Friday, May 14, 2021

PCT (West from Soda Mountain TH to livestock pond)

Some niggling little health problems (I'm fine, thanks for asking!) predestined this overnight backpack trip in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to be a short one. However, despite the diminutive mileage, this hike was big in forests, scenery, and hugely epic (but not in a good way) when it came to weather conditions. Still, two out of three is a passing grade and I could have always stayed home to file my crusty old toenails. 

Look, a hiker, let's get him!

When I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders at the trailhead, the sky was blue, the temps were mild, and all was bathed in bright sunlight despite a looming bank of baby thunderhead clouds parked several safe miles to the east. Perfect conditions for hiking in and you'd never suspect bad weather could become an issue on this hike, but such is Oregon weather and keep on reading, dear readers of mine.

Not all the snow had yet melted off

May is, in my humble opinion, the optimal time to visit the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The small mountain range of the Monument bridges the gap between the Siskiyous and Cascades mountain ranges and the whole vibe is at turns, either or neither or both Cascade and Siskiyou in terms of vegetation, climate, and geology. In about a month or so, the terrain will brown out due to the aridity of the area, the dried out hellebore meadows then rattling in the summer breeze like thousands of cackling witches. But in May, the snows have not completely melted, the forests are damp, the mountains are cloaked in a green blanket of lush vegetation, and wildflowers put on a show for camera-toting backpackers.

After the storm

The Pacific Crest Trail bisects the Soda Mountain Wilderness, a wilderness preserve set within the Monument's boundary. In the Wilderness, the forest was cool, dark, and shady while a virtual army of marching trilliums bloomed on the forest floor, if thousands of elegant flowers could be accurately described as a marching army. Maybe that's not an apt descriptor but it would not be the first time I babbled or dabbled in inept metaphors. At any rate, there were lots of white trilliums blooming, with bluish Oregon anemone and nodding glacier lilies playing a significant supporting role.

Avalanche lilies were everywhere

Periodically, the trail would break out of the forest and onto open slopes that tended to be somewhat on the rocky side. On either side of the trail sprawled huge meadows with nubs of sprouting hellebore being just a few inches tall. A byproduct of the open meadows or rocky slopes were expansive views of Bear Creek Valley with Mount Ashland dominating the skyline and crest of the Siskiyou Mountains. Snow had been here until just recently, evidenced by the sprouting hellebore and rampant patches of avalanche lilies, the dangling star-shaped flowers pointing face-down toward the ground, which was still wet and muddy thanks to the recently thawed snow.

The water pond and yes, I drank the water

In one of the meadows, there is a small livestock pond that is an important water source for PCT hikers as water gets to be in very short supply in August, when the through-hikers pass through Oregon on their way to Canada. Camping near the pond was a little problematic because the soil was wet and mushy during my initial search for a camping spot. However, a long and broad meadow extended north and I set up camp on the meadow's edge, with an awesome view of the valleys and mountains dropping and rising from my campsite as my reward.

Larkspur inhabited the meadows, too

The low grasses were chock full of short flowers, notably those of larkspur and the ever plentiful avalanche lily. When not crawling on my hands and knees in my never-ending quest for the perfect wildflower photo, I spent time at the edge of the meadow, admiring the view as the day waned into late afternoon. But clouds rolled in overhead and the day went dark while a gusty breeze began to shake trees and tent alike. Yet, looking north and west, Medford, Ashland, and Mount Ashland were enjoying a sunny day while I was having to unfairly contend with ever increasingly belligerent weather.

Rain cometh, it has been foretold

The weather continued to turn and the light clouds turned as dark and oppressive as a pessimist in a bad mood. The breeze increased in velocity and I was having to restake my tent every now and then as bellicose air currents worked the stakes loose from the very soft soils of the meadow. Soon a nonstop pitter-patter of raindrops on my hat brim announced the change from intermittent shower to out-and-out rain. Yet, the sky to the north was tinting yellow and orange as sunset drew nigh while I was stuck on my meadow having to endure the elements.

Strange weather over Emigrant Lake

Tired of getting wet, I retired early, listening to the soothing sound of rain on my tent. Not so soothing however, was the rumble of distant thunder. In short order, I could see flashes of lightning and discerned the lightning was fairly far away, for I could count up to five before the thunder arrived. Pretty soon though, I couldn't even count up to one and if I closed my eyes, I could see the veins in my eyelids every time the lightning flashed. And that thunder was loud too, each boom starting in the left ear and finishing in the right like an Airbus A380 from Hell dive-bombing my puny tent from east to west.

Sunset at the same time as the hail
storm was pummeling my tent

The staccato noise of the rain on my tent fly suddenly changed in tenor and intensity. Those raindrops were now fat and heavy and I stuck my head outside of my tent to see the latest weather wonder. What fresh new Hell was this? Instead of rain, my tent was being pelted by heaviest hailstorm ever. I almost said "Well, at least it's not large-sized hail!" but managed to catch myself before that thought was uttered out loud. Because the wind insisted on working my tent stakes loose, the tent's roofline sagged a bit and the hail began collecting in the dip. Removing hail off of the tent was added to my list of weather-related duties. Yet, while hail accumulated on and around the tent, light from a beautiful sunset over Mount Ashland was slanting into my eyes. Weird.

The next day was like "Rainstorm? Lightning? Hail? Really?"

The hail lasted about an hour and a half and the whole storm about five hours in duration. But eventually and for no reason at all, all went quiet as if the Supreme Storm Master had capriciously flipped the "OFF" switch just because she could. The peace and quiet were most welcome and I then fell into a relaxing slumber that was probably more exhausted stupor than sleep. The next day dawned bright and near cloudless, making for a nice and easy hike out while at the same time, reminding me I had definitely picked the wrong evening for my first backpack trip this year. 

Right outside my tent door

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Looks like you got the "full" experience. Don't always want to do just those soft easy hikes and trips.

    1. When I put out the following morning, a day hiking couple commented on all the fresh snow along the highway. I had to correct them and told them it was hail, not snow. They were amazed I had camped in what apparently was also a wild weather event in Ashland. Don't need to do that again for a while!