Pacific Crest Trail Section Profile: Northern California
The Sierra have sloped away as hikers head into Northern California and enter the next mountain range on the PCT: the Cascades. Unlike the sharp granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades are a range of small, mostly dormant volcanoes that make up part of the Pacific Ring of Fire basin. Due to their volcanic nature, these mountains have more gradual peaks, and the surrounding geology is largely igneous.
This section is known for its trail towns. It’s also the best region to take a trail-cation to San Francisco if you’re in the mood. For the beer fans out there, NorCal is home to a variety of craft breweries.
A lot of hikers report suffering the NorCal Blues, similar to the AT’s Virginia Blues. The elevation climbs out of towns are a drag. The scenery in NorCal may seem underwhelming after the epic views of the Sierra Nevada, and hikers are reminded that they still have a long slog ahead before they finish their thru-hike.
Terrain and Climate
For those heading northbound, the terrain in Northern California won’t seem too difficult. The overall altitude is lower (mostly below 5,000 feet), and the climbs are not as steep as the passes they completed in the High Sierra. Generally, hikers will descend into towns for resupply, then climb their way back out of those valleys. Other than high in the mountains, there will be little snow in NorCal.
Called by some “the northern desert,” NorCal can be very hot and humid. Generally, the water carries on this section are not too long, with the exception of the Hat Creek Rim, a 30-mile section south of Burney Falls State Park. As always, keep an eye ahead on Guthook and the PCT Water Report.
Flora and Fauna
Although the terrain is slightly less spectacular, Northern California is part of a “biodiversity hotspot” known as the California Floristic Province, which boasts a great variety of flora and fauna. The lower Cascades are covered in forests of large, coniferous trees including the western hemlock and western red cedar. This section is also known for wildflowers, wild blackberries (delicious!), and unfortunately poison oak.
There is a lot of wildlife here, including raccoons, bears, mountain lions, and deer. Although a bear can is not required in this section*, it is still worth paying close attention to food storage. Bugs become more of a problem here as the mosquitoes that NOBOs experienced in the Sierra are joined by black flies and deer flies. This section is also notorious for Giardia, so be sure to always, always treat your water. Details about fees and distances of resupplies from the trail can be found here.
*Lassen Volcanic National Park is the only section (mile 1,343.8 to 1,363) in NorCal that requires you to carry a bear can. Since it’s less than a 20-mile section, many hikers plan their trip so they cross the entire span in one day without having to worry about a bear can.
Pacific Crest Trail NorCal Highlights
PCT Midpoint | Mile 1,325
You’re halfway there! Stay strong and HYOH.
Chester | Mile 1,344
Chester is a very hiker-friendly resupply town. It’s small enough that it’s easy to walk everywhere, and there is apparently a dentist trail angel who will help you out if you’re experience dental issues. If you want an interesting side trip on your zero/nero, check out nearby geysers and hot springs.
The PCT passes right through the beautiful Lassen Volcanic National Park. From there, Lassen Peak is visible. Commonly referred to as Mount Lassen, this is one of the geological highlights of the PCT’s Northern California section. If you miss bagging peaks like in the Sierra, this may be a worthy side trip. Don’t worry—it hasn’t erupted since 1921 and isn’t expected to do so again anytime soon.
Burney Falls | Mile 1,424
Burney Falls State Park is a common resupply stop in NorCal. The park has showers, laundry, a campground, and a store. For those wanting a slightly more luxurious stay, the owners of Burney Mountain Guest Ranch (mile 1,407) are very welcoming to PCT hikers. If you’re coming through late in the season, check their website for their seasonal closing date (this year, 2019, it’s Sept. 15).
Burney Falls (mile 1,424) is a spectacular 129-foot waterfall. The pool at the bottom makes for a great swimming spot. Though the water may be icy cold, it’s crystal clear and refreshing!
Mount Shasta | Mile 1,507
Mount Shasta is one of the epic peaks of this section; John Muir wrote that his “blood turned to wine” when he first saw the snowy mountain.
Mount Shasta was the PCT’s first designated trail town. In the city, Black Bear Diner has a “Thru-Hiker Breakfast” special. It may not be on the menu, but you can ask the server.
Trinity Alps | Mile 1,606
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful sections of the entire PCT, this 18-mile section is a major highlight of NorCal. Part of the Klamath Range, the PCT skirts sparkling lakes and flowered meadows, as well as views of Mount Shasta and many of the other peaks in the Cascades. Recently, this section of the trail was purchased by conservationists for permanent protection.
Etna | Mile 1,606
Etna is one of the most popular resupply locations in NorCal. There are great food and drink options in town, and good swimming can be found in Etna Creek. Some of the highlights in town include the R&R Bunkhouse, Alderbrook Manor Bed & Breakfast, Motel Etna, Bob’s Ranch House, and an annual “Jamming on Main Street” party.
Seiad Valley | Mile 1,662
Seiad Cafe is home to one of the famous food challenges of the PCT: the Pancake Challenge.
– You must eat five large pancakes within two hours
That’s it! However, it’s no small feat. Each pancake is around 13 inches diameter and 1.4 inches thick, making the full stack weigh around nine pounds. If you succeed in this challenge, not only do you get your picture on the wall of fame, but your meal is FREE! No wonder it’s so popular with the thru-hiking community. From Seiad, it’s only 40 miles to Oregon.
California/Oregon Border | Mile 1,662
After long effort and many (MANY) miles, the PCT finally leaves its first state and enters Oregon. This is a huge threshold for thru-hikers.
How to Choose Your Stove and Water Purification for the Pacific Crest Trail
Wisdom from 2018 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)
Wisdom from 2018 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. II)
Northern California Management Agencies
Featured image via Jessica Tinios
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