This was the first day of a late fall four-day hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Shasta County. I did the trip with a friend, and we hoped to hike most of Section O between Burney Falls State Park and Castle Crags State Park at the I-5 crossing near Dunsmuir. We equipped ourselves to do day hikes, staying in area motels. In four days we hiked approximately 58 PCT miles. Due to short daylight hours we decided to skip a 24-mile segment in the middle of Section O, saving it for a subsequent trip, targeted for early summer with longer daylight hours.
With two cars available we were able to position one car the previous afternoon at the end point of the hike. In the morning we only needed to drive to the beginning of the hike and hike to the pre-positioned car, then drive back to our motel. As a bonus, on the second day we simply drove to the beginning of that hike and hiked back to the car we had stashed the previous morning. We had used this car-stashing technique on an earlier PCT hiking trip and it worked out very well, saving significant time driving to and from daily trailheads.
The Section O portion of the PCT is entirely in Shasta County and is mostly within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The elevation ranges between 2000 and 6000 feet, with most of the distance between 3000 and 5000 feet. Besides the seasonally short daylight hours, the forecast had called for rain showers almost all day long on 3 of the 4 days we would hike. We hoped there was zero or minimal snow on the trail, but we knew we would need layers and good rain gear. An interesting consequence of the rain was that we had many close-up views of mossy trees and rocks, and the moss was especially lush, moist, and beautiful. Here is a nice example of a place where the trail passes next to a rock wall with lovely trees.
The point-to-point hike for Day 1 was from the Cabin Creek trailhead to Ash Camp. In the PCT data book this is from mile 1489.6 to mile 1475.8, hiking southbound. At Cabin Creek there is a short, 0.2-mile, access trail but the remainder of the 15-mile hike distance was on the PCT (for some reason my GPS distance was about 1 mile longer than the data book distance). The GPS track shows the route, with the orange dot denoting the Cabin Creek trailhead.
We started at 2600 feet elevation, climbed to 4000 feet, and descended to 2400 feet. With typical small ups and downs, the total elevation gain was 2000 feet. The average grade was about 5.3%, which is rather gentle for the PCT. But since we were planning to hike similar distances the remaining three days, we did not complain; rather, we were grateful to be able to make good time, completing the hike in just over 6 hours including breaks. It should be noted that, due to the damp weather – including lack of dry places to sit down – and lack of typical distant views favored for breaks, we took shorter than usual breaks.
As an example of how to dress for wet hiking weather, my friend posed for a picture when we reached the PCT junction after hiking about 0.2 mile on a spur trail from the well-signed Cabin Creek trailhead parking area. She was wearing standard rain gear (jacket and pants), waterproof boots, gaiters, and a rain cover for her day pack. I had similar gear, including a plastic poncho that I did not need to deploy. We experienced light rain off-and-on all day.
Her blue hands indicate nitrile surgical gloves over light gloves, intended to keep her hands dry and therefore warm. However, we both found that, once we warmed up hiking and our hands started sweating, the impermeable surgical gloves did not keep our hands dry because the sweat could not evaporate. The next day we tried rubber kitchen gloves in a size large enough to accommodate more absorbent gloves underneath. This helped with wet hands but was even more awkward for using a camera. Using my iPhone for pictures or a map check required removing the gloves entirely, so was avoided to the extent possible.
Not shown in the picture is an experiment in keeping our feet dry: plastic bags over our socks inside our boots. This first day we tried using ice bucket bags from the motel, and they worked very poorly. A trip to a local market after the hike enabled getting a supply of fold-over sandwich bags which, when used in a double layer, worked much better. When there is sufficient room in the boot toe box, having the extra bag material on top of the foot seems to not be an issue. This would obviously not work well for sloshing through puddles – and did not keep the foot bed dry. We worked hard each evening to dry our boots out in preparation for the next day.
The PCT junction is just across a pretty bridge that crosses Squaw Valley Creek where it joins Cabin Creek. The trail climbs gently about 600 feet in 1.5 miles, then levels out for another 1.5 miles. Because of the gentle rain and wanting to keep the hood of my borrowed rain jacket in place, I found myself looking down at the trail in front of me more than usual. After a bit it registered that we were hiking through what many hiking books describe as “mixed deciduous and conifer” forest. I was amused that I figured this out just by looking at the ground and noticing maple leaves among the fallen needles.
Once I’d chuckled at myself I decided to pay more attention to our surroundings, even if that was relatively immediate surroundings due to cloud cover. The forest was mostly fairly dense; for most trees the lower trunks were devoid of branches, with the leaves and needles high above the ground seeking sunlight.
The PCT drops down about 100 feet to cross Trough Creek, where we could hear the creek tumbling down the hillside and a small waterfall that was hidden from view from the trail. Near the creek crossing, where the conditions are moist, I noticed some umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) growing behind a fallen tree. This plant is easy to recognize because of its exceptionally large leaves.
As the trail began to climb again my friend noticed a salamander on the trail. Its black color didn’t provide very good camouflage relative to the leaves and needles of the trail surface! After doing some post-hike research I think it is a speckled black salamander (Aenides flavipunctatus flavipunctatus), though obviously an unspotted specimen. The distribution map for this salamander species includes a somewhat limited range in just the right part of Shasta County. Black salamanders are apparently considered near threatened due to habitat loss.
After the Trough Creek crossing the PCT goes almost due east for 2 miles and then turns southward, climbing 900 feet in less than 2 miles to the day’s highest elevation, just under 4000 feet. In one place the trail goes around a minor promontory, where the trail had apparently been carved into the steep rock face.
At the day’s high elevation the PCT crosses an unnamed ridge and begins a descent, interrupted by a couple of small rolls, which extends 6.5 miles while descending 1700 feet. The descent is through pretty forest, in which the trees appeared a bit ghostly due to the ever-present mist.
Throughout this downhill section, which was mostly along north-facing slopes, on this rainy day the moss was simply spectacular. In some instances moss completely covered a large area of tree trunks, with individual fronds (if that is the correct terminology) extending straight out to capture maximum moisture.
In other places, rocks next to the trail were covered with a beautiful green fuzzy layer, reminiscent in particular of a hike I had done 3 years ago on the Moyle Way in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Most of the time I had a sense that we were hiking through a magical forest in the clouds. However, there were occasional breaks in the mist and clouds that allowed us to see that other hills and ridges were nearby.
The greenest green in the forest that day was the moss growing on some of the tree trunks, occasionally for several feet off the ground.
Since this was California, land of subtle fall tree color, there were only occasional trees or shrubs with colorful leaves. This was the only one I found with red leaves.
Toward the end of the descent the PCT crosses a gravel road that passes from CA-89 in the town of McCloud to Ah-Di-Na Campground not far from the PCT. About half a mile after the road crossing the trail begins to follow rather close to the McCloud River, which is not many tens of yards down a steep embankment. While hiking along the river I suddenly heard sounds behind me and turned around to see two fishermen who had apparently just climbed up to the trail to move to a new fishing location. As it turned out, they were the only other people we saw on the trail during our 4 days of hiking.
A bit farther along the river I paused to look behind me and appreciate this misty view. It was no wonder we’d felt the forest was half in a cloud all day!
Near Ash Camp there is a confluence of creeks into the McCloud River: Centipede Creek joins Hawkins Creek just before it joins the McCloud River. Immediately upstream from this confluence the PCT crosses the McCloud River on this bridge.
The bridge seemed like a good place to pause for a picture decked out in my – by now, rather damp – rain gear. But even with all of the dampness on the outside of my gear, I was dry except for my sweaty hands and a bit of damp inside my boots. And my pack was dry other than the exposed hip pockets and shoulder straps.
After hopping into the car we’d positioned the previous afternoon, we proceeded to our warm and dry motel room to prepare for the next day’s hike between I-5 and Cabin Creek.