The Best-Laid Plans, Part Two

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After a boring day’s drive up the I-84, and a left turn just before Mount Hood, I arrived at the Frog Lake Trailhead early in the evening. My plan was to camp next to the PCT, not far from the trailhead. I pulled the bare essentials from the trunk of my car, and realized I’d left an important piece of gear at home: my tent. I quickly assessed my options.

  • Cowboy camp: buggy.
  • Sleep in the car: uncomfortable.
  • Hotel in Government Camp: expensive.

The nearest REI, on the south side of Portland, was an hour away. I had one hour and eight minutes to get there. The Google Maps lady insisted that the store might close before I arrived, but I decided to take a chance. Keeping within the posted speed limits, of course, I drove like someone whose best-laid plans were at stake. A few miles from my destination, I spent five extremely stressful minutes waiting in a traffic jam.

I arrived just as the last customers were leaving the store. The sales associate was very helpful, and steered me towards the “Quarter Dome SL1.” It was due to go on sale soon, but the associate informed me of REI’s policy about returning within two weeks to claim the discounted price. The 50 mile drive back to the trailhead was leisurely in comparison to the outward journey, which had been a bit two tents. I mean, too tense.

Out-and-back #1

The next day’s weather was warm and clear, and the trail was smooth and shaded. I took a quick detour to Little Crater Lake, zipped past Timothy Lake, and didn’t stop until I reached the Warm Springs River. After spending the night there, I continued south through the green tunnel, with only rare glimpses of Mount Jefferson. Then I reached the northern edge of the area burned by the Lionshead Fire, and unsurprisingly, the views opened up. A mile or two from Olallie Lake Resort, I met a pair of NOBO’s who I hadn’t seen since Donner Ski Ranch.

I hung out at the resort for about three hours, and in that time, another NOBO arrived (trail name: Door Three) who I hadn’t seen since Burney Falls. I chatted with him for a while, but he had miles to cover, and so did I. After stashing most of my stuff at one of the resort’s campsites, I slack-packed almost five miles, reached my turnaround point, and came back. That night, I camped with the other five members of Door Three’s trail family. I hadn’t seen them since northern California either, and it was nice to reconnect.

Hiking north the next day, the weather was warm and sunny. The sky was also clear for my first few miles the day after that, until about 10 miles from the Frog Lake Trailhead. Low cloud had settled in around Mount Hood, the temperature dropped, and a light rain began to fall.

Mount hood, at the head of a small valley.

Mount Hood, out (sunny) and back (cloudy).

Sisters, OR

The cloud quickly dispersed as I left Mount Hood behind, and less than two hours later, I was in the town of Sisters. The novelty and convenience of my car hadn’t yet worn off, but I did feel like a bit of an impostor. I was no longer a thru-hiker, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in the real world either.

At the east end of town, I parked outside the Sisters Creekside Campground. I’d stayed at the campground in 2021, so I knew about the area set aside for hikers and bikers. I walked over the footbridge, located the campground host, and inquired about the $5 walk-in rate. She asked if I was hiking the PCT, and I had to think for a moment before confirming that I was. I decided not to mention my nearby car or the reason I’d brought it. After paying, I walked into town for a beer and a pizza.

I was up at the same time as usual the next day, and the drive to Santiam Pass Trailhead took about 40 minutes. It took almost as long to pay for parking, due in part to the slow process of downloading and installing a smartphone app. However, most of the time I lost was wasted trying to work out how to pay for more than a single day. In the end, I gave up. Maybe a car had some disadvantages after all.

Out-and-back #2

After climbing through an old burn area, the trail made its way around Three Fingered Jack and continued north along a ridgeline. For almost the entire day, there was something interesting to look at: Mount Jefferson to the north; Mount Washington and Three Sisters to the south; desert to the east; forested hills to the west. I camped on the southern slope of Mount Jefferson, and early the next morning, reentered the Lionshead Fire burn area.

Russell Creek drains the runoff from Russell and Jefferson Park Glaciers, and I could see the previous day’s highwater mark. I arrived about 9:30 AM, and the creek was low enough to cross without getting my feet wet. A mile later, I reached my intended campsite, and stored all the gear I wouldn’t need for the rest of the day. Most of Jefferson Park seemed to have survived the Lionshead Fire unscathed, and the climb up Park Ridge was easy in the absence of about 30 pounds. Combined with my reduced weight, the rocky, dusty, burned areas beyond Park Ridge felt a lot like Mars. I reached my turnaround point pretty quickly and returned to camp having climbed over 5000 feet that day. Oregon isn’t as flat as you might think.

After hiking less than 20 miles the next day, I stopped early in the afternoon to camp at the northern tip of Rockpile Lake. The following day was even shorter, and I was back at the trailhead before noon.

Mountains on the horizon, and a forested slope in the foreground.

Mount Washington and Three Sisters.

