It is an inferno this afternoon. We binged on milkshakes and burgers at JJ's Cafe. My abdomen is distended, and the last thing I want to do is hike uphill out of Old Station in this blistering heat. I gaze at the green lawns of the local RV park and fantasize about napping. We want to press on though. We have lost too much time and are starting to feel pressured to make miles. Despite these feelings, I am excited because tomorrow we are hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is often compared to Yellowstone because of its many geothermal features. Park regulations require that backpackers spending the night within the park boundaries use a bear canister. We do not wish to carry one of these, and so we decided to hike the 24 miles through the park tomorrow.
It is damn hot as we climb uphill through a gorgeous piney forest. After the initial climb, the way is flat all the way to Hat Creek. Our campsite is the best! It is right next to the creek, which is full and noisy. We bathe and rinse our clothes in the cold waters. It is not our habit to have a campfire, as we are usually too tired. Tonight we light one and enjoy our dinner under the makeshift clothesline where our damp socks are drying.
Hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park
Heading out of Hat Creek, we run into a backpacker traveling nobo (northbound). He has come through most of the Sierra Nevadas. He got out at Echo Lake and jumped north at the insistence of the rangers there. Apparently, they were begging PCT hikers to leave due to dangerous conditions caused by flooding and snow. Indeed we have already heard that one PCT hiker has gone missing in the High Sierras.
He tells us about his adventures using crampons, ice axe, and Guthook's to stay on the trail in deep snow. He hiked with a large group, moving at the pace of the slowest member. They sometimes covered as little as 7 miles a day. Soon we are climbing again on an exposed hill into the sun. My back feels like a swamp. We arrive at the border of Lassen, and hike into a burn area that is flat for miles.
The wildflowers are a colorful blanket, transforming the stark burn into a scenic landscape. I am told that the bears at Lassen are numerous. People have told me they have seen many as they hike through Lassen, hence, the bear canister regulations. The hike is beautiful with Lassen Peak in the distance.
Upper Twin Lake
When I dreamed of hiking the PCT, I pictured beautiful alpine lakes. Upper Twin Lake is that place I had set aside in my imagination. With little hesitation, I strip off my clothes and begin a painful submergence that makes me feel alive. The water is a deep blue, and I can see the bottom. A fine, comfortable gravel swallows my feet. Although it is cold, there is something about swimming here that makes this whole experience fuller.
After our chilly dunk, we lunch and then nap. The gentle waves lap onto the shore, and all too soon it is time to go. These miles are not going to walk themselves. As we hike on, we pass more picturesque lakes and then start to descend into a thick wood. I feel like we are going to see a black bear any minute now, and I feel tense. The woods become marshes and long wooden bridges help us pass easily over otherwise impassable bogs.
We have our first harrowing river crossing. Just before Kelly Campground, the King's Creek is flowing fast. There is a fallen log upstream that provides for safe passage, but it is about 10 feet above the water. The descent to the log is steep, and I have to concentrate hard to cross the log like a gymnast on a balance beam. Safely on the other side, I let out a sigh of relief.
Boiling Springs Lake
As we begin our final push, we descend a cliff to Warner Valley far below. We begin to see some hydrothermal features. Walking over sulfur springs, we stoop to feel the warm water. The smell of rotten eggs fills our nostrils. Boiling Springs Lake spreads out before us. It is an odd pale yellow. The vents below keep the water around 125 degrees, and warning signs ring the lake.
We reach the border of the park and camp just on the other side. A group of PCT hikers has already set up camp there. They actually move their tent to give us some room. "We just saw a bear!", they exclaim. Damn. I still have not seen a bear.
I dream of bears. My earplugs prevent me from obsessing over every little sound. Otherwise, I would get no sleep. In the morning, we discover that our bear-bag cord has been gnawed on a bit. Packing up quickly, we head on to our next destination, Chester, CA. The hike is pretty with fast flowing creeks and towering pines.
Trail Town: Chester, CA
There are many PUDS (pointless ups and downs) along the way, or at least that is how I remember it. We discover the top half of a fawn's carcass across the trail. The hairs on my arms stand up. I wonder if a cougar is nearby. It is best to move on quickly, and so we book it.
Before we know it, we have hiked 16 miles to highway 36. There is an injured PCT hiker at the trailhead with his car. Doc had to cut his hike short, but he is out giving trail magic. He gives us a ride into Chester. We get a room at the basic Seneca Motel. Soon we are binging on pizza buffets and burgers at the depot.
We discuss our plans. After all the reports regarding dangerous river crossings, missing hikers, and treacherous mountain passes, we decide to head south again. It is our hope that the snow will be melted off and the rivers more manageable by the time we hike into the Sierras from Tehachapi.
Chester's public transportation system is connected with Redding, CA where we can hop on the Amtrack. If we go further south, we will have a harder time getting to the main hub.
Heavy Metal Bus
We catch the bus at the supermarket in Chester early the next morning. It seems like a normal, boring bus until we get rolling. The driver likes to go fast, really fast while playing various heavy metal bands. I have zero problems with this. We are in Redding before we can say Metallica.
This is the second time we have visited the Redding Amtrack station. It is full of tweakers. They keep the bathrooms locked at all times, and you have to find a security guard to open them for you. From Redding, we take a bus to Sacramento where we board the Amtrack to Bakersfield.
By the time we arrive in Bakersfield, it is late. We check into the Best Western Plus nearby the station. This place feels luxurious after backpacking. The soft bed, hot shower, and ice machine are much appreciated. It so strange that I took these things for granted in the past. Now a bed and a hot shower are the most amazing, wonderful things on earth.
The next morning, a bus takes us into Tehachapi. It is strange to be in the desert again. It feels like so much has happened since we left this town for Ashland nearly a month ago.
We are walking along the road to Albertson's when Dave "Papa Butterscotch" Martin pulls over. "You're here a little late aren't you?", he asks. "Why don't you hop in, and I'll take you where you need to go?" We tell Papa all about our adventures. Funny enough he reminds me of my Papa back home. I know that if my dad lived along the PCT, he would love to be a trail angel.
During our journey, I continue to be moved by the many people who have helped us on our way. We could not have done the things we have done without help along the way. I admit that sometimes it is hard to accept this help without giving something back, but this adventure is teaching me to become comfortable with this.
Papa Butterscotch and his wife, Dale are kind and generous. They drove us all over town to do our errands, and then let us camp in their yard. "Just come on in the house, if you need anything", they insist. I am astounded to learn that Papa had a heart attack two years ago. Since then, he has become a vegan and lives every day to its fullest. He and Dale have helped many PCT hikers without expecting anything in return.
In the morning, Papa takes us to the trailhead. Before we leave, we pose for a picture with his adventure mascot a small stuffed Gizmo. The way is uphill. Needless to say, the desert in July is sweltering. It is a dry heat unlike the stifling humidity of northern California. We begin to question our choices. Was this an intelligent thing to do? We shall see.
- If you fixate on "scary" noises at night or are a light sleeper, get some earplugs. They help tremendously.
- It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to receive help. What you are doing is difficult. You do not have to do it alone.
- Hike through Lassen Volcanic National Park in one day to avoid carrying a bear canister. Plan accordingly so your miles suit your ability.
In the spring of 2017, we set out to hike the PCT. Hear our full story.