Our message for this post is simple: the Pacific Crest Trail section through Washington is special. At least we think so. After five years of living in this state, there’s no place we’d rather be… except maybe somewhere warm and sunny during the thick of winter, but that’s beside the point. As soon as our feet crossed the Bridge of the Gods on the OR/WA border, we felt at home and excited to see new areas of the Cascade range.
Goat Rocks Wilderness
Even with our love for Washington in mind, we’re still able to admit that things start out a little underwhelming considering the hype of this section. But you’ve got to have faith! As you climb out of the Columbia River Gorge and towards Mount Adams, you’re mostly in the heart of a forest. Everything is green and lush. Streams are abundant but the views are limited. That is, until the trail takes you around the base of Mt. Adams, where you catch frequent glimpses of the 12,280 foot volcano. It’s easy to then think, “Huh, the guide books weren’t kidding.” Best of all, you’re just getting started.
Once Mt. Adams is in the rearview and you continue north, the next big landmark is Goat Rocks Wilderness. If you ask a PCT Thru-hiker what their favorite section is, 9 times out of 10 (maybe more! This is a made up figure after all) they will chant Goat Rocks – Goat ROCKS! Rather than over explain the spectacular nature of this place, I will shut up and let the pictures say it all.
This stretch has some of the best ridge walking on the entire PCT. Three volcanoes can be seen from one place, two of them looking equally massive from your vantage. Doesn’t this just make you want to dance?!
When a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker reaches Oregon it’s like putting on a fresh pair of trail runners. The air feels full of fresh oxygen (no stinky foot odor), the trail itself seems smoother, and the uphills are no big deal. Hikers that reach Oregon usually have one thing on their mind: it’s time to cruise! Remember, the mornings are meant for cooking miles, not oatmeal! When thru-hikers talk about hiking 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 miles in a single day, they’re usually bragging about some stretch they did in Oregon. There are two well-known trail challenges that some people embrace. The first one is to hike the entire state (450 miles) in 14 days, and the second challenge is to hike as many miles as possible within 24 hours.
We did neither challenge. But ended up hiking Oregon in a casual 16 days.
Sure, this is a state for hiking big miles, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty along the way. Crater Lake is one of our most memorable experiences on trail. To get to the viewpoint, you trudge uphill through a green tunnel, wondering when you’ll finally catch a glimpse. Once you break out of the trees, there’s this sandy walk to the caldera rim and GASP – before you is the bluest blue you have ever blued.
Tuna Butter hates walking on sand, absolutely despises it, but he was able to set that aside to walk the Rim Trail, catching amazing views of the lake. If you follow this alternate route (which you should), you’ll find yourself falling into step with national park visitors and day hikers. Can they smell you? Yes, most definitely. But at this point into the trail, what others perceive of you no longer matters.
In 2019, there were hella high levels of snow in the Sierra Mountain Range. The snowpack was at 176%, which left us Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers with a difficult decision to make: do we try to hike through the Sierra or figure out another option? Eventually, Tuna Butter and I settled on skipping 400 miles north into Northern California. This blog post picks up after that skip. You can learn more about what went into that decision-making process in our previous post “To Hike, Flip, Skip or Quit in the Snow Sierra?“
We jumped north into Truckee, California and set off on the PCT from Donner Pass (Mile 1157). We made the skip with a trail friend named Fish Addict. After a bus and a hitch, we set off in the early evening of the Summer Solstice.
It was inevitable that we’d hit snow. We were hiking this section earlier in the season than most thru-hikers. Because of this, we came prepared with our ice axes and microspikes. On a normal year, these items would be unnecessary for this section, but we were glad to have them.
Our original plan for day one was to stay at a hut on trail – one of the few rare ones along the entire PCT. We left Donner Pass separately from Fish Addict, fully intending to meet up that night. Right away, we were walking on several feet of snow. It was a pain to navigate through the thick forest with no trail markers. The GPS on our phones came in handy, as well as our own intuition. Surprisingly, we crossed paths with a SOBO (southbounder) who informed us that the Sierra Club had rented out the hut for the night and were not letting thru-hikers stay there, which was a major disappointment.
Instead, we found a spot to sleep on an exposed ridge. It was super windy but miraculously snow free. We texted Fish Addict with a plan to meet up the next day. Tuna Butter hardly slept that night and kept worrying that the wind would rip apart our tent. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (thanks Big Agnes!).
