PCT – Big Mosquito Lake to Panther Creek

My PNT work party was cancelled. I found myself with an open weekend and decided to do some hiking. My initial plan was to hike from Rd 23 to Wind River Road – 49 miles – in three days. That section has more downhills than ups. I took Monday off, and it was my scheduled Friday off*, so I figured I could do it if I pushed myself.

  • Friday “off” in my office no longer means “off.” We have to log on to our email to see if we’re assigned any of the in-custody cases. If we want the entire day off, we have to request leave. It’s bullshit. I wasn’t released on my day “off” until almost 11:00 a.m.

I left the Tri-Cities around noon. The drive to Trout Creek – the nearest town to my start point – takes three hours. That gave me plenty of time to question the wisdom of trying to hike 49 miles in three days when there’s only twelve hours of daylight. Ultimately, I changed my start point and saved myself about nine miles.

The start
Day 1’s Elevation Profile

It wasn’t clear to me where the trailhead is, so I parked on an abandoned road nearby. On my GPS, it appeared the PCT crosses the road I was on, so I walked along the road. Seven-tenths of mile later I admitted the road would not meet the PCT, so I turned around. Adding a mile & a half to the hike I started at four in the afternoon? Not smart. But I found a good site before dark. I purchased a sandwich at a store I passed on the drive to the trail and carried it with me for my dinner in camp. I ate it standing in a nearby forest road, trying to get my Garmin InReach to receive a weather forecast. (Tree cover can impede the signal, and my camp was heavily treed.) I’m usually in my hammock before it gets dark, so with the calm weather it was a treat to watch the sky darken and the planets & stars light up.

Because there’s only twelve hours of daylight, I recognized I needed to be up & out of camp as early as possible. I set my alarm for six as first light started at about 6:30. I woke at six, read morning prayer, and pondered the day ahead before getting out of the hammock at 6:30. I left camp before eight.

Water was always an issue on this trip. My pack was heavy as I added in some things I don’t normally pack, I carried more food that I needed, and I packed for wet, cold weather. (Down socks & waterproof overboots, a down hoodie, my FroggToggs poncho and a rain skirt & Altra stashjacket.) Carrying extra water just made the pack even heavier. I had just enough water to make my faux mocha in camp, to prepare breakfast for my breakfast stop, and to get to the next water source. (I generally like to hike a bit before eating my “real” breakfast. The stuff I eat in camp is just an appetizer.)

The first water source was Wood Lake. It’s a half-mile detour off the PCT, but it’s a 200′ elevation loss to get to the lake. I’d have to climb back up that 200′. That doesn’t sound like much, but the next lake is right along the trail. I chatted with a hiker who’d spent the night at Wood Lake. She said that if I felt I had enough water to make it to the next lake, she’d skip going to Wood Lake. I took her advice, but I also opted to take a break there to eat Second Breakfast.

Banana nut grits with coconut oil

The break was very refreshing. The hiker I referred to above was with a group of three other folks. Other than the two SOBOs who passed my campsite Friday night, they were the first people I saw. After they left, another group of 3-4 people hiked by. I saw a lot of hikers Saturday. I didn’t try to count, but it was certainly dozens. I cannot recall the last time I saw that many people on a trail, and for it to happen in late September is even more surprising. The weather forecast suggested that this weekend would be the last 80F days of the year; perhaps that inspired more people to go out for a hike.

Day 2’s Elevation Profile

I hiked almost fifteen miles Saturday. I camped in another spot right next to the trail. I slept poorly, but I realized the next morning that my underquilt wasn’t rigged properly. That was allowing a chilly draft beneath me. I didn’t add any olive oil to dinner; I think the extra fat would have helped keep me warm. I only ate about half of dinner — it’s possible the olive oil would have made it too tempting to turn down. (“Too tired to eat” is definitely a thing. On a short trip like this, it’s not lethal, but it definitely impacts mood & performance.) I kept thinking I wasn’t sleeping, but there’s no way I wasn’t sleeping. I woke at 5:30 and decided to start the day early. That meant I was out of my hammock at 6 a.m.

Again, water was an issue. I had enough to for breakfast and another liter to drink, but the next two water sources were described as “yuck” and “double yuck” in the Guthooks app, followed by a spring that was recently reported to be flowing at a rate of 10min/liter, and then a stream that was barely flowing but a few pools from which one could scoop water.

The first lake was definitely yucky – I moved on. The second was sketchy looking, but given the chance the spring might be dry I gathered about a liter & a half. The spring was still running at about 10 minutes per liter. That’s a long time to be awkwardly holding a water bladder under a pipe, but I did it. I spent almost an hour at the spring. I filtered the water from the only moderately yucky lake, gathered another liter from the spring, ate a bit, and planned out the rest of the day. I started the day with hopes I could make it to Panther Creek Campground. That’d be a 19.5 mile day. It was mostly downhill, but there was about a 1000′ elevation gain over the next four miles after the spring. I figured I’d re-evaluate when I made it to the top of the climb.

A ways after the high point, I found a gorgeous place to stop. It had a lovely view of Wy’east and a large camp area that would work for either tents or hammocks. I stopped to filter water and evaluate. This spot was delightful; had it not been for the water situation and my strong desire to get to Panther Creek that day, I’d have taken a short day and camped there.

Elevation Profile for the First Part of Day 3

I left that beautiful spot at about 2:30. Sunset was at 6:59, so I had four hours to get to Panther Creek campground. It’s a little over eight miles, and two miles an hour is my average pace. But I was weary. Going downhill is generally easier than uphill, but uphill is more of a cardiovascular challenge and downhill is all about strength & control. Downhill taxes your joints & quads very differently. On a gentle grade, I can make a pretty good pace – but only if the trail isn’t rocky, rooty, or slippery. If it’s steeper, I move more slowly – sometimes almost as slowly as I climb. And by this time, I felt every single incline in the trail. I was tired.

I like to break up my effort into quantifiable chunks – how much farther? how much more elevation gain/loss? That leads to me constantly checking Guthooks. I finally told myself I’d hike until 6 p.m. regardless, so I “ordered” myself to not check it again until 6 p.m. (There’s a voice in my head I call my Inner Coach. She can be very encouraging & nurturing when I need it, but she can be a friggin’ tyrant if that’s what I need. So I let her boss me around because it works.) Shortly after six, I checked Guthooks. I was fairly close to Panther Creek.

The Race to Panther Creek Campground

There’s a side trail that links the PCT to the campground. I didn’t know how far it was, so I was surprised when I stumbled onto the road in the campground. The campsite almost directly across from the trail was perfect. It is designated an accessible site, but I hoped that since it was not occupied by 6 p.m. anyone can use them. (That’s the state parks’ rules. I hoped it was the Forest Service’s, too.) It was about 6:30. With darkness looming and the rain forecasted to start at eight, my priority was to get my hammock set up. Once that was done, I wandered off to find the camp host to pay. And that was when I learned the campground was closed for the season.

My first clue was finding the vault toilets locked. (DAMN IT!!!) None of the other sites were occupied. I found a couple walking their dog in the campground and told them I was trying to find where to pay — they informed me it was closed. That technically meant I was trespassing, but I wasn’t going to move my hammock 150′ away just to be off the campground’s property. (It’s all Forest Service land.)

I went back to my camp then gathered water from Panther Creek. After sketchy shallow lakes and a barely-trickling spring, the fast-flowing creek – worthy of being called a river in my book – was a delight. I filtered water then boiled some of it to make dinner & to start breakfast soaking. (I normally cold soak my meals but I bring an alcohol stove as a ‘just in case.’ They’re light, never break, and don’t rely on fuel canisters that are hard to recycle. But one must be careful with them because the flame cannot be regulated. The spot where I camped Saturday night didn’t have a place where it looked very very safe to use an alcohol stove. So I didn’t.)

Around eight, while I was making dinner, a very light drizzle started. With overcast skies and the moon not yet risen, it was very dark when I crawled into my hammock. The rain started in earnest around nine, and it rained all night. I was under a maple tree (head end) & a cedar tree. I should have reversed that. Cedars are the forest’s umbrella. Maple trees? Nah. My pack was on the ground underneath me, and though it was protected from the rain by my tarp it was not protected from water splashing off the ground. The ground around the foot end of my hammock was almost dry.

Splashback. Not wet, just filthy.

I’d shut off my alarm because I didn’t need to get up early to hike Monday morning — I had a five-minute walk to the gate. I woke at six without the alarm. I spent the morning lazing about in my cozy nest and didn’t get out of the hammock until around 9:30. I expected Jim to arrive around 11, and he frequently arrives at the pickup point early. I didn’t want him to wait much, so I planned to be at the gate by 10:30. Packing reinforced the wisdom of getting to Panther Creek Sunday night so I wouldn’t have to hike on Monday. It was nice to be able to just stuff everything in my pack without regard to where things are “supposed” to go. (It really does matter for pack balance & comfort.)

Jim & Trooper arrived a little after eleven. Trooper was very happy to see me, but after establishing that he was more excited by all the smells of a place he’d never been. We gave him a few minutes to sniff & explore before heading back to retrieve my truck. I was parked somewhere a Prius cannot go, so I asked Jim to drop me off then head to a small parking area at Big Mosquito Lake — I’d drive the truck down there to let him know everything was okay with the truck. I got out of the car and Jim started to drive away. Trooper was not havin’ it. He threw a fit. “Are you crazy? We just found her again! You can’t just leave her in the woods! She doesn’t even know how to hunt! What are you doing?!?!” I could hear his anxious barks as Jim drove away. When I arrived a Big Mosquito Lake a few minutes later Trooper seemed much relieved.

My initial plan was for Trooper to ride home with me. I knew I’d want to stop frequently to walk a bit so my legs didn’t stiffen up too much, and that would give the pup a break from the drive. (Seven hours in a vehicle is more than he’s done before.) Alas, I took the dog ramp out of the back of my truck & left it at home, and I didn’t ask Jim to bring it. So Trooper rode home with Jim.

He’s my dog, but Trooper sure does love Jim

This was a good hike. My initial plan was too much, and I’m glad I recognized that & altered the plan. I carried things I don’t normally carry – like my Cascade Wild table – but it gave me a chance to use them. I’d rather carry too much on short hikes. My pack was a bit on the heavy side, but that’s good training. I’ve pushed myself to 15 mile days, and that 20-mile day was a record for me. This isn’t something I’ll plan to do on every hike. Pushing to make mileage meant I skipped a few detours that would have been nice to see and I passed on some campsites that would have been nicer. I’m doing the longer mileage days so my body & brain knows what they’re like. I’d like to do most of Section K (Stevens Pass to High Bridge Camp), but I’ll need to average 15-mile days. I won’t get to that unless I hike 15+ mile days. (I hiked Stampede Pass to Tacoma Pass & back to Stampede Pass last month. That’s an 11-mile section. Piece of cake, right? Nah. I stopped at Tacoma Pass and spent the night there, and hiking back to Stampede Pass wore me out. I’ve hiked nearly half of the 500 miles the PCT wends through Washington, and those are the toughest eleven miles I’ve hiked. I’ll know I’m ready to tackle Section K when I can hike that as an out & back in one day.)

Despite the long descent on Sunday, I felt pretty good on Monday. Today I can barely walk down stairs. I hate to admit it, but it’s time to let a foam roller beat me up.

Maybe tomorrow…

2 thoughts on “PCT – Big Mosquito Lake to Panther Creek

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