PCT Days 55-57: Walking Into Mountains

I’ve never actually walked into a mountain range before. I’ve flown into them, driven into them—but never walked from a place that is definitely not the mountains up onto 10,000-foot passes and 14,000-foot peaks. It feels like an accomplishment: instead of merely driving for a few hours and then stepping out of a car into cooler, thinner air, I have literally walked through the desert and then up, up, up to reach the Sierra Nevada.

Being here feels like coming home. After photographing the initial views of snow-covered peaks (Is that Mount Whitney? still not sure…), I realized that I wasn’t taking many pictures. It’s because these mountains are so familiar—even though I’ve never walked these exact trails before, I know the Sierra. Three trips to Kings Canyon, at least a dozen to Yosemite. Granite boulders, twisty golden trees, views of far peaks—it’s like walking through San Francisco: I appreciate the beauty of the city and how lucky I am to live close to such amazing sights, but I no longer feel the need to photograph everything.

Though of course I can’t resist a dramatic panorama.

And the sights are definitely changing. Instead of lizards running from our footsteps, chipmunks and ground squirrels dash away (or, sometimes, come to see what food they can beg). We saw our first marmot of the trip. The uphills and downhills seem to be more dramatic and frequent—and tougher, due to the higher elevation.

We are slowly getting closer and closer to a peak that we have decided is Mount Whitney; thankfully, there is less and less snow on it with every passing day. That will hopefully mean an easier hike up it, but the big unknown is weather. Cell service has been nonexistent, so any southbound hikers we meet we ask about the forecast. On Day 57, right before entering Sequoia National Park, we met a section hiker who said a storm system was supposed to be coming through in the next few days. That threw a wrench into the plan to make a nice easy approach to Whitney, heading to the top the day after tomorrow—the storm would be coming in on the day we planned to climb it, and then we’d still have to get over 13,200-foot Forester Pass the next day.

So we decided to make a long push to Rock Creek Camp and get up early the next morning to do a few more PCT miles and then attempt a mid-day hike up Mount Whitney. Not ideal (most people head up from just a few miles out early, early in the morning), but probably our best chance at making it to the top and then also avoiding weather on Forester Pass.

Day 55: 17.6 miles, Mile 704.8 to 722.4

Day 56:
17.1 miles, Mile 722.4 to 739.5

Day 57:
21.1 miles, Mile 739.5 to 760.6, Rock Creek Camp

PCT Day 54: Kennedy Meadows

How to describe Kennedy Meadows…

It’s the goal for the first seven hundred miles—the end of the desert, the start of the Sierra, the motivation to keep walking through heat and sand and cacti. I knew to expect a general store and a crowd of hikers hanging out, but beyond that the only image I carried in my head was from Wild:

The real, non-Hollywood Kennedy Meadows is way less green and—like most hiker-filled places along the trail—way, ah, funkier. The parking lot is dusty and there’s a gas tank with an old Shell sign out front. There’s a front porch and a giant side deck covered in hikers who applaud every new hiker as he or she arrives. There’s a store that sells a LOT of beer and pints of Ben & Jerry’s. There’s a walk-up window that sometimes sells hot dogs and burgers.

There’s a single washing machine with a waitlist over 100 hikers long. Two outdoor showers that spit out moderately hot water. And a collection of seemingly unserviced port-o-potties.

Hikers camp out back, setting up tents among trees and old gas pumps. One guy even found a spot for the 3-person, 17-pound treehouse that he’s carrying on the PCT. (Really.)

Kennedy Meadows is a hiker vortex. We were there for about 24 hours, but some people had been there for days. Drinking beer, playing cards, drinking beer, smoking, drinking beer. We saw one guy who was packed up and ready to head back on the trail (for the second or third day in a row) get sucked right back in (beer, card game, etc).

I think I had been expecting something greener, grander—more cinematic, I suppose. At least this way it wasn’t tempting to stay. On our second evening there, we waited for it to cool down (which wasn’t until around 6PM) and then hiked out to the campground a few miles up the trail. Onward to the mountains.

