The Northern California section of the PCT is famous for being where most people quit the PCT- and it’s true that I knew a lot of people who quit during it. My theory for this is a mix of a lot of factors: it’s beautiful, but it’s not as breathtaking as the high Sierras. It has some huge climbs and descents that you might not be expecting after finishing the Sierras. Also it’s HOT and can have some long dry stretches. If you’ve had an injury that’s going to take you off trail eventually that you’ve been dealing with, you’d probably want to tough it out through the beautiful Sierras and then bail in NorCal. You also feel like you’ve been hiking forever, but you’re still in the same state and only hit the halfway point of the trail about halfway through Northern California, which is just discouraging because you’ve been hiking FOREVER but you’re still only halfway. And the time pressure to finish the trail before snow hits starts sinking in, and you realize you have to seriously up your daily mileage if you’re going to finish in time. And a big thing that applies to so many other things in life- at this point of the trail, it’s no longer new or exciting- you’re past the “honeymoon stage” and it becomes routine and can be monotonous. It was easy to see why people quit in Northern California.
I think what got me through Northern California is finding joy in the routine and little things, and not letting it get too monotonous. Setting up and taking down camp was a series of many steps that you had to do every day, and I would find so much satisfaction in finding ways to make it more efficient and go without unnecessary steps. I also got really into podcasts in Northern California and would learn lots of things while listening to them, but I would usually hike the first 5 miles of the day in silence to take in the cool morning air and be present, and only ever had one earbud in so I could still hear what was going on around me. I also tried to swim in as many lakes as possible (without killing too much time)- planning lunch or snack breaks around lakes. This helped me stay cool and would give me a quick break from walking. I loved northern California in a lot of ways, but it was HARD. And this section is where that started to sink in. But it was also so unbelievably great.
I left Sierra City late morning and had a huge climb with a bunch of switchbacks up a big surprisingly green hill, passing the 1200 mile marker. The trail followed a ridge that overlooked some big boating lakes through a recreation area that people camp and dirt bike in. During this section Smiles and I played a game with other thru-hikers by exchanging riddles with them and trying to have them solved by the next time we saw the other hiker. Here’s one: If there’s a B in my hand, what’s in my eye? Except it was way harder without google and without knowing if it was B or bee! It was a good way to pass some time while hiking through some less interesting parts of the trail.
The second day was one of the least memorable of the trail. I hiked alone all day. The water sources were far between and it was hot, and the trail passed through remote hills and a bunch of logging roads and logged areas. Some of the water sources were off trail which is always the worst because you have to hike further to reach them. I did pass the mile marker for 1234.5 (people always leave rocks as mile markers for significant mileages). We met and camped with McG that night and had a campfire for once, talking with him while he shared some homemade beef jerky with us. While we were having our campfire an ultra runner ran past who was trying to set the assisted speed record for the whole PCT… it didn’t look fun. Our campsite was right next to a logging road and early in the morning these big trucks loaded with trees came barreling by. It’s always really sad to see trees getting cut down- when you live in nature, it feels like your house is getting robbed.
The next day, the trail wound through the forest then had a steep descent to the Middle Fork Feather River. It had this huge bridge crossing over it and it was a hot day, and what started out as a lunch break and swim in the river turned out to be a whole afternoon of relaxing on its shores. When you’re thru hiking, it takes a lot of self control to not stop at every beautiful place for extended periods of time. You have to walk past really awesome spots most of the time if you want to make it to Canada. I also didn’t want to look back on my hike and feel like I was rushed the whole time, and looking back that afternoon on the shores of Middle Fork Feather River was needed. I hate that I felt so guilty at the time for taking an afternoon to relax, but the guilt of not hiking 25 miles a day is a real thing that can weigh you down. I had still hiked about 12 miles that day. And that afternoon was gorgeous and hot and it was so refreshing to swim in the river-carved rocky alcoves of the Middle Fork. But I wish I had relaxed a little more and didn’t feel so bad about not making mileage.
(I really wish I had taken pictures of this beautiful place!)
