A second consecutive day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) started at the Carter Meadows trailhead and continued to a crossing of CA-36. The previous day two friends and I had started at Humbug Summit and hiked 14.2 miles, including 13 PCT miles, to the Carter Meadows trailhead. That hike ended with an adventure involving whether our ride would be able to find the trailhead to pick us up at the end of the afternoon; fortunately the adventure ended well.
This hike featured a few views of Lassen Peak and Lake Almanor. The highlight was, rather than photogenic views, passing the official midpoint of the PCT’s 2650-mile route between the Mexican and Canadian borders. Although I’d learned when researching the hike that we would be passing the midpoint, I did not know whether there would be anything there to mark it – after all, the actual midpoint moves around slightly as sections of the PCT are occasionally re-routed with accompanying changes in trail mileage. So we were rather excited to find an official monument at the location. Most PCT posts are wood, but this one is cement and looks like it is intended to survive years of weathering.
This image shows three pictures of the post. The center image shows the entire post from the front, including a small geocache-type box sitting at the base that we found to be filled with notebooks and slips of paper – essentially a register – and several pens that did not seem to be functional. The lettering at the top of the post is hard to read in the photo, but it says “PCT midpoint.” The lettering on the left side, observed hiking northbound, indicates that it is 1325 miles to Canada; the lettering on the right side, observed hiking southbound, indicates that it is 1325 miles to Mexico. I hope that through-hikers feel a sense of accomplishment in suitable proportion to ours upon reaching this milestone. For us it was only the approximate midpoint of a 16-mile day hike – about 0.6% of the length of the PCT – but we were thrilled to be there!
The hike was in Lassen National Forest, primarily in Plumas County. The Carter Meadows Trail is actually in Tehama County, as is the side trail to Butt Mountain, and the PCT generally follows the county line through this area. We officially covered 14.2 miles of the PCT, from official mile 1321.6 to 1335.8, according to the PCT data book, although my GPS showed only 13.5 miles after subtracting the Carter Meadows access trail, a side trip toward Butt Mountain, and some unplanned backtracking when we returned to the PCT.
Note that the midpoint post is located approximately at official mile 1327, simply indicating that the overall PCT mileage, and therefore the exact midpoint location, evolves over time.
On the GPS track image the orange dot shows the location of the Carter Meadows trailhead; the PCT junction is close to the nearest red carat.
It is notable that we were fortunate to do these hikes with a designated driver. This meant that we only needed to have one car, and we did not need to reposition cars each day. We were driven to the beginning trailhead each morning and picked up at the ending trailhead at a pre-designated time. This was a real treat that made it possible to do longer sequential hikes and cover more miles of the PCT.
The first part of the hike, to the side trail to Butt Mountain, was mainly a climb, and the remainder of the hike was mainly a descent. The notch around mile 6 represents the unplanned backtracking along the PCT following our planned detour toward Butt Mountain. The Carter Meadows Trail climbs gently, with a 4% grade, to the PCT. The PCT then climbs toward the Butt Mountain junction with a more typical PCT grade of about 8.5%. The long descent was in between, with a grade of about 6.7%. Overall the elevation gain was about 2000 feet and the elevation loss was about 3300 feet.
The PCT climbs through moderately open forest in which many of the tree trunks are covered with bright green moss. I believe the height on the trunks where the moss begins is an indication of typical winter snow depth. Occasionally there were large boulders of volcanic rock.
After climbing four switchbacks and reaching 7200 feet elevation the PCT arrives at the top of a long ridge, which it follows northeast for about a mile and a half. From the switchbacks there were a few places with filtered views of Lassen Peak in nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park. Along one of the legs between switchbacks I was monitoring the views of Lassen, hoping for a clear view. I noticed a skinny tree branch arched across the trail and decided that would be the next spot where I would pause to check the view; due to the slope of the hillside it wasn’t quite safe for me to sightsee while actively hiking. To my great amusement, the tree branch was pointing to a small opening between trees, in which there was a nice view of Lassen Peak! I immediately named the tree branch the Junipero Serra tree, as kind of an inside joke about a statue of the famous founder of California, located in Hillsborough near I-280.
As we gained elevation there was a view ahead of what I think is Butt Mountain, which we were hoping to climb a bit later.
Shortly after reaching the ridge there was a lovely view to the southeast of several rows of hills, one behind the other.
On the previous day’s hike we had encountered snow on the ground below 7000 feet elevation. The first part of this hike had a mostly southern exposure and was snow-free. Just past the 7500-foot elevation high point about 3.2 miles from the trailhead we were briefly on more of a northern exposure, and we began to see some snow near, then on, the trail. And, as on the previous day, we saw a few bear tracks right on the trail. Since the snow had been on the ground for only a few days, evidently not all of the local bears were hibernating yet.
Continuing along the ridge, we had a nice view generally to the west, including snow-capped peaks that might have been in the Trinity Alps, or perhaps the Yolla Bolly – Middle Eel Wilderness; both are about 90 miles away. In other locations the western view included the flat floor of the Sacramento Valley.
About 4.8 miles from the trailhead, or 3.6 miles from the PCT junction, we reached a junction with a spur trail to Butt Mountain. Since the top of Butt Mountain was only 250 feet higher than the elevation at the junction and the trail was no more than 1 mile each way, we decided to see if we could get to the summit, which promised 360 degree panoramic views.
