Hat Creek Rim: volcanoes and lava tubes

PCT miles 1411.2 to 1381.1 – Rock Spring Creek to Cave Campground at Hwy 44 – Total PCT miles 1135.7

Woke around 4 am to a pre-dawn sky and the sound of the sprinklers in the  meadow next to Rock Spring Creek. Stars were high above us and the setting moon provided the faintest of silver light. The smell of sun-dried grass that so pervades fields in summer hung about our little camp. And with the night’s chilly air, even the plague of mosquitoes lacked the ferocious presence they’d exhibited the prior evening. (But there were still a few up and biting us.)

We were on the trail by 4:45. As we walked, the sky transitioned from inky night blue to the colors of dawn. Dusty blues and aquas hinted at the golds of twilight and sunrise. We walked while watching the sky turn its colors. It is calming to follow a path amid oak and juniper, sagebrush, and volcanic rocks with the moon setting, the sun rising, and two Cascades volcanoes coming into view. Lassen to the south and Shasta to the north.

It felt like this would be a memorable and milestone day, and indeed it would be. At least in the sense that it would be the first time I ever walked 30 miles in one go. This day’s stretch of trail necessitated such distance and the early start, for the Hat Creek Rim segment of the PCT is waterless for ~30 miles, dusty, west-facing and therefore sun exposed and hot come afternoon. For the rim is part of the Modoc Plateau, the arid volcanic tablelands east of the Southern Cascades, comprised of dry grasses and oak-juniper woodlands. Dry, hot in summer, cold in winter. Beautiful country.

Hat Creek Rim rises more than 900 feet above the valley floor. (The rim is on an active fault line and over the last 1,000,000 years  has shifted up from the valley. Its geological shift continues.)  And being west facing, the rim’s northern band of trees offers no shade to northbound hikers that reach this stretch of trail in late  afternoon sun. Hence, we had created an advantage for ourselves with our early morning start and our southbound direction: we’d ascended the rim in cool temps and walked in the shade of gray pines and Ponderosas.

By 11 am, with the sun high in the sky, our shaded walk had diminished and the air had warmed. We’d hiked about 13 miles by then and came to Road 22 with a delightful Cache 22 (NB: Catch 22 is such a good book I must put it on my list of books to reread). An oasis of trail angel kindness: we sat in white plastic lawn chairs tucked into a pocket of rare shade and read the trail register for a few minutes before hiking on. Having started with about 6 liters of water each, we weren’t in need of extra water.  All the same, thank you Mt. Stan for your trail angeling!

We had miles more to go, walking through dried out wildflowers, volcanic ankle rollers (big cobbles on the trail), and intensely burned relics of forests. By noon we were beyond the halfway point of the day and appreciating the shade of a lone, lovely oak tree next to the former Hat Creek Rim fire lookout. This was very motivating to know we were making good progress to our 30-mile day!

The last 14 miles were not as fast as the first 16, but by 6:30 pm we’d made it to the Subway Cave and nearly the end of our walking for the day. We took a break in the parking lot/day use area to drink some Emergen-C and eat some coconut-cocoa butter (we’ll stick with Nutella, thanks!).

Then we grabbed our headlamps and jackets to walk through the cave! Subway Cave is a lava tube about 1,300 feet in length. For most of its length the tube is solid darkness and cool in temperature (45 degrees-ish), the air feels still and the silence is noted. This was a big change from the bright sunshine and 80-degree temps we had on the rim, with its breeze, bird song and crickets. Emerging from the cave, Gabriel tested out the acoustics with some harmonica playing. Thanks Sourdough for insisting that we take a few minutes to tour these cool caves.

We walked another few tenths of a mile to get to a nearby campground and this put us officially over 30 miles for the day! Our longest day on the trail so far. We saw car campers with their grills and delicious food as we walked to our campsite. We hoped they’d recognize us as thru-hikers and offer us food. But no luck for those who passively yogi. We got to our camp and had a celebratory “dinner” of instant mashed potatoes. Not a victory feast, but enough to hold us over until we make it to JJ’s Cafe in Old Station in the morning.

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