Beyond Thru-Hiking: What You Miss While Hiking the PCT (in California)

Editor’s Note: In light of the COVID crisis, The Trek is committed to following all CDC and trail organization recommendations. As trails open up and longer hikes become possible, it’s important to modify plans for self-sufficiency. The NPS and governing trail organizations have been sending out updates as they become available. Stay up to date here.

In a typical year, NOBO season on the PCT would be well underway by now.  The talk on the trail would be transitioning from how far to the next water source in the desert, to the snowpack in the Sierra. But this is not a typical year. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to many dreamed-of thru-hikes before they could get started when the Forest Service and PCTA asked hikers to stay at home and off the trail.  The vast majority of aspiring 2020 PCT thru-hikers will not link the two distant borders with staggered footprints in the dirt.

However, a thru-hike-sized hole in summer plans leaves plenