The Sierra Nevada Rise from the Horizon: PCT Part 8
Remember how I said it was crazy hot in Belden? So hot that I decided not to leave until after 6pm. With a huge climb into the Buck’s Lake Wilderness to look forward to. As the grade began to flatten out and the forest shifted to sub-alpine brush, I was treated to a stunning sunset with views all around. And I saw another bear! It was above me on the slope, and as soon as we locked eyes it scrambled away through the brush.
The Buck’s Lake Wilderness was a dreamy mix of towering pine forest and rocky ridge lines that gave me the feeling that things were starting to change. The brilliant sunshine combined with cool mountain air made for truly excellent hiking. I took an afternoon swim and lingered at the Middle Fork Feather River before walking the last few miles to camp. It was a really fun and relaxing day, even though I put in about 35 miles! Now approaching 1500 total miles, I was feeling strong and healthy and was really enjoying covering longer distances each day. Everyone has their own sweet-spot, but for me covering 30ish miles of trail with plenty of time for breaks and drooling over views felt fucking awesome!
The following day started with a fairly close encounter of the ursine kind. Just a few minutes after leaving camp, my thoughts were slow to form when I heard a series of loud thuds and snaps over my left shoulder. Spinning around, it all came together when I saw the massive ball of fur rocketing off into the woods behind me. Somehow, I had walked within probably 20 feet of what I’m guessing was a sleeping bear. That night, I wrote this about the encounter in my journal: “Pretty lucky I reckon.” Melodramatic as ever.
The rest of the day passed in a much less exciting fashion. The woods again gave way to open ridges, and I began to see rocky, jagged peaks dominating the horizon. I was looking forward to my upcoming resupply in Sierra City and with the stunning scenery, the miles went by quickly. I slept by a dirt road, and in the morning started a very rocky descent to town. The surrounding peaks were beginning to make me feel appropriately minuscule as I made my way down, fighting off the unfamiliar feeling of vertigo. The stoke was high, and building by the mile!
Have you heard of the Gut Buster? It might literally be the biggest thing in the tiny town called Sierra City. And it was no match for my cavernous appetite. Behold, the Gut Buster:
This is just the beginning!
I washed the Gut Buster down with a few beers, then slept it all off behind the local church. C’mon, what do you expect at this point!? Heading south the next day, I listened to the rustling of Mule’s Ears while rambling along increasingly high ridge lines. Snowbank Spring, bubbling through a picturesque high meadow, provided a perfect excuse for a prolonged afternoon snack break. That night I traded comfort for beauty in my camp selection and basked in the twilight on a very rocky patch of ground.
I was still behind my new friends, but they were all planning to hitch out from Donner Pass and take a zero in San Fransisco. After a pleasant stroll through another meadow in the morning, I approached Donner Summit in awe. Everything around me seemed huge and forbidding, amplified by the unavoidable day-dreams about the famous Donner Party. While having my morning snack in the busy trailhead parking lot, I got in touch with Leafy who was still in SF with the rest of the gang. So I would get ahead of them, but with a planned zero in South Lake Tahoe there was a chance we would be reunited in time for the Sierra. I also realized that I had less than a liter of water, with the next on-trail source more than 10 miles away.
It’s hard to concentrate on serious and potentially dangerous situations when surrounded by the biggest mountains you’ve ever seen. I shoved thirst to the back of my mind, focusing instead on peaks like Tinker Knob and Mt Albert, tickling the underbelly of 9000ft. Luckily I did find water before continuing to traverse across the tops of several ski areas. Climbing the next ridge, I camped on the edge of the Granite Chief Wilderness with the massive Lake Tahoe filling the eastern horizon.
So began the daily crescendo of staggering awesomeness that was to be my hike through the Range of Light. As I passed each landmark, I would say to myself “Ok, now you’re really in it!” but it just kept getting better. Rounding Fontanillis Lake I saw dark clouds forming over Dick’s Pass, which would by my first time above 9000ft. I didn’t want to break my good weather streak (at this point it had still only rained once since I started), especially at high elevation, so I headed upwards with a quickness. In the end, there were only a few errant sprinkles and I was able to pose on a resilient patch of snow while some day hikers took my picture (see cover photo). What an exciting feeling! Looking back on it, it’s funny how exciting it felt to be on a 9000ft pass when I was approaching a section of trail where that would be the elevation of most of the valley floors. I had heard many hikers gushing over the beauty of Aloha Lake, and had vowed that I would make every reasonable effort to camp there. It wasn’t until I was on Dick’s Pass that I actually realized where Aloha Lake was. Conveniently for me, it was located perfectly for that night’s camp. And oh my freaking HikerTrash God, it did not disappoint! The granite peaks surrounding the lake radiated with alpenglow as I settled in to my campsite on the shore. The bright, clear night sky got me even more excited to reach the more remote stretches of the range, but I slept very well that night.
I hiked the rest of the shoreline as the sun rose slowly over the gray peaks. The world was quiet. I was settling deeper and deeper into my happy place. I sort of zoned out as I came out of the Desolation Wilderness and passed the heavily developed Echo Lake on my way to the road. Tahoe would be a significant departure from the solitude I had enjoyed most days since leaving Belden. But I was really looking forward to a zero thanks to vacancy at the affordable (and awesome!) Mellow Mountain Hostel. Luckily I got a ride in no time, and got to town quickly since everyone else was leaving at the end of Labor Day Weekend.
The Final Zero
Yep, you guessed it: Food first! I got dropped off at Denny’s and did what any reasonable person would do and ordered the breakfast with the highest calorie count. Plus a few cups of coffee. Getting into town is the greatest feeling. Since I couldn’t get into the hostel until the afternoon and the town is so spread out, I figured I would get some shopping done to maximize relaxing time. On my way to the grocery, I ran into Per Bear! He was also planning to zero at a motel close by, so the resupply trip included a twelve pack and a few choice items from Taco Bell. After a few beers back in his room, I headed off to the other side of town to check in to the hostel.
I’m guessing it wasn’t a coincidence that I got a bunk in the room occupied by other thru hikers. Taco Cat and No Fucks were both returning to the Sierra to hike the section they flipped around earlier in the season. I had never met Taco Cat, but I remembered meeting No Fucks as I was struggling up Mt Hood on my first 30mi day. It was amusing watching her down nearly half a gallon of ice cream while I started to formulate a resupply strategy for the next 400 or so miles. I was going to rely on the rumored mountains of food left behind by JMT hikers at Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch, as it would allow me to spend more than 10 consecutive days in the High Sierra without having to spend incredible amounts of dough to send boxes ahead.
Most of my time in Tahoe was focused on food consumption. I rationalized my binge by convincing myself that I would need every calorie for the impending high passes. On the second night, Per Bear and another SOBO named Old School met me for dinner. Which was promptly followed by a round of pickle-back shots. I don’t even really remember how we got on the subject, but it was a great decision. We made plans to get back on trail together in the morning, and they headed back to their motel. I returned to the hostel, and found Kirby who had recently arrived! So even though not everyone had caught back up, I was happy and excited to be entering the Sierra with a solid trail family.
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