OR/WA High Point to Crater Lake / Hwy 62 (35.4 miles via PCT and Rim Alternate)
From the OR/WA High Point we dropped below craggy Howlock Mountain and contoured around generally dry slopes towards Mt. Thielsen. We were surprised to find a small stretch of thicker forest with green grass and even moss, then saw patches of snow lingering on the hillsides and realized that snowmelt must be the water source for this relatively lush oasis. Although we only had 5 miles left to hike, I availed myself of a snow harvest to fill my hat on this blazing hot day. Macro noticed that the pale beige rocks that covered many of the slopes in the dryer areas were actually feather-light pumice, a reminder of the volcanic nature of the Cascades.
Thielsen Creek was a true oasis. Clear, cold water rushed down from the talus slopes below craggy Thielsen forming small pools and cascades as it went. The gorge formed by the creek was covered in green grass, and large rocks provided stepping stones and places to sit. As it is the first truly on-trail water for over 20 miles in either direction, it had a watering hole effect. There were several hikers there when we arrived in mid-afternoon, and many others came by and spent time filling water bottles, cooking a meal, and relaxing before continuing on. We located a prime camping spot above the trail with a large boulder to provide some privacy. We had a prime view of Thielsen's multi-colored crags and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine on the grassy slope between the talus field and adjacent forest. I was writing a blog post when I looked up to see a young boy with tousled blond hair picking his way along the rocks on slope opposite me, across the creek. He asked if we were just out for the week. I told him, "no, about 4 months." This made him pause and he quizzically asked, "PCT?" When I nodded in affirmation he exclaimed, "with an iPad??" I laughed and told him we had to keep up on our blog somehow. I asked how long he was out for (knowing we were close to the Crater Lake highway, I assumed he was on a short trip with family), and was surprised when he nonchalantly answered "about 6 months." Our conversation continued and I learned that his trail name is Daniel Boone (for the coontail on his backpack), he is NOBO, and he had hiked 15 miles so far today and expected to go another 5. We wandered down to where the trail crosses the creek and met his mom (trail name Mama Lion), who was cooking a hot dinner of Knorr noodles, mystery flavor hamburger helper, foil-pack SPAM, and powdered milk. Mmmm, trail food. It turns out they are from Portland, started at Campo in late March, and initially made slow progress especially with safety a prime concern in the early-season Sierra. They have gradually worked up to steady 20-mile days and are now optimistic about their chances for completing the trail before fall weather limit hiking in the north Cascades. Daniel Boone is 9 years old. We chatted a while and told her what an inspiration they are. In contrast, we also met section hiker/completer MonkeyWrench at Thielsen Creek. This 77-year old from Ohio is using this season to finish up 4-5 stretches of the PCT totaling ~500 miles, so that he will have hiked the entire trail over 4 seasons. He's currently only hiking from Hwy 158 to Shelter Cove, and has one more short stretch in northern CA before heading home. His trail name triggered a memory that we actually met earlier in our journey - we crossed paths coming down from Grizzly Peak on Day 14 as he was working on the Stevens Pass-Manning Park section of his summer. He outlined his hiking plans for the next few seasons ("the lord willing, as I'll be pushing 80"), which seemed impressive to us regardless of age. The trail is full of amazing people.
We made an early night of it, knowing tomorrow would be another 30+ miles and wanting to be fresh for the walk along the rim of Crater Lake. We camped tentless, watching the nearly full moon over the shoulder of Thielsen and appreciating the warm breeze that continued all night and kept our sleeping bags dry & free of condensation. On Day 44 we got up early and were hiking by 6:30am. We were treated to glorious morning light on Thielsen as we contoured south along its western flanks. We started with a gradual climb but in the cool morning air and deep shade it was rather pleasant. Golden hour light bathed the trees as we crested a ridge for great views of Diamond Peak and other distant peaks we didn't recognize. The air on the horizon was a bit hazy from fires in the area, but above us the sky was a deep blue.
We didn't expect to see any hikers for several hours, given the distance to the next water source. When we passed our first NOBO before 8am, we asked where he had camped. It turns out there was a water cache just north of Hwy 138 on a forest service road, and he had spent the night there. We subsequently saw a slew of NOBOs, who had camped in various locations but all had used the cache to facilitate their day. It struck us how NOBOs seem to know about these things. We left the pumice-strewn and hemlock-covered slopes of Thielsen and walked the final miles to the wilderness boundary. Not long after that, we reached the dirt road with a trailhead sign surrounded by a slew of 1-gallon water bottles, most of them full. This is the first water cache we have come across on our hike, and although caches are a bit controversial I do have to admit it seemed a bit magical. We were carrying sufficient water for our entire day, but sat on a downed log and drank a liter of electrolytes in order to refill our bottle before hiking on. We will never plan on a water cache, as they are too unpredictable, but do appreciate the time and effort somebody took to leave this water here and keep it restocked. We were also grateful to our fellow hikers, who have kept the area clean with no trash left behind.
Crossing Hwy 138 put us officially within the boundaries of Crater Lake National Park. The trail crosses several miles of flat, dusty, arid forest and it didn't feel very spectacular to start. There were stretches of pumice on the ground, and larger red & black volcanic rocks along the trail. Some areas of forest were thicker than others, but all were dry and it was becoming another hot day. We gained a bit of elevation as we neared Grouse Hill, and caught a glimpse of the large open "pumice desert" not far from the trail, with Mt. Thielsen a surprisingly small spiky point rising in the distance beyond. Another striking section was an area inhabited only by lodgepole pines, all of which were stricken by some disease causing numerous galls/burls that extended up the entire trunk of nearly every tree. Many trees were standing, but more were down on the ground. While visually beautiful, it was so sad to see the destruction of this forest and reminded us of how fragile nature can sometimes be. We had decided to count NOBOs again today, and were up to 50 before noon.
We reached the trail junction where the Rim Alternate leaves the PCT before 1pm - we had made excellent time with our early start and relatively easy terrain. In contrast to Day 42 when we had 13+ miles to hike at 5pm, we were less than 14 miles from our campsite for the night already. It was a great achievement on another hot day, and we were excited about nearing the rim of Crater Lake. Macro has visited the area, and even spent a week doing volunteer trail work here many years ago, but I have never been. Once we turned onto the Rim Trail we started a steady climb past Grouse Hill and into dry but diverse volcanic alpine slopes. We started to see more hemlocks, ancient and wind-swept (but healthy) lodgepole pines, and many low wildflowers. Clouds were building in the sky, making for great long views back towards tiny Mt. Thielsen and the beige treeless oval of the pumice desert. We caught early glimpses of Hillman Peak on the rim of Crater Lake and felt the anticipation grow. The trail was dusty and lacked any significant shade, but every step brought us closer to the famous rim so we didn't mind one bit. We chatted with a few NOBOs, all coming from Mazama Village this morning, and picked up a few tips about the area. We also started to see a few casual backpackers out for short trips.
We crossed Rim Road and headed to the fenced-in observation deck near Llao Point. I was awestruck looking out over the deep blue waters of Crater Lake, surrounded entirely by craggy and steep red-orange to dark grey rocky slopes. I had been worried that the lake might not live up to my overblown expectations, but it was a needless concern. Crater Lake is a natural wonder, its amazing beauty made only better by the long distance we had walked to get here and see it for the first time. We left the tourist-filled platform and continued along the Rim Trail, contouring along the sandy edge of the dramatic west rim. The intense blue of the lake, the deep green waters around the shoals of craterous Wizard Island, the bonsai-like pines growing in impossibly harsh conditions along the rim, and the jagged rock formations leading down to the water were more than we could take in all at once. I loved having an entire 4-5 miles to see so many different angles of the lake and its surrounding terrain, and was surprised that we only passed a handful of hikers (NOBO or otherwise) in this entire stretch. The distant sky remained hazy but the clouds overhead provided both visual interest and a cooling effect. We lollygagged around the lake pointing out wildflowers, trees, rock formations, a few raptors, a fawn, patches of snow, and of course that water. When we were about a mile from the Rim Village we started to run across a slew of day hikers, and we decided we'd better get a move on if we wanted to have ice cream and still make it to Mazama in time for showers and laundry.
We crossed the road to the gift shop/cafe and were assaulted by the noise and hubbub of summer national park tourists. The cafeteria-style cafe was crowded, and it was difficult to navigate with our packs. We couldn't see any evidence of ice cream, and after a short discussion decided to try the lodge. We had been told that it has a glorious patio overlooking the lake where beer & food could be had. What we didn't realize was that it was nearly 0.5 miles up the road, away from the trail that would take us to Mazama. By the time we were halfway there, it seemed silly to turn back, but as we entered the historic lodge it was clear that this would not be the "quick ice cream stop" we were hoping for. A glance at the bar menu confirmed that they had huckleberry ice cream, but acquiring any required that we take a seat on the patio and wait for the single harried cocktail waitress to come and take our order. We were by far the dirtiest people in the entire lodge, which doesn't really cater to hikers. We decided to wait until 5:40pm, then leave if we hadn't gotten the ice cream. I was relieved that it arrived exactly at that time, and we both inhaled our small bowls of deliciousness before hoisting our packs to hurry down the road back to the trail. We knew that the showers and laundry closed at 9pm sharp, and still had about 4 miles to hike. We were both exhausted but made good time down the Dutton Creek and Annie Spring trails, arriving at the Mazama store by 7:45pm. Our NOBO total for the day was an even 70, confirming that we are still passing the center of the herd.
Macro stood in the long line to claim our packages, while I collected laundry soap and toiletries from the store shelves before he got up to the register. There were plenty of hikers milling around, all NOBOs. We met a few, and enjoyed a conversation with Nathan who was zero-ing in Mazama and reading an old SciFi paperback on the sidewalk in front of the laundry room. By some great luck, there was an open washing machine and I started loading it with filthy hiker clothes from my pack to claim it while Macro went to change and grab a shower. The laundry area also had outlets (thus the loitering hikers, including Nathan) so we plugged in our battery to charge, and once Macro was clean he went to the crowded hiker camping area to set up our tent while I showered and made dinner. It was nearly 10pm by the time we were back at camp, sorting our resupply box on the picnic table by headlamp. We were both up even later catching up on journaling and blog posts, but it felt like a huge achievement to have hiked our 30+ miles, hit the rim of Crater Lake at the perfect time of day with room for lollygagging, eaten huckleberry ice cream, AND gotten our resupply chores done all in a single day. This meant that we could sleep in tomorrow, enjoy a restaurant breakfast, catch up on emails, and hit the trail by late morning for what we hoped would be an easy-ish 20 miles. We've decided to take our first zero day in Ashland at the home of friends, and are really looking forward to a luxurious full day of rest. Just 102 more miles to hike until then.