This is the NorCal inferno, where the Sierras end and the Cascade Mountains begin. In this 303 mile stretch from Sierra City to Mt. Shasta, I finally reach the halfway point of the PCT, explore a cave, tackle the 30 mile water-less Hat Creek Rim, see some volcanoes and get a ride in a police cruiser.
I love my stay in Sierra City so much I decide to zero, staying an extra night at Herrington’s Sierra Pines Resort. The store in town is pricey, so I only buy what I need (mainly beer). My feet feel like they’ve been smashed with a mallet, so I try to keep them out of my shoes as much as possible before I go back to the trail. On my way out of town, I see Lo Flo again stop to talk to him. I start road walking in the already blazing heat, but a pickup truck pulls over and the driver tells me to hop in the back. He saves me from pounding two miles of hot pavement, and drops me off back at the trail. (Photo: Staying another day at Herrington’s in Sierra City isn’t a difficult choice)
Even though it’s within the forest, the climb into the mountains is brutally hot. I have to stop often to chug water and rest. There’s no escaping the heat here. The trail leaves the forest near the top and then follows along a narrow, exposed section looking down onto Sierra City and the towns beyond. I reach a spring late in the afternoon and section hiker called Space Cowboy is there getting water. I sit beneath a large tree in the shade and wait for my turn to have a go at collecting water from the trickle. Lo Flo catches up and sits with us for a bit. I eat a pile of candy and lament over my feet.
After eating my feelings and filtering a couple of liters of water, I hike on with the other two in the lead. I meander along a forested ridge for awhile, with views of lakes and rolling hills in the distance. The day was fading, as was I, and I decided to make camp off trail at Summit Lake. When I get there, I see Space Cowboy and set up my tent near his. The evening brought a plague of mosquitoes with it, so I hid in my tent while I ate my dinner and dozed off shortly after.
I wake feeling a bit nauseous, and it gets increasingly worse the further down the trail I go. I chalk it up to dehydration and make some Gatorade to drink and pop some ibuprofen for my already aching feet. I see Lo Flo again near a spring, and we talk about how much our feet are hurting us as we filter some water. By late afternoon, the trail comes to a road junction and I have to walk a bit on the pavement. My feet don’t agree with the road walking and are throbbing in pain. Once back on the trail, I push on to the next water source, Alder Spring. It’s a trek getting down there, following a mucky trail to a barely flowing piped spring. It’s incredibly buggy down there so I decide not to camp there despite others doing so, and make my way back up the main trail. I make camp in tiny clearing in the woods, but it turns out to be an awful spot. Not only does a mouse continually nibble at my Tyvek sheet all night, but a curious, rather large animal kept stalking around my tent. Every time I flipped my light on, it lumbered away. Little sleep was to be had. (Photo: I catch my first glimpse of the volcanic Mount Lassen in the Cascade Range)
The heat was stifling early on, and I was functioning on very little sleep and experiencing great pain in my feet. I was feeling down and out, and thoughts of quitting were consuming me. I got water at another off trail spring, but it was cold and soothing. I we my shirt and hat, and let the icy water cool my skin despite it taking my breath away. My saving grace comes when I arrive at a fantastic swimming hole beneath a bridge at the Feather River. I’m the only one around, so I scramble down to the rocky bank and strip my clothes off. I dive in, and let the cool water wash away all my pain and doubt. I spend a few hours there, avoiding the heat and once again finding joy in what the trail has to offer.
(Photo: happy to be swimming in the refreshing Feather River)
After my amazing swim in the river, my happiness fades when I realize that I have a long haul over a few miles of switchbacks going up a mountain. Halfway up, I’m regretting my decision to leave the swim hole. I get dizzy from the extreme heat, and need to sit beside the trail for a bit to rest. Once over the top, I start heading back down again and end up in a shaded area beside a bridge and creek. There’s a lovely campsite here, with a couple of section hikers already there. I have yet another climb ahead, but I’m in no shape to do it just yet, so I set up my tent and have a nap in the shade for awhile. (Photo: the swimming hole that I never should have left)
I wake up a couple hours later, when the sun is low and things are starting to cool off again. I don my headlamp and set off, but then immediately need to put my bug net on as well. Swarms of mosquitoes have come out with the evening and make things miserable. I try to stop for a quick dinner, but they keep me steadily on the move. The switchbacks enter dark forest the more I climb, and I feel myself tiring. I hike well into the night, and decide to stop just a mile short of the top. It’s now after 11 pm, and I’m completely spent. I pitch my tent and hop in, but I hear a strange tapping sound coming from outside. I peer out and am horrified to see that it’s a spider making that sound as it makes its way across my Tyvek. I open my tent door just enough and pull my pack and shoes inside, then use a stick to sweep the nasty little creeper away.
I still wake up early in the morning even after only sleeping a few hours. I get to a piped spring along the trail and Lo Flo is there breaking camp. We walk together for a bit but then part ways when he needs to rush off to use the toilet. I pass Buck’s Lake Road and was disappointed that there was no trail magic, and continue on through a marshy bit of forest. It was lovely here, albeit buggy, with wildflowers blooming and a nice shady trail.
(Photo: now that’s a pine cone)
I climb up onto a ridge in the afternoon and catch a glimpse of Mount Lassen in the distance, something I’m really excited for. The trail continues through more forest and along a rushing creek, where I stop to soak my feet.
(Photo: a tiger lily blooming)
I keep going in search of a campsite, climbing up to another ridge above the town of Belden. It’s a little windy up here, but my feet hurt too much to keep going. I make camp among the manzanita shrubs, and go to bed.
A deer stomping around in the bushes wakes me in the night, and I shine my lamp on it. It’s frozen with fear, so I clap my hands and it bounds off down the hillside. I can’t get back to sleep after this, and lay awake staring out at the stars until dawn. I start my long descent towards Belden first thing, desperately trying to dodge the massive amounts of poison oak along the trail. It’s all in vain though, and by the time I reach the bottom, I have a decent sized rash on my arm. I cross some railroad tracks and do a short walk along a road into Belden, an odd place where people are living in camping trailers along the edge of the river and the only business in town is 3-in-1 tavern/shop/inn. It’s early, but there are hikers and locals already tossing back drinks at the bar. I pop into the shop, but there’s not much in the way of resupply. I decide to hitch to the neighboring town of Quincy instead, and make my way to the highway. The hitching is hard going. It’s Sunday, and the highway is busy with mini-vans full of families and retirees in retirement-gold colored Buicks. A man in a pickup truck turns into Belden and says he’ll give me a ride on his way out, but I wait ages and he doesn’t show. Another hiker called Jester joins me, and finally a woman picks us up.
She drops us off in town and I can’t resist getting a motel room for the night. I need to do some sink laundry and take care of my feet, which are giving me massive pain issues. I grab a sandwich from Subway and then get my resupply in order from the Safeway in town, including some epsom salts for soaking my wrecked feet and Benadryl cream for my rash. I spend the evening pampering my feet, and practically crying into my beer and potato chip dinner. I’m incredibly homesick. (Photo: a thru-hiker stew of dirty socks in the sink of a motel room)
The next day, I get a ride back to the trail from a nice woman who is a trail angel in Chester, the next town up. She’s excited to talk trail, and when she drops me off back in Belden, she buys me an ice cream and takes a selfie with me. I wait around in Belden for a bit hoping that the heat will ease up a bit, but I get impatient and head out in late afternoon. As I make my way back to the trail across the highway, a fisherman warns me that there’s a lot of rattlesnakes in the area. About a mile in, I wish I had stayed put in Belden. The climb is exposed and scorching hot. I find some relief once the trail enters some woods, and I stop at creek flowing across the trail to wet my bandana and hat and camel up on some water. By the evening, I enter Lassen National Forest and find a nice campsite along the rushing creek in Myrtle Flat. A few more hikers arrive and also make camp, and I’m happy to have the company. (Photo: the town of Belden)
I have another climb first thing in the morning, but it’s tolerable as it’s in the shade and I make decent progress. I listen to an audio book, and the miles go by so quickly I barely notice. I get to spring ten miles in before 10 am, and take a quick break with a hiker called Signs, who I had camped with the night before. I continue on, with the audio book keeping me occupied well into the afternoon. Mount Lassen is getting closer on the horizon as I reach an open ridge by early evening. I hike with signs a half of a mile off trail down to spring to filter some water, and her Dutch friend Van Go catches up to us. I keep going solo, and the ridge walk proves to be challenging in the heat. I’m nearing the halfway marker, but I stop a few miles short of it in the evening. My feet are too swollen and in pain to keep on going, and Signs and Van Go pass me by. I make camp near a trail junction, still proud of my 25 mile day.
(Photo: Butt Mountain, hehe)
I reach the halfway marker early in the morning, when it’s still cool and quiet out. There’s no one around, and I take a break to eat and snap a few pics. I see Van Go again further down the trail next to a hornet infested spring, and we walk together to the highway crossing for the town of Chester.
(Photo: kind of proud of myself!)
There’s a severe heat warning for the area, and to be honest, it’s getting to me. My entire body feels swollen and red, and I’ve got a horrible heat rash under my breasts, in addition to my severe foot pain. To add to my mounting misery, I’m already caked in sweat and dirt. Chipmunk the trail angel is at the highway, making breakfast again for hikers. I drink some coffee and another trail angel called Jedi offers to give Van Go and I a ride into Chester, which we happily accept.
I get another motel room, although it’s a bit of a dump, and then head to the greasy spoon in town. I eat a load of fried food, a milkshake and a burger, and then spend some time loitering inside of a coffee shop with funny Chuck Norris meme phrases printed on a chalkboard (apparently he has a vacation home in Chester). I enjoy an nice long shower before going to bed, complete with a shower beer to help me feel better.
I get a hitch back to the trail right away. Further up the trail, I stop alongside the North Fork Feather River to get some water and meet a fun group of hikers called Crispy, St. Nick and Wing It. We take a long break in shade for a bit, and I share my cinnamon raisin bread that I got in town with everyone. I press on solo after that, entering Lassen National Park in the afternoon.
I walk into the evening, racing against the fading daylight. There’s spur trail for the Terminal Geyser, and I can’t pass it up. I hike the additional half mile or so to see it, and just my luck, it’s putting on a show for myself and a herd of deer nearby.
(Photo: watch where you step near the geothermic areas in Lassen)
I pass by another geothermic site called Boiling Springs Lake, which comes with the unpleasant rotten egg smell of sulfur. I hurry on, towards the campground a few miles on and past the Drakesbad Resort. I reach the campground just as the sun is disappearing behind the trees, and quickly pitch my tent in an empty spot. I’m disappointed to see that the last campers have left a mountain of food in the provided bear box and then left the door open on it, resulting in piles of rodent droppings and chewed up packaging.
The following day brings more intense heat, and there’s no escape from it once I enter a large burn area. Midday, I manage to find a sparse tree to hide under while I attempt to eat some lunch. A hiker I had met previously, Crispy, joins me for a moment. His crew has pushed on to Old Station, in an attempt to retrieve their resupply boxes from the post office before it closes up at 4pm. We press on again together, into the sweltering day, only stopping to filter some water momentarily at a creek. The air is much cooler here, and a pine tree plantation offers some much needed shade. I never want to leave.
I reach Old Station shortly after Crispy does, and meet up with the rest of his crew, St. Nick and Wing It. Another hiker called Dingo arrives, and a lovely woman buys us a case of beer to enjoy. We sit in the shade of a covered area for a bit, then walk the two miles or so until we reach the day use area for the Subway Cave.
After exploring the cave a bit and tossing back a few more brews, we decide to make camp in the day use area with loads of other thru-hikers. We discuss the impending day and section, the infamous Hat Creek Rim, a 30 mile stretch of trail with little to no water. With the temperatures forecasting to be in the triple digits, we decide that our best option is to go it at night when it’s much cooler. We plan on getting up early the next morning, walking the 8 miles to Lost Creek where we’ll fill up on water, and then hiding in the shade until the evening before setting out again.
Wing It and I set off when the sun comes up in the morning, while St. Nick lags behind. Crispy decides to skip ahead to Burney, where he’s got a new pair of shoes waiting for him, and then he’ll southbound the section later. (Photo: Wing It, a former Marine, walks ahead of me on the PCT near the Subway Cave)
St. Nick eventually catches up to us at another day use area near a road, where a group in an RV are frying up bacon and eggs for breakfast. We linger a bit in hopes of some trail magic, but they don’t seem to understand our subtle hints. The smell is torturous, so we move on. We reach the side trail for Lost Creek just as the day is really heating up, and ditch our packs in the shade of some juniper trees. We make the perilous haul down the steep trail to the creek, where we hang for a bit near the cool creek, camel up and filter enough water to last us through the day and night.
The day is blistering hot, even in the shade. Hikers come and go throughout the day, losing patience after an hour or so and then heading out into the heat. The three of us hold strong, staying in the sanctuary of the shade until the sun begins to set. We decide to push forward just after 5pm.
It gets dark quickly, and the sounds of the night keep us on edge as we progress. After only a few miles in, we pass a campsite with several tents; the hikers from before who couldn’t wait any longer hadn’t made it too far. A few rattlesnakes and a herd of cows give us a scare, and I startle a hare in return. We reach Road 22 late at night, where there is an unreliable water cache known cleverly as “Cache 22.” Surprisingly, we find a couple of water bottles still full. And an even bigger surprise comes when Coppertone, the trail angel I met previously near Tahoe, appears out of the woodwork and invites us to have some root beer floats. We happily join him at his camper, and indulge in dessert and some fresh fruit. We push on even more into the night, finally settling on a campsite along an abandoned road. It’s just after 4am now, and I need to sleep.
I wake up with the sun and head out before St. Nick and Wing It, after only a few hours of precious sleep. The trail is dusty, with volcanic rocks scattered about. I reach a dam and reservoir late in the morning and the heat is already taking its toll on me. It’s extremely hard going. I get to the highway and stick my thumb out, and a woman immediately picks me up and takes me into the town of Burney. I’m grateful, even when she criticizes me for not carrying a gun. I get a hotel room with a bathtub, ditch my gear and head to the post office to pick up my resupply box. I have a nice surprise there waiting for me: a box from my friends back at home containing loads of junk food, homemade beef jerky and things to pamper myself with during my stay (Thanks Annie and ‘T’). I buy some ice cream and beer from the Rite Aid, then spend my night soaking and eating horribly delicious things.
I take an additional day off in Burney, holed up in my air conditioned motel room. The temperature reached 109 degrees, and there was no way I was going out in it. When my time was up, it had cooled off to around 100 degrees when I set out again. I hitched back to the trail, and after a mile or so in, came across some amazing trail magic. I sat in the shade and chugged two sodas, signed the picnic table like others had done, and headed out into the heat of the day.
(Photo: I’m finally closer to Canada than Mexico)
The trail winds through pine forest, passing the Burney Falls State Park and then dipping down to cross over a dam to the other side of another reservoir. From there, I climb back into the hills. I reach a bridge over a creek after awhile, and go hang out in the shade beneath it. There’s a swirling pool of water there, and I take a dip. A few more hikers join me, Peter Pan from Poland and Trash Panda from Sweden, as well as a fellow American called Kite. I take off ahead of them after sharing some leftover cookies from my goody box. I see them again at a spring ahead, where the mosquitoes are unbearable, and we camp further up the trail together in a rough spot in the wood.
It’s a difficult night, with the creaking of trees and branches snapping keeping me awake. I pack it up early, before first light, and hit the trail. My camp mates eventually catch up to me at a spring, where I’m filtering some water. I set off solo again, with views of Mount Shasta dominating the skyline ahead. At my lunch spot at another spring, I meet a hiker called Safety First, who is a section hiker.
After 22 miles, I’m knackered and ready to call it a day. I find a small spot to camp on a forested outcropping next to the trail and overlooking a valley. Safety First appears later on, as I’m eating my dinner, looking worse for wear. He decides to camp in a space below my tent, and I’m happy to not be camping alone. During the night, a deer wakes me digging at an area near my tent, likely where a previous camper had a piss. I clap my hands, but it’s unfazed.
My morning is spent hiking along a scree covered, manzanita lined trail high above a valley. At times it’s rather scary, and even worse, there’s no where to poop. Finally, I reach a road crossing and I’m able to take care of the nearly explosive situation.
Further on I’m in need of water, so I take the trail junction for Gold Spring, even though it’s a quarter mile off trail. One would think that after walking over 1400 miles, that going off trail a bit for water wouldn’t seem like a big deal. NOT THE CASE. Thru hikers hate non-PCT miles, even if it is a very small amount. This is what I had become now: Too bothered to walk a half mile out of the way for life’s most crucial necessity. But I had to, so I did. And I whined about it the entire time. In the afternoon, I reach a frigid creek and stop to soak my aching feet. Safety First catches up to me, and from there we continue on together. We plan on camping at a primitive campground near a road, but when we get there, we both agree that it’s a shit spot with bad vibes. We keep going for a few more miles, and settle into a small area near a creek in Fitzhugh Gulch. There’s shade here, and the creek is clear and cold. I soak my feet some more, and I as I’m eating a dinner of summer sausage and bread, another hiker called Bear Bait, from England, joins us.
I set off in the morning with Safety First. I had had a restful night and was feeling less achey, and I was ready to put in some good mileage for the day. The trail immediately climbed away from the creek and into the woods, with large amounts of poison oak lining the trail. We stop at a creek just below the trail, so that Safety First can filter some water. I ate my breakfast as he collects water, and Bear Bait catches up and sits with us. I tell them how I plan on going into Mount Shasta to collect my resupply box, and spend the night at the KOA. I invite them to join me and take a load off in town, and they both agree that a nero sounds nice. Bear Bait continues on ahead of us for a few miles, but we meet up again below a bridge at Squaw Valley Creek. The guys have a snack and I rinse out my shirt and shorts in the creek, wearing them dry as I sit in the sun. From there the trail climbs, crossing a parking area and a junction for a couple of dirt roads. Bear Bait and I climb up the switchbacks through the woods, leaving Snowflake behind. We tell him we’ll wait up ahead and meet him for lunch. After lunch, the trail levels out after the switchbacks, and rambles along the side of an exposed hill. We stop several times along the trail to wait for Safety First and take in the views of Mount Shasta. We break again at a spring a couple of miles before we reach the campsite that we all had agreed to meet at, and Bear Bait and I fill up and wash our dusty feet and legs in the cold water. Safety First catches up to us again, and we decide to all walk together the next 2.5 miles to camp. The campsite is directly after a dirt road crossing and within some thick forest. There’s just enough space for the three of us, and we set up and eat our dinners together. Just as we are about to go to bed, three more hikers arrive at sundown and try to squeeze in.
