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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: My Experience Hiking the NorCal Section of the PCT

Stretching 600 miles from Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border, North California promised the highs and lows of both elevation and emotion. From the shimmering rivers, the towering Cascade Mountains, iconic resupply towns and the ever-tenacious mosquitos, this section offered it all.

After exiting the Sierras at Kearsarge Pass after two weeks of snow slogging, I jumped north to Lake Tahoe, the official start of the Northern California section. I was excited with a fresh start - the promise of dirt trail, faster pace, and bigger miles. This post will share an overview of NorCal - one of my favorite sections for its scenery - and talk about how this section saved me from quitting the PCT.

The Good: Northern California's Majestic Landscapes

Traversing through NorCal's section is to walk among the glory of the great outdoors.


It's a breathtaking transition from the low Sierras into the Cascade Mountain Range, which the PCT traces right up to the Canadian border. The towering peaks of the Cascade Range, including the majestic Mt. Shasta, provide a backdrop so spectacular it often felt like a dream (albeit an exhausting and challenging dream with those steep climbs!!)

The pristine beauty of the alpine lakes with the reflection of the clear blue skies was everything I'd ever wanted in life.


This section is a hiker's paradise with the opening act of the Desolation Wilderness - a striking landscape of snow-draped granite and the most vibrant blue lakes. A snapshot of wild California at its most enchanting.

Scenic shot of a lake with snow melt
Desolation Wilderness: a snapshot of wild California at its most enchanting.

After leaving the quintessential resupply town of Quincy, Ca; I officially entered the Cascade Mountain Range with almost immediate reward of the spectacular views of Mt. Shasta. This of course, preceded the unforgiving 15 mile climb out of Belden. As you continue through NorCal, these huge volcanoes are like nature's skyscrapers, towering above everything in eyes view. Mt. Lassen has its own volcanic park, full of steamy vents and boiling mud that makes you think of the Earth as a living, breathing thing.


Then there's Mt. Shasta, standing alone with its white top that you can see from miles away. It felt like a guide, keeping me company as I continued northbound, each day reaching closer to my goal.


Along the way, I took a short side-quest to Burney Falls, where gallons of water pours literally out of the bed rock - just a mile south the river is completely dried up, and further down the water goes back into the bedrock, like the waterfall never existed. One of the most impressive waterfalls I've ever seen.

Scenic view of the trinity alps
The backdrops were so spectacular in NorCal, it often felt like a dream

The Crags Wilderness was the best surprise - offering a dramatic landscape. With its jagged spires and rock formations, it's a place that feels ancient and filled with myths and stories from long ago. The views breathtaking and awe inspiring.


The whole stretch through Northern California was a mix of peaceful scenes and wild, rugged spots that made me stop and stare amidst my huffing and puffing.


The Bad: The Unexpected Trials of NorCal

But with all NorCal's glory, I couldn't help but feel down. Like, really down.


Reaching the midpoint of the PCT near Chester (approx mi. 1,320) was an exciting milestone. But like any great journey, the PCT never stopped challenging me. When I thought I was leaving the snowy Sierra behind, the persistent July snow surprised me. Heat waves, mosquitoes in full force, and navigating snow-covered terrain tested my perseverance. The elevation changes were relentless, making every mile an earned victory.


On top of that, the aftermath of wildfires presented a somber reminder of nature's destructive power, transforming once-lush landscapes into stretches of charred remains with little shelter for heat-stricken and dehydrated hikers (me).


After celebrating the 4th of July in Lake Tahoe and having spent half of June in the snowy Sierra, I was eager to see tangible progress on my thru-hike. But the Northern California section was no walk in the park. The devastation of the Dixie fires and poor trail conditions provided little shelter amidst the heat. Navigating around 280 fallen trees in just four days. The dust and ashes from old fires made it near impossible to stay clean no matter how many streams or wet wipes I used. But It wasn't just the terrain that tested me. The rhythm of the trail had shifted. Where once there were prolonged breaks and shared laughs, now there was a hurried undertone as many raced against time.


After 3 months of hiking, this was the first time I thought about quitting the PCT.


The 'north cal blues', familiar to many, saw me grappling with loneliness, self-doubt, and the temptation to quit. The heat waves, steep climbs, seemingly endless trails and the challenge of keeping up with fellow hikers took a big toll on my spirit. Something I wasn't prepared for. I was completely thrown off guard.

Enjoying a beautiful sunset at camp
The raw, unfiltered encounters with nature is where the PCT shows its true beauty

The Rugged Beauty: Embracing the Rawness of the Trail

Yet, it’s in the raw, unfiltered encounters with nature that the PCT shows its true beauty.


The Crags offer not just a challenge but a geological spectacle that is both rugged and awe-inspiring. These stone monuments, sculpted by time, stand as sentinels to the perseverance required to undertake such a journey.


The burn zones, too, tell a story of regeneration, with new growth sprouting among the ashes, symbolizing hope and the relentless spirit of the natural world.


The Towns: Oases on the Trail

Unlike the remote Sierra, resupplying in Northern California was a breeze.


Most trail towns were just a short hitch away. The resupply points in North Cal were plentiful and provided relief from extreme heat, all the dust and dirt and swarming mosquitos. Quincy, Sierra City, Burney, Shasta, and Etna - I am grateful for your refuge. While each town had its charm, the trail angel community in Burney was particularly heartwarming.


Hiker enjoying a burger after a long hike
Enjoying a well-deserved burger in a NorCal resupply town

Conclusion: NorCal’s Place in the Thru-Hiker’s Heart

As I eagerly pressed on towards Oregon, each step in Northern California was a testament to the journey’s transformative power.


It’s here that I learned the true meaning of resilience, the joy of unexpected beauty, and the value of preserving the wilderness for future generations.


This section of the PCT, with its dichotomy of challenges and rewards, becomes a crucible in which the mettle of a hiker is tested and tempered. It's a journey not just across a landscape, but into the depths of one's own determination and dreams. Northern California, with its rugged peaks and resilient spirit, offers an epic chapter in the thru-hiker’s tale, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of those who navigate its terrain.

 

Top Three BONUS Tips for Thru-Hiking Beginners

  1. Hike your own hike. Don't be swayed by others' progress. Find your pace and stick to it. While some hikers may cover a lot of ground quickly, it's ok to take things slow and take your time.

  2. Enjoy your breaks! Hydrate, snack, stretch, and most importantly, soak in the views. I definitely got caught up in the rush and reduced my breaks, feeling guilty to stop and enjoy the little moments.

  3. Leverage your connections out there. These connections can provide much-needed emotional support. I’m so grateful for the connections I made in this section in particular - they kept me going.

  4. Never forget the principles of Leave No Trace. The trail gives us so much; let's do our part in preserving its beauty.

 
Multiple photos of hiker in the Sierras
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Craving more of this NorCal adventure? Dive into the full visual journey on my YouTube channel – ChloeJaneExplores. Don't forget to hit subscribe for more wild, untamed stories!







 

Chloe Jane is a mindfulness coach, yoga teacher and sound healing practitioner. She believes in slowing things down and inviting deep rest into the fast-paced world.


Chloe values living wild and free, and hopes to inspire others to live adventurously.


She completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 2023 and you can find her on instagram @chloejanejacobs.


“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams”

– Oprah Winfrey


xx Chloe

 

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