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

  • Updated: September 29, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

September 2nd to 29th, 2020
505.6 miles, 28 days
Cascade Locks to Canadian Border 

After 119 days on trail I'd reached the state of Washington and now I only had 500 miles to Canada!

After my relatively smooth experience through Oregon now I was now facing a more difficult trail and a smattering of new challenges like: historic wind events, seemingly the entire west coast catching fire, unhealthy levels of smoke lasting for days, and rainstorms. And then throw in a snowstorm at Rainy Pass and a still closed Canadian border just to round out the experience! 

And then 28 days later I was standing victorious at the northern terminus having to contemplate life after the trail.

Circumstances & Challenges

While I knew the trail was going to get harder through Washington the prospect of days with significant gain didn't really phase me at this point.

The weather I was more wary of. I'd heard endless warnings about what the Cascades are like in the last half of September and the thought of having wet socks for days with my ongoing foot issues was a bit worrying.

In the end I had a smattering of rainy days and two extended periods where it lasted for 4 or 5 days straight. Interestingly enough I talked to multiple locals who said the drizzle was normal this time of year but that the downpours we had were a bit unusual for the area. 

I had a few days where it was coming down so hard I could feel water sheeting down the back of my rain jacket underneath my pack and the trail became a flowing river an inch deep.

I had my raingear fairly well sorted out and the yard bag I use to line my pack meant I never had to worry about anything getting wet while I hiked. My shoes on the other hand were always soaking and it's always just a bummer to have to pack away a wet tent every morning. 

The mail delivery issues I'd faced in Oregon had improved at least somewhat but I was careful to build in a significant buffer time each time Jen or my parents sent a package. 

I switched pretty much entirely to resupply via mail for this section. This was mostly to save me time since I could just run into town, grab my box, and be back on the trail a few hours later. Also since Jen was now back home working it was easy enough for her to buy food and mail it to me.

This let me avoid spending any more time than was absolutely necessary in towns. While I expected to have the entire month of September to reach Canada you never know when the winter will hit ending the hiking season and making it all but impossible to reach the border.

So I continued the approach used in Oregon of sticking to small towns and resorts and not spending the night. At least until unhealthy levels of smoke drove me off trail for three nights in Snoqualmie and then a storm system caused me to delay in Stehekin.

In the end I had about two weeks of fudge time before the trail became impossible due to snow.

Breaking it down into sections Washington looked like this: Cascade Locks -> 82 miles -> Trout Lake -> 66 miles -> White Pass -> 98 miles -> Snoqualmie -> 72 miles -> Stevens Pass / Skykomish -> 107 miles -> Stehekin -> 79 miles -> Northern Terminus -> 30 miles -> Harts Pass.

You might notice I end at Harts Pass which is south of the border. That's because the Canadian border was still closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,

The PCT officially ends at the Canadian Border about 29 miles north of Harts Pass. Since there are no roads past Harts Pass your options are to hike on into Canada for 8 miles to Manning Park or else backtrack 29 miles back to Harts Pass and try and hitch down a long dirt road to Winthrop. 

I'd hoped to do the traditional finish at Manning and then fly or drive back from there. I'd applied for and been granted a Canadian entry permit way back in January only to have COVID-19 hit and close the border.

The initial closure was set to end in late September and for a while as things started to feel a bit more normal I was hopeful that maybe they'd let it reopen. But alas the entire hiking class of 2020 was stuck with a bonus 30 mile backtrack right at the end.

Fitness wise I was in great shape and probably lighter than I've been since college. I was also really run down after months on trail with only minimal breaks of a night or two here and there. So while I was still enjoying myself and remained determined to finish I did find myself getting really grumpy to the point where I sometimes couldn't listen to my audiobooks because I'd get frustrated by the stories not moving fast enough. 

Footwear wise I'd been struggling for most of the trail to find something that would work for me and was available in size 14. After being forced to change several times I'd settled on Altra Lone Peak 4.5s.

I'm someone with abnormally wide feet and I've struggled with a number of different shoes that claim to be wide but actually aren't. The Altras have a gloriously wide toe box and I found the zero drop feature worked well for me I just wish they didn't fall apart.

After learning some hard lessons earlier I'd arranged to have a new pair of 4.5s sent to me at Cascade Locks in the hope that they'd last me until Canada. After all I'd managed 500 ish miles on the 2.5s I bought in Idylwild.

Unfortunately I only made it about 100 miles before they started to split down the side. A friend was able to get me to an REI in Snoqualmie around mile 2,393 where I could do a warranty return and buy another pair.

And then the new pair promptly split about a week later. I was close enough to the end at that point that I just lived with it though I was really afraid during the last section that the entire shoe was going to rip loose from the sole and I'd have to finish in my cheap flip flops. 

Looking online I'm not the only person who has had these issues with Altras. They do have a warranty so on one hand I didn't have to pay for shoes for the entirety of Washington but that really didn't help at the time.

The shortage in butane fuel canisters was also ongoing. Per the shop owners along the way they were able to order them but they were just getting cleaned out constantly by a flood of people running outdoors after the various lockdowns.

I ended up having to limit my fuel usage for most of the state and eventually I just started carrying two medium canisters so I could go longer.

Another thing that started happening was a flood of heartfelt "you're almost there!" notes from both friends back home and people on the trail. At which point I'd joke about how I still have 400 miles to go and that they were minimizing the effort required to hike that far!

And sadly I did see a few people forced off trail due to injury or circumstances depressingly close to the border.

I on the other hand didn't let myself believe that I was actually going to finish until 6 miles from the terminus. I figured at that point even if I did break my ankle I could just crawl to the monument and then hit the SOS button on my spot. Which probably would have been appropriate somehow with how this year has gone for everyone.

Cascade Locks / Bridge of the Gods : Mile 2147.5

I spent two pleasant nights in a hotel in Cascade Locks only emerging from the bed / bathtub periodically to eat. Unfortunately options were a bit limited with the local Alehouse pizza and beer joint having closed for two days but I was mostly just happy for anything that wasn't trail food.

On September 2nd I went for breakfast, shouldered my pack, and set off across Bridge of the Gods officially entering the state of Washington.

