Everyone says the Sierras are one of the best parts of the trail. They don’t tell you how quickly they pass by. A few hundred miles feels too short on a 2,600-mile trail, and I’m already despairing their end, even though we’re not even to Yosemite yet.
We arrived at the southern end of the range in early May, before the vast majority of hikers. There was a lot of debate among the hikers who were early arrivals if whether the Sierras were safe to traverse just yet. Despite a lagging start this winter, a series of April and May snowstorms coated the mountains with a respectable layer of white.
The danger of the Sierras in snow is crossing the often-treacherous mountain passes every 15 miles or snow, usually peaking between 11,000 and 13,000 feet. In particular, steep snowfields below hard-to-track trails could lead to deadly falls without proper use of an ice axe to break your fall.
Sounds scary, but it’s far from certain doom. A lot of hikers did hike on through the snow, and as far as I know, no PCT hiker died on a pass. Although a few did self-arrest, meaning they broke a fall with an ice axe.
Entering was tempting, partly because it was hard to put a pause on our hike, and party because trekking through the snow sounded like an adventure. But eventually we decided to head home to Orange County, grab my car, and spend a few weeks hiking around Big Sur and kayaking around Catalina Island.
As phenomenal as the PCT is, it never comes within view of the ocean, so our weeks off trail fixed that.
We were glad to get back on trail however, and what a difference three weeks makes. When we left, our fellow hikers reported that every day involved hours of post-holing, trudging through the snow at 1 mph for miles after the passes. By early June, there was still snow, but it was contained to small areas. Even Mt. Whitney, which we ascended as a side trip a few days after getting back on trail, was largely snow free.
That isn’t to say the mountain passes weren’t challenging. The highest, Forester Pass, at 13,000+ feet, included a large snowfield on the north side. Some of the most fun we had was sliding down at least 100 feet from the top of the pass. Hilariously, “glisading” is apparently the technical term for sliding down a mountain on your butt. At 7am, the snow was slick and icy, and not only did we get speed, we got air going over the final bump.
From there on out, the Sierras took on a familiar pattern: descending through gorgeous valleys or canyons, fording streams and rivers and then ascending straight up to the next mountain pass. Every meadow we pass is picture-worthy, but as usual, impossible to adequately capture by camera.
And water, water everywhere. Sometimes even the trail is a running stream. It takes a hike through the Sierras to see how California hosts so much agriculture.
All that water we’ve seen means mosquitoes have descended upon the trail in hordes, which is maybe the only thing I could do without in the Sierras. And the number of mosquitoes we’ve seen might only be rivaled by the number of marmots. And of course, there are the thousands of trout sitting in streams within reach. But my favorite discovery might be the grouse, and their quite bizarre mating calls.
The Sierras has been, unsurprisingly, the best part of our trek yet. People say Washington can be just as stunning, but I honestly don’t see how. Hopefully, I’ll get to eventually make that judgement myself in a few months.