Forum Index > Trail Talk > Quest for the Crest:  The Big Divergence between the PCT and the Hydrographic Divide
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Sculpin
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Sculpin
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PostMon Jan 01, 2018 10:52 am 
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On a recent drive to California, noticing the PCT crossing of I-5 at Dunsmuir, I got to thinking about why the PCT deviates so far from the hydrographic divide in this area.  This led to further ruminations on what the term “Pacific crest” means.

You have to be careful with the definition.  If you just say “the divide between streams that flow to the Pacific and streams that flow to inland rivers,” well now you put the crest in the coast range of Oregon because the Willamette is an inland river.  In most of Oregon and all of Washington, the PCT roughly follows the main axis of the Cascades, a hydrographic divide between streams that flow westerly and streams that flow easterly.  Even though the eastern streams come back around via the Columbia Gorge, the sense of being on a hydrographic divide feels robust.  In most of California, the PCT follows the hydrographic divide between westside rivers that drain to the sea, and the Great Basin which does not drain at all.  So we will settle on a definition like this:

The Pacific crest is the hydrographic divide between streams that flow into river systems draining to the Pacific, and streams that flow into either the Great Basin or the Columbia Basin.

Let’s see if we can make that work.  We will just call the Columbia – and the Fraser as well – divide-crossing rivers.  Before I continue, I want to pose a question.  Does the Klamath cross the divide?  I would have said no, but after studying this, I think rational folks could disagree.  More on this topic later. 

This post would benefit from maps with red lines, but special effects are currently beyond my pay grade, so you will have to follow along on your own maps if you need graphics.

Interesting things happen to the hydrographic divide south of the Sierra, but that is a topic for another day.  For this effort, I am interested in the route of an imaginary hiker who wants to follow the hydrographic Pacific crest rather than the PCT route from the main axis of the Sierra to the main axis of the Cascades.

As mentioned, in California, the hydrographic divide separates rivers that eventually flow to the sea from streams that end in the closed basins that collectively make up the Great Basin.  The PCT first deviates from the hydrographic divide is a substantial way north of Donner Summit on I-80.  A bit north of there, the PCT drops to 2200’ to cross the North Fork Feather River, while the divide is 25 miles east at 5100’ Fredonyer Pass.

North of Fredonyer Pass, the Susan River Valley – part of the Great Basin - stretches far to the west.  The hydrographic divide heads due west to go around, traversing the Caribou Wilderness and coming within 10 miles of the due-north-trending PCT in Lassen National Park.  A bit north from there, the PCT and the divide pretty much rejoin around the town of Old Station.  Then comes the big deviation.  The PCT trends northwest and then due west, across the Burney Falls region and towards Dunsmuir.  But directly to the north is the Pit River drainage, which drains to the Sacramento.  So the hydrographic divide turns east here where the PCT is going west.  The divide becomes indistinct around the town of Madeleine before eventually reaching the Warner Mountains.  This stretch, from the town of Old Station to the Warners, is tough on our imaginary hiker.  It is very hot and water is scarce.  Then you get to the Warners, with cool conifer forests and high country scenery.   A backpacking loop in the South Warners is described at NWHikers by the prolific Whitebark.

Now things get really weird and interesting.  The hydrographic divide becomes weather dependent!  On a normal weather day, the divide crosses the flat basin south of Goose Lake, which normally does not drain.  But after extreme rainfall, Goose Lake can overflow into its Ice Age channel to the Pit River, which drains to the west.

Assuming it hasn’t been raining for days, and that you don’t sink in to the muck below Goose Lake, now you have a real problem.  Everything to the west is drained by the aptly named Lost River.  The Lost starts in Clear Lake, flows into Oregon, and then turns around and flows back into California before dead-ending in Tule Lake, making the entire drainage part of the Great Basin despite being west of the Pit drainage.  To follow the divide, you have to hike 40+ miles due west to Lava Beds National Monument.  No water and no peaks, you could die out there.

From the Lava Beds, an actual ridge heads due north between Lower Klamath Lake, which drains, and Tule Lake, which does not.  Meanwhile, the PCT is approximately one zillion miles to the west, crossing the Klamath near sea level at Seiad Valley.

The ridge between the lakes takes you into Oregon and then peters out and dumps you into Spring Lake Valley, where things get really weird again.  The Klamath River and the Lost River come within about five miles of each other in Spring Lake Valley, but do not combine.  My Gazeteer shows the town of Midland, on the Klamath, at 4100’, and the town of Henley, on the Lost, at 4098’.  Following the divide, you would be hiking north through an absolutely flat agricultural valley and wondering what the heck you were doing there.  Nowadays, irrigation channels mingle the waters of the Lost with the waters of the Klamath, so just like south of Goose Lake, the divide is more of a concept than a persistent reality. 

