PCT CA Section K PCT CA Section L

Echo Lake to Castle Pass: A series of firsts

Guthook’s PCT Guide switches from the “Sierra” section to the “Northern California” section at Echo Lake. There’s a good reason for that. There’s a very different vibe to the trail going forward. In some ways and at some times, northern California is more similar to the desert section than the high Sierras. There is far less water on the trail but many more road crossings and hiker-oriented businesses right on the trail.

Befitting such a major transition, and to celebrate another month of hiking and completion of an entire quarter of the trail, I had long since decided to take a true zero in South Lake Tahoe, a tourist town absolutely full to the brim with guests during the time I was there.

Day 0

Part of this day was to be spent on certain errands.

The day started with a visit to the 7/11 for a coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and some fruit. Then, it was on to the grocery store by foot for an easy resupply.

The biggest and most expensive task was buying new gear. Right next to the grocery store was the only worthwhile outdoor sports store in town. There I bought a new winter sleeping bag, a new mattress pad (mine was great but it kept leaking through the valve requiring waking in the night to reinflate–how do you fix that?), better insoles, and a new compression sack for the sleeping bag.

I walked these items down the street back to my room, then picked up my old sleeping bag and mattress and walked them back up to the same shopping center to FedEx them home.

In the same area was a hardware store where I bought some velcro and some laundry detergent.

Back at my room, the next task was laundry, which I did by hand in the enormous whirlpool tub in my room, then hung all my clothes on hangers from the curtain rod above the A/C unit under the window. I also got my food situation pretty much squared away so I wouldn’t be in a rush leaving in the morning.

All this worked out, it was time to play. 8 rented a Lime scooter and took to the bike trails, zooming some 5 miles down to the South Lake Brewing Company. They serve flights on child skis with holes cut in them. I soon joined up with a small group of locals: Patrick, Cameron, Alma, Keegan, Phil, and Jommy. Patrick bought a round for everyone and offered me a ride to Echo Lake the next day. Jommy invited me to his place when they were leaving for a barbecue and backyard fire, but I declined and hopped back on my scooter for my hotel.

The scooter battery died a few blocks from where I could rent another, and I had to push it there. But I could ride the last mile, went to my room, and fell asleep after spending all night editing video.

Total trail miles: 0

Day 1

The next day, I still had some errands. I had to swap out my compression sack for a larger size at the outdoors store because the new sleeping bag wouldn’t fit in the same size bag the old one would.

After that, I had to pack up and get out of my motel room. At the last, I left my headphones on the bathroom counter. I never missed them though. They didn’t quite fit in my ears and caused severe pain when not perfectly adjusted and some scarring in my left pinna that still pains me a month later.

After a long relaxing lunch at Azul (tacos) with live music, I set out to find other outdoors stores to shop for a new pair of sun gloves since the main store had none. I bought a pair of ski glove liners that were close enough and then walked over the border into Stateline to keep looking. No luck.

I walked back over to South of North Brewing Company’s beergarden to sample their wares. For legal reasons, I had to order a hot dog I didn’t want, but then I proceeded to spend the next several hours trying all their beers, cutting the fingers off the gloves I had bought, writing a blog post, and listening to the live band.

Late in the afternoon, I decided it was time to hit the trail. I left Patrick a message, and he called me back to say he couldn’t actually give me the ride he offered. No problem. I only called to be polite anyway. Just as easy here to summon an Uber. It was probably 6pm by the time we arrived back at Echo Lake.

Then I realized I was supposed to have a permit for Desolation Wilderness. I hopped on my phone and bought one, but I wasn’t going to be able to print it. The site wouldn’t even let me download a pdf. I crossed my fingers and hoped if I met a ranger, I’d be forgiven for not having a paper copy.

The sun had set by the time I reached the far end of Echo Lake and entered the Desolation Wilderness (marking the boundary of where I was allowed to camp again. I got out my headlamp and cruised along in the dark, seeing no tentsites for another mile. I turned down the side trail for Tamarack Lake and stopped as soon as I saw a clear spot next to the trail. I threw up my tent there.

I wasn’t the only one out late that night either. Several more headlamps came floating by and an entire family came down past me looking for a place to camp. Apparently the traffic had been horrible coming up from wherever they’d driven from?

Total distance: 4 miles

Day 2

Most of this day would be spent hiking past Aloha Lake. It’s huge and the trail near it is nothing but broken rock that you cannot move very quickly over. Also, it’s swarming with people. Every quarter mile of shoreline was occupied by groups and families and crowds were flowing up and down the trail.

As soon as I came near it, I stopped to soak my shirt to ward off the heat of the day. When I went to leave, I saw a ranger coming up and arranged to get ahead of him so I didn’t have to talk to him.

I reached the end of the lake where a large rock created a small shady cave. I stopped to have lunch, wondered what time it was, and realized I had left my watch and gloves beside the lake where I’d stopped miles back. I stashed my pack under the rocks and started hiking back to get them. I hiked right past the ranger, but I was able to deflect his questions with irrelevant nonsense and since I had no pack on, he wasn’t concerned about whether I would need a permit.

