Week 17: Mile 2000, Fire Closures, and Returning Home

Three Sisters Wilderness

Now reunited with old friends, we all continue forward together. As much as I do like the solo hiking, it’s fun being around other hikers. We’re now headed towards Three Sisters Wilderness, one of the most beautiful sections of Oregon. This section is a mix of flat meadows and towering mountains, it’s the best of both worlds. Gone are the days of spending all day in the green tunnels of Southern Oregon being eaten alive by mosquitoes, or at least there are less swarms.

We have one last lake resort ahead of us, Elk Lake. These last few days have been a grind, but I know that once we get over the next section it’ll be smooth sailing from there. There is still plenty of snow around us, and as the hot summer days stack up on each other, the melt comes fast. And being in the melt means more swarms of bugs. I’ve gotten used to it at this point, the constant biting, the sprinting, it’s just a part of the Oregon experience.

The last few miles into Elk Lake were by far the worst imaginable. Excited for my town food ahead, I ran, nonstop, for about 20 miles. It’s all you can do. I finally reached my destination, exhausted, my legs covered in bites. I know my day isn’t over, as I still have 4 miles left for the night. But for now, I get to relax and stuff my face with food to regain my energy. If you plan Ashland to Elk Lake correctly, you can be in a resort for dinner every night. This is will be the final stop before the distances between towns increases again.

After my quick dinner stop, I head out for my last miles. My goal for the night is to reach the top of the climb. I enter Three Sisters Wilderness, and as I reach camp for the night, the mountains expose themselves. The Milky Way is completely visible. As a landscape photographer I spend most of summer nights photographing the Milky Way, and being able to experience every night on trail is by far one of the best parts of trail life. I fall asleep with one eye open, the views from my tent are too perfect, it’s hard to look away.

I wake to the sun rising, and at the top of exposed ridge, the views are incredible. I specifically chose this site so that I could enjoy the gorgeous morning light. It’s time to explore Three Sisters. Large meadows that span for miles, snow topped mountains all around us, I’m truly living my best life. Magnet, Boomie, and I stop by a small lake with a perfect view for lunch. It’s hard to complain out here.

Back into snow we go. The exposed volcanic rock makes everything seem like we’re on a different planet. Finally we have a true steep climb. It’s a bit of a rock scramble to the top, and as I reach the top, I see her. My favorite mountain. In the distance Hood makes her first appearance. I take a moment to take in the incredible view of the Pacific Crest Trail ahead of me. Seeing these views reminds me why I am out here. I’m truly grateful for what this experience has given me. I know every step I take forward brings me closer to the end. Tomorrow I reach a massive milestone. As the sun sets, the mountains turn orange and pink, my day comes to a close.

Mile 2000!

It’s a town day! I only have 22 miles left until I reach the highway. I push for an early start as a heatwave is expected and this entire section is made up of exposed volcanic rock. I’m practically sprinting, it’s a bittersweet day, I’m not ready to for what’s ahead. The Sisters behind me become a distant memory, as Mount Jefferson and Hood lay straight in front of me. As I reach end of Three Sisters Wilderness the trail becomes extremely exposed. It’s definitely going to be a hot day.

I reach a water cache, these next couple miles are so barren that this stop is important. A small snack break and water is taken and then the worst climb in Oregon is next. What makes this next section difficult isn’t how steep this climb is, but rather how exposed it is and the trail is completely covered in volcanic rock. There’s no place to take a break and all you can do is keep pushing forward. As I start the climb, a hiker catches up to me, it takes me a second to realize who it is, Joshua Perry!

The FKT holder of the Arizona Trail and the Long Trail, Joshua Perry is on his way to break the self-supported record of the PCT! Highly motivated we push this climb. We’re practically running, no stopping, no breaks, this is how an FKT hiker is able to do 50+ mile days. Being able to do this climb with someone made it much easier. We held a conversation the entire time to keep our minds distracted from the heat and the rocky terrain. It was almost effortless reaching the top, I would not have been able to do entire climb without a break if I hadn’t been hiking with Joshua. It really shows how strong our bodies truly are.

We do finally take a break for a minute once we get to the top. Behind us, the Sisters stand tall. It’s a beautiful scene. The heat is starting to get worse, I’m glad to have completed this section before midday. The other side is still exposed, another burn area.  Hikers are great sources of motivation for each other. Being with Joshua definitely made this stretch more enjoyable. With an FKT to complete, we parted ways. I might not see him the rest of my time on trail, but our paths will surely cross again in the future.

It’s time to reach our biggest milestone yet. For how massive of a moment this is for PCT hikers, I am less stoked the closer I get to it. I stop at mile 1999. Having had a long water carry, this small lake is a perfect place to stop for a minute. With nearly 2000 miles behind me I don’t want this trail to end so soon. This experience has been the single greatest adventure of my life. Knowing that I have less than a month left stresses me out. I am happier out here than anywhere else, and it scares me to lose that feeling. 2000 miles! Even with the stress, a smile is on my face. I am proud of myself, not many reach this point. 652 miles left, and we’re off!

Lions Head Fire Closure

We reach Sisters. part of the reason I am also a bit sad reaching this point is that for months now I have known that we would be forced to skip a small section of the trail. The Lions Head Closure has been on most hikers minds. It was supposed to have been open by now, but with legal complications, the process has been slowed down. It’s a long hitch around the closure, but not impossible. There are many amazing trail angels who bring hikers around this area so that we only have to skip what would only be a day and a half of trail. We spend a zero planning our approach. While some have decided to enter the closure, others are respecting it and taking the hitch.

It’s upsetting having to argue with friends I have made along the way on why we shouldn’t enter the closure. There are many reasons why this area is closed. The US Forest Service claims it is for safety reasons, but the reality is a long drawn out lawsuit has stalled the process of opening up sooner. Earlier this month the closure wasn’t as enforced, but with so many hikers entering the section, by the time we got there, rangers started cracking down and stopping hikers. While I might not agree with the political reasons the closure is still active, from an environmental conservationist point of a view I choose to not enter.

We should be respecting closures, even if a section is safe to enter, there are reasons why they exist. Having talked to many people about it in the last year, it is clear that in order to protect this wilderness from being mismanaged and destroyed, we need to side with environmentalist and indigenous groups who have fought to protect it from being clear cut. How we can do that is to not enter until the lawsuit is finally cleared and the trail is open. From what I can tell most this information is generally not as prevalent in the publics view. But when talking to the people fighting to protect this wilderness, like most topics that have to do with the environment, they are swept under the rug.

As thru-hikers, we need to be stewards of the trail. By choosing to ignore and disrespecting closures, it shows that we don’t care about the wilderness that we are lucky and blessed to be able to explore. This can be said about any trail or park. If we ever see a closed sign for a section of trail, do not enter. The full information on why that section of the trail is closed won’t always be as publicly available. There’s always a good reason. With just some extra research you would realize the true intentions of the stakeholders of that wilderness. In the case of the Lions Head Closure, information on why this section of trail was actually closed was swept under the rug to make certain stakeholders not look as bad. It’s a shame.

I choose to skip and with our amazing trail angels are able to get a hitch around as close to the closure as possible. I will return on a later date to explore this incredible wilderness. It’s sad to skip the Mount Jefferson, but ahead of us, one of my favorite sections of trail, my first mountain love, the place that introduced me to the PCT, the reason why I am out here. The journey continues.

Mount Hood and a Buffet

We are dropped off right outside Timothy Lake. It’s just a day away from Mount Hood! This wilderness is a special place for me. This is not my first time on the PCT. I have done many sections of trail before starting my thru-hike. Mount Hood was the first mountain I ever fell in love with. The excitement to be headed towards such a beautiful peak is visible on my face. While mile 2000 was bittersweet, rather than let it put me down, I instead told myself that I would enjoy every last minute of the trail no matter what. My trail name is Optimist Prime for a reason!

Deeper into the wilderness we go, the trail starts to turn right, and on my left an opening. There she is! Perfectly arrived for sunset, Mount Hood! I have been looking forward to this specific view since we entered Oregon. The trail is quiet. It’s just me and the mountain now in this moment. This wilderness is special. While Southern Oregon was flat, we are now in the true Cascades. The snow covered peak is the first of many incredible mountains we will experience from now until the end.

I night hike down to frog lake. It’s late and pitch black. Down the road, a major campground for the lake. A quick stop to grab some water, and back to the trail. There really isn’t a flat spot anywhere to get my tent up. Deeper into the forest I go, I finally find a tight forest service road. It’s not perfect but it will do. 11:30 PM. Probably the latest I have night hiked. It’ll be worth it. I’m only a short ways from the base of Hood, and a very special meal on the trail. I am excited for tomorrow.

It’s an early morning start. Today I finally reach Timberline Lodge. In terms of my personal life story, this place holds a special place in my heart. In 2018 I came here to present my undergrad project at the Eastern Pacific Ocean Conference. I had met many PCT hikers that year, and even spent part of my summer backpacking parts of the trail. Now I was back. I told myself I would return one day as a thru-hiker, here I was a couple years later.

This lodge is a perfect place to relax for a couple hours. It’s also home to an all you can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffet. I make it just in time for the lunch portion of the buffet. It’s time to dig in. This buffet is no match for our hiker hunger. Is this the best meal on trail? It is definitely in the running for it. The rest of the afternoon is spent resting in the beautiful lodge. We are close to the end of Oregon. In two we will reach the Bridge of the Gods. A substantial nap later, we are back on trail. The beautiful Mount Hood just above us. By far one of the most beautiful sections of trail.

Cascade Locks! Where my Dream Began

I reach my tent site for the night. Not necessarily the safest spot I have ever slept on, but it was totally worth it. A sandy cliff on the base of Mount Hood, with perfect view of Lassen, Adams, and Rainier! As the sun sets, the beautiful Cascades tower over the rest of the region. I can see Washington. This is the best cowboy camp spot on the trail! The stars slowly appear. Feels like home. I’m ready for the end, as much as it is sad to know we are almost done, in just one day we will enter our final state. I fall asleep to the sound of a waterfall below me.

The sun rises right behind me. A beautiful scene just like the night before. This cowboy spot was absolutely worth it. It is pretty much a full descent from here until the end of Oregon. As I prep to leave, Sorry, who I hadn’t seen in a couple weeks appears. I assumed he was in front of me, but it’s a nice surprise to see him. We continue down the trail, catching up since the last time we had seen each other.

We head towards the most popular alternate on the trail, the Eagle Creek Trail. It’s a quick shortcut that is absolutely worth it. The Columbia River Gorge is full of waterfalls, and one specific waterfall is the main reason why this alternate is so popular. Due to wildfires parts of this trail have been closed off for years, but this year it’s open! So of course we have to take it. The initial descent is definitely steep. SOBOs generally dislike this section of trail due to the intense climb, luckily we are going northbound.

There are so many waterfalls all around us, but Tunnel Falls is by far the most impressive. Its name says it all. Hikers enter a small tunnel that is right under a massive waterfall. Can you take the PCT, yes. But avoiding a large burn area to see beautiful waterfalls sounds way more interesting. The rest of the trail is a simple walk down to the parking lot. I am finally back to where it all began. This area is my favorite place in the entire US. I have been lucky enough to explore some incredible places, but the Columbia River Gorge is where I truly fell in love with the outdoors and the PCT.

Finally I have returned home, Cascade Locks, Oregon. This small town on the border of Oregon and Washington is the biggest reason why I am on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 2015 I first visited this town with family. I didn’t know what the PCT was. The landscape was incredible and I immediately fell in love. In 2017 after having backpacked for the first time in Northern California, and by happen chance part of the PCT, I returned here for a quick summer trip. A couple weeks later, the Eagle Creek Fire destroyed this gorgeous wilderness. I was saddened by the news and sought out ways to give back to the community. This is where I was introduced to the PCT and the amazing community of hikers. That was the moment I started dreaming about completing the entire trail. Cascade Locks is a special place, and it’s also where Trail Days occurs every year.

We have officially reached the end of Oregon. It’s time to rest.

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