Another August, another plan to conquer more miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in the state of Washington! However, even from the start, this year was very different. No thick wildfire smoke choked the skies, rendering everything a brown haze and transforming the moon into an eerie red beacon. PCT thru hikers weren’t making their way north in droves, the bubble slowly inching towards the Canadian border. Dehydrated meals were in short supply across many retailers, as doomsday preppers and new backpackers alike relished their longevity and ease of use.
On the other hand, many aspects of planning the trip were the same. I always wait too long to start packing, I always seem to find my gear scattered across cabinets and closets, and I always question my food choices and have to make follow-up visits to the store.
This year, after several consecutive years of not having enough daily calories, I decided to go big. Below is a rough menu outline of each day on trail. I tried to take in between 2500 and 3000 calories per day, as we were averaging 8-12 miles of backpacking with elevation gain and loss. All of these items can be found at a bigger grocer like Fred Meyer, except for the dehydrated meals, which I had stocked up from years past.
2 packets Carnation Instant Breakfast High Protein (I prefer vanilla or strawberry if I can find it, my friends tend to use chocolate)
1 scoop vegan protein powder (I used Peanut Butter Cookie from BPN)
1 packet instant coffee (I threw in a couple Pumpkin Spice Latte versions for a random treat)
2 burrito-size tortillas (this is 400 easy calories that always taste good and are very filling)
I alternated between two packets of nut butter (either Justin’s Honey Peanut Butter or Rx’s flavored nut butters) or prepackaged tuna (I found an olive oil and sun dried tomato version that was AMAZING. The extra fat in the olive oil was also a plus)
Dehydrated meal from Mountain House or Mary Jane’s Organics
Package of candy
For each day, I portioned 1 “fruit”, 1 meat, 1 nut, 1 candy, and 1 bar
Fruit: squeezable applesauce or dried mango
Meat: Vermont meat stick with no additives
Nut: Cashews, almonds or peanuts
Candy: Starburst, Peanut M&M’s, or Skittles
Bar: BPN Almond Butter Field Bar or fruit-based RX bar
I also made sure to have plenty of electrolyte supplements available, in the form of Gatorade Zero powder packets or Mio Sport squeezable electrolyte flavoring.
I have to say, this was BY FAR the best I have ever felt on trail, and I would venture to guess that not being in a caloric deficit and having a constant source of quick fuel were huge factors. None of my chronic injuries flared up, I had consistent energy, my mood seemed more stable, and I slept great without getting hungry in the middle of the night (sleeping through Gracie’s snoring, however, was a different story).
An unfortunate side effect from having this much food was the insane weight my pack started out at. After adding 2L of water, my pack weighed almost 50 pounds. This is about 15 pounds heavier than where I usually start at. It’s always nice to eat your way through the food weight, but I wouldn’t start noticing my pack becoming lighter until midway through the trip. It also required hanging a bear bag in a tree for half the trip to supplement the space in my bear can.
Saturday, August 1st
White Pass Trailhead to Snowy Lake
Nikki, Gracie and I woke up at 6am on our start date to an overcast, gray morning. Not exactly motivating! After a delicious breakfast of muffins, eggs and all the fresh coffee we could drink, we began our journey south through Mt Rainier National Park towards Highway 12.
The nervous energy in the car was palpable. Collectively, we all started realizing that this trip was actually happening, and that we really had to carry our enormous packs 100 miles north to Snoqualmie Pass on our backs.
After using the trailhead pit toilet, we strapped on our packs, laced up our trail runners, and took our classic just-starting-out picture!
This section of trail should have been easy, walking through fairly flat old-growth forest. But the absurd weight of our packs, coupled with the insane amount of bugs, quickly brought morale straight down. Within an hour, I was sweating, with mosquito bites covering my arms and face. I’m usually the favorite of the bugs, but even Nikki and Gracie were getting assaulted. We passed swamp pond after swamp pond, and the insects were relentless. I started getting the chills, as my body’s systemic histamine reaction to the sheer amount of bites was starting to kick in. It’s hard not to get inside your head when you’re miserable from the start. Why am I using vacation time to do this? Was I ready for this?
