Trail Tales #2 – NorCal, The Remix

Given its famed reputation, it felt crazy to split the Northern California (NorCal) section of the PCT into two parts – one to be completed in the month of June and the other, in the latter half August. Rather than completing it in one go, we’d be experiencing the “NorCal Blues” once with the expectation of returning to the abyss later in the season. However, this was the decision that best fit the No Trace Trails project and thus, our flip flop journey began.

Following a 10 day break from the trail in late May, a chunk of my desert tramily decided to restart our journey in Chester.

How it was back then (NOBO from Chester)

The last time we stood on the highway near Chester marked the beginning of the most chaotic section of the hike yet. The snow was high and the weather, unpredictable. Comments on Far Out were few and far between and as we walked towards Lassen National Park, it truly felt as if we were exploring a new frontier. In the coming weeks, we would see the good and the bad that the trail had to offer. To spare you the details here’s a quick summary:

Puffy in Lassen NP, tackling one of the most sketchy river crossings that we’ve seen on trail to-date. The log was slippery and the kicked in steps above the log were starting to give. There were no other safe options for crossing.

The Bad

I’m going to give you the crazy side of things first to better highlight the good.

Snow travel in NorCal was intense at times. Ice axes were used often and postholing became an Olympic sport. Navigation through untouched areas lead to long days, leaving us exhausted and our phones, dead.

At one point, everyone in the tramily had been sick with a nasty cold. This lead to a string of slow days and bailouts with zeros in an attempt to recover. I personally spent two days off near Mt. Shasta to kick the sick. Two weeks after that, I picked up an illness that left me stopping to dig catholes at a minimum of 3 times a day and when it was all said and done, I had lost 13 pounds within a month’s time.

The day before the summer solstice was exceptionally challenging. Upon unzipping our tents in the morning, we were greeted by a snowstorm and throughout the day, things continued to go downhill. Many of us slipped and fell, hard. At one point, I dislocated my shoulder while self arresting and relocated it with the help of my friends. This was traumatic for everyone involved, but we were grateful that the issue was resolved and I was functional. Following this we walked through thick, wet brush for hours. Needless to say that by the end of the day, morale was low. Luckily, this day was followed by a very needed town day and birthday celebration in Seid Valley.

Tabs looking majestic in the snowstorm about an hour before I dislocated my shoulder.

The Good

The northernmost 360 miles of California had some of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever laid eyes on. We had views of Mt. Shasta – the first volcano we would see on trail – for what felt like weeks. To add to the views, as eerie as they were, the burn scars here possessed a certain beauty.

Puffy and Juice at our campsite with Mt. Shasta in the background.

Our tramily enjoyed time around eachother and as we got closer to Oregon, found more hikers to be around. Sunrise was early and sunset was late, affording us the time to spend long hours in conversation.

Something about the communities we visited around this area of NorCal was special. People here were kind and helpful, which is something I’ll say more about later.

How it is now (SOBO from Chester)

In mid-August, we stood on the same highway near Chester and walked the opposite way – south. The five of us who had been here before were here again, standing in the rain. Of course as we started to walk, we were greeted by a marsh crossing no more than half a mile into the trail.

“Welcome back,” said NorCal.

Crossing a marsh near Chester – the best way to be re-welcomed into NorCal after spending time in the magical lands of Oregon and Washington.

Despite our nerves, things in this section of the trail felt more peaceful. Following the chaos of PCT Trail Days, heading into this quiet space was much appreciated. Unexpectedly, it stayed this way and our hike from Chester to Echo Lake was smooth sailing. To elaborate, I’ll give you a similar good/bad summary from above.

The Bad

Not much was bad, honestly. I think at this point in the trail, myself and the people around me are a bit worn out. Some minor injuries have popped up, but everyone is generally healthy, a stark change from the first round of NorCal.

The Good

There was a lot of good!

In this section, we slowly transitioned out of the Cascade Range and into the Sierras! From day to day, it felt like we could observe changes in the landscape around us. More alpine lakes appeared and snow covered granite peaks popped up in the background. Entering Desolation Wilderness felt like coming home because we finally entered the section we had been dreaming of since arriving in Kennedy Meadows South.

Puffy getting excited about Fountanills Lake in Desolation. We were hoping to swim but with the wind, it was a bit cold.

The change in terrain was accompanied by a shift in the weather. Cooler days and nights have added extra, heavier items to our packs but have also provided relief on some of the longer uphill climbs. Day by day, fall is approaching and I have been loving it.

There were multiple exciting food stops recently. In Sierra City, we ordered breakfast burritos the size our heads. At Donner Ski Ranch we loitered for hours after receiving our free, 40oz beers. To top it off, my tramily member, Dilly Dally, packed out pizza to surprise us with trail magic.

A special commentary on NorCal trail towns

In 2250 miles over three states, I’ve experienced generosity and love from many trail towns, but the communities in NorCal were the best of the best. In Seid Valley we shared dinner and stories with residents, Etna was structured around hiker needs, and the mining town of Sierra City welcomed us with open arms. Yet, this short list only captures a few of the wonderful places that we were so lucky to visit.

I’d like to take a minute to specifically highlight the magic that is the city of Quincy. If there was ever a trail town that made sure hikers were taken care of, it is this place right here. Within 10 minutes of reaching the trailhead, the first car that passed picked us up to take us into town and provided a few beers en route. After arriving in town, we walked past “The Toy Store,” and although the store was closing, the owner excitedly pressed his face against the glass and motioned for us to come inside. Admittedly, we had arrived in town without a plan beyond resupplying, but once we walked into the store, the whimsy of Quincy carried us away. What followed was unimaginable; we were gifted free ice cream (for the small price of signing The Toy Store’s hiker log), a community dinner at the Methodist Church, and a place to stay with Trail Angel Pounder. The next morning, we found our way across town via the complimentary bus and immediately found a hitch up to the trailhead. For all of this, I would like to send a big hug to the community of Quincy and recommend that PCT hikers put this town down on the list of “must do’s.”

A new appreciation for NorCal

Currently, I’m at the end of the NorCal section drinking a beer in South Lake Tahoe. I never imagined that returning to finish the hardest section I had tackled so far would feel like coming home. I’m glad that the “NorCal Blues” stayed away in round two and even feel grateful to this region for welcoming me back with open arms.

Today, we’re updating our maps and heading into the Sierras! This will be the last section of our hike, which is full of mixed emotions. In some ways, I look forward to returning to society (i.e. real food and sleeping in a bed every night) but in others, returning home at the end of September seems intimidating. For now, I’ll enjoy my final nights under the stars and bask in the beauty of the Sierra Nevada.

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