Ski Mountaineering

Hiking through California on the PCT

Part 3: Northern California, June-July 2013

Reiner Stenzel



This is a continuation of the trip report "Pacific Crest Trail-Mexico to Oregon, Part 1: Southern California" and "Pacific Crest Trail-Mexico to Oregon, Part 2: The Sierra Nevada". It will describe the trip from Sierra City to Ashland. The earlier general comments of Part 1 will not be repeated here. In 2014 I continued the hike through "Oregon" and "Washington" into Canada and thereby completed the PCT.

One would imagine that the hike in Northern California is more relaxing than that in the High Sierra, but this is not my impression. The trail climbs over many ridges and drops into deep valleys which can add up to several 1000' of climbing per day. There are dry areas like the volcanic Hat Creek Rim, but also wonderful green meadows filled with wildflowers. The geology is diverse with two volcanoes, white Marbel mountains and rugged peaks in the Trinity Alps. Each day brings new sceneries and adventures.

After a good break in Sierra City I started on Tue, 7/2, for the next section to Belden. I had an early cold breakfast and hiked the 1.5 mi along Hwy 49 to the trailhead. Many switchbacks got me out of the valley and closer to the Buttes. Other hikers followed and passed me. At the Summit Lake I took a lunch break with a swim on this hot day. But thunderstorms billowed in the early afternoon. Half the sky was black and the thunder appeared to move toward us. "Whistler" and I decided to make it to the "A" Tree (mi 1219) with a water source. We loaded up with water so as to camp anywhere in case we could not make it to the far destination. First we had to make it over an exposed ridge before the thunderstorm arrived. Thus we turned the afterburners on and reached our goal just before the clouds were over us, albeit without rain. We camped at the end of a dead-end dirt road and put some woodblocks across just in case some late car would arrive by night. That night my left knee began to hurt.

On Wed, 7/3, I had awful pain in my left knee. The fast downhill hike with a heavy pack of resupplies and water had injured something in the knee. It was very painful to bend the knee and to put weight on it. I could not consult anyone since my I-phone had no ATT service. So I had no choice but to limp along at a slow pace. There were few water sources on the trail. Finally, I could load up at Quincy Rd and at Alder Spring to be well supplied for the evening. I made it to PCT mi 1239 where I camped after a painful 20 mi day.

On Thur, 7/4, the knee was still hurting but manageable if not weighted too much on downhill climbs. Steady and slow hiking was ok and I made it from spring to spring and eventually down to the Feather River. I met George and we took a break at the bridge. While he washed his clothes I dipped into a large swimming hole downstream which was so refreshing. With a 3.5 l supply of H2O I ascended 2200' from the river valley to the higher slopes. Although the water was heavy it allowed me to camp anywhere and to cook both dinner and breakfast. But for many miles the trail meandered along steep slopes without camping spots. At 7:30 pm I set up camp on a saddle (mi 1260, 5200') with a nice view. It was another 21 mi day on a fine day without thunderstorm or rain. Luckily, the knee problem was not as bad as initially, especially when climbing uphill. Since it got better it was at least no broken bone. I hoped that it would eventually heal by itself which turned out to be the case.

On Fri, 7/5, I hiked at 6 am along an open ridge. There was a sign on the trail from a trail angel family Williams whom I would meet lateron. I descended toward Big Creek Rd and took the Buck Creek alternative route around a lake with restaurants. While walking along the paved road to the lake a car slowed down and the driver called my name. What a surprise. It was the trail angel who heard about me from earlier hikers. He gave me a ride to his home which had nice accomodations for hikers, served a great breakfast and gave me a ride to the shop. This is true kindness by a trail angel. In town I met George again. We had a sumptuous lunch at the Lake Resort and then headed up the road to the PCT crossing at Buck Pass. A 1700' climb got us close to Spanish Mountain. Continuing along the ridge one had the first view of a snow-covered volcano, Mt Lassen. It is an inspiration to start a new mountain range, the Cascades. Now the Sierra Nevada was well behind us. I found a campsite near Clear Creek at mi 1280 which was only 11 mi from Belden.

