Chris Hikes the PCT Part 3: the fire section

Black and white photo of a lone tree along a range of mountains with smoke clouds obscuring the view in Northern California

Californians and Pacific North-Westerners like to say they have five seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer, and fire season. By the time Chris reached the midway point for the Pacific Crest Trail, we were definitely into fire season.

This smokey vista portends our next few weeks

Although Chris was able to hike from Buck’s Lake to Belden Town, by the time he got there, the trail was closed heading north from Belden. I picked him and seven other stranded hikers up, and got us all to Chester. By the next day, the trail was closed from Buck’s Lake through to Chester, so he essentially was in the last group that got to hike that section. Although Chester was quite smokey, with some ash in the air, there was not an active fire close by (yet), so he was able to hike out of there. Luckily for us, our friend Piñata had booked quite literally one of the last motel rooms in the town, and we were able to stay with her for a night and catch up, as we hadn’t seen her since Mammoth Lakes.

From Chester, Chris hiked north through Lassen Volcanic Park, and then to Old Station and the Hat Creek area. I drove to Old Station and we stayed at a campground there, and explored some cool lava tubes and a lava cave. And by cool I mean cold! It was fun to explore the pitch dark and chilly underground area.

Heading into Lassen Volcanic National Park

I drove to Burney Falls, giving some hikers rides along the way. Back in Chester, it was getting even more smokey, and the fire was advancing, so lots of hikers skipped past it and needed rides to get further north to get back on the trail. Soon both Belden Town and Chester were evacuated, and later, a town in between them, Greenville, actually burned to the ground. The devastation was unimaginable. Both the Tamarack Fire and the Dixie Fire forced more and more hikers to get off trail and skip dozens, then hundreds of miles of trail, ranging from Tahoe almost up to the Oregon border.

Burney Falls- definitely worth the extra time to hike down and see it from the bottom

We took a rest break in Burney, and went swimming in the lake, and enjoyed a picnic. I camped for a night actually on the trail with Chris and a bunch of the other hikers (they laughingly called my 4 person tent a “palace”). Then I hustled up towards the Mt Shasta area/Castle Crags/Dunsmuir area, and tried to get a room. With so many hikers forced to jump north on the trail, it was getting harder and harder to book motel rooms and to find fully stocked grocery stores for resupply. And that’s how we ended up staying in a “haunted hotel” in Dunsmuir– featured in the show “Ghost Finders” and in “Ripleys Believe it or Not”. Actually we spent a very pleasant night in Dunsmuir, and enjoyed a short hike to a view point at Castle Crags State Park.

Often called the “Upside Down Hotel”, the Hotel Dunsmuir originally had their lobby at the bottom level, across from the Amtrak station. Now the lobby is at the third floor, street level.

While Chris advanced north from Dunsmuir, I stayed in town a couple of more days and hung out with Sunny, Sandman, Piñata, and some other hikers. The town of Mt Shasta had an outdoor concert at a park near the headwaters of the Sacramento River, and most of the hikers who were in town showed up to enjoy the show. With so many hikers in town, we could only get a hotel for one night, so Piñata and I camped a second night on the lower reaches of Mt Shasta, enjoying a fantastic sunset as we set up our tents.

Smokey clouds make for a great sunset!

Although so, so close to the Oregon border at Mt Shasta, the PTC actually take a turn to the west, then north, then back east again. So we still had 200+ trail miles to go before we reached Oregon. I drove west to the small town of Etna- and fell in love. The town is small but has everything I needed- a brewery, a distillery, another brewery, and a small library- and they are hiring a manager for their library! I was almost ready to send in my application, but the job was only for ten hours a week. I’m sure I could maybe raise chickens, or learn about brewing beer, in my free time?

It’s tempting to get stuck in trail towns, but the key is to keep on walking. Even when you don’t want to.

The town of Etna was kind enough to allow hikers (and hiker-adjacent people like me) to camp in the City Park for $5 a night, so I wound up getting stuck in a hiker vortex there for three days. The trail crosses the road 13 miles from town, and it’s not an easy hitch, so every time I took a car load of hikers out to the trail, there would be another group waiting to go into town, and they would offer me lunch or dinner or drinks, and then the cycle would start all over again. I even met a gal whose parents own a business on our street! What a small world.

These hikers are ready to get back on the trail!

But I did pull myself out of it eventually, mainly because I wanted to go visit the Redwood Forest while Chris hiked the last hundred miles through Seiad Valley, the last “town” in California along the PCT. I spent three days driving around and hiking around the Redwoods, until I had a crick in my neck from such much looking up at the giant trees. And I know I’ve probably said this before, but this time I really mean it: I think this national forest is the best of them all. Coupled with the fantastic foggy northern Cali coast, it can’t be beat. I loved it.

Some pretty big trees in the Redwood Forest!
The California coast

I hung out in the Oregon Caves National Monument on my way back to the trail, and then suddenly we were in Ashland, the first trail town in Oregon! Although sometimes it seemed like California, which makes up 60% of the Pacific Crest Trail, would never end, it did. While we were in Ashland, buying (hopefully) one final pair of shoes and repairing Chris’s tent, hiker friends back in Etna and Seiad were leaving the trail and hopping north- the trail had been closed out of Etna due to smoke and a nearby fire. Unfortunately, Ashland and on up to Crater Lake weren’t much better- some hikers began making plans to hike an “alternate route” along the coast.

Chris reaches the Oregon border

It was the end of summer break for me, so I took the car to Portland, hung out with friends there for a day, and attended a travel social event with our friends at Wild Spirit Travel. After stuffing ourselves with food from Portland’s food trucks, it was time for me to jump on a plane and head back to Texas and mentally prepare for work. Four days after I left, Chris had completed another 120 miles to Crater Lake- and is now done with 3/4 of the trail. Just 825 miles to go!

A hiker signs in at a trail register along the PCT

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Chris Hikes the PCT- part 2: the Sierra Nevada

Small wisps of smoke rise from a fire near Yosemite National Park California

“The mountains are calling and I must go”, John Muir wrote in a letter to his sister in 1873, and after being in the Sierra Nevada mountains for the last few weeks, I can understand how he felt.

Although some of the toughest hiking, the Sierra Nevadas are also some of the most scenic

By mid-June, Chris and his hiking bubble had completed 25% of the trail, ending the “desert” portion of the trail. Starting June 14, he hiked out of Kennedy Meadows South, and began traversing the southern Sierra mountains. This part of the trail included the longest stretch of the trail with no access to resupply points, and no cell coverage. I camped with him at Cottonwood Meadow Campground, up in the Alabama Hills just west of Death Valley and the little town of Lone Pine on 395, and brought him a giant Subway sandwich and enough dry foods for eight days of hiking. Which makes a really heavy pack! When he left the next morning, he began the trek to get to the top of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.

Continue reading “Chris Hikes the PCT- part 2: the Sierra Nevada”

Chris Hikes the PCT-part 1: the southern desert

wooden sign on the Pacific Crest Trail

Chris set off in late April to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, hopefully in its entirety (2,650 miles). Visiting some friends and family along the way, he was able to leave our car with our friend Touch in San Diego, and arrived at the start of the PCT on the night of May 3rd. Months before, he had applied for a PCT permit, and had a start date of May 4 at Campo, on the California/Mexico border.

Chris at the start of the PCT

The PCT starts off hot and sandy, with moderate hills and few water sources in low-rainfall years. Chris hiked his way past small towns such as Julian, Warner Springs, and Idyllwild, and up and then down mountains such as Mt. San Jacinto (10,883 feet). Taking a long weekend, I flew to San Diego, picked up our car, and drove to the point where the PCT meets I-10 near Palm Springs. Thanks to the Garmin InReach GPS/SOS Chris’s parents bought for the hike, we actually timed it really well, and Chris arrived at our rendezvous only 15 minutes after I did. Having just hiked 20 miles down a mountain ridge, in an extremely windy area (known for its wind farms), he was happy to take a “zero” and a “near-o” to spend some time together, resupply his food pack, and rest his feet. We also visited Joshua Tree National Park (although, he was not interested in hiking any trails there… I wonder why).

Continue reading “Chris Hikes the PCT-part 1: the southern desert”

The Texas Panhandle

A barbed wire fence demarcates a dry wheat field in the Texas panhandle

While flat, grassy plains may not sound like an interesting place to take a vacation, the panhandle of Texas actually has stunning physical nature, a fascinating history, and great food and wine options. Visitors can easily spend a few days touring this part of Texas and exploring the delights of the “llano estacado”.

If rusty windmills and dusty oil rigs is how you picture west Texas, there’s been some changes in recent years


With a population of around a quarter million, Lubbock is perhaps most famous for being the home of Texas Tech University, and Buddy Holly. Even if you’re just passing through Lubbock on the way to somewhere else, it’s still worth a stop at the Buddy Holly Center, and a pass through the American Windmill Museum– the largest windmill museum in the world. And, you can’t leave town without passing by George Bush, to see what holiday costume he’s been dressed in. After a quick tour of the grounds of Texas Tech University, founded in 1923, it’s worth the drive out to the Llano Estacado Winery for a tour or a tasting (currently only open for curbside pick up due to Covid-19 restrictions).


Advancing farther north into the panhandle, the city of Amarillo has its share of quirky delights as well. For starters, the historic Route 66 runs right through town, and the shops and restaurants along that stretch of road reflect the architectural styles of the Route 66 heyday, ranging from vintage 20’s motels to 40’s service stations. The 13 blocks downtown are part of the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic 6th Street, Amarillo

If you’ve driven along any stretch of Texas highway, then you’ve probably seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch. Yep, home of the 72 oz steak. Free…..if you can consume the entire meal (including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, roll, and the steak itself) in under one hour. Otherwise, you gotta pay for it, at a whopping cost of $72. For a list of winners, click here.

The 2nd Amendment Cowboy serves no purpose, really. But it’s fun to take a picture of

Just like the 72 oz steak, everything else in Amarillo is big too. You can visit the 22′ tall “2nd Amendment Cowboy”, just down the road from Cadillac Ranch. An art project born of a strange union between some hippie artists in San Francisco and a billionaire from Texas, Cadillac Ranch consists of ten classic Cadillacs, buried nose-down in the Texas dirt. The art installation is free of charge to visit, and is open every day of the year. Littered with discarded half-empty cans of spray paint, visitors are welcome to add their own tag to any of the vehicle and photograph them to their hearts’ content.

If you come back next week, it will look completely different

Palo Duro Canyon

After seeing some of the somewhat questionable works of man, it might be time for some nature. Just a few miles outside of Amarillo is the entrance to Palo Duro State Park, the second largest canyon in the United States. You can spend days wandering the trails by foot, horseback, or mountain bike, and camp under the stars at night in an RV, tent, or cabin. Spot deer, fox, longhorn cattle, and coyotes in the hour before dusk. In the summer, a musical titled “Texas!” has been entertaining crowds since the early 60’s. Preceded by a nightly barbecue and followed by fireworks, the show is definitely not something you want to miss if you are visiting in the summer months. If you know anyone who grew up in the state of Texas, you can bet they attended this show at least once as a kid (I know I did).

The High Plains

The Spanish called this region the “llano estacado”, which has frequently been translated to “staked plains”, but actually “stockaded plains” is referencing the high cliffs that form the boundary of the region. If you get off the highway and find yourself chasing down little-known sights such as the Texas-Oklahoma-New Mexico border monument, you’ll find that the Texas High Plains has a rhythm and a beauty all it’s own, no matter the season you visit.

With a little time on your hands and a GPS, you, too, can find this great monument at the end of a country road

South Padre Island, Brownsville, and a quick hop into Mexico

We had a four day weekend off of work this month, so Chris and I decided to spend a little time at the beach. We packed up our car and drove down to South Padre Island down in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Now, the last time I was in SPI was 1997 and it was college spring break week- and I was there to see Vanilla Ice in concert. So I was interested to see how the island had changed over the last 20+ years.

South Padre Island, Texas

There is exactly one way to get onto South Padre Island, and that is via the Queen Isabella Causeway, from Port Isabel. You cannot enter the island from a more northern point, so just know that if you want to visit, you will need to go alllllllll the way down to the bottom of Texas to get there. From Austin, it took us about six hours. We arrived in time to grab an early dinner at Dirty Al’s, a Cajun-style seafood joint directly on the water. You can eat indoors or outside, and enjoy the Gulf breeze while watching the sailboats come in and out of the harbor. You can also book an island tour, sportfishing boat, or dolphin-spotting cruise from some of the businesses just steps away.

SPI Harbor

The entire south end of the island is Isla Blanca Park, run by Cameron County. To access those parts, you’ll need to pay a $12 day pass, or $5 for Veterans (you can also get a monthly or annual pass). Some of the cleanest beaches and best sunset-watching spots are down in Isla Blanca Park, as well as RV spots, cabanas, and a huge statue of “Cristo de los Pescadores”. But don’t worry. South Padre Island has plenty of free beaches in the mid-island and northern island sections.

Sunset at the Queen Isabella Causeway
There’s always fresh, cold beer on tap at the Padre Island Brewing Company

For eating, drinking, and partying, most people head mid-island to Clayton’s, Bar Louie, and The Lookout. These 3 open-air bars are always full, with food and drink specials, music, and plenty of sandy feet. At night there’s usually a DJ or a band playing at one or more of these venues. For a more mellow vibe, try a local brew at the PI Brewing Company.

But South Padre Island has plenty to do for nature lovers as well. You can visit Sea Turtle Inc, or the SPI Birding and Nature Center. A bit further north from town, there’s the Stables, the SPI Equestrian and Events Centre. You can ride horses and zipline at the South Padre Island adventure park, or visit the Kite Boarding Ranch. If all of these sound too adventurous to you, just go to the end of State Road 100, and visit the beautiful white sand dunes and less-visited beaches in the north of the island.

The surge was high this weekend due to Hurricane Delta!

While we were on SPI, a hurricane was affecting the tides throughout the Gulf of Mexico, so we took some time inland to explore a little as well. Just south of SPI you can visit the SpaceX launch site. Be warned: although only 6 or 7 miles south of SPI, it takes a while to get there- you’ll need to drive inland about 25 minutes, and then double back on another road to get to the space center (it’s just before Boca Chica State Park).

SpaceX Launch Site

And if you’re wondering- can you walk across the border to Mexico? The answer is yes. There are 3 international bridges located in Brownsville, Texas, linking to Matamoros, Mexico. We walked across the Gateway International Bridge with our passports and $1 in quarter for the toll. On the Mexican side, you can hop on a bus to pretty much anywhere in Mexico (prepare for some long rides), or just have a cerveza and some lunch, shop a little, and head on back. Just a block or two over the border is a large shop and restaurant called Garcia’s- they have great food and specials on Mexican products and liquors. They took our temperature before we entered and sanitized our hands. The line back into the US took a bit longer than the one heading south- prepare for a bit of a wait- but it only costs 25 cents. Not bad for an international trip!

Bienvenido a Mexico!