Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Great PCT Hike of 2011

The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican border to just inside Canada, approximately 2,650 miles.  Lot's of people hike parts of this trail each year and about 200 or so actually make it the full length in a single year.  To do that most people start mid-April at the Mexican border and hike north toward Canada, finishing up around mid-September.  I have dreamed about hiking this trail for a lot of years and finally started on it last year with the northern most section, getting in the first 75 miles.

I had planned on hiking the next 200 miles to the south of that section this year, starting at Highway 20 and hiking down to I-90.  But the snow this year in the North Cascades finally scared me off so I shifted my sights to Oregon.  The snow looked much more manageable down there, although I did not know as much about the trail.  I choose to start at the Columbia River and head south to Highway 242, about 160 miles away.  This trip was expected to take about 8 days with the option of heading on down another 30 miles if I still had it in me.



Sue dropped me off Monday morning at the trail head around 6:45 AM.  The first section of the days travel was actually down an alternate route that is considered much more scenic.  The trail passed along a number of waterfalls, including one where the trail tunnels behind the fall, pretty impressive.  The trail is moving up a narrow and deep canyon and is frequently blasted out of the side of the canyon wall, not necessarily a place for those with a fear of heights.  There is frequent water along the first few miles, then a dry stretch followed by a little trickle at the 12 mile mark.  The next source of water is 12 miles away.  That stretch is scenic though and enjoyable.  I made camp about a mile past the last water in what was for me a rare 'dry' camp.  By the time I had camp set up and had eaten and cleaned up a bit it was dark so I jumped in the hammock and called it a day, after 25 miles on the trail.  Sometime during the night I woke up to it raining ... I thought it was supposed to be clear for the whole trip; kind of a downer for the start of day two.


This is the top of the Tunnel Falls.  You can see the opening to the tunnel to the left of the fall and just over 2/3's of the way down the picture.  The tunnel exit is just to the right of the falls.  The tunnel is actually in the middle of the fall and is pretty drippy inside.  Way cool!

This is another fall on the creek. I liked the rapids on this one and had my first break here.  There were lots of nice pools to soak my feet in.

This is the first clear view of Mt Hood on the trail.  Mt Hood dominates the skyline for the first 3 days of this trip.

Tuesday morning dawned wet and rainy.  Broke camp under the tarp and marched for the first few hours in light rain.  By 10 AM or so the rain had quit and by noon the sun was out.  The highlights of the day included Ramona Falls, below Mt Hood, and the views of Mt Hood from the Timberline Lodge area.  The day included lots of climbing and lots of walking in what looked and felt like beach sand, neither of which was too much fun with a too full pack.  I was able to call home from the Timberline Lodge and then made it another 3 miles to a nice campsite alongside of a small stream.  Finished setting up camp in the dark again, took a bath in the stream, had dinner and dropped off to bed after a 20 mile day.


Ramona Falls sits to the west of Mt Hood.  This fall cascades over a rugged face and spreads out as it goes down.  Very impressive.

The Sandy River cuts a channel through a thick layer of ash.  This looks much like beach sand but is the ash from a previous eruption.  Mt Hood is covered in the stuff, sometimes making walking a bit challenging.

The view of MT Hood from the Timberline Lodge. From here it doesn't look like it would be too difficult to climb, but it is still 6000 feet to the top and a fairly technical climb.  Climbers die on it just about every year.

Wednesday looked to be a mostly level day and I hoped for about 30 miles, but it was not to be.  The day was mostly spend under the cover of trees, was not too scenic and was pretty dry.  Other than Timothy Lake there was not really a lot to commend this section of the trail.  I finally staggered to a stop at my second dry camp after a 27 mile day.  Had a thunder storm move through with a little rain just as I got camp set up.  Had dinner, took a spit bath and fell asleep listening to strange screeching sounds in the woods around me.  Sometime during the night I decided that I would not last trying for so many miles each day and decided to back down to 20 or less a day, and looking for a lake or stream to camp near.


The trail heading south from Mt Hood is very well manicured.  In many places two people can walk alongside each other.  And there are miles of trail that could be used by wheelchairs.

Mt Hood is visible from far to the south, although usually it is just through small openings in the trees.  Once you get down from Mt Hood the terrain is relatively flat for a long way with not many vistas.

