Start: 1523.0, 6496 feet – Campsite on ridge overlooking lake and Shasta
Finish: 1549.4, 6171 feet- campsite on ridge
Total mileage: 26.4
Total elevation: Gain +2546 / Loss -2871 / Net -325
I got back into my hiking groove today, thanks in part to some magnificent scenery, though I still struggled at times to readjust to outdoor life. The transition was made a bit easier by the fact that I had caught up with many of the northbound through-hikers who had skipped the Sierras, so I had no shortage of social interaction and conversation. I felt as though I had found a comfortable balance between abundant solitude and available companionship.
I was a bit disheveled about 6 a.m. after a restless night’s sleep. Big black ants had tunneled under my sleeping bag and crawled across my bare legs and chest. I would get up every hour or two to swat them away. Also, in my fatigue I had forgotten to unplug my phone from my external battery so after the phone was done charging, it started draining back into the battery until it was dead. Thankfully, I had plenty of juice left in the battery so in the morning I just plugged my phone back in and started the whole process over again.
I got on the trail before 7 a.m. and was happy to discuss that my body felt strong and limber. I had feared I’d be stiff and tired after my first day of real exercise in two weeks. It helped that my first three miles almost entirely in the shade so I was cool and protected from the sun.
Through brief breaks in the trees I spied little lakes down below in both sides of me. After so much time in the desert, I was heartened by the sight of plentiful water and I felt secure. However, I knew this security was illusionary as this area was more remote with fewer people traversing it, there were still long stretches where the PCT didn’t cross streams or springs, and a heat wave was supposed to bring highs in the 90s today. Even at 8 a.m. I was already sweating on the uphills.
Never hidden for long, Mt. Shasta and its icy slopes popped into view on my right around mile 1526. Over the next three miles, it danced in and out of sight behind trees and closer hills as I trotted over deer prints and picked my way around gargantuan bear poops. Soon the trail came out onto a rocky, barren bowl with the picturesque Toad Lake at the bottom. The far side of the bowl was entirely empty except for volcanic rock and even the near side had sparse vegetation, but down below a verdant meadow ringed the lake. It was stunning, especially with Mt. Shasta as a backdrop.
As I circled around Toad Lake enjoying the expansive vistas to the south and southeast, I met a guy who was out day hiking. Together we stopped and stared out at the layer upon layer of jagged ridges that crossed our view, including the dark silhouette of Castle Crags. Out on the horizon jutted a bell-shaped peak with ample snow that we deduced must be Mt. Lassen.
I left the day hiker and crossed over the ridge and while Mt. Shasta stayed present in my vision, the ecosystem changed considerably. I crunched over red volcanic rock, which also extended before me to small hill. On the path ahead to my left were large meadows decked out in wildflowers and green grass, a couple small streams leaking across the trail.
It was above one of these meadows that I ran into Barnfart, a bigger guy with a large pack hiking southbound from Etna all the way to his home in Warner Springs, 1600 miles by trail. He had worked until April 10 at the community center – where I had spent the night – then took off hiking himself. When I asked if the trail was busy, he said he had seen about 30 hikers going north yesterday; he was the fifth hiker I had seen today and it was only 10 a.m. As we parted ways, he about to jog along the edge of a ridge, and me about to do the same in the opposite direction, he cried out, “Gotta love contouring!”
I made it to Deadfall Lakes at mile 1534 about 11 a.m. and took a short break to eat and rest. The area was relatively crowded with several through-hikers making a pit stop and more than a few overnight hikers exploring the area. In particular, I ran into one older man who was maneuvering across stones in a river and then walked right up to me to give me a firm handshake and introduce himself as Carl. The day hiker I had met earlier had mentioned that he had come out with his 72-year-old father-in-law and that he had stayed behind at Deadfall Lakes to take pictures of wildflowers. I was awed by this man’s abilities and realized that the real long-term goal of my hike was to be able to continue doing hikes like this in 40 years.
As I left Deadfall Lakes and passed an additional eight day hikers by 12:30 p.m., I understood how popular a destination it was. I hurried onward though a forest of sparse pines and was glad to cross over the road with the trailhead for day hikers so that I could have more solitude. About mile 1540 I found an idyllic spot next to a river with few bugs and plenty of shade. I had only planned to stop for a moment to grab more water but I was sucked in and instead took a couple hours to eat and nap.
Back on the trail about 4:30 p.m., I was soon skirting along cliffs between slopes of rubble. On the side of the path grew myriad wildflowers – white, yellow, purple, bunchy, flat-petaled. One flower that particularly fascinated me had red and white marbled pods that resembled oblong balloons or blown glass. Between the flowers flitted orange butterflies while black and yellow crickets bounced around. Below the rocky slope I could hear voices and then saw a lake with several kayaks and cars parked on the shore.
While I walked along the trail – which was as flat as it could get – Mt. Shasta disappeared and reemerged from behind hills like a slow motion game of hide and seek. Around mile 1543, I was beginning to slow and I saw a hiker I had met previously setting up camp. I was envious and considered doing the same, but the area seemed marshy (and therefore buggy) and I wanted to walk a few more miles.
Over the next six miles, I alternated between being in the tedium of trees and having broad views over the nearby valleys. On the south I saw deep blue lakes with sandy shores, Mt. Shasta and a few other pointy volcanic peaks sitting behind them. To the north were layers of silhouetted mountains, also with small lakes in front. These lakes shone blue and white, reflecting the skies except where ripples traced black horizontal lines.
I stopped for the night at mile 1549 on a ridge that afforded vistas both east and west. I felt good and could have kept going, but I didn’t want to push it on my second day back and this was a prime campsite. I took advantage of my position and watched a stunning sunset on both sides as I ate dinner. I wasn’t especially tired but I went to bed anyway about 9 p.m. to the sounds of some animal bugling and rodents scratching away at nearby ground.