Mileage: 4.5, 19.0, 18.9, 14.2, 10.6
We started the day off by packing all of our stuff up and going out to lunch in Homewood with a lot of people who were in the wedding party. We all split pizzas and it was delicious! We then handed off a few boxes to our new friends from the wedding party for them to send home for us since the post office was closed that day and we couldn’t do it ourselves (thanks Lisa and Jen!). After that, Piotr and Kristen (more new friends) offered to drop us off in South Lake Tahoe, which was a bit out of the way for them so it was all the more appreciated!
We got dropped off right at a supermarket and bought our food for the upcoming stretch. I then called Mike, whose number I got off of a trail angel sheet before we got off the trail at Echo Lake over a month ago, and he agreed to come pick us up from the grocery store and drive 12 miles up the windy highway back to the trail. I know… all these people are so nice to us! Everyone has refused to be paid gas money as well. All of our trail angels have been so generous that it’s sort of unbelievable to us both still!
Once back at the trailhead near Echo Lake, we made sure to step back on our reference rock to continue on with our line of footsteps coming all the way from the Mexican border. Caitlin thinks I’m crazy for doing this, but I insist on doing it anyway!
After getting back on the PCT, I have to say that I got a little emotional about it. It’s taken a little while, but I feel like the PCT is in my blood now. Being away from it for an extended period of time feels strange, and reuniting with it just feel like coming home. It’s hard to explain to non-thru hikers, but this line in the dirt has become our life for these last months and I think Caitlin and I both feel a connection to it that we didn’t know we would.
Anyway, after a few miles of hiking, we passed by the Echo Lake Resort and hiked over the little dam for Echo Lake itself. The lake was stunning. It’s shore is filled with non-descript houses that blend into the surroundings. The houses are only accessible by water: there are no roads connecting them to the outside world. I have to say, it was my favorite community that I’ve seen close to the trail yet. Having no cars by the cabins makes the ambiance so much more peaceful. Why doesn’t every mountain lake community do this?
Even though we had hiked less than 5 miles from the place we got dropped off, it was getting late in the day and we had to find a quiet place to camp by the lake. At this point we are just happy if we get back to the trail after a long hitchhiking day from town. That stuff takes time, and you have to be realistic with your expectations.
The next day, we woke up and realized that we were camping not too far behind a person’s lakefront house. Oops! Oh well, they’ll never know we were there. We leave very little trace when we camp, as it should be.
From Echo lake, we kept heading north and passed beautiful lake after beautiful lake all day. It was incredible. We had heard this section was beautiful, but we really had no idea what to expect. Needless to say, it has surpassed expectations.
We hiked for several days through the Desolation Wilderness and the Granite Chief Wilderness. This was some of the most breathtaking hiking we had done on the entire PCT. Mile for mile, this is perhaps the most beautiful section in my opinion. Certainly on par with the most beautiful sections in the High Sierra that we passed through further south.
People often ask me if there is one section that I would recommend for an extended backpacking trip for non-thru hikers… Well this is it, without a doubt. Echo Lake to Donner Summit. It’s 65 miles, which is well within the reach of a weeklong trip for even extremely casual backpackers. We did it in essentially 4 days, but doing it in 5 to 6 days would be perfect for non-thru-hikers. Have a week off work? Want an incredible place to hike on the PCT? Go here. Period. The trail is immaculate. The views are breathtaking. The transportation logistics are very straightforward. It all lines up with this section.
One particularly memorable part of this section for us was winding along this ridge in the Granite Chief Wilderness. We could Tahoe to the right and seemingly endless wilderness to the left (pictures below). The sun was fading and we were treated to some of the most amazing sunset colors we had seen on the whole trail. In all our revery, we kind of lost track of time, and realized, as the sun was going down, that we REALLY needed to find a place to camp. There were no campsites or water sources listed within several miles, so we were going to just have to make something work. The wind was picking up and it was getting cold as darkness approached. We finally came along this big rock outcropping on the side of a hill with a tiny, picnic table sized flat area by it. It didn’t take long to decide that this was our best bet. I ended up making a windbreak out of stones which proved to be extremely effective against the howling winds that were buffeting us, and we ended up sleeping very cozily, despite basically being perched on the side of a cliff in a middle of a windstorm.
