The Summer that Washington Turned into California

Just a little bit north of Shoe Lake in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Southern Washington.

Everything I had heard and read about the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington had led me to believe that there would inevitably be horrible rain. Temperatures in the Cascades in Washington are generally not supposed to be above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius). In my experience, it was fairly often above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). One guidebook says something like “it is very unlikely that you will be able to get through Glacier Peak Wilderness without experiencing a downpour, and if it only rains for one day then consider yourself lucky.” Guess what? When I went through Glacier Peak Wilderness, the weather was totally dry – not even a hint of rain.

See those switchbacks? That is the trail ascending from Milk Creek Canyon, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Northern Washington.

When I hiked up out of the canyon of Milk Creek, which is the steepest northbound uphill segment of the PCT in the entire state of Washington, the trail had already been baked in the sun for a few hours. It was sunny, shade was limited (though still more abundant than in many Southern California sections of the Pacific Crest Trail), it was hot, and very dusty. The Pacific Crest Trail in Washington is advertised as being cold, wet, and muddy, not hot and dusty. I felt like I had been teleported back to California.

I was surprised by how dry, dusty, and warm this ridge was, but at least it had good views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens. Indian Heaven Wilderness, Southern Washington.

That said, most of the time, the heat did not seem so bad. Most of my hiking experience has been in Taiwan, which has hot and humid summers (and yes, I went hiking in summer in Taiwan, even though some people say summer hiking in Taiwan is dangerous – I think that, as long as one’s body is acclimated, and one carries plenty of water, hiking in summer isn’t any more dangerous than hiking in any other season in Taiwan), and in California, which is known for its dry, warm weather. So when local hikers were telling me that it was a heat wave, and that it was oh so terribly hot, and 10 miles (16 km) was an awfully long distance to hike without passing any water sources, my response was ‘Heat wave? What heat wave?” It didn’t seem that bad compared to the California Pacific Crest Trail. Even in Northern California, never mind Southern California, going 10 miles without water in dry heat is not unusual on the Pacific Crest Trail (to be fair, hiking for 16 km without any water sources would be unusual in Taiwan).

(Also, these local hikers were clearly from Western Washington, since Eastern Washington often gets hot weather in summers).

Government Meadow next to Urich Cabin, Southern Washington. One of the local teenagers I met hear complained about how hot it was. I was mystified because I didn’t feet it was hot at all – even compared to my experiences in Washington up to that point, it was not particularly warm at that time and place.

That is not to say that the heat and water situation never got to me. I remember that, northeast of Sheep Lake near Chinook Pass, there was this 8 mile (13 km) stretch without water. Ordinarily 8 miles without water would not be a big deal, but leaving Sheep Lake is a steep uphill (which discourages carrying lots of water), followed by exposed trail with little shade over very rocky terrain that is baking in the sun, and the rocky terrain slows you down. That was a tougher water carry than any of the 10+ mile waterless stretches I did in Washington.

Here is a photo from that waterless stretch between Sheep Lake (Chinook Pass) and that Wonderful, Amazing, Superb, Desperately Needed spring near Big Crow Basin. I think almost all northbound hikers were filled with joy when they reached that spring that ended the rough waterless stretch.

In particular, the heat and smoke got to me in the very last section of the trail, between Rainy Pass and Canada. I could understand having some dry, warm, and waterless sections in Southern Washington, but I had thought I would be done with those issues in Northern Washington. And I didn’t have any long waterless stretches in Northern Washington … until I reached the VERY NORTHERNMOST PART OF WASHINGTON. On top of the heat and the 10+ mile waterless stretches, there was also a lot of smoke in the final 50 miles of the hike.

Near Tatie Peak, southwest of Hart’s Pass, Northern Washington. It was as warm, dry, and dusty as the picture implies.

I was particularly apprehensive about the stretch between Brush Creek and Hart’s Pass. According to my map, there was no water source between Brush Creek and the stream just north of Hart’s Pass. Furthermore, there was a steep uphill climb out of Bush Creek to Glacier Pass and beyond, and I guess the climb above Glacier Pass would be exposed, sunny, and therefore hot (this guess turned out to be correct) (and it’s ironic that it was so hot, dry, and dusty around a place called ‘Glacier’ Pass, though Glacier Pass itself was a pleasant and shady spot which would have been a perfect rest stop if only it had a water source). By the way, the distance between Brush Creek and the stream just north of Hart’s Pass was 13 miles (21 km). So I had to decide – was I going to carry more water, which would make the uphill climb even more brutal, or would I carry less water, which would make the heat less bearable and increase my dehydration risk? I decided to carry just enough water and ration.

The first few southbound hikers I quizzed confirmed that there were no water sources between Hart’s Pass and Brush Creek. Imagine my joy when I finally finished the brutal uphill – while rationing water – and the next set of southbound hikers I met told me I was only 2 miles away from a water source that was not described on my map.

Hikers enjoy this fantastic water source between Brush Creek and Hart’s Pass. It was a surprise, and very much appreciated.

I suppose some southbound hikers missed the water source because a) it’s not listed on maps and b) it is a few minutes’ walk off the trail. Anyway, it completely turned my mood around. Instead of rationing water, I was able to drink as much water as I pleased all the way to Hart’s Pass. Such luxury! It definitely made the sun and heat a lot more tolerable.

When I first entered Canada, it was even hotter and drier than the US side of the border! I was thinking about how much it sucked that this was my first impression of Canada, and how I wanted to end the hike already – and then I reach this lovely water source in the shade. It was the first water source I used in Canada, and it greatly improved my mood.

