Most folks in Camas and Washougal know the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), our nation’s longest and most famous hiking trail, goes right through our backyard in the Columbia River Gorge, but many local hikers have never taken advantage of the legendary wilderness path.
On a recent, hot summer day, my wife and I decided to give it a shot. We hiked from the Bonneville trailhead, near Bonneville Dam, to Table Mountain on the Washington side of the Pacific Crest Trail.
We may have been a bit overconfident, considering the heat and the fact that reaching the top of Table Mountain requires an 8-mile one-way hike and 4,500-foot climb. Regardless, we started our journey around noon from the trailhead, just off Highway 14.
The Tamanous Trail climbs about 0.5 miles from the trailhead and connects with the PCT, which we followed north. The famous monster of a trail weaves through deep forest lands and clear-cuts before climbing a rocky slope to a forest road. The PCT picks up on the other side of the road and takes you down to Gillette Lake, a natural lake popular with ducks and stocked with golden trout.
Gillette Lake is where we ran into a fast-moving Andrew Palmer from New Orleans, a PCT hiker anxious to shower, eat and sleep in Cascade Locks, Oregon.
“Oh man, I can’t wait to get there and shove my pie hole with food,” Palmer said of his quest to get to Cascade Locks.
Palmer started his journey July 4 at the Canadian border, and was only about three miles from Oregon when we met him on Aug. 5.
“The first war in this journey was Washington, and I’m just about to win that one,” Palmer told us. “Now, it’s on to Oregon for battle No. 2,” Palmer said.
Palmer who goes by the trail name “Ichor,” which means “rarified blood of the gods,” plans to make it to Mexico and complete the entire 2,650-mile trail before the weather gets too cold. He said being alone, away from family and friends, is a challenging but life-changing experience. He does keep in touch with other solo PCT hikers, who all started their journeys at about the same time.
“We all go at different speeds, but many of us keep running into each other along the trail and when we get cell signals we call each other and check on our progress,” Palmer said. Past Gillette Lake, a small bridge made from fallen fir tree takes you over Gillette Creek, which feeds the lake. The trail takes you into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest along Greenleaf Pond and then across a cedar bridge that crosses the swift Greenleaf Creek.
Here, we met Bonnie Fromm, who was returning from an overnight backpacking trip with her family on the top of Table Mountain.
“It was gorgeous, but getting to the top of Table Mountain is no joke,” Fromm said. “The last mile is straight up with lots of rocks. You really have to want it.”
An evening thunderstorm over Mt. Adams created a beautiful light show for the Fromm family as they spent the night on the uniquely flat mountain top.
About 4.5 miles into the hike, with another 3.5 miles to the top of the mountain, scorching temperatures and a lack of water forced us to turn around.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we met a couple that spends every weekend raising the spirits of tired PCT hikers by handing out care packages made up of Oreo cookie six-packs and fresh coffee beans. Mike and Carol Stein from Vancouver, Washington started hiking about 10 years ago.
“I was a bit of a lost soul looking for a passion I could follow through with, so we came up with a goal of hiking the total distance of the circumference of the Earth, which is about 25,000 miles,” Mike, who goes by the trail name “Mileage Mike,” said.
The Steins have been hiking every week since then, and Mike is already halfway to his goal. Most of their hiking is along the PCT, but they are not backpackers. Instead, they drive to towns along the trail and go for long day hikes and hand out treats to PCT adventurers.
“We’ve learned a lot of the thru-hikers on the PCT don’t have a lot of incentive to stop and talk unless you have something to offer,” Mike said. “So, we find it’s a great kind of payment-in-kind to learn people’s stories.”
Right before the couple stopped to chat with us, they had met hikers from England, New Zealand and Germany.
“Hikers from other countries are different, because they are able to take leaves of absences for the four- or five-month journey, and they get to return to good jobs, while most Americans on the trip don’t have that luxury,” Carol, who goes by the trail name “Care Package,” said.
“Most (Americans) are in between jobs, or have quit their jobs to be here.”
Walking back to the trailhead on the PCT somehow felt like a much longer journey than it was earlier in the day. The sweltering heat took a toll and prevented us (or gave us a solid excuse) not to summit Table Mountain.
Still, even though we didn’t summit, the adventure taught us that hiking the nearby PCT in small sections not only gives you a great backwoods experience, but that the interesting people you meet and the conversations you strike up along the way will keep you coming back for more.