On Sat, 7/6, I descended the 4,000' slowly down to Belden. The guidebook describes it as "creepy", but I found it full of life and action. There were hundreds of young campers near the Resort for the upcoming music and dance festival, the famous Belden raven. I had lunch at the resort and was picked up by Brenda Braatens to her Hiker Heaven, where all the other PCT hikers stayed. We shopped at the Caribou Store, splurged on icecream and did our laundry. I also had a refreshing dip into the Feather River (NF) on this hot day in a deep valley. There was little to hear about the Sat night ravens. Next day, Sun, 7/7, I got up at 5 am to get an early start for the 5,000' climb out of the Feather River valley. The trail was in the shade and it was actually a pleasant workout. The PCT ascends along the Chips Creek, passes several dirt roads and has several springs. At 6 pm I stayed at Cold Springs (PCT mi 1309).

On Mon, 7/8, I filled the water bottles at Cold Springs with 3.5 l since the next reliable water source was 23 mi away. The trail ascends to the Humbug and Humboldt summits, then along the Butt Peak ridge which offered fine views of Mt Lassen. I found the PCT half-way marker (mi 1327) from where it becomes shorter to hike to Canada than to Mexico. I descended and stayed at Soldier Creek with several other hikers. It was a 23 mi day to mi 1332.

The next day, Tue, 7/9, Drakesbad was my destination. After descending to Hwy 36 I found an enjoyable food cache with drinks and fruits supplied by a kind trail angel from Chester. The trail continued with many ups and downs to an interesting volcanic area near Drakesbad. There were hot lakes and bubbling and steaming mud ponts with colors ranging from grey to green to red. Then the trail drops into a green valley where a resort, cabins and a hot spring-fed pool are located. Up-scale Drakesbad is mostly visited by vacationers with fancy cars and less by PCT hikers. Since they had one last room available I splurged and stayed overnight which included a fancy dinner and breakfast and of course a swim in the hot pool. But my impression was that I belonged on the trail rather than a fancy resort.

On Wed, 7/10, I had a fine breakfast and was given a sack lunch, well, you get what you pay for. At 9 am I ascended the ridge east of the Drakesbad valley. By midday I had lunch and a bath at the Lower Twin Lakes. With 3 l of water I continued toward the historic Emigrant Trail. There was a lot of damage from wildfires. At 7 pm I took a small side dirt road to Hat Creek where there was a nice campsite, unlimited water and an unlimited supply of mosquitoes. It was another fine day on the trail.

On Thur, 7/11, I started at 6 am and reached Old Station in time for breakfast. It is a village spread out between a trailer park, post office and gas station/minimart. The latter even had Heet, lots of resupplies as well as water needed for the upcoming long, dry Hat Creek Rim. I carried about 5.5 l up to the ridge which has no water. I reached the plateau at 11 am. The trail is near the drop-off of a large lava flow. There was a nice breeze which made the heat and lack of shade bearable. The view was wonderful and one could now see two large volcanoes, Mt Lassen and Mt Shasta. There was still much evidence of the Hat Creek fire from 2009. But between burnt trees and bushes some beautiful wildflowers were blooming. Around 4 pm I made a simple ramen dinner at a campsite with some shade and continued to hike from 5-8 pm. At a microwave tower there was a flat concrete surface just right for setting up a tent. I watched the sunset over the volcanoes and some falcons performing amazing stunt flights.

On Fri, 7/12, I continued the hike to the northern end if the Hat Creek Rim. There the PCT drops down into a plane filled with lava rocks and a thicket of shrubs and trees. The temperature went up. No water anywhere in this terrain. Without a trail it would be nearly impossible the traverse of this rough terrain. Even on the trail our light trailrunner shoes took a beating on the sharp lava rocks. Eventually, lava fields gave way to dry meadows and pine forest. The PCT crossed many dirt roads. A nice cache of water and refreshments was found at the Cassel Road crossing (mi 1416). I stopped at the fish hatchery to refilled the water bottles, then hiked along beautiful Baum Lake surrounded by green meadows. Pelicans were in the water and pretty wildflowers grew near the shores. I continued to hike to a flat meadow below a wall of lava, marked as an official campsite CS 1419, which ended a 24 mi day.

