Sierra… Meet NorCal! (July 2023)
The Pacific Crest Trail is comprised of 5 unique sections: The Desert, The Sierra, NorCal, Oregon, and Washington. Each transition is unique in its own way and represents a milestone, an accomplishment, and a fresh start. The transition out of the Sierra and into NorCal is one that I thought about for many days before it happened, as it represented an accomplishment that I truly did not know if I would achieve. Along the way, I learned that this transition had blurred lines, as I slowly (I repeat, slowly) hiked out of the snow and transitioned into the new NorCal terrain.
The Final Sierra Push: Sonora Pass (Mile 1018) to South Lake Tahoe (Mile 1092)
July 11 / PCT Day 72 / Sierra Day 29 / 17.3 Miles
From the moment that I stepped back on trail after Sonora Pass, things felt different. I was entering the transition period between the intense Sierra core and the burn zones and dry trail of Northern California. With each step, I wondered which patch would be the last patch of snow (spoiler: not quite yet!). I was ready for long, boring stretches of dry trail that did not require me to hyper focus on every step. Less than 10 minutes into the morning, I began to slip around on the icy trail and stopped to strap my micro spikes onto the bottom of my trail runners. I spent most of the morning hiking with micro spikes on dry trail and rock; however, I did not dare take off my spikes and challenge the universe to present more icy patches of trail.
July 12 / PCT DAY 73 / Sierra Day 30 / 20.8 Miles
Hiking time was officially pushed back from 3AM to 5Am, woo! While the trail was still quite snowy, we became good at finding snow free “trail” and shortcuts through the snow to hike with the least resistance as possible.
Spud and I both set up camp at a snow free site near Pennsylvania Creek (Mile 1056.2). “I hate climbs.” I said, thinking about the next morning’s climb already. We had just hiked our first 20+ mile day since before entering the Sierra, and I knew increasing daily mileage would be an adjustment. “…and I hate steep descents. Honestly, I really only like hiking when it is on flat or moderately graded trail.” I said to Spud.
“I don’t really think I like hiking or walking at all.” Spud replied, surprising me. We both laughed. “Hiking 30 miles a day in NorCal will be fine though… right?” I joked. More laughter.
July 13 / PCT DAY 74 / Sierra Day 31 / 21.8 Miles
I spent the morning miles wondering how bad the “Steep Traverse” marked with a red hazard sign on FarOut could really be. We had just completed a month’s worth of ‘steep traverses’ in the Sierra, after all. We hiked through avalanche debris as my eyes wandered for the first sight of the traverse. South Lake Tahoe was just 30 miles away. Would this be the last sketchy obstacle? When my eyes landed on the boot pack that climbed vertically up a patch of snow to the top of the ridge line, I laughed. “Maybe we should try the rock climbing instead?” I suggested.
Comments on FarOut described multiple rock climbing routes around the snow. After struggling through the climb to the top of the ridge, I was sure there was no way that our route was the optimal route. But we made it. It took a long time to navigate back down to the trail. “Maybe this is our last off trail adventure??” I said to lighten my own mood. One day I would be nostalgic for the chaotic navigation that the Sierra required.
July 14 / PCT DAY 75 / Sierra Day 32 / 14 Miles
I couldn’t stop moving without being attacked by mosquitos. This was the second good reason to not stop moving. The first? Being just 14 miles away from South Lake Tahoe, the ceremonial end of the Sierra. Lake Tahoe was in reach!
When we reached the road, an SUV stopped and turned around on Highway 50, driving back to where we stood on the side of the road. The couple smiled and offered us a ride into South Lake Tahoe. The couple had been following PCT bloggers on YouTube and we shared stories all the way to Lake Tahoe. We said our goodbyes and walked straight to the beach, buying a celebratory drink along the way. With Lake Tahoe in front of me, I threw my trekking poles and backpack into the sand, sat down, and cracked open a seltzer. I looked at the mountains on the horizon. I looked around at the beach goers lounging and boating around me (I felt just a littttle out of place). It hit me. I made it through the Sierra.
The End of an Era: South Lake Tahoe (Mile 1092) to Sierra City (Mile 1199)
July 15 / PCT DAY 76 / NorCal Day 1 / 10.8 Miles
Taut and Detour hitched out of South Lake Tahoe bright and early to restart their journeys north. Time was precious after spending so much extra time hiking through the snow and methodically crossing high rivers. Maybe I would see them up trail, but it seemed likely that I may never run into them on the PCT again as they raced north. After 32 days of hiking as a unit, it felt strange for Taut and Detour to be “gone”. There was a small group of hikers left in Lake Tahoe, and we ventured from the campground to a bakery together. It was clear that no one really knew what laid ahead for their hikes. Questions buzzed in my head. Who would I hike with? How many miles would I be able to hike per day on snow free trail? Was the upcoming trail really snow free? When would I see the last snow patch? It was the end of an era. I no longer had the comfort of my large Desert trail family, and now my Sierra team was breaking up too. I felt more anxious for what laid ahead than I did on day 1 at the southern terminus (which seemed absurd after a whopping 76 days of trail life). Everything had changed, and I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted it to…
After some final town errands, I packed up my things to get back on trail. Timing worked out, and Spud and I hitched back to trail together. As we hiked passed lakes and navigated patches of snow in the Desolation Wilderness area, I felt lucky to still have a hiking buddy. I knew that I could navigate and hike through the snowy patches alone, but I no longer felt the need to prove myself, to others or to myself. My mind still buzzed with questions on what it would feel like to hike alone for the first time since the early days in the Desert, if it came to that, in the coming days.