In the morning we passed the hut full of Sierra Clubbers, all warm and snuggly by their wood stove. I, Calypso, tried not to feel envious as I wore all of my warm layers to hike.
It’s not every year that you have to think about your options for the Sierra. But sometimes, the Sierra Mountain Range gets pummeled with snow and it does not melt away until late July or August. This can make for a difficult decision for a thru hiker.
When we started the trail (and probably like most thru hikers) we believed we would walk from one border of a country to another: Mexico to Canada. Our intention was to hike a single footpath covering 2650+ miles. We would not call ourselves “Purists”, and most hikers probably wouldn’t either, but there is an inherent attraction in hiking from a place to another in one continuous line – South to North, or North to South. So, as we neared the end of the desert section, we started analyzing our options for the foreboding Sierra Mountains ahead. Here is a bit of our thought process.
The Sierra were at 176% for their snowpack. That means it was 76% above normal, leaving us and many hikers in a bit of a pickle. Here is a peek at the back and forth that happened frequently among us:
“That snow is going to make navigation really tough.”
“Ya but how bad can it really be? We have Guthooks (navigation app) and paper maps.”
“Have you seen the pictures of people going over Forester Pass?!?”
“Ya but that was like 2 weeks ago, it should be better by the time we get there.”
“What about the raging river crossings?”
“Well, that’s just a part of hiking the PCT! We will be smart about it.”
“But what about the fact that I’m 5’3, pint-sized, and not a very good swimmer?” (Maybe more relevant to Calypso than others).
And you go on and on, trying to justify entering this no-joke of a mountain range. Remember, the trail takes you up to 12,000-14,000 feet in elevation. It’s tricky to make the decision by crowdsourcing, even if you talk to previous thru-hikers. The constant advice you will receive from others is “hike your own hike, man”. Which is good advice but you still have to figure out how to hike your own hike…man.
Here are some options we had to consider:
Hike through the Sierra, no matter the conditions.
Wait a few days, then a few more, maybe a week or two, and then hike through the Sierra.
Flip-flop (jump ahead and hike back in the opposite direction).
Skip the Sierra, keep hiking north, and return after reaching Canada.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? If so, we hope to give you an idea of what it is like with posts about each section of the trail.
In 2019, my boyfriend (Tuna Butter) and I (Calypso) hiked the PCT. The whole. damn. thing. And we learned a thing or two along the way. Hopefully this series – this so-called glimpse at “A Day in the Life of a PCT Thru-Hiker” – will provide some insight into what hiking the trail is like.
If not… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We hope to do a post each week first detailing the 5 different sections of the PCT: Desert, Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. We might intersperse some bonus and Q&A posts. For now, let’s start with the Desert section.
For the first 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, northbound hikers are subjected to the beauty and harsh conditions of the Southern California desert. The first few hundred miles are especially tough on the mind and body. Mentally, you have to adjust to packing up and unpacking your home every day, body aches, and to things like creepy spiders and various flavors of rattlesnakes. Also, your body isn’t used to walking 15-25 miles a day; many hikers get injured within a month or two of being on Trail. To avoid this, Tuna Butter and I intentionally hiked around 12-15 miles each day for two weeks. Of course, some twenties snuck their way in, but we tried to keep our egos at bay. It is important to listen to your body and not start too fast.
Note: Before I break down the average day-to-day, I wanted to bring up the conditions of 2019. It was an abnormally wet spring in California. April and May brought rain showers and cool, overcast days to SoCal. In the mountains, this translated to late season snowfall. We walked through snow in the High Desert. Filled our bottles up at unmarked streams. The wildflowers were also exceptional (yes, we got to experience the ‘Poppy Apocalypse‘).
In the desert, there were many instances of rain – once even snow. We know some folks who were able to hike the L.A. Aqueduct, a notoriously hot and exposed section, during the day… and with their puffy jackets on! However, in May we took several weeks off from Trail to go see family, and once we’d made it back to the trail things were not the same. Before we left, peak temps were around 80F. When we came back in June, it was a good twenty degrees hotter during the day. I’m talking over 100F in full sun, every day. Water was more limited, too. We had to quickly adapt to this change, carry more water, and take longer siestas.
Because of this break in time, I believe this post will provide a pretty accurate representation of the Desert section, even during a drier year.
Hey everyone! Amos and I… er, I mean “Tuna” and I have been hiking the PCT for two weeks. That’s right, Amos is now Tuna (T-Butter, Big Tuna, Tuna Butter) and my trail name is Calypso. Why is he Tuna?
Because he eats tuna and peanut butter wraps for lunch. No joke, that mixture does not seem pleasant to anyone but himself.
I am Calypso because I wear various hues of blue and charm men into hiking long trails with me (cue the obscure Greek mythology reference). Today we’re taking our first “zero day,” meaning a day without hiking, since beginning this thru-hike. As I am writing, it is cold and raining outside – nonstop – and a climb up to 10,000ft awaits us in the morning. I do not envy those who are currently on trail, huddled together at high altitude.
The desert, though hot and humbling, is beautiful.
I am amazed by the day-to-day and the process of acclimating to a new biosphere. While neither of us have gotten blisters (knock on wood), we’ve faced numerous challenges difficult to predict. Like, my horrific bout of chaffing from too-tight of shorts and an aggravated wisdom tooth. I cried. Yes, I cried big fat tears having to hike nineteen miles, enduring repetitive friction from nylon on my thighs. The next day, in order to hike out of the mountains, I wore a see-through tank top as a skirt and simply stopped caring about what others might think. Overcoming my pain was number-one priority. Once in town, everything seemed to go right, through ways imbued in magic.
These hiccups, and more, have gotten us a little off schedule. But then again, what is a schedule out here anyway? We’ve averaged 12 mile days over the past two weeks, and our initial goal was to take it slow to avoid physical injury, hiking 10-15 mile days. This next week we plan to pick up the pace. I cannot tell where exactly this antsy feeling is coming from, but I want to get moving. I love making a simple, daily goal and meeting it. That for me is success while hiking. It is also exciting to start the morning in a distinct place, hike, work through the inevitable pain of exhausted limbs, hike, and wind up in a new environment around bedtime. There is an inherent sense of delight in moving through a landscape at human pace, watching the scenery change around you by the hour and being able to track how far you’ve gone in the horizon. At least for me, anyway.
I only have 10-minutes left on the library computer, so enjoy the photos below!
For five days we stayed with Amos’ brother Sam and his wife Lynné in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. During our stay we prepped gear and food for our first stretch of the PCT and hiked in Saguaro National Park, thanks to a stellar recommendation from a Triple Crown thru-hiker and employee at the local gear shop.
Below are photos from the 8-mile trek to Wasson Peak (elevation 4,687 feet), on the ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham people.
We were very lucky to see the desert in bloom after an abundance of winter rain and snow.
Here’s one of my favorites, the desert Mariposa lily.
pink hedgehog cactus
Prickly pears cactus
The day before the trail we experienced a bit of an unexpected adventure… Sam’s initial plan was for us to have a chill first half of the day in Tucson, and then at noon we’d drive from Arizona to California to camp 20 minutes from the trailhead. That would set us up for an early start the next day, our first day on the PCT(!), and Sam would get to see Scout – a trail angel he knows from thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.
In March, I completed my Master’s degree in Environmental Education – woohoo! While I am happy to be a recent graduate, there are definitely confusing / conflicting feelings as I navigate the transition into #traillife. This past week we packed away most of our possessions into a 5×5 storage unit and said goodbye to life with our amazing roomie. Now, we’re living out of my car until we fly to AZ, and then we’ll catch a ride with Amos’ brother to the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail to begin our thru-hike attempt.
Before we moved out of the house, I laid out all of the gear I’ll start with, captured in the photo above. We also created an Instagram story about our food and resupply strategy – you can view that here! In my experience, your taste buds change drastically during a thru-hike, which is why we made only three resupply boxes beforehand. In Oregon and Washington, when we walk through nice big towns with nice big grocery stores, we’ll make boxes to send ahead. Some folks have voiced their desire to send us a box, too. If you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll share our itinerary with ya!
Snow in the Sierras!
It is a big snow year in the Sierras. Postholer.com has been a useful resource in realizing just how much snow there is!
Trail snow, not snowpack, is 154% of average. Their “Sierra Entry Indicator” currently estimates that hikers won’t be heading north of Kennedy Meadow until June 27, which is a solid month after our estimated arrival. So…who knows what this will mean for our thru-hike! It is not just snowpack we have to worry about, but unsafe river crossings from melting snow. Our plan B as it stands will be to skip that section, finish the rest of the trail and then go back to hike the Sierras after reaching Canada, partaking in what is known as a “flip flop.” While it is not ideal – and a bit of a logistical nightmare (!) – safety is our number one priority and who am I to complain about the weather? California NEEDS that snowpack.
With all of this in mind, Amos, our friend Marissa, and I practiced self-arrests with our ice axes to get mentally pumped for snow traverses, and to dial in the motions as muscle memory. My Floridan-childhood did not prepare me for snow, let alone falling down snow. I can easily count on one hand how many times I have gone sledding in my life (the answer is three). That makes self-arrest practice real interesting!
Starting Base Weight
On a final note, my base weight to start is 12lbs – a number that I admit is higher than I wanted, but still pretty freaking light. Right now I’m debating whether or not a Kindle e-reader and camp shoes are worth the 12.81 oz! My starting weight on the Appalachian Trail was around 16-18lbs. In the five years since, I’ve upgraded my gear closet significantly, and can thank having a job, living below my means, and the time to monitor discounts for the ability to do so.
You can view the rest of my items here (list is subject to change as I ditch or trade out items). In the past year I have spent $427.50 to upgrade “The Big Stuff,” meaning my sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and the tent I’ll share with Amos. This money cut many lbs from my pack’s base weight; I bought all of these items on sale or through Reddit, so if you buy these items new and at regular price it will cost more. For all other gear purchases, I spent around $310. Most of the items I have listed were purchased over the past six years or gifted from friends and family. Hopefully this is helpful in you figuring out the cost of a thru-hike, or if you’re interested in upgrading gear for lighter options.
Now, Amos and I are sitting at a library in British Columbia – remember, I said we’re location independent for a while! I’m still trying to figure out how to spend my time now that I am out of grad school… Oh, what will I read?? Anywho, the sun is shining and that means we better get outside!
Bright blue camas flowers, yellow buttercups, scarlet paintbrush, chocolate lilies, and tall grasses swayed back and forth from the wind across the hillsides of Yellow Island. Phil Green, the Nature Conservancy Caretaker of the island for the past twenty years stated, “This is the second best bloom I have seen in all my time here.”
We were lucky. The whole island was in bloom. Birds were singing. The sun shining bright, and the beautifully-restored 1934 wooden sailboat in which we’d sailed on was anchored 300 yards from shore, waiting for our group’s journey back to Anacortes.
For the weekend of May 5-6, 2018, a group of North Cascades Institute supporters and I set sail on the Orion, a vintage yawl owned by Deep Green Wilderness and captained by Kevin Campion. Our mission was to embark on a natural history field-excursion in the San Juan Islands to see seabirds, marine mammals, island wildflowers, and yes, the prickly-pear cactus: the only cactus species native to Western Washington.
One moment it’s sunny and then the next moment it’s raining. And then later in the day, rain is falling on sunshine. That is what spring is like here in the North Cascades. Below are photos and entries from my journal of the last month, documenting the Skagit Valley’s seasonal transition into spring. I hope you find something worthwhile in my daily observations, and have had the chance to get outside and note changes yourself! Enjoy.
April 1st: There has been a notable increase in birdsong around the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. As I walk around, I see flocks of Varied thrushes (Lxoreus naevius), robins (Turdus migratorius), and Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) hopping across trails. The other day, I heard Golden-crowned kinglet song ringing from the tops of evergreen trees by the Peninsula trail, and the cackle of a Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).
April 2nd: This morning I awoke to unexpected silence in Marblemount. I didn’t hear the usual birds sing, and there was no sound of rain on the metal roof of the cabin. With a cup of hot tea in hand, I peeked out the window and saw fresh snow blanketing the Earth. It was astounding – I had not expected there to be any snowfall overnight! After momentary awe, I worried about the climbing trip I had planned for the day. Friends and I were going to drive down valley to climb at Mt. Erie. Anacortes was predicted to be sunny and 50F – perfect for one’s first outdoor climb of the year!
I hoped for the best despite the weather. It snowed during the drive down to Rockport State Park. When I stepped out of the car, and walked through the groomed fields by the parking lot, I saw Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) in bloom. Its white flowers contradicted, yet resembled, the white mineral covering the ground. I pressed my nose into its pale, crushed up leaves in my palm and inhaled a cucumber fragrance. To me, these flowers – this plant – represents warmer days ahead.
As I continued the drive down Highway 20, Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) flitted back and forth across the road, and dark clouds began to part. Soon snow turned into rain, and then rain turned into sunshine around Sedro-Woolley. I looked back on the Cascade foothills to the east to see a veil of grey clouds covering their rounded summits. Towards the Salish Sea, the good ole’ Olympic Rainshadow was in full effect, with sunlight shining down on the prominent hill of Mt. Erie.