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Begins: May 6, 2017
Date: Wed, Oct 4th, 2017
Start: San Diego
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HST SUMMARY FOR FUTURE HIKERS - PART 2
WHEN TO START / DIRECTION / FLIPPING / FIRE
The general consensus is around early May Northbound. You've got several issue points which make potentially flipping a good idea.
The California Coastal section can probably be hiked year round although the PCT miles through the desert would be hot in the summer. Your first issue point is the Sierra. If you start in early May then you'll be at the Sierra in late May. In a below average snow year this would be ok but in a normal or high snow year this might be a problem depending on your tolerance for snow and dangerous river crossings. If you start later then you'll be crossing Nevada when it's hotter and then northern Idaho you'll be racing the colder weather. The Sierra passes on the HST are typically lower than PCT passes, but then you won't have all those hiker footprints to follow. Also there is a river (Middle Fork Kings) that is pretty much uncrossable in early season so you'll have to take the HST Muir alternate as well although just to get to that also has a very difficult creek crossing across Palisades Creek early season.
After the Sierra your next issue point is Nevada and Southern Idaho. There is very little shade, very little water and it can be very hot. Doing this in July or August could be very, very rough. If you flip/skip the Sierra as we did then you cover Nevada mainly in June which seemed to have cooler temperatures than Bernie had who didn't skip the Sierra. July is the hottest month in these parts.
Your next issue point is the Ruby mountains in Northeast Nevada. These can hold snow for a while and are more Sierra-like than the previous mountains in Nevada. In late June there was still decent snow in the bowls for us and this was part of the reason we flipped. It was probably doable but we thought there might have been some sketchy high angle snowfields but didn't really know. There is a Ruby Mountain Facebook group but no one had really been up high yet, although there were lots of recent drone pics showing plenty of snow still. On the flip side, looking at Bernie's pictures from 2016, he seemed to have zero snow at the same time as us. I think the snow hung around much longer for us this year. The locals said the last few years were drought and this was the first good snow year in a while. If you skip the Sierra like we did, it's possible you could hit snow in the Ruby's. If you don't skip the Sierra, I imagine you'll have no snow by the time you get to the Ruby's.
Your final issue point is Idaho. Southern Idaho is a desert so you'll want to consider that but then the rest gets cold/snowy surprisingly early at times. I think you'll want to finish end of September. Alternatively you could flip up to the Canadian border like we did. Usually in mid-June or so this should be possible but you will want to check the snow levels. The Selkirks at the beginning could still have some decent snow but otherwise, unless you are really early you should be fine. The Sawtooths in the center hold snow for a long time but that generally shouldn't be an issue on a HST thru hike.
Here's what we did and why it worked well: We started May 6, hiked to the Sierra, skipped the Sierra in the 2017 epic snow year, hiked Benton to Harrison Pass (Elko, northern Nevada) from late May to late June, flipped to the Canadian border late June, hiked Idaho Sobo July and August, connected back to Harrison Pass in early September and then went back and finished the Sierra in mid to late September. The benefits of this were that by skipping the Sierra we didn't deal with a record snow year and it also allowed us to hike Nevada earlier in the summer (June) which I think was a huge plus. Then flipping up to the Canadian border allowed us to walk from the colder area to the warmer area so we weren't racing to finish in September up North. The one downside to this was walking the southern Idaho desert in late August but it was only about 10 rough days in the 90s, better than I would have expected. Then we got to hike the Sierra in September with little snow although there is always a risk of early snow which we did get but then melted quickly.
Lastly, a big consideration is fires. Idaho burns huge every year. The locals say that the worst of the fire season starts in August although we had a dry lightning storm come in mid-July which started a lot of little fires. The Selway and Frank Church are particularly bad for fire. And once they start, they don't put them out. We were surprised to see little 100 acre fires grow into the thousands and close a lot of our trails. If you don't skip the Sierra's and also don't flip to Canada you'll probably be hitting Idaho in August and into September, prime fire season. The worst part too about the Selway and Frank Church is that they are so remote and have so many abandoned and unmaintained trails that it's really hard to find alternates around trail closures. We didn't know it at the time but had we been a few days later we would have been totally screwed. We had already detoured onto different trails because the HST was closed all over the place and then even more closures came just a couple days after we went through on our alternates. So moral of the story, earlier is better in Idaho. On the flip side, Bernie and Zoner had no issues in 2016, but I feel like that is lucky and a bit unusual.
Flipping around the Sierra is pretty easy. There is good local bus service from Kernville to Mammoth. Flipping to Canada was best done from Elko, NV which has Amtrak, Greyhound and car rentals. There were no other towns in Nevada (other than Tonopah that has Greyhound) that had any transportation options unless you wanted to hitch far to a bigger city.