On Sat, 7/13, I left at 5:45 am to have breakfast at Burney Falls State Park. It turned out that there was no food service, just a cold burrito for purchase and a microwave to heat it. But I was glad that the store had my resupply parcel. For a while it was a nice place for a break, take a shower and have an ice cream and meet other thru hikers but in the afternoon most of us went back to the trail. The park was a geologically interesting place: One bridge crossed a dry streambed, a second bridge crossing further down over the same streambed had a fully running stream. The stream vanished in porous lava and reappeared as a powerful spring from a less porous layer. The creek dropped off a cliff as a powerful waterfall. Further downstream it was dammed up and produced hydroelectric power. In the afternoon the trail ascended and by 7 pm I reached a small stream, Peavine Creek (mi 1437), where I decided to camp.

On Sun, 7/14, I headed up toward Deadman Creek, missed one water source and continued with 1.5 l to hike which was a mistake since the trail went up and down without any water sources. Luckily, I ran into a trail maintenance crew who gave me enough water to reach spring WA1460. It is reached by a poorly marked side trail with sparse camping possibilities, but I found a small spot and had 3.5 l of fresh water for cooking dinner and breakfast. It was a 23 mi day with occasionally fine views of Mt Shasta and some pretty wildflower displays.

On Mon, 7/15, I met a large trail maintenance crew which cleared brush from the trail for many miles which is a hard job. I thanked them for their effort which makes our hiking so much easier. At their support station we were offered soft drinks and fresh fruit, a real trail angel's treat. Such experiences make the day. The trail descended to the wild McCloud River, then reclimbed again. Most of the hike was through forest. It was a humid day with clouds which produced only a few raindrops at night. Although short in water I decided to camp at mi 1484 since I had hiked my 24 mi. I had a cold dinner and planned to get up early to get to the next water source for breakfast.


On Tue, 7/16, I found soon a water source (WA1486) and had a nice breakfast. Then the trail had a 2,200' climb to the Girard Ridge from where one had a clear view of Mt Shasta and the Castle Crags. I encountered two rattle snakes, one big greenish rattler which was curled up to strike and continuously faced me as I made a big turn around it. A smaller brown one had a big belly, probably filled with a lizard and just tried to escape. In the afternoon I carried 3 l of water so as not to have another cold dinner. I camped on the side of a logging road at PCT mi 1502 since it was too late to reach Castella (mi 1516).

On Wed, 7/17, I hiked down and reached Interstate 5 by 9 am. As I detoured to Castella via the Frontage Road between the Sacramento River and the I-5, a truck stopped and invited me for a ride to the Ammirati Market where I headed to. He was the owner of the store and picked up PCT hikers walking the road, being both an angel and good business man. The well-stocked store sold food, Heet, breakfast and lunch and had my resupply parcel. Then I went to the Castle Crags Campground to take a shower, wash and sun-dry my clothes, eat the purchased sandwich and fruit for lunch. After this tune-up it was back to the trail. There were many small streams with ample supply of water. The trail circled around the Castle Crags whose rugged peaks are impressive from any direction. Toward evening the last reliable water source was at mi 1515 where I loaded the pack up with 3 l of water, continued until finding a suitable campsite and settled down. Unfortunately, lots of mosquitoes settled down on me so that I had to eat dinner inside the tent.

Thur, 7/18, was a normal 20 mi hiking day, starting at 6:15 am. I refilled 3 l of water at mi 1521 since none would be available till mi 1535 and hiked through mixed open and forested terrain. I met hiker friend "Pacman" who was meeting his mother for a resupply at the road crossing on mi 1531. She also offered me and "Dusty" a sandwich, soft drinks and an apple, a highlight of the day. Continuing the trail in the afternoon I had fine views of lakes and mountains. Finally, my ATT service was back and I could call family members and read some e-mails. Having learned from mistakes I carried lots of water toward the evening so that I could camp at a nice place irrespective of water sources. This night I stayed on an open ridge with unobstructed view of Shasta and almost no mosquitoes. Sunset and sunrise over Shasta were gorgeous.

