Hiking and car camping along the PCT: overview

Particularly in the last couple of summers I’ve placed an emphasis on hiking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that are accessible for day hikes: either out-and-back, loop, or point-to-point hikes.  Some of my recent PCT hikes fill in gaps between sections I’ve previously hiked, while other hikes extend my range either to the north or south of my previous range on the PCT.  Since I am fortunate to have a “second home base” in the Tahoe area, and since I have hiked the entire Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), my first PCT segments were in the roughly 50-mile stretch where the PCT and TRT overlap.

I learned two summers ago that a good way to organize hikes on the PCT, once they are too far from a home base to do as day trips, is to camp at a nearby campground for a few days and do day hikes nearby.  Two summers ago was my first experience car camping in connection with hiking; when I was younger my family car-camped every summer.  Car camping can entail sleeping in a tent or in a car, depending on your preferences.  For now at least, it is working well for me to sleep in the car.

This trip covered most of six days.  The first day consisted of the drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and some trailhead exploration.  My original plan was to hike each of the following five days, changing from one campground to another about 100 driving miles away after a short hike on the third day, and either staying one last night (driving home on the seventh day) or driving home in the evening of the sixth day.

As I will show later in this post, even with advance weather forecasts, sometimes plans need to be revisited in real time – and this can be a challenge when there is no cell phone service, internet connectivity, or weather radio reception.  Without question, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip overall and was happy to be able to fill in nearly 30 miles of the PCT as part of a total of almost 65 miles of hikes.

The area for my first hikes was between Carson Pass on CA-88 and Ebbetts Pass on CA-4 in Alpine County in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, mainly between portions of the Mokelumne Wilderness.  I identified the cluster of campgrounds near Blue Lakes as a good home base.  Two years ago I had hiked about 6 miles in from Ebbetts Pass, and I was hoping to fill in the entire stretch from the turnaround point of that hike to Carson Pass.

Although I had hoped to be able to camp in the Lower Blue Lake campground, the closest campground to the paved entrance road, I found when I arrived that it was full.  So I drove north along the lake shore past two other campgrounds, either full or closed all season, and ended up with a very nice campsite in the Upper Blue Lake expansion campground.  On the way in there are pretty views of Lower Blue Lake, showing how apt the name is.

picture of Lower Blue Lake

Lower Blue Lake

Not far from the campground there is also a nice view across a meadow toward The Nipple, a prominent nearby peak where I would be hiking on my second day.

picture of view of The Nipple

View of The Nipple

While trying to figure out the protocol for selecting a camp site I consulted one of the Camp Hosts, who was happy to lead me on a tour of the upper campground and its companion expansion campground.  In short order I had selected a site just a short walk from the edge of Upper Blue Lake.

picture of view from my campsite toward Upper Blue Lake

View from my campsite toward Upper Blue Lake

It is noteworthy that each campsite in this entire cluster of campgrounds is equipped with – in addition to the usual picnic table and fire ring – a substantial bear box for food storage.  I ended up putting all of my food, food preparation and cleanup, and personal items in the bear box, so I only had clothing in the car with me.  It was great to not have to worry about whether any local bears would be interested in odors from my toothpaste or any other personal items!

At the end of the day, after an early single-pan meal, I could easily walk over to the edge of Upper Blue Lake to enjoy a serene immediate post-sunset view across the lake.

picture of serene post-sunset view across Upper Blue Lake

Serene post-sunset view across Upper Blue Lake

I had plenty of time before full darkness to study the maps for the next day’s planned hike.  The lantern I’d taken along for this purpose had originally been acquired as a costume accessory for an ice skating group number a few years ago, and I was happy to have a special use for it.

picture of evening map study by lantern light

Evening map study by lantern light

It was just a 3-mile drive from my campsite to one of the trailheads I used: 2 miles past the other campgrounds that were full, plus 1 mile on paved Blue Lakes Rd.  At the entrance to the campground complex there is a small paved parking area with some signage.  Here I happened to notice a cluster of flowers, either Western mountain aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum) or wandering fleabane (Erigeron glacialis).  I have not yet learned how to reliably distinguish among asters, fleabanes, and daisies.  A bee was visiting the flowers one after another.

picture of flower (Western mountain aster or wandering fleabane) with a visiting bee

