This PCT section hike is a 98 mile stretch through NorCal that features quiet forests, hidden glacial lakes, and breathtaking panoramic views.
Light traffic along the trail and multiple days between Castle Crags and Etna makes this a great backpacking section for anyone trying to decompress and experience the level of peace and seclusion that comes with such a vast expanse of wilderness.
Distance: 98.5 Miles
Time: 7 Days
Permits: Trinity Alps Wilderness Permit
Map Used: Halfmile’s PCT Maps – Section P
Day 1: I-5 to Dog trail
Miles: 7 Elevation +/- : +2007/-1156 Camp Elevation: 3007 ft.
Leaving from Dunsmuir around mid morning, we had plenty of time to grab a hardy breakfast from The Wheelhouse and then hitch a ride to the trail head with Eric, the owner of the lodge, from the Dunsmuir Lodge (a cozy place to stay the night before).
On the west side of the I-5 onramp-off ramp for Soda Creek Road, the trailhead begins departing south up through densely covered forest.
With the first part of this section crisscrossing through the Castle Crags State Park, the trail can get a bit tricky to follow. Halfmile’s PCT app can keep you on the right path, or grab a Castle Crags State Park map to help you navigate around all the different trails.
Much of the day is spent under tree cover, bouncing in and out of gullies.
With only around 7 miles to go from the PCT trail head to dog trail – the first possible campsite – this is a pretty mellow day of hiking. About 50 yards past the dog trail junction you will find a small clearing on the left side of the trail which is large enough for a single tent.
If you don’t want to dry camp or want to break up the mileage for the next day, you could also push ahead to the next couple creeks. It’s not marked on any maps, but there’s some large camp sites around each of them. (These campsites are between PCT miles 1508 and 1513)
Day 2: Dog Trail to CS1523
Miles: 17.23 Elevation +/- : +4825/-1336 Camp Elevation: 6496 ft.
Hopefully your legs are warmed up but well-rested after the first day, because the real hiking starts almost immediately on day 2. By early morning you are climbing about 2,500 feet to the top of a mountain ridge. Once you reach the top you will have earned yourself some incredible views of the valley below and nearby Mt. Shasta.
As the day continues on, you’ll know you’re hitting the home stretch when you see Echo lake and the vast Seven Lakes basin.
A quick note on water: Around PCT mile 1522 you’ll see a small sign for a spring 1/3 mile off trail. Follow a small trail up and over the hill and down the opposite side of the ridge. This is the most easily accessible water source before you hit your campsite for the night.
After reaching the mountain saddle above Seven Lakes and crossing the Seven lakes trail junction (PCT Mile 1523.5), you’ve got about 2 miles to go until you reach a beautiful and large campsite (CS1525) overlooking Mt. Shasta.
Day 3: CS1523 to CS1543
Miles: 20.5 Elevation +/- : +1998/-1844 Camp Elevation: 6650 ft.
At just over 20 miles, this is the longest mileage day of the trip. However, the miles fly by without too much trouble thanks to the relatively flat and gentle terrain.
Try to wake up early and plan to make a quick pit stop for and possibly an early morning swim at the well hidden, Porcupine Lake. About 6 miles into the trip, this gem is more than worth the break. The sign is small and the turnoff is easily missed, so keep your eyes peeled between PCT miles 1531 and 1532. When you find it, head about .2 miles west up and over the ridge and then thank me later.
A little over halfway through the day, Upper and Lower Deadfall Lakes offer inviting grassy campsites that are great for lunch and a quick nap. With a 20+ mile day, your feet will thank you for the extra rest.
You’ll end the day by taking a circular route, counter-clockwise around a valley to a saddle just above Cement Bluff. About 2 miles past the saddle is Chilcoot Creek and your campsite for the night (PCT Mile 1546).
Day 4: CS 1543 to CS1559
Miles: 15.6 Elevation +/- : +1420/-2135 Camp Elevation: 5936 ft.
Today, your route takes you southwest towards Scott Mt. and Highway 3. A shorter day, but there’s plenty of ups and downs that makes this another tough, but fun day of hiking.
After you round the southwest ridge of Scott Mt. around PCT mile 1558 the trail starts a 750 ft. elevation drop towards Highway 3. After crossing the highway, you’ll head right back up and make a quick 1 mile, 500 ft climb to a nice little tent site among the trees. As a side note, keep an eye out for bears. We saw our first black bear cub here, but thankfully we didn’t have to meet mom.
As you enter the tree cover, you’ll see a campsite on your right (CS1562), but with a couple large trees looking ready to topple over at the slightest breeze, we opted to clear a small area for large enough for one tent and a small fire pit about 20 yards down the trail to the left.
Day 5: CS1559 to CS1575
Miles: 15.8 Elevation +/- : +2828/-2089 Camp Elevation: 6675 ft.
The most notable part of this day come at the very end. After passing the trail junction for the east fork of the Saloon Creek trail you are hit with beautiful views down into the valley and all kinds of enticing aromatic plant aromas.
You’ll find a cozy campsite (CS1575) nestled on top of a small saddle about half a mile past the trail junction. There’s a great little fire pit and plenty of room to hangout for the rest of the day.
Day 6: CS1575 to Payne’s Lake
Miles: 16.6 Elevation +/- : +3593/-3741 Camp Elevation: 6518 ft.
Probably the hardest day of the trip, there’s plenty of ups and downs, rocky trails and even a monstrous climb that will keep your heart rate pumping. But today’s views are more than worth it.
The toughest part of this day comes after entering the Russian wilderness about 9 miles into the hike. You’ll find your self on one of the steepest climbs of the week – about 800 ft. of elevation gain in less than 2 miles – through an exposed burn area.
When you finally round the ridge at the top, It’s pretty much all downhill from there! You’ll continue down through more burn area and then pop up over one final ridge before descending to Payne’s Lake.
Your final destination, Payne’s Lake, stays well hidden behind the trees. You could easily walk right past it if you didn’t know it was there. Once you reach the Payne’s Lake Creek (PCT mile 1594), cross over it and follow the Payne’s Lake trail to the left. Within about .2 miles you will find plenty of camping near the waters edge.
Day 7: Payne’s Lake to Etna
Miles: 5.75 Elevation +/- : +953/-1468 Camp Elevation: N/A
It’s an extremely quick hike out to the Sawyers Bar road which leads down into Etna, so take your time leaving in the morning. Enjoy a cup of coffee and revel in the past week’s amazing adventures!