Sunday, Aug 6th, 2023, 0710-1400
Azalea Lake to Seiad Valley, BFT mm 121
18 miles, Gain 2370′, Loss 6400′, elevation 1370′
I planned for an early start but ran into my camping mate, Bob, just as I was leaving. We got to chatting, so it was well after 7 am when I finally left camp. He was so proud to be on his first solo backpacking trip, so I encouraged him to check out the Oregon Coast Trail. I’d regret my delay later, when I realized the Seiad Valley cafe closed at 2 pm. But I wasn’t feeling the pull of a town day just yet. I had 9 miles of non-PCT trail still to go, which I knew could be slow going. The big miles I made the day before gave me hope, though.
The trail continued down through forest, then up to another drainage and lake. All through this area I saw one of my favorite plants, beargrass. I didn’t even know it grew so far south. It was past the flowering stage, no longer giving off the most wonderful scent in the world. Near the ridge, I entered another burn area, but one from a very long time ago. That or just very little grew on the south-facing, exposed slopes. There were no longer dead tress, just lots of manzanita and other shrubbery. The trail disappeared in and out of some thickets regularly, but overall I could still see where it was. I just pushed through, feeling my way along. The trail created sort of a channel through the brush, which somewhat forced my feet along the correct path. I guess animals helped to keep it open, since I didn’t see any recent human footprints.
I was still on the boundary trail, which stretched for almost 7 miles along the ridge. It was a fantastic route with views galore. The fresh breeze had blown the smoke away and finally I was seeing a lot of northern California! I could almost look around as I walked. The bush was generally only knee height and there were many bare spots. My legs still felt a little raw from previous scrapes and jabs, but my calf high gaiters helped. I rolled along, enjoying the fun of such an open ridgeline route, reminiscent of those on the Continental Divide. The short climbs were well graded, almost as if the PCT had rubbed off on this nearby cousin. One of my favorite things was to gaze in the distance to see my trail traversing a far away slope. This trail stood out very well among the semi-barren hillsides.
The miles flew by. I stopped at a high point after a small climb near Rattlesnake mountain. I didn’t like the name but no snakes were seen. Peaks were in abundance though, so I played with my favorite app. There were more great views of Mt. Shasta…yay! I could also make out parts of the PCT and I got very excited. It promised to be smooth sailing for days! Suddenly I was at the junction, which was actually quite undramatic. I had built it up in my head, expecting to bump into thru-hikers almost immediately, but it took almost 15 minutes to see the first 2…. I’ve never been so excited to see NOBOs, haha!
I’d last been through this section in 2018, but I’d hiked a portion of the PCT more recently in 2022, as part of the PNT. That 13 mile stretch through the Pasayten Wilderness, Northern Washington, was thus far the only part of the PCT I’d repeated. Now I was set to retrace my steps for over 700 miles..basically all of Northern California. Incredibly, I’d joined with the PCT on August 6th the year before. Now, quite unintentionally, I hit the PCT on the exact same date a year later. I didn’t even realize this until months later, when I was going back through my blogs. It added a really nice symmetry to the last 2 years of hiking. The PCBCRT was, after all, sort of a continuation of the theme from the PNT.
The excitement wore off rather quickly, as it always does. For weeks, I’d been wishing for some company, but always be careful what you wish for. Actually, it wasn’t that I passed many hikers on the 9 miles down… maybe 10, including 2 day hikers. What surprised me were the terrible condition of the trail. After dreaming of a wide, clear swath, I found myself pushing through some of the worst brush all day. I pulled my phone out several times just to be sure I was still on the PCT. The brush had grown in particularly thick on an exposed hillside, with many social trails weaving through it. One comment in Far Out was spot on: how is this graded and passable for stock animals? Supposedly the whole PCT could be traveled by horses, alpacas, etc but I couldn’t imagine one making it through this small section. I didn’t remember it being near as bad in 2018. Later the cafe owner, Heather, told me that the USFS manager that used to head the trail maintenance in the area had retired. No one else had taken up the lead. It only takes one person to really get the ball rolling, and only one missing for things to go downhill quickly.
I was disappointed but at least I was going downhill quickly, too. In some ways the brush was worse than on the unused trails, because with so much traffic, branches were broken, becoming more pokey. My legs were not happy. There were also some blowdowns, but they were easy to vault over. Their branches had long ago been sheared or worn to nubs. I was very good at the calculus of evaluating a blowdown, making quick decisions regarding over, under or around. Being taller with longer legs really helped. I would have hated to be a NOBO going uphill into that mess.
By now I was really cruising, despite the less than ideal trail conditions. Relatively, the trail was still fantastic, especially when I reached the lower forest. It got hotter and hotter too. I couldn’t believe it when I passed a woman heading up around 1 pm…the peak suffering hour, no thank you. It had to be close to 90 degrees in the shade. With only 2 miles to go, I thought I could still make it to the cafe before 2 pm. But I didn’t know it they would even take my order right at closing? I hoped to get a ride for the last mile on the road, but there was hardly any traffic, so I didn’t try. I ran\shuffled and just squeaked in. Whew! The cafe was still packed at closing and the grill full of food. The owner said she’d serve me but understandably, it would be awhile before she was able to even take my order. That was fine by me, as I passed the time on my phone.
I watched her doing everything for half an hour…taking more orders, closing out the bills, preparing all the food, and getting drinks. She was all by herself. When things finally quieted down and almost everyone had left, I got a chance to talk to her. Her mother was the one that had owned the cafe all these years and probably served me when I came through in 2018. She died very suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of 2021, leaving Heather to run the business and take care of 2 young children. How heartbreaking. When people get impatient and grumpy about the cafe’s hours and service, I wish they knew the full story. It’s a wonder the cafe had survived in such a small town all these years. Well, hikers were a big reason, probably. This was, after all, the very site of the 5 lb pancake challenge. I’d always been a big PASS on such eating challenges.
I got my resupply box from the general store next door, drank a beer outside with some other hikers, and made friends with a lady from Redding that stopped in her side-by-side caravan. She gave me her phone number in case I needed help once I got down there (near my eventual end on the Bigfoot Trail). It’s funny that after wishing to be around other hikers for weeks, I was still gravitating more towards ‘ordinary’ folks. I suppose after I’d been making friends with everyone else for over a month, I just got comfortable with it.
I wondered down to the RV park, where I planned to stay for the night. This was a new situation since I was last through. The previous RV park wasn’t very hiker friendly, so I hadn’t stayed in town. This new one had camping for $15 and a buffet meal for the same, but by donation (no food service permit needed if your don’t technically charge for it). I set up down by the creek in a nice spot and did chores. A hot shower was an additional $8, so I opted for the free outdoor cold shower…it was hot enough outside. I still shivered through the experience but it felt very refreshing. Dinner was great, with tons of food…even when 5 more hikers showed up at the last minute. There must have been about 20 of us. I stuffed myself and still went back for seconds.
Cherry and Lehel, the caretakers, made a campfire and I had to laugh when nobody even came over to sit by it. Everyone was heading off to bed, many that had already hiked 30 mile days, no doubt. There were no partiers in this bunch. Most were rushing to get out of California finally, with many miles to go still after that. I wasn’t in the rush and it felt pretty good.