Our divide hiker could totally cross the Klamath on the highway bridge at Klamath Falls.  The PCT, having turned back easterly after crossing into Oregon, is less than 40 miles NNW, exactly the way you want to go.  You can do this because the concept of the crest gets squishy here.  The PCT is just west of Mountain Lakes Wilderness, which contains volcanic peaks of the Cascades.  In fact, Little Aspen Butte, inside the wilderness, is perhaps the southernmost outpost of the axis of the Oregon Cascades.

But our divide hiker is not just intrepid, he is stubborn as well.  The Klamath River system drains more or less uniformly to the west, and the hydrographic divide with the Great Basin is still over there to the east.  That was the goal, right?

From the Spring Lake Valley, the route turns due east to skirt the Sprague River drainage to the north.  At this point, I decided to look at the Wikipedia article showing the map of the hydrographic Great Basin.  And that was when I noticed that the Lost River drainage is not included in the Great Basin.  Wait, what?  Now why would that be?  So I had to do some more sleuthing.  The Lost River starts in Clear Lake, flows 70 miles in a big horseshoe, and dumps into Tule Lake, a mere 14 miles from Clear Lake.  Tule Lake has no visible outlet, yet the water is fresh.  Where does the salt go?  There has long been a theory that springs on the Pit River to the south originate from Tule Lake, via fissures in the fresh basalt flows.  Because it is fresh water, the Lost River is considered part of the Sacramento system.  Doggone it!  Now I have to revisit my definition of the Pacific Crest.  Does the topographic crest to the south, a solid 200’ above the surface of Tule Lake, suffice?  Or does the fact that water is sluicing through invisible fissures down below make the Lost River a westside river?  Reasonable people could disagree, but our stubborn hiker won’t hear it.  We are heading back to Goose Lake to do this right!

OK, we want to get this right this time.  That same Wikipedia article shows Goose Lake as being in the Great Basin, but is it really?  Isn’t it really just a high, westside cirque lake, that through an accident of aridity, lacks the water to overflow into its outlet channel?  Further sleuthing determines that before irrigation water was taken from the lake, Goose Lake was fresh and regularly overflowed.  Our stubborn hiker does not want to have the crest moved due to human influences, so he decides to go all the way back to the Warners east of Goose Lake.

This feels better.  No slogging across flats, just stay on the crest of the Warners until it peters out to the north.  Eventually, Highway 395 is crossed on a low but distinct rib that runs due N-S near Chandler Wayside.  From here, a topographic ridge curves to the west around the Goose Creek drainage.  This feels right.

The topographic crest reaches Cox Pass, with the closed basin of Abert Lake to the north, and the Goose Lake basin to the south (which we defined as draining to the sea, remember?).  The divide now makes an aggravating turn to the southwest to skirt the drainage of the Chewaucan River, which drains to the closed basin of Summer Lake.  After skirting the Chewaucan, the divide gains the summit of a rounded knob on Coleman Rim.  This unassuming knob is an important landmark!  Our hiker builds a small cairn here to mark his progress.  This is because this knob is a triple point between the Great Basin, the Klamath, and the Sacramento.  Regardless of how our hiker chooses to define the hydrographic divide to the south, all routes lead to this knob.  No longer quibbling with definitions, out now-confident hiker follows Coleman Rim northwards between the drainages of the Sprague and the Chewaucan.

Where Coleman Rim peters out, things get really complicated, traversing flats first to Gearhart Mountain, and then up on Dead Horse Rim.  More ups and downs lead to Winter Ridge, and a renewed sense of a well-defined divide. But soon Winter Ridge must be left behind, and our hiker turns due west to slog up Sycan Butte.  Continuing due west across burning desert, the divide crosses Round Butte and reaches the prominent Yamsay Mountain.

From here a circuitous divide heads mostly north across trackless desert to skirt the Klamath marshes to the west.  Once to the north, the divide, often with an imperceptible topographic crest, turns southwest, staying low between the ephemeral streams that drain to the Klamath marshes, and the streams that peter out to the north.  The route maddeningly turns due south until our hiker can finally ascend the slopes towards Crater Lake.  The PCT is not far away!  After ascending, our hiker turns northwest to Miller Mountain, which is the triple point between the Willamette, Great Basin, and Deschutes drainages.  Here our intrepid divide hiker can crest the ridge and rejoin the PCT, having accomplished something no sane person would ever do.

Now I understand why the PCT crosses the Sacramento at Dunsmuir.  The scenery is better, and there is water!

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

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Been lashed by the rain, stung by the sleet,
Had my tent blown in but I'm still on my feet
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whitebark
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PostMon Jan 01, 2018 4:57 pm 
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Interesting analysis!  The PCT avoids the hydrographic divide in N. Calif and S. Oregon for good reason.
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RumiDude
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PostMon Jan 01, 2018 6:15 pm 
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The PCT has moved around a bit since the very beginning. The thought was to link up already existing trails like the Oregon Skyline trail and the Cascade Crest Trail with other trails in California. These trails may or may not correspond to the hydrographic divide on the Pacific crest. And there are several other practical reasons for diverging from the actual Pacific crest.