The next day, the trail passed through the slopes of Squaw Valley Ski Resort and right by Granite Chief itself (for which the wilderness area is named). This is the first ski resort we’ve passed through where we don’t actually go down to the base of it and into civilization afterward. It was strange. We had been walking in wilderness for a few days, we pass by all these ski lifts, see a piece of civilization right there, then return to the wilderness as quickly as we left. Just glimpses of the modern world, then back to the wild.
The remainder of this section going to Highway 40 (near Donner Summit) varies from great to fantastic. We continued to hike on high ground and were rewarded with incredible views for much of each day. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but in my opinion this stretch was the most scenic on the entire PCT (at least for us). We just happened to be hiking through the really exposed portions when the light was perfectly dramatic and everything just seemed to align. Needless to say, this section made me really happy!
On the last day of this section, we had a really short hike into Highway 40 where we intended to get to Truckee. There are two option to get into Truckee: either hitch from Highway 40 (which is a smaller road and you come out right by a ski resort and a popular hiking trailhead) or continue for another 4 miles and try to hitch from Interstate 80 (which is really hard because it’s an interstate with cars whipping by at 70mph). We decided to hitch from Highway 40.
We were in luck because just as we were coming out to the road, we saw two guys getting into their car having just returned from a day hike. I basically accosted these fine gentlemen and asked point blank if they could give us a ride (I am shameless). Caitlin is always semi-embarrassed when I do this, but ultimately happy because we get rides more often than not with this approach. These new trail angels were named Dan and Jim, with Dan driving. Dan’s car was brand new and was honestly one of the nicest cars I’ve ever ridden in. Caitlin and I felt like we were killing its resale value with our general stink but Dan seemed totally unfazed. Dan and Jim ended up taking us pretty far out of their way all the way into old downtown Truckee. What a nice pair of guys! We thanks them profusely and tried to offer some money for the ride, but, as it seems to always happen, they kindly refused. Just add this to the long list of extreme generosity that we’ve been gifted on our hike. Thanks Dan and Jim!
We got dropped off in old downtown Truckee because that’s where we had a package waiting for us at the post office. Inside this package was my headlamp that I had stupidly left at the cabin we rented while in Homewood for Dave and Lindsey’s wedding. The owner of the cabin was kind enough to mail it back to me, so crisis averted! We had to make do with one headlamp for this whole section (which is a total pain) but it was manageable enough in the short term.
After picking up the package from the post office, we walked through old downtown Truckee (which is really nice by the way) and gawked at all the tourist shops and restaurants. We ended up eating taco’s at Marg’s Taco Bistro (which was good) and spent at least an hour there loitering at our table while our electronics charged up (we check with our waitress beforehand and she assured us it was alright). I’d highly recommend this place to anyone passing through.
After stuffing our faces with tacos and getting most of our stuff charged, we headed down the road (walking) toward the newer part of Truckee where the Safeway supermarket was. We tried hitching along the way but didn’t get an offer until we were already in sight of the supermarket, so we didn’t need one anymore. Oh well, it was only a mile. We went to the grocery store and got our food for the next section to Sierra City. It’s a short stretch so the shopping was quick and easy.
In the same shopping plaza at Safeway is a very thru hiker friendly outfitter called Tahoe Mountain Sports. We took our groceries over there and the staff was nice enough to let us pack everything up and repackage our food in their store (it’s always nice to have a clean place to lay out and prep your food for the next section). We hung out for a little while in the outfitter, still charging our things, before we decided that we really needed to get back to the trail as we still had 4 miles left to hike today to get to the rest stop on Interstate 80 (where there was water).
So we reluctantly left the womb of the outfitter and headed out to the traffic stop out in front of it to try and hitch a ride. We had only been at it for a few minutes before a guy ran up to us from the gas station behind where we were thumbing and asked us if we needed a ride. Yes, indeed we do kind sir! The kind man’s name was Keith and it turned out he was right to where we needed to go anyway, so it was perfect! Keith drove us the 20 minutes back to Donner Summit and we had an amicable conversation on the way up about what life was like in Truckee (conclusion: really nice if you can find work).
We said our goodbyes to Keith, and were back on our way. It was getting late and we needed to book it to get the rest area at I-80 before dark. The section between Highway 40 and I-80 is this weird in-between that feels sort of half wild and half urban, since you can hear the interstate for a lot of the time but you are still in the forest. It didn’t help that we got stopped by a guy who looked possibly homeless (though I don’t think he actually was as he seemed to be setting up camp with some old but clean backpacking gear) and was asking “how close the water was.” Questions like this are always red flags for thru-hikers. How close in what direction exactly? On trail or off trail water? Do you not have a map? Do you know where you are?
I have no idea what this guy’s deal was but I told him how the closest water was 4 miles away at the rest stop. He seemed somewhat confused by this but I didn’t know what else to tell him and we had to keep moving. I wished him the best of luck and we headed on.
After about an hour and a half we reached the short side trail that led to the interstate rest area where we could fill up on water in the bathrooms. On the way, we scoped out places to put the tent on the way back and found a nice little flat spot.
When we got to the rest area, it was more than could have hoped for. There was a central, sheltered open space between the men’s and women’s bathrooms with an impossibly clean polished concrete floor… Like clean enough to lay down on, and I’m pretty picky on these sorts of things. There were also multiple working electrical outlets for the taking. What kind of rest stop is this?! It’s like it was made for thru hikers!
We had initially planned to just get water here and leave, but since there were all these amenities Caitlin and I decided to cook dinner here on the floor while we charged the rest of our gadgets. While cooking, we got many perplexed looks by interstate drivers passing through. People unfamiliar with thru hikers are always confused by the combination of our high tech equipment and our clear state of general dirtiness and smelliness. You can see the “Are they homeless, aren’t they homeless?” wheels turning in their heads. You just get used to this as a thru hiker. We just smile and say high, and answer any questions they have if they ask. Most of the people were very curious about our stove (which we were cooking with at the time), which is totally understandable because our stove is awesome and looks like a small cone shaped spaceship to the uninitiated!
We made Rana brand Mushroom Ravioli paired with Rana brand Alfredo Sauce, which Caitlin and I both agree is our favorite trail meal of all time (and it’s like 1790 calories total, or 895 calories for each person, which is just fantastic). This is one of the meals that we love to make right out of town if we can. It’s super fast and easy, really delicious, and very caloric (what more could you ask for?). The only downside is that it’s relatively heavy (because nothing is dehydrated) and the alfredo sauce will spoil if left unrefrigerated for too long–hence the reason we like to eat this the first or second night out of town. If any of you are looking for a dinner for a one-night backpacking trip over a weekend, look no further. You have a lot of choices too, as there are a variety of Rana brand raviolios (the rosemary chicken is really good as well) and there is also a Rana brand Marinara Sauce which is good (though the absolute best marinara sauce for a trail meal is Three Bridges brand Heirloom Marinara).
Anyway, I digress. The point is we made a great meal in the rest area, got our electronics charged, refilled on water, and were ready to go. We headed back toward the trail with our headlamps on and found the spot we had picked out for ourselves earlier (much easier than trying to find a new spot in the dark). We set up our tent, and with all our usual chores already out of the way, tucked in for bed and fell asleep to the faint whir of the interstate looming just beyond our little patch of forest.