In the 455 miles between the hiker sanctuaries of Ashland and Cascade Locks, I find out exactly how flat Oregon really is, experience some lava, volcanoes and one giant crater, see some epic waterfalls, and sustain another injury.
Before we checked out of our rooms, we heard on the PCT Association website that the trail was closed ahead due to a wildfire in Crater Lake National Park. This was a highlight of Oregon that were really looking forward to, so this caused us some concern. There was little we could do except keep going and hope that by the time we reached the National Park, the trail would be open again. We left Ashland late in the morning, hitching back to Callahan’s Lodge. We walked past the lodge, following a paved road until we joined up with the trail about a mile on. As usual, it’s ridiculously hot out. Our three wonderful days in Ashland has softened us, and our pace is slow going.
The trail climbs occasionally, winding across sun-scorched hills and under power lines. My feet and legs are already killing me, as if I had no down time at all. Bear Bait and I decide to stop for the night near a piped spring and pond, after doing only eleven miles, while the others keep going. The campsite near the spring in spacious, and surrounded by a lovely meadow of wildflowers. We set up camp and cook dinner, and more hikers arrive and join us. As night is falling, I head to the spring and filter some water, and wash my already grubby feet and legs.
Bear Bait and I are the first to the leave camp in the morning, spending the morning roaming through thick pine forest. There was a lot of talk on the trail from other hikers regarding how easy Oregon is: how a person could easily pump out a 30 plus mile day because the terrain is so flat. Considering how our morning was spent climbing up and down several hills, I knew this to be complete bullshit. We crossed a highway and found a water cache on the other side next to a gate. We stopped for a moment and topped off our water, and I freed my feet from my shoes. We walked through more uninteresting forest and across brown meadows, and despite my swollen feet and the pain they were in, I was still managing to hike at a reasonable pace. After doing ten miles, we break for lunch at a creek with a bridge, and I gave my feet a good soaking in the cold water.
After lunch, I struggled to go on. I lost my energy from the intense heat and my foot pain was almost too much to handle. We only managed a couple more miles until we stopped again at a recreation area at Lake Hyatt. We sat at a picnic table on the shore of the lake, resting and hoping that the day would cool off. I was feeling pretty low from my foot problems, and was seriously wondering if I would be able to finish the trail at all. It was late afternoon, and still too hot to comfortably hike. I took the opportunity to have a free shower in the campground, and then we set out again. Back on the trail, it didn’t take long for my pain to return and slow me down again. I fell behind, and Bear Bait disappeared into the forest. I did my best to wrap up the areas on my feet that were giving me the worst problems; mainly the balls of my feet. I eventually caught up to Bear Bait again further on into the woods, limping along as best as I could. We pushed on into the dark of night, settling on a clearing in the woods to make camp. We had only done 20 miles, and I felt like I wanted to die from the pain I was in. In the morning, we walked past several dirt roads and then stopped for water at a buggy spring just off the PCT. It was another uncomfortably hot day with more foot pain. I ate a quick breakfast and we pushed forward. The trail continued through dense forest, and I lagged behind from the agony I was in.
By midday we cross the paved Dead Indian Memorial Road, and in a mile further on, we stop for lunch at the South Brown Mountain shelter. We’re the only hikers around, and inside the cabin is a box full of apples and some bottles of Gatorade. I help myself to the trail magic and get some water from the nearby pump, and eat some lunch. I’m feeling really terrible, not just from the pain but also for being such a lame hiking partner to my friends. More hikers trickle in the longer we sit there, and we decide to leave as the shade is disappearing from the area. (Photo: A sign along the way protesting the LNG (natural gas) pipeline proposed for the area).
We walk on a few more miles, which according to our map, is fairly level. I’m looking forward to an easy rest of the day, but my hopes are shattered by the roughness of the trail. The pathway crosses over volcanic rocks; black and radiating heat. It’s incredibly difficult to walk over, and I crumple to the ground in severe pain once I find some shade. Bear Bait sits with me, and I tell him I can’t go on. I’m being over dramatic and saying things I don’t mean: I’m done with the trail, the pain has become overwhelming… We sit for a bit, along the side of the trail, and another hiker comes strutting past. He’s a willowy hipster type, wearing sandals, spandex tights with a loud neon print and sporting a mullet. He walks on effortlessly with a wide stride. Suddenly I’m angry. “I can’t let the legacy of the PCT Class of 2016 be that douche bag. I’m going to finish this fucking trail if it kills me.” I force myself up and start to walk ahead. (Photo: Lava fields with Mount McLoughlin in the distance).
The trail keeps on rambling through lava fields, and it feels as though I’m walking on bloody stumps instead of feet. I have to take moments to pause often. We decide to stop ahead for the night at the Fish Lake Resort, where they are allowing PCT hikers to camp for free. The possibility of ice-cold beer keeps me going, and we reached the highway late in the evening. The resort is only a couple of miles west on the highway, but we’ve already come 24 miles and I’m in no condition to walk any further. We hitch instead; a truck pulls over for us and the driver tells us to hop in the back. We head to the free camping area designated for thru hikers, armed to the teeth with beer and ice cream. I treat myself to a shower after dinner, and the hot water feels so good on my aching body. We sleep in the next morning, and take our time leaving. I go to the washroom near the store and scrub my feet and socks down, much to the horror of some passing tourists. Over some fresh coffee at the resort cafe, we hear through other hikers that the trail is open again through Crater Lake, and we hope that it’s true. We head back out to the highway once our lazy morning is through, and try to hitch back to the trail. We return to the trail during the heat of the day, after a waitress gives us a ride. We stop for water 12 miles ahead at Christi’s Spring, the first reliable water source we’ve come across since leaving the resort. The spring is off the PCT, down a steep trail and within a fog of mosquitoes. We eat some food, and collect water from the muddy trickle. This is our last water for 14 miles, and we need it to get us through the night. The mosquitoes make it difficult, but we manage to fill all of our bottles without going completely insane. The trail from here on out is exceptionally difficult. There’s blow downs for miles across the trail, which we have to clamber under, over or around. It isn’t easy, and we’re both getting increasingly frustrated. We scrape our knees, our elbows and the inner fleshy bit of the upper thigh. We’re hot and sweaty, and so grumpy from miles of terrible trail conditions. We make the decision to stop in a camp surrounded by dead, beetle infested trees, where they’re are bleached white from the sun and creaking like old bones in the breeze. It’s a risky move, but we’re aching badly, and a dead tree falling and killing us in the night doesn’t seem like the worst thing at the moment. We get another late start in the morning, and encounter our first Southbound PCT thru hiker. He stops just as we’re leaving camp and offers us some Pop Tarts, which we’re more than happy to take off his hands. The trail leaves the forest, and the blow downs ease. After searching unsuccessfully for a pond in which to get water, we press on with only a liter each to get us through the next several miles.
The trail climbs, then levels out as it follows a ridge across an exposed hill. We enter forest again and come to a nice flowing creek across the trail, where we fill up. We start to descend from here, and head back into the trees. The forest is shaded and cooler, but it’s swarming with mosquitoes. We stop near a stagnant looking pond and have lunch in a large campsite, then push on past the 1800 mile mark.
The lush forest we’re in turns into another skeleton forest as we walk into late afternoon. Between the continued difficulty of maneuvering over blow downs and the harsh sun, we’re pretty done in by the evening. We decide to make camp in a huge open area near the Jack Spring Trail junction, only 19 miles in from where we started. The camp is buggy, so we retreat to our tents immediately and eat our dinners safely inside. It’s a bright night, with a waning moon illuminating the hills in a silvery glow.
More Southbounders pass in the morning as we’re packing up. We start the trail gaining elevation, although it’s a cool morning and the trail is graded nicely. We’re pushing hard, trying to reach Crater Lake by the afternoon.
We reach the highway crossing and follow the instructions for a short cut to the campground at Mazama Village, which also keeps us from paying an entrance fee at kiosk along the road. The side trail leads us past a guard rail and down a steep path through the woods. We come into the village and head to the store, where we both have resupply boxes waiting for us, and I see some other hikers I hadn’t seen in a while. I collect my box and purchase a couple of beers, and we sit outside going through our things and talking to everyone. We head into the campground and find the free hiker site, make camp and make use of the free hot showers before bed.
In the morning, we fill up on water for the notoriously dry stretch along the Rim Trail. We continue on the PCT for about a mile, then get on the Dutton Creek trail that heads to The Rim Village, a visitor’s center and the actual lake itself. We’re opting to walk the Rim Trail alternate for 12 miles, instead of the 16 miles of PCT that goes nowhere near Crater Lake. The Dutton Creek Trail is steep, following switchbacks through the forest for a few miles before reaching a parking area for the visitor’s center and cafe. I buy a coffee and sandwich and we chill outside for a bit, watching the tourists come and go. We start the Rim Trail in the afternoon, after loitering around the viewing area for far too long. It’s a dry, hot day, and the trail is unforgiving. It’s nowhere near the grade of the PCT, consisting of short, steep climbs and descents while following the perimeter of the lake. On occasion the trail spits us out into a parking area, where crowds of tourists were gathered snapping pictures with giant cameras and eating picnic lunches. By early evening, we depart the rim trail and join up with the PCT again. Since we’re within the National Park, we have to follow special rules regarding where we can camp; no where on the Rim Trail and at least one mile away from any road. We finally come across some flat, sandy area within a sparse pine forest and make camp after twenty strenuous miles. The wasps are a problem while we’re sitting in camp making dinner, and Bear Bait suffers a sting on the back of his neck. I decide to hide in the safety of my tent for the rest of the night.