Rumi

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zephyr
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PostMon Jan 01, 2018 9:45 pm 
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Sculpin wrote:
This led to further ruminations on what the term “Pacific crest” means.

Such a great essay.  Thanks for putting this together.  I have driven Hwy 395 through Eastern Oregon several times on the way to Black Rock City, NV.  I remember being really impressed with the size of Goose Lake.  ~z
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Token Civilian
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PostTue Jan 02, 2018 6:59 am 
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Interesting take.

The practical reason for the "big bend" to the west in Nor Cal and southern Oregon is water.  As in there isn't any if one went north to the east of Shasta.
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Brushbuffalo
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PostSat Jan 06, 2018 9:31 am 
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Fascinating! Thanks for the details, which any geography-phile loves!

Sculpin wrote:
Here our intrepid divide hiker can crest the ridge and rejoin the PCT, having accomplished something no sane person would ever do.

Who knows if you have just passively issued a challenge to an intrepid adventurer....two centuries ago someone like John Fremont orJedediah Smith would have done it!   winksmile.gif

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RandyHiker
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PostSat Jan 06, 2018 9:25 pm 
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The term "Pacific Crest Trail" is clearly a marketing term -- not a scientifically accurate description.
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Malachai Constant
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PostSat Jan 06, 2018 10:53 pm 
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The full name is The Pacific Crest Scenic Trail not the Pacific Crest Trail if it were literal it would go up one side of the peaks and down the other which it seldom does. It is designed to be scenic and a trail not a contrived climbing route. Example the Ptarmigan Traverse goes over the glaciers not the peaks.

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"You do not laugh when you look at the mountains, or when you look at the sea." Lafcadio Hearn
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markweth
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PostSun Jan 07, 2018 6:50 am 
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I thought PCT stood for “Post-College Trail”. wink.gif
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Sculpin
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Sculpin
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PostSat Jan 13, 2018 11:50 am 
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A note on prominent triple divides:

I described the triple point for the Klamath-Sacramento-Great Basin drainages as a knob on Coleman Rim.  I see that the "official" triple divide is now considered to be a very nondescript point near Mud Lake, west of Goose Lake.  This is based on the redesignation of Goose Lake as a Great Basin drainage.  If it stays part of the Sacramento system, which it was before water removal due to irrigation, the triple point would be where I described on Coleman Rim.

I am still working on the triple point for the Klamath-Deschutes-Willamette drainage.  I listed it as Miller Mountain but am having trouble confirming that.  For some reason the triple point websites I have looked at don't have anything on this one.  confused.gif

There was also a third triple point out there that I did not mention, the Columbia Basin-Klamath-Great Basin divide.  This is located on an equally obscure rise near Sproat's Meadow, off Oregon road 94 in the middle of nowhere east of Walker Rim.

In researching this, I ran into posts by a fellow named Dennis Poulin.  Dennis describes himself thusly:

"I am interested in hiking almost anything that appears on a list."

...which pretty much makes him the opposite of me.  But it does mean that Dennis goes looking for triple divides, and he has hiked to both the Mud Lake and the Sproat's Meadow triple points.  Here is Dennis' description of Sproat's Meadow:

"Access to Sproats Meadow can be problematic because there are a lot of confusing roads in the area. I came in on the Walker LO road 94, then took FR 9415, FR 9418, FTR 8821, FR 780, and finally an overgrown unmarked road that climbed up the south ridge of Sproats Meadow before ending. I hiked through logging debris and some brushy new growth up to where I think the divide may be located. At least it appeared to be the high point. It is kind of flat and you can't see very far on top. No views. I built a pine cone cairn on an old stump that I thought could be the high point."

Good for you Dennis!  Here is a link to the peakbagger page on the Sproat's Meadow triple point:

http://www.peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=3248

Now if I can just figure out how to the get the Pacific crest hydrographic divide on a list, maybe Dennis will hike it!   clown.gif

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Had my tent blown in but I'm still on my feet
- With apologies to Lowell George
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DIYSteve
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DIYSteve
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PostSun Jan 14, 2018 3:02 pm 
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RandyHiker wrote:
The term "Pacific Crest Trail" is clearly a marketing term

Marketing? Who is selling what to whom?

RandyHiker wrote:
not a scientifically accurate description.

I'll agree with this

Of course, it's manifestly impracticable to build a trail along the length of the actual crest of the Sierra/Cascade major watershed divide. Compare the Continental Divide Trail, most of which is not along the actual watershed divide. And the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle is nowhere near Mt. Baker.

FWIW, IMO a more interesting issue is the varying distance between the North Cascades crest, i.e., watershed E/W divide, and the E/W biological divide. Is there a thread about this?
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