Sierra Nevada: Thru Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the Summer of COVID-19

  • Updated: July 11, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

June 20th to July 11th, 2020
388 miles, 22 days
Kennedy Meadows South to South Lake Tahoe

Brace yourself because I'm about to utter high heresy. Are you ready?

The Sierra wasn't my favorite section of the Pacific Crest Trail. In fact it was the least memorable.

I know, I know. Pitchforks down please. Let me explain. 

I've done quite a bit of backpacking and climbing in the Sierra. I have countless remote little corners that I absolutely adore and I can jaw your ear off about all the underappreciated areas and how nothing can compete with the feeling of sitting on top of some remote peak looking out across the high sierra.

Me in my happy place

So why didn't I enjoy this section as much as the usual punching bag sections like SoCal or NorCal? 

First off I'd done most of the Sierra section just last year. In June 2019 I went from Kennedy Meadows to Horseshoe Meadows grabbing multiple peaks along the way and then I did Yosemite Valley to Whitney southbound on the John Muir Trail. in August That meant that I knew what to expect around every corner or on the far side of every climb which ended up taking me out of the moment a bit.

I was committed to the idea of a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada so I wasn't about to skip anything but I did find myself constantly thinking of what was ahead vs just being in the moment.

Also after enjoying solitude for long sections of SoCal the Sierra was where things started to feel busy. There still weren't near as many thru hikers as the last few years but we did start to see a lot more section hikers jumping on and we hit a massive flood of JMT'ers fleeing the lockdowns.

Circumstances & Challenges

I'd had a bit of a rough time in Southern California between having giardia in Julian, an achilles issue that plagued me for weeks, and shoes struggles amid all the challenges this year due to COVID.

By the time I reached Kennedy Meadows on the 19th of June I'd been hiking for 46 days. I was hungry all the time, tired most of the time, but overall I was feeling good and eager to move into the home territory of the Sierra.

Meanwhile conditions in the Sierra were looking perfect. We'd had another light winter with only about half the average snow pack. I'd intentionally started the trail in May hoping that by the time I reached the Sierra I wouldn't have to deal with long miles of postholing and that seemed to have paid off. We didn't even bother arranging for our ice axes or microspikes.

Kennedy Meadows : Mile 702

We arrived in Kennedy Meadows on June 19th and spent most of a day gorging ourselves on food and beer at Grumpy's before spending the night camping out in front of Triple Crown Outfitters. Our plan was to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and then get going.

Breakfast at Grumpy's is a very pancake affair. It seemed that no matter what you order they show up and give you a gigantic pancake. Order pancakes? Here you go! Order the breakfast burrito? Well you get one too!

Both Jen and I have spent a lot of time in the Sierra and so our plan was to save time and get on to more interesting trail faster by skipping the side trip to Mount Whitney (bleh) and by not hiking out to Lone Pine / Bishop.

To that end we loaded 10 days of food into our packs which were already a bit heavier with the inclusion of the bear cans we'd need to carry until at least Sonora Pass. With everything including two liters of water our packs now weighed a whopping 43 pounds. While that might not sound too bad considering it was for 10 days it felt downright brutal compared to how light my pack was before especially considering I was still struggling a bit with the achilles issue.

The shuttle from Grumpy's was dropping a lot of people off at the Kennedy Meadows Campground where the trail entered the wilderness but of course I insisted we get dropped at the main road exactly where we were picked up. Jen went along and did hot dry hike from town out to the campground with only a minimal amount of eye rolling.

The hike north out of Kennedy Meadows Campground is one of my favorite trailheads for early season backpacks since it's almost always accessible, travels along the side of the kern, and has a few nice bridges like the swallow bridge above.

Going under the bridge to fill water lets you see all the nests and usually triggers a big flock of birds to take off and circle the area.

Despite not leaving until noon we did a solid 17 miles before setting up camp on the climb up to Olancha Pass. 

Olancha Pass : Mile 720.6

The next day both of us were feeling a bit of unaccustomed pain from the heavier packs but we were in high spirits. 

Mosquitos were making themselves known as expected this time of year but they were generally manageable. I started keeping my rain pants and jacket in the outside of my pack so I could quickly pull them on whenever we had to stop for a break or to filter water. And of course we had headnets easily accessible and used them often.

It's kind of amazing how quickly things can go off the rails when they've been going so well. I started having stomach issues in the middle of the day. This can happen during backpacks and usually clears up in a day but I will admit I was a bit jumpy about it after the experiences in Julian.

When Jen and I hike often one of us will go ahead. We'll usually do this for a few hours and periodically wait for the person in the back.

I was ranging ahead of Jen and when I had to ran off into the rocks with some urgency to dig a cathole. Emerging sometime later I returned to the trail and continued on. After not seeing Jen for a while I stopped and waited. And then after not seeing her for a while longer I realized she had to be ahead.

So I had no choice but to stumble forward as best I could. I went on trying not to take any more breaks than I absolutely had to hoping to see her around every corner. And this went on for hours.

I never saw her. This section isn't great for giving you long views but I finally ran across a few people who confirmed she was ahead somewhere. I rushed on trying to make as fast a pace as possible and starting to get slightly cranky on account of feeling sick, tired, and just wanting to bloody stop for the day.

Finally right around sunset I reached the camp spot that we'd talked about over breakfast as a goal for the day. I could see a tent that looked like ours at the campsite below but when I approached I found it was someone else. They asked if my trail name was Masochist and said Jen had gone onto the next campsite a few miles on looking for me.

Grumbling about how her logic was a bit flawed I continued staggering on now in the dark with my headlamp. At long last at mile 23 ran into her sitting by the trail quite distraught because she didn't know where I was.

Tensions may have been a bit elevated around camp that night and the following morning.

Crabtree & (Not Doing) Mount Whitney :  Mile 767 -ish

Mount Whitney is an optional climb a lot of people choose to do in this section. It's an out and back trail climb that usually involves leaving gear down at Guitar Lake and doing an out and back.

We'd decided to skip it since it leaves the trail, I've done it multiple times before, and also because I just really don't think very highly of the climb, summit, or crowds in the area. If your curious about the climb from the backside see my write up from the John Muir Trail last year complete with me wearing a hiking kilt and doing the nearby and far cooler 3rd class peak Mount Muir. 

While we were climbing up one of the many inclines the PCT goes over around Crabtree I came across an older thru hiker who asked me if I'd felt the earthquake. We'd been hiking all morning and hadn't felt anything but we had heard a rather large rockfall not long ago. That was apparently there had just been a 5.8 earthquake which among other things caused a rather large landslide on the Whitney Portal side.

Next time I had cell reception I had a whole slew of messages from people asking if I was ok since they knew I was around that area but it mostly didn't affect us.

Past the turnoff for Mount Whitney is one of my favorite sections of the Sierra on the backside of Shepherds Pass. This area both looks spectacular and provides access to so many awesome climbs and remote canyons that I've walked past the easier to reach Mount Williamson and Tyndall countless times.

Forester Pass : Mile 779.5

Forester Pass is the official high point of the entire Pacific Crest Trail at 13,153'. The trail itself is straightforward but the combination of late season snowfields and the altitude can make it a bit of a challenge.

I was dealing with the aftermath of the stomach issues from the previous day but we still managed to get over Goyot and Forester in a single 21 mile day. 

By the time we reached the base of Forester it was almost 8 pm and it had started to drizzle on us.

The snow chute on the south side of the pass was easy enough thanks to a well established boot track but the north side involved an obnoxious amount of postholing which I really wasn't in the mood for that late in a long day.

Rae Lakes : Mile 793

On the 24th we passed Rae Lakes and commented on how there were less people that usual but still a surprising amount. I'd expected to have my permit checked here since there's a backcountry ranger station right off the trail but there were signs up saying that they were there but not interacting with anyone except in emergencies due to COVID. 

Similar signage outside the Evolution Valley ranger cabin

Pinochet Pass : Mile 807.5

As we approached Pinochet Pass we had a bit of weather come in. When the rain and thunder started in earnest we briefly threw up the tent only to have things soon fizzle out. 

From the top of the pass we could see plenty of rain in the distance and hear the occasional report of thunder as we had a nice conversation with a guy coming down off the nearby peak.

Le Conte & The Tasty Taters Incident : Mile 830 - ish

I'd been going by the trail name Masochist since early on but Jen had struggled to find something that she liked. At Kennedy Meadows Bilbo started calling her Magic School Bus on account of her being a teacher but considering the fact that the lady who hosted that show had just died and they had just removed the Into the Wild bus that name seemed to have bad juju. Not to mention it was too generic.

I threatened to call her Stinky Friz for a while on account of her unruly hair and the fact she had been hiking and sleeping in the same fragrant shirt for way too long but however descriptive that was she didn't like it because it wasn't "cute".

So I suggesting naming her her after my two favorite things but Mustard Tits was also no go.

Then we set up camp one night just past the ranger station in Le Conte Canyon. I love how remote it feels back there even with trail traffic and you always see a lot of deer since they seem to know they can't be harmed.

The next morning Jen was off dealing with morning needs when a deer ran up, grabbed her dirty sports bra off the ground, and started to run off chewing vigorously on the salty garment as it did. 

We managed to recover the item with only a moderate amount of deer drool and chew marks evident. From there on she became Tasty Taters.

Muir Pass : Mile 838.6

Muir Pass was the other place I feared we'd see a significant amount of snow. People coming southbound reported miles of snow and an impossible to follow trail but that turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration. We ended up getting our shoes a bit wet from the snow but we found the trail only occasionally covered in snow and easy to follow.

Whenever conditions (and mosquitos) allowed we would stop for lunch and make raman. The area near Evolution Lake was one of the prettier examples of this.

Evolution Valley is an area I usually think of as being fairly remote but it seemed someone had opened the floodgates for the John Muir Trail as we saw people camped everywhere and more coming south along the trail.

The crossing of Evolution Creek at the north side of the valley can be a real challenge some years but at this point in the year it was a straightforward boots off crossing only slightly complicated by the bloodthirsty mob of mosquitos that seemed to be focused right there. 

On the plus side that did provide all the motivation we needed to push on down to the South Fork of the San Joaquin before setting up camp for the night.

Vermillion Valley Resort : Mile 878.7

Vermillion Valley Resort is located deep in the Sierra a day or so south of Mammoth. Because it's on the far side of Lake Thomas Edison from the trail they run a ferry which will bring you over twice a day otherwise it's a 5-7 mile hike around the lake.

Due to the years of drought conditions the lake is quite low and VVR hasn't been able to use their normal big boat. Instead they drive a small one over that can fit 5 or 6 people with packs.

Best water taxi driven by a guy named Spirit ever!

This does mean that wind can prevent them from being able to run the boat at all which had caused a group of hikers to put a bit of a rant on Guthooks. And sure enough later that afternoon they had to call of the trip back out because of a small craft advisory on the lake.

We had been debating if we wanted to get back on the trail that night or take advantage of their free camping so that made our decision easy. 

Unlike Muir Trail Ranch which is the other commonly used resupply point in this area VVR has a kitchen that serves surprisingly good food for how remote they are. They also have a decently stocked store inside.

 They also give a free beer to PCT hikers even if you show up at say breakfast time. And more important to Jen they had pie and ice cream also available at breakfast. So here's to a healthy hiker breakfast!

The only real thing they're lacking is internet access. You can buy time on their desktop computer but there's no option to get wifi access and to pick up a cell signal you have to walk 15 minutes down the shore of the lake.

That evening I was having a blast chatting with other guests and employees but Jen being a bit less social than me was getting ancy and took them up on the offer to do dishes in exchange for a free dinner. 

The next morning we ate breakfast and I attempted to drink a slightly unreasonable amount of coffee before we caught the morning ferry back across the lake.

The far side of the lake does pick up a AT&T cell tower located near Mono Hot Springs and we took the chance to check our messages and see what was going on with the world.

I'd had a reporter from a newspaper out of San Francisco contact me way back near Tehachapi about my experience hiking the trail that year. We'd tried to arrange a phone call but kept missing each other during the periods I had reception. We finally managed to get on the phone and we spent a good 40 minutes talking resulting in a few mentions in his article ‘To hike or not to hike?’ Pacific Crest Trail can’t escape coronavirus debate

Shoe Pain In The High Sierra

If you recall I hadn't been able to replace my shoes I'd been hiking in since Idyllwild at Kennedy Meadows due to the lack of size 14 options. I'd hoped to push through to Mammoth with minimal issues but now I had rips in sides, the foam on the soles was getting really thin, and my insoles had developed holes. As an added bonus my two pairs of Darn Tough hiking socks had both developed holes in the bottom.

I did the best I could with what I had and later what I could buy at VVR which admittedly wasn't a lot. At one point I found a pair of socks abandoned at the crossing of Bear Creek and when they fit I wore them for a day until they also fell apart after which I used the remains on top of my other socks to just try and add a bit of cushion. 

I also tried increasingly elaborate taping methods and even tried to incorporate bandages and gauze to try and give myself any scrap of relief. And basically none of it worked.

So needless to say I had a bit of foot discomfort during this section and I was really looking forward to reaching Mammoth.

Mammoth Lakes : Mile 903.3

Normally I'd access Mammoth by Red's Meadow which has a paved road and a shuttle going into town. However this being the summer of COVID-19 they hadn't opened the road and so there was no shuttle.

Since we didn't want a long walk on pavement we elected to hike out via Horseshoe Lake which was an easy 3.5 miles out to the trailhead where there was a shuttle running. 

(Note the discarded mask on the ground. Is that 2020 or what?)

The entire Mammoth stay was slightly surreal. I'd been in a few towns like Julian with significant tourist crowds but nothing like what we found here. Masses of people everywhere only some of which seemed to be worrying about masks or social distancing.

Fortunately in addition to a quality selection of restaurants and breweries Mammoth has a number of outfitters and stores. With some difficulty I was able to find a pair of size 14 light-ish Merrells but they weren't the Lone Peak style shoe that had worked so well for me before.

Still anything was better than what I'd been dealing with for the last hundred miles so I figured I could at least live with them until Tahoe.

Also one of the stores replaced my worn out Darn Toughs! They have a lifetime warranty but it's a bit difficult to mail them back while on the trail so it's always really appreciated with a store lets us exchange them right there. And fresh socks can be an almost religious experience on a long trail second only to that first massive plate of nachos when you reach a town.

We spent the night in the Shilo Inn and as with anytime I had a hotel room I basically wanted to maximize the time I spent lying around in either the bed or soaking sore muscles the bathtub. Fortunately Jen being younger and less prone to issues was happy to run around doing errands and grabbing me multiple rounds of coffee.

We bought our resupply in town and ended up making quite the production of repacking everything out behind a random building much to the entertainment of a lady who was working there.

Things took us a bit longer to get done than we'd hoped and we didn't get out of Mammoth until 5 pm on July 2nd. 

The section after Mammoth is pretty but really felt like it dragged. We did start to run into a number of thru hikers we hadn't met yet including several who had been on the trail since early March. It was interesting chatting with them and hearing what they'd gone through with the weather and shutdown situation.

Tuolumne Meadows : Mile 942.5

Tuolumne had been a major goal for me since that marked the northern bound of what I'd hiked the year before. I still had some experience with trails north of there but it was getting into more and more into the new trail I'd been craving ever since Kennedy Meadows.

I'd heard of multiple people getting permits checked here and I was actually eager to get validation for that slip of paper I'd been carrying this entire way. But no luck. Just lots of dayhikers and we saw a ranger off in the distance at one point.

The store in Tuolumne is usually a good resupply and food opportunity but this year due to COVID they'd decided not to open at all. Anyone who sent a package there before the shutdown had to catch a shuttle over to Yosemite Valley 53 miles away.

I ran into two seperate groups of friends out of LA doing weekend backpacking trips which was kind of neat. 

Waterfall Canyon : Mile 943 

We did this canyon in the evening so I didn't get many pictures but the trail north of Tuolumne leading to Glen Aulin was just spectacular.  We spent a night camping around so many waterfalls I thought Jen was in danger of squee-ing herself to death. 

We also got back into significantly heavier mosquitos.

It was mostly manageable while we were moving and when we stopped I really got my money's worth out of my wind / mosquito suit + bug net.

Then we dropped into Jack Main Canyon. 

Jack Main Canyon : Mile 990 -ish

Jack Main is a remote -ish canyon we'd visited once before in 2014 during a big loop out of Cherry Lake. I remember it both because I have a good friend named Jack and because we had some of the worst mosquitos I'd ever seen.

However many mosquitos you think you can make out in the picture there were more. So many more.
When we entered the canyon I was hiking along talking with another thru hiker named Plinko. We were  moving along at a rapid pace which was mostly enough to keep the occasional mosquito off of us when it felt like we ran into a wall of them. Suddenly we were spitting them out of our mouths and desperately grabbing for our mosquito gear while trying not to stop moving since that let more of them catch us. The last I saw Plinko that day was when I turned back yelling something about having to find Jen.

We hiked for the rest of the day in full mosquito suits and spent the evening hiding inside the tent trying to all the ones that snuck in anytime we needed to partially unzip the door.

I've said before how I'm not a fan of starting hiking early and how it's generally hard to motivate me out of my sleeping bag until my breakfast and coffee is done. The exception is when I'm camped in a mosquito hell and that's the only way to get out of there before the hordes descend again. We ended up leaving damned early and making a run for the next pass to the north where they suddenly stopped being a problem.

The miles were starting to really add up now and it was exciting to reach 1000 miles!

We had friends coming to meet us at Sonora Pass including the aforementioned Jack. Since they were meeting us early in the morning we had to camp somewhere before the pass. Most people would probably just camp down by the road but I'm really adverse to traffic noise when I can avoid it. With a bit of effort we managed to find a really nice camp a few miles before the pass maybe a quarter of a mile down a slope from the trail.

Sonora Pass / Kennedy Meadows North : Mile 1016.9 

Kennedy Meadows North was a place I was looking forward to visiting since I'd heard the name for years and I always found it odd that there's a place called Kennedy Meadows on both the north and south end of the Sierra.

Kennedy Meadows North is a resort located at Sonora Pass about 10 miles down the road from the trail. My friend Jack and his wife Becky were planning to be in the area and were nice enough to come see us saving us from having to hitch or deal with the slightly problematic shuttle situation.

As with many of the touristy areas there were people everywhere but they had a dedicated area for us hikers to hang out. They had a decent store where we were easily able to buy our resupply and the ladies inside were super friendly.

The restaurant on the other hand was a bit of a disappointment. They were out of a lot of basic items like salad and we had the oddest hostility from the waitress despite the fact that I don't think we did anything wrong. Right as we were paying she asked if we were spending the night to which I responded that we had to get back on the trail and *BAM* she turned into the most cheerful person you could imagine. *shrug*

We spent a few quick hours getting fed, showered, and resupplied and then had Jack and Becky drop us back off at the trailhead. As we waved goodbye and started up the trail I figured this was probably going to be the last visit with non trail friends I'd get until I was done. Little did I know...

Ebbett's Pass : Mile 1048.1

As we neared Ebbetts Pass on July 9th we heard from another thru hiker that there was supposedly trail magic ahead. 

Trail magic is just people set up along the trail giving things to hikers. It's been a lot more common the last few years with all the attention the trail has received post Wild but after 66 days I'd only encountered a few instances.

Food is a major source of motivation out on the trail and we hauled ass the 20+ miles to make it before they supposedly closed down for the day.

These people were amazing. Apparently they come out every year and they had the most impressive spread I saw along the trail. They grill me a bacon cheeseburger and Jen a veggie pizza and also had multiple tables filled with all sorts of food items.

Also they had an inflatable sex sheep for us to sign. The pens were stored in it's rear...pen hole.

There was a group of other thru hikers that looked like they might be settling in there for the night but Jen and I wanted to get at least a few more miles in. After the Sierra I was trying to up our daily mileage with an eye on when I'd get to Canada.

We both may have eaten a bit too much and paid for it down the trail. Jen had bad stomach issues that night while mine came the following day. It was totally worth it though.

The section right before Tahoe had some spectacularly beautiful areas that I really enjoyed.

It also passed through ski areas with all the fun that that entails.

South Lake Tahoe : Mile 1090.7

I was super excited to get into Tahoe mostly due to the prospect of getting real food, letting my still painful feet recover a bit, and hopefully being able to find some better boots.  Jen had out of the blue a week ago offered to do a double zero there and by this point on the trail I was very appreciative of any opportunity to get some downtime. 

We just messed up on when we got there because we arrived on July 11th and it's massively more expensive to get a room in Tahoe on a weekend.

We ended up hitching into town from Echo Summit Trailhead without too much difficulty and getting dropped off along the 89 where Guthooks claimed there was a hiker friendly hostel.

After a really odd series of interactions with the owner we had the option of paying $85 for a tiny room with no windows, no AC, and basically no air. Did I mentioned it was really hot out?

We ended up walking around and calling all the nearby hotels we could find struggling to find anyone with rooms available for less than $300 a night. In the end we had to Uber to a different part of town where we were able to get a still depressingly expensive room at the Trailhead Motel.

The cost was frustrating but when you've been on the trail for two months and you're weighing a hot shower, air conditioning, and dry sheets vs tenting in an RV park out in the heat you can justify almost anything. So we checked in and went to get that well deserved shower...only to find the hot water wasn't working and it would take a few hours to get fixed.

So we walked a few blocks away to a well reviewed mexican food restaurant. Which ended up being disappointing even in my ravenous thru hiker state.

Also I found walking around in Tahoe stressful since the crowds were even worse than Mammoth. People jammed the sidewalks many of whom weren't wearing masks and didn't seem to care about maintaining any sort of distance which was just unnerving after so long on the trail.

Fortunately the whole Tahoe experience was saved by my friend Aimee Shocket who was a Sierra Club acquaintance who had moved up here from LA a few years back. She reached out over social media and took us out to the Lake Tahoe AleworX for rather good pizza, an impressive assortment of quality self serve beer, and some badly needed socializing.
The next day things were looking up and we managed to finally find some appropriate light hiking shoes in my size. I left quite happy to be rocking a pair of size 14 Topo Ultraventures. Which in retrospect are horrible shoes that I'd never recommend to anyone.

Why is that? They seemed good at first and after a few days on trail I actually went to the effort of finding a second pair to have shipped to my parents in anticipation of the next time I needed to replace my shoes.

And then after a few hundred miles I found I was suddenly feeling every little pebble on the trail and my feet were so badly wrecked that I had to take multiple days off before I could walk again. And I wasn't the only person who had that experience with those specific shoes. (Apparently as of late summer 2020 they've been discontinued and a new model is going to be released so hopefully those will be better) 

But hey, that pain wouldn't wouldn't screw me over until the Oregon / California border so for now things were happy.

We also used the time to do some major food shopping which ended up being the most expensive single grocery trip Jen had ever done. It gave us enough food to get out of Tahoe and we sent resupply boxes ahead to ourselves at Sierra City and Belden. 

When we weren't out shopping or eating I spent as much time as I could laying in bed icing my foot while Jen ran around taking buses across town to do laundry and visit the post office.

We left Tahoe on July 13th which was my 60th day on trail. And I was really excited for what was ahead because we were now past most all the points I was familiar with. And we even saw a bear!

Next up: Northern California doesn't have to cause the blues!

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