Fri, 7/19, I left at 6:15 am from my campsite at mi 1535. The trail passed Toad Lake, Porcupine Lake and Deadfall Lake, where I stopped for lunch and had a short dip into the lake. There was a fine spring at mi 1545 and no water for the next 7 miles while the trail contoured around a large cirque. By 5 pm I reached Bull Lake (mi 1554) and decided for an early camp and swim in this pretty lake. The lake was below the PCT and reached by a XC descent. The best moment came next morning, Sat, 7/20, when at sunrise the mountain ridge turned red and mirrored in the quiet water of the lake. The day's hike was deja-vue: The trail meanders around mountain ranges, one refills water from springs when available, an occasional road crossing such as Hwy 3 at Scott Mtn Summit, where I had lunch at a big parking lot. While I ate travelers stopped by and asked whether I was hiking the PCT. As a conversation started, I mentioned to be short in water for lunch, and spontaneously a family offered not only water but also juice, cookies and Hershey bars. The mother of the family said she read the book "Wild"; thank you, Sheryl. In the afternoon I continued along the trail, stopping at various water sources and ending the day after 23 mi near Eagle Creek, mi 1577.

On Sun, 7/21, the long segment to Etna continued. I hiked through forests and meadows with the sound of cowbells around me. There were many springs near the trail and it was unnecessary to purify the water. At Carter Mdw (Hwy 93) I met one young lady who could not walk any more. Her shoes were too small and her feet full of blisters, which sounded like a chapter of the book "Wild". I gave her my moleskin and recommended her to hitch hike into the next towm and get bigger trail runners. With those I had no blisters in 1500 miles. Beyond Hwy 39 the trail climbed high above the Russian River without water sources for many miles. After 23 mi on the trail I camped on a nice saddle just before Paynes Lake. A full moon rose and produced a beautiful evening sky.

On Mon, 7/22, I was close to Etna. By 10 am I was on Etna Summit. At the parking lot "Dusty" and I got a ride to Etna. The Alderbrook Manor Hostel was the place to stay and I met many other PCT hikers. With free loaner bikes we went shopping and dining in town. At Bob's Ranch House I had a steak dinner without worrying about weight gain since the calories would be burnt next day. The town was well accustomed to hikers and we were welcomed everywhere. Since my socks had inch-sized holes I searched for their replacement and found them in a thrift shop, three pairs for less than $1! Several of us also got a free ride to the trailhead at Etna Summit next morning.

On Tue, 7/23, the hike started with a steady climb out of the Etna Valley. There were good water sources between mi 1617 and mi 1621 when the trail climbed to the Marble Mountains. These look white like marble but are beautifully layered limestone, very distinct from the brown volcanic rocks. Furthermore there were many meadows with a wonderful display of wildflowers. There were great photo opportunities and I took my time for picture taking rather than rushing through to make many miles. Toward evening I carried again 2.5 l of water for dinner and breakfast so that I could camp on a dry plateau with a great view over many blue layers of mountains. At sunset time some clouds turned red which made a great evening sky. I also had a fine dinner with chicken breast, tomatoes and mashed potatoes. It was an enjoyable day and I did not mind that I covered only 18 miles.

On Wed, 7/24, I was on the trail before the sun was up. In fact, it could not come up since clouds covered the sky. I continued the hike through the Marble Mtns. Little Marbel Meadow was particularly pretty with abundant gentian flowers in green grass all fed by a small spring. The trail continued past Black Marble Mtn to Paradise Lake which looked green due to reflections from the green surroundings. I had a nice lunch break joined by "Slit" and "Double Step". At Buckhorn Spring I refilled my waterbottles, then continued along the high ridge while thunderstorm clouds brewed. The trail then dropped from 6000' to 3000'. The clouds produced no rain. At the end of a 23 mi day I decided to stay near Cliff Creek on an old 4WD road.

