Update from PCT Mile 1284

Sandy provides an update on our PCT progress, as we complete our time in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

It had been a traumatic experience for us to leave the PCT in the High Sierras, due to the raging river crossings. As we rejoined the trail in South Lake Tahoe, we weren’t sure whether we would encounter other issues that would force us to make a similar decision. We knew that we would still face some snow, but weren’t sure to what extent it would affect our hiking progress.

On a Sunday morning, we set out toward Echo Lake to begin trekking again. Almost immediately we were stunned to see many day and weekend hikers on the trail with us. It took time to weave through the people coming from both directions, and we were both overwhelmed. I decided to take a break to collect my thoughts before continuing.

The number of people were reduced somewhat once we entered the Desolation Wilderness just past Echo Lake. A Wilderness Area is congressionally designated public land that is further protected from human use. First created in 1964, the Wilderness Area Act encompasses 109 million acres of Federal land (or about 5% of the land in the United States). Desolation was the first of several Wilderness Areas that we hiked through in the ensuing days.

One of the highlights of the Desolation Wilderness was the lakes that we saw. Aloha Lake was perhaps our favorite. The rocks coming out of the water made for a surreal atmosphere.

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Aloha Lake, Desolation Wilderness

As we approached Dick’s Pass (elevation 9,400 feet) on our second day back, we were surprised by the amount of snow still on the trail. It was not that much less than we had encountered in the High Sierras. When we came across snow on the passes, it necessitated either climbing up and down snow drifts on the trail (sometimes with extreme drop offs on the side), or finding our own way down to the dirt trail below. We used our phone GPS app to locate the trail and then decided which method made sense, given the amount of snow and the grade of the mountain. Either way, we had to take our time and be very careful as we picked our way along the trail. Fortunately, the streams were all manageable for us to cross.

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Looking down at the snow from Dick's Pass
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Dick's Pass (9,400 feet)

Since we had skipped ahead, we encountered many less PCT hikers on the trail. The ones we did see were what we termed “super hikers,” who were covering 25 to 30 miles a day. It was hard not to feel inferior as they flew past us. With less trekkers, the trail was more enjoyable, but it meant that there were not as many footprints to follow in the snow or around downed trees, so we had to rely on our GPS app to navigate through these obstacles. We also had more solitude, and we enjoyed camping along numerous lakes.

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Camping at Lake Richardson

Our hiking also look us along the Tahoe Rim Trail, with great vistas of Lake Tahoe below us.

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Lunch break with Lake Tahoe view

The increased navigation and snow that we encountered made it slow going. Our 31st wedding anniversary fell on our fourth day of resumed hiking. We were having a hard time with the snow, and I was almost in tears. During a break I checked my paper maps to pinpoint our location. While doing so, I noticed a highway coming up and a reference to lodge a mile off the trail. I mentioned to Darren since it was our anniversary, perhaps we could spend the night there and celebrate.

We had cell phone service, so I called the lodge. There was a room available that night and they had a restaurant serving dinner until 7:00 pm. That meant that we had to move quickly from our location, but we were able to arrive there at 6:40. The lodge was kind enough to give us a room discount and a free dinner in honor of our anniversary. Spending the night there made up for the difficulties suffered that day.

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Hiking through a snow bank
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Celebrating our anniversary at the lodge

After seven days of hiking, we arrived in Sierra City for a half day off (known as a “nero”). The town flourished during the California Gold Rush, with a peak population of 3,000, compared to a total of about 200 individuals today. The trail went sharply down to the highway, and we crossed the beautiful North Yuba River running through the city.

Being Fourth of July weekend, we thought we might have trouble getting a hotel room in town, so we made a few calls a couple of days before arriving. However, there were no available rooms. We tried the RV park in town, and they had a vintage trailer we could stay in. It was comfortable and allowed us to shower and do laundry, always a welcome activity for us. The owners of the RV park gave us an option to stay another night for free, but we felt it important to keep moving, so we politely declined their offer.

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Sierra City, California
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Our vintage trailer for the night

After the steep descent to Sierra City, the next day we needed to climb out of the valley, gaining 5,000 feet in the process. Besides the extreme elevation gain, we had to deal with one of the worst trail conditions to date. The track was severely eroded in places, with some sections barely wider than my shoe. It was rocky and uneven. Overgrown plants made it hard to see where to walk. And to top it off, a rattlesnake appeared in one narrow section, and we had to navigate carefully around it. After a harrowing two hours we were behind the worst of it and back on solid ground.

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Hiking along the trail above Sierra City

As we continued to hike this section of the PCT, one of the highlights was the Sierra Buttes. These distinctive, rugged peaks rise 8,587 feet above the valley. Each day we trekked, we could see more mountain ranges in front of us. However, the height and sharpness of each one decreased as we moved north. Looking behind us, I could make out the snow covered peaks of the High Sierras. Those ranges grew fainter as we progressed, until one day they were totally gone from our sight.

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Sierra Buttes

Another advantage we gained from skipping ahead on the trail was that we were treated to a great variety of blooming flowers. Entire hillsides were bursting with color as we hiked, making some of our climbing much more rewarding.

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Flowers in bloom
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Flowers on a hillside

Our time in the Sierras came to an end with our arrival in Belden, located on the Feather River. The night before descending down to Belden, we camped on a high ridge and were treated to a beautiful sunrise the next morning.

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Sunrise on the ridge

We had to work hard to get a hotel room there on a Thursday night, because a weekend festival was in town. And when we arrived, we were told that the room we had reserved was not available and we would have to camp. After several discussions with hotel personnel, we persevered and got our room.

Our resupply box (with new shoes) had been sent to a trail angel in town, but she was driving someone to Sacramento, so could not meet us with our package. Instead, she suggested that we go to her house and locate the package ourselves. We had to walk a mile down a narrow and twisting highway to find her house. Once inside, we searched several rooms with stacked packages from floor to ceiling before finally locating ours. There was an RV park a short distance away, and we enjoyed lunch, complete with burgers and homemade shakes, before returning to the hotel. We had a short afternoon to accomplish all of this and would have preferred an entire day off, but with no other hotel options, we decided to continue hiking north.

Crossing the Feather River marked the end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the beginning of the Cascades. Our first few weeks back on the trail challenged us with snow, elevation gains and losses and sketchy trails. But we were excited for what lie ahead as we continued through Northern California and toward Oregon.

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