It's taken me quite a while to get around to writing a trip report for my hike of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail (hereafter referred to as the PCT). I have no good excuse other than that the last week and a half has been rather unproductive in general and I just haven't felt like forcing myself to write. nowaypablo and others who expressed interest in reading the trip report, sorry about the long wait!
I first started thinking about hiking the PCT in January, when I accepted an offer to be a Software Engineer at Google, with a flexible start date. I graduated on June 11, and elected to set my start date on December 4—almost 6 full months after graduation. Having grown up in western Washington, I hiked quite a bit in the North Cascades, and had dreamed since I was little of hiking the PCT. I decided that since I wanted to do a lot of hiking this summer, hiking the Washington section of the PCT would be a good way to do that.
As the spring academic term started, I began to plan for hiking the Washington section (approximately 505 miles) this summer. The more I researched, though, the more I began to contemplate hiking the entire trail—2,650 miles through Washington, Oregon, and California. Hiking the entire trail would take up more of my summer / fall before beginning work (which was beginning to seem quite expansive and daunting), and I was always impressed by people who had through hiked a long trail. (Several of my college friends have hiked the Appalachian Trail, which is ~2,200 miles.) At first I applied for a permit to section hike just the Washington portion of the trail, but shortly thereafter reconsidered and applied for a permit to hike the entire trail southbound.
Hiking the trail southbound is the less common of the two directions. Last year, about 10% of the 3,500 permits issued to through hike the PCT were issued for southbounders (or SOBOs, as they're commonly called). If I were a northbounder (NOBO), I'd want to start hiking in April or May in order to be through the lowland desert before the worst of the summer heat. As a SOBO, however, I could start at the ordinary time, even after a June graduation. SOBOs generally aim to start by the beginning of July, though the exact start date depends somewhat on how much snow there's been the previous winter, and how fast the snowpack is melting. (The North Cascades hold the world record for the most snowfall of anywhere in the world, and 12 feet (3.66 meters) of snowpack is not uncommon.) This last winter was an uncommonly high snowfall, and the spring was cool, so the snow melted relatively slowly. My target start date, therefore, was mid-July.
I acquired gear over the course of the spring. My goal was to have an ultralight pack, so to that end, I purchased a new pack, a new tent, a new sleeping pad, a new stove, and various other gear. When all was said and done, my base weight was just over 15 pounds, though I think by the time I got off trail in Cascade Locks, it was down to 12.5 lb or so. Base weight, for those unfamiliar with the metric, is the weight of everything in the pack but consumables. My actual pack weight would vary over the course of the trip, from ~35 lb (estimated) at the heaviest, with a week's worth of food and 5 liters of water, to somewhere between 15 and 20 lb at the lightest. I'll talk about the specific gear I used at the end of the post, for those who are interested in the full gear description and how it performed. Below is a picture of all my gear.
Planning food is somewhat more complicated for SOBOs than it is for NOBOs. The trail in Washington is quite a bit more isolated than it is in southern California, so hikers must ship packages to themselves at 4–5 resupply points through the state. Immediately upon arriving home from graduation I set to work planning food. My breakfasts were the same every day: granola with peanut butter protein powder. For lunches and snacks, I assembled a huge variety of snacks—24 flavors of granola bars, 6 types of dried fruit, 5 types of nuts, and 17 different sorts of junk food. I calculated calorie density of each type of snack, and the average across all of them was 125 calories / oz. This was exactly what I'd been aiming for. That meant that my diet starting out—about 3,000 calories / day, would weigh 1.5 lb, and when I ramped up my food to 4,000 calories / day, I'd carry 2 lb of food per day. My dinners would be my lone hot meal, and I had three recipes I rotated: beans, rice, Fritos, and cheese; ramen noodles with Thai peanut sauce; and pesto with ramen noodles. The picture below is a sample of the food I shipped to myself. I repackaged almost everything into serving sized (snack or sandwich) ziplock bags.
I shipped food to myself four places in Washington state: Stehekin (a little town in North Cascades National Park, with an 11-mile shuttle ride from the PCT), Stevens Pass Ski Area (on Highway 2), a gas station at Snoqualmie Pass (I-90), and the Kracker Barrel store at White Pass (Highway 12, 0.5 miles off the trail). I tried my best to pack an appropriate amount of food each time. It was challenging because I didn't know when my trail appetite would kick in. Most sources say that the your appetite will approximately double about 2–3 weeks into the hike, so I had to account for that in shipping food. As it turned out, I ended up having a ton of extra food at my first three resupplies, because I made faster time than I'd anticipated, then almost running out of food before reaching my 4th resupply.
In order to prevent this from getting more tiresome and longwinded than it already is, I'm going to provide a short description and a few pictures of each section.
Section 1: Harts Pass -> Canada Border -> Stehekin
My father and John, close family friend joined me for the first section. It's quite a drive to the trailhead, about 4.5 hours from my house, so it was a good thing they joined me or it might have been hard to get a ride. The United States doesn't allow crossing the border via the PCT, so hiking the entire trail southbound requires first hiking 30 miles north to reach the northern terminus on the border, then returning south. (Canada's policy is much more reasonable, and they provide a method to preapply to cross the border via the PCT.) My dad and John were going to join me for the 60 mile round trip to the border and back. The views between Harts Pass and the border were fantastic, as were the views south to Rainy Pass. Rainy Pass to Stehekin was kinda boring. I resupplied out of the car before continuing on south.
