Thursday, Aug 10th, 2023, 0640-1930
Paradise Lake to Etna Hwy, then hitch to Etna
29.5 miles, Gain 5660′, Loss 5810′, elevation 6010′
I was surprised the deer didn’t bother me overnight. I made sure to pee really far away from my tent, so that seemed to do the trick. Maybe I was just too tired from the climb the day before to even notice them. I got a pretty late start but still made almost 10 miles by 10 am. The morning was fantastic, with the landscape being so much better than I remembered it. Actually seeing the Marble Mountains was incredible. They were characterized by these white bands of marble, so dramatically different than the surrounding peaks. I couldn’t even see them from afar the time before to notice how much they stand out.
There were also lots of lakes and springs for the first half of the day…a boon of water that caused me to let my guard down. I came to the junction with the Big Elk Lake and Wooley creek trail after about 6 miles. This was where I was supposed to depart the PCT in favor of the Bigfoot route, but numerous comments and even Michael Kauffmann’s notes (trail creator) discouraged travel down this drainage. It was a blowdown nightmare due to burn areas and lack of maintenance. My plan was to go another 12 miles on the PCT to the junction with the Bug Gulch trail, which supposedly connected to the route. There was a recent Far Out comment (July ’23) about it going through but I couldn’t find any more beta and didn’t have a ground-truthed trackline or elevation profile. It showed as a dotted line on my USGS topo map, but I know how inaccurate those depictions can be. I would make a final decision when I saw it in person.
In between, I passed Man Eaten lake, a striking azure hole in an alpine basin. I remembered this lake vividly from last time, just because it’s so mesmerizing. Once again, I did not drop down to the lake, accessed by a steep side trail. One of these days. I pressed on to the other side of a saddle, back on the east-facing side of the ridge. I found yet another beautiful cold spring and stopped for lunch, with views down into the valley towards Etna. It was such a quiet day…I only passed 8 hikers before lunch.
The trail wound back to the west-facing side of the ridge and that’s when it got hot, dry, burned, and super exposed to the sun. Finally around 3 or 4 pm, I came to Bug Gulch junction. I couldn’t even see a trace of the trail, as it seemed to be obliterated by extensive burns. There was no sign, either. Nothing but blowdowns and steep slopes. Well, that made it an easy decision to stay on the PCT, at least. I now had 2 options for rejoining the Bigfoot route. I could hitch the road that goes to Etna in the opposite direction, down to where it intersects the route near a campground. Or I could continue on the PCT another 15 miles south to where the Bigfoot route intersected it again. If I went with the last and easiest option, I’d miss about 40 miles of the BFT. I’d already missed about 20 miles. Taking the road down would just put me on a dirt road walk back up to Waterdog lake. Hitching a ride down a road just to walk up a road didn’t seem logical. I guess staying on the PCT always makes the most sense.
When planning this journey, I considered not even trying to continue on the BFT once I reached the PCT. Then I reasoned that I might as well see some new country while in the area. But traveling along the PCT in this section was like seeing the trail for the first time. I felt no disappointment or regret for staying on it because it had been such a great and rewarding experience…except for the stretch coming up. After expending so much brain power towards which route to take, I must have turned my brain off. That or the heat did. I wanted to camp before the road to Etna, since I had no need to go into town, but I neglected to collect enough water from the last reliable spring. I entered a nearly 10 mile dry stretch for the last part of the day. After all the water in the first part of the day, go figure I’d end with none.
The trail continued on the west-facing slope with the sun blazing down on me. There were quite a few blowdowns and lots of dust and charcoal. On top of that, the trail climbed steadily. Ugh. I consumed one of my bottles, then started on the other. Some comments suggested a seasonal stream across the trail but I found nothing. I reached a saddle and started the descent to the road. I finally saw a NOBO, who I asked about water. Nothing up ahead all the way to the road. He kindly offered to give me some of his, but I declined. I knew he’d need it for the dry stretch ahead of him.
I passed another 7 hikers all together, making it about 17 for the day. They’d all taken the same shuttle out of town to be bunched up like that. On the AT, the shelters would create similar trains of hikers but generally on the PCT, hikers were more spread out. I passed by all the campsites I’d been planning on, committed to getting to the road or beyond. Once there, I considered my options: push on 2 miles to a lake but 1k’ of elevation gain, walk the road down to a stream, or try to hitch into town. It was nearly 8 pm, so my hitching prospects seemed remote. Just then a car drove up to let a single hiker out. I couldn’t believe my luck! Of course the guy was returning to town and would give me a ride. This was the spot where years ago, I got to ride in the back of a truck with a dead deer…a most unusual birthday present. Now I got a backseat with 2 cute dogs.
The man dropped me off at the city park, which caters to hikers with $5 camping, included bathrooms and a hot shower! I would have probably been run off from most city parks along the coast, but Etna embraces the PCT hikertrash. It’s one of the most hiker-friendly trail towns I’ve ever been to. I counted no fewer than 4 hiker boxes at various cafes and outdoor places the next day. I celebrated my 40th birthday in Etna and now I was back, quite unexpectedly. I wish I could say that I rallied and went for a night at the brewery, but it was already almost dark and I needed to set up camp. I was exhausted from a long day, not even realizing that I’d hiked close to 30 miles. I didn’t eat dinner until nearly 10 pm and had to wash up in the sink, as it was too late to get tokens for the shower. Still, I was so grateful for this nice ending to the day. The only thing I regretted was that I’d carried so much food, anticipating 6 days until my next town stop. I could have carried only 2 days and my pack would have felt so amazing! Oh well.