Up The Road: Volcanic California Tour: The Pacific Crest Trail

Sep 9, 2020

Burney Falls
Credit Don Graham / Flickr Creative Commons

This week Up the Road heads up the trail—for solitude and some inspiration on short trips along the Pacific Crest Trail, in the shadow of the Cascades. Round out your Volcanic California Tour on some of the PCT’s finest, least visited sections.

Officially known as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, the PCT’s total route runs 2,653 miles from Mexico through California, Oregon, and Washington. An epic journey, by any standard. In normal years many people undertake the adventure two or three weeks at a time, as “thru-hikers” on multi-year backpacks.

But this is not a normal year. Deep into 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, this year the Pacific Crest Trail Association advises people to “stay safe, stay local”—meaning, “hike safe, hike local.” Short trips only, on nearby trail sections.

As on other National Scenic Trails, the PCT hike-local request began with concern about overwhelmed supply chains in rural areas. Then came ethical questions: What happens when groups of hikers meet on the trail, share food, socialize, and then hitchhike together to and from near-trail towns? What might happen if sick hikers overwhelm tiny rural hospitals, competing with locals for critical medical supplies and services? 

Plan your day hikes and brief backpacks with help from the PCT Association site, which recommends various mile-by-mile trail guidebooks and detailed maps. National Geographic’s maps—there’s also an app—were developed in conjunction with the Association. If you’re strictly digital and plan to find you way by phone, set it all up in advance—no signal most of the way—and make sure to bring extra phone batteries or a charger.

To avoid backtracking on the trail, arrange for pick-up, or set up a shuttle system—leave one vehicle where you plan to end up—or, plan loop hikes, linking with other trail systems. And then enjoy:

Avalanche lilies at alpenglow, Klamath National Forest.
Credit Jeff P. / Flickr Creative Commons

On the PCT through Lassen National Volcanic Park—start or end on the highway just west of Chester—you’ll wander right through Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a rustic old-time but not cheap lodge and cabins with natural hot springs. (No soaks or massages this year, alas, due to COVID-19.) Maybe end here. What could be better than a hot shower, hearty ranch dinner—a generator runs the kitchen—and deep sleep in a knotty-pine room lit by kerosene lamps?

Farther north along the PCT, halfway between Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta, is McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Wondrous Burney Falls is fed by spring flows of 100 million gallons daily. The porous volcanic basalt and moss-green cliffs make for an amazing water show.

Rare black swifts nest near the falls in spring and stay until frost, darting after insects through the mists. Another cool Burney Falls bird is the wrenlike California dipper, known in John Muir’s day as the water ouzel. The dipper sometimes dives into creeks and walks along streambeds, turning over rocks seeking fish eggs and larvae, then shoots up out of the water like the space shuttle.

From Burney Falls the trail trends westward into the Klamath Mountains at Castle Crags State Park, for deep solitude and great mountain hiking on the PCT’s lonely “Big Bend” section.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread.

Photo Credit #1

Photo Credit #2