It was still early so the scruffy looking guy doing dance moves and zigzagging back and forth to take selfies didn't disrupt traffic too much. There's no sidewalk so you just have to walk between the wall and traffic but they're going fairly slow.

Like I mentioned at the end of my Oregon writeup reaching Bridge of the Gods had me more emotional than than any of the other milestones until the very finish. I think that was due to the fact that it's just so far up there and part of me never really believed I'd make it with my bad knees and other issues. So if I was skipping a bit when I emerged on the north side of the river that was only partially due to all the coffee I'd been drinking that morning.

A short distance down the road and I was back on trail. Per the sign I had only about 506 miles left and by most estimations I had the entire month of September to make my way through Washington before snow would become a major concern. Because what else could happen right? It's not like the entire west coast was going to catch fire or something...

*cough* So I set off in high spirits fully prepared to be mind blown by the views that everyone was always telling me about...

...and spent the next 3 days in dense forests where I barely had any views. Turns out the scenic areas people associate with Washington are a bit further north.

There's nothing like a solid 5,000' of gain across 20 miles to break in a new state. Needless to say when I arrived at Rock Creek right after sunset I was quite ready to stop. Unfortunately there were people everywhere and I couldn't find a single unoccupied site.

I pushed on only to run into a couple heading southbound who said all the sites ahead were taken as well. 

I filled my water, strapped on my headlamp, and pushed forward hoping to come across any scrap of dirt I could ethically sleep on. Finally sometime after 10 pm I gave up and set up camp at the end of a switchback.

Picture from the next morning when I was breaking down

The tent barely fit and there wasn't enough room to get stakes in. Fortunately my tent is the Nemo Hornet 2p which is semi free standing and I can make due by just throwing my shoes in the bottom corners. (Yes, I'm quite capable of cowboy camping but I was also tired of having black ants climb inside my bag in the middle of the night so generally opted to set up the tent)

Potty Emergency

My body does a funny thing when I'm camping. Somehow it knows when I'm away from bathroom facilities and I almost always wake up in an urgent state. 

Normally this is no big deal since in the wilderness you just have to grab your poop trowel and head off into the nearest stand of vegetation located away from the trail and any water. But here getting off trail at all proved difficult.

Finding no options where I camped I quickly packed and set off up the trail with a growing sense of urgency. Narrow switchbacks and dense forest greeted me at every turn and when I tried an initial bushwhack the vegetation was so thick I could barely even see the dirt much less find a place to dig.

Finally out of sheer desperation I threw myself out into the brush and made something work. But it wasn't pretty. Needless to say my high spirits from yesterday were just a bit dampened. 

Wisdom of the Trail Diamonds

During the next few days I had long stretches of dense forest with no views and few people to break up the monotony. So other than my audiobooks (which I was struggling with due to a pervasive feeling of tiredness / grumpiness  that made every story feel far too stretched out) I amused myself by reading the trail diamonds.

In this section the trail was marked by small diamonds nailed to trees. People had obviously been carrying markers and had filled them in with little pictures or statements.

Usually these were encouraging, occasionally they were witty, and generally I was so starved for entertainment that my mind would wander to the off color contributions I'd have added if only I had a writing instrument. 

Note to self: next time bring a marker.

Trout Lake : Mile 2229.4

September 5th was a good day. Usually any day involving a town visit was a cause for celebration due to the prospect of hot food and maybe if I was lucky a shower. But this was a particularly good one and not even the minor issues like the fact I'd ripped the butt out of my hiking shorts could get me down.

First off I ran into a familiar face. I'd met Ryan aka Too Cool back in Kennedy Meadows when he'd caught a hitch from friends coming to meet me. We'd all spent some quality time chatting on the back porch of Grumpy's during meals but I hadn't seen him again since heading into the Sierra. So you can imagine I was a bit surprised to run into him hiking south.

Turns out he'd suffered an ankle injury in the Sierra and while recovering had decided to flip to the northern border and hike south.

I was getting more and more appreciative of opportunities to socialize after weeks traveling solo and we were able to swap beta about what each of us would be facing up ahead. Sadly I soon had to continue since I had a resupply stop to get through before things closed.

Trout Lake is a small town in southern Washington that was an interesting case this year. When the PCTA issued their guidance about not hiking to protect the remote towns they initially were in full agreement. They even went as far as to post on social media asking hikers not to come in and offering to run any resupply packages out to a nearby trailhead for those that did choose to hike.

Fair enough. But that was early in the season and as things progressed and everyone got a better handle on what felt safe they adjusted and went back to welcoming hikers with the usual mask and distancing precautions. This despite the PCTA contacting them directly and asking them not to host hikers.

I had my latest resupply package mailed to me at the general store but if I come through again I'd just buy here. In addition to selling everything a hungry hiker could possibly want they had an extensive hiker box in the back.

My goal for the day was get into town, grab my box, eat real food, get a shower from one of the rare public showers actually open, and then get back out on the trail and get some more miles in before dark. Since I didn't even reach the trailhead until noon I was a bit apprehensive over getting everything done but as luck would have it I arrived at the road just as one of the local trail angels was offloading another group of hikers. And I even knew several of them!

After a quick catch up with the likes of Captain Awesome and Wildcat the trail angel drove me in to the general store where the lady behind the counter welcomed me boisterously and escorted me into the back room.

She insisted that I use the counter to repack which was really nice though I felt a little bad at taking up space while other hikers were outside. But I did appreciate the chance to be out of the sun.

One beer, burger, salad, and milkshake later I made a quick visit to a local campground for a gloriously hot shower and then called the trail angel to get a ride back out.

Usually the hike leaving a town can be a bit of a struggle filled with happy regret over the amount of food and beer consumed. And there always seems to be a big climb.

But today I happened to strike up a conversation with a friendly guy filling water just past the trailhead. His name was Leo (later he went by the trail name Centerfold) and we ended up chatting away animatedly about life, the trail and coronavirus while powering up the 6 mile climb.

Technically another burn area but I hardly cared since I was so happy to have views again! 

