PCT 2019: Day 170, West Branch Nelson Creek to Sierra Buttes Spring

Here come those Santa Ana winds again

After two consecutive days of hiking more than 25 miles, I'm back on track for reaching Truckee on Friday. All of the planning and calculating I've done in the last few days has paid off.

It looks like I will finish the day after tomorrow. I think I will arrive at my endpoint, which is the rest stop on Interstate 80, at about the same time as Kim. She will be flying to Sacramento and then driving a rental car to meet me there.

So yes, everything is falling into place.

DateThursday, October 24, 2019
WeatherVariable cloudiness and windy, temperatures range from the mid-30s to low 60s
Trail ConditionsMostly easy despite long ups and downs
Today's Miles21.4
Trip Miles2636.8

However, a threat still looms that could blow up this plan, and I mean that literally.

The winds that feed wildfires have been getting worse in California. The conditions are right for a fire to start. If the winds catch a flare-up, the flames could quickly block my path to Truckee.

In the south part of the state, the winds that can cause severe wildfires are called Santa Ana winds. In the north, they are called Diablo winds. The only difference is where they come from.

Diablo winds form offshore and blow from the vicinity of Mount Diablo, near San Francisco. Santa Ana winds come from a coastal mountain range of the same name in Southern California.

Wildfires are always a threat to the PCT, especially in the late summer and fall. In the last few years, it seems, nearly every hiker has had to detour or skip a section because of at least one fire. Still, it wasn't until yesterday that I saw smoke near the trail and worried about how it might block my path.

Then today, the wind picked up.

I was ready to leave camp just before 6:00 this morning. Tumbleweed and Fable hadn't yet come out of their tent. I heard them talking and moving around, though, so I knew I wouldn't be waking them if I said goodbye. I wished them well as they finished their hike, and they did the same for me.

I also asked them to congratulate Compass and Blender, Tumbleweed's daughter and her friend, who had been hiking with them at the start of their hike. Compass and Blender had already finished the PCT.

I had been hiking for more than an hour when the sun rose. By now, I had climbed about 1,400 feet.

From above 7,000 feet in elevation, I was able to look back and see Beartrap Mountain. Smoke was still rising from the fire I saw yesterday.

By the time I reached the top of the climb, the trail was exposed because there were few trees. I felt gusts of wind, and the temperature was much cooler.

The trail soon began a descent and entered a dense forest. The time was still early, so the low sun dappled the trees with golden dots of light.

At the bottom of the first descent, the trail crossed a forest road. A sign there pointed down the road, and said, "A Tree Spring." When I headed in that direction, I came upon a tree with a sign attached to it that said, "A Tree."

I can confirm it was, indeed, a tree. It was a lovely one at that, and I appreciated that it was not falsely advertised. I'm unclear why it was singled out, however. There were several others not identified with signs.

Still, there was the matter of finding the spring, which was apparently named for the tree. No other signs pointed to its location. The road split in a "Y" there, adding to the uncertainty of where to find the spring.

After some scouting around, I eventually found the spring in a ditch next to the road. It was also lovely. A small trough made collecting water from it easy.

Immediately after leaving the spring and tree, the trail began another climb. This one wasn't as steep, nor as high, as the previous one.

There were more exposed areas near the top of this and other sections that followed. The wind was becoming gustier.

From these open spaces, I could see distant ridges. Though the thin clouds from this morning had cleared away, the sky remained hazy. Thankfully, I didn't see any signs of fires.

The trail was now following the top of a long ridge. Below me were two small lakes called Spencer Lakes.

Now at mid-morning, the wind was gusting at 20 mph.

Despite the wind, I enjoyed walking through the exposed tops of the ridge. I passed many gnarled trees and weathered boulders on them.

The ridge climbed to 7,500 feet, which I reached at noon. This was the highest point the trail went to today. The spot wasn't a named peak, but from here, I could see Mt. Elwell.

Below the mountain was a wide basin with several lakes. The largest of these was at the foot of Mt. Elwell and was called Long Lake.

The breeze continued to pick up. This may have helped clear the sky because it didn't seem quite as hazy. Clouds were starting to move in again, though.

When I scanned the horizon again to see if any fires had flared up, and was glad to see there were none. If a fire were burning, the wind would have helped it rapidly spread.

On the descent from the ridge, a mountain called Sierra Buttes came into view. Standing at an elevation of 8,591 feet, this was the tallest peak in the area. Its jagged profile also made it one of the most noticeable peaks.

When the trail reached the bottom of another descent, it passed Packsaddle Campground, which was maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. I only saw one person in the campground when I walked past. He was too far away to say anything to and was the only human I saw all day.

From the campground, the trail started yet another climb, though this one was less steep. It went through a glacial valley with two small lakes.

The trail's path was roughly parallel with a Jeep road, and this area was accessible from the campground I just passed. The valley was remarkably beautiful, and because it was so easily reached, I figured it must be popular in the summer. Right now, I had the place to myself.

Once the trail passed the lakes, it began to climb more steeply, with several switchbacks added to make the climb a little easier.

As before, the higher elevation had fewer trees. The wind was now stronger and gustier than before. Even though these were Diablo winds, I couldn't get Steely Dan's “Babylon Sisters” out of my head.

"Here come those Santa Ana winds again."

I reached the top of the climb at about 5:30 p.m. From there, I didn't have many options for camping, at least according to what I read in the Guthooks app. One option was a small space near Sierra Buttes Spring. The other was reported to be on an exposed ledge.

With the wind blowing as it was, I knew the exposed site would be a miserable place to camp tonight. The wind would batter my tent and the rocky soil would make anchoring it down difficult.

I decided to stop at the spring, even though I would be stopping a little short of my goal distance. I arrived there at 5:45 p.m., which was 30 minutes before sunset.

The spring was just a trickle, but there was enough water flowing to get what I needed.

There was only one spot near the spring where it was possible to pitch my tent. I made sure it was located a sufficient distance from the water. The Leave No Trace standard for that is at least 200 feet.

The tent spot was on the slope of Sierra Buttes and not close to being flat. Still, I made it work. And besides, I had found an advantage for being the only hiker on the trail. I didn't have to contend with anyone who might have taken the spot first.

Drive west on Sunset
To the sea
Turn that jungle music down
Just until we're out of town
This is no one night stand
It's a real occasion
Close your eyes and you'll be there
It's everything they say
The end of a perfect day
Distant lights from across the bay

Babylon sisters, shake it
Babylon sisters, shake it

So fine so young
Tell me I'm the only one

Here come those Santa Ana winds again

From “Babylon Sisters” by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)


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