Miles hiked: 2.4, Mile 702.4 to 704.8, river by Kennedy Meadows Campground

Photos: PCT Days 48-53

PCT Day 48: Zero in Lake Isabella

PCT Days 49-50: Zeros in Lake Isabella

PCT Days 51-52: Mile 651.4 to 683.2

PCT Day 53: Mile 683.2 to 702.4, Kennedy Meadows

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(All photos are also on Flickr)

PCT Days 51-53: The Last of the Desert, At Last

After three glorious zero days in Lake Isabella, it was time to get back on the trail. Rally’s husband is joining her for the Sierra section, and their nephew gave them, me, Fancypants, Dilly, and Dally all a ride back to the trail at Walker Pass. Seven people, six packs, and one dog all transported—safely and legally, of course.

Mile 651 and we are definitely still in the desert. Two-thousand feet of uphill to start the day, along bare burned mountainsides overlooking circles of green agriculture on the valley floor below.

Our one water source for the day was a spring (in)famous for its high uranium levels. Cause that’s a thing. We drank from it, of course.

Our several days’ delay in Tehachapi and then Lake Isabella means that we’re seeing more unfamiliar hikers—”The Herd” catching up to us. They’re generally young and moving really fast, so we’ll probably only see most of them once. It feels good to have a group of friends who we’ve known since Mile 70, 40—even Mile 0—who we keep seeing on trail 650 miles in.

The afternoon was a hot hike headed uphill. We passed both the 1/4-of-the-way-there mark, which felt good, and also Mile 666, which felt appropriate given the weather. A warm night became a warm morning when we started hiking at 6:15AM the next day.

My new shoes, the Hoka One One Cliftons (in size 10.5, one and a half sizes larger than my normal shoe size), paired with Superfeet Berry insoles, are amazing. The Altra Lone Peaks that I wore for the first 650 miles were slowly but surely crippling me—apparently zero drop shoes do not agree with me for hiking. They’re great for some people, but not for me. The Hokas have given me my first real blister of the PCT (which I named Fred—after Fred Astaire, for the way I feel like I’ve been dancing up the trail), but it’s a price I’m happy to pay for relief from the constant heel and ankle pain. I’m finally able to hike fast enough to bump up against my leg and lung capacity, rather than being limited by my tolerance for extreme foot pain. I realize, Oh! Maybe people can hike 20 or 25 mile days so easily because they aren’t in excruciating pain every day starting at mile 10!

Day 53, our last official day in desert, starts off warm again. The desert has to get one last punch in—it’s in the 90s, and we’re walking through massive burn zones. Barren hillsides, charred trees—the sun is hot, and there’s nowhere to hide.

We even meet our second angry rattlesnake of the trip. I’m walking along the dusty trail that curves slowly down dry hillsides and then suddenly I’m backing up as quickly as I can—animal instinct taking over immediately when the rattling starts. It’s a small rattlesnake coiled on a pile of rocks directly next to the trail, and when we slowly move back towards her and she rattles again, we decide to made a wide circle down the steep slope below the trail.

And then: Mile 700! And then—finally—Kennedy Meadows, where every arriving hiker is greeted with a round of applause from the crowd at the general store: Welcome! You made it through the desert! We eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream each, and then celebrate over beers with Rally & Clint when they arrive. I have a massive heat rash on the back of my legs and a blister to drain, but we’re finally done with the desert and next comes the Sierra Nevada and the John Muir Trail and it’s going to be amazing.

Day 51: 17.9 miles, Mile 651.4 to 668.8, Spanish Needle Creek + 0.5 roundtrip to Joshua Tree Spring
Day 52: 14.8 miles, Mile 668.8 to 683.2, Fox Mill Spring + 0.4 roundtrip to Chimney Creek Campground for water
Day 53: 20 miles, Mile 683.2 to 702.4 + 0.8 to Kennedy Meadows