May 9, 10 & 11 (~16:00 – ~17:45)
Echo Summit Trailhead (mi 1090.0) – Lower Echo Lake (3.0 mi / Total: 1093.0 mi)
Weather: Warm during the day, freezing at night!
It’s the start of our great American hitchhiking adventure. I’m with Speedy and Prince, and we’re in Kennedy Meadows, 700 miles into the PCT. We’ve decided to flip around the high Sierras because of a record snow year, and want to rejoin the trail in Northern California, near South Lake Tahoe. It’s almost 400 trail miles ahead, and a very long drive by car.
Kennedy Meadows is tiny. It has a population of 200 (plus lots of PCT hikers) and its location is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. We first need to get out of town and get to Highway 395, which we would then be able to follow north, bypassing the Sierras entirely.
After picking up the final bits of gear from the shop and a last-minute freak out about skipping the Sierras and interrupting my thruhike, we aim for the road and begin to hitch. It’s 9 in the morning and the road is deserted. This could take a while.
We sit in the dirt, a bit unsure of our undramatic start. Prince reckoned it’ll take us two days to hitch up to South Lake Tahoe, and I think I was a bit overly optimistic when I thought we might be able to make it in just one. Then a local leaves Grumpy Bear’s restaurant behind us, and we awkwardly stick out our thumbs as he turns into the road – and stops. That was easy. We quickly hop into the truck and drive out of the mountains until we hit the valley and the 395. We thank our first ride and position ourselves next to the highway going north, equally dusty, but much bigger.
This time we have a sign. A piece of cardboard with ‘South Lake Tahoe’ on one side, but we quickly change to the less intense ‘Bishop’ on the other, which is about halfway up. We prepare for a long wait, but ten minutes later a car stops, and two men going up to a meeting in Bishop let us squeeze into the back, happy to take us all the way. They are Jay and William and work for the Californian water board, and the two hour drive is filled with interesting information about local water facts, with stories about lakes and the aqueduct and anything else we pass in the car.
We watch the mountains on our left, all snow-topped, and we’re happy we’re not there right now. The entire Sierras are socked in. It’s a great hitch. We even have lunch together when we arrive in Bishop, and then they drop us off close to a few gear shops, and we bid each other farewell.
We decide to take a short break from hitching. First we check out the gear shops, and I surprise myself by finding a replacement top – my Icebreaker is getting more and more holes in the shoulders after all the New Zealand and now Californian sun, and I need something else. With my new grey pack I’ve decided I want a white shirt, which is pretty impossible to find, for good reason. But I spot a perfectly white Marmot shirt in one of the shops, and get it immediately. Score!
After our shopping we have coffee and more food at a cafe, before we position ourselves north of the town, and continue hitching. We’re unlucky. It starts to rain. It’s cloudy and cold and we hide under a tree, and our dry spot gets smaller and smaller. No one wants to pick up a bunch of wet thruhikers. We put so much effort into it though – we’re like a comical act, making signs and cheering and everyone laughs at us, until we are so saturated that all we do is yell ‘help’. It probably takes about an hour before a girl stops, but she’s only going to a small mall a few miles up. We take the hitch because we are drenched and losing the will to live – we just need some shelter and warmth.
She tells us about a bus up to Mammoth Lakes and once we’re hiding from the downpour under an awning, we look it up – and find out that the bus departs from where we were hitching just now – ugh! We look into our options as it’s getting late. There’s nothing where we are now – no hotels, and the chances of getting picked up are minimal. The bus departs soon as well, so we walk back in the frigid rain as fast as we can, and miraculously manage to get a hitch back to Bishop along the way.
The bus is cheap, $6 or so, and it takes us all the way to Mammoth Lakes, about an hour away. It’s raining when we get on, and when we alight, it’s snowing. It’s snowing in Mammoth, we can’t believe it. Again, we’re so relieved not to be in the mountains right now. It’s absolutely freezing cold and I can’t even bear so stand outside while we wait for the free local trolley bus to take us a hotel for the night. We run to the building when we get out – this weather is simply insane.
We spend the night blissfully inside, drinking bad hotel lobby coffees, and set off again the next morning. We’re not assuming today will be easy – we need to get back to the main road again, and we’re considering hiring a car if we don’t get a hitch soon enough. We’ve also changed our plan a little – instead of going straight to South Lake Tahoe we want to go to Reno, a little further up north, to visit the REI and replace some of Prince’s broken gear.
As we walk down the road and stick out our thumbs, we almost immediately get another ride, and Guy is able to take us all the way to Reno. It’s amazing! It turns out to be the most relaxed hitch ever, and Guy even gives us his number in case we’re still in Reno tomorrow, as he could take us part of the way back down to South Lake Tahoe. We can’t believe our luck. Once in Reno we visit REI, do our resupply and get the protein powder I’ve been trying to find for weeks at Wholefoods.
It’s a productive stop, until we try to leave at the end of the day, and we hitch alongside an on-ramp joining the freeway. We do a great job at thoroughly amusing everyone in the cars again, but no one stops, until someone does – the police. Speedy and Prince immediately get their packs out the way, but I have hopes, and when the officer gets out of the car I ask if he’s going to South Lake Tahoe. Unsurprisingly, he’s not. In fact, he’s here to tell us hitchhiking is illegal – we’re not in California anymore, we’re in Nevada. He’s very friendly though – he assures is we’re not in trouble in any way, and it probably helps that we’re all from other states and European countries and genuinely didn’t realise hitchhiking isn’t allowed in Nevada. So that’s that.
Our only immediate option left is to get another hotel for the night, and the next morning we text Guy, who goes out of his way to pick us up and detour all the way to drop us off at South Lake Tahoe. It’s taken two and a half days, but we’re finally very close to the trail!
Before continuing we sort out some food and look into permits. The Desolation Wilderness we’re about to enter is the one place on the trail that requires additional permits next to our PCT thruhiking permit. It’s a tricky thing to work out. The local agency isn’t open to get a day permit, but they should be available at the trailheads. We manage to book our camping spot online and pay the $6 fee per person. We decide to camp just 6 miles in today, next to Lake Aloha. It’ll be an easy first day back on trail.
After printing the documents, we take another local bus and one more hitch – and we’re back on trail, at the Echo Summit trailhead. It’s 4pm and we found our way back to the PCT. The trail follows the main road for less than a mile, and we can immediately see what we’re getting ourselves into: snow.
We knew that flipping to Northern California wasn’t going to get us out of the snow, but we’d hoped to avoid the snow for a few days at least. The snow map showed NorCal as patchy, but evidently, the Desolations Wilderness was one of those patches.
I get out my poles and microspikes and follow the others. Immediately, it’s slow and frustrating. The forest is a hilly field of snow, and it takes a while to climb over the snow banks and reach Echo Lake, where I’d expected a busy Echo Chalet, a lodging with a store. When we get our first views, everything is covered in white. The road is obliterated, and the Chalet is far from open. There are no permits to fill out at the trailhead, the area is technically not even open yet. It’s a winter wonderland.
We pass the Chalet and follow the few footsteps around the top of the lake, overlooking the private cabins and their jetties. For once Speedy and Prince are following me – today they decided my pace was a lot less energy consuming, and it’s weird to have them trailing me for once. I’m used to them being far ahead in the snow, and tracing their footsteps for most of the day.
The views are breathtaking. The lake is covered in ice and snow, with a few patches of clear water. Everything is white and fresh and pure. I can only imagine this is like a mini-Sierras. But we’re also painfully aware that the snow has already slowed us down significantly, and even the mere 6 miles to Aloha Lake is impossible to make. The only areas clear of snow are the jetties down below, and we decide to cowboy camp on those instead.
We select one of the first, everything completely deserted. It’s beautiful by the lake, and it’s still warm in the sun. We lay out our quilts and get cozy. We’re back on the trail. Our PCT adventure continues!