Section 2: Stehekin -> Stevens Pass
Stehekin is a small town in North Cascades National Park, reachable from the PCT via a 12-mile shuttle ride. It has a post office, so I had sent a resupply package there for the next section: 110 miles to Stevens Pass. The trail so far had been quite remote: I had no cell service between the Canada border and Stevens Pass, and only passed 3 roads: the road to Harts Pass, Highway 20, and the road to Stehekin. The section from Stehekin to Stevens Pass was primarily through the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Glacier Peak is one of the higher peaks in the North Cascades, but most Washingtonians don't even know it exists, since it is so incredibly isolated. This section was beautiful, remote, and felt very wild.
Section 3: Stevens Pass -> Snoqualmie Pass
This ~75 mile section was quite nice, though I didn't find it quite lived up to the standards set by the previous, but it had lots of beautiful lakes, a few challenging stream crossings, and quite a few friendly mosquitoes.
Section 4: Snoqualmie Pass -> White Pass
This 99 mile section was dominated by Mount Rainier. When Rainier was in sight, it was some of the most superlative hiking of the trip. Unfortunately, it took the first 2 days of this section to reach Rainier.
Section 5: White Pass -> Cascade Locks, OR
This was the last section, and the longest at 150 miles. I carried 7 days of food, though I finished it in a bit less than 6 days. It began with the Goat Rocks Wilderness, which fully matched the first section in its jaw-dropping splendor. After one night in the lowlands, the trail ascended again into the Mount Adams Wilderness, which was quite nice also (though smoke blowing down from forest fires in BC limited visibility to 2–5 miles). After that there was about 70 miles of boring trail through fairly nondescript forest and quite bad mosquitoes.
Goat Rocks Wilderness
Mt Adams Wilderness
A river crossing on the trail
Almost to Cascade Locks:
Thoughts on Quitting the Trail
I began this trip intending to hike the entire PCT southbound. I found after hiking largely by myself for the state of Washington (23 days including 1 zero day) that I didn't really enjoy hiking by myself after about a week. I spent some time listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and a lot of time just inhabiting my own head. If I were doing this trip with a friend or had found hiking companions who travelled my speed, I'd probably still be on trail. I'm planning on hiking another 500 mile section in the High Sierra in September, so it seems I haven't entirely been dissuaded from wanting to hike long distances.
While the scenery was captivating, the isolation was less pronounced, as my attention was fully occupied in appreciating my surroundings. Hiking through generic young forest, though, made the boredom more pronounced.
Overall I was very happy with the gear I chose to take on this trip. The only item I already know I'd like to replace is my stove—it was very effective, but not particularly light. My list of equipment can be found here: https://lighterpack.com/r/2lfciw I'll go through each major item below with my thoughts.
Sleeping Bag: Feathered Friends Swallow UL
1 lb 15 oz
I was very happy with my sleeping bag. It was too warm on all but one night, and I used it as a quilt most of the time. I'd probably like to switch to a quilt in the future for the weight savings, but overall this is a quality piece of gear I was happy to have with me.
Sleeping Pad: Thermarest NeoAir XLite WR (Women's Regular)
I feel like I could easily substitute the Small size of this pad for the Women's Regular and save some weight. I really like the comfort and warmth of this pad though.
Pack: UltraLight Adventures Circuit
This pack carried all my equipment like a champ. If I can reduce the weight and bulk of the equipment I carry for future trips, I feel like I could use a lighter pack. Still, at under 3 lb, it's pretty light and very comfortable even with a 30–40 lb load.
Tent: TarpTent Notch
The TarpTent Notch is probably my favorite single piece of gear that I brought. It's a double-wall one-man tent that sets up using two trekking poles. The waterproof floor is made of sturdy silnylon fabric, so I didn't need a ground sheet, and was so quick and easy to set up that sometimes I threw it up quickly to eat dinner inside if the bugs were bad.
Stove: JetBoil Flash Lite
As I mentioned above, this was my least favorite piece of gear. Many people I met on the trip had a small stove like this plus a small titanium pot like this, a system which would be less than half the weight of mine. Note that the 12 oz doesn't include the weight of fuel or a fuel canister.
Water Filtration: Sawyer Squeeze
I was relatively happy with the Sawyer Squeeze. I'd like to try the Katadyn BeFree, as I've read good things about it, but probably won't spend the money on it right away as this system is perfectly serviceable.
Electronics: iPhone SE + Anker PowerCore 10000 & charger cords / brick
I was quite happy with my electronics system. My iPhone served as my primary camera, while the Anker PowerCore sufficed to charge the phone 4 times in between towns.
This has gotten pretty long. Feel free to ask questions about other pieces of gear I used, I don't think I'm going to type up the smaller items individually.
Edit: I realized that I forgot to link to a couple of Google Photos albums I made of the trip.
As someone who would love to work my way through at least part of the PCT at some point, this was an awesome read! Some pretty breathtaking photos here, thank you so much for sharing.
Any clue what the small white flowers/plants in the first picture of Section 4 are? They're gorgeous and vaguely ghostly.