Once again, I will be covering multiple days in a single post in lighter detail because this is a trail blog, which means off-trail is off-topic.
As previously mentioned, the fog that rolled in overnight covered everything in condensation. My tent was soaked and the trees were dripping like rain. In fact, I thought it was rain at first, and stopped to put on my packa shortly after leaving camp. The sun was only just coming up and I was walking out under headlamp light.
Coming around the lake to the PCT, I made a wrong turn and wound up in a campsite with a single tent. The man inside, probably half asleep, shouted “Too warm!” I snuck away the way I had come in and tried not to make any noise, but I was thinking “If you’re too warm, you ought to come out here. I’m freezing!”
The first little bit of trail was pretty annoying, following the side of a ridge with frequent deadfalls across it. Some required climbing the hill to get around. I was glad to see the trail turn and begin descending from the ridge.
After 4 miles, I stopped at a tiny pond called Green Lake to collect some water. At this point, it was apparent that our was going to be a warm sunny day, so I put up my packa. Then the trail wandered along on a level, through some meadows, past a trailhead with a pit toilet (hurray!), and alongside a vast lava field to a tiny spring with a pipe stuck in it pouring water onto the trail. I stopped here for lunch and incorporated the spring water into said lunch.
Soon after this, I encountered my first full size Washington slug. It wasn’t as big as a banana slug, but it was big enough that you would want to eat it on a bun instead of a toothpick if it were made of beef. Apparently the slugs in Washington are just like that. I’m surprised I hadn’t seen one sooner.
The trail then climbed back up onto a ridge covered by taller, thicker trees. It remained like that for the next 9 miles with only the occasional nice views. I had to play games with myself to keep me hiking at full speed. Eventually, I stopped to dry camp in a tiny nook beside a little used dirt road. But the important thing was that I would be able to arrive early at my pickup point the following morning. Wind River Highway was only 6 miles away.
Total distance: 20 miles
This time I got another decently early start. Even with collecting water, I still managed to get hiking by 8am.
From the start, the trail was always edging uphill, but not very steeply. So my pace was quite rapid. And it soon entered a wide open sandy burnt-out section. By 11am or so, I had gone the 9 miles to the Sawmill Mountain Trailhead entering the Indian Heaven Wilderness. There was a rare PCT log book here in an ammo can. As I signed it, I noted that Pop Tart and Nobody had come through six days before and had left a phone number. I took it down but never called.
Somewhere in this first section, I talked to my last pair of elk hunters, asking if I had seen any elk. I had just recently seen one out of the corner of my eye way down the hill but it may have been a cow. I told them about the successful hunter from the day before, but that I hadn’t even seen any sign on the trail or heard any bellows all day. I wished them luck. They would need it, since it was their last day out.
By noon, I was edging up the side of Sawmill Mountain and met two women hiking together. I didn’t want to slow down much to talk to them as I had set myself a goal to not stop until the next trail junction for lunch. But while I was eating lunch there, they passed again. I caught up to them again shortly after when they stopped for a snack and we had a discussion about what could be seen in the wilderness and where they would be hiking. I had already decided to camp at Blue Lake, but they persuaded me to take some side trails on the way there.
The day hikers started to get thicker from this point on. I’ll omit all the ones I stopped to have short conversations with from here on. There were a lot more that I didn’t though. There were just way too many people wandering around the area that day.
By a little after 2, I had reached Bear Lake, having descended from the PCT to the water’s edge for collection and filtration and a snack break. I did not return to the PCT, instead descending a hill to a trail that promised to cross a number of nice meadows and pass a spate of ponds.
And that’s what it did. It wasn’t always the easiest trail, but it offered plenty of nice views. The last 4 miles of the day’s walk as the sun slowly descended seemed to last as long as the entire day leading up to it just because of the many sights it offered. It became apparent why the area was so popular.
The trail eventually arrived back at the western edge of Blue Lake. I decided I wanted to camp there, figuring the other camp sites around the lake would be more popular. There was a pack sitting at the campsite as if someone else were planning to camp there, so I took the spot farthest from the water to give them the choice of the premium sites (and also reduce my chances of condensation). Eventually, a man showed up and took away the pack, saying they had decided to camp elsewhere. So I had a site to myself at a very popular destination. Nice.
The wind picked up overnight and a fog rolled in. By morning, it was an awful lot like rain.
Total distance: 19 miles
Trail progress: 18 miles
I may have slept in a bit and not gotten up until sunup, but I wasn’t going to let that cut my hiking short on a day when the hike was mostly downhill.
The hiking started out level around the mountain, across lava fields and rock piles, through the burnt remnants of forests, rock hopping over the milky glacial rivers.
About two hours in, I stopped for a snack in front of a small cave. It was nice to have a bit of cool air to contrast with the direct sunlight on this exposed section. I thought about crawling inside, but I could see it didn’t go anywhere.
After nine miles, the trail was about to take a sudden hook to the right and down the mountain, so I found a tiny clearing among a tiny patch of living trees and made lunch.
Then it was hours of descent, straight down the side of the mountain, all exposed by fires of years past. There were views, sure, but it wasn’t particularly interesting terrain.
Some four miles later, I was nearly at the bottom of the descent. I passed an elk hunter climbing up the hill to his fresh kill just a couple miles in, ready to butcher and haul the second quarter to his truck. He was the first and only successful hunter I met.
Finally, after passing a quiet hipster with a camera and just before crossing FS 23, the road to Trout Lake, I stopped at the White Salmon River, more of a small creek, for another snack break.
But I wasn’t done for the day. I crossed the road and started another climb. It was fairly steep at first. On the way up, I passed a message. Someone had written “BEE” in pinecones right across the trail. Confused, I looked around but didn’t see any beehives or hear any buzzing. So I kept climbing. The trail got steeper. Huffing a bit, I stopped for a moment to stretch. Bees started pouring out of the ground right next to the trail. I canceled my break instantly and started running up the hill. Just before it leveled out again, I stepped over another pinecone message. “BEE” again, but written the other way so nobos could read it.
I sure climbed that hill fast.
At the top, I crossed a small open meadow with a number of good campsites. But I wasn’t done yet. By not collecting any water, I had committed myself to camping next to the next creek. And why not? There was still plenty of daylight to be had.
After a long level section, the trail hooked and climbed up over a saddle, then began another long winding descent, reminiscent of the one that had started the afternoon, but this time under cover of trees.
Finally, just as the last available light was disappearing, I crossed a creek and found myself at a large campsite with plenty of places to sit. I dropped my bag and went to fetch some water from the next creek (Trout Lake Creek) , then set about making supper by headlamp light.
It felt like the hiking would never end, but I had gotten enough done to be satisfied with my day. More importantly, I was exactly keeping to the camping schedule that I had reported on the self-issue permit coming into the wilderness.
Total distance: 20.5 miles
Got a good start around 8am for a relatively plain section to begin. Occasionally got some good views of the volcanos and some small ponds and lakes. Stopped for lunch on a rock beside a dirt road just outside the wilderness around noon, but nothing super interesting until mid afternoon, when the trail came alongside the lava field and Mt. Adams came into view.
At the end of the lava field was the aptly named Lava Spring, a spring worth seeing, but I continued up the hill to Muddy Fork Tributary to get a bit of water and eat a snack.
The rest of the day was a long gentle climb up the lower slopes of Mt. Adams before reaching the edge of a meadow where Killen Creek spills off into a lower meadow. Following a nearby side trail led to a huge flat sandy spot that dwarfed my little tent in the corner once I had set it up. Following the trail further led to a small waterfall tumbling off the side of the mountain. The views of the peak were incredible and the sound of the distant waterfall made sleeping here very peaceful.
Total distance: 20 miles
The wind picked up all night, and it was annoying and cold by morning. I woke up at the crack of dawn, but it took a long time to get ready to go on account of the wind. It took the feeling out of my fingertips instantly if I removed my gloves and kept trying to undo my folds in the fabric things I was packing up. It was after 8am by the time I got out of camp.
By 9am, I had worked my way across the plateau and climbed up to the very ridge from which the goats had been watching me the night before. And as soon as I was up there, the wind struck me at triple force. There were only two places on the knife edge where rock barriers blocked the wind enough that I could stand still without freezing. I took a snack break at one of them.
