July 26 to August 11
I first noticed the black helicopters in Northern California, just as I was leaving the Marble Mountains Wilderness. They were transporting suspicious-looking packages and no doubt spying on me. Actually, although its hard to tell from the picture (it was taken from quite a distance), that’s a big bucket beneath the helicopter. They were fighting forest fires. The smoke from the fires didn’t become noticeable until a couple days later, the day before I crossed into Oregon. And from then on it was a constant part of life, while occasionally it was just a thin haze, at times visibility was down to a hundred feet or less. It prevented good views of Mt. McGlaughlin and of Shasta from the north – I couldn’t see anything at all from Pilot Rock. The smoke lasted for more than a week before I hiked clear of it beyond Crater Lake (locals at Crater Lake said the day before I got there was the worst they had ever seen in twenty years of living there). I only saw Crater Lake briefly before the afternoon winds changed and blew in and made it seem like I was looking down on thick bank of clouds from an airplane. Although at times the smoke got in my throat and the inability to see anything got frustrating, there were some fine moments – the sunsets were often amazing and some mornings the smoke covered distant hills with a fog-like blanket.
In Ashland I met up with my folks and took my first full rest day in more than 1200 miles. It was weird, sleeping with an actual roof over my head, wandering around in an actual city (okay, so Ashland probably doesn’t have even 25,000 people, but that’s a lot after being in the woods for five weeks). We saw two plays, MacBeth and Julius Caeser, ate lots of food, did some resupplying and mostly just relaxed. That being said, in Ashland one of the most surprising coincidences I’ve experienced recently happened…
In the lobby after seeing Julius Caeser I was going against the exiting crowd, heading toward the restroom, when I was grabbed by my shoulders and spun around. Who should I run into but my (former) roommate Susan and her new husband Sean!! I had missed their wedding in Sisters the previous weekend to be on the trail. We had talked about me being able to hike to Sisters in time for the wedding, but doing the math before I left, we realized I would have had to average about 35 miles a day, including through the High Sierras. So I hadn’t expected to see them at all as they were heading back south shortly after the wedding. But they decided to gradually work their way down from Sisters back to San Diego, stopping and spending time at various places along the way, enjoying the newlywed life. They had been at Crater Lake the previous day and on a whim had decided to see if they could get last minute tickets for a play in Ashland before heading to San Francisco the next day. And the play they got tickets to just happened to be the same one I made it to. They didn’t expect me to be in Ashland, I didn’t expect them in Ashland, but somehow we ran into each other. It was good to see them and wish the newlyweds well.
To be honest the first half of Oregon was not particularly memorable – Crater Lake didn’t really make up for the fact that what scenery there was generally was greatly obscured. But things suddenly changed upon entering the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, and the northern half of Oregon was for me the biggest revelation of the entire trail – I knew it would be nice, but I did not expect it to be as amazing as it was. There are three places on my list to go back and spend more time hiking in – the Sierra Nevadas (awe-inspiring and my camera broke so I don’t have many pictures), Northern Washington (my home turf and still my favorite section of the PCT) and Northern Oregon (stunning views and pleasing terrain).
The little lakes in the southern half of the Three Sisters Wilderness were beautiful, and because of a sudden cold spell (I woke up one morning in mid-August with frost on all my stuff) almost entirely bug free. Unfortunately the Sisters themselves were clouded over for the most part, but for the brief moments when the clouds cleared, they were stunning. The trail goes along the west side of the peaks, and because I often couldn’t see the peaks in the area through the clouds I was filled with a strong urge to bag a few of them before continuing on. South Sister and Middle Sister aren’t technical climbs, just steep, rocky hiking and when I make more time to spend in Northern Oregon, I will definitely have to make it to the top of a few of the mountains. After hiking through old lava beds and leaving the Three Sisters behind, the trail heads for Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson and then Mt. Hood, and the weather cleared up nicely, giving me amazing views of all three. I was in absolute heaven at that point – the mountains, the forests, the lakes and rivers – everything was as it should be. The trail in Northern Oregon finishes up by dropping from high up on Mt. Hood all the way down to the Columbia, and I took the alternate (hiker only) route down Eagle Creek which had the most amazing collection of water falls I have ever seen, including the most impressive Tunnel Falls that trail goes behind. I hiked from Ashland to Cascade Locks in 15 days, but I wish I had spent twice that amount of time just in the northern half of that stretch. It was absolutely incredible – words can’t capture it, and the pictures I took hardly do it justice. That being said, I still feel the final stretch of the PCT in Washington is my favorite (more about that here).
The PCT in Oregon
The trail in Oregon begins by bearing east to return to the Crest south of Crater Lake, having skirted west and north in northern California to avoid the mostly waterless terrain surrounding Mt. Shasta. It then faithfully heads north for the entire rest of the state. The trail is so gently graded that I put in thirty mile days by mid-afternoon without breaking a sweat many days. The lava beds around North Sister and Little Belknap were a little hard on tender feet late in the day, but other than that almost the entire trail in Oregon is perfect for relaxing, enjoyable long-distance hiking.