DONNER PASS, Calif. — Traffic cruises by on Highway 40 at this infamous Sierra Nevada high point, a far different scene from the dusty wagon trains of more than a century and a half ago. The 7,113-foot pass is named for the ill-fated Donner Party, which in late 1846 was unable to make it through before heavy snowfall forced them to encamp, ill-prepared. By spring, nearly half of the westbound emigrants had perished from exposure and starvation.

I’m unlikely to resort to cannibalism as the Donners are rumored to have during their tragic winter, but with an empty food bag, a grumbling stomach and nobody yet interested in giving me and my hiking companions a ride to Truckee for serious food and drink relief, well, I guess anything is possible.

Donner Pass marks the halfway point of my Pacific Crest Trail journey, 623 miles southbound and 702 miles northbound for a grand total of 1,325 miles to date. I’m just 448 miles from connecting the dots back to Kennedy Meadows.

Recently, from the black lava cliffs of Hat Creek Rim, I bid a fond farewell to majestic Mount Shasta and welcomed Lassen Peak into focus. The crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the snow-capped 10,463-foot mountain is the most southerly of the ancient volcanoes of the Cascades.

Lower Twin Lake halfway through the 20-mile traverse of the park’s eastern sector offered an entertaining night’s camping, complete with aggressive deer and a pesky bear. A short side trip to Drakesbad Ranch – a park concessionaire – netted quality time in the hot springs-fed pool and a session at the lunch buffet. Trail life is tough sometimes.

Crossing the North Fork of the Feather River in the Plumas National Forest, the PCT officially enters the Sierra. It was several days more in the thick pines and brushy chaparral, however, before I reached the dramatic Sierra Buttes and the sweeping granite walls and spires, emerald lakes, wildflower-adorned meadows and lingering snowfields that characterize these mountains as I’ve come to know and love them.

The conservationist John Muir extensively explored, worked to preserve and wrote passionately about the mighty Sierra Nevada, which he called the Range of Light. Ansel Adams brilliantly captured the Sierra through his black and white photography, and the climber Galen Rowell scaled its soaring summits and inspired many with his stunning photos. I’ll be thinking of all three as I happily hike through this incredible wilderness landscape once again.

Three and a half months into the trek, my hiker hunger has kicked in big time. One evening in camp, for example, from supper until bedtime, I chowed on chocolate bars, cookies, chips, candy, a two-person freeze-dried dinner and more. When I tallied up the wrappers come morning, I discovered I’d eaten 2,500 calories.

The 129-foot Burney Falls in Burney Falls State Park is the highest and most beautiful falls on the entire PCT. Photo by Carey Kish

At Burney Falls State Park, the 129-foot cascade was beautiful, but it was the general store I really enjoyed. I consumed two hot dogs, chips and a Coke, then a huge roast beef sandwich, more chips and two beers. Ice cream and Gatorade followed. All this, and I was still hungry.

These are the glory days of the hike. I’m tanned and weathered from constant exposure to the elements, and sport my requisite share of cuts and scrapes, bruises and bug bites. I’ve shed 25 pounds and am in peak physical condition thanks to 108 days of climbing up and down mountains. My calves could rival those of the bicyclist guy in the Liberty Mutual commercials.

Each day I walk about 20 miles – much more and it feels like work, any less and I get bored. The miles come pretty easy now on these long summer days, which reward with head-spinning vistas galore, and lakes and streams aplenty for fine campsites, good water and swimming.

I retired my first pair of boots, Lowa Renegade GTX Mids, in Chester after 1,100 miles and received a new pair in the mail there courtesy of my lovely wife. I’ve not had a single blister on the PCT or in more than 4,500 miles of hiking in these boots over the last four years.

When I next report in late August, I should have plenty of Sierra stories to share. Ciao for now.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1977 and 2015, and completed the 1,100-mile Florida Trail in 2017. Follow Carey’s PCT adventures on Facebook @Carey Kish.

 

 

 

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