Etna, CA

After a quick lunch in Sisters, and an even quicker stop at the REI in Bend, I drove to Elk Lake Resort to collect fellow NOBO “Late Start.” She also wanted to finish the California section of the PCT. We stopped to get some food in Klamath Falls, and arrived in Etna after midnight.

The morning of September 1st at Etna City Park began with the sounds of sprinklers and a lawn-mower. We packed away our tents, went for breakfast, and waited for the PCTA to update their website. At ten o’clock, we wandered into Etna Creek Outfitters and chatted with one of its owners, Meg. She made a few phone calls, and was able to confirm that the US Forest Service hadn’t renewed the Yeti Fire closure order. Late Start and I celebrated with a $2 beer at Etna Brewing Company. After that, we stayed for lunch, and local trail-angel Molly dropped us off at the trailhead shortly after 3 PM.

Usually, a resupply on the PCT is immediately followed by a big climb. That’s not the case when leaving Etna, which was fortunate because I’d eaten far too much for lunch. That afternoon, the trail was undulating, the weather was warm, and the atmosphere a little hazy. Conditions were similar the next day.

The beginning of the end

The second full day after leaving Etna, I started to realize that my PCT hike would soon be over. About a mile after leaving camp, I began my last big descent to my last trail town – Seiad Valley. Despite a section of blown-down and bushwhacking, Late Start and I reached the valley floor by early afternoon. However, the nearest bridge across the river was three miles away, and town was a mile beyond that. It’s not the longest valley-floor detour on the PCT, but it’s close.

  1. Suiattle River, WA.
  2. Klamath River, (Seiad Valley) CA.
  3. North Fork Feather River, (Belden) CA.

We eventually arrived at the general store around 4 PM, bought snacks, and sat in the shade to eat them. The temperature was still about 90℉, so we waited until the sun was a little lower before continuing. At 5:30 PM, we set off across the final mile of valley floor, and started the 2400 foot climb to our campsite.

For the first three miles of ascent, the trail switchbacked up an east-facing slope which was in shadow at that time of day. The next mile followed a steep ridgeline, and by then it was late enough that the lack of shade didn’t matter. As the last rays of sun disappeared, we arrived at our campsite.

The final rays of sun disappear behind a distant ridgeline.

Reaching camp during daylight hours, barely.

The end

The second half of the climb was rocky in some places, overgrown in others. Smoke had blown in during the night, coming from a pair of wildfires that started two days previously near the town of Weed. Initially, the smoke was thick enough to block some of the heat from the sun. When the wind shifted early in the afternoon, the air cleared and the temperature rose significantly. By then, we’d reached the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains, and there were no more major climbs between us and Old Highway 99.

Under normal circumstances, I’d probably have spent much of my remaining time on trail thinking about the past few weeks, and trying not to think about the next few. Time would no doubt have behaved weirdly, resulting in longer hours and shorter days. These weren’t normal circumstances though, because I wasn’t hiking alone. It was nice to have Late Start’s company, and our conversations distracted me from the fact that I was almost done.

My last full day of hiking was a hazy one. The trail undulated its way east, and at times, the summit of Mount Shasta was visible above the smoke layer. We stopped and ate breakfast outside Donomore Cabin, and soon after, crossed the stateline into Oregon. In late afternoon, just before Mount Ashland, we came across two coolers containing cans of Shasta soda. I cooled mine in a stream, saved it until camp, and proposed a toast to the unknown trail angel. It seemed like an appropriate time to celebrate, even if I was still seven miles from the finish.

At 9:30 the following morning, we reached the trailhead at Old Highway 99. I can now confirm that there is a trail connecting Mexico and Canada.

Closure

It had been just over a year since I’d stood in that particular spot. Back then, the closure of California’s National Forests interrupted my SOBO thru-hike, forcing me to leave the trail. That time, as I walked past the trailhead, I paused to imagine what I might experience on the PCT in California. This time, I didn’t have to imagine.

A big thank-you to Molly, who collected me and Late Start from Callahan’s Mountain Lodge and took us back to Etna. After lunch at Wildwood Crossing, I drove Late Start back to the Elk Lake Trailhead, and said goodbye. She continued north on the PCT through Oregon, and I continued my drive home. I found myself in a reflective mood.

In retrospect

Back when I first considered hiking the PCT, I knew I’d have to quit my job. I gave my boss almost a year’s notice, partly so that I couldn’t change my mind at a later date. September 3rd 2019 was my last day. I’d sold my house several weeks earlier, and even though it made sense financially, the decision to sell was more difficult than I expected.

I couldn’t attempt the PCT in 2020 because of the pandemic. In 2021, fire-related closures punched a northern-California-sized hole in my itinerary. The project I thought would take a year ended up taking three, but it’s hard to overstate just how much fun it’s been.

The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.

John Bingham, runner and author.

A map showing the entire Pacific Crest Trail.

Everywhere I spent a night on the PCT.