Anyway, an hour and 3 miles later, I was back at my pack and starving. I took my time with lunch in the shade of that rock, collected water, and soaked my shirt again before leaving.

The trail didn’t get any less rocky before I began the climb up to Dicks Pass an hour or two later. It got worse and it was a hell of a climb too. It was the last place the trail went above 9000 feet, and just when it looks like you’re about to reach the top, the trail turns right and makes you keep climbing along a talus pile for another quarter mile. Right here is where I saw my last marmot.

Coming down the other side, I settled into a pace with another guy who was coming down and we chatted. He was only staying one night at Dicks Lake in support of his girlfriend who was beginning a circuit of the Tahoe Rim Trail. He was getting to camp first to set up their hammocks. I set up right next to them and we hung out that night and talked about her first long distance hiking trip, food, and how she would adjust to it. I shared some Christmas in a Cup with them and they shared some cookies with me.

Total distance: 12 miles

Day 3

Time to put on some speed. I was leaving camp not long after that couple was just getting up.

Past the last couple of lakes, where I soaked my shirt again, I entered a forest with a smooth dirt track trail and could really put on the speed. It was mostly downhill. I saw my first bear here. It didn’t care about me at all. I also saw my first trail crew, breaking big rocks into fist sized gravel.

I stopped for a snack next to a creek that had been reduced to stagnant pools. I needed the water. But I didn’t stay long. I really wanted to get to Richardson Lake for lunch.

And I did. There were lots of folks there. Some of them were willing to swim, as did I. The water was murky and home to some massive freshwater crawfish, but it was also perfect swimming temperature, especially on a day that hot and muggy. I didn’t want to leave.

But leave I did. I climbed up to Barker Pass before sunset, made and ate dinner there, took advantage of the unlocked pit toilet (having been informed by sobos that it was an option), strapped on my headlamp, and kept going. The sun had well set by the time I reached my intended campsite, in which the best site was already occupied. I made do with a slanted campsite up the hill behind them because I did not intend to go any further that night. I didn’t sleep well, both because of the tilt and because of the woman’s annoying laugh that continued well after I was in bed.

Total distance: 19 miles

Day 4

I woke rushing to take pictures of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe.

Then, I packed up and got out of camp before the other couple, heading down to the nearby stream to get water. They passed me while I was doing this, but I passed them within the next mile and practically ran up the next big climb with them chasing me. I wanted to get it done so that I could enjoy the ridgewalking while it stayed cool.

I also found some cell service above one of the ski mountain areas and downloaded some more podcasts. Then it was downhill into Squaw Valley and the creek where I would stop, along with some others, to eat lunch. Had a nice chat here, then began my climb out of the valley, stopping once to sit in another stream and soak my shirt–the sun continued to be relentless all day.

Eventually, I made my way to the tentsite beside Squaw Creek (just beyond the Granite Chief ski area), a nice spot with several wrapped condoms spread out on a log, just in case.

Unfortunately, while I was trying to get to sleep that night, a couple of women came hiking through (as there was another campsite not too far away) yammering at each other at the top of their lungs. It was well after 10pm, which everyone knows is quiet hours in the wilderness. No respect!

Total distance: 13 miles

Day 5

Most of the morning was spent walking along exposed ridgelines, many with good views of Big Blue. These were sometimes the tops of ski slopes, and I walked under some chair lifts. At one point, I found some cell service and stopped to download some information about where I was headed.

I was headed, in fact, to the Donner Ski Ranch for lunch. This was a very exciting goal because there would be tasty hot sandwiches, beer, device recharging, and even flush toilets. Once I made it in, I spent most of the afternoon there.

Eventually, I set out to hike the little piece between the Skranch and the interstate at Donner Pass (yes, those Donners), go through the tunnel under the highway, and swing around to visit the rest area, where the restrooms were open. That big lunch needed some room to expand into, I guess.

Then, it was a quick two mile climb up and over Castle Pass as the sun went down. One more mile and I was at Peter Grubb Hut. It has electric lighting! But I didn’t need it. I just used my headlamp.

I noticed then that my phone was rebooting. And then it just suddenly collapsed to black in an uncontrolled power off. Oh well. I wanted to turn it off anyway. I had the place to myself, but I didn’t realize it until I climbed into the attic and found no one else there. I had been trying to keep it quiet for no reason.

I made up a bed on the attic floor and went to sleep.

Total distance: 20 miles

Day 6

I tried to plug in my phone when I came down the ladder in the morning. The charging icon briefly came up, then the screen went black again. Then it would not respond to anything. A brick.

I popped outside and scared away three does near the woodpile who didn’t expect any people to be around. I went down to the creek to get some water, and met a hiker headed through.

I learned that my best bet for getting a working phone was back in Truckee, off the interstate I had crossed the day before. So I went and packed up my stuff and set off back up the trail I had come down the previous night.

That’s where we’ll stop for now. And now you know why there are no pictures and videos in the last few posts. They didn’t get backed up before the phone died. I remain confident they will soon be rescued and I will be able to update these last few posts with the illustrations they deserve. But I’m still waiting on that to happen. From here on, though, the posts will go back to having pictures in them.

To kick things off, here’s a few pictures of Peter Grubb Hut: