Winding Down the Journey… Hiking on the PCT at 75

Some trail names are really obvious. Take Big Red, for example. Peggy and I met him in the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon.


Big Red from San Diego towered over my 5’11” height, putting him somewhere up in the stratosphere. Peggy and I met him along the PCT in the Three Sisters Wilderness area of Oregon. He had been hiking for 2,000 miles. “This is my first and last through hike,” he informed us. “There are times,” he explained, “when I camp on a beautiful lake and would love to stay there. But I can’t. I have to keep moving. I have to get in my 25 miles for the day.” Otherwise, he might not be able to finish the trail before winter storms hit northern Washington.

There is something close to heroic about completing the 2600 miles of the PCT in a year. Sacrifices have to be made— like not enjoying the incredible beauty of the trail as much as you might like. Red had also made another sacrifice.  His walking sticks were encased in balsa wood that he had planned to carve. But it wasn’t to be. “I’m just too tired at night,” he told us.

Big Red posed for a photo with me, making me feel small.

I understood both sentiments all too well. It’s just hard. At 75, I found hiking 15 miles a day exhausting. In fact, the day and a half breaks I had planned between segments of the trail to allow my body time to recover weren’t long enough. I realized this as I made my way up the humongous hill leaving Interstate 5 going south. I was fine for the first three hours. After that, it was all I could do force one foot in front of the other. I had just completed hiking 100 miles from Etna Summit to Castle Crags and my body was threatening to go on strike. I loaded up on water and decided to dry camp when I reached the top instead of hiking on to the next source. I was cooking dinner on my ultralight propane stove when I found myself nodding off, unable to keep my eyes open. Not good! Can you imagine how dangerous that was given the bone-dry condition of the forests? Three massive forest fires this summer within 50 miles of where I was camping have proved the point.

The thought of creating a life-threatening fire that would burn tens of thousands of acres if my small stove was accidentally knocked over woke me up like a bucket of ice water. It also forced me to rethink my schedule. I would reduce the number of miles I was traveling each day and increase the number of layover days I would take between hiking segments of the trail. If I didn’t make my 1,000-mile goal, so be it. There was another factor as well. I really did want to enjoy the beautiful lakes, and mountains, and trees, and flowers and rocks and streams. That had been my reason for returning to the wilderness again and again throughout my life. And it was my reason for being out there at 75.

Fires and smoke continued to be a reality of my hike, as it has been for all PCT hikers this year. I jumped from northern California to Central California and back to Northern California in an unsuccessful search of clear skies. As my journey wound down, I had a decision to make. Would I head toward Yosemite and the John Muir Trail or would I go elsewhere? There really wasn’t time to finish the JMT and I had hiked it several times over the years, so I opted for the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon. I’d never been there plus Peggy would be able to backpack with me. We would finish our adventure as we had started it, backpacking together in Oregon. It was a great decision. The area is drop dead beautiful.

Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood as seen from the Three Sisters Wilderness, which features another three volcanoes of the Cascade chain in Oregon.

I came off the trail last week with close to 700 miles behind me. It has been an incredible experience and I will continue to post blogs on it for the next month. Plus, I’ll start writing the book that will tie this summer’s adventure together with several other backpacking experiences I have had over the years.

Today, I will continue with my trip between Donner Pass and Echo Summit that I started to blog about last week with an exploration of the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley.

My grandson Ethan and I started our journey through the Granite Chief Wilderness with a trip up the Squaw Valley tram. Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. I used this same tram system when I began my first 100 mile backpack trip in 1974.

The ride provides great views of the granite that forms the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Once again, smoke from Northern California forest fires filled the air, promising to obscure our views and poison our lungs. Fortunately, the smoke was limited and we even experienced some ‘clear’ days.

Peggy took this photo of Ethan and me at the end of the tram ride, ready to tackle our first mountain.

Our goal for the day was a short hike over to Little Needle Peak and Lake, both shown here. The lake is a mile or so off the PCT on a little used trail that we had to search for. I’ve camped on the lake several times over the years.

Another reflection shot. Ethan and I were camped in the trees to the right.

Bear scat and other bear sign was everywhere! I wondered if our food would survive. A black bear had ripped open this dead tree to go after the carpenter ants inside. Ethan and I were intrigued by the labyrinth the ants had carved out of the tree. It was worthy of a fantasy novel, or a Greek myth.

This caterpillar had tethered itself to the same tree and was making a cocoon. The claw marks above and beside the caterpillar were left behind by the bear.

The PCT drops into a canyon going south from Squaw Valley. A month earlier, this field of mule ears would have been yellow with flowers. But now they were drying out, predicting the coming fall.

As the PCT returned to crest and climbed above the Five Lakes Basin behind Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, Ethan and I  continued down the canyon and followed Five Lakes Creek down to Diamond Crossing. Whiskey Creek Camp greeted us a quarter of a mile after we left the trail. Starting in the early 1900s, the camp had served as a resupply point for Basque sheep herders who were running flocks in the area.

Ethan provides perspective on the height of the door in the cabin. I explained to him that the horseshoe above the door was for good luck.

Fresh bread, baked in this oven, was on the resupply list for the Basque Sheepherders.

The PCT is like a freeway working its way from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. In comparison, most other trails are like country roads. The route along Five Lakes Creek would qualify as a rarely used dirt road— my kind of trail! This late summer meadow had turned to California gold. The Sierra thistles in the foreground were going to seed.

As was this Sierra thistle.

Backlit by the sun.

The seeds are disbursed. Another year in the life of a Sierra thistle is over.

One challenge of hiking in August in the Sierras is that water sources dry up. This can become a real problem along the PCT, which is noted for its lack of water to begin with.

Fortunately, more water can be found hiking among creeks and lakes at lower elevations. Welcome water greeted us at Bear Pen Creek. (I’ve always wondered about the name.)

A close up.

Less water does make for easier stream crossings. The rocks here provided our bridge across Five Lakes Creek.

An old tree blaze on a downed snag would have been used to mark the trail in earlier times.

Bark had grown over this blaze, which is very rare.

A ‘whirlpool’ of wood caught my eye.

Leaving Diamond Crossing, we followed Powderhorn Creek for four miles as it made its way up a very steep canyon toward Barker Meadows where we would rejoin the PCT. I think we counted two switchbacks on the whole trail. It was definitely not the well-graded PCT!

A basalt cliff entertained us along the way. I was teasing Ethan about having to climb it.

The hexagonal basalt columns are similar to Devil’s Postpile. These columns are formed when thick layers of flowing basalt cool slowly.

Photographing goldenrod also offered a break from the hard climb. It was one of the few flowers we found in bloom.

Ethan celebrated when we reached the top.

While I found other interesting rocks to photograph. I thought the outcrop looked a bit like a Scotty dog.

A couple of days later I found one in the clouds!

Back on the PCT, we found more flowers in a spring area. Ethan urged me to take his photo next to the monkshood. “My mom likes purple,” he explained. (Tasha has lots of purple clothes.)

When we reached Richardson Lake the next day, Ethan’s foot was beginning to hurt. Apparently, he had a minor sprain.

Leaving the lake, it hurt more. A few more miles down the trail, we decided that hiking out seemed to be the best decision. We returned to the lake and followed a jeep trail that would take us down to Lake Tahoe.

We were fortunate to flag down a group of jeepers. It turns out they were from Motor Trend Magazine and were filming a TV special on taking a stock 1970s jeep and a stock pickup truck over the Rubicon Trail, one of the toughest jeep roads in the world, made famous by the annual Jeepers Jamboree. Bruce, who generously provided us with a ride, told us that it had taken a full day just to go three miles!

Ethan displays the ankle that I had bandaged. Not a bad job, I thought.

Reunited with his mom, Tasha, his little brother, Cody, and Peggy, the family hangs out above Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.

NEXT POST: I’ll focus on Desolation Wilderness and Peggy and I will take Bone back to where Tom Lovering and I discovered him in 1974!


54 thoughts on “Winding Down the Journey… Hiking on the PCT at 75

  1. Curt,
    Ditto on the above comments.
    But I can’t be too sympathetic about your having to curtail your initial plans; I am still amazed. We are now in Wyoming, and I took a three-mile walk today. Admittedly, 9400 feet is a bit higher than our home in Florida at 15 feet, but I was fine with just doing that. I did not want to do any more. And I am younger than 75, if only by some months.

    • About 9350 higher I imagine, Ray. 🙂
      I will be down in the Sunshine state next week. Our son and his family just moved to Clearwater where Tony will be flying helicopters for the Coast Guard. Right now, he is coordinating search and rescue operations for the Coast Guard for Hurricane Florence. He showed up for his first week of duty and they said, “Here, do this.” He had lot of experience in Alaska.
      I am more than pleased with the fact that I could get out and do 700 miles. I realize how lucky I am. No regrets! –Curt

  2. This is a wonderful experience you’re giving Ethan. You do know that when he is your age – he’ll still be talking about joining his Grandpa while he made his 1000 miles hike!!

  3. Very happy to hear that you are safely and successfully off the trail, and even happier to hear that you are happy about it! You’ve had a spectacular summer out there. I loved the ant labyrinth and the swirly wood, too – both evidence that nature is often the best art we can find.

  4. Another great batch of pictures (and memories for you, I’m sure.) I’m not much for seeing creatures in clouds, but that Scotty is pretty well defined. And if you have to bail out on a hike, Lake Tahoe’s a beautiful spot for it!

    • Thanks. I couldn’t resist the Scotty, Dave. And I have to confess, my imagination is always seeing creatures in trees and rocks and clouds. 🙂 Maybe I’ve read too many fantasy novels. Yes, Lake Tahoe is a beautiful place to bail out. It’s also easier than many locations. You are never very far from a trailhead. –Curt

  5. These images are so beautiful Curt. I really cannot imagine hiking with my grandfather on such an adventure. Anything I say will sound trite but really I’m struck by what a grand excursion that would be. You are both so extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to experience this hike, these mountains and trees, these days together. I don’t know how to express the depth of how I perceive this hike to have been for you personally, for you and Peggy and for you and your grandson. Thank you for sharing your story, and looking forward to the book.

    • Hiking with Ethan (and my nephew Jay) was special., Sylvia. Ethan is already planning out next year. 🙂 We actually saw a number of mother/father/son/daughter combinations out on the trail. But I didn’t see any grandfather/kid combinations.
      It was also great to get back on the trail with Peggy. One of my reasons for heading back to Oregon was to make that happen. Thanks, much for your thoughts. –Curt

  6. I broke into a fit of giggles when I saw the first photo in this post. I thought maybe you’d suffered more than you’d been letting on. I mean — turning gray is one thing, but turning redhead? That would have been something unusual! But, no. It was just another of the interesting people you met along the way — as much a pleasure to read about as the photos are to look at.

    I was surprised to read about Basque sheepherders being part of the history there. I’ll bet the bread baked in that oven was good. The horseshoe over the doorway was fun to see, too. My grandfather had one over the door to his workshop.

    Of course I loved that meadow, and it tickled me to think of their being interstates and back roads out there on the trails. It makes sense, and it certainly doesn’t surprise me that you take the back trails from time to time. As for the flowers? No goldenrod here, yet — at least, not the dense stands that often appear. But we’ve had nothing but rain — over 18″ just in September — so they may be biding their time.

    Can’t wait to read the next entry!

    • Wow, send us some of your rain, Linda. We’ll send you dry! I am pleased to report that we can now see our mountain. At least the smoke has receded that far, unless, of course, the wind changes.
      Big Red fit the description ‘larger than life.’ I’d have to do more than spout a massive red beard and hair to resemble his size. And I’d need to grow a beard for 50 years!

      I was sorry to see the flowers go, but was fascinated to see so many in seed. I rarely hike in late August/early September because of the heat and how difficult it is to get water.