The next day, Smiles and I were determined to make up for our afternoon off by waking up early and hiking a 30 mile day. The morning was a big climb up from the river, but we still did the coveted 10 by 10 (ten miles by 10am), after which we took a short break at a spring. I was feeling great- well rested and my achy muscles had been soothed by the cold water from the river the day before. It’s amazing what a little time off will do! I was feeling so ready for my first 30 mile day. At the top of the climb there were some great mountain views and I met a lady who had to be at least in her 70s hiking alone the 15+ miles from the nearest road to Middle Fork. She told me she had been doing that hike since she was young, and it was her favorite out of all the places she’d been! Something about old people on trails really inspires me to stay in shape as I age.
The trail passed the coolest campsite on a cliff ever (sometimes I want to hike the trail again just so I can camp at all the cool campsites I missed) then went into a logging area where I could sadly hear and see trees getting cut down. There was a sign along the trail left by some trail angels inviting hikers to their house for food, showers, and a place to sleep. But it didn’t even tempt me- I had 30 miles to do that day and nothing was going to stop me! Then the trail crossed a road, and there was a group of hikers waiting on the side for the trail angel, and seconds later Nancy the wonderful trail angel shows up and I’m shaking her hand, and next thing you know I’m on her back porch eating a double cheeseburger and realizing I’m only hiking 15 of my 30 mile goal that day. But I didn’t feel guilty this time, I truly relaxed and had an awesome time.
Terry and Nancy like to stay as true unexpected trail magic, so they don’t want their info put all over the internet. Which is honestly the best way to do it- staying at their house was spontaneous and so unexpected! They’re middle aged, their kids are grown, they own a big farm in Northern California, and this was their summer cabin. It had a huge back deck that hikers sleep on with provided sleeping pads and a hiker hut with a shower, laundry, and supplies. There were double cheeseburgers Terry barbecued for lunch and Nancy made some killer lasagna for dinner. Since it was true unexpected trail magic, it wasn’t overrun by hikers doing their resupply. There ended up being about 20 of us who stayed the night, which was the perfect amount. I got to know some new hikers but was also so happy to see old- Nick and Beth (Man Hands and Apples) were there! The last time we’d seen them was in Yosemite. We all spent the afternoon hanging on the porch and playing instruments and getting to know Terry and Nancy. Smiles plays the accordion and always had the far-fetched dream to find one to play along the trail- and it was totally meant to be that we showed up there because they had one for him to play! He was stoked. We ended the night with s’mores around a campfire.
The next morning we had a big home cooked breakfast of biscuits and gravy and got dropped back off at the trail. I stayed full from breakfast the majority of that day but found a cool spot at the top of a ridge for a late lunch with Smiles with vast views of the valleys below. That day’s hike was 20 miles to Belden where Smiles and I had both sent resupply boxes. The descent from the top of the ridge to Belden was KILLER. When I got the first glimpse of the valley we were descending to I could not believe how far down it was. While climbs are strenuous, if you’re in good shape they don’t hurt your knees or feet. But long and steep descents just hurt no matter what shape you’re in. I just looked and it’s 4300 feet of descent over 7 miles, which isn’t as bad as I remember… but anyways, we made it to our next resupply point- Belden!
Which is the weirdest little place on a big river that isn’t really even a town even though it’s called Belden Town. It’s a place where they hold music festivals which are really big hippie raves. We got there on a Friday so there were hoards of people camping all over the place and everything was getting set up. It would have been super interesting to have showed up the next day when it was all going down. If I did hard drugs and hadn’t already taken two afternoons in a row off, maybe I would’ve considered staying. Some of my friends went and got free admission for working as parking attendants and told me it was a good time. There was a little store in Belden with crazy overpriced snacks that the owner of the whole town ran and I bought an ice cream bar and sat on the porch with other hikers. There wasn’t anywhere to camp because the festival goers had to pay for their camping, so some friends and I crossed the highway and cowboy camped on top of picnic tables at a highway rest stop. A super nice trail angel delivered our packages to us early in the morning, because that’s just how resupply works in the strange little town of Belden.
I started out this post thinking that I was writing about a boring section, but now that I’ve replayed it all in my mind I remember that it was phenomenal. Every single day of the trail had something great to offer, and any day on the trail was better than a day stuck inside. Right now I can predict with close accuracy what my next week will look like, but on trail I could have never predicted where I would be the next day or even just a few hours later, and that’s something I really miss.
~Dilly Dally (currently feeling more like boring old Sarah)