PCT 2019: Day 116, Five Lakes Creek to Tentsite at Mile 1115.1

So swift and bright, strange figures of light float in air

I have hiked in many regions of the U.S. The Appalachian Trail, which I hiked in 2017, cuts across 14 states in the southeast and New England. I've also hiked in the midwest, the southwest, and the Rockies.

My attempt to thru-hike the PCT, however, is my first serious hiking in California, Oregon, and Washington.

DateSaturday, August 31, 2019
WeatherModerately steep climbs with several short rocky sections
Trail ConditionsClear sky with an occasional breeze, high temperature in the low 70s
Today's Miles20.8
Trip Miles1708.8

I expected to find some notable differences in the climate and terrain that I had not seen before. Still, a few things I saw were unexpected and notable.

One surprise was how much I enjoyed hiking in the desert. Overlooking the allergic reaction I had to the dust and pollen, I was pleased to discover the desert was a wonderful place to hike.

Another unexpected experience was seeing tall trees with lichen. They looked to me as if they were dripping yellow-green paint.

Of course, trees in other parts of the country also have lichen growing on them, but they don't look the same as when the trees are tall firs here in the west.

I've seen lichen-covered trees several times on the PCT, yet this morning was different. The trees were especially eye-catching. As the rising sun's light hit them, the lichen attached to their trunks and branches appeared to be luminescent. The trees glowed in their bright draperies.

This variety of lichen is called letharia vulpina. It is commonly known as wolf lichen and gained that name many centuries ago when Europeans discovered it was poisonous to wolves and foxes. They would grind dried lichen and sprinkle it on meat to kill the animals that were threatening their farm animals.

In the first couple miles of my hike today, the trail climbed a series of switchbacks to a high ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe. Looming ahead of me was Squaw Peak. Just beyond it was Ward Peak.

Squaw Peak now stands at 8,885 feet above sea level, but that wasn't always the case. It had been about 9,000 feet high until the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration flattened the top in the 1960s to install airplane navigation equipment.

Ski slopes for Alpine Meadows Resort are located on this ridge. It is owned by the same company that owns Squaw Valley, the ski resort I passed yesterday.

I stopped while crossing the ridge because I discovered I could get a cell signal sufficient to download some new podcasts.

While I did that, Bluejay caught up. She had camped last night about two miles behind Sunkist and me.

The trail continued along the ridge and passed about 200 feet below the summit of Ward Peak. Just beyond that, I was able to see where the trail would be heading today and tomorrow.

On the left side of this view was a mountain called Twin Peaks. The trail would take me across its slope less than two hours later.

Looking past Twin Peaks I could see a range of mountains. The peaks were noticeably brighter because of the color of the rock and the patches of snow that covered them. They were located in Desolation Wilderness, and by the end of the day, I would be hiking there.

After leaving Ward Peak, the trail continued on the ridge at roughly the same elevation for another four miles.

Soon, Lake Tahoe came into view. The closest shoreline was about five miles away. Sunlight shimmered across the deep blue of the water's surface.

The lake could be seen for much of the remaining traverse along the ridge. The trail's elevation remained at between 8,200 and 8,400 feet above sea level, often along on the top edge of the ridge.

Not far from where the trail joined the Tahoe Rim Trail, it left the southern boundary of Granite Chief Wilderness. Then it began a steady descent for the next two miles, which included several switchbacks.

A climb followed, returning to nearly the same elevation as before. Along the way, the trail crossed a small creek at least three times. I saw Bluejay once again at one of these crossings. We both stopped there to refill our water bottles.

On the climb, I saw a few bright red flowers called scarlet gilia or skyrocket. The plant isn't rare, but you have to be lucky to see its flowers. That's because the plant dies soon after the flowers bloom.

Lake Tahoe could be seen one more time at the top of the climb. The trail was now looking over a part of the lake called McKinney Bay.

Geologists say the bay was formed by a landslide from the surrounding ridge. This resulted in a series of landslide tsunamis that heaved water onto the surrounding shoreline.

At this point, the elevation of the trail was just above 8,200 feet. It would not lead me that high again for the rest of the day.

On the next descent, I began to see day hikers as I neared Barker Pass because a trailhead was located there.

A trail runner stopped me to talk. While I usually don't mind stopping to talk to people on the trail, I admit I was feeling impatient this time because I was feeling a need for calories. Still, I talked to him for several minutes.

Once our conversation ended and I arrived at the trailhead, I found Bluejay eating her lunch at a picnic table.

The trail continued to follow the same footpath as the Tahoe Rim Trail, which is a 165-mile loop around the lake. The PCT shares 50 miles of the trail.

With no long-distance views to see in the afternoon, I plugged in my earbuds, turned on one of my podcasts, and tried to crank out the miles I needed to finish.

There was a cost to that, however. I began to become tired. By the time I reached Miller Creek, I was feeling drained. Spying a log nearby, I sat there for several minutes to rest.

This was the second time today I felt my energy level drop. While sitting there and eating a snack, I decided I needed to make some adjustments in my calorie intake. I'll work on that when we go into town in a couple of days to resupply.

The break I took seemed to do the trick. By the time I reached Richardson Lake, I was feeling much better.

It didn't hurt that the trail was gentle the rest of the way. The distance from Richardson Lake to our campsite was about 3.5 miles and the trail only climbed a few hundred feet in that stretch.

Before finishing, I crossed into Desolation Wilderness. This area has been a protected area since the turn of the 20th century and now covers 63,960 acres. It is dotted with many lakes, which were left here after glaciers scoured the landscape.

I arrived at the campsite at 6:20 p.m. I had only been in Desolation Wilderness for an hour and already I could tell it was a special place because of its distinctive landscape.

Tomorrow ought to be fun.

Cloud hands reaching from a rainbow
Tapping at the window
Touch your hair
So swift and bright
Strange figures of light
Float in air

From "Crazy Fingers" by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.