Flower (Western mountain aster or wandering fleabane) with a visiting bee

Along the paved road on the way to the trailhead there is a small pond that was particularly nicely illuminated in the morning.  There were quite a few lily pads and a few yellow pond lilies (Nuphar luteum) generating beautiful reflections in the water.

picture of yellow pond lily

Yellow pond lily

Before I left the Bay Area I was aware of a forecast for afternoon thundershowers for my third hiking day.  I had planned a short hike that I could easily complete before noon, prior to a 100-mile drive to a different campground near Sonora Pass.  Although I had brought a weather radio with me, on the first evening I discovered that there apparently aren’t any weather stations broadcasting within range of the Blue Lakes campgrounds, so I was unable to check for weather forecast updates.  During the night after my second hiking day I was quite surprised to wake up several times and realize that there was light precipitation falling on my car, at least 12 hours ahead of schedule.  Once daylight arrived I was even more surprised to discover that the precipitation had been snow!  I should point out that this was on 13 September, at least a month earlier than I usually think of for a season’s first snowfall.  This was the view from the shelter of my car.

picture of surprise morning snowy fairy land, viewed from my car

Surprise morning snowy fairy land, viewed from my car

As I mentally reviewed my hiking plan for the day and realized that it involved higher elevations than the campground, it was a quick decision to abandon the hiking plan.  However, the rest of my plan involved driving south to Sonora Pass to meet up with three other women for two days of hiking in that area.  They would be driving down from Truckee later in the morning, but I didn’t have a way to determine whether they were still planning to come down and whether there had been any other change in the weather forecast; the original forecast for the following two hiking days had been for good weather.  In addition, the driving route to the other campground was over Sonora Pass at 9600 feet elevation.  Even with only 1/2 inch of snow at 8200 feet, and clear pavement, I knew there could potentially be more snow higher.

My first decision was to simply load up the car and leave as quickly as possible.  I simply had no desire to be out in drippy weather trying to deal with a propane stove to cook a hot breakfast – even oatmeal and hot tea.  Fortunately I had brought an “emergency” alternative – a couple of baggies of Cheerios – so in fact I would be able to eat on-the-go.  The Camp Host did not have phone or internet service but directed me to a pullout about 2 miles up Blue Lakes Rd that he called the phone booth: a location where most people get phone reception.  So I loaded up my car and headed out to attempt to make phone contact with my other hikers.

On my way out to the paved road I again passed Lower Blue Lake, which had been so blue just the previous day.  Now it was slate grey and surrounded by a fairyland of show-tipped evergreen trees.

picture of Lower Blue Lake surrounded by snow-tipped evergreens

Lower Blue Lake surrounded by snow-tipped evergreens

It turned out to be easy to find the so-called phone booth, since there was already a car stopped in the large pull-out.  I still did not have phone service, but the kind driver of the other car let me use her phone to try a couple of calls: no answer so I left messages.  Meanwhile there was a clear view of The Nipple, where I had been hiking the previous morning.  The trail passes only a few hundred feet below the summit, so clearly the trail was now snow-covered.

picture of snow blanketing The Nipple just 24 hours after I’d hiked near the summit

Snow blanketing The Nipple just 24 hours after I’d hiked near the summit

I also noticed a small plant at the edge of the gravel turnout, peeking out from beneath some snow.  It turned out to be a lupine (Lupinus ssp.) which I didn’t try to further identify.  It is one of the types that grows fairly low.

picture of lupine in snow near Blue Lakes Rd

Lupine in snow near Blue Lakes Rd

I decided to take my time and enjoy the unexpected, but beautiful, snowy scenery along Blue Lakes Rd, since I’d abandoned my original plan for the day.  For the last 5 or 6 miles out to CA-88, the road follows near the West Fork of the Carson River, through Hope Valley.  I stopped near the Hope Valley Campground to enjoy this view.

picture of snowy view across Hope Valley

Snowy view across Hope Valley

Since I had been unable to reach my hiking companions my plan had become to return to the Bay Area, turning left (west) at CA-88; to go to Sonora Pass I would have turned right (east).  I stopped at the Carson Pass ranger station, since I could see that they were open, to see if they had a phone land line.  They didn’t, but one of the ranger station workers told me there is almost always more snow/precipitation at Sonora Pass than at Carson Pass.  Immediately across CA-88 from the ranger station the rocky hillside was covered with trees, possibly Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis).

