had significant fire damage along the trail.


Fire damage in the Russian Wilderness

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.


Finishing our 24-mile hike

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?


Looking down to Seiad Valley during the climb

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.


We reach the Oregon border!

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