Apache Peak and Beyond

Paradise Valley Cafe (151) to Saddle Junction (179) After the Storm

A kind-hearted trail angel returned us to the trail near Paradise Valley Cafe mere minutes after the winter storm subsided, and we organized our gear in a damp and cold parking lot

We had heard many dire reports about this section of trail and so we set out with a conservative plan, unsure what we’d find.

We climbed for much of the first day, fighting winds and hiking into a snow cloud. It was invigorating and beautiful, with distant valleys occasionally visible on either side.

We camped at Cedar Springs (junction at 162), which required a mile-long side trail and a 300+ foot descent. This made the day shorter (just over 12 miles) but we were thankfully for water access at our campsite.

The wind stole all the warmth from our bodies, and my hands ached from the cold as we treated water from the spring. Our friend Lupine disappeared into her tent the minute we got to camp and didn’t come out again until the next day, and we brought her hot cocoa and hot water so she could try to warm up. My partner and I also climbed into our tents before sunset, freezing cold and committing to not emerging until dawn.

The next day was all about climbing. We hiked a mere 9.5 miles, but climbed up and over Apache Peak, dry camping at mile 170.9. In this section, there’s little water access and few camping options. We stopped early rather than risk not finding a campsite down the trail.

During the night, the wind kicked up. Lying in our tents, it sounded like there was an oncoming freight train, or maybe a stadium of people applauding and cheering at a baseball game. Our tent was securely pitched and had a bit of protection, but the sound of wind roaring down the mountainside was extremely eerie. I managed some sleep; Lupine and my partner said they were both up for a lot of the night.

The next day was more climbing: around Red Tahquitz Peak and then up to nearly to the top of Tahquitz Peak, then the sharp descent to Saddle Junction, where we peeled off for the drop through Devil’s Slide to Idyllwild.

Trail Conditions

With the recent storm, we didn’t know how much snow to expect on the trail, and we also didn’t know just how bad the blowdowns would be. Here what we found:

* There was snow covering the trail at 169.5, where Trevor Laher (“Microsoft”) tragically died two years ago. We wore micro spikes and were glad for them, but it would be possible to do this section without them. Many people didn’t have them.

* From 170 on till Saddle Junction, there was patchy snow often covering the trail. We eventually put on micro spikes again, though it’s possible to do this section without them.

* The high winds were far more bothersome than the snow. Its constant clawing at us whenever we were on an eastern slope was mentally exhausting and left our faces windburned.

* There were many blown-down trees blocking the trail. From Cedar Springs to Saddle Junction, we counted between 85 and 88 (with some debate about whether partially blocking the trail counted as a blow down). They were manageable but a few required taking off packs and crawling beneath them.

* We expected our pace to drop substantially during this section, and some people reported their pace dropped to 1 mile per hour. But we didn’t find it to be that slow going. Even taking our time, stopping for photos, being careful on all the snow, and climbing over blow-downs, we averaged around 1.5 miles per hour. And by the time we reached Tahquitz Creek, we were back to our regular pace.

* There was a ton of Poodle Dog Bush up past mile 174, which can cause blisters and a rash for some people. We were able to avoid it once we saw it. I have been delighted by iNaturalist’s app Seek, which identifies plants and animals. I highly recommend it, especially if (like me) you hadn’t encountered Poodle Dog Bush previously.

Our friend Lupine took the alternate route at Tahquitz Creek that avoids the ascent up Tahquitz Peak. She said the route was snowy but otherwise gentle, great for anyone who is interested in a more mellow walk and has a reliable navigation app.

Still grateful for every mile

I feel embarrassed about how often we finish a section of the PCT and I say “that was the best section yet!” But it keeps happening, and is happening again now. It was magical to be back in real mountains after a recent snow storm, to see trees and bushes wrapped in ice, to walk through ethereal snowy mists. For all the challenges, this was a wonderful and unforgettable section.

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