Pacific Crest Trail Section J Snoqualmie to Stevens Pass

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Sep 3, 2003
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Gorham NH
My plan this fall was to do some hiking out in Washington state. The initial plan was a Wonderland Trail hike around Ranier but despite a new “fairer” permit system consisting of a lottery, me and friend did not get a slot. We were not fixated on Ranier so I looked for alternatives and found Section J of the PCT. Its roughly east of Seattle and the most accessible. Our plan was early to mid-September hike after Labor Day and before the end of the month when the rains typically start. A few other folks my friend had hiked with for years joined us making a group of four. That worked out well for trip costs and logistics.

Section J runs from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass. There are not a lot of good intermediate access points so it mostly a long-distance trail. Unlike the AT which consists of mostly older trails patched together with some newer sections built by volunteers, the PCT was built mostly by federal agencies to newer trail standards. That means a mostly 4’ wide trail laid out with switchbacks of varying slopes rather than the typical “fall line” hikes out east. Most trails are built for stock animals (horses) with occasional deposits to confirm. Despite it being a national scenic trail, the usage appears to be far lower than out east. Campsites are frequent and usually at very scenic spots but are nowhere near as beaten down as in the east. Think of a spot like Chimney Pond at BSP with 3 or 4 well-spaced spots near the pond and that was they typical evening campsite. I think our biggest “crowd” was 3 other parties consisting of late arrive/early leave PCT thruhikers or a couple. We did not encounter any other groups of four but except for one site we tended to spread out with plenty of room. In only one campsite did we find “a trace” from prior campers (digging into the soil for a cathole is major effort best done with a pick ax).

We all met at a SeaTac airport hotel from various destinations in the East and despite a few close calls with canceled flights, we all made it in time. The original plan was to hire a private shuttle (about $1100) bucks) to drop us off and pick us up but my research and my friends research turned up some intriguing possibilities for public transportation. In the very early AM, we got on the Seattle Light rail system (the Link) and took it north of Seattle to University of Washington at the paltry fee of $3 a head. From just down the road from Husky Stadium we caught a daily To the Mountain shuttle for $28 each, to Snoqualmie Pass. It was their next to last day of the summer season before shutting down until Winter as Snoqualmie Pass is a ski resort on national forest land dependent on day visitors. We had the bus to ourselves except for a solo hiker meeting up with PCT hiker to do the same section.

We got up the pass around 10 AM and after a quick stop for sandwiches we headed into the woods. The best description is “Toto we aren’t in Kansas anymore,” big trees and ever-expanding vistas including a few snow fields off in the distance. This first day pretty well established the daily routine, start low then climb a ridge pass over into another valley and camp a bit lower. Elevations ranged from around 4000 feet to 6200 feet. Our first night had a choice of alpine lakes, one right off the trail, one a bit down off the trail. One of our party is a fly fisherman and after the site was set up, he went fishing and caught and released a 11-inch rainbow (after taking a picture). We also discovered the downside to clear northwest weather at night and that was radiational cooling. I don’t think it hit freezing but it got close around 5 AM. We all had the gear for these temps but did not have surplus.

The next day we traversed the Kendall Katwalk, reportedly the most expensive section of the PCT to build as its blasted into the side of granite slopes. There was some day hiker/trail runner traffic on this section but still not very busy. Most of the Katwalk sections are fairly wide but some sections approach those of Lord of the Ring movies heading up along steep cliffs. In general, someone with fear of drop-offs might have some issues with all of section J as even some of the switchbacks were so steep that the lower edge dropped down quite steeply.

The rest of the trip was more of the same with ever changing views including Ranier and Mt Adams to the south. Hard to beat terrain and views. but flat and level hiking was not the norm. Pika and Marmots were near constant in the rocky sections and we even saw mountain goats one day way above us. We saw occasional deer sign but no deer. One of our group used the Gaia map while another used the FarOut (Halfmile database) ap to track the route. The “official” National Geographic map was not great with the scale just being two small to be real useful. Out of five nights we used one dry campsite on the Farout ap. We knew it was coming and was downhill from a very scenic mountain tarn that we stopped at for an extended lunch/supper so we tanked up and loaded up a water bag to have enough water for the night. It was big open dried up seasonal pond. In general the I phone users could run in airplane mode for the week but needed to recharge off a power cell on occasion. IMO, the Farout ap was the best.

As for food, we supplied our own breakfasts and trail lunches and then each person prepared a supper for four with a couple of folks supplying two meals. They were mostly one pot meals some home made and dehydrated and some supermarket meals although we did have one night with mountain house. One six day trip, food weight adds up so we didn’t get fancy. We used an iso pro fueled stove and experience some performance issues due to cold overnights. The stove cannister could be flipped to run it in liquid mode which helped.

We did have one cold and somewhat raw day near the end of the trip. It was at bit of an eye opener, we stayed warm while hiking but at the campsite we all had most of our clothes on while cooking supper as the sun went down behind the local mountains. Cell service is slim to none along this section, the majority being one bar on slopes looking down valleys towards civilization, as the campsites tend to be in valleys, help is long ways away with most side trails leading to remote trail heads at the end of long forest service roads. The area is also subject to lighting caused forest fires, we didn’t see any active but did see the results on occasion and on at least one day we got a strong smoke smell and haze during a weather pattern change. If I was to revise my gear list I think a few more warm weather merino items might be added as the poly based synthetics do not match up as well. We all had down 30 degree bags some with liners. My western mountaineering bag worked for the coldest nights as long as ai had a hat on and merino top and bottom.

We used two-man Big Agnes tents without the interior body, just the fly and ground sheet. There are no bugs to speak of but chance of rain and overnight dew fall. They worked well but it was almost constantly breezy so there really was no thermal benefit to being undercover. Not sure of the model but one was newer design. Both had vestibule areas and two doors so it worked well to get things undercover from overnight dew. Our fisherman had a hammock, he started out in it most nights but got cold and moved to the tent on the coldest nigths. Yellow jackets were an occasional nuisance during the day, they disapeared as things cooled down around supper but would occasionally come to visit during lunch.

Three of us were starting to have a few blister issues, nothing major but they required some care. My ankle issues were not significant, I just had to be a bit slow on the downhill and it usually swelled up at the end of the day. After our cold and raw day, the next day, the last, turned partly sunny and we started to cross into civilization again and then walked through the Stevens Pass ski area. Some facilities are open year-round so we killed a few hours waiting for a Trailways bus that would take us to Seattle. This was a bit more expensive at $48 a person. The route sign looked familiar; US Route 2 runs through the pass down to north of Seattle. There were several PCT hikers and a couple from Germany we ran into once or twice on the PCT their honeymoon waiting for the same bus. After a long and curvy descent out of the mountains, we got on Interstate 5 and eventually into the downtown Seattle bus station. A short walk and we were back on the Link again for a $3 dollar half hour ride through Seatle to our hotel at SeaTac where we have left suitcases.

General observations of the trip are, the mileage listed on this section varies from as low as 70 to as much as the upper eighties. My mileage was about 71 miles. With our group of 62 or 63 year old backpackers, our pace was about 10 hours on the trail each day with breaks and six nights, starting on the trail between 7 and 7:30 am and arriving at our site around 5 PM. No doubt PCT thruhikers were doing it in 4 or 5 days but for us trying to cut it down to 5 nights would have been pushing it and 7 nights would have made for short days. In general, PCT section hikers are far rarer than AT section hikers due to logistics, shuttles would be very long and expensive. This section was about a shuttle friendly as one gets in Washington and Oregon. We lucked out nearly entirely on rain and or September strategy seemed to work out for crowds. I think “crowds” could be more of an issue during the summer as the campsites are just not that plentiful. Flat well drained spots are just not that common and most of the soil is quite rocky and not suited for tents.
I do but I cannot do the views justice. Just no comparison between a picture and the real thing.
Well, of course not, they never do. But to not post them for this reason???
Okay, here are a couple of "PCT mountain porn shots"

Looking south at Mt Ranier, look to the right and you can see the well designed trail on the slope

A typical shot from the top of ridge that we just climbed looking down at the nights campsite next to mountain pond