A southbound thru hike has been mentioned by Zoner but I don't know. If you can't start till mid-June then you won't finish till mid-October for a 4 month hike or later for a longer hike which makes the Sierra in Fall an issue. Also it means hiking through Nevada in August, brutal. It would help with Idaho fire potential though. Maybe there is a way to go Sobo and flip or something to do the Sierra early and Nevada in the Fall, I haven't thought much about that.
Ultimately, flipping is a pain and does break the momentum a bit. For us, it worked really well but it's not my first choice. In an ok Sierra snow year basically you can just go Nobo and hope for the best with temperatures in Nevada and fires in Idaho.
I've written about some of this in certain sections but here's a bit more. Crossing the desert in CA can be pretty hot, the Sierra can be snowy and then Nevada blazing hot, except for the sky island / mountain ranges where a foot of snow dumped on us in the Toiyabe's in May. You might have lingering snow in the Ruby's then southern Idaho is a crazy hot and desolate desert. Our Idaho weather Sobo in July and August was incredibly hot which was surprising. It seemed like a hot summer to the locals too. We barely got any rain the entire trip. Bernie seemed to get more thunderstorms than us in Idaho and Clay's journal seem to get more rain on his ICT hike. Ending in northern Idaho in September will probably start to get chilly and possibly snow, not sure exactly when the first random snowstorms come.
We had some bad days of mosquitoes in Idaho. At night it was especially bad at times and I was glad to have a fully enclosed shelter. Nothing in Nevada or California, although we did the Sierra in mid-September. We also had very occasional ticks in Idaho but the big type that don't carry Lyme I believe. Oh, and we had terrible small flies and gnats at low elevations in the Sierra in September.
If you are hiking the HST then you should already know your gear. Here's just a few random thoughts. Sun protection would be the biggest item. The sun or heat was relentless much of the trip. So hat, sunscreen, umbrella....whatever works for you. I was glad to have zip off pants at times for sure. You may like low gaiters for the grasses that much of the time got in our socks. We had very little rain, somewhat surprisingly. Our low temperatures were around 30 so whatever sleeping bag you like for that (other than the Sierra in September when we got low 20s). My Neoair was fine on the ground. Some sort of swimwear for the hot springs, many of them are not naked appropriate. Large water capacity for the deserts.
The umbrella was by far the most important piece of gear we had. It wasn't used every day but when it was hot and desolate it was amazing to have.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?
It took us about 140 days. It took Bernie and Zoner like 110 days. I think the normal thru hiker who is qualified for this trail will take somewhere in between. Zoner and Bernie set a blistering pace, many times hiking endless 35s. We, on the other hand generally hiked about 20 per day and at most in the low 20s. We cut some miles off the route taking alternates and short cuts but so did Bernie (we actually did a very similar route to Bernie) and I'm not sure what Zoner did exactly but he did bicycle northern Nevada and southern Idaho so that should even out the miles/time.
There are a lot of dirt road miles and for some reason we still just didn't do much more than low 20s. Maybe we're just getting old :) Part of it was having the time anyway, part walking through intense sun in Nevada and southern Idaho. To cover big miles where most of the dirt road walking is, you'll want to hike early and also hike late. We didn't really do that, hence our lower average miles. An experienced thru hiker would most likely blaze a lot more miles than we did, especially on the easy dirt roads. I could see other hikers doing 30 a day a lot whereas what did like 22.
Oh, the hot springs. We had a love/hate relationship with the hot springs. 96 hot springs has this romantic notion where you will be relaxing all summer while the wind pushes you along the trail and all is good. Not so much!
When the hot springs worked out for us, they were really nice. When we had a hot spring without people, with a nice pool, with nice water temperature, not 100 degrees outside, with a bit of shade somewhere.....It really was nice. But in all honesty, this didn't happen very often. Others will certainly enjoy them more than us but here was why they didn't always work well for us:
First off, there really aren't 96 hot spring "experiences". Many of the springs are located together and how many times/hours can you really enjoyably soak in one day? Many times 2 or more springs were located very close to each other, I really consider that one experience and not two. Also, some of the springs get washed out over the winter rains and may no longer be soakable. Also, some of the springs are along rivers and when the water is high the springs are under water. This happened to us for 2 hot springs on the Kern River. Also, 4 of the springs are located on private property I believe and are not soakable. 8 of the hot springs are located at resorts and are usually (but not always) depressing looking concrete pools filled with piped in water and cost money. Lastly, one hot spring, Martin, Zoner has tried to find twice but couldn't locate....that's in the 96! So even if we tried, we never would have come close to soaking as much as you might believe and hoped for. It's not like you thru hiked the HST in 140 days and on 96 of those days you soaked in Hot Springs. More like, with some serious effort, you soaked on 35 different days maybe. Still pretty nice, but just want to set expectations here.