Leo peeled off around his 30 mile mark and I continued on a bit further enjoying the last light up on Mount Adams.

The next day I went through an beautiful lava rock area. Fortunately the trail was mostly dirt instead of that brutal foot killing rubble back in Oregon.

I also started to see more glacial water sources which is why the water looks milky here. Basically it's coming from a glacier up above where the ice is grinding against the rock producing a fine powder called glacial flour that stays suspended in the water.

It's not harmful to drink but it does taste kind of mealy. You can filter it out but it has a tendency to block the filter up fairly quickly so whenever I could I'd aim for the next clear flowing source. When that wasn't possible I'd have to settle for just backflushing the filter.

Bountiful Trail Magic

You might wonder why I have a picture of a bar here. By now I'd pretty much worn myself out on every type of bar imaginable so even a new variety wasn't much to get excited about.

Still it was a nice gesture when I struck up a conversation with a pair of ladies out running a dull stretch of the trail and realizing I was a PCT hiker one of them excitedly pulled out a handful of bars and insisted I pick one.

Her friend was briefly distraught that she didn't have anything to give me. Then she got a mischievous look on her face, flash me, and ran off laughing.

And as far as trail magic goes I have to say that was quite effective at lifting my spirits.

Then the next day I found out I'd just missed donut and beer trail magic ahead. The universe giveth and the universe taketh away.

Goat Rocks & Welcome to the Washington Smokelands : Mile 2272 to 2279

A common answer given to what is you favorite / prettiest part of the PCT is Goat Rocks. It's a wilderness area you pass through south of White Pass which is pretty much the complete package of greenery, waterfalls, and views.

It was always a good indicator that something impressive was coming up when I started running across a flood of weekend backpackers. And you could always tell the weekenders by their huge backpacks and the fact they still smelled strongly of soap.

And sure enough after a reasonably pretty approach I crossed a spectacularly green drainage with an impressive waterfall flowing right over the trail!

There is even a rainbow in the spray if you look close enough. All I could think was how much Jen would have enjoyed this considering her usual over the top exclamations about every minor trickle being a magical waterfall.

Past that the views continued to improve and I  had an impressive view of Mount Rainier to the northwest.

At this point there's a choice to be made as the trail has low and high routes. Basically you stay low and cross a snow field or you climb up and almost hit the summit of Old Snowy Mountain.

If you look close enough you can see both options in the photo above. The peak is Old Snowy and you can see the high route coming down the ridge while the low route crosses the snow field to the right.

Both looked easily doable so I picked the high route figuring the extra gain was minimal and the views would totally be worth it. Also I thought I'd make a quick side trip to grab the summit since my 2020 peakbagger ascent list was looking rather anemic. 

Unfortunately as you can see from the photo above the weather was looking a bit unsettled. I didn't have cell coverage to check the forecast but I was seeing a definite trend and my gut was telling me that I didn't want to be up high right now. I spent a few minutes at the saddle debating and then decided I'd better push on. I figure I'll be back to the area at some point anyway.

Past Old Snowy the trail gets a bit narrow for a section usually referred to as the knife edge. Personally this sort of thing doesn't really bother me as I equate it to walking down a sidewalk next to fast moving traffic. Aka jumping two feet to the left will kill you but other than that you're pretty safe.

Initially I was struggling with regret over skipping the peak but soon the wind was hitting me so hard that I was having to brace myself with my hiking poles and side behind the occasional rock to ride out gusts.

Later I found out that a major wind event was hitting the Pacific Northwest and people were being warned to find shelter.

All I could do was keep moving and try and find a protected spot to camp.

The trail continued down the ridgeline for a good distance and soon off to the east I could see...something. It looked like rain except it seemed a bit too uniform. Smoke was my second guess but it would have to be really thick to look like that...

What a difference a few hours can make

Sure enough it was smoke. After exiting the knife edge the trail dropped and then climbed a second pass by which time not only was I being staggered by high winds but I also had to deal with smoke so dense that my eyes and throat were burning.

Unfortunately this was not going to be my last run in with smoke as the 2020 fire season was now kicking into high gear all across the west coast. 

I kept an eye out for camps but I ideally I needed water for dinner. So I layered up from the cold and did my best to stagger ever onward. 

In the middle of all of this I ran into a nice older lady who was a bit confused. She'd started from White Pass and thought she was hiking north to meet her friend. Unfortunately she was heading south and had been all day.

She had Guthooks on her phone but hadn't actually bought or downloaded any of the maps which limited its use. I chatted with her a bit and she decided to head down to the next water source for the night and go back the next morning. I chatted with some southbound sections hikers about her the next day but I never heard if they ran into her.

Meanwhile I just wanted a protected spot to spend the night. The trail passed by a ski area and I was briefly tempted to try and huddle behind one of the buildings but again I needed water. So I pushed on to a small lake a few miles before White Pass.

When I arrived I found the only usable spot already occupied. If the person was awake I never heard them say anything over the high wind as I filtered and then wasted too much time stumbling around in the dark looking for another tent spot. 

I pushed on just hoping I'd find something before reaching the road. And eventually I found a flat-ish spot that didn't seem to be in imminent danger of having a tree fall on it and managed to get my tent set up.

I even had cell reception again which let me find out what was going on with the storm.

White Pass Kracker Barrel (No Not That One) : Mile 2295.4

When I awoke the next morning it was only barely above freezing and the wind was still going strong. Since I'd had a rough time the following evening I hid out in my sleeping bad for an extra hour before breaking down camp and making for White Pass.

Another oddity of the trail is the fact there's a gas station at White Pass called Kracker Barrel. No relation to the restaurant chain.  

In addition to accepting resupply boxes they had gloriously hot coffee that I just couldn't get enough of. And some marginal oven pizza which I got as a discount after the clerk burnt it a bit. Score!

They let me eat inside but when I asked the clerk where I should unpack my resupply box I was directed to the picnic benches outside. Which is what I'd been afraid of as the wind was still howling.

So I had a rather...dynamic resupply experience where I occasionally had to run down food items that blew out of my box and went tumbling across the parking lot all while trying to maintain a half shouted conversation with another hiker named Lambchop.

After that ordeal I enjoyed a steaming hot shower in the rental yurt area out back and then spent a good amount of time procrastinating. I mean it was bloody cold outside! So why not have another marginal meal and talk with the occasional section hiker inside...

Eventually I forced myself to walk back to the trail and continue on.

There's Nothing The Universe Hates More Than A Plan

September 10th was the day that I let myself serious consider that I might actually reach the Canadian border. Up until then I'd been careful not to jinx myself by carefully making statements like "if I finish" or "if I reach x point."

But now I only had about another 300 miles to go and it was time to start at least thinking about my post trail plans. And after some debate Jen and I decided to book her a flight to Seattle so she could come up and meet me at the end. 

That was going to be really cool since she'd been there at the start, had hiked 1,200 miles with me, and even after leaving she'd been supporting me every step of the way. We even splurged and reserved an AirBNB for two nights which sounded amazing right about then.

I was reluctant to tie myself to any sort of schedule after events like Julian or Tehachapi but 20 miles a day seemed like something I could exceed easily and build up a buffer. No problem right?

Can you guess where this is going?

For two days I had a blessed interval where the wind had died down, the smoke was gone, and I was easily exceeding my 20 mile a day goal. I even had conversations with Lowlander and other hikers about how it was starting to feel odd now that we were this close.

I even managed to run into a friend I'd met waaaaaay back on the very first day of my hike. I hadn't seen LJ since entering the Sierra but she'd ended up having some struggles in NorCal and had flipped up to the canadian border to hike south. 

And then the smoke came back.

At first it wasn't bad. After that windstorm I wasn't going to bat an eye at a little smoke hanging in the air especially when it was coming from fires far away and not threatening to close the trail ahead of me. 

And then I woke up on the morning of September 12th looking forward to an easy -ish 13 miles into Snoqualmie where I planned to meetup with a friend. It wasn't even light out but I could taste the smoke in the air even before I got out of the tent.

Snoqualmie Pass & Casa de Merwin : Mile 2393.9 

I'm a social guy and I'll admit I did struggle at times being away from all my usual social circles. I'm grateful for every one of my friends and sometimes I'm really really grateful for them. And this was one of those very grateful moments.

Miles and I worked together for years on a long running project in Boise Idaho. We'd kept in contact off and on but I hadn't realized that he and his wife Jill lived so close to the PCT until they'd pinged me a week or two before.

At first we just talked about just meeting at the Snoqualmie trailhead but soon we were sending them a resupply box and Miles was scouring the local stores to try and find me butane canisters.

This was how it looked as I was hiking down into Snoqualmie. Look like something you want to be exercising in? Yea, me either but unfortunately I had little choice but to hike on that morning through the slightly surreal smoke choked landscape. And try my best not to breath.

Miles and Jill have a trailer on their property which they were kind enough to let me stay in. And it was downright heavenly except for the fact I was only 250 miles from Canada and I really really wanted finish.

Each morning I packed and was ready to go only to see that the smoke hadn't gotten any better. So I'd update my spreadsheet, watch my daily required mileage to meet Jen increase, and try my best to relax and enjoy my visit.

Finally after the third night I awoke to see patches of blue in the sky where there had only been brown smoke for days. Thanks to another thru hiker named Flash I had an N95 mask with me now which was at least something even if they aren't supposed to be overly effective if you have a big trail beard. 

I decided to go for it. The forecast called for rain in the near future which promised to clear things up a bit. And Canada was only 250 miles away!

The smoke was better than it had been through it grew worse later in the day. I was just so incredibly relieved to be on my way again I didn't care.

Since I had a late start that morning I ended up pushing on past dark at which point the smoke came in so heavy I could see particles in my headlamp. I threw on the mask, continued on, and then it started raining on me when I stopped to collect water causing me to sprint for the next campsite.

The next morning things seemed to have improved more though whether that was due to the rain or just general wind patterns I'm not sure. At least I got to enjoy some decent views passing through the Enchantments.

Stevens Pass & Skykomish : Mile 2464.7

Per the forecast I soon had more rain on the way and that it was hopefully going to end the whole smoke / fire situation.

It was now September 18th and instead of the original 20 miles a day I now had to do 25 every single day just to be able to meet Jen at the finish. That was still a reasonable goal but it did depend on nothing else going wrong.

So I was really feeling the time pressure when I reached Stevens Pass. Since the ski lodge right where the trail crosses the road was closed I'd had my second to last resupply sent to the nearby town of Skykomish which required a 16 mile hitch down the 2.

Fortunately I happened to start a conversation with a gentleman in the parking lot who was happy to give me a ride into town right away. I jumped in the back of his pickup snuggled between a plane engine and wing he said he was taking to get repaired.

Skykomish itself was rather quiet. Outside of the restaurant / hotel I went to most things seemed to be closed. 

Fortunately they were super friendly and gave me a constant supply of hot coffee while I ate and repackaged my food out back. I probably drank a good pot and a half just trying to warm up after the car ride.

Getting back to the trail was probably the most difficult hitch of my hike. I started out just wearing my pack and holding up my thumb only to have a guy from the nearby pizza place come out and offer me a sign. The first one he offered me was actually cardboard and said "Won't Kill You" in really big block letters. And then we managed to track down the actual loaner sign identifying me as a PCT hiker needing a ride to Stevens Pass.

Eventually someone stopped and I was soon back at the trail.

I'd been warned that from this point I would be out of cell coverage. That meant I had to break the news to all my followers online that I'd be out of contact for a few weeks but that it didn't mean I was dead. 

Just as my cell dropped out on me the clouds came in in earnest officially marking the transition from the Washington smokelands to rain.

Rain, Rain, and More Rain

Unlike some folks I'd been carrying rain gear for the entire trail. I've just been burned too many times on shorter trips with unexpected weather. So it wasn't too big a deal to break out my trusty rain jacket and skirt though it did cut down on the amount of pictures I took through this section since it's hard to keep the camera lense clear. Hence the slightly foggy pictures like this.

The initial day of rain wasn't too bad mostly just a constant drizzle. But by the time it was getting dark I was walking inside a cloud bank getting a bit cold as I was hammered by wind and rain. I found a protected campsite near the summit of Grizzly Peak and gratefully jumped inside my tent listening to the wind and rain howling through the trees.

Packing away a wet tent is always kind of a bummer but once you get past the initial experience you learn to deal with it. I got off to a brisk start the next morning trying to warm up in the morning drizzle only to have the rain really start to come down.

Hiking in rain can be rather pleasant assuming you have the proper gear and that the soil is hard packed enough that you're not sliding around in mud and tearing up the trail. 

Of course the trail itself wasn't exactly clear. It was common to have long stretches like this where I was pushing through vegetation overgrowth. This normally wasn't difficult but when the leaves were wet it caused sheets of water to run down my legs and into my shoes.

And the rain was soon coming down hard enough that I could feel the water running down the back of my rain jacket and under my pack. And the trail was soon a flowing stream maybe an inch deep. 

I had so much water to deal with that I started to get a bit concerned about my trusty iPhone. It's technically water resistant and I had switched it into my rain jacket pocket but I soon found those were filling up with water thanks to all the wet plants. I ended up grabbing a ziplock from my food bag and jamming it inside so I now had a damp and cumb covered phone. And hence even less pictures.

But I can't complain since my pack made it through the downpour gloriously.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to pack and rain: protect the pack or protect the contents. Protecting the pack means you use something like a trashbag or rain cover to try and keep the pack itself from getting wet. The problem with this is that unless you're in a full body poncho (which have their own drawbacks particularly if the wind is blowing) is that the back of the pack will still get wet when it starts raining hard enough. And now it was raining really hard.

I'd followed the tried and true method of using a yard sized garbage bag to line the inside of my pack and I think this saved me when a lot of other people were having issues with gear getting wet. Everything I needed to stay dry was inside the liner and things like my tent which were a lost cause could go inside the pack but outside the bag.

I'd only use the bag when it started raining or really looked like it was going to rain in order to not wear it out. Incidentally the best way to prevent threatening clouds developing into rain is to have me stop and repack my pack into the trashbag...

I ended up with a few days of significant rain though it was mostly drizzle with a stiff cold wind. I was mostly in survival mode just pushing forward the best I could and lamenting the lack of views since I'd been in a cloud for the last few days.

So I was extra appreciative when I started to get breaks in the clouds and could finally see things!

Views! Glaciers! And waterfalls! Oh my!

I didn't run into many people in this section which I think was because I was positioned between larger trail families and we were all moving at roughly the same pace. I did run into a guy going by the trail name Dirty Fedora who made an impression on me. He had a degenerative eye disease and was in the process of going blind. He said when the doctors told him he decided he'd go do the Washington section of the PCT since he'd done it years ago and remembered the views being amazing. We passed each other a number of times as he stopped to take pictures so he could properly see things. 

Did I mentioned his house had also recently burned down? It certainly helped put my crummy days in perspective.

The bridge is slightly damaged but still functional

The trail was an interesting mix of rough and developed. Overgrown vegetation was common but I think all the significant stream crossings had bridges of some sort though a few like the one above had seen better days. 

Speaking of which...

Northern Washington's Toilet Game Is On Point

You might have picked up in the course of these writeups how much I appreciated the occasional pit toilet. The opportunity to take a constitutional out of the elements without cranking my abused calves was always nice not to mention getting the opportunity to offload my used toilet paper bundle.

The first time I saw the small wooden toilet sign up on a tree I was surprised since it felt rather remote and not like the sort of place someone would build a vault toilet.

Turns out they had these box toilets installed over pits dug in the ground. Often they're located up a hill or over a small berm just out of sight of the trail. And they did seem to do a decent job at reducing the amount of toilet paper abandoned to the side of the trail.

And every now and then there was a special one. And are you ready for the best toilet experience on the PCT?

I mean there was no cell or wifi but you can't have everything...

This box toilet located above a campsite just below Mica Lake at mile 2,521.8. I'd heartily recommend camping here just for the experience of having this be your morning constitutional.

The Last Fire : Mile 2,540 -ish

The smoke peaking out on the left side of the picture above was from the last active wildfire in my path.

I'd spent not a small amount of time stressing about wildfires. Ever since that initial closure in Northern California I'd been fairly lucky and I'd only had to walk around the closure at Lily Lake. But behind me all hell had been breaking loose. A group of trail friends had come off at White Pass only to be unable to return because the road was closed due to fire forcing them to jump forward. I saw videos of people having to get off the trail at Timberline due to high winds and another guy was stuck inside a fire closure near the Washington border with no visibility. And soon the PCTA was posting that most of Oregon and California was closed due to fire activity. 

The fact I'd made it this far without having to skip anything made me all the more invested in doing a continuous footpath so I watched news of each new flare up with not a small amount of trepidation.

I was able to relax a bit more once the rain started but I will admit to feeling relief when I passed by the sign for the last fire located 4 miles off the trail. I now had a clear run at the border.

A Really Bad Day And A New Plan

When I pictured being this close to the border I really thought I'd be happier. And I was still fully committed and enjoying the experience but I was also run down and just bloody tired. I went through periods where I couldn't even listen to my audiobooks because I was grumpy and would get frustrated at any slow parts in the story.

And I also would have assumed my feet would be pretty damn bulletproof by now. I hadn't had a traditional blister since Oregon. Instead I was battling non traditional issues on my arch.

Beat to crap feet warning. You might not want to have looked...

I've had countless foot issues across my years of hiking but these arch abrasions were a new one. They usually hit later in the day and seemed to have something to do with having wet socks. For a while I managed them by taking more boot and socks off breaks but that became pretty much impossible now with everything being so wet.

My attempts at troubleshooting were limited by my remote circumstances and no combination of ointments or tape seemed to help. In fact taping often seemed to make things worse.

September 21st was a really bad day. I'd been struggling with bad foot abrasion for days and I'd only managed 19 miles the day before. That day I only made it 16 miles when I was in so much pain that I pulled off my socks and found they were bloody.

Since I still needed to be making 25 miles a day to meet Jen this wasn't good. I went to sit by a stream and filter some water while I tried to calm down and think. It was glacial runoff meaning it was milky looking with rock flower would clog my filter but I really didn't care at that point. And then I fumbled my filter bottle and watched it get sucked away in the rapids.

I was behind, I'd been wet for days, my feet were in agony, and I was falling further and further behind. And the forecast relayed to me via inReach was for a lot more heavy rain over the next few days.

Jen and I ended up making a new plan via inReach messages. It was an odd conversation considering messages were getting delayed or sent out of order and Jen was the only one who could look things up online.

As much as I was really ready to be done and wanted to just rush forward Jen felt very strongly that I should do whatever it took to be able to fully enjoy the last part of the trail. 

We decided to push her plane ticket back a week and after contacting the host managed to get the AirBNB reservation moved as well. And then after seeing the weather would improve after the next set of storms she went ahead and booked me three nights on Stehekin to give my feet a chance to recover.

And that is how my planned quick visit to Stehekin turned into a three night stay and why I ended up finishing in summer like conditions instead of a freezing cold rainstorm.

Stehekin : Mile 2572 -ish

Stehekin's main claim to fame along the trail is being the last town before Canada. (Well, unless you exit at Harts Pass and head down to Winthrop or Manzama.) And it's not exactly right along the trail since you have to go 13 miles down a dirt road to get it.

But regardless it's a really cool place. It's located at the southern end of Lake Chelan and for anyone not hiking in it's only accessible via plane or boat. 

It was of course raining again that morning as hiked in and the forecast said this would continue and get worse for the next few days. 

We found two options for places to stay in Stehekin. At the far end of the road where the ferry docks you have the North Cascades Lodge which consists of traditional hotel rooms that are a bit on the pricey side. There is a a restaurant next door that was serving food for takeout only and the portions were both small and really overpriced.

What I wanted vs what I got

The store itself had a few basic items though when I was there they'd run out of raman and beer completely. 

Then you have Stehekin Valley Ranch located just two miles down the road from the trail which is an amazing place that I'd strongly recommend if you have the choice. You pay $120 to stay in half a cabin and three meals are included.

SVR was all full the first night so I ended up at the Lodge for one night and a tent cabin at SVR for two.

There's no cell reception anywhere around Stehekin but you can pay $5 for half a gig of really slow internet at the lodge or SVR has complimentary wifi. Either way it's really slow and intermittent so don't expect to get much done.

Hitching In Stehekin Or How I Thought I Might Die

Since vehicles have to be brought out via ferry there isn't a ton of traffic along the road. Most years there is a park shuttle that picks you up at High Bridge Trailhead and brings you to the ferry landing but that wasn't running this year due to COVID. Instead the Stehekin Valley Ranch had a bus which was running but on bit of an odd schedule.

I reached the trailhead with a guy named Chipmunk who was finishing the trail after being forced off last year due to an injury. Since it was wet and cold I decided to just walk down the road rather than sit around and wait an hour in the rain.

It was only two miles down to Stehekin Valley Ranch, the road was pleasantly flat, and the rain was just a light drizzle.

I arrived at the ranch just in time to get picked up by the bus as it left. So I rode back to the trailhead I'd just come from, then back down to SVR, then back up to the trailhead, and then back to SVR, and then finally down to the landing where the Lodge was located. On the plus side I did get to spend some time with the bus kitten.

When I arrived, checked in and set about looking for hot food I was told that the restaurant wouldn't be open for a few hours and that my best bet was the Stehekin Bakery two miles back up the road. 

It was still raining outside so when someone spoke up behind me and offered me a ride to the bakery I said yes instantly. And then we walked outside and saw he had a moped.

This was only the second time I've been on a scooter or motorcycle with the first having been a slightly hair raising experience through Thailand traffic. And now I was zooming down a wet road at 40 miles an hour without a helmet with raindrops hitting so hard they felt like rocks trying to desperately hold on and hoping that this wasn't going to be how my hike ended.

The bakery itself is quite nice and gets talked about endlessly along the trail. People were only half joking when they talked about loading up on baked goods and trying to eat nothing else until the border.

I loaded on on coffee, soup, pizza, and a huge carrot cake muffin while the guy hung out and chatted with me about the trail and Stehekin in general. He was actually really nice but when he offered me a ride back I quickly insisted that I was actually a big fan of walking.

The walk back went far smoother and I even got picked up by an unsolicited minivan for the last half mile or so.

Back at the lodge I grabbed a bottle of wine, ordered a hamburger to go, and hiker trashed it up sitting in a hot bath enjoying them both.

Stehekin Valley Ranch

Everyone goes on about the bakery but for me Stehekin Valley Ranch was the highlight.

The next day was going to be one of those rare full zeros and I just had check out and to move over to SVR. After my experience with the shuttle the day before I decided I'd just walk and try my luck hitching. I walked down to the bakery without incident, enjoyed yet more coffee, and then went out front to try and hitch.

There was some traffic and I did have a park employee pull over almost immediatly. Unfortunately it was only to apologize to me and let me know they weren't allowed to pick up hitchhikers due to COVID.

Then I got picked up by a quirky young lady driving a beater of a stick shift. Which promptly broke down a few miles down the road. I helped her push it to the side of the road and after making sure there was nothing I could do for her I walked on.

A few miles later I managed to get picked up by one of the employees from SVR.

Stehekin Valley Ranch has a number of cabins varying from basic tent cabins with no power and no private bathroom to more elaborate multistory structures that are completely self contained. Generally you pay per person per night and share a cabin between however many people that structure fits.

A basic tent cabin runs $120 a night which includes 3 meals which really isn't bad at all. Normally you share it with one other person but Jen managed to pay a bit more and get me one to myself which was nice. They didn't have power but they were cozy with a large supply of blankets and led lanterns. 

There was a main building nearby with washrooms and a fireplace that they seemed to keep burning pretty much all the time. Considering the cold wet weather I took copious advantage of the limitless supply of coffee and tea they put out.

Meals were served three times a day cafeteria style with a different special every night along with staple items like hamburgers and such. This was the desert spread completely with homemade ice cream.

Oddly enough while the lodge had been completely locked down this place seemed to be completely ignoring the whole COVID situation. There were about 6-10 thru hikers there at any given time and we'd generally be sitting off to the side but there were several large groups of tourists who were jammed into the benches without so much as a mask between them.

Wifi was free but could generally only be picked up from a particular log out in the parking lot. And even when you did connect to it you could maybe get a text message or two out every few minutes.

I spent two very relaxing days eating my fill, sleeping a lot, and listening to the rain hitting the canvas roof of my cabin.

Onward to Harts Pass

I left Stehekin on September 26th which was the day after I'd originally planned to be at the northern terminus. The forecast said to expect rain growing heavy towards the end of the day but that after that things would with sunny days for the next week or so. Considering the last day I was told would be warm and dry had just involved a bit less rain than usual I was just a bit skeptical.

I stayed for breakfast then shouldered my pack and starting hiking the two miles back up the road to the trail. I could have caught the shuttle bus and saved the two miles but once again the schedule just didn't work for me.

In addition to running into Wildcat and New Amsterdam again I heard that Bilbo and company had been forced to skip ahead due to a fire and that they were somewhere up ahead. I was rather excited at the prospect of getting to say hello since I hadn't seen them in person since right before we entered the Sierra.

The drizzle soon turned into proper rain and I was forced back into my trusty if slightly damp rain gear. And then it turned into a proper trail flooding downpour. 

Again the phone mostly went into my pocket inside my rain gear because everything was so wet. I basically didn't stop for more than a few minutes the entire day since it was cold enough that I'd get chilled.

I kept expecting to turn a corner and run into the tail end of Bilbo's group but eventually I could hear the cars on Rainy Pass.

I had one of my sketchier stream crossings here not long before reaching the road. There was one of those log bridges where they cut the top off a single log to make a flat plank. Unfortunately the log had shifted and it was now at an angle and thanks to the rain the entire thing was so slick I had to resort to just hoping across slightly treacherous rocks.

I really don't like camping near roads due to traffic noise so I pushed on. The rain had tailed off a bit but it was getting noticeably colder and as I started the climb up towards the pass it started to snow intermittently.

I decided to stop for the night and after finding a place to quickly fill water I went searching for a flat spot off trail that didn't look like it would turn into a small lake overnight.

As soon as I stopped moving I started feeling chilled so I dove into the tent as fast as I could and threw on every dry layer I owned. Did I mention how much I loved my Western Mountaineering 10 degree sleeping bag? A few hours later I was feeling nice and toasty.

Rainy Pass Snow Day

By morning the rain seemed to have stopped but there was enough water coming down off the trees that I still had to have my rain gear on. There was also a steady stream of day hikers coming up the trail from the road many of whom were thrilled to talk to me when they realized I was a PCT hiker who had started down in Mexico.

The snow hadn't stuck where I was but I could see the snow line not far above me.

The clear air and fresh snow made for an absolutely spectacular morning and I kept stopping almost every switchback to take more pictures.

The snow wasn't very deep even at the pass and I'm pretty sure it melted off within a day. But it made for a real spectacular morning and I was happy that I was there to experience it.

Meanwhile I was seeing posts online from people having a bit less fun. Some people had sat inside their tent for 4 days waiting out the rain. Others ended up bailing off trail and hitching into town when their gear got wet. One party even made it 15 miles past Harts Pass (aka just 15 miles from the Canadian border) only to be forced to turn back due to wet gear and the cold and then had to try again later.

I had intermittent sunlight but it was still quite chilly and I barely took any breaks all day. 

I passed the last major mileage milestone at 2,600 and when I set up camp at the end of the day I was only 37 miles from Canada.

Harts Pass : Mile 2,622

I started off September 27th with only 5 miles to reach Harts Pass aka the last road before Canada.

Unfortunately I'd a bad night. I'd needed to run out and dig a cathole sometime around 2 am and I still wasn't feeling well when I set out in the morning. Figures.

I walked right past Harts Pass without seeing anyone but apparently I missed out on some rather sweet trail magic by not running out to the parking lot.

I did find this happy little package from White Claw and Captain Awesome but sadly I couldn't bring myself to drink anything while feeling sick at 10 am.

The area around Harts Pass wasn't quite what I was expecting. Remember I hadn't watched a whole lot of vlogs and such and my mental picture of the area was wet green forest similar to Rainy Pass. Instead it was significantly more arid. A local I chatted with along the way explained that this section was in the rain shadow of the Cascades hence the shift.

Fall colors were in full force and the trail either went relatively easy or else I was just numb to hills at this point.

Towards the end of the day I aimed for a campsite at mile 2,638 which promised a reliable if slightly swampy water source. When I got close I could see a tent set up and I braced myself for the possibility that I might not get my usual private camp.

Turned out it was Leo / Centerfold who I hadn't seen since Trout Lake! He wasn't feeling well either but in his case that was mostly due to a bit of a drinking binge when he passed through Harts Pass and did go out to the parking lot.

We chatted about how odd it was we were almost done and what our plans were for the following day. He was intending to leave a lot of gear in his tent and trail run the last section. 

Eventually I wandered back to find a spot for my tent. Once I was inside I heard another group arrive but they were gone by the time I got up the next morning.

Reaching Canada

I woke up on September 29th with only 15 more miles to go. Well, assuming you don't count that 30 mile backtrack but that was a problem for the future. For now, Canada!

Leo had planned to leave early but ended up taking a relaxed start like I did. I left ahead of him only to have him tear by at a run during the big switchbacks.

Like a lot of people he was finishing by slackpacking the last section meaning he'd left his tent, sleeping bag, ect in camp and just carried food, water, and basic clothing layers. The most popular option seemed to be to camp at Hopkins Lake since it was 6 or 7 miles downhill from there.

Hike your own hike but I'd carried all this stuff since Mexico and I wasn't about to leave anything behind. Felt like cheating!

I also ran into a small procession of people coming back from the border including Melissa who had been hiking in the same vicinity ever since Northern California. She'd left Stehekin a day ahead of me and after finishing the day before had spent the night camped over in Canada.

I did my best to enjoy the scenery but it was hard not to count down the miles. After all I'd been building up to this for the last 5 months.

After what felt like an eternity I reached mile 2,651 and...realized I hadn't been paying attention and that the monument was actually at mile 2,653.

So after two more endless miles I strolled into a small clearing while listening to the rousing facial hair based anthem There's Just Nothing Better Than A Beard.

When I arrived Flash and Leo were already there and they broke into a rousing cheer. And what did I do during my big moment? Were there tears? Shouting to the heavens? Ect?

Victory faces

All I could think to do was utter a weary "fuck" and go sit down for a minute.

In the end I'm really glad I delayed my finish and had warmer weather because I got to enjoy a good two hours at the monument. Chatting, taking pictures, and occasionally venturing into Canada to pee in the name of good international relations.

And of course a few rounds of victory pose picture taking.

In addition to Flash and Leo the bathrobe wearing Shenanigans arrived not long after me. It was nice having company at the end but I also appreciated when they left ahead of me and I was able to just sit there alone and enjoy the moment.

For the last 5 months I'd had a goal and a constant sense of progression. I'd stressed, struggled past injuries, and pushed forward relentlessly with the goal of standing right where I was now. And now that I was here I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do over the next few days. 

I can't stress how odd the sudden absence of pressure was.  It was September 29th and Jen wasn't flying in until October 4th. I had 30 miles to get back to Harts Pass where theoretically it wouldn't be too hard to hitch down into town. And I had enough extra food with me I could easily stay out a few more days if I wanted.

I left a little after 2 pm and set off on my short lived career as a southbound PCT hiker.

A few miles back up the trail I finally ran into Bilbo, Hulk, Stitch and the rest of their group. It was kind of neat since Bilbo was the very first person I ran into on the trail way back in May and I'd been keeping in contact off an on through Facebook ever since. 

After that I ran into Wildcat again and several other groups. I heard that even more were setting up at Hopkins and found most of the trailside camps occupied as well. I wasn't sure if this was going to be my last night on trail or not but I suddenly really wanted one last quiet night of solitude.

Looking at my map I found an old camp that appeared to have water access located well away from the trail down a steep slope.

I thought for a bit that the climb down was going to be the final insult that ripped my Lone Peaks completely apart but they somehow managed to hold together.

I found the site and settled down for a quiet night periodically seeing headlamps back on the trail above.

When I turned on my inReach for my nightly checkin I found a small flood of congratulatory messages from friends and family that I read while making dinner.

The next morning I relaxed in camp until about 9 am watching TV on my phone and debating what I wanted to do. Finally I just started walking.

I was enjoying the slower pace and getting to see more people on their way to the terminus. I'd pretty much decided to just go a short distance and find another camp when I turned a corner and saw it.

Smoke. Again. And I was so bloody done with hiking in goddamned smoke.

That decided me and I set an aggressive pace aiming for the trailhead.

I was still enjoying the sights but very much in a I'm ready to be done mindset.

I reached the upper parking lot at Harts Pass at 6 pm and after walking down the road for a few minutes a car drove by and gave me a ride to the lower lot next to the campground. 

There I hopped out to find a big group of hikers including most of Bilbo's crew and a few others including a late appearance by Boss and Hoss who I hadn't seen since the Sierra. Some of them still had to do the Harts Pass section or were headed back south to finish parts of the trail they'd skipped.

When I mentioned I was looking to get out to Winthrop that night they directed me towards an older gentleman with a van. He was a trail angel who had just driven up to give people a ride and he was happy to cram me in with three other hikers.

The road down from Harts Pass was surprisingly rough and I winced a few times as the minivan scraped on rocks. We chatted about the area and the trail and then after one slightly awkward conversation about his particular brand of jesus I was dropped off in in Winthrop around 7:45 pm. 

The other three guys all jumped on their phones and started looking for a place to stay but I had other priorities mainly hot food and a beer. Unfortunately the kitchens all close at 8 pm and everywhere that was open seemed to have a 30-40 minute wait.

Fortunately when I went into Three Fingers Jack's Saloon and explained I was a PCT hiker who had just finished the trail the waitress went above and beyond to get me fed. She managed to find a place for me to sit in the back and snuck my food order in right before the kitchen closed for which I'll always be grateful to her.

I never saw the other guys but it sounded like they were headed for the local hostel. While I was eating I was able to leverage Jen to find a hotel for the night despite the late hour.

Unfortunately I didn't realize until I'd already left that she'd booked me one two miles out of town. So I spent a good 25 minutes walking down a dark road very much feeling those two beers I'd had with dinner.

Trail Postscript

I spent the next two nights in a series of hotel rooms my parents were nice enough to book for me. They even went to the length of calling around to try and make sure to find ones with bathtubs since they knew I was soaking in them to help my leg aches.

I spend the days laying around in bed, soaking my battered legs in the bathtub, and occasionally venturing out to get food or coffee.

I don't know if it was because of COVID closures but seemed like every place I went had a 30+ minute wait even to just pick up your pizza order to go.

Jen flew into Seattle late on October 2nd and drove until 2:30 am to reach me in Winthrop.

Since our rescheduled AirBNB reservation had only been available for Saturday and Sunday night we ended up driving back down to stay with Miles and Jill for a night near Snoqualmie.

Jen even got to learn how to drive a tractor which might have been briefly terrifying.

Since I really wasn't wild about being in small confined spaces with people after being in the wilderness so long we decided I'd drive a rental car back to Colorado to get my Jeep and then drive that back to Orange County after a stay with my parents.
And if you're curious what 5 months on the trail does to you...

After all of that I arrived back home in Orange County on October 26th. Sadly the COVID-19 situation was still ongoing so any big gatherings of friends were going to have to wait. But at least they'd reopened the campgrounds and restaurants were at least partially open. At least until December when everything shut down again.

I also arrived just in time for high winds which triggered yet another big fire and resulted in an evacuation all the way down to the 5 freeway. And then a few weeks later it happened again. Which really didn't help my feelings of missing life on the trail.

Next up: Post trail depression and future plans...

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