The PCT Midpoint
As we got closer and closer to Donner Pass, I started to see all of the warning signs that starting from there was not such a good idea. There was lots of snow visible on the mountains south of Interstate 80. However, I kept these concerns to myself. After saying my goodbyes to Alena, I headed off down the trail. Or should I say up the trail, as the first major milestone was Castle Pass. Not long afterwards, I encountered the first significant snow. Gradually, it turned into 100% coverage with the trail buried several feet below. Nevertheless, I made my way to Castle Pass to see what conditions were like on the other side. At the Pass I quickly scanned the distances and saw the conditions did not improved for as far as I could see. At that point I made a call to Alena to let her know I needed to abandon my plans and find another entry point.
We returned to Truckee where we researched alternative entry points. In the end we thought the trail head near Sierra City looked like a good option. To confirm our thinking we took a quick ride to the trail head. It was indeed snow free. So the following day I set off north out of Sierra City.
Just as I had hoped the trail was free of snow and the day was bright and sunny. The PCT in this part of California winds through vast, seemingly endless forests that stretch all the way to the Oregon border and beyond. I expected the forests, but what I did not anticipate were the extensive mountain ranges in this part of California. Of course, they are not as high as the Sierras, but the views were still impressive.
I bopped along the trail without a care in the world for the majority of the day until suddenly I crossed a saddle to the north side of a ridge and encountered patches of snow. Soon these patches turned into almost 100% coverage with the trail buried below. As I proceeded I was constantly losing the trail and then finding it again with the aid of the GPS on my cell phone. Along the way there were also sections that required a traverse in the snow field across a steep section. A missed step would have landed me down the snowy slope a hundred feet or more. By the end of the first day, I had hiked far enough to reach the end of the ridge and snow, or so I thought.
The second day started off much as the first, clear sunny skies and no snow on the trail. Again, my hopes were dashed when I crossed over to the north side of a ridge and encountered a mile or two stretch of the trail covered in deep snow. Just like the previous day, the trail was buried below totally obscuring it. This time, I recognized faint foot prints that were fading away as the snow melted. But in the bright morning light, I was able to follow them easily. Every now and again, I checked my GPS to verify I was roughly following the line of the trail. After an hour or so and a few more traverses across steep snow covered slopes, I was through with the snow and did not encounter any more all the way to Dunsmuir.
Having never experienced this part of California up close an personal, I was totally impressed by the beauty of the forest and how isolated it was from the hustle and bustle you think of in the big cities you associate with the most populated state in the union. During the first three days I didn't meet any other hikers, and only spoke with a couple people who were doing trail maintenance in a remote section. Being so isolated from civilization was a pleasant and welcome surprise.
The first "city" I encountered was the little town of Belden, which was about 100 miles up the trail from Sierra City. This metropolis has 100 or so residents and a couple stores. While there I stayed at a free campsite and resupplied at a local restaurant/store. My other resupply stops at Old Station and Burney were much the same.
In addition to the forests there were two other spectacular sights along the trail that were in view much of the time. The first was Mount Lassen and the other was Mount Shasta. Both were pure white with snow and both were visible for many many miles. In one section I could see Lassen behind me and Shasta in front. These two reference points served as my guideposts for a couple hundred miles. Many times I just had to stop and take in the magnificence of these two beauties.
Does a bear s--- in the woods? Yes!!! Not long after I began hiking this section of the PCT I came across scat piles confirming there were bears in the woods. One afternoon I was walking along when I heard a large swarm of bees. They were circling in front of me over the trail ahead. After a moment I decide to walk slowly through the swarm as I believed they would not attack me if I stayed calm. Feeling proud that I bravely walked right through the swarm of bees, I was suddenly shocked to see a large brown bear run past me from the right and race down the trail. My guess is that the bear was eating honey from a bee hive beside the trail and was startled when I came along.
The following day I had another bear encounter. This time I heard what sounded like a large animal running through the bushes and quickly climbing a tree. Of course, my first thought was that it was another bear. When I looked in the direction of the commotion, all I saw was a large tree. A few seconds later a brown bear peered around the side of the tree and stared directly at me. After moment or two, it quickly climbed down and ran into the the forest. In the days that followed I encountered four more black and brown bears.
While I was resupplying in the small community of Old Station I met Jim, a volunteer PCT section maintenance coordinator. As we were chatting about the trail and the great work he and his team were doing, I mentioned my plans to continue hiking to Canada. Being very familiar with the trail and snow condition in the northwest, he recommended I reconsider my plans. Jim said the northwest had gotten above average snowfall this past winter and I was certain to encounter endless miles of snow if I proceeded into Oregon and Washington. Instead, he recommended I return to Lone Pine and reenter the PCT where I left. He said that the snow in the Sierras was melting fast and I shouldn't have too much difficulty. Based upon his advice, I decided once again to adjust my plans. When I got to Dunsmuir, I would return to Lone Pine and hike the Sierras.