      The freeway concept for the PCT emerged gradually. But that’s what it is, at least from a trail perspective. And yes, Linda, I am quite happy on minor trails, or no trails at all! (Chihuly has edged his way in between now and my next backpack trek post.) –Curt

  7. Reading your account of meeting Big Red, I’m struck by the tension between taking in the sights and completing the journey. I suppose balancing attainment and attention is one of life’s eternal dilemmas …

  8. Oh my gosh, Curt. When I read that you were hiking 15 miles/day on the PCT I almost panicked for you! That’s too much! I’m glad to hear that you scaled back and enjoyed the journey and the beautiful surroundings. Your pictures (and Peggy’s) are fantastic. I know if I were there, I’d want to savor every inch of the landscape and nature.

    Congratulations on completing such an incredible trek! It may not have been the 1,000 miles you set out to do, but 700 is nothing to cry about! (Unless you’re crying that it’s over.) Can’t wait to read more.

    • I was laughing with Peggy. I told her given my two weeks off, I was ready to hit the trail again. My toes claimed they needed another two weeks, or was that two years! 🙂
      It was an incredible journey. Lots of beauty and lots of photos (some 4000). Thanks for following along. More coming! –Curt

  9. You’re bringing back more memories. I used to work with some folks who did the Rubicon Trail back in the mid to late 70s. They did a slide show (back before Google) of their adventures at a bar/restaurant whose name I can’t remember. I tried to find it on Google Earth, but my, how things have changed! I hardly recognize places that used to be old haunts. I’m thinking it might have been at an intersection on Mother Lode. Someone’s name, perhaps the couple’s names who owned it? It might even be the more updated looking R’s Roadhouse which shows on the map? Does that ring any bells, or were you gone in those days?

    Your photo skills are great. I notice you seem to like shooting the same sorts of things that I do… clouds, reflections plants and stuff provided by Momma Nature. So glad Ethan was rescued and all is presumably well. I’m just starting to sort through our 10 day road trip up north. It was utterly amazing. I’m far too lazy and lacking the courage to head out hoofing it in the wilderness.

    • Found ‘PJs” on Motherlode. When I was growing up in the 50s it was a hamburger joint and a ‘go to’ place for my family. Bert, the cook, was actually Bertha, which I found quite shocking. A hamburger and an old-fashioned chocolate milkshake was what I always ordered. At the time it was on Highway 50, which was before the freeway was built. Poor Red’s, just up the road in the town of ElDorado was another favorite eatery.
      Thanks on the photo skills, Gunta. Nature is indeed my favorite subject. I include people, pets, etc. when appropriate, but that subject matter isn’t my first choice. I take after my father in that regard. 🙂 I’m not sure that the hoofing it requires a lot of courage (more-so in Alaska), but it does resemble work at times. 🙂
      Nothing wrong with road trips! –Curt

  10. ‘PJs’… that’s it! I even worked there part time during the late 70s after quitting my job at the welfare dept. to go back to school. You were likely gone by then.

    Courage comes into play given the news of the woman hiker killed by the cougar… a first in Oregon, I understand. It didn’t help that Eric talked about how cougars like to jump folks from behind… had me walking backwards halfway down the trail! O_o

    • Fun on PJs!
      As for cougars, they rarely attack people. But when they do, it’s big news. I was a wee bit nervous hiking up Powderhorn Canyon in the Granite Chief Wilderness because I came across fresh cougar tracks. 🙂 –Curt

  11. Pingback: Winding Down the Journey… Hiking on the PCT at 75 — Wandering through Time and Place – 永云博客

  12. Love the photos of you and Ethan — memories for him to last a lifetime. Sorry about the ankle, though. I’m so impressed that you made this trip at age 75 — or any age really. The problems you’ve named don’t mar the beauty of the trip, of course, but they do emphasize to me, at least, how strong in mind and spirit as well as body to undertake a trip such as this one. Congratulations to you! And thanks for taking us readers along for the hike.

    • Thanks, Rusha. Ethan is already planning next year.
      The journey was challenging. I quickly learned that I needed more recovery time between segments. Beyond that, it was mainly hard work, but hard work that was rewarded by the beauty and sense of accomplishment. Glad to have you along for the journey. There will be several more posts. –Curt

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