We leave camp early, and we’re feeling energized. We leave the National Park after five miles, and on a long slow descent through pine forest. The trail isn’t too memorable through here, with little elevation gain or loss and not more than just trees to look at. By the afternoon we reach Thielsen Creek, our first water source since the Crater Lake visitor’s center, and 14 miles after camp. We take our time, lounging by the creek, soaking our feet, rinsing out our clothes and eating lunch. The views have gotten better now, with Mount Thielsen towering overhead. We fill up on water, and hope to push to the next spring 16 miles ahead, making it a 30 mile day for us. We start to descend through the forest, and a day hiker calls out to us as we pass: “Say hi to Canada for me!” By the afternoon we’re climbing again, across an exposed hilltop. We come across the Oregon/Washington high point, where there’s a sign marking the 7,650 foot elevation. The heat continues to stifle us, and we’re drinking through our water quickly. We need to make it to the spring by night, so we push ourselves hard into the evening.
We get to the trail junction for Six Horse Springs at nightfall, and find an empty space to make camp. Unfortunately, the spring is a half mile off the PCT. We drop our things and empty a pack to haul water back up with, and set off down the 300 foot drop to the spring. We come across a stagnant pond, green and slimy and with something dead floating on the surface. There’s another small trail doing down further, and I follow it. I find the spring at the bottom, and it’s just a small trickle coming from the hillside. It’s pitch black once we’re finished and we head back to camp. Once we’re settled in and cooking dinner, the aches and pains of our 30 mile day begin to set in. We head to bed just as a powerful wind sweeps its way across the ridge and through camp.
We head out early, walking along undulating trail through more monotonous forest. We’re both hurting from our long miles the previous day, so we’re taking it slow. Down a Forest Service road, we join the Oregon Skyline Trail, which came recommended by Halfmile’s trail notes. It’s supposedly a more scenic and shorter alternate to the PCT, and most thru hikers take this route to get to the next resupply at Shelter Cove Resort sooner. There’s also more water along the way, which persuades us enough to go for it. We stop at a lake busy with tourists for some lunch, and have a quick dip to cool off. The forest gets denser as we continue on, and its suddenly become a mosquito war zone. We clamber over blow downs while trying to outrun the nasty biters, and we’re feeling demoralized once we finally reach the trail junction for the PCT and Shelter Cove. The resort is just beyond some train tracks, but it’s after 9 pm now and the store is shut for the night. We sit at some picnic tables near the front porch of the store, where there’s a hiker area to charge phones and commune. We eat dinner, and another hiker points us in the direction of the shared campsite. It’s at the back end of the property, hidden away like we’re a dirty family secret, with no picnic tables and only a single port-o-potty. We manage to find a small spot to pitch our tents, and then head to bed sometime after midnight.
When the store opens in the morning at Shelter Cove, I buy a few overpriced things from the shop and score a few items from the hiker box to supplement my food supply. We cross the highway at Willamette Pass and follow switchbacks up a hillside behind a ski resort. At four miles in, we came to Lower Rosary Lake, where we stop to top off our water and have a quick snack. There are many day hikers around and our moment of lake side serenity is shattered by screaming children. The trail keeps climbing, cresting along a forested ridge with views of the Rosary Lakes below and Pulpit Rock in the distance.
When the store opens in the morning at Shelter Cove, I buy a few overpriced and underwhelming things from the shop and score a few items from the hiker box to supplement my food supply. We cross the highway at Willamette Pass and follow switchbacks up a hillside behind a ski resort. At four miles in, we came to Lower Rosary Lake, where we stop to top off our water and have a quick snack. There are many day hikers around and our moment of lake side serenity is shattered by screaming children. The trail keeps climbing, cresting along a forested ridge with views of the Rosary Lakes below and Pulpit Rock in the distance.
We stop for lunch at a darling little cabin in the forest, known as the Maiden Peak Ski Shelter. Some day hikers arrive, and we decide to keep going to try to meet our 20 mile goal for the day. The heat complicates our progress, however, and our pace slows considerably. My feet are again in excruciating pain, and I want to throw my horrible shoes off the side of a mountain.
