PCT trail maintenance trips

I’ve had two backpacks this year doing trail maintenance on the Pacific Crest Trail through the Granite Chief Wilderness. Since almost all my time was up on the PCT, I don’t have anything to report about the rest of the wildneress, but since I have two more backpack trips coming up, will have a report on much if not all of the trail system.

I brushed from Granite Chief trail on the north to Five Lakes Creek in the middle, and the trail is in good condition except for a short 0.1 mile part between Whiskey Creek Camp trail and Five Lakes trail that I didn’t get done, though it is not bad. I also did the Whiskey Creek Camp trail since it was getting a bit brushy. While in this area I spent some time exploring around Five Lakes Creek and Whiskey Creek, looking for the old trails that were there before the new PCT alignment was completed. In some places these old trails are easy to follow, but no always. I still think there is a trail on the south side of Five Lakes Creek to Big Spring Meadow, but so far I haven’t located it.

On the second trip I focused on the PCT north from the PCT/TRT trail junction near Twin Peaks. There are several sections here that are very brushy, and a few that are essentially closed in. I got all but one of these opened up again, to a point where they should be OK for about five years. But there is one very brushy section that I did not get to, and will be very bad by next year. It is about 0.2 miles. I did spot brushing on the remainder, and it is in decent shape but could use work. I think this year I accomplished what I have not in several years, keeping up with the rate of brush growth, though not gaining on it, which is why there are some badly brushed-in sections left. Next year perhaps I’ll get those last very brushy parts done, and be “caught up” at least for a couple of years.

PCT trail before

PCT trail before brushing, overgrown with tobacco brush

PCT trail after

PCT trail after brushing, cleared to five-year width








I have always been mystified by how brush on a dry windy ridge could grow so fast. Some years, the ceanothus (called tobacco brush, Ceanothus velutinus) can grow a foot or more. Whitethorn (the one that scratches your legs, also a ceanothus, Ceanothus cordulatus) grows a little more slowly, but it is such a tough shrub that when it does push into the trail, it makes a big impact. Other shrubs are huckleberry oak (Quercus vaccinifolia), chinquapin (Castanopsis sempervirens), gooseberry and currant (Ribes), creamberry (Holodiscus discolor), bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), bitter cherry (Prunus), manzanita (Arctostaphylos), snowberry (Symphocarpos) which becomes even more bushy when cut, and sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata). And of course the trail in some areas can be obscured by wooley mules ears (Wyethia molis) but since it dies back every year, and is very hard to trim or remove, I ignore.

Anyway, the fast growth. It can’t be because of snow. The snow gets blown off the ridge top all winter long, which is why there are deep snow banks just east of the ridge. I think that the shrubs are actually catching fog drip, as it is called in coastal areas. When moisture laden clouds are blowing across the crest, some of the moisture condenses on the leaves and falls to the ground under the shrubs, supplying much more water than direct precipitation or snow does. This is a theory, but it does provide an explanation for the rich and fast growth of the brush in what seems to be a very dry environment.

People often ask me why I do trail maintenance, and why here. Why: Because otherwise the trail would become unpleasant and eventualy unusable. The Forest Service no longer does trail mainteance in this area, and there are no organizations that cover this area. The Pacific Crest Trail Association tries to keep up with things, but a lot of their work is reconstructing or rerouting deteriorated sections of trail, and they don’t often get to brushing. Here: Well, all one has to do is look around. This is one of the more spectacular parts of the PCT in California, with Lake Tahoe to the east and to the west, the slope down to the valley and the coast range beyond.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks and Pacific Crest in Granite Chief

The Soberanes fire in the Big Sur area started while I was on my second backpack trip. I noticed it shortly after it started on Friday, as there was a stream of blue-grey smoke along the coast blowing northward. The rest of the time the smoke varied with the winds. Sometimes it was completely clear on the crest but socked in with smoke below, sometimes Tahoe was socked in while the western slope was clear, and sometimes the opposite, and at one point there was a “smoke cap” obscuring the peaks of the Crystal Range to the south while the lower elevations were relatively clear. On afternoon everything was socked in, with visibility about 1/4 mile. I worked very slowly that day, taking care of my lungs. Thoughout, there were interesting patterns of smoke clouds overhead, as the winds shifted.

On the second trip I was able to melt snow enough that I did not have to descend north to the creek or south to the springs to re-supply with water. The crest is completely dry. I used my black JetBoil pot, placed in the sun, to melt snow, and it melted about every two hours, with a water content of more than 50%. Snow seems so pristinely pure and white, once the surface is scrapped off, but it is in reality rather dirty, with dust, and insect and plant fragments, so the resulting water is cloudy with some floaties rather than clear like a spring. Everything was going well until a PCT through hiker stole my pot and large water container. Why anyone would steal water from someone else is beyond me. In fact in the desert it is an offense punishable by death, though here in the mountains it just engenders bad karma.

Photos on Flickr; Granite Chief collection

2 thoughts on “PCT trail maintenance trips

  1. Ariane

    Hi Dan, We’re thinking about a backpack trip this weekend (August 28) to the 5 Lakes area. I enjoy the solitude of camping like this. Wondering how easy it is to find a spot to make a base camp with a certain amount of privacy. I am aware this is a popular day hike destination and enjoy meeting people on the trail, but I like to have that nice feeling of getting away from the masses. Can you please advise. Thanks. BTW, I really like your blog and this site about Granite Chief.

    1. Dan Allison Post author

      Camping is not permitted within 600 feet of Five Lakes, though what is a lake and what not gets a little fuzzy this time of year when some of the smaller, shallower ones are drying up. Two areas you can consider for camping, both by continuing west on the Squaw Saddle trail (right turn, where the sign says PCT, just before Five Lakes). One is on the saddle area to the right of the trail before it heads downhill. You may find water in the seasonal creek not far beyond. Second is to continue down this trail, and either turn left at the PCT and camp near the creek, or right on the PCT and camp at Whiskey Creek Camp area. With the PCT thru hiker crowd gone, you won’t see a lot of people along any trails once past Five Lakes. Thank you.


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