“You know..” Bird, another hiker that I met in the Sierra, said as he passed our campsite later that evening. “The new moon is just as powerful as the full moon.” It was a beautiful sentiment for my first night in the Northern California section. The new moon represents endless possibility and served as a fresh start in my mind. I classified my worries of the unknown to a “tomorrow Rachel problem” and settled into camp with Spud, who I met on week 1 and was the last man standing from my trail family of 9, for potentially the last time.
July 16 / PCT DAY 77 / NorCal Day 2 / 25.9 Miles
“I’m just not used to seeing all the other people out on trail!” I said to Spud as we passed yet another large group of weekend backpackers. Spoiler! Spud and I continued hiking together. Today was my first full day hiking in Northern California. So far, NorCal was full of lakes and a mix of dry trail, muddy trail, and snowy trail. The problem was, the more dry trail that I hiked on, the more I craved it. The dry miles felt cruisey on the morning climb up the pass. And on the way down from the pass? A snow field. A surprise, long patch of snow felt worse after acclimating to the ease of dry trail. But soon enough, I would take my last step on the snow. Maybe I would miss it (lol)?
July 17 / PCT DAY 78 / NorCal Day 3 / 26.3 Miles
I woke up to a light rain. The air felt thick and glowed an intense orange color, lighting up the sky over my last view of Lake Tahoe. Reaching Lake Tahoe had been my goal for so long – it felt weird hiking away from it now.
It was time to set a new goal, but for now, I just wanted to adjust to my new NorCal routine. Gone was the intensity of 2AM wake up calls, fording raging rivers, and taking careful steps on steep snow traverses. It was still unclear what new routine I’d fall into, as I was thick in the “in between” stage, seeing daily reminders that the Sierra was getting further and further behind me. That afternoon I hiked through Palisades Tahoe and was relieved that the ski resort was actually closed! I laughed remembering the feeling of hiking out to Mammoth Ski Resort to see people snowboarding in July! We reached Donner Ski Ranch by the end of the day to celebrate our goodbye to Tahoe with a free beer (thank you Donner Ski Ranch!) and a burger.
July 18 / PCT DAY 79 / NorCal Day 4 / 25.4 Miles
Today I was almost bored (yay!) on trail after an almost entire day of dry trail, climbing, and wildflowers! I used my wildflower identification app, Seek, for the first time since the desert to figure out what I was looking at. The Wooly Mule’s Ear lined the trail for much of the day, and I stood in awe as they glittered in the wind.
July 19 / PCT DAY 80 / NorCal Day 5 / 19.4 Miles
I hiked up to a small road crossing and saw a cardboard sign that read “TRAIL MAGIC SITE 25”. It was 7AM. “Do we go? It is kinda early…” I asked Spud. We decided it was worth a shot, and I was excited by the idea of trail magic for the first time since the desert. As I walked up to the site, I saw another hiker packing up their backpack. “…Pickles?” I said as I walked up to the sleepy campsite.
The PCT never fails to amaze me. On a 2,650-mile trail, here I was on day 80, standing with Pickles, who I met on Day 1 near the Mexico Border. I hiked with Pickles and Buzzy for a bulk of the PCT desert section before they decided they would flip up to Ashland to hike NorCal south instead of going straight into the Sierra. I knew a reunion was imminent, but as we stood at an off-trail campground sharing stories from the last month, I smiled, feeling like the universe helped organize this little reunion.
After an hour-long break filled with trail magic, snacks, and stories, we hiked in separate directions on trail, once again. When I got into Sierra City, I raced into the Cafe to have lunch reunion with Buzzy and Toph that we organized via our Satellite phones over the last few days. We laughed as we swapped stories and shared recommendations for each other’s path ahead. After a burger, beer, resupply, ice cream, bathroom, and lots of laughs with old friends, it was time to head back to trail. As Spud and I began the 3-mile road walk back to our trailhead, a car stopped us.
