Day 5 &6
Elk Pass to Upper Lake Creek to Packwood Lake Trailhead – 11.5 miles
It was mid-afternoon by the time I reached Elk Pass at the north end of the Goat Rocks section. I had hiked a little over nine miles and each step had been exhilarating. The excitement would continue for a little while longer though for a very different reason.
I had known before starting this section of trail that the last 16 miles were closed due to a number of fires that had been burning since mid-August. I’d seen the smoke from the fires as I’d made my way along the Goat Rocks Knife’s Edge.
There was an official detour in place but I’d heard about an alternate detour from other thru-hikers on the trail. I had a decision to make. The official detour was about 15 miles long. The trail climbed up and over a mountain before dropping 2,000 feet into a river valley and then climbing steeply back out to reach Highway 12. The alternate detour was about twelve miles. The trail would descend 2,500 feet to Upper Lake Creek, follow the creek to Packwood Lake then reach a trailhead about five miles west of the lake. There’d be very minimal elevation gain.
I also had to consider the weather. My previous night at Sheep Lake had been near freezing. The morning had been nice and warm but the temperature had dropped through the day. Mount Rainier had been shrouded in clouds and I’d seen thick bands of clouds to the west.
Stay high or go low?
Unsurprisingly I decided to descend. I wanted to be at a lower elevation in case of precipitation and hoped I’d have a warmer night’s sleep. Steep descents usually aren’t my first choice but my pack was light and my legs were strong. I was feeling so strong in fact that I bypassed the first few campsites I came to. They had access to water but were all basic sites tucked into the hillside of the gloomy forest.
I started looking for a campsite more earnestly once I reached the valley floor. I explored a wide rocky floodplain alongside the well-flowing creek but didn’t find anything quite suitable enough. Luckily another couple minutes along the trail there was a large site with log seats and a fire pit. I set up my tent and sat out beside the river to make my dinner.
The light was fading fast and I noticed a couple headlamps coming down the trail. I introduced myself to the two hikers and invited them to join my site. I guess I was craving a bit of human connection and reassurance that I wasn’t alone on the detour.
We all turned in just as rain started to fall. Tomorrow I’d have an easy hike out to the trailhead where my dad would be meeting me.
It was raining lightly the next morning but I couldn’t help but feel grateful for it. The forests had been so dry that I was relieved on their behalf. I packed up and had a quick breakfast, wished the guys happy trails, and was on my way.
I had a couple miles of hiking alongside the creek until I reached Packwood Lake. It was surprisingly warm out and only raining lightly. I enjoyed hiking in the valley and even spotted some impressive old-growth cedars. I only had one hiccup.
I reached a really large old cedar and stopped to take a photo. I put my poles down beside the tree (for scale) and stepped back to get my shot. As I was grabbing my poles to move on I felt a couple sharp stings on the back of my legs. And then a couple more! It seemed I had disturbed a ground nest of bees. I walked/ran down the trail as quickly as I could, swearing colourfully as I went. The pain and adrenaline set in quickly and I stopped about five minutes later to apply some salve and take some ibuprofen. For the next hour I was an adrenaline-fuelled hiker flying down the trail.
The adrenaline wore off around the time I reached Packwood Lake. The rain had nearly stopped so I took a break at a campsite beside the lake.
I refilled my water bottle and took a couple more ibuprofen before setting off. I really enjoyed the trail around the lake and took another break near the western outlet. Only four more miles to go.
I put a podcast on and kept my feet moving. The sky lightened and I shed a layer as I climbed out of the lake basin. From there the trail was mostly flat and travelled through second-growth forest. I made it to the trailhead just after noon, as projected. I cheered to see my dad there. He’d arrived only minutes before me!
I had done it. I had hiked nearly all five hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington (minus a handful for fire detours). I completed the trail in 43 days, in five segments, over two summers. I’d seen some of the best scenery in Washington on foot, carrying everything I needed to survive for a week at a time. I’d received amazing trail support from my husband Dan, my friends Lauren and Dave, and my parents. I’d had many friends cheering me on and wonderful support when I was home between segments.
I discovered that I really enjoyed the rhythms and routines of a through hike. I enjoyed waking up with the sun, walking all day, sitting quietly in the forest or near lakes or streams, and sleeping surrounded by wilderness. I was confident, strong, and brave. I truly wasn’t ever afraid. I’d survived heat, smoke, steep climbs, long descents, exposed ridge lines, boring forests, blisters, injuries, and bee stings. I’d lived simply and cherished the interactions with other hikers. I was my best self.
The trail has given me confidence to keep moving forward through life. My experiences have shifted my perspective. My daily challenges at home are minuscule when compared to what I braved on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Plus there’s still plenty more trail to explore, not just the Pacific Crest Trail but all the side-trails I encountered in Washington and all the trails I heard stories from other hikers about. I’m not hanging my boots up yet. More adventures await!