California started out hot, got cold, and ended hot again. Dry and dusty in the south, California turned alternately snowy and buggy when we got into the High Sierra, then got dusty and buggy in the north.
Southern California was filled with pain — blisters and thirst and aching backs. Shinsplints and contusions and the predictable post-resupply stomach ache plagued me throughout the Sierra. Northern California saw the return of blisters, the continuation of stomach aches, and the dawn of heat rash.
Nevertheless, California was much more than heat, cold, bugs, and pain — while we were on the trail, we swam in as many lakes, rivers, creeks, and ponds as possible. While we resupplied in towns, we sampled as many cheeseburgers as possible.
The PCT between Sierra City and the Oregon border took us thru California’s Cheeseburger Belt — a nearly 400-mile stretch of towns and resorts serving up tasty cheeseburgers, and, oftentimes, equally tasty milkshakes. Beginning at Buck’s Lake Resort, and extending thru Belden Town, Chester, Burney, Etna, and Seiad Valley, the PCT thru-hiker can expect great things from the local grills, and should not miss an opportunity to hitch out to the smallest of towns. (We didn’t miss any). The best of the Belt was at Buck’s Lake Resort, though the Pines Frosty in Chester runs a close second, given their extremely tasty shakes. But the best bang for your burger buck is Buck’s Lake Resort — the fact that it’s not on the official PCT route and requires 7 miles of unfriendly road-walking makes the burgers even more rewarding.
Northern California also provided the best swimming lakes and rivers in California — which were an especially nice antidote to the inevitable (for me) heat rash. Porcupine Lake in Castle Crags State Park offered crystal clear and comfortably chilly water nestled in an amazing granite cirque — it easily tops all other lake-swimming in California — of course, we passed by the spectacular Sierra lakes in mid-June, when the experience of swimming in them involved more shivering and loss of breath than relaxation.
River-wise, one would have to look long and hard to find a more excellent spot for a skinny-dip than Squaw Valley Creek about 20 miles south of Castella on the PCT. The Middle Fork Feather River is bigger, deeper, and more spectacular, but Squaw Valley Creek’s cozy pools, mellow current, and surprising lack of the usual creek funk places it at the top of our list. Rock Creek outside Burney would have topped the list if it hadn’t been so beer-can-ridden, and if the climb down to it hadn’t been a scree-ridden butt-scraping scramble 25 feet down into the creek canyon.