“Hey guys! I wish I could offer more but do y’all need anything? Snacks? Water?” A man stopped and rolled all the windows down in his truck. “Sweetie, wave!” He said to his daughter in the backseat. “These people are hiking a very famous trail!” For the second time today, I zoomed out and was reminded of how special this trail really was. The PCT was special. The people who hiked the PCT were special. And the community of people who looked out for us, hikers, were special.
Slowing Down while Speeding up in NorCal: Sierra City (Mile 1199) to Chester (Mile 1332)
July 20 / PCT Day 81 / NorCal Day 6 / 27.9 Miles
NorCal had been an adjustment so far. Today was a reminder that I was both speeding up (hiking >26 miles per day) while also trying to slow down (enjoying the little things more). In the morning, I hit mile 1,200. Each rock milestone on trail deserved a celebration, and I was surprised how quickly the last 100 miles seemed to go!
In the early afternoon, we passed a blue blaze to a lake. We decided that part of the NorCal routine should include actually being able to swim in lakes. We hiked off trail to enjoy a swim and early lunch because… why not.
July 21 / PCT Day 82 / NorCal Day 7 / 28 Miles
Today NorCal showed its true colors: giant pinecones and burn zones. As I walked through the first burn zone, I noticed the beautiful wildflower growth among the fresh ash and scorched trees. I couldn’t stop staring at the white lilies, and I stopped a few times to take photos of the juxtaposition.
We decided to take another lakeside lunch, this time at a lake covered in lily pads just off the PCT. We noticed we were not the only ones enjoying lunch at the scenic spot as we watched a deer walk into the lake and munch on some lily pads. As I hiked back toward the PCT, I stopped to admire the giant sugar pine pinecones. I took a photo and sent it to Taut in our Sierra WhatsApp group message. While hiking in the desert together, Taut had told me about the giant sugar pines of NorCal. “That actually looks like the one I set up for you!” Taut replied. Historically, the boys had always set up the best pinecones on trail for me to see when I was hiking behind them. It felt so special that even with Taut hiking a couple days ahead of me, the pinecone show and tell was still alive and well!
As set up our tents, ate dinner, kept a close eye on our resident campsite deer, and looked at FarOut for tomorrow’s miles, I heard Spud casually say, “Yeah, so if we push 32 miles tomorrow… we can get a beer in Belden!” “Yeah…” I said sarcastically and laughed. “Wouldn’t that be nice…”
July 22 / PCT Day 83 / NorCal Day 8 / 32.2 Miles
“Cheers!” I said as I took a sip of beer while sitting on the back patio of the Belden Town Resort. After 32.2 miles, I was hungry, tired, and sore. I limped into the resort, concerned that I did some serious damage to my feet over the course of the day. I took off my socks and revealed bloody toes and feet. I examined my feet to realize that my hard, dirt filled socks acted like sandpaper over the last few hours. It was frustrating to realize that my whole body felt strong, even after my longest day, but my sore feet were crippling me. I sipped on a beer and ate my couscous dinner before limping over to the beach area where PCT hikers were allowed to camp for free (thank you Belden Town Resort!). I set up my tent in a delirious state and gave in to my exhaustion by falling asleep without blowing up my sleeping pad.
July 23 / PCT Day 84 / NorCal Day 9 / 25.2 Miles
I woke up and immediately took Advil to soothe my achy feet before I began hiking for the day. The morning began with a daunting 13 mile climb out of the Belden River valley. Today was one my first blackberry spotting on trail! A blackberry breakfast snack was the perfect treat before the long climb. Near the end of the climb, I saw yet another reminder that the Sierra was now behind me – a sign that marked the end of the Sierra Nevada Range and the beginning of the volcanic Cascade Range.
Shortly after entering the Cascade Range, I hit milestone 1,300. I had expected a tough day between battling my sore feet and tackling one of the big NorCal climbs. I was pleasantly surprised that the miles melted throughout the day. I ended the day feeling incredibly thankful and watching a beautiful sunset over the ridge line (a unique view since I normally fell asleep pre sunset!).
July 24 / PCT Day 85 / NorCal Day 10 / 18.9 Miles
I was exhausted, covered in ash and dirt, and very aware of the 1,325 miles of hiking that still remained, but I was halfway done with the PCT, and that was something to celebrate. I was not fully sure how I felt about this milestone. It felt like a lifetime ago that I was standing at the Mexico border, unsure what to expect from this adventure. All I knew in this moment that I was is incredibly thankful to have made it thus far and fully ready to embrace the rest of the miles to Canada. As I hiked passed the dead trees, ash, and logging land on my way into Chester, I felt incredibly excited for some rest and a town day.
The historic Bidwell House in Chester was the definition of luxury after a 10 day stretch in NorCal. I took a 30-minute shower to scrub off the 10 days of dirt and ash from my body. I crashed hard as I crushed a pint of ice cream in bed and fell asleep well before hiker midnight (which may or may not be around 8pm).
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