It was worth it for the views though. I was glad to be a southbounder at that moment because most of the northbounders must have arrived at this incredible place when the Clear Creek Fire was still pouring smoke into the air, obstructing those incredible views.
Just as the knife edge was ending, I met my first hiker, who asked if there was a clear cut place to turn around. I crossed the side of Old Snowy and there were more hikers returning from the peak. They warned me that the snow bank the trail crossed was solid ice at the beginning and very slippery. They passed me on the way down and proceeded to take an alternate route around the frozen pond and snowbank. But I just followed the trail across it no problem and got ahead of them again, staying ahead until they left the trail.
There were dozens of other hikers out, and tents stuck in random places all over the hillside. I took lunch in a campsite hidden in a copse of trees to avoid a few passing hiker groups, but another couple was hiking right in front of me as I got back on trail. I passed them, but they caught up written I stopped for water at a creek crossing and I never caught them again.
Once I got over Cispus Pass, I stopped seeing hikers. The people I saw were elk hunters and one group of three on horseback.
I set up camp early evening at the Walupt Lake trailhead, and, other than the return of the horse group, the only company I had for the rest of the night was an elk bull making a hell of a racket in the woods no more than fifty yards away. Not just bellowing but stomping and crashing around too. Never saw him though.
Total distance: 15 miles
I slept until sunrise because I was planning a short day. My pack was heavy with all the extra food I’d just picked up, plus I wanted to cross the Goat Rocks knife edge ridge, said to be the best bit of trail in Washington, in the day time. So it only made sense to stop just short of the ascent to the ridge.
As I packed up, the camp robbers returned several times, this time joined by chipmunks, but they couldn’t steal anything from me.
I got a bit confused hiking out because, although there had been only one trail coming into camp, there were two going out, and I picked the wrong one. It led to another small campsite and a large object wrapped in a tarp. I decided not to mess with it, whatever it was. I backtracked and found the other trail. Ten minutes later, I was back on the PCT.
I stopped for lunch at Lutz Lake and took off my headphones to talk to an elk hunter camped there. One of the earbuds (newly but cheaply bought the day before) promptly came apart. I tried to fix it with some help from the hunter while we chatted, but it was a lost cause. The other earbud still worked, so I could still have a few days worth of private listening.
The hunter said he had been stalking the same bull in a nearby bog for three days straight, and had almost gotten close enough to shoot before it randomly spooked that morning. (It was muzzle-loader season and he was very proud to say he had never failed to deliver a clean, killing shot on the first try, so he needed to be very close.) He was going out again after lunch to give it one more try because it was his last day out. He didn’t seem too worried even though he was hunting for his table because he could always come back for cow season.
He wasn’t the only hunter I encountered that day, though he did seem the most savvy. In fact, you’ll hear about several more elk hunter encounters throughout the next week.
A couple of miles later, the trail finally emerged from the trees and entered the Goat Rocks area proper. After a steep climb straight up the side of a waterfall, I found my campsite just off trail with a stream flowing right through it. Although the site itself was rocky and lacking in flat sites, there was a path through the trees to a grassy bowl just perfect for a tent. The wind kind of funneled through the area, and there was nowhere to put a tent that wasn’t directly in that wind, but it wasn’t particularly strong or cold…yet.
Meanwhile, up on the ridge, the goats chewed placidly on the choicest grass and looked down on me uninterestedly.
Total distance: 13 miles
It was basically all downhill the last eight miles to White Pass, and I started out early enough to make it to the road a little after 10am, which is to say, just a bit after 6am.
The previous night, after I had gotten snug in my sleeping bag, two men had come by, yelling at each other. I think they wound up sleeping near the lake too because I saw a headlamp in the woods as I began my hike.
I spooked an elk cow walking down the trail ahead of me just after dawn. She stared back at me until I tried to pull out my phone, then darted into the woods before I could get a video.
The trail passed lake after lake and write a number of early hikers. I stopped often for pictures but never for snacks. There was real food waiting at the Kracker Barrel store.
I arrived at the store at the same time as three northbound section hikers ending their hikes. They informed me the section ahead of me was nice and clear. They stuck around basically the whole time I was there waiting for their ride to pick them up.
While at the store for the next five hours, I
- Got a shower
- Got my laundry done
- Picked up a full resupply and packed it
- Bought a number of treats, like chicken fingers, homemade cake, root beer, beer, and a Mountain Dew Kickstart.