The spur trail was easy to follow, though with a thin snow cover. By the time we had covered perhaps 1/3 of the lateral distance to Butt Mountain the trail began to cross fields of large-size talus. Although there were cairns to mark the way, it was slow going. After less than 0.4 mile – and barely 50 feet of elevation gain – we decided to turn back in the interest of time, since it looked as though the rest of the trail to Butt Mountain would be across similar talus. As we retreated, I theorized that Butt Mountain had been named that because it is necessary to use both feet, both hands, and your butt for the descent. After the hike I did some more research and learned that Butt Valley, Reservoir, and Mountain are all named for Horace Butts, a successful early miner.
Just after we exited the talus field on our way back to the PCT we decided to stop for the first of two lunch breaks. We had a wonderful view of Lake Almanor less than 15 miles to the east. The Almanor Peninsula, which juts into the lake from the north, is clearly visible.
As we enjoyed the views a Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) made a brief appearance on a nearby treetop. I only had time to get one picture before it flew off to a more distant tree.
This is a view of the snow-covered spur trail, on the way back to the PCT. This portion was somewhat rocky on the downhill slope, but another nearby section seemed rock-free and looked tempting for a downhill saucer slide. Although we encountered a bit more snow along the PCT, this was the snowiest section of the day. On the outbound leg on the spur trail we simply followed the obvious flat path that defined the trail; on the return we could follow our own boot prints.
When we got back to the PCT the junction was not immediately obvious, and we mistakenly curved to the right and did not notice that it was a T junction. We were also looking in front of our feet due to some snow on the trail and did not look up high enough to see the nearly hidden (from the spur trail) signs. As a result we actually backtracked on the PCT for several tenths of a mile before we were positive we were going the wrong way and turned back once more.
The ridgetop followed by the PCT curves eastward, and the trail crosses a minor saddle to follow the north side of the ridge for a short distance. The trail crosses a talus field, and I was very impressed that the trail had actually been constructed across the talus by clearing a path down to dirt level. More typically, trails tend to cross talus fields without any particular trail construction, sometimes using cairns to mark the way. There was no need for cairns here.
Almost immediately after we crossed this talus field we had a wonderful panoramic view of Lassen Peak and several other nearby peaks. I believe the one at the left is Brokeoff Mountain.
A few minutes later we had crossed back to the south side of the ridge and paused for a few minutes to enjoy a bit of brilliant yellow in some nearby shrubs, perhaps willows.
In this area we could see a valley off to our right (to the south); I think this valley contains Shanghai Creek, some 2000 feet below.
About 1.7 miles past the spur trail to Butt Mountain we came to the PCT midpoint post, described above. We really wanted to sign one of the registers in the box, but the initial search of the contents had turned up three pens, none of them working, and none of us had a pen in our day pack. (Note to self: always carry a pen!) I decided to try looking in the box once more, and managed to find five pens. The first one I tried worked – so we signed one of the little notebooks, which said 2016 on the front cover. Finding the PCT midpoint and being able to sign the register seemed like the biggest accomplishments of the day! We spent between 5 and 10 minutes there, including finding a working pen, but also just enjoying the moment.
Right around the midpoint the PCT curves to the north and begins to descend in earnest, just after mile 8.2 on the elevation profile. The trail zigs and zags a few times during the descent. In a few places we noticed that there was more forest litter than we usually see, and we had to climb over a downed tree.
In places I particularly noticed that the hillside was quite steep. Here the slope is nearly 30 degrees on the uphill side and perhaps even steeper on the downhill side.
The PCT crosses a small stream, Soldier Creek, at about 5500 feet elevation; see the small dip on the elevation profile. Just after the descent resumes, signage advises that the PCT is passing out of Lassen National Forest into private land owned by a forest products company with logging interests. Within the private land there was evidence of logging operations, including areas that had evidently been re-planted relatively recently, with trees under 10 feet tall. In addition the PCT crosses a few logging roads: a total of 4 in the remaining 2.6 miles of the hike. Near one of the logging roads there was a cluster of trees with brilliant red leaves that made a pretty contrast with the green of the pine trees.
Additional signage indicates parcel boundaries between different logging companies. A bit surprisingly, we began to hear cows vocalizing. Just after the third road crossing the trail suddenly emerged from forest into a series of large meadows: Soldier Meadows. The trail was defined by two sets of long parallel logs which led to a low bridge across Soldier Meadows Creek. And the heard-but-not-yet-seen cows were suddenly visible. Some grazed nonchalantly and others waited at attention for the intruders – us – to pass by.
Signage that I noticed later indicated that the grazing area is part of Baccala Ranch. This ranch was homesteaded in the 1850’s by the Baccala family. A dairy that produced butter and cheese was active for about 30 years around the turn of the 20th century. The ranch is still owned by the Baccala family. In fact, after crossing back into Lassen National Forest and then back into Baccala Ranch, the PCT makes a fourth road crossing and passes via a gate through a fence. Near this gate we encountered a rancher in a pickup truck who – very nicely – asked us where we were going. I told him that we were hiking on the PCT and appreciated having permission to hike across the ranch land; he seemed to accept the explanation and drove off.
At these lower elevations, now just below 5000 feet, I believe I noticed some poison oak with red leaves-of-three. Also there were some areas covered with mahala mat (Ceanothus prostratus), sometimes called squaw carpet.
Among the rocks on the ground were numerous interesting-looking, porous volcanic rocks.
The final half mile of the hike was back on logging company land, and there was a sign indicating 0.5 mile to Hwy 36 and just 15.2 miles to Lassen Volcanic National Park. We were really starting to get close to the National Park!
When we reached CA-36 our ride was waiting for us and we drove back to Chester to our overnight motel. The following day we would hike the next 10 miles, north of CA-36. We had enjoyed our hike through the forest and were looking forward to getting even closer to Lassen the next day.