When I have an opportunity to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail as a point-to-point hike, I usually take advantage of the opportunity. This time a 19-mile segment hike was planned, and we had the minimum number of point-to-point hikers (4) to meet our hiking group’s informal guidelines for a safe trip. The idea was that we would hike in pairs, each pair starting at one end of the segment, meeting up somewhere in the middle, and exchanging car keys. The route was between Buck’s Summit and the tiny town of Belden, passing through Plumas National Forest, essentially entirely within Buck’s Lake Wilderness.
The GPS track shows an overview of the route, with the orange dot indicating the Buck’s Summit trailhead, where I started hiking. In addition to my point-to-point hiking partner, 5 other hikers began an out-and-back hike from Buck’s Summit.
There was a bit of friendly debate about whether it was preferable to hike this segment northbound or southbound. The elevation profile illustrates the debate. Buck’s Summit is at an elevation of about 5500 feet, while Belden is at about 2300 feet. Most of the elevation change is accomplished in a steady 4000-foot ascent or descent in the 7 miles closest to Belden. The average grade is just under 10%, so pretty reasonable. The pair starting at Belden faced an ascent, starting in the morning with fresh legs. On the other hand, the pair starting at Buck’s Summit faced a descent, starting later in the day after hiking 12 miles.
Hike highlights included the beautiful scenery of Plumas National Forest, a couple of lakes, a glimpse of Mt Lassen, rain clouds in the distance (mostly), and lots of wildflowers. I will write a separate post about the wildflowers.
From Buck’s Summit the trail climbs pretty steadily, gaining 1500 feet to a high elevation of about 7000 feet. About 0.6 mile from the trailhead there was a pretty view across nearby ridges.
The trail passes through different types of habitat, including chaparral, open deciduous woodland, and conifer forest. Especially in the conifer forest areas, most of the tree trunks have moss growing on them, but only above the 5-6 foot level of snow depth in a typical snow year.
About 4.2 miles from the trailhead we reached a junction with Spanish Peak Trail, and shortly after that a junction with Right Hand Branch. About 4.8 miles from the trailhead we had a brief, and slightly hazy, view of Lassen Peak 40 miles away, with Lake Almanor almost directly in the same line of sight. The relatively small amount of snow on Lassen is due, of course, to the current drought conditions.
At 4.5 miles we passed Silver Lake Trail, and at 6.2 miles there was an excellent view of Silver Lake with its tiny island.
In a couple of places the trail passes close to rocky outcroppings like this one.
After a brief shower some plants, like this lupine, had raindrops glistening on the leaves in the post-shower sunshine.
Although we stayed dry for most of the hike, we could see rain clouds not far away, and at times there was low, rumbling thunder in the distance.
Over the next several miles the trail rolls up and down gently, descends 500 feet, and rolls some more. The last high point before the descent is where the trail passes Mt Pleasant, followed shortly by a sign indicating Clear Creek Springs. Many of the near-trail water sources are indicated by signs, as a help for through-hikers. I was particularly impressed that the short side trail to Clear Creek Springs was marked by a pair of cairns.
A bit farther along there was an interesting down tree across the trail, which I instinctively dubbed the over-under tree: As I approached it from the uphill side I was wondering whether I should go over or under it! The gap underneath seemed just a bit tight, so I climbed over, even though the top was about waist high.
The trail crosses a small tributary of Clear Creek and follows near the creek for a mile or so. Near a final creek crossing our two pairs of hikers met up and stopped for a short break, around 9.8 miles from the start. This was actually my only sit-down break of the entire hike, though there were numerous 30-second stops for photos.
At 11.1 miles is a junction with Three Lakes Trail. The closest lake is only ½ mile away, but I didn’t see it – or didn’t look at the right place. The trail started passing through chaparral and passed a sign indicating Bracken Fern Spring. Once again some of the clouds in the area were pretty dark, with rain streaking down into the hills.
Around 12 miles from Buck’s Summit, the PCT gently begins the long descent into Belden. At first the descent is rather gentle, as the trail winds around a hillside covered in chaparral.
Near a sign denoting Canyon View Spring there was an amazing view into the canyon of the North Fork Feather River, with the river some 3200 feet below. It was a bit humbling to realize that the descent, already in progress for 800 vertical feet, would not end until the river was reached.
Below 5000 feet elevation the trail passes from chaparral into forest, and remains in the forest. Perhaps 500 feet lower a series of switchbacks begins. The official PCT description mentions 36 switchbacks, but I certainly did not count them! and they do not all show clearly on the GPS track. During the descent it started to rain lightly, and I donned some rain gear for the second time.
Occasionally there were sufficient windows through the trees to see and appreciate views, like this one of Red Hill, which had been passed earlier on at higher elevation.
Later, a bit lower in elevation, there were pretty views of the serene North Fork Feather River.
Almost abruptly, there is signage indicating that the trail is leaving Buck’s Lake Wilderness, and there is a PCT register particularly used by through-hikers. The trail crosses two tracks of the Western Pacific Railroad. Currently, there is quite an array of maintenance cars and equipment occupying one of the tracks. We heard at least 3 or 4 trains pass during the latter part of the descent.
After I crossed the tracks I got a little confused about which way to go to arrive at my car, which was only about 100 yards away at the time with my hiking partner waiting patiently. I walked back and forth along the tracks for a short detour before consulting the trail description to determine that walking down the paved road was indeed the correct path past the equestrian parking area where our hiking partners had left the car in the morning.
This was a beautiful hike in an area where I’d not hiked previously. Hopefully our group can figure out how to stage a point-to-point hike on the next section of the PCT to the north – which will start out with a long climb out of Belden back to higher country.