Walking through a NorCal burn zone

I’m taking a break from my chronological blogging to write a bit about the burn zones in Northern California. I spent much of last week walking through two massive burn zones, from the 2020 Bear Fire and the 2021 Dixie Fire. Walking through the destruction of a wildfire is not something I ever imagined I would do and I found myself full of thoughts and emotions that I hadn’t really expected. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of these fires, especially the Dixie Fire. It affected almost a million acres of land, which sounds like a lot, but that number feels so much more real after having spent 100 miles walking through it.

To skip or not to skip

A lot of hikers are choosing to skip over this section because it’s difficult and potentially a little dangerous. I actually didn’t know that people were doing this, because the Dixie Fire was only last year and there is no precedent. It was only after we passed Old Station and exited the burn area that I realised I was probably in the minority of hikers who had pushed on through.

However, I’m glad I did so and if I could go back knowing that people were skipping and decide again, I would still choose to hike it. For me, this hike is about experiencing nature in all its forms, the good and bad, and the reality of our planet today is that a lot of nature has been changed and is being damaged by the climate crisis. Choosing not to hike it would feel like turning a blind eye to how things really are in 2022.

Physically hard, mentally hard, emotionally hard

I won’t deny though that this was a difficult section, and I respect that the right decision for other people may be a different one. Walking through charred forests presents all sorts of physical challenges: there’s almost no shade to be found, which makes the already hot NorCal days hotter; the ash gets in your nose and mouth and makes you crazy thirsty; every part of your body gets filthy within minutes. Mentally it’s harder too, with unchanging landscapes causing boredom to set in. But for me, the hardest part was the emotional toll.

It was difficult to walk through these areas and think about everything that’s been lost. We passed the midpoint on the 12th of July and took pictures to post on our Instagrams, but the reality is that everything around that midpoint was burnt. The only reason it was still there, is because it’s made of stone and not wood. The trees around it were all burnt to a crisp.

My midpoint photo

vs. the view behind the camera

The day before that, after a 14 mile climb through a burn zone, I reached the top of a hill to look over into the next valley and saw only burnt trees stretching to the horizon. I stood on top of the hill and cried.

During these days, I was reminded over and over again why this hike quickly went from being a dream that I wanted to complete “someday” to a dream I am completing today. Last year, as I watched wildfires rage across Northern California, I knew that I was running out of time. The climate surrounding the PCT is one in crisis and it is unclear how much longer thru-hiking this trail will even be possible.

Tackling climate despair

I am so grateful for the hundreds of miles that I have been able to walk through beautiful, untouched landscapes. They have made every second of walking through blackened forests worth it. But as I walked, all I could think about was how uncertain my future is, how uncertain all of our futures are, and it was hard not to feel depressed.

However, I wanted to write about this not just to express how upsetting I find it, but because I am a firm believer that climate despair helps nobody. Sure, it’s great when people truly realise how urgent the situation is, but often the despair is what causes people not to act. When we declare that our planet is doomed, it feels like there is nothing that can be done and we might as well all give up trying. This inaction and desensitisation is often referred to by climate activists as “climate nihilism”.

There are loads of great resources out there to help overcome this despair, but my personal favourite is the podcast How to Save a Planet, which actually has an episode specifically about wildfires. I would highly recommend listening to this episode for any hikers walking through these burn zones and struggling to comprehend how this could happen. The podcast as a whole is a great way to learn more about the climate crisis and what needs to be done to slow its effects. Plus if, like me, you suffer from feelings of gloom and uncertainty about your future, it might leave you feeling a little bit more optimistic than before.

It felt important to me to share these thoughts because the experience of hiking through these burn zones was powerful and moving; possibly more so than anything else on this hike. It made me sad but it also made me feel inspired to do more. It helped me realise the one greatest lesson I have learnt over the last 3 months of living outdoors: there is so much in this world worth saving.

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Comments 7

  • Jan Graner : Jul 21st

    Hello Sofia! My daughter is also hiking the PCT and is almost to Crater Lake, OR. I am devastated to see the damage from the wildfires! So very sad to see the loss of trees and habitat. Our daughter (Kelly-Sprout-trail name) has walked through the same area and has had the same sense of loss. It is depressing to say the least. I am so glad she did not skip this part of the trek as it is meaningful to the hiker to see how this is a real impact on our lives. I wish you two could connect as you think very much alike! I will continue to read your posts and look at photos! Take care, stay safe, and hike on!

  • JP : Jul 21st

    Very well put. Thank you for bearing witness and relating the experience.

    It seems that most of the blogs log the practical details of each day’s walk; while that is interesting, it is also really good to read something that offers perspective on some of the overarching realities that are affecting the entire trail experience of the hiker community – or frankly, the entire human community.

    I hope that you have confidence in your voice – you should. Please keep updating us on your trek, but also, and especially, sharing your observations and perspective.

  • Bill : Jul 24th

    She/her? Climate crisis? Really? Do you even know anything about what caused and perpetuated the Dixie fire? I doubt it. It had nothing to do with a climate crisis. It is nature working to clear crap that should have been managed for years that wasn’t. It was also the forest services lack of proficient management of the fire. We need fires. Now move on trail girl. And yes, I hiked the trail in 1976 solo. Long before you were even born.

    • Michael lewallen : Jul 26th

      Bill, really?

  • Alan mathews : Aug 24th

    Hey Sofia, great to read your blogs. Thanks for doing the burn zone and writing about it. I just listened to the Save the Planet podcast about fighting fire with fire, made me angry for what it ignores. The structure of the forests is completely altered because the formerly big trees that are fire resistant are gone due to logging and Forest Service and Sierra Pacific Industries continous logging prevents a return of a natural structure. Fire is dangerous when it’s all tinder and timber No one is discussing how we get back big trees, 300 to 500+ years old to return and dominate Sierra forests…Keep on trucking!


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