The majority of the hot springs are car accessible. Personally, I find it a bit not-bliss when you hike hard for days without seeing a soul and then show up to a place where there are lots of people. Hot springs are major destinations for summer tourists. Not that they don't deserve to use them, I just personally didn't enjoy having lots of people around, although I guess it's a good opportunity to get a cold beer or trail magic.
The other big issue is that across Nevada the springs almost always have no shade and it's like 100 degrees outside. Even in Idaho it was really hot outside. Generally it's not that enjoyable to soak when it's 100 degrees outside. The best times would be morning and night but then you basically have to camp at the hot spring and since most are car accessible I really don't enjoy camping with cars who tend to be loud and party at night.
Lastly, a lot of the hot springs are well off the trail. Out and backs of 2, 4, even 8 extra miles (although these are included in the total mileage which was helpful so it doesn't feel like you are "adding" miles). Or the HST is routed such that it adds a lot of miles to go to a hot spring. It can be pretty enticing to shortcut these in long section where you might already be carrying 140+ miles of food.
I know, lots of complaints but this is just how it was for us with the hot springs. You might enjoy them way more.
I thought the Coast Connect section was very cool. It may not be classic amazing hiking but I thought it was really cool to walk from the ocean to the Sierra on a creative route where many people don't walk. Other than about 100 PCT miles, the route is an eclectic mix of trails, ATV tracks, dirt roads, remote paved and even a very scenic closed paved road. The PCT miles do include some of the least scenic PCT miles including the aqueduct walk and the Highway 58 area. There are some hot springs in the mix too. I thought it was pretty challenging from the start to Castaic and then after Castaic it got a lot easier. I really enjoyed the entire section.
The Sierra section is very beautiful, but it's the Sierra's which are always beautiful. I'd call this the least unique section of the HST just cause everyone hikes the Sierra. Because its focus is on hot springs I'd say it was just an average route through the Sierra. It was nice but not spectacular. If you've never done the PCT you might just stay on the PCT to Kennedy Meadows and hike the PCT through the Sierra to Mammoth where you reconnect with the HST. That section is more spectacular.
Nevada is what drew me to the HST. Man, who walks across Nevada? Turns out Nevada has the most mountain ranges of any state in the country (granted they are small mountain ranges, more like sky islands, but they do go up quite high....12,000'). I thought it would just be so amazing and such a unique experience to walk across Nevada. But damn, it's a desolate walk, not that I wasn't expecting that. You generally are walking across a massive shadeless and waterless valley, over a small or large mountain range and then back into a massive shadeless and waterless stretch. All on dirt road. The only trail was in the Toiyabe's and Ruby's. Occasionally there is some not so difficult cross country, except of course for the Diamond range with is 33 miles of waterless, trail less, brutal walking.....but it's an experience. The Ruby mountains in the Northeast corner are "real" mountains that look Sierra-like.
I loved Nevada, but I can see most hikers just hating it. Right off the bat, the section from Benton to Tonopah I think would break most hikers. It's so desolate, no shade anywhere. Hot as hell. Dirt roads all the way. It's just not something most hikers like to do. But if this is something that truly interests you then it's awesome. Like I said, I loved Nevada and so did Heather.
The HST through Idaho generally follows the Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT). The ICT was "created" back in the 80s, designated in 1990 during Idaho's centennial celebration and generally ignored and never developed. Although there were a few completed section hikes over the years I believe (including the 2 creators in 1980 who I guess actually thru hiked it by walking the length of Idaho), Brian Frankle was the first current generation thru hiker in 2009, then Ken and Marcia and maybe now there have been 20 thru hikes of the ICT? So basically, you are going to thru-hike a trail that barely has any development and has been maybe hiked by 20 others.....And that's just 40% of the HST!
The HST does deviate from the ICT a bunch of times. Usually to go towards a hot spring or avoid a bad stretch of the ICT. We were impressed with the HST route selection, generally we always felt the HST deviation was a good one over the ICT.
Personally, I wasn't a huge fan of Idaho. One previous hiker had described the ICT to me as "a lot of effort for little reward". There were certainly good sections but generally I found it to be a lot of second or third growth forest with no views, a lot of dirt road walking and when on trails, a lot of really bad trail.
Northern Idaho (Panhandle) is a mix of road and trail, mostly road. You also follow the Idaho/Montana border a long ways and the Stateline trail which is nice. The Selkirk and Cabinet mountains were quite nice as well as the Bitterroots at times. Central Idaho are the Selway and Frank Church wilderness areas which are massive. The trails is the Selway were generally in awful shape, the Frank Church was surprisingly better. Southern Idaho is a desert, even more desolate than Nevada. I thought it was quite stark and beautiful but it's really dry (think 30-40 mile water carries) and very hot. There's almost always no shade.
The Hot Springs Trail: The Hot Springs Trail Is A 2,421-mile Backpacking Route That Connects Sacred Places With Healing Waters.
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