We stopped for a quick snack, where I briefly threatened to quit, but decided that was ridiculous as I donned my bug net shirt. After wolfing down some tortillas and a much-needed pack of Starburst, we started quickly back down the trail, trying to outrun the bugs while also conserving some energy for the rest of the day.
We passed numerous more bodies of water until coming to our destination for the night: Snowy Lake. We beat out two girls by mere seconds for one of the last camp spots. Why you’d want to come to this lake as a destination, I have no idea. We built a fire while we scarfed down dinner, only managing to stay outside of the tent for a couple hours before retreating from the constant assault. We all pondered whether the bugs would be this bad for the entire trip, and made an inventory of our insect repellant and Benadryl. As we drifted into sleep, the alien echoes of elk bugling in the nearby trees provided a lovely closing to our first day back on trail.
Sunday, August 2
Snowy Lake to American Lake
Our longest mileage days always sound like a good idea in the comfort of our own homes, but we were cursing ourselves as we packed up camp early in the morning on day 2. Our heavy packs were quickly tiring out our legs, and mine were tight and sore as I stretched out before hitting the trail.
The sun was already prominent as we mixed up our cold breakfast shakes, and the mist rolled off the water with a gentle breeze, which helped to keep the bugs at bay.
The elk started bugling again as we reluctantly strapped our packs back on and headed back towards the trail. The morning was very pleasant, a mix of cool shaded patches of forest with idyllic dewy meadows. Mountains peeked through gaps in the trees, and the bright sunlight felt wonderful after the overcast day yesterday.
After dropping down to cross the Bumping River, we started climbing into another patch of old-growth forest when a strange sight appeared before our eyes…4 pack llamas! “We have llamas coming!” Announced the human leader, better late than never. They were very curious little guys, sniffing our faces and packs with their spit masks obscuring their faces. In all the excitement, Nikki’s pack rolled a good 50 feet down the hill, which provided a good laugh for everyone.
After the llama excitement, it was time to put some work in, enduring many switchbacks on our way up the ridge. We all agreed that at this point, it felt like we were getting back into our backpacking groove, the footsteps falling into a natural rhythm as we continued climbing.
Mountains and lakes started appearing as we broke out of the trees, with Adams dominating the skyline straight in front of us, while Mount Aix and Bismarck Mountain starred behind us.
Finally, after all that exertion, we rounded the corner with a gasp. Tahoma, in all her glory, was right there waiting for us, her massive glaciers crawling down into the surrounding valleys.
After this awe-inspiring point, we had several more miles into our junction with the side trail to American Lake. Our legs and feet were throbbing, not used to what was being asked of them, but the views straight into the heart of the national park were unparalleled. This section of trail is quite difficult to access as a day hike, so we felt privileged to see Tahoma from this angle and saw no other people for the rest of the day. The terrain was vast and expansive, a welcome reward after yesterday’s experience.
It was a 3 volcano day, as Mt. St Helens made an appearance on the distant horizon.
While slightly sketchy and exposed at times, walking on the side of the ridge so close to the national park was absolutely stunning.
After over 8 hours of tough hiking, we finally reached the trail junction that pointed us to our lake and signaled that we were only 15 minutes from our destination.
It felt like an eternity on the short side trail before we reached the lake, our feet screaming and our bodies aching from the new strain. We finally rounded the last corner and spotted the greenish blue of American Lake. Within 5 seconds of arriving and throwing off our packs, we stripped down and ran into the lake, the icy cold water washing off the dust and grime of a hard day’s work.
It’s incredible how fast morale can flip once you’ve had a lake swim and some hot dinner! While the bugs were an annoyance, they weren’t nearly the hell they were the previous day, and we had the lake all to ourselves, a rare occurrence in today’s overcrowded outdoor spaces. Feeling clean and refreshed, we went to bed worn out but hopeful about continuing our journey in the morning.