PCT CA Section L

Castle Pass to Sierra City: Good luck and bad

The previous section had been intended to be Echo Lake to Sierra City, the whole thing at once, but the side trip into Truckee and the whole matter of the broken phone kind of forced the section to be somewhat split. As such, this will be a shorter section/post.

Day 1

We left off in the morning with my intention to hike back to Donner Pass to get a replacement phone. I figured I could get a warranty replacement overnighted there and get a new phone for just the price of a hotel stay in Truckee.

Right off the bat, though, I already got some good luck. I chatted up Teresa and Mike as they were finishing packing up their camp. Mike was going to keep hiking through this section, but Tereza was headed back to Arizona to get some work done. She would be going right through Truckee, and her car was parked much closer than Donner Pass. So I had a ride and saved two miles of walking just by talking to everyone I passed.

She dropped me at the Verizon store (actually a Victra store), where I would end up spending most of that day. I hope I didn’t smell too bad sitting in their storefront on hold with Verizon customer service all day. Eventually, I got through and got in the offline queue to be called when a rep was available. I ran around the corner to get some taquitos for lunch and then back again to catch the call. I had gone through a whole shtick when suddenly the store’s phone started buzzing and I couldn’t hear anything the rep was saying. I asked her to call back, but the buzzing didn’t go away. There was no way to get the thing done here and I didn’t want to wait an hour in the phone queue again, so I told the store employee, “Screw it, just sell me a pixel 3a and order me a case for it to be delivered to Quincy.” I also bought a new pair of headphones while I was there.

About that time, I got some more luck. Paul came into the store and offered to wait for me to ship my old phone to the data recovery service from the FedEx store next door and then drive me back to the trail. He was retired and looking for an excuse to take his new old Jeep off-roading. He drove me all the way back to Castle Pass, way beyond where I had expected to be taken. I had to rehike at most a mile. And I was back on the trail instead of wasting the night in town spending my money on hotel rooms and town food.

I had enough time left to use the privy at Peter Grubb Hut, get some pictures (which you’ve already seen) and hike as far as Paradise Lake before it was dark.

After going down a mile long side trail and circling the rock barrier surrounding the lake confusedly, I finally found the lake’s edge when I chatted up a man who was sitting there next to his tent. The light was nearly gone, but he was interested in chatting about everything. His son was in the tent, recovering from the ten mile hike and possible altitude sickness which had led to vomiting.

I broke off the conversation to cook and set up my tent closer to the water. In doing so, I majorly bent one of my stakes trying to hammer it into the sand.

More conversation with the man ensued by headlamp light when his son came to ready to eat something. The full moon rose over the lake and I tried to catch its reflection in the water. Unfortunately, a will-o-the-wisp ruined the shot.

Total distance: 9 miles

Trail progress: 5 miles

Day 2

I woke up at first light and was leaving camp just as my neighbors were emerging from their enormous tent. He tried to ensnare me in another conversation, but I finessed away and got back to the PCT.

I stopped at Snowbank Spring, a beautiful little trickle just beside the trail, to get some good cold water and spend a little time communing with nature as it were. I ended up having lunch there before leaving.

Spent the night at a campsite near Mule Ears Creek. A couple of college boys had spread out all over the campsite, but made room for me to put my tent. Apparently they had known each other so long that the talkative one accidentally introduced himself by the other’s name. They sequestered themselves inside their tent to play a modified version of War in which they made up lots of crazy extra rules like it was Mao crossed with Nomic. They were incredibly nerdy engineers and probably lovers too, but they had come halfway across the country to hike a short section together while school was out, so I tried not to bother them too much. Also, they seemed very COVID-shy so I tried not to get too close to them.

I also took this opportunity to record a time lapse movie of my nightly cooking and set up routine.

Total distance: 15 miles

Day 3

The day started with a trip down to the creek to fetch water. I packed and left the other two still in camp barely moving.

Halfway through the day, I turned down a paved road and took a quarter mile side trip to a lakeside campground to take advantage of the flush toilets and trash cans.

A few miles later, I spent an hour chilling beside the falls of Bear Valley Spring, getting some water and washing my feet and legs and just generally enjoying the beautiful waterfall cove. The two boys from camp caught up to me here as I was leaving. I let them have the spring to themselves.

Late in the afternoon, I turned down the side trail that led into the Wild Plum Campground. I thought I could hitch into Sierra City from there, but only three cars passed going that way, none willing to pick me up. So I walked 3 miles to the highway and another half mile into town. It was too late for the general store to be open, but one of the restaurants was open, and I got to order a nice meal in the garden. I paid way too much for an overcooked steak and watered down root beer, but at least the ice cream was good.

