The Sprint

Well, the title says it all. When we last posted, we were just shy of the halfway mark – around 1300 miles into the trail. In the couple weeks since then, we’ve covered around 750 miles. Due to scheduling constraints stemming from Gabe’s early-September grad school start date, we ratcheted up our pace in an attempt to finish the trail by August 26th. Thirty-mile days became the norm, which didn’t leave much time in the day to eat or sleep, let alone write blog posts or respond to important texts from our parents (sorry). Fortunately, Gabe just managed to squeeze a few more days out of his schedule, so we’ve backed down to a “relaxed” 25-miles-a-day pace in hopes to finish August 31. (It’s amazing what feels relaxing after a few weeks of hiking for twelve hours a day!) Now that we actually have time to write, here’s a summary of our headlong rush through northern California into Oregon.

We hiked out of Belden feeling ready for anything after meeting my parents for some much-needed steak and cookies. That feeling lasted about an hour. Coming out of Belden, the PCT winds its way up a seemingly interminable, exposed, and baking hot canyon. Gaining some 5000 feet in ten miles, the trail stays cruelly out of reach of the river below except for two crossings halfway into the climb. Gabe and I made it to the first of these crossings just as the heat was becoming unbearable (my Zippo thermometer read 103, but I trust that thing as much as I do my own cooking), and decided to rest until the day started to cool. A perfect swimming hole with brisk water made this a great decision. We continued on after a few hours of lazing by the river and soon made camp near a clear running spring.

Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that the trail would be easy going once we got past Tahoe. In my mind, northern California would be a cakewalk after the Sierras. It was a land of rolling hills and cool rivers- Shasta is the only tall thing around, what could possibly make the hiking hard? My delusion somehow persisted even after the brutally hot climb out of Belden. I think my denial finally fell apart a few days later. That’s when I realized that we had traded the dramatic climbs and high elevation of the Sierras for crippling heat and constantly undulating terrain. The desert was certainly dry, but we were there in Spring before the real heat set in. Now that it was July, we found ourselves hiking in triple-digit temperatures way too often for a couple of coast-dwellers used to year-round 60-degree fog and rain showers.

We pressed on despite the heat and made an uneventful crossing of Lassen National Park. Winding our way around the base of the volcano for which the park is named, we passed a few smelly volcanic hot spots, but didn’t see a whole lot to write home about. During lunch at Drakesbad guest ranch, a fellow German hiker kept buying us beers every time his team scored against Brazil (remember that they scored seven goals and hence we staggered away from our lunch break). I did learn a thing or two about rattlesnake body language, though.

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After this educational wildlife experience, we dropped down into the “town” of Old Station, which was really just a post office and an RV park connected by a shared parking lot. We picked up a box of food and readied ourselves for the next big obstacle– the dreaded Hat Creek Rim. This (deservedly) oft-maligned section of trail is a 27-mile bone-dry hike along the exposed edge of the Hat Creek Valley. The lack of water and shade combined with extreme heat due to low elevation makes the Hat Creek Rim a strong contender for the title of the least fun section of the PCT. With this prospect looming over us, we spent the night at Subway Cave, where a spigot provided the last water before the dry section, as well as a perfect hobo shower.

Beautiful sunsets from the trail

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The next morning we woke up early to hit the trail before the heat of the day set in. Carrying four liters of water, we started the day with a climb up the 900-foot tall side of the Hat Creek Valley. From there the trail stuck close to the rim for about 18 miles of flat but shadeless walking. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say those miles were exactly as fun as they sound. The hottest several hours of the day were spent eating lunch and lying comatose in the shade of a tree. There really wasn’t any other choice– I wouldn’t have been able to drink water as fast as I was sweating it out had I tried to hike between 2 and 4 pm.

After lunch, there was nothing left to do but make a mad dash to the edge of the valley, where a shadier seven miles leads down to a fish hatchery on a dam. The bathrooms there provided a long-awaited water source. As I recuperated and guzzled water, I watched an ecstatic osprey wreak havoc on the hatchery’s aquatic inhabitants. I’ve never seen an animal act so much like the proverbial kid in a candy store.

The next day left us with eight miles to hike into Burney Falls State Park. I was eager to get there, since nothing says “free shower” like a 34 degree waterfall. We got to the falls in no time, and gladly braved the frigid water to wash off many miles of caked dust and food crumbs. (Much to the shock of many RV-dwelling tourists. For some reason, Burney Falls is very popular with the more, ahem, lethargic type of traveler who doesn’t care to walk down a paved path more than a quarter-mile from their air-conditioned mobile palace. Needless to say, our less-than-clean appearance and willingness to hop in the water came as a surprise to them.)

Nick swimming under Burney Falls

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Whoever planned the route of the Pacific Crest Trail must have loved Mount Shasta, because the trail makes an enormous 300-mile loop through Northern California around the mountain. From Lassen, the trail heads west and skirts Shasta’s southern foothills for about 150 trail miles, crossing over I-5 at Castle Crags State Park and climbing into the Trinity Alps Wilderness. From the Trinities we head north, through the Russian and Marble Mountain Wildernesses and into Oregon, before finally cutting back east over Mount Ashland to reach the crest of the southern Cascades. Only after completing this enormous three-quarter circle (keeping Shasta in sight the whole way!) does the trail begin its final northward sprint along the Cascades into Canada.

Texting in front of Mt. Shasta

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Castle Crags State Park from the trail

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At Burney Falls we started moving almost straight west. We crossed 80 miles of hot and hilly terrain over the northern end of California’s Central Valley, all the while getting spectacular views of the south side of Shasta. It never appeared like we were making progress along the trail, since the allusive isometric 14,000 ft volcanic peak looks identical from every distance and angle. Dropping down to I-5 at Castle Crags State Park, we picked up a resupply package and scarfed our usual half-gallon of ice cream at the campground.

The next day proved to be one of the most difficult of the trail so far. We climbed 5000 vertical feet out of the park and up along an exposed south-facing slope that seemed to last forever. By the time we reached the top of the uphill, we were both exhausted and out of water, with at least 5 more miles until the next source. Completely by chance, we happened upon a day-hiker who turned out to be a former PCTer himself. His name was Griz, and he was carrying cold beers to hand out to all the dehydrated thru-hikers that he came across. We drank with gusto, and he offered us leftover pizza and vitamin water from his car (didn’t you always tell me never to take food from a stranger?). Thanks to his generosity, we rebounded and were able to push onto the next spring for camp.

We followed ridgelines, trending west through the Trinity Alps and then north into the Russian Wilderness, where Gabe’s mom and family friends met us with some very well-executed trail magic at Paynes Lake. She managed to get a friend to pack in all the luxuries of home on two donkeys. Our furry porters were loaded high with soda, beer, Thai curry, and all manner of sweet dessert treats. We gorged on the food and lazed in the lake on inflatable sleeping pads. Miles into the backcountry, and we had all the comforts of civilization.

Relaxing on rafts in Paynes Lake

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Trail magic carried in by one of the donkeys!

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After our on-trail rest day we crossed over Etna Summit and into the Marble Mountains Wilderness, the last wilderness area we would see before entering Oregon. From the Marble Mountains we dropped down to the Klamath River and the tiny town of Seiad Valley. We picked up another box of food here and rested in the relative cool of the town RV park’s lawn. We knew California had reserved a parting blow for us in the form of (yet another) hot climb up a south-facing hillside. Since we waited until the evening to begin the hike, this last climb proved to be surprisingly pleasant, providing views almost all the way to the coast, and a beautiful wildfire-smoke-enhanced sunset.

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On day 90 and mile 1700 of our hike, we crossed into Oregon. Finally! Where as on the Appalachian Trail we might have gone through ten states in the same distance, we had only just finished our first state. We downed some celebratory rum and carried on.

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Gabe’s celebratory selfie after completing his first state

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As if on cue, the biggest storm we’d yet experienced on the trail hit within an hour of reaching the border. We donned our rain gear and hiked into the pouring rain and near-continuous thunder. Rationally I knew nature didn’t follow state lines, but the superstitious hiker in me couldn’t help but think that this was a bad omen for Oregon…

5 thoughts on “The Sprint

  1. Charles Minton

    Wow, the epic journey continues.
    Last week we met some PCT hikers as we were hiking the Lost Coast. They had hitch hiked from Etna to get out of the same intense heat for a while, that you so vividly described.

  2. Chris Schmidt

    It is great to hear and see more about your trip. That is such a huge accomplishment. I love the picture of your dirty legs. It took me a minute to realize how filthy you were since I focussed on the condition of your feet. The RV’ers at the Burney Falls were perhaps more amazed at your eagerness to pollute the site by swimming rather than by your ability to immerse in the cold water.

  3. Griz

    It was great to meet you both. Just read the the article in the Times Standard and it put a smile on my face to see you finished on time. Congrats and best of luck in the future. Cheers!!

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