May 22, 2018
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Maine hiker compares the Sierra Nevadas and his ‘home’ mountains

Greg Westrich Photo | BDN
Greg Westrich Photo | BDN
Donner Peak rises high in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.

By Greg Westrich

Special to The Weekly


Recently, I spent a week in Truckee, Calif., while visiting my family and doing some hiking.

Truckee began as a station on the transcontinental railroad on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 10 miles north of Lake Tahoe. This town of more than 16,000 people has an extensive tourist infrastructure to support golfing, hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting. In the winter, the area has the largest cross-country ski trail system in the country and numerous downhill ski resorts. Like Maine’s tourist towns, it doesn’t have any tacky fast food chains. Most visitors either stay along Lake Tahoe or rent a house in the hills around town. As a result, the town doesn’t look like the tourist mecca it is.

Our first morning in town, we headed up U.S. 40 to Donner Pass. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road here. Our hike followed the southbound trail up Donner Peak. We shared the trail with lots of day hikers, but saw no through-hikers.

The PCT gets only a fraction of the hikers that the Appalachian Trail gets. Maine may be the wildest state on the AT, but it’s nothing compared to the huge stretches of wilderness that the PCT passes through.

The trail itself was very different from one in Maine. First, it was gently graded with lots of switchbacks. In Maine, trails tend to go straight up the mountains.

This is a result of the different histories of trail building in the two states. In Maine, a lot of the oldest and steepest trails were originally fire-warden trails. In California — and much of the West — the trails are graded to accommodate horses as well as hikers. Horses can’t go straight up a mountain like a fire warden.

The second thing I noticed was how dusty it was. The Sierras are granite, just like Katahdin and the mountains of Acadia, but the Sierra Nevada Mountains are a very different granite; it tends to crumble into dusty sand.

To make matters worse, it almost never rains. Truckee gets about 30 inches of precipitation a year, but almost all of it falls as snow. Donner Pass gets more than 200 inches of snow each winter. By August, the mountains are dry and dusty; all the water has run off into jewel-like lakes or down steep rivers to the Pacific Ocean. This makes the hiking dirtier, but it also means that the lakes and ponds tend to have sandy beaches.

Dry summers also make for very different forests. Even though the treeline in the Sierras in around 10,000 feet — in Maine it’s below 4,000 feet — you see sparse vegetation on the mountains.

In the forests, the trees are far apart. Often, the mountainsides are bare rock with widely-spaced trees. The evergreens that grow in the Sierras are much larger than anything found in Maine; 100-foot Douglass firs were common along the hike up Donner Peak.

The sparse ground cover comprised plants that looked like they belonged in a desert. The few deciduous shrubs we saw already were losing their leaves. This means that the hiking around Truckee is hotter than in Maine. Even though the temperatures were much like Bangor, the sun tended to beat down on us as we hiked. I used sunscreen every day. I never use sunscreen here in Maine.

The entire time I was in Truckee, I had a low-grade headache and stuffy nose. Everyone in the family that had traveled from lower, damper climes had the same problems. The elevation in town is about 5,800 feet; Donner Pass is at 7,056 feet and Donner Peak is at 8,019 feet. These elevations were enough to affect us.

I noticed that whenever I tried to run on the trail or hurry up a steep section, I would get winded.

As much as I enjoyed hiking in such a foreign landscape, mostly Truckee made me appreciate Maine, where the hiking is more varied and comfortable.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains lack blackflies, and the mosquitoes only last for about a week, but as amazing as the these mountains are, it’s just not home.

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