16.4 miles on PCT (1859.3 to 1875.7) and 9.2 miles on Oregon Skyline Trail, plus 0.8 mile to/from Six Horse Springs
A red sun rises. There’s too much smoke in the air. I hike away from camp at 6:30 and I complete the 10.3 miles to Six Horse Springs in only 3.5 hours. Comments in the app warn me that the trail down to the spring is long and steep. I’m prepared for the worst and am pleasantly surprised when the trail isn’t nearly as long or as steep as I imagined.
Back at the trail, I sit on a log and take my first break of the day. I’ve never done so many miles without a break before. My trail legs are back, and then some. In the water report and in the app, I keep seeing the letters OST. I’m supposed to know what this means, but I don’t, and until now I’ve just been ignoring it. Now, however, I go through my resources and unearth the full name: Oregon Skyline Trail. The alternate begins at Windigo Pass, a little more than six miles from here. For those resupplying at Shelter Cover Resort (like me), OST is eight miles shorter than the PCT. Apparently it also has more water (irrelevant for me since I just lugged four liters up this hill) and less climbing, and goes almost directly into Shelter Cove. Should I go for it? I wish I’d thought about this before now.
Two hikers arrive and sit nearby. I ask if they’re planning to take the PCT or the Skyline Trail. They’re doing Skyline. It sounds tempting, but I think I’ll stick to the PCT. At 1,000 feet higher in elevation, it should be cooler, possibly with fewer mosquitoes. On the ridge, I should also have better views, provided the smoke isn’t too dense.
I hike on. A little farther along, I catch a glimpse out to the south. Something’s wrong out there. I take a few steps, peering through the trees, until I see the thing that caught my attention: there’s smoke rising from the mountain across the canyon. The fire must have started last night. I get my topo map oriented and attempt to locate the fire. Oh, no. I think it’s right above the PCT. I’m standing at mile 1870. I think this fire is above mile 1868.6. I smelled smoke back there, but saw nothing, so concluded the winds had shifted. I have reception here – barely – so I call the fire information line to report what I’m seeing. Then I keep walking. I want to get out of here!
Seeing the smoke freaks me out, and now I don’t know what to do. Maybe the lightening started more fires; maybe I’m walking toward another one. Maybe I should take the lower Skyline Trail after all. Lightening is more likely to strike on the ridge. What should I do? I want to see the upcoming section of the PCT. I hadn’t planned to take the alternate; I don’t want to take it. Back and forth I debate, trying to convince myself to decide one way or the other.
Suddenly, I spot an old trail marker. I’ve been looking forward to finding one, and starting at mile 1874, the trees are full of the old diamond shaped markers – literally: the trees look like they’re digesting the metal markers.
I reach Windigo Pass. Now I have to decide. PCT or OST? I sit and eat lunch and study my maps. The hikers I met earlier arrive and stop for lunch, too. Thunder booms. It’s only 1:15. The storm is early today. Lightening flashes. The other hikers take off toward Skyline Trail. I remain behind, undecided. A SOBO arrives. I ask him about the trail to the north. He asks me about the nearby fire, which he could see from the trail. As we talk, ash begins to fall from the sky. A spotter plane begins to circle.
Finally I realize that if I felt comfortable hiking the PCT, I would already be doing so. Something is stopping me. I should take the lower trail. The SOBO is going to continue hiking south despite the fire near the trail. We wish each other luck.
The Skyline Trail winds through hemlock and down into lodgepole pine. Lots and lots of lodgepole pine. A few miles in, I catch the other hikers taking a break beside the trail. As I stop to say hi, rain starts. They move off to set up camp near a little lake, while I put on my rain gear and forge ahead.
For awhile, I walk through drizzle. Drizzle turns to rain, then to a downpour. I don’t want to camp here, or there, or there, so I walk as fast as I can, scouting for potential sites as I go. Crescent Lake, several miles ahead, is supposed to be nice. There’s a free campground with running water, a sandy beach, and nice views of Diamond Peak. Maybe I can get there tonight.
I’m soaked. Rain keeps coming. I’m still hiking through tall, spindly lodgepole. I don’t want to sleep here. Actually, I don’t want to sleep at Crescent Lake, either. The lake is accessible by car; a free campground will be filled with people I won’t want to camp beside.
On I go, not liking anything I’m seeing. Once, I catch the slightest glimpse of what must be Diamond Peak. The trees are too dense to see more than a tease. I want to camp with a view of that mountain. A few miles later, I still haven’t found a place to camp. Rain tapers off, but thunder still booms. I’m getting close to Crescent Lake. I may not find anything before I reach the lake.
I don’t. At the fork to the lake, two tents are pitched in a flat area. Finally a reasonable place to camp, and someone’s already here. I go a little farther and a paved road appears just below the trail. I’ve gone 26 miles. I don’t want to go any farther. I scout around for awhile and finally choose a spot a short distance uphill of the trail where headlights from cars on the road won’t enter my tent. From here, I can hear loud music, dogs barking, cars on road, and – of all things – a train. A train? I check the map. Yeah, there’s a train track on the other side of the lake. I hope I can sleep tonight.