This was the second day of a late fall four-day hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Shasta County. A friend and I were planning to hike most of Section O between Burney Falls State Park and Castle Crags State Park at the I-5 crossing near Dunsmuir. The previous day we had hiked from Cabin Creek to Ash Camp, leaving a car stashed overnight at Cabin Creek in anticipation of hiking southbound from I-5 to Cabin Creek on this second day.
Due to the seasonally short daylight hours, cool weather, and forecast rain, we had decided to spend our overnights in area motels. In addition to being more comfortable, this gave us the opportunity to dry our gear and boots overnight between hikes.
We had prepared and equipped ourselves for light rain all day. And as on the previous day, much of the hike was through misty, but lovely, forest within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Due to the mist and clouds we had to be – and were – content with close-at-hand views rather than distant views that would have been available in clearer weather.
As kind of a counterpoint to the cool, damp weather – hiking temperatures were mainly in the 40’s – we were happy to avoid certain issues related to warmer weather. One of the authoritative books on this part of the PCT makes several references to flies being annoyingly present along Section O in the summer. Even though the descriptions sound more like gnats, we were happy that we saw neither flies nor gnats during the entire 4 days of hiking.
The official trailhead marking the north end of Section O – and the south end of Section P – is at the east side of the exit ramp complex at Exit 726 of I-5 at Soda Creek Rd. The PCT heading southbound toward Cabin Creek follows Soda Creek Rd generally east for about 0.4 mi, crossing a set of Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and a bridge across the Sacramento River. By using the existing paved road for this short distance it is unnecessary to have a separate bridge for the PCT. We decided not to hike along the paved road, so we parked our car at the junction of Soda Creek Rd and Riverside Rd in order to begin hiking on a normal trail surface.
The GPS track image shows an overview of the route. The initial portion crosses private property; after a switchback and road crossing 0.4 mile from our start, a sign indicates that the PCT is entering Castle Crags State Park’s eastern section, east of I-5. About 4.2 miles later, where I did not notice a sign, the PCT leaves Castle Crags State Park and re-enters Shasta-Trinity National Forest for the remainder of the hike. My GPS recorded 16.9 miles for the hike; this included an unintended detour of about 0.3 mile and a 0.2-mile spur trail at the end to the Cabin Creek trailhead. The PCT distance was 16.4 miles, which corresponds well to the 16.2-mile distance from mile 1505.8 to mile 1489.6, according to the PCT data book.
The GPS track shows an unusual feature near the middle: what looks like a big detour, in a shape reminiscent of Cape Cod. Studying my maps the evening before the hike, I realized that this is basically a very long switchback whose function is to climb approximately 600 feet up what would otherwise be a very steep west side of Girard Ridge. This begins around 5.6 miles from the beginning of the hike and lasts until 9.2 miles, so 3.6 trail miles to climb from 4000 to 4600 feet elevation.
Overall, the hike starts at 2100 feet elevation, climbs to 4700 feet elevation at the top of Girard Ridge, and descends to 2600 feet elevation at Cabin Creek. There is a little over 2800 feet of ascent and 2300 feet of descent, so the average grade is 5.7%.
It is worth noting that my primary resource for detailed elevation profiles, the online-available Halfmile maps, showed much more elevation gain and loss than my GPS unit showed for this hike as well as the previous day’s hike. The extra gain and loss was nearly 2000 feet – that’s 2000 feet gain and 2000 feet loss – for each day. I am not sure why there is such a large discrepancy. It is an important factor in my hike planning; this would have been a much more strenuous hike with the Halfmile map’s elevation gain and loss.
In moist areas there were lush green ferns growing on the forest floor, like these.
Although gentle, the climb to Girard Ridge was nearly 10 miles long. When we know there’s a long uninterrupted climb, my friend and I like to stop for a break about halfway through or after a couple of hours, whichever comes first. This time, however, we were making good time and not feeling tired, so we continued hiking longer than usual before taking a break. In fact, we didn’t stop until we’d hiked almost 9 miles. By then it was definitely time to fuel up!
Along the way, after about 5 miles, there was a bit of a break in both the trees and the clouds, and I had a nice view almost to the west down Fall Creek’s valley.
A bit later we passed several rocks next to the trail that were obviously marble – an unusual find. The geology of the area is rather complex, with rock of wildly varying ages exposed at the ground surface at different points along the trail.
As it happens, the marble rock kind of marked the beginning of the so-called Cape Cod switchback. About a half mile later we passed a very small stream tumbling down the steep hillside: the beginning of Fall Creek. As we climbed it seemed as though we were going to hike right up into a cloud of mist. We were planning to take a break before it got too wet, but in the meantime just kept going. More of the trees were conifers. Finally, after 1.8 miles on the lower leg of the switchback, we reached the actual switchback. A little later I noticed an area of trail with a pattern I occasionally see; it reminds me why the trail surface is often referred to as tread. I’m curious to learn why the pine needles seem to clear away in oval-shaped bare spots that are unrelated to boot print size or hiking stride.
This image of the trail along the upper leg of the switchback shows the forest, mist, and steepness of the Girard Ridge hillside negotiated by the switchback. It was easy to see why the guidebook warns through-hikers that there are no suitable (i.e., flat) camp sites for several miles of the trail in this area.
I remembered that the guidebook mentioned a location where “Mount Shasta now reveals itself for full inspection” and “you get your first view of Castle Crags” (for northbound hikers), so I was paying attention to breaks in the trees where a view in the appropriate direction might be available. I did stop to take a picture at one such break, just to document the fact that, on this day, the only view was directly into a mist cloud!
Finally, near the top of the upper switchback leg, we stopped for a break. However, there wasn’t a particularly good place to stop – we generally look for a log or rock, dry of course, to sit on. So our break was barely 10 minutes before we continued hiking. We knew we were close to the day’s highest elevation of 4700 feet, and after that it would be a steady, but gentle, descent to Cabin Creek.
The end of the switchback is marked by a turn from north to east. About 0.7 mile later is the highest elevation of the day, and very soon after that there is a small trail to the right leading slightly uphill to Girard Ridge Rd. I think this is the area where the views of Mt Shasta and Castle Crags are supposed to be, but it was too cloudy to tell if any views were even possible. After another 0.8 mile the PCT crosses Girard Ridge Rd, signed 39N13.
The hike down the east side of Girard Ridge was fairly misty. The trail grade was easy to hike and the trail was in excellent condition, so we basically continued at a comfortable pace. Every so often I stopped to take a picture of the ”local” view into the forest.
About 4 1/2 miles after crossing Girard Ridge Rd the PCT reaches a rather complicated intersection of dirt and gravel roads where it seems that roads lead in all directions. You need to walk along one of the roads for a couple hundred yards to find the spot where the PCT leaves the area. It is difficult to sign the area well, and unfortunately I found the signage to be confusing. My friend had gone several minutes ahead of me and we were communicating via walkie talkies. She pointed out that you have to ignore the first PCT sign and keep going until you find the right one(!). I ended up taking a 10-minute detour down one of the incorrect roads before finding the trail again.
From this area it was about 1 mile to the spur trail to the Cabin Creek trailhead. At the tee intersection there is a bridge across Squaw Valley Creek. Of course, this was the same bridge we had encountered the previous morning at the beginning of that hike (ping) . This picture is blurry on the left side because there was some mist on my camera lens that I had not successfully cleaned off. I think it makes the picture look a little more like an Impressionist picture!
The spur trail follows Squaw Valley Creek as it becomes Cabin Creek – or perhaps they are just different names for the same creek. In any case the creek was rushing along, tumbling down tiny rapids between banks lined with ferns and moss-covered rocks.
We were grateful – but certainly not surprised – that the car we’d left there the previous morning was waiting for us. We had made good time on our nearly 17-mile hike through misty forest and over Girard Ridge. We still needed to drive back to the beginning of the hike to retrieve the other car and then drive to our new motel located in Burney, closer to the next two days’ hikes. But because we finished hiking early, we also had sufficient daylight to make a side trip to the planned end point of the next day’s hike to pre-position a car there; this would save us more than an hour of valuable daylight the next morning.