In the morning, I rise before everyone else and set off on my own. As I’m leaving, Bear Bait and Safety First are just breaking camp. After I’ve hiked a few miles, I stop to have some breakfast and the two guys catch up to me. We walk the remaining of the two miles to the parking lot, where we are going to head to the towns of Castella and Mount Shasta. In the parking lot, we meet the trail angel known as Legend cooking pancakes for some hikers. He’s let another hiker called T-Rex borrow his truck, who is running hikers the couple of miles into Castella and dropping them off at the store there. We cram ourselves in the back, and make our way into town. When we get to Ammirati Market (nice hiker friendly convenience store), Bear Bait picks up his resupply box that he’s sent there and stuffs the contents into his pack. I peruse the hiker boxes and grab a few things from it, snatching up a full jar of Nutella and some wet wipes, and buy a couple cans of beer from the shop. Safety First has a box waiting for him at the post office, but it doesn’t open until 11 am, so Sailor and I head to the freeway and hope to score a ride into Mount Shasta. Snowflake says he’ll meet us there, so we bid him farewell until later.
The two of us make a couple of signs from the cardboard of Bear Bait’s resupply box in an effort to make the hitching more simple: PCT HIKERS and MT. SHASTA. We walk to the on ramp for the freeway, but there is no traffic whatsoever coming or going from Castella. We make the decision to head out to the actual freeway, hoping someone will give us a lift. This is, of course, illegal, but we go for it anyway. We try for several minutes to get the attention of the traffic flying past, but unfortunately the only hit that we get is that of the California Highway Patrol. Well fuck. He screeches across three lanes of traffic to reach us, and hops out of his car. “Hey! You know you can’t be hitchhiking along the freeway like that, right?” I’m nervous. I don’t want a ticket and I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of my new friend. “Yes, I’m sorry. It’s dangerous. I know.” Bear Bait explains that we’re PCT hikers, and that we both have foot injuries and are just trying to get to Mount Shasta so we can rest. Thankfully, he’s familiar with the trail, and he says we don’t look like the usual junkies that come through here. That’s good, I guess. He offers us a ride into town, and we’re incredibly grateful. Bear Bait crawls into the back and I get to ride shotgun (literally, I sat next to a shotgun). He forewarns us of the colorful locals, recommends a few places in town to eat, shows us a good spot to try and hitch back to the trail and then drops us off at the post office. I grab my resupply box sent from my friend, and we head to the outskirts of town towards the KOA. As we go, and I can see what the officer said about the locals being colorful. The shops along the way are filled with incense and therapeutic oils, head shops, crystal shops and crystal healing centers. I was already aware of the history of religious groups living in the area, worshiping the mountain, its so called purple pyramid shaped aura that stretched up into the galaxy, and its mystical Lemurian advanced race dwelling under its snow capped surface (for real). It was all incredibly interesting, and also really odd. We got to the KOA midday, and the clerk at the front desk was kind enough to let us check in early. Our campsite was incredibly spacious, with an electrical outlet, a picnic table and a fire pit. I shared one of my beers with Sailor, and then we parted ways for a bit to go take showers. Safety First arrived by cab shortly after, which we poked fun at him about since he admitted to never hitchhiking before in his life. We shared in doing a load of laundry, and then walked back into town. We stopped at the outdoor store and nosed around; Sailor was looking for a new pair of hiking boots and I was looking for nothing in particular, perhaps just a miracle in advanced footwear that would get me to Canada pain free. After we found nothing to spend money on, we decided to go and get dinner at the taco bar across the street. We ordered a round of beers and the special carnitas plate, all of which was exactly what we needed. After dinner, we agreed to meet back up at the pool for a swim and parted ways for a bit to run some errands. Back at the camp, I skipped out on the pool (it was kind of on the dingy side) and bought a beer and a childhood favorite, a Choco Taco, from the KOA shop. I call home for a bit, then we order a pizza when the two guys return from the pool. After eating way too much, I crawled into my tent and went to sleep.