Thursday was a repeat of Wednesday in some respects.  Not much water around and not much too see for most of the day.  I crossed 3 water sources during the day and spent a lot of time in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.  The reservation has a lot of logging going on so I saw a lot of clear cut areas and crossed many logging roads.  After 20 miles I reached Lake Jude and setup camp.  But the lake was stagnant so I hiked about 3/4 of a mile back up the trail, collected water for the next day and for dinner, cleaned up and went back to camp.  It was great feeling somewhat clean and being all ready for bed before it got dark; first time for the trip.  Had some more thunder and rain before bed time but nothing too serious where I was and actually made it to bed around dark.


The PCT is marked in many ways.  This older metal plate nailed to a tree is one of them.  There is a wooden plaque that is also commonly used along with blazes on the tree and an occasional sign nailed to a tree or a post.  In general the trail is well marked; there were only a few times when I questioned whether or not I was actually on the correct trail.
Lemiti Creek is one of the few water sources between Mt Hood and Mt Jefferson.  The creek is only a few inches deep but was a welcome sight.  Took off my shoes, socks, and the legs to my pants and knelt in the creek near the rock in the background to cool down a bit.

Friday was the big climbing day, up before light and on the trail by 6:30.  The first stop was at the Olallie Resort where I was able to buy a Dr Pepper, which I drank on their front porch, and a few small supplies.  Then up and past a number of small lakes before the ascent up a snow covered shoulder of Mt Jefferson to the trips high point at about 7000 foot.  And then down into Jefferson Park and a nice spot next to a stream and not far from a nice lake.  It was intermittently windy here but pleasant.  I got in a swim and felt much better.  This spot had the largest concentration of mosquitoes on the trip though and was the only place I really needed to breakout the head net and repellent.  Other than the final partial day, this was the trips shortest day at 17 miles.

Mt Jefferson can be seen across Olallie Lake from the front steps of the Olallie Resort grocery store.  The store had very little of interest to me, but I was able to buy a cold Dr Pepper and sit on the front porch and chill out for a while and enjoy the view.
The trail goes over a 7000 foot ridge to the north-west of Mt Jefferson.  There were a couple of long stretches of snow on the climb.  The only thing to indicate the proper course were the tracks of the folks who had just come down it.
Jefferson Park is an alpine bowl, about 1 mile across and 3 miles long that sits to the west of Mt Jefferson.  Pictured is the northeast corner of the park and Russell Lake.  I camped a little to the right of the lake and enjoyed a quick dip in the lake.
The wind was intermittently pretty strong while I was at Jefferson Park.  That made it fun getting the hammock and tarp setup and staked down.  Here my hammock is imitating a sail. 

Woke early again Saturday and was off at the break of dawn.  Jefferson Park is a mile across where the PCT  crosses it and is mostly a high altitude meadow dotted with clumps of trees and small lakes.  The trail skirted around Mt Jefferson, dropping for the first few miles and then climbing back over 6000' before walking along a ridge for the last few miles.  The days trip included a ford of Russel Creek that was knee deep, crossing the remnants of an avalanche over Milky Creek and 5-6 miles through an area that burned a few years ago.  I was concerned that my destination for the night would be burned but Rockpile Lake and its immediate surroundings had been spared and was beautiful.  Setup camp in the trees to the east of the lake, got in a swim and dinner and was able to relax for a bit before bed.  Yet another thunderstorm moved through bring some pretty heavy gusts and a bit of rain.

Slate Lake on the trail to the south of Mt Jefferson and was a pretty little lake.  Enjoyed lunch and a wade here.
I probably hiked through nearly 30 miles of forest that had burned during the past few years, apparently from several different fires.  It looks pretty desolate but the wildflowers and shrubs were taking advantage of the missing canopy.  There are currently 3 fires burning on or near the portion of the PCT that I came through so the destruction will be even greater in coming years.
Ash is a pretty common occurrence through the northern part of the Oregon PCT.  This was part of a 'meadow' about the size of two football fields side by side.  The 'soil' was coarse sand down to dust with periodic larger chunks of pumice laying on the surface and with a surprising variety of wildflowers growing in it. 
This picture was taken just after the sun had set behind the ridge at the top right.  Rockpile Lake was a beautiful little lake that was spared during the burn that took most everything else within miles around. 

Most of Sunday was spent on a continuing journey through the burned area.  Seems like most of the last 35 miles of this trip was through areas that had been recently burned.  It did open up the views a lot and was interesting to see the recovery process.  In many places the forest floor was covered with flowers, grasses, ferns or huckleberries.  The day included a trip up to 3 Fingered Jack, an old volcano whose glaciers had stripped away all but the core, along with some vistas back to Mt Jefferson and ahead the the Sisters.  I ended the day at Youth Camp, a PCT hiker friendly camp along the shores of a lake.  They have a cabin available for hikers along with showers and food.  A fire on Mt Washington was threatening an evacuation of the camp so there was no meal but the shower was nice.

I was marching through a section of trail that had been badly burned and had had no maintenance that year, making it the most challenging section of trail to follow.  I was pretty sure I was going the right way when I came upon this sign.  It was comforting except for one thing; it was backwards. I had just come from Rockpile Lake, off to the left.
3 Fingered Jack is all that is left from a volcano like Jefferson or Hood after the glaciers have finished their job on it.  All that is left is the hard core of the mountain.  You can see the trail that ascends to the pass near the mountain.  It switch backed along a steep slope up to the top, just to the right of the right most hump.
There was a lot of Lupine along this trail, especially in those areas that had burned out.  Lupine seems to grow just about everywhere.
There is a variety of vegetation that sprouts up under the burn.  Here it is just a field of grasses with an occasional flower.  Other places it was ferns, wildflowers or huckleberries.

I left Youth Camp early Monday and climbed over the west flank of Mt Washington and then into the lava fields around the Belknap crater.  Five miles of walking across the lava fields was pretty interesting, but not something I would like to do every day.  12 miles into the day I hit the trail head and waited for Sue to pick me up.


I came upon this off to the side of the trail and was confused at first.  Finally realized that I was 2000 trail miles from the start of the trail at the Mexican border.  Someone was celebrating that fact.

Some of the lava fields around the Belknap Crater were pretty desolate.  Nothing but chunks of lava.  There were several miles of this as I approached the end of this years journey down the PCT.

With Sue at the DW Observatory atop McKenzie Pass.  Mt Washington is in the background with the Belknap Crater lava fields in the foreground.  There is an occasional dead tree in the fields but not much else.  

I found three kinds of people on the PCT.  The first group are those who are hiking the complete length of the PCT is a single year, or thru-hikers.  These folks were generally younger, although I met a few who were older than me.  They were in general fairly friendly and willing to stop and talk for a few minutes and had colorful trail names like Buttercup, Ninja, Sniper, Sunshine or Wired.  Section hikers were folks like myself who were only hiking a portion of the trail, anywhere from 50 miles to a whole state.  They tended toward being a bit older and still fairly friendly.  The day hikers that were encountered near resorts or back country camp grounds were of all ages, generally clean and tidy and less interested in conversing with stinky long range hikers.  I generally have little to do with people I pass on the street.  But I have found over the years that I enjoy taking a few minutes to chat with the long range hikers I encounter.

This trip had to be one of the hardest things I have ever done, both physically and mentally.  I had thought that with all the running I had been doing that walking 25 miles a day would not be so hard.  But it was, especially when you throw in a 38 pound pack at the beginning and have to climb several thousand feet once or twice a day.  Laying in my hammock after the third day, with my legs, feet and knees throbbing, and thinking that I still had 5-6 days left on the trip was very difficult to deal with.  I had been optimistically hoping that I could add 30 miles to the end of my trip but had to decide then that was not going to happen.  Instead I decided to slow down a bit, doing only 20 mile days and making sure that I ended up on a lake or stream where water was abundant and I could clean up easily, and enjoy the evening a bit before turning in.  That made a big difference for the rest of the trip.  As the pack weight dropped and the miles and hours went down a bit I was able to have a much better attitude about the experience.  All in all I would have to say it was a good trip and I learned a lot about long distance hiking that will hopefully help in the future.

I am looking forward to getting back onto the PCT next year and hopefully finishing up Oregon and maybe doing another hunk of Washington.  But I do not believe that I will be willing to just go out and hike non-stop for over a week again.  I have already enlisted my wonderful wife, she with the wander-lust blood, to meet me every few days to resupply and allow a recuperation day when needed.  Time to start planning now.