We flew through Oregon in three weeks. Highlight followed highlight and my days on trail seemed to fly by twice as fast. There was more ‘civilization’ closer to trail, which meant more day hikers and more tourist attractions and unpaved roads along the path.
There was the Timberline Lodge, at the foot of Mount Hood. Though it was a well-known hotel in the area, its sole claim to fame in the hiker community was its unlimited breakfast (or lunch) buffet.
Weeks before we were to arrive there, we started discussing what we would load onto our plates when we finally arrived. Waffles, pancakes, whipped cream, maple syrup, fruit, omelettes, all followed and preceded by lots and lots of coffee. We talked about what we hoped would be on the menu, worried about making it there in time for breakfast and made up horror stories about the chef falling ill on the day of our arrival, resulting in the cancellation of the buffet for the day.
Added bonus was the fact that the exterior of the hotel was used as the Overlook Hotel in the movie ‘The Shining’. At the hotel desk, you can pick up an axe that says ‘Here’s Johnny!’, carved into its handle, which you can then use to liven up your selfies and terrorize other guests by hacking down doors with it. Okay, maybe not that last bit…
Then there was Crater Lake. A volcanic lake with the bluest of water, which was created by an eruption of the volcano and its subsequent collapse. Due to the proximity of the road leading right past it, the number of people there surpassed anything we had seen in the previous months, with the exception of Yosemite. When we arrived, it was a weekend. On the one hand, there was the PCT, pulling at us, on the other hand, there was the souvenir shop, the parking lot, the line in front of the restaurant.
This whole world suddenly felt alien to me. Obtrusive. The experience was complete when a small dog on a leash apparently found my backpack (or its smell) so attractive he wanted to grace it with some smells of his own and peed all over it. My fellow hikers were much amused. Myself…well, a bit less so. I had to impose a strict embargo on speaking about the incident until after I’d had the opportunity to throw the pack into a washing machine, a week or so later.
PCT Trail Days
I hiked into the small town of Cascade Locks, on the border with Washington, one day before the PCT Trail Days were due to start. ‘Trail Days’ is an event specially created for PCT hikers, with music, drinks, partying and a market where retailers and companies targeting the hiker community can set up a booth to peddle their goods and organize events.
Because every hiker that is near Cascade Locks comes hitching or hiking in for this event, I saw many familiar faces. While on trail, it is perfectly possible to be just a few miles away from someone, and still never see them, but I met up with many old and familiar faces here, for quite possibly the last time.
We celebrated the reunions, but also the fact that we had made it through Oregon and now there was nothing left between us and Canada but Washington. In another four weeks at most, we would all be done.
Hiking into Washington
The border between California and Oregon had been nothing more than a wooden sign. The border between Oregon and Washington is a massive bridge. The ‘Bridge of the Gods’ crosses the Columbia River at a great height, and as it is an open construction, you can see the river flowing underneath. Far, far underneath. There is no separate footpath, so cars whip by you at close range and the wind was howling around our ears when we crossed it, adding to the experience. Once across, a sign makes it official: ‘Welcome to Washington’.
The further I hiked into Washington, the more I saw a division between the two kinds of hikers at this point: there were those that sped up, just wanting to be done with the trail, and there were those that slowed down, wanting to draw out the experience, not wanting it to end.
I noticed that I was firmly in the second group. I was keen to enjoy every day we still had left out here in the wilderness. And slowing down would also give me more time to take it easy during the day. Sit down and enjoy the views, take time to pick those berries along the trail and stuff my face with them.
Fire and ice
The long line of volcanoes along the trail stretches itself out from NorCal, across Oregon and into Washington. Just before I reached Cascade Locks, I saw three of them lined up from a viewpoint, as if announcing what was still to come.
Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. The gatekeepers of Washington. The ‘Crest’ in the Pacific Crest Trail is the result of the collision between the Pacific and the North-American tectonic plates. This collision created volcanoes, a long line of them.
Mount Saint Helens can be recognized by its flat top. The eruption in 1980 blew off the top and created this shape while also decreasing its height by some 1300 feet.
You can see this volcano several times along the PCT, but the trail doesn’t pass right by it. It does, however, pass right by Mount Adams and Mount Rainier.
On the night I camped at the foot of Mount Adams, I could hear the glaciers slowly crawling down that mountain, the ice cracking in the light of the setting sun. Its rays reflected on the ice and spread their light for me, creating a stunning view. Mount Rainier was just across the valley, beckoning me forward. These three majestic mountains are not nearly the only volcanoes in the area, but they dominated my views along the trail for weeks in this section.