I hobble into camp at Charlton Lake at dusk, and Bear Bait and some other hikers are already there, cooking dinner. I give my feet a good soak in the cool lake before bed, hoping to decrease the swelling.
I’m hurting in the morning, and worried that my slowed pace will leave my friends regretting wanting to stay with me. The trail is tedious, first traveling through dead bleached woods and then entering more dull pine forest; leaving me feeling passionless with the trail. My legs and feet feel heavy, and every step is agonizing. We enter the Three Sisters Wilderness, and the South Sister mountain makes an appearance above the treetops.
As the day cools off, the mosquitoes move in and make everything completely miserable. We pass by several lakes, some clear and nice and others are scummy ponds that resemble pea soup. At 17 miles, I’m too knackered to keep going. We call it a day once we reach Desane Lake, and I cook dinner while fighting off hoards of mosquitoes. I go to bed fairly early, as I’m in dire need of a good rest. A large group of hikers arrive late and disturb my sleep as they’re setting up, but I’m too tired to care and doze off again.
I take my time in the morning before heading out, and catch up to Bear Bait and some other hikers further on. We decide that we’re going to go to the Elk Lake Resort, 12 miles ahead. From there, we’ll go to Bend and get some rest for a couple of days, let our bodies heal and drink some beer.
The trail is winding its way past more ponds and through forest. I’m struggling to keep up with everyone, but still managing to hobble along at a good enough pace. I’m trying to stay positive, but my environment has become my worst enemy. There was a lot of talk on the trail between thru hikers regarding Oregon; saying it was the promise land of the PCT. This was something spoken with conviction. Oregon IS flat; you can do over thirty mile days there and you should get through Oregon in no longer than two weeks. This, I’ve come to realize, is nothing more than shit talking. The only thing I can say for certain is that the PCT through Oregon is mundane, and not so flat. It’s day in and day out of walking through the same pine forest, so far. To be fair, I am only halfway through the state, so we’ll see what’s ahead.
We reach the Elk Lake Trail before noon, and hike the mile away from the PCT to the trailhead. There’s a large campground, so we pay for a hiker spot and ditch our things in camp. We buy a couple of showers, and then sit on the restaurant patio enjoying some lunch overlooking the lake. Our waiter is a complete jerk, refusing to give us access to the WiFi because he says we’re not guests. I assure him we are, that we paid for a campsite, but he never returns to give us the password. Later, I buy a couple of beers from the shop and the nice cashier there gives me the password, no problem. We spend the evening lounging at the picnic tables near the shore of the lake with some other thru hikers, drinking beer and eating junk food, and having a nice time.
In the morning, we pack up and make a couple of cardboard signs for hitchhiking into Bend. There’s little traffic along the highway, and all the cars we do see speed past us. Finally, a man in a truck picks us up. He’s a Bend local, and happy to help out a couple of PCT hikers. A couple of days in Bend is exactly what I need, and I thoroughly enjoy myself. On our way back to the trail, a woman and her teenage daughter pick us up, and something is clearly off about the situation. They both seem high, and the woman is driving erratically. We have a couple of white knuckle moments when she takes her eyes off the road to turn around and talk to us while we’re in the backseat, swerving into oncoming traffic. Her daughter laughs, and we cry on the inside. When they drop us off at the trailhead at Elk Lake, she embraces us into an awkward hug and then peels out of the parking area.
It’s already midday when we climb the mile back up to the PCT, and the weather is starting to change for the worse. Wispy clouds are moving in across the landscape with the breeze, and visibility is decreasing by the minute. The trail rambles over rolling, barren hills, and the Sisters mountains disappear into the cloud cover. After completing only eleven miles, we make camp next to some clear pools that were once a stream.
It had rained through the night, and thankfully what’s left of my tent held up. The morning was nicer, with the clouds parting and the sun shining overhead. We have some breakfast, then pack up and get on our way. The trail is lovely, meandering through alpine meadow with the Three Sisters mountains dominating the scenery. It’s perfect hiking conditions; cool, sunny and on gentle trail. I couldn’t be happier. We climb a bit away from the meadows and into the forest, entering the Obsidian Limited Entry Area. It’s an appropriate name for the area, as there is literally chunks of glassy black obsidian all over the trail and beyond. We stop for lunch just off the PCT at Obsidian falls, where it’s quite a bit colder and I bundle up in my puffy.
