Siskiyou Adventures: Hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail from Castle Crags to the Oregon Border
Brought to you by Discover Siskiyou
Stepping from civilization onto the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Northern California is a little bit like entering a wardrobe and finding yourself in Narnia. You’re very quickly in another world. Internet? What’s that? Cell phone service? If you’re lucky. Charging your Apple Watch? Forget about it. Facebook and Twitter suddenly cease to exist and, at least for a time, you will find yourself off the grid and in the moment. The most common question you hear among hikers is, “What day is it again?” And that’s the point, isn’t it?
But let’s say you’re not quite that hard core. Let’s say you don’t want to actually live in Narnia for the five months it usually takes to hike the whole thing. Most people who hike the PCT are out for less than a week. Fortunately there are several formal access points in the North State for shorter hikes, not to mention everywhere the almost 300-miles of the PCT in Siskiyou County crosses a road.
The PCT was one of two trails named to the national system of recreation and scenic trails when the National Trails System Act was passed in 1968. Theoretically it allows hikers to hoof it all the way from Mexico to Canada, a distance of 2,699 miles. People do it every year. (The other is the Appalachian Trail connecting Maine to Georgia on the East Coast.)
Finding a Hike
The PCT has been studied for decades and there is an overwhelming amount of data online, almost anything you want to know. It might be easier to purchase an old-school trail guidebook if only because they focus on specific areas (like NorCal) instead of the whole PCT. A good place to find the right guidebook is shop.pcta.org.
The PCT in Siskiyou County is considered one of the more rigorous sections of the entire trail with some big elevation gains and drops, and long distances between access points. At least water is readily available, unlike the Hat Creek Rim in Shasta County.
From where the PCT crosses I-5 on Soda Creek Road in Dunsmuir, the trail climbs through Castle Crags State Park and into the Trinity Alps Wilderness. A lot of hikers are surprised to learn that the PCT is not exactly a north-south trail. Generally it is, yet from I-5 it meanders quite a bit to the west before swinging north again in the wilderness below Callahan.
Popular access points to the PCT in Siskiyou County include:
Dog Trailhead (three miles west of Castle Crags State Park)
North Soapstone Trailhead (Road 39N45)
South Soapstone Trailhead (also Road 39N45)
Mumbo Summit (WA Barr Road above Gumboot Lake)
Road Fh903 (near Hidden Horse Campground)
Etna Summit (Sawyers Bar Road)
Klamath River Hwy. (Hwy 96)
Parks Creek Trailhead
Serious hikers need to spend time with guidebooks and topographical maps to select the right hike for them. There are vast sections of the PCT in Siskiyou County that are very rugged and remote, many miles from any access at all. Planning and conditioning are key.
The PCT Towns of Siskiyou
The best part about hiking the stretch of the PCT in Siskiyou is visiting the “friendliest towns on the trail.” They make for the perfect place to refuel, grab a hot shower and meal, and even celebrate your accomplishment with a local craft beer.
Unless you are willing to hike a certain number of miles or days, and then turn around and finish back where you started, you will need to arrange a shuttle. Most hikers arrange their own shuttles, making arrangements to get dropped off and picked up by friends and family on prearranged days and times. There is also the Siskiyou STAGE bus service that stops at both Castle Crags State Park and the PCT trailhead at Soda Creek Road. The buses connect the trail with the communities of Dunsmuir, Mt. Shasta City and Weed with connections available to Yreka, Etna, and Seiad Valley.
If I had to choose, I would rather end my hike at one of the trailheads served by the Siskiyou STAGE to finish off a trip, long or short. A night or two in a Mt. Shasta City (named the first official “Trail Town” of the PCT) hotel, in a real bed, with a hot shower and restaurants that actually cook non-freeze dried food for you is a heavenly way to round out a good PCT hike.
Here are some of the PCT towns you discover along the PCT:
Situated in a canyon and surrounded by the dramatic Castle Crags wilderness near the Soda Creek Trailhead, Dunsmuir is a charming railroad town with lots of great food and lodging that has been a go-to stop for hikers for a long time. The Dunsmuir Lodge is a favorite option that offers comfortable lodging and gives rides to PCT hikers when possible, and the Railroad Park Resort offers the “only in Siskiyou” experience of eating on a caboose and sleeping in a train.
When it comes to food, it’s hard to beat Dunsmuir, but both the Cornerstone Cafe and the Wheelhouse offering big breakfasts to refuel, and Yaks on the Five can deliver a hiker’s much-needed caloric bang for a few bucks with burgers built on cinnamon rolls and more than 20 craft beers on tap, many from other towns along the trail! And, it doesn’t get more local than the Dunsmuir Brewery Works, which also serves great seasonal food featuring local ingredients.
No other mountain dominates the Pacific Crest Trail the way Mount Shasta does, so it’s no surprise that the city of Mount Shasta was proudly named the first official “Trail Town” of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was officially announced in 2018 as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act and there’s typically a celebration in July. But even outside the celebration, as an official trail town, you can imagine how much the city of Mount Shasta loves its hikers!
There are a variety of yummy places to eat in town, and PCT hikers can indulge in particularly large breakfasts at the original Black Bear Diner and Cooper’s Restaurant in the Best Western Tree House. The Berryvale Market & Cafe and Mount Shasta Grocery offer great local food resupply stops, and there is a wealth of outdoor shops in town for hiking needs. There’s even a new outdoor beer garden, Garden Tap, at the Native Grounds Nursery.
There are also lots of lodging options, including the Shasta Inn and Strawberry Valley Inn next to Native Grounds, as well as the recently renovated Inn at Mount Shasta. You can even find adventure and hiker-friendly accommodations at the brand new LOGE Mt. Shasta that offers everything from hotel rooms to hostel bunks and camping.
A few day hike from Mount Shasta, the charming town of Etna, population 700, has been called the friendliest town on the trail. It’s situated in the valley below Etna Summit and offers not one but TWO local breweries including the Etna Brewing Company (one of the oldest in California!) and Paystreak Brewing. The tiny town is also home to the Denny Bar Co., the only craft distillery-restaurant between Sacramento and Oregon.
The local post office is known to bring in an extra dumpster during PCT “hiker season” and the local high school art students design the town’s annual trail patch. It’s not unusual to see backpacks lining Main Street, or locals giving rides to hikers to and from Etna Summit. The lovely Alderbrook Manor in town maintains an official “Hiker’s Hut” and the Collier Hotel and Etna Motel are quaint and comfortable options right in town.
There are also a number of tasty restaurants and bakeries in town where hikers can refuel on delicious local fare. Even the hardware store and coffee shop get into the action, selling some of PCT hikers’ most-used backpacking supplies.
Seiad Valley, located near Happy Camp and close to the mighty Klamath River, has the singular charm of the fact that every through hiker on the trail actually has to pass straight through the little enclave of buildings that make up Seiad. One of those buildings is the Seiad post office, which makes it a convenient resupply point.
One of the other buildings is the Seiad Cafe, which happens to be the home of the famous (infamous?) pancake challenge that was once featured on the Food Network. For PCT hikers, or anyone crazy enough to take the challenge, the task is to eat five giant pancakes and the meal is free. Sounds easy, until you realize the size of the spatula hanging on the wall! International hikers are also pleased to discover that the cafe regularly stocks all kinds of things you wouldn’t expect to find off the beaten track simply because of the number of hikers that roll through each summer. (Vegemite, anyone?) Of course, there are lots of other things to choose from on the menu too, so you don’t have to be a glutton for pancake punishment to enjoy the stop to refuel!
For serious hikers looking for a challenge in NorCal, the PCT can offer plenty of variety and fantastic views throughout Siskiyou County. Because, cmon’, not everyone can hike the entire PCT.