picture of snow-covered junipers at Carson Pass

Snow-covered junipers at Carson Pass

I decided to stop at the nearby Meiss Trailhead, where the PCT continues north toward Echo Summit on US-50, the next major highway crossing.  As I drove into the large parking area, which was completely empty, I caught sight of a backpacker just leaving the northeast edge of the pavement, apparently on the trail.  I very quickly got out my camera and managed this shot as he passed by the PCT sign.  (I am assuming “he”.)  This picture is surely worth 1000 words about being prepared for the unexpected when hiking, especially something like a long-distance hike on the PCT!  I was especially glad I’d had a car to sleep in the previous night.

picture of backpacker on the snowy PCT at Meiss Trailhead

Backpacker on the snowy PCT at Meiss Trailhead

By the time I got to Jackson, at 1200 feet elevation and with nice, warm weather, I had begun to rethink my decision to return home.  In any case I had not yet reached my hiking companions and I felt that was necessary.  So I stopped again – I had stopped other places on the way, always without phone service – and finally I was able to place calls.  I learned that the other three women were well aware of the weather and the forecast – still nice for the next few days – and were planning to do the hikes that had been planned.  I continued to think about that as I continued to drive toward home.  By the time I got to the Stockton area I had essentially changed my mind about returning home and was prepared to drive up CA-120 and CA-108 to the Sonora Pass area from the west side instead of from the east side.  I stopped for yet more phone calls and was shortly on my way uphill once again.

My decision to resume the trip was a good one.  Although there was some intermittent rain during the afternoon as I drove up to the Sonora Pass area, it had stopped by 5pm and the campground was sufficiently sheltered by trees that the ground was dry for the two women who would sleep in tents.  One of the women brought firewood, so we had a nice campfire in our campsite’s fire ring.

picture of cozy campfire with hot drinks and enthusiastic hikers

Cozy campfire with hot drinks and enthusiastic hikers

We camped in the Clark Fork Campground near the edge of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness in Stanislaus National Forest.  The campground itself is in Tuolumne County, though our hikes were entirely within Alpine County.

We had a wonderful two more days of hiking.  Although the mornings were chilly – the first morning, the damp dish towel I’d left out to dry had frozen into a board – the afternoons were essentially T-shirt weather.  See here and here for descriptions of these hikes.

The second hike involved driving my car up to Sonora Pass in the morning, with a second car having been left at the ending trailhead a few miles from the Clark Fork Campground.  At the end of the hike we returned to the campground, finished breaking camp, and drove back up to Sonora Pass.  I would drive back to the Bay Area and my hiking companions would drive back to Truckee via US-395 on the east side of the Sierras.

Throughout the week the moon had been approaching full moon.  From the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area there was a striking view of the moon illuminating some clouds, with some nearby trees and not-as-nearby mountain peaks silhouetted against a darkening sky.

picture of nearly full moon over Sonora Pass

Nearly full moon over Sonora Pass

When I zoomed in with my camera I was able to get a detailed image of the moon’s features.  On the one hand, this is hardly remarkable since many amateur photographers have photographed the moon.  On the other hand, it is amazing to remember that, even though the moon is almost 2200 miles in diameter, it is almost 240,000 miles away.  There are not very many objects that are so far away that can be so clearly photographed in such detail with a straightforward consumer-based camera.  (Well, mine has a great zoom and I did use it!)

picture of full moon close-up

Full moon close-up

After enjoying the moon I drove nonstop back to the Bay Area, arriving home shortly before midnight.

This post was intended to be just an overview of some of the more interesting things that I experienced during my car camping and hiking trip that were not actually part of the hikes.  My next several posts will cover the hikes themselves.

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This entry was posted in Alpine County, car camping, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail, Stanislaus National Forest and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Hiking and car camping along the PCT: overview

  1. Sharon says:

    Thank you for the post. As always enjoyed the view 🌞

  2. Pingback: Pacific Crest Trail from Wet Meadows to Pennsylvania Creek | trailhiker

  3. Pingback: Pacific Crest Trail from a road crossing north of Wet Meadows to the Nipple | trailhiker

  4. Pingback: Pacific Crest Trail from Boulder Lake Trail to Paradise Valley Trail | trailhiker

  5. Pingback: Pacific Crest Trail from (near) Sonora Pass to Boulder Lake Trail | trailhiker

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