- Charged my phone and battery
- Uploaded a blog post
- Wrote a Quora answer or two
- Downloaded some podcasts
- Called home
- Let Jordan know I would be arriving in a week exactly (spoilers!)
- Received a bag of perfectly tart and sweet yellow apples for free
I hiked out a little bit after 3pm. When it seemed like it was getting a bit late, and, more importantly, I didn’t feel like hiking anymore, I took a promising looking unmarked side trail a half mile to a campsite on the shore of Hell Lake. It was a beautiful little spot with a view and I had it all to myself.
Well, myself and three very bold and persistent camp robbers, that is. I probably shouldn’t have tossed one of them an apple core.
Total distance: 13.5 miles
Trail progress: 12 miles
I woke up well before dawn. Morning twilight was just beginning as I hiked out past the lake. Everything was perfectly still and quiet. A single bird glided over my head and the sound of its feathers vibrating in the air stood out enough in the silence to startle me.
Even though I was the first out of camp that morning, I wasn’t the first on the trail. I met two hikers coming up from the parking lot in some dashing trail fashion. I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes later to see that there were already a number of visitors. Sometime had even car-camped in an SUV with an infant.
I took advantage of the clean and well-stocked Chinook Pass toilets, of course, as any thru-hiker would when faced with such luxury. They even had trash cans inside so I could lighten my load. Moreover, they had been stocked with so much excess toilet paper that it could not all be secured on the lock bar. Which is another way of saying that there was somehow one less roll when I left than when I entered. I wonder where it got off to?
I met a woman in the parking lot who was setting out to run the entirety of the section of the PCT between there and White Pass.
“It should take me about 7.5 hours. At least, that’s when I told my ride to go me up.”
“29 miles in 7.5 hours, huh? That’s…a pace. Is that going to be enough water or do you have a filter with you?”
*adjusting the small bottles on her running vest* “It should be enough. I’ve done this before. But I’ve got a Steri-Pen just in case.”
“Wow. I think… I’ll be happy getting there tomorrow.”
I should note that, judging from her face, this woman was probably 20 years my senior. Something to aspire to, I guess.
Anyway, I crossed the highway on the hiker bridge and entered the national park. I issued myself a backcountry permit at the self-permit station and set off down to the lakes. There were a number of other folks hiking that day, but none with any interest in chatting. There were plenty of views and plenty of camp robbers watching me closely every time I stopped, particularly when I stopped for lunch.
I finished my day near Snow Lake, picking an established site in the woods far from the trail and the water as per regulations.
Total distance: 21 miles
Because I had stopped so early the preceding day to stay at the Mike Urich cabin, I already had everything ready for a full day’s hike before I went to bed early. And because I didn’t need to pack up my tent, my 4:45am watch alarm propelled me to be on the trail and hiking by 6am. There was an entire hour of deep quiet hiking in the dark before the morning twilight began and the birds and elk started waking.
The trail crossed a ridge and entered a burned zone from which the rising sun was readily visible. By the time I had to stop to swap my headlamp for sunglasses, I’d already hiked 6 miles.
The sandy soil was absolutely chewed up with the hoof prints of elk using the same trail, and the bellows of hulls resounded from every direction.
On a couple of occasions, I accidentally sneaked up on one or more cows incidentally upwind of me. They wouldn’t hear me until I stopped. On one occasion, I was able to get my phone out and take video before they noticed me and took off running.
By keeping my breaks short and far between, I managed to finish the 21 miles to Sheep Lake by 5:15 pm. After picking out the campsite farthest from the water (in accordance with forest service regulations), setting up my tent, and cooking dinner while being serenaded by coyotes, I walked around the lake to visit with the three old men camped there.
They had just walked the 2 miles up from the parking lot at Chinook Pass, dropped their packs, and took a little jaunt up to Sourdough Pass (the last pass I had crossed before descending into the lake basin) and over to an adjacent pass then back the same way. I thought maybe I could yogi a beer or a shot of whiskey from the old fellows but no luck. They were a super fun bunch though.
Eventually, I gave up and returned to camp to finish out my nightly routine and prepare for another early rise.
Total distance: 21 miles