Wild on the Pacific Crest Trail
Are you thinking about thru-hiking the PCT or getting into long-distance hiking? If so, Next Adventure is the place to get geared up and learn what it takes to go the distance.
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With no snow on the mountain yet this winter, it is a good time to wax fondly on high-elevation summer hikes.
Read on if you are curious about some of my impressions when I hiked a 150 miles section of the PCT in Washington over 9 days. It is not the 1100 miles that Cheryl hiked, and not the whole 2600 miles that the thru-hikers complete, but hopefully it will give you an idea of what an extended time on the PCT can be like.
PCT Southbound Backpack 2013
I woke up by a mountain tarn in the William O. Douglas Wilderness. Sitting on a sun-bleached log by the side of the lake, a great blue heron, raven, and dragonflies joined in welcoming the morning.
My southbound PCT journey began by the shore of Deer Lake. Heavy clouds loomed overhead, but rain fell but infrequently. A picnic lunch at the trailhead by Hwy 12, and then I was plunging south into the Goat Rocks Wilderness late that afternoon.
Most of the climbing came at the start, as I climbed over 2000 feet from the trailhead to Hogback Mountain over 6.6 miles. There was a field of lupine flowers along the trail that was buzzing loudly with thousands of bees. Amazing.
I could hear thunder and the clouds grew darker. I took a side trail off the PCT and found the Hidden Springs Camp with its fresh mountain spring water. I was just setting up my tarp shelter when the first rains fell.
It was misty more than rainy the next morning. More like hiking in the clouds. Dampness permeated everything, from every direction. But then the air would clear, and the sky would brighten, and the breeze would begin to dry out the damp layers.
I was using a good old poncho for rain protection. It was a sil-nylon model from Camp Inn, so extra light. I figure that my lower legs, ankles, and feet get wet no matter what rain gear I use, so why not go lighter, just forget about the rain pants, and just use a poncho. Like I used to do years ago. And forget about the pack cover, too, as the poncho can double for that. My poncho was also the ground cover underneath my floorless tarp shelter -- which sets up with trekking poles, so no extra pole weight, either.
I was travelling about as light as I ever had before. I was carrying 11 days of food, and several quarts of water, together weighing about 16 pounds, when I started out from the trailhead. My pack weighed 32 pounds total, which means that I had 16 pounds for my base weight. Not bad for a guy that was once foolish enough to carry 70 pound loads.
The pack itself weighed only 2 pounds. It was a Go Lite Jam -- a frameless, ultra-light model that really can't carry more than 30 pounds comfortably (and then only when it is very carefully packed).
Here are some other gear choices that lightened my load:
I could have gone lighter with an alcohol stove, but the comfort and convenience of the Jet Boil system make it worth carrying a few extra ounces.
My tarp is an old MSR Trekker tarp. No bug mesh or floor, it and needs to be carefully staked out to withstand the weather, but very reliable, versatile, and weighs only 2 pounds, including stakes. (Too bad this model is no longer in production. But there are many other even lighter-weight versions available out there today.)
The sleeping bag I carried was a Marmot Helium, a 15-degree down bag that weighs only 2 pounds. My sleep pad was an ExPed Synmat UL 7 -- 3 inches thick when inflated, but packs down smaller than a water bottle, and weighs just under 1 pound.
Approaching Elk Pass, beautiful alpine wildflower meadows lined the run-off streams from the snowfields above us. It began to feel cold instead of just cool. I met up with several thru-hikers. One, named Ice Axe, was southbound like me - she had flip-flopped, and was finishing the trail in the middle. The others were northbounders, and they warned of treacherous stormy conditions along the "Knife" - a two-mile cliff-top section of trail. It was a walk in the clouds. Who knew how far down it was? It was all lost in swirling mist. I had to wear almost all of my layers to keep out the biting mountain winds, and brace myself against their sporadic gusts. I hadn't anticipated mountain climbing, but it sure felt like that was what I was doing.
Eventually, I crossed the Packwood Glacier and was back on firmer footing.
I covered another 6 miles of rocky, alpine habitat before finding a flat place to camp at 6100 feet elevation, above the source of the Klickitat River, a bit past Cispus Pass. The wind blew fierce over the mountain pass saddle, but I was snug and dry under my tarp.
The third day was still grey, but dawned bright and dry. I saw my first glimpse of Mt. Rainier's summit through the trees. Up until then, I had only seen the shoulders of the giant, its peak swathed in clouds. The day got warmer and drier the longer I hiked. The trail curved along the ridge around Walupt Lake, and skirted near the Yakima Indian Reservation Boundary. I found huckleberries galore, and gorged on their sweet purple goodness. After miles of downhill and rolling level hiking, the trail turned uphill again. A view point atop a cliff offered a vista of the entire Goat Rocks ridge, and much of the trail I had traversed.
Then it was downhill and rolling level again. I exited the Goat Rocks Wilderness and camped at Midway Creek Camp. The sky was blue, but a heavy dew drenched everything soon after I finished my Backpacker's Pantry freeze-dried dinner. And then the stars came out, accompanied by a thin crescent moon, and I slept very well that night.
The next morning, a bowl of oatmeal with huckleberries awaited me, and I would be continuing southbound along the PCT toward the Mt. Adams Wilderness. I had hiked 42 miles and climbed over 6600 feet in three days along the Pacific Crest Trail. Not a bad start. But I still had over 100 miles to go to complete my PCT journey.
The fourth day's hike brought more wild experiences along the PCT. Skirting along the edge of vast lava fields, spectacular Lava Springs bursts out from a basalt wall. I took a break at a lake high up in the Mt. Adams Wilderness and then contoured around the west side of the mountain, crossing the S. Fork of Adams Creek, and hiking through more lava fields and a recent burn. That night I cowboy camped on a ridge under bright stars and views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. I hiked 17 miles on day 4.
An hour into the fifth day's hike, I stopped at a springs for water, and helped a couple of section hikers look for a lost camera. There was a hiker cache near the Road 23 crossing, which was real treat. Most of the day was spent between wilderness areas, but I entered the north end of the Indian Heaven Wilderness and took a side trail up Sawtooth Mountain, where I cowboyed on a breezy ridge. 24 miles hiked on day 5.
The sixth morning dawned cool. Spectacular mountain vistas were visible in all directions. I crossed Sawtooth Mountain and continued to take an alternate route through the Indian Heaven Wilderness. I had a very quiet day in a spectacular area. As soon as I rejoined the PCT, I started encountering thru-hikers again, and we stopped to chat. I took a dip in beautiful Blue Lake, washing away the trail grime. I exited Indian Heaven and camped at Sheep Lake. A light rain fell, but the night was calm. 15 miles hiked day 6.
Heading south from Sheep Lake, I crossed Road 60, refilled from a trailside spring, then took another side trail to the summit of Big Huckleberry Mountain. Mosquitoes were found swarming near the Road 68 crossing, and a few hours later, I was a Panther Creek. I soaked my feet in the cold water and set up camp in the trees on a bed of moss. 18 miles hiked day 7.
The eighth day was hiking through less wild areas, crossing several roads. I took another detour to see logging history along the Whistle Punk Trail, and found more water at Trout Creek. There was a bees nest on the trail, but I knew about that from talking to NOBO hikers, plus there were notes on the trail. I had to detour through the woods, but did not get stung. I camped at Rock Creek that night. 16 miles hiked day 8.
The ninth morning was overcast and misty. I took a side trip to Three Corner Rock, and got drenched from the dew on the grass. Then it started raining more. I started up the Table Mountain Trail, but soon I climbed into the clouds and was whipped by wind and pelted by sleet. So I turned around. Back below the clouds, it was not as stormy, but the sky was threatening. I continued south along the PCT. It rained on and off as I went down into the Gorge valley lowlands. The thunder started booming, and I picked up my pace. I had planned on camping one more night, but I got to the Bridge of the Gods just after dark and got a room at the Best Western in Cascade Locks. A hot shower never felt so good! 21 miles hiked day 9.
I had hiked 150 miles southbound along the Pacific Crest Trail in 9 days, arriving in Cascade Locks just in time for the PCT Days Festival on Thunder Island.
More wild PCT blogs:
Other PCT & Thru-hiking resources:
And the Oregonian posted a great PCT article this weekend with some good facts and figures. Check it out: