September 3-7: Echo to Donner

Day 1: PCT mile 1089.5 to Susie Lake – 12.1 miles

The adventure began Wednesday evening when my friend Evan met us at Donner Summit, picked us up, and drove us to the trailhead at Echo Summit. Due to the late hour we didn’t have enough daylight to hike into Desolation Wilderness, so we hiked south on the PCT for about half a mile and found a flat spot to set up the tent. The real hiking would begin tomorrow.

At Echo Summit.

When I conceived this trip the plan was to get a ride to Echo Summit on Thursday morning. Because I didn’t know what time we would actually begin hiking I purchased a Desolation Wilderness permit for Susie Lake, knowing that we could hike at least that far the first day. Now, having arrived at the trailhead the night before, we made an early start and had a mellow 12-mile hike ahead of us.

The trail brought us across Highway 50 and up to Echo Lake, where PCT Section K officially begins. Along the way we leap-frogged with a couple starting their second day on the Tahoe Rim Trail. We chatted for a few minutes and discovered that we were all Humboldt State alums. Small world!

Greg and I arrived at Echo Lake and began the hike along the north shore. Our arrival on the far side coincided with the arrival of a water taxi, so for the next few miles we overtook and passed day hikers. Passing so many hikers made me feel strong!

We crossed into Desolation Wilderness and climbed up to beautiful views of Tamarack Lake. The crowd of day hikers thinned considerably after we crested the ridge. We saw a few groups of backpackers returning to Echo Lake, but traffic was lighter than I’d expected in this wildly popular wilderness area.

Soon we arrived at Lake Aloha, where we stopped for lunch. We’d been hiking in very strong winds all day but at Lake Aloha the wind was so strong we couldn’t walk a straight line. Lopsided east-leaning trees indicated that the wind was a permanent fixture here.

Lake Aloha

We hiked on, making our way around Lake Aloha, dropping down to beautiful Heather Lake, and finally touching down at Susie Lake with plenty of daylight left to set up camp. Greg found a spectacular campsite near Susie Lake’s outlet. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset and spent the night secure in our tent as the wind continued to howl.

Day 2: Susie Lake to Richardson Lake – 17.0 miles

The wind never let up and it was still going strong when we woke the next morning. Sunrise was stunning, however, and we lingered in camp taking pictures of the fiery clouds before setting out to tackle 9,400-foot Dick’s Pass.

Sunrise from Susie Lake’s outlet.

The climb was slow: we stopped repeatedly to photograph the view and our forward movement was repeatedly thwarted by the wind. Our early start meant the trail was deserted, and it was nice to imagine that we were the only travelers in the wilderness.

We stopped for a snack at a saddle overlooking Dick’s Lake, where we had to pull on extra layers as protection against the wind. Greg forged ahead in the wind while I stopped again and again to photograph the ever-changing view. Our new friends from the day before caught us shortly after our snack break and we arrived at Dick’s Pass together. We took photos of each other beside the wooden monument and then began the long descent to Dick’s Lake.

View from Dicks Pass.

The far side of the pass was swarming with hikers and we passed group after group as we made our way down the mountain. The crowds soon thinned, however, and from Dick’s Lake to Middle Velma Lake we saw very few people. We ate lunch at Middle Velma, where we were only partially successful at sheltering from the wind.

The rest of the day found us strolling through red fir forest. So much for those stunning views. We crossed paths with a Forest Service employee who checked our wilderness permit and warned us that the forecast called for 60 mile per hour winds. No wonder we kept getting blown off the trail! A few hours later we crossed out of Desolation Wilderness.

At 17 miles from Susie Lake, Richardson Lake seemed like a nice choice for that night’s camp. When we pulled up to the lake we found a group of four women already set up in one of the sites on the lakes north shore. They had started at Ebbett’s Pass and were out to see how far they could hike by Sunday.

Greg and I prepared dinner and weighed the pros and cons of staying here versus pressing on for another few miles. I was tired after our climb over Dicks Pass and our long battle with the wind, and even though I wanted to keep going we agreed that the smart choice was to stay put, set up the tent before we lost all daylight, and relax for the evening.

Richardson Lake at sunset.

Richardson Lake, as we’d noticed when we’d arrived, is accessible to off-road vehicles. This was slightly alarming, but we chose to risk the arrival of car campers. Thus we were disappointed, but not entirely surprised, when a 4×4 arrived that evening. The newcomers were a family. They set up out of sight around the lake and were quiet neighbors. No problem.

When daylight faded we got into our tent and fell asleep. Then, just after 10pm, we woke to a Jeep invasion. Three Jeeps carrying a very noisy family arrived and the occupants proceeded to set up camp a very short distance from our tent. What a nightmare! Greg and I seriously considered packing up and abandoning the lake but decided the best course of action was to stay put until daylight. After two hours the noise finally died down, and I slept.

Day 3: Richardson Lake to PCT mile 1137.6 – 19.0 miles

I only got about 5 hours of sleep that night. Greg and I quickly ate and packed up and started hiking before the late-arrivals were fully up and active. The trail brought us up to Barker Pass, where we received our first views of Lake Tahoe and again encountered crowds of day hikers. Most were out for only a few miles, though, and we saw few people after we passed into Granite Chief Wilderness.

We stopped for lunch just beyond the wilderness boundary and came to the unwelcome realization that we had badly botched our water resupply. We’d passed several small steams but for some reason had not stopped to refill, and now we would have to hike 6.5 miles on the fumes of the water we’d started with that morning. I am a prolific water drinker; I soon drained the last of my water. Greg donated half a liter of his water, and thus armed we set out for Five Lakes Creek.

A mile before our next water source I again drained the all of my water and had to sip the last of Greg’s water as we switch-backed down to Five Lakes Creek. There we refilled our water and ate dinner in one of the many campsites near the creek crossing. Then, with an hour of daylight left, we decided to press on for another 1.9 miles to the next campsite listed in the PCT apps. We arrived at the campsite as the last of the sun’s rays disappeared over the mountain.

Day 4: PCT mile 1137.6 to Sugar Bowl – 13.3 miles

After yesterday’s long hike we treated ourselves to a lazy morning and didn’t start hiking until 10am. The trail brought us up to the headwaters of the American River, where we took a long break, collected more water, and ate snacks. It was a delight to finally hike without wind, but that morning I was not very fast. As we climbed out of Granite Chief Wilderness and up under Squaw Valley’s ski lifts I felt like I was dragging. Tinker Knob came into view. Did we have to climb that? I consulted the map. Yes. Oh no! 

When we pulled up to the spring where we intended to break for lunch it was already 3pm – and we had only hiked 7 miles! After a 45-minute lunch, rest stop, and water refill we set out to climb 1,000 feet on a south-facing slope. Oddly, after lunch my energy sky-rocketed. We made it to the top of the mountain in good time and continued zipping along the ridge at 3 miles per hour. 

On the ridge just north of Tinker Knob.

The views were incredible, but even after stopping every few minutes for photos (and stopping for a quick dinner break) we managed to cover another 6 miles by 7pm – quite a step up from this morning’s lackadaisical pace. When we saw a nice campsite near the top of Sugar Bowl we veered off the trail and set up for the night as the sun set in a blaze of orange haze. Where was this smoke coming from? Until this evening the sky had been blue blue blue.

Day 5: Sugar Bowl to Donner Summit – 6.5 miles, plus 1-mile accidental detour

We enjoyed another leisurely morning and started hiking at 9am. We knew the trail would take us down to Highway 40, but for some reason we blundered onto the wrong trail, one which took us back uphill on a sustained climb. I finally consulted Guthook’s app and confirmed that we were well off course. Our first navigational failure on the PCT! Oops! 

We found our way back to the PCT and switchbacked down to Highway 40, stopping frequently to let uphill day hikers pass. And then we began the final stretch of trail back to our car. This final 3 miles seemed to take hours to complete and unfortunately our perception was correct: we walked 3 miles in 1.5 hours! But eventually all things come to an end. We walked into the paved parking lot at Donner Summit and took off our packs. What an amazing adventure!



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