Start: Mile 1616.0, Elevation 6585 feet – Campsite on north-south saddle
Finish: Mile 1646.9, Elevation 1704 feet – Grider Creek Campground
Total mileage: 30.9
Total elevation: Gain +4583 / Loss -9464 / Net -4881
Despite the stunning scenery today, I struggled. The day off had not reset my legs as I had hoped. Instead, I was plagued by a slight discomfort in my foot, which progressed into a continual pain in my right knee. By the evening it was all consuming, and I just wanted the day to be over.
I started my day leisurely, enjoying the direct view of the sunrise from my campsite. Streams of clouds drifted above the eastern hills, catching and reflecting a range of colors from the sun. I could just make out a few tiny lakes below in the growing light, and I stood still, enjoying the crisp wind that had grown overnight, flapping at the walls of my tent.
I didn’t make it long up the trail before I paused again, the trees having thinned out to allow me to see for miles in multiple directions. To my left I could see the large snowy bowl and tarn that I had passed last night. To the right of that, a seemingly endless series of hills folded in on themselves, suggesting some hidden river. Above all this was an array of clouds – wispy strands streaked over the jagged peaks, small puffy dots floated over a large burn area, one giant nimbus like a ufo or stocky tornado squatted over blue silhouetted hills. It had been rare for me to see any clouds this hike, let alone so many all at once. Despite the clear skies to my right – where I was headed – I sensed a shift in the weather coming.
I left this view and entered a burned-out section along a cliff about mile 1618. With the tall pines gone, the wildflowers and yarrow grew in dense meadows, buzzing with insects (one of which went straight into my ear, where I had to kill it and dig it out). I could also see through the trunks to another valley to the northeast, which was lush and had more green meadows below. Behind this sat the mystery snow-capped peaks to the south, as though someone had taken a ridge from the Alps and plopped it down on the horizon.
I passed through meadow after meadow on a shady western ridge, lit up only by the soft light reflecting off the clouds. Some meadows were nothing but fragrant purple lupin, others were a mix of a dozen red, purple and yellow flowers no more than a few inches in diameter. I saw few animals but knew there were plenty around thanks to deer tracks, wavy lines where snakes had slithered, small scats from large rodents (marmots?), and the singular large pile of bear feces.
A couple miles later, I started working my way into the thick green Marble Valley. The path was lined with wild fennel and mint, and at its nadir it crossed a stream and hit the Marble Valley Cabin. An enticingly dilapidated wooden structure, the cabin had cracking green paint and was entirely boarded up except for one window. Through that aperature, I could see the cabin had become a party destination – in addition to a few rusted metal bunk bed frames, the place was littered with used fuel canisters, crushed beer cans, and one empty bottle of Everclear.
As I circled around the back of the cabin to take a few pictures, I ran into Ethan packing up camp; he had skipped Etna to stay on the trail. Hiking uphill toward a huge granite wall, I saw at least a half dozen more tents and two big tarps in a grassy meadow to the side. I only saw one person outside, however, so I kept going up the switchbacks through the fertile, wet soil.
I reached a pile of pancaked rocks a few miles later at mile 1622 and stopped to explore the large fissures in the ground. These were the Marble Mountains, and the cracks in the earth bored down five to 15 feet into darkness. These rocks also afforded views back down into the Marble Valley and uphill to towering stone spires with snow at their base. The rocks gave way to a high-altitude meadow, thick with flowers, streams, and snow. It was transfixing, and I felt like I could be in the High Sierras.
I exited the Marble Valley about mile 1624 only to enter another lush valley. My pace slowed here, however, because I needed to cross multiple melting snowbanks, which demand patience and deliberate footsteps more than skill or strength. It was more important to choose a careful step, avoiding where the snow became a thin sheet with its base underneath carved away by water, than to move quickly.
Eventually I ended up taking a break near Paradise Lakes, a marshy oval with a green and gray rock butte above. I ate a bit and listened to a podcast as a family on hoseback rode by. The eldest child, maybe five years old, rode his own horse, and the younger boy – perhaps only three years old – rode in front of his father. I fell asleep as the thudding of hooves died out and napped for about 30 minutes.
I was back on trail before noon, climbing toward a rocky dry ridge at mile 1628. Despite the rising heat, I was cool in the intermittent shade of pines and a strong breeze. The valleys, however, had gotten hazy in the midday sun, and it seemed like there was only drier landscape ahead. I approached this terrain over the next three miles on the western side of a ridge, exposed and hot in burn areas, cool and shaded in the pines. Throughout, I was kept company by hundreds of insects, including loud grasshoppers, and had a barren red rocky ridge on my left. The ridge looked out of place in these otherwise-green valleys, and I wondered what combination of geology, geography, and weather had sculpted it.
I stopped for more water at mile 1632 and exchanged intel with other hikers about the trail ahead. I let southbound hikers know about the snowbanks ahead, and they warned me that there was a 14-mile stretch of exposed uphill hiking with little water coming up for me tomorrow. I hadn’t planned for this 5000-foot climb out of the Seiad Valley, and I played around with my options in my head.
The next six miles began the grueling part of my long day. The path went continuously downhill, and while this took less effort, it also meant more impact on my now-tender right foot. In addition, it got hotter without getting shadier as I went down, and I was soon sweating profusely. The trail was crowded with thorny underbrush that scraped my shins as I barrelled through, and while these might have been raspberry bushes, I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to risk eating something poisonous. The other hikers I passed in this section seemed equally challenged; one younger guy holding a portable fan to his face seemed bleary eyed and didn’t even see me coming while another more-alert middle-aged man had drenched his shirt with sweat and still had miles of uphill to go.
Having had enough of the heat, I took a break about 4 p.m. by the rolling Grider Creek. Situated at mile 1639 beneath a dense grove of cottonwood trees, I laid out my mat under a luxuriously full canopy and quickly fell asleep to the sound of the creek’s tumbling waters.
I awoke about an hour later as a deer tried to sneak by me after drinking from the creek. Once it saw me move, it bounded into the woods in fear. I filled up on water myself and got back on the trail, a bit fearful myself. I had eight miles to go before the next campsite and there would be a lot of elevation change; I wasn’t sure how my right leg would hold up.
Normally I would have enjoyed a section of trail like this – cool and shady as it paralleled Grider Creek and crossed plentiful tributary streams jammed with large trees that had been swept down by snowmelt. But my right knee ached more and more as I went, and I took short awkward steps down through poison oak and brush to minimize the pain. At this point, I was committed – the trail was in a canyon and there were no real flat spots to camp until mile 1646, so I had little choice but to put in my earphones, put on a podcast, and push on.
I hobbled into camp about 8 p.m. and quickly set to work getting ready for bed. I was hoping to get up early tomorrow morning, and with the pain in my knee, I just wanted to lay down and stretch. Everyone at camp was congregated in one area, and I briefly panicked that I had arrived too late to get a spot. However, as I walked back through the camp, I found a huge soft patch of dirt away from everyone else with its own picnic table and just yards away from the bathroom. The only downside was that the campground was rife with mosquitoes. It was fine for me, though – I was focused on sleep and after devouring a dehydrated meal, I tunneled into my sleeping quilt and went to sleep, happy to out the evening behind me.