We leave the forest and come out onto another meadow, right at the base of the North Sister mountain. More bad weather has suddenly moved in, and our surroundings are socked in with clouds. We begin a brutal climb up rocky switchbacks, zigzagging up into the hills. The landscape is unearthly, yet interesting and different.
We have a quick break at a spring to get some water, and then Bear Bait hikes off in the lead. I shoulder my pack, but then I’m suddenly crippled with a sharp pain in left side of my neck. It’s incredibly intense, as if I’ve been stabbed.
I can’t turn my head because of the strain on my neck and upper back muscles. It’s almost September, and there’s a noticeable autumn chill in the air now. I hate myself for continuing to hold Sailor back. I feel like this is the end for me; my days thru hiking the PCT are over. I make camp near a tiny, mucky pond for the night, and pop some ibuprofen for the pain. Rain lashes in sideways during the night, and I get little sleep.
The next day, I head to the pass and attempt hitching into Sisters so I can see a doctor about my neck. I still can’t turn in much, and I’m in a great deal of pain. It’s storming and cold, but a nice couple gives me a ride into town even though I resemble a drowned rat. I get a motel room, and then head to the urgent care, where I’m treated for a pulled muscle in my neck. They administer a shot of ibuprofen into my hip, and then send me off with a prescription for muscle relaxers. After a hot soak in the bath and restful night in a motel room, I head back to the trail. The weather remains poor over the next several days, and I’m hiking with Bear Bait and other hikers in a pack through wet, dense forest. It’s boring, and I’m cranky and in a fog from the medication (you’ll have to forgive me, no pictures were taken during this period). We pass the 2000 mile mark, but there’s little joy to be had.
My mood lifts once we near Mount Hood, and we find some trail magic in a bag dangling from a sign at a trailhead. The bag is full of small bags of potato chips and fresh apples, which we happily help ourselves to. The weather soon starts to improve, and my neck pain is finally fading. With views of Mount Hood peeking through the clouds and Timberline Lodge in the near distance, I start to feel happy again.
We reach the lodge in the morning and collect our resupply boxes from the gift shop, then treat ourselves to some fresh coffee from the cafeteria.
The scenery past the lodge is breathtaking, with full dramatic views of Mount Hood for miles. This section alone, has my mind changed about Oregon being boring. We follow a roller coaster trail, dipping in and out of small creek gullies and through lush, vivid green forest. At the end of a long descent, we ford a wide silty creek and then climb again into the hills.
Timberline Lodge: Look familiar? That’s because it was in ‘The Shining’.
Right before lunchtime, we arrive at the junction for Ramona Falls, which is a two-mile alternate loop off the PCT. We decide to go check it out and have lunch at the falls. The waterfall is nice, even though there are a ton of tourists around obstructing the view. We have lunch, then keep going just as the day is becoming surprisingly hot. The rest of the loop trail follows an enchanting creek through mossy forest, a sight that has surely been the inspiration for a fairy tale.
Once we’re past the junction for Rainbow Falls, the crowds cease and we find solitude again. Mount Hood appears on the horizon the more switchbacks we climb, and slowly becomes socked in by clouds early in the evening. We’re ready to make camp once it starts to get dark. The weather is changing again, and it feels much colder than before. We hike to a campsite marked on the Halfmile map, but its a shit spot notched into a muddy hillside. There’s barely enough room for a single person tent, let alone two tents. We make do as best as we can, and settle inside for the evening just as it starts to rain. More hikers arrive hoping to stay, but there’s no room and they’re forced to push on into the night.
The day is damp, with intermittent rain showers soaking us through. We start the day out climbing to a ridge, where the views are obstructed by a dense layer of clouds. Just below the ridge is an abandoned campsite at Indian Spring, where several weekend warriors are gathered. We get on the alternate route, the eagerly anticipated Eagle Creek Trail alternate, and stop for water briefly at the spring. The trail makes a break neck descent from there, heading straight down a mucky path through the forest.
We’re winding down the trail through rain forest, and everything is dripping in moss. It looks positively magical here, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. By late afternoon, we’re following Eagle Creek, meandering alongside its beautiful waterfalls and deep gorges.
The highlight is Tunnel Falls, in which the name says it all: the trail takes you through a tunnel directly behind the falls. We keep pushing on as its getting dark, hoping to get to Cascade Locks by nightfall. Our feet are wrecked from the stony path, and we’e struggling to make it to Cascade Locks by sundown.
We finally reach town late at night and head to the marina campground, where I call around to some motels to see if they have any rooms left. Bear Bait wants to camp, but I foresee a motel stay in my near future. I score the last room at a motel, grab some beer and food from the grocery store before it closes, and then fall into bed.