A short while later, a local trail angel told me that geologists consider Mount Rainier to be an extremely unstable mountain. The whole side of the mountain could slide down at any moment, and this would cover the area for miles around in tons of rocks and debris. Locals in the potential disaster zone are apparently well aware of this risk, flight plans are set up, but they remain fairly unaffected by it. After all, ‘any moment’ in geology terms, could well be in another 100 or more years. Just in case, I made sure to take ample pictures of the mountain as it is now, while it’s still there.
An end to the drought, finally
As the trail progresses through Washington, there are fewer and fewer inhabited areas. The stops along the way decrease in size from a tiny village to a gas station along a back road. To avoid having to eat candy bars, chips and instant noodles for weeks on end, it is wise to send yourself some resupply boxes along the way.
From other hiker’s stories, I had imagined Washington as a return to high and isolated mountains, with many hard ascents and copious amounts of rain. Luckily, the ascents came easy. After a few thousand miles, your legs can take quite a beating, it appears.
In my 170 days on the PCT, I’ve walked in the rain three times in total, twice only for perhaps an hour or so. The third time came in Washington, and it was proper rain. The kind that drenches everything and continues all night, accompanied by thunderstorms.
The following days, everything was wet and muddy and nothing would dry, no matter how long I aired it out during lunch breaks. A thick fog accompanied me through the Glacier Peak Wilderness, so even though I crossed it, I never actually got to see it.
But eventually, the fog cleared and I could dry my tent and all my other gear, a welcome change. Still, being rained upon three times in 5.5 months is something that was completely unheard of for me, being from The Netherlands. (It rains here. A lot…)
The worst news
The disadvantages of no rain, however, are quite clear, and the problems that started when I was in Oregon, did not disappear in Washington.
Multiple forest fires were raging in the area, and during our stops, we also heard about fires near the Canadian border. Then, in Snoqualmie Pass, we got the worst news imaginable for us at that time. The final section of the PCT had just been closed down. Just miles from the Canadian border, hikers had been evacuated and the trail had been closed. I was about 10 days out from the border at that time and had a brief break from the trail planned to go to a friend’s wedding, so I kept hoping that there would be lots of rain and the trail would be reopened before I got to the end. Many hikers became disillusioned by the news though, and some quit right there and then.
Stehekin was our last stop, a tiny community with no road leading to it. The only way to get there is by boat, plane or on foot. Upon our arrival there, we kept hoping against all hope there would be a last-minute reprieval. This was our last chance to get information about detours or alternative routes, but the information was very sparse.
Internet was limited and slow, the rangers knew little to nothing about suggested detours and the state of those trails, and there were no trail maps available there. Many hikers quit and left the trail here, dejected but accepting the inevitable. The exuberance of Cascade Locks had vanished.
Towards the end
We decided to go with the strategy of eternal optimism: keep going until we could go no further and hope for a miracle along the way. It would have been a five-day walk from Stehekin; four days to the border and one day back to the nearest road to get back to Seattle.
It took us three days to get to Hart’s Pass, the last road and last way out. If you’re not hiking onward into Canada (which still wasn’t allowed this year due to COVID), you have to hike 30 miles from Hart’s Pass to the border, and then 30 miles back to exit the trail from the road at Hart’s Pass. But the trail was closed from Windy Pass onwards, 25 miles from the border. Determined to hike every possible mile, we walked from Hart’s Pass to Windy Pass, said our goodbyes to the trail there and then returned to the road.
A small ribbon across the trail at Windy was all we got by means of goodbye. A sign next to it proclaimed: trail closed. Of all the hard and trying times along the way, this was by far the hardest. Turning around here, less than a day’s walk from the end. The mountain tops we could see in the distance were Canadian, but out of our reach. No sign of any fires. No smoke, no smell of fire, just a bright blue sky and the sun shining down on us.
We did a little dance, shed a few tears, made ourselves some coffee and turned around.
And while the sun slowly set on our last day on the PCT, the mountains around us were bathed in a breathtaking glow. The sun’s rays were caressing the mountains on their way down, saying goodbye to this day. The PCT gave us all she got, a proper farewell to the three of us, walking there alone. Those last few miles were among the slowest we walked throughout the trail. Every other step, we stopped, turned and watched the views one last time. Embedding those views into our minds to sustain us through the coming months back in the real world.
Goodbye PCT, until we meet again, one day. Save those last few miles for me until then.
Curious how I got here? Check the previous post here