The next day, Thur, 7/25, the hike was only 14 mi to the resupply town, Seiad Valley. I started at 6 am and arrived by noon, descending slowly to avoid abusing the knees. It was a long road walk along the wide Klammath River. It got pretty warm by midday in the deep valley. Many PCTrs were relaxing at the Mid River hikers home. We had lunch in town, showered, washed, and packed the new supplies. A large garden was available for camping or sleeping under the stars. I did the latter and regretted it since at night big mosquitoes left their marks on me. Dinner was home-made since the restaurant closed at 2 pm. Some hikers left in the late afternoon, others very early in the morning to beat the heat for the 4500' climb out of Seiad Valley. In the evening there was a great display of thunderstorm clouds over mountains to the east.

On Fri, 7/26, I got up at 4 am since I could not sleep well due to cars zipping by the campsite near the road. I walked on the road by flashlight to the trailhead and began the switchbacks for the 8 mi, 4,500' ascent. It was good timing and by the time I was in the sun a nice breeze was blowing on the ridge and it got never as hot as advertised. Lots of fire damage was visible near the Devil's Peaks. By afternoon it was warm and humid and the thunderstorm clouds grew again. There was no rain but dry lightning is worse since it starts wildfires as evident from smoke clouds seen next morning. I continued hiking while watching the weather. By 7 pm I stopped at a suitable campsite (mi 1688) after a 26 mi hike for the day. The mood was up since tomorrow I would make it into Oregon.

On Sat, 7/27, I saw the brown clouds from wildfires over mountains and valleys. It drifted over my ridge too and the air smelled from it. Cows in the meadows stood stoically in the smoke. In the forest the smoke made sunrays visible. I refilled fresh spring water at mi 1695. There was a 50 k mountain run on the PCT and many long distance runners passed us. We gave them way and were rewarded by nice treats at their supply tents. In the afternoon, as the race ended I could have as much as wanted from their left-over sandwiches, fruits and softdrinks. What a treat on the trail! But the hilight of the day was a trail marker at about mi 1700, saying simply "Oregon-California". It gives a mixed feeling of pride for the accomplished hike and of excitement for the adventures in the new state. After signing a register I hiked now in Oregon. Of course the scenery was still the same: Pretty hills filled with springs, green meadows with wildflowers, mountains and valleys till the horizon. Due to the vicinity of a big road (I-5) and city (Ashland) there were many dayhikers on the trail. After 22 mi this day I camped one more time on the trail at mi 1710. But next day I would hike to Calahans on Interstate 5.

On Sun, 7/28, I hiked around Mount Ashland which has an observatory and ski lift. Smoke was still in the air. Then the trail drops down to the I-5. A short-cut hike via old I-99 and Route 66 got me to the other side of the busy highway to the Calahans Lodge (mi 1727) which offered excellent and affordable services to PCT hikers. There were at least 10 thru hikers for the big all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner. Once again, next morning we were served a pancake breakfast with multiple servings of pancakes.

On Sunday evening I made an important decision. For days or weeks I knew that my daughter's health was deteriorating. The last news from the Stanford oncologist was that she had only a few more weeks to live. So I had to choose between continuing the thru hike and not seeing her again or being with her during her end and not finishing the hike. Obviously, I had to go back to be with her. I would have loved to finish the thru-hike which was possible time and energy wise, but my conscience did not allow it. So I got a ride from Calahans to Medford, flew back to San Francisco and from then on was with my daughter Ana as much as possible. Next year, I'll finish OR and WA, if circumstances permit. I had a wonderful time hiking over 1700 mi and climbing about 290,000 ft through the State of California where I have lived for 48 years. I only missed my hiking friends and touching the trail terminal in Canada, but I am sure that everyone understands my decision. Ana passed away in September.


Go back to Part 1
Go back to Part 2
Back to Trip Reports
Back to SMS Home Page