All that said, I never felt like I had to siesta, whereas I took siestas during most days of my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in San Diego County, which meant that the heat in Washington was really not that bad. The only siesta I took in Washington was in Goat Rocks, and that was as much to replenish water, break up an uphill hike, and do some foot care, as to get out of the heat (though sitting in the shade for an hour and a half was still pretty nice).

This little shady spot by a trickle, with enough room for exactly one person and no more, was where I took a siesta in Goat Rocks Wilderness. This was the first water source I had seen in five miles (with the exception of an unappealing pond). It was so nice here to sit under the plants and chill in the early afternoon.

All in all, though Washington is generally more forgiving when it comes to water than the California Pacific Crest Trail, hikers still cannot take water for granted, not even in Northern Washington. I found that a bit disappointing, but I was used this type of hiking challenge.

I met a lot of southbounders between Hart’s Pass and the USA/Canada border – a lot of them had come up there because Oregon was on fire and they heard that the weather in Washington had been particularly good for hikers this year. I was talking to one southbound hiker at Windy Pass (at the border of the Pasayten wilderness) and I asked him to guess how many time it had rained on my in Washington. He guessed ‘zero’. I told him it had rained on my twice. His response was ‘damn, I was hoping it hadn’t rained at all’.

My campsite near Lemah Meadow, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington.

When I was in Snoqualmie Pass, the weather forecast said there was a chance of rain a couple days later. A day after I left Snoqualmie Pass, it rained in the morning as I went through Chikamin Ridge, one of the toughest PCT segments in Washington. Amazingly, the rain did not make the rocks slippery, for which I am grateful. I’m guessing the summer had been so dry that the rocks were able to drain very fast. In fact, the rain may have helped since a) it kept the temperature cool (the previous day had been very warm) on a very exposed ridge and b) it kept down the dust.

Joe Lake, with Chikamin Ridge in the background, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington.

Then, according to word of mouth (which was my only source of news in the wilderness) the forecast had gotten more dire. Some hikers were saying that there was going to be a classic Washington downpour, which would flood the trail, making it very difficult to hike. Some experienced hikers told me just how awful heavy rain on the Pacific Crest Trail was. I said that if the rain was that bad I would just stay in my tent and not hike, and they said that plenty of hikers do that when the rain gets bad on the PCT. At first, I was irritated that this awful downpour was going to happen when I was in the wilderness and not when I was safely in town, but then I warmed up to the idea of resting in my tent in the morning instead of hiking. I had enough food to stop hiking for a half-day, books to read, and good company at the Lemah Meadow campsite, where I hunkered down, anticipated my first real Washington rain.

The next morning, when it turned out the rain was just as light as it had been the previous morning, my first thought was ‘damn, I have to hike this morning after all’.

I would have been fine if I hadn’t brought any rain gear at all during this 500 mile trek, and the little rain I experienced was as much an aide as a hindrance.

Last year, I met Yoda at Carter Meadows Summit (in Northern California). Here is her account of a rainy day on the Washington PCT.

Though there was no lightning in my location (thank goodness!) the very same storm which brought me the only rain I experienced on the Washington PCT also generated the lightning strikes which started the wildfires which eventually caused the PCT between Chinook Pass and Snoqualmie Pass to close.

Thanks to the rain, I got to see some rainbows during the uphill hike above Lemah Meadow, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington.

I timed my hike to minimize my problems with snow. I wanted it to be late enough in summer that almost all of the snow would be melted – sometimes the trail is clear as early as June, but according to the southbound hikers I met, the trail only became passable at Hart’s Pass at around July 12 this year, and there was still plenty of snow on trail. But I also wanted to be early enough that I would have a 0% chance of running into a snowstorm even if I needed more time that I planned (snowstorms can start as early as mid-September). That meant hiking in August.

The most snow I ever saw on the trail was at the appropriately named Old Snowy Mountain in the Goat Rocks Wilderness (yes, I took the Old Snowy Alternate route).

Usually, the hiking season is ended by snowstorms. I met quite a few hikers in northern Washington who had attempted a thru-hike in a previous year, but they hit snowstorms in September/October, so they had to end their hike at the Suiattle River, Stehekin, Hart’s Pass, etc. (getting snowed out at Hart’s Pass is especially frustrating since it is so close to the end of the trail!) This year, the season was ended by fire, not snow. I was lucky in my timing in that I missed all of the fire closures. I also met a few thru-hikers who managed to complete the entire PCT this year without flipping (an AMAZING feat considering how much snow there was in the Sierras this year). However now it is fire, not snow, which is closing down the Washington PCT. Most of the Washington PCT is still open, but a continuous hike like I did is no longer possible, and will not be possible until next year.

A few miles north of Urich Cabin / Government Meadow.

So, even though I hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail in Washington, I do not feel I had quite the ‘Washington’ experience since the challenges were more the type of challenges typical of the California PCT than the Washington PCT.

This was very in-my-face evidence that climate change is already here.

After my return to San Francisco, when I told some gardeners in my neighborhood that this is the summer that Washington turned into California, their response was ‘this is the summer that California turned into Arizona.’ My father – who tended our backyard while I was travelling – says that this summer was not particularly warm by local standards, but my own observations of the flora in the neighborhood does indicate that this summer was a bit unusual.

North of Snoqualmie Pass, near the Kendall Katwalk, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington.

4 thoughts on “The Summer that Washington Turned into California

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