After calling around and finding that every single lodging establishment in the entire area was completely booked for the weekend, I walked to the community center and found that the bathroom where hikers can normally get a free shower had been locked shut for COVID-19 reasons. A man living next door informed me that it was no longer allowed to camp next to the church. So, it seemed, I would have to get back to the trail to stealth camp.

Fortunately, I was accosted by some hikers right there in front of the community center who were willing to give me a lift back to the hilltop and the trail. I found a singular stealth site just a few tenths of a mile from the road and set up.

Total distance: 16 miles

Day 4

After I packed up and made my way back to the road, I was moments too late to catch a likely ride into town. No one who passed on my two mile walk down the hill to town wanted to make it easier on me. I stopped at the coffee shop for a bagel and peppermint mocha for breakfast, then arrived at the general store just an hour after it opened. I needed to pick up two boxes there. One with my maps and one with my food.

There was only one box for me there.

After calling home for the tracking number on my food box, I learned it was still in San Francisco, having taken three weeks to complete 80% of what should have taken only a week. A chat with the postman made it clear that the current political situation has finally reached me on the trail. Trump’s attack on the post office (as the postmaster himself described it) had now become an attack on my wallet, as I was now forced to resupply at the general store, which had only some of the things I wanted at massively inflated prices.

Not that I blame Larry, the proprietor, one bit. He probably isn’t even making a profit in a year like this. He’s probably barely staying open. So I bought what I needed to get as far as Quincy and packed it all up.

It was around this time I bumped into Jeff. Yes, Jeff from Kennedy Meadows South. He had been hiking with Adrienne whom I met here for the first time. Her trail name is Pants. And she had decided to call him Heisenberg thanks to his resemblance to Brian ? though I would find out later that he preferred to spell it Hei-Zen-Berg. He was just as skinny but indicated he had stopped precipitously losing weight. I left them repacking food (which had arrived in time for them) beside the post office. They had disappeared when I passed that way again.

I got a hot pastrami sandwich from Larry’s deli inside the general store. It was great. Then, just before the store closed, I bought a box of beer and a bag of ice. I put the ice in my water bag and the rest in the box with the beer. I left my phone plugged in beside the store and walked the beer down to the local swimming hole on the Yuba River.

It had been a very hot day and I was finally getting cooled off, along with the closest thing one could get to a shower and laundry in this town. But I had been there only an hour–already done swimming and starting to put my shoes back on thankfully–when storm clouds came rolling in and dropping rain on us river visitors. I rushed back up the hill to make sure my phone (which lacked a case, you’ll recall) didn’t get wet, but the rain stayed light and didn’t last much longer than a few minutes beyond my arrival.

My phone, by the way, had turned itself off due to the intense heat of that day. Nonetheless, I spent another hour making sure I had enough books and podcasts downloaded, visited the trash can at the community center to clean up the remains of all I had bought, met a nice dog, then set off looking for a kind soul to get me back to the trail. This is where I got some good luck.

I saw a couple of guys sitting in front of the bar waiting for some beer to be brought out (as entering the bar was not allowed and the general store was closed). Said beer was too be taken to their campsite and they agreed to take me along.

Calvin and his stepdaughter’s boyfriend John were camped with several others at Upper Tamarack Lake on the far side of Sierra Buttes, which meant I could skip a notoriously nasty climb by riding along with them.

Few trucks would be able to make it up the janky dirt road to the lake. John had even had to walk a mile up it carrying a disk bag from the farthest point his car could reach (a feat which bought him a full day’s respite from Calvin’s teasing). But Calvin’s pickup made it.

After circumnavigating the lake, I identified a nice spot to put my tent, then went back for my pack. It was at this time I realized the belt I’d been using as a sternum strap since the first week had disappeared, probably fallen beside the road in Sierra City.

I talked to a family that had parked their camper within inches of the PCT and for my trouble got a nice beer and two of the ripest, sweetest plums I’ve ever tasted. They also told me they would keep a limit for my belt as they packed up in the morning.

From there, I walked my pack to the store I had found and set up my tent before returning to Calvin’s party’s campsite to repay their kindness by talking to family friends Greta about the trail since she was planning to do it herself once she had graduated from college. I ended up staying there for hours and learning a lot more about that family and in particular about Calvin’s brand of humor. (For example, his stepdaughter was half-Chinese and her boyfriend John was Mexican, so he referred to the pair as Rice and Beans.)

They kept me well supplied with beer until 11pm, when Calvin pulled a trout they had caught earlier out of the lake, cleaned it, wrapped it in foil, and grilled it over the campfire. So, just before midnight and my trip back to my tent, I was eating a mouthful of fresh trout grilled in almonds. What a day!

Total distance: 0 miles

Trail progress: 10 miles

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: