Backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail
The Outdoor Adventures of Jondolar
This hub page is for those who, for whatever reason, do not have the opportunity to plan and experience such an adventure. Urban dwellers who've never been out of their city, house bound or physically disabled, or those who just have never had the interest in such physically demanding exercise the activity of backpacking requires, this page is for you. It is also for those who may have been fortunate to do the same as I have. I hope this encourages those still young enough, to consider and act on trying backpacking; as it can be very enjoyable if you're prepared for it. I encourage those who read this hub page to write me and share their questions or experiences; I love conversing with people about my passions.
The first part of this hub will be about my early experiences with hiking and backpacking. Later, I will share my experiences of trips I've taken after several years passed, I'd finished raising my children, and I was able to take an annual trip with a long-time friend who also enjoys backpacking. As I progress through this piece, pictures will be added of the more recent trips. Some of them are breathtakingly gorgeous scenery. Be patient, they will come.
Chapter 1 -
As a youth, I was encouraged to become a Cub Scout, and then a Boy Scout as I grew from an elementary aged boy to a high school student. The friendships made and the values it incorporated, along with the encouragement to strive beyond one's tendency to be lazy, were character builders which, to this day, have shaped my views and conduct. I'm grateful for having had this experience growing up.
One of the functions of scouting is to apply skills learned in the meeting hall to the outdoors. Some were survival type skills - orienteering, cooking, first aid - while others were geared toward the appreciation of nature and our environment. Consequently, going on hikes was an integral part of the outdoor experience. As a younger scout, we were limited to short one day excursions of about 6 or 8 miles or less. However, as we grew and gained experience to prove our ability to endure longer distance hikes, we were eventually allowed to go on weekend outings of up to 20 miles.
This 20 miler, as we liked to call it, was an annual event held as a "qualifier" for those old enough to go on a summer 50 mile trek in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. The age break point was 14. It was explained to us that as we were on this 20 mile hike the troop leaders would be watching those old enough to go on that summer's 50 miler to see whether or not they felt we were ready to handle the rigors of the week long trip.
The year before I was old enough to qualify, our 20 miler was up and over what were called "The Palisades"; a range of mountain bluffs to the east of the northern most town of Calistoga in the Napa Valley. This trek ended at a ranch in the Chiles Valley and was essentially a jeep trail used by deer hunters during hunting season. I was all excited to be going on an overnighter and had visions of finding a hidden treasure in a cave, or something exicting like that.
The first several miles were steep uphill terrain and it was rough on those scouts who were, to be politically correct, "physically challenged". Several stops were necessary and the water disappeared from the canteens faster than was prudent. We were in an area where there were few streams reliable enough to be used for refilling them. By mid-afternoon we'd gained about a thousand feet and began skirting along the top of the rock bluffs which gave the area its name. The scenery was nice, as we could look south down the length of the Napa Valley with all of its newly budding vineyards spread out across the valley floor. Eventually we left the view behind and came to an area adequate for setting up camp with the 30 or so scouts in our group.
After settling into our camp and setting up our tents in what we believed were appropriate locations, dinner was next on the agenda. This was where we had the opportunity to show how well we'd planned for this critical experience. While some pulled out cans of beans, or boxes of pasta to cook over the fire, others had a potato wrapped in aluminum foil with the "fixins" in separate containers to flavor it. Those who didn't plan well, or had little experience with those items which proved better to bring than others, suffered later in the evening from either hunger, or gastric disturbances which made for lots of giggles and laughing.
Naturally, certain groups formed into enclaves of campfires as the sun set and dark decended upon our site. Story telling and joke sharing was usually the order of the evening. Often there was the contest to see who could tell the scariest story to get everyone freaked out about any unfamiliar sound that could be detected outside of camp. Some of us ventured out away from the camp site to get away from the lights of the fires so that we could look up in awe at the beauty of the stars that sparkled in the pitch black sky. What we didn't have any clue about the monster that was slowly surrounding us; preparing to strike in the middle of the night as we slumbered.
As mid-night approached, some groups turned into their sleeping bags and began to "saw wood", or dream. After a while the die-hards, or more seasoned scouts, turned in as well, and silence fell on the camp. However, after a few hours, everyone was awakened by the crashing of thunder and a rainstorm fell upon us in a sudden deluge. Within minutes, even the smallest depression in the ground became a rushing rivulett of muddy water. Even the ground covers we'd placed on the ground underneath us was of ineffectual. Everyone who hadn't already put up a rain tarp over their sleeping bag, or tent, was soaked within minutes.
At 3:00 AM, the troop leaders assessed the situation and the command was given to pack up our gear as best we could and begin making our way along the remaining trail toward our rendezvous point for pickup the next day. With a lot of whining and groaning about the sad state of our very uncomfortable condition we slogged along for what seemed like hours on end. Several flashlights' beams quickly fizzled out and there was an occasional stumble over an unsuspected rock that was either loose, or embedded into the trail surface. We plodded along reluctantly as our feet ached, muscles screamed silently and our bodies shivered from the cold wind. As daylight began to break, it was gradually revealed to everyone just how bad our situation was. Several of us had every imaginable thing protruding out of our backpacks; sleeping bags that were soaked, plastic tarps, cook gear was dangling from every conceivable attachment point, even some of us were just dragging stuff through the mud.
While a few of us were "troopers" who didn't say much, there were those who wouldn't quit griping and whining. It seemed as though we would never reach out destination. Eventually we did make it to our pickup point and everyone just dropped in their tracks. Unknown to us, our troop leader had appointed one of the other adults in our group to go back down the trail the way we'd come up the day before and get word to the parents who were going to meet us that next afternoon. This got them there in the morning, not long after we arrived; much to the relief of everyone. Some of the parents were shocked to learn how filfthy we were. Fortunately, there were enough pickup trucks to take all of the muddy gear into the back beds and the cars we rode home in had to be cleaned out after we got back home.
The following summer, those eligable to go on the 50 miler left in July and treked their miles on the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows on the east end of Yosemite National Park, south to near Lake Edison in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The following month after their return, one of our troop meetings was spent watching a slide show of their trip. With every new slide that came up on the screen, my desire to be part of next year's group increased. The scenery was spectacular, with elevations averaging 10,000 feet. The boulders of granite rock, the incredibly numerous and beautiful lakes, with their deep blue and crystal clear waters, that dotted the landscape, all called to me. This section I wasn't able to go on was the first of five 50 mile stretches the troop was taking over a five year span.
Over the next year, I made sure I would be ready the next spring for the 20 miler. I went out for cross-country in the fall and track in the spring. Our 20 miler was in some wilderness area in northern California along the coastal range and it went well. Driving the logging roads wasn't too fun though, as we nearly go hit head-on by a logging truck barreling around a curve in the forest road with banks of dirt on both sides. In order to avoid it, the adult driving had to steer up onto the bank to get off the road in time to avoid the collision.
The following four summers were looked forward to each year as we covered the next 50 mile section toward Mt. Whitney; the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The experience was memorable and enjoyable, but not without difficulties. Then, my life changed drastically - for I had graduated from high school and I joined the Air Force. While my distance running would go on for several more years, my backpacking went on hold for two decades.
Chapter 2 -
Jumping forward in our time machine, we move ahead 20 years. During one winter, I got in touch through email with Bill; a high school friend of my wife's who had been our wedding photographer. Bill was an avid backpacker through his high school years as well. When my wife and I were newly wed, Bill had attempted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, but it didn't work out for him. Through our communications I learned that he still desired to do sections of the PCT and was wondering if I was interested in being his partner. He proposed we take a week's period during the summer (I'm a teacher and he's a freelance writer) and we'd decided on a section of trail somewhere in one of the three west coast states the trail goes through.
I knew immediately where I wanted to go for the first section; the first part of the John Muir Trail that my troop had gone on when I was still too young. While I had done the other for out of five, this would allow me to do the one part I'd not been able to do, and finally complete the whole trail. Bill agreed that was a good choice, so we set about making our plans. Through the spring months I got myself out and began walking; at first only about 20 minutes during the first week, and gradually increased that time over the weeks as the weather got better. Eventually I was going out for up to 1.5 hours with a loaded backpack.
Finally, the day came to drive south from Seattle, WA to Modesto, CA; a two day trip at least. After making our rendezvous, we set off on the trail to begin our seven day trek. We started out at Lake Edison with an elevation of 6,500 feet and decided to take the trail along the lake to join the PCT; then head north. The sky was crystal clear and the sun was bright throughout it travel across the sky. We climbed gradually throughout the 11 miles we planned to cover that day; stopping occassionaly to rest, drink and cool off in the creek. Finally reaching Silver Pass at 11, 500 feet elevation, we dropped in our tracks and didn't move for over an hour. I'd never felt closer to death than this. After forcing myself to eat and regain some strength, we set up our tent, spread out our sleeping bags, and proceeded to sleep.
As soon as the sunlight began to come up over the nearby ridge, we got up, had breakfast, and loaded our gear up to head off on the trail north. Descending the switchbacks, serpentine like sections of trail that go back and forth down steep terrain, the view of our day's destination was visible in the distance. We continued north through a valley and along Fish Creek, past Tully Hole and then up another set of switchbacks onto another ridge. This brought us to Virginia Lake, a fairly large pristine high elevation lake of around 10,500 feet. It was here at the lake that we had our lunch and rested for about a half hour. I took my boots off and stuck my feet in the icy water to cool them off. This was a sign of things to come later in the trip.
Just before reaching our camp for the night, we arrived at a vantage point which gave us a vista of the mountain range to the south where we'd begun the day's trek. It was amazing to see just how much territory we'd covered in about 8 hours. Deer Creek was our camp site for that night. It was nothing very special, just a spot along the trail where the creek crossed its path and there was enough level open area to pitch the tent. Bill and I used our water purifier filters to refresh our supply and prepare our evening meal. As soon as dark decended upon us, we were into our sleeping bags and unconcious. The mid-night excursion to relieve our bladders was not as chilly at this time of year as it could be.
The next day had us going through some old growth forest where the trees were obviously several centuries old due to the circumference of their trunks. Immediately after the old growth forest, the trail broke out into area where a fire had apparently ravaged it years ago from a lightning strike. Finally, at mid-day, we arrived at Reds Meadow. This is the closest to civilization we would come during the trip. This resort, established nearly 100 years ago, was a collection of a general store and several little log cabins nestled amongst some old growth forest. It was connected by a road out to the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We sat down in the cafe off from the general store and enjoyed a prepared meal while we could.
After a phone call home to our women, we set off north on the trail. Only a few miles along the way was a well known geological feature called Devil's Post Pile. This unique feature of columnar basalt is created by the crystal content in the basalt lava as it cools. My heels of both feet were beginning to give indications that hot spots, or blisters, were developing. Moleskin, used to cover the sensitive areas from further rubbing, was applied. After some pictures and a brief rest, we pressed on along the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Spotting a nice camp site on the opposite side, we waded across. Upon setting up camp, we spent some daylight exploring up and down the river to take in the beautiful scenery.
The next morning we broke camp early and headed off on the trail; continuing north toward Thousand Island Lake. On the way we passed Shadow Lake to the west and off in the distance across the valley. Since we were traveling along the east side of the valley, it was a beautiful vista off to our left. By the end of the day we arrived at Thousand Island Lake with Banner Peak looming in the background. We made camp and spent some time exploring around the lake. Jon took his boots off and let his feet soak in the cool water. Despite his belief that his new boots had been sufficiently broken in, the gradually worsening of his heel problem was telling him otherwise. Ibeuprofin was the best he had with him for dealing with the problem.
The following morning we struck off for Donahue Pass; another 11,000+ elevation point. During one of our rest stops we had an unexpected event occur which would be explained later. Two mules went by us without any pack gear on back toward Reds Meadow. After a couple more hours of slogging up and up the trail, we finally reached the summit of Donahue Pass and took another break. I was doing everything I could to keep putting one foot in front of another while nursing highly sensitive heels. Continuing on at mid-day, we began the decent over the other side of the pass and down switchbacks that didn't make the difficulty I was having any better. Our goal was to make it down to the floor of Lyle Canyon before sunset.
We made it onto the floor of Lyle Canyon as daylight was ebbing. As we began looking for a place to camp, a rider on horseback came past us and asked if we'd seen any loose mules. "Yes, they passed us on the other side of the pass and were headed toward Thousand Island Lake." we replied. "Damn, they've gone back to Reds Meadow again." the rider said. "Is that where they came from?" we asked. "Yes, we started out from there a couple of days ago and this is not the first time they've done this." he said. "Thanks!" he said as he rode off up the trail.
Knowing tomorrow was our final day on the trail before reaching our vehicle, we cooked and ate any extra food that we hadn't consumed yet, so as to lighten our burden for the final assault. As we settled in for the night, we could occasionally hear the mules or horses moving around in the nearby camps. Some people prefer renting mules and hauling all their gear on muleback to cover distances of trail to have an adventure, but you don't encounter them too often on the PCT.
On the last day, Bill went ahead on the trail as I hobbled along at a slower pace; hurting badly from my tender heels. We agreed he would get the car ready and wait for me. After about a flat 10 miles of very dry and dusty trail, we reached the parking lot in Tuolumne Meadows where our vehicle was and we celebrated the completion of our 76 mile trek over 7 days for the summer of 2001. I spent the next couple of weeks nursing my heels back to normalcy.
More to come soon...
Other Hubs by Jondolar
- Jondolar's 1974 Boston Marathon Experience
One of Jondolar's accomplishments was competing in the Boston Marathon the same year Bill Rogers won it. For those who run marathons, this is a motivating hub that will inspire you to train to qualify and for your own experience.
- Jondolar's '86 Successful Sumit of Mt. Rainier
For those lovers of the outdoors and challenges, as well as adventurous types, you won't want to miss this hub; complete with interesting pictures of the event.
- Jondolar's 97 Mile Trek on the PCT in '02
Covering 97 miles in seven days on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail of Washington State, Jondolar recounts the experience with beautiful pictures taken by his friend, Bill Sharpsteen.
- Jondolar's '05 Crater Lake Trek in Oregon State
His third backpack trek of 76 miles in 5 days past gorgeous Crater Lake; complete with beautiful pictures taken by his hiking buddy, Bill Sharpsteen.