*Update 1 of 5*
Leaving Ashland proved to be more difficult than we’d hoped, not just because we were loving the town and the people, but because it turned out that the guy who’d offered us a ride back to the trailhead the day before did not actually have a working vehicle. Strange, but strong evidence of how friendly Oregonians are, I guess. He wanted to help us out so badly that he was planning on trying to borrow a car from a friend. Once we figured out our intended ride had no more access to a vehicle than we did, we managed a quick hitchhike back to the trail and were on our way.
Some of the most common questions we get from people are about whether we ever get lost and how hard it is to navigate the PCT. We do occasionally take the wrong trail, but we’ve never gone down the wrong path for long. The PCT has a personality that you come to easily recognize after you’ve been walking along it for as long as we have. The trail is usually well groomed, fairly well graded, and heavily traveled. When you find yourself on a section without these characteristics and find yourself asking, “Can this be the PCT?,” the answer is often (though not always) no. Another way to keep on track is simply to follow the “other” signs. If you’re not out at the front of the pack, chances are that most of the trail intersections that aren’t clearly signed have been helpfully marked by thru-hikers that have gone before you. Using stick arrows, rock cairns, or notes on trail markers, hikers have indicated the northbound PCT routes. I snapped the picture below of an intersection I nearly missed. I was in the lead position, head down and fully entranced in “trail-vision,” not paying enough attention to my surroundings, and hadn’t even noticed the other trail crossing the one we were on. I would have continued on straight ahead had I not noticed the giant stick arrow directing us off to the side (and, if that wasn’t enough, the giant “NO” admonishing me not to continue straight). I think it’s safe to assume that these markings were clearly left by someone who had made that mistake before us. So thanks, helpful stranger, for keeping us from the same fate!
We’d heard that the trail leveled out quite a lot in Oregon and that Southern Oregon was a bit of a “green tunnel” where we’d see nothing but trees for days at a time – it was quickly evident in this section that both of those things were true. It was beautiful, but we found ourselves missing the scenic views of California. Still, we were ecstatic to be headed towards Crater Lake, which was one of the places we’d been most looking forward to seeing. We were to spend several hours trekking through Crater Lake National Park before we could catch a glimpse of the lake itself. We reached Mazama Village at the outskirts of the park in early evening and planned to quickly grab our resupply package and a fast dinner at the restaurant before hitting the trail again that night to make our way toward the rim of the lake – we’d decided to forego the campground at the village partly due to the high cost ($30/site when we could easily grab a non-established campsite for no cost at all) and partly just to get back on the trail as quickly as possible. Dinner ran much later than we’d planned, possibly because we decided at the last minute to add a pizza to our order that we could pack out with us to take on the trail. We had the restaurant package the whole thing up in foil for us and had a good laugh at ourselves for thinking a pizza was necessary when we’d just resupplied with a ton of food for a small upcoming section.
By the time we made it out of the restaurant, it was pitch black and we were having a terrible time finding where the feeder trail picked up in the dark. We knew we could head back to where we came off the trail, but that was a mile-long trek along a busy highway with a tiny shoulder – not a walk we felt safe making in the dark. We were stumbling through the campground with our headlamps on, having no luck locating the trail we intended to take back to the PCT. Frustrated, we decided to just stealthily set up our tent in the campground, essentially poaching on someone else’s campsite. We were far enough to the side that they didn’t seem to mind (or maybe they didn’t notice), but we lay awake for quite a while, nervously giggling and fearing discovery by a park ranger. Every time the headlights of a passing car washed over our tent, we figured we’d been caught. We weren’t so much concerned about getting in trouble for illegally camping in the campground, but for not having our food stored in the bear boxes provided at each site as required of all campers in the campground. While the campers we were stealing space from may not have cared about us being their distant neighbors, I did figure they may take more notice of us noisily trying to squeeze our packs into their bear box. My primary concern was really that our pizza would be carried off by a bear while we slumbered – I have such a one-track mind out here. Thankfully, when we woke from a fitful night of sleep at the crack of dawn, both us and our packs were undisturbed by rangers and bears. We packed up camp as quietly as we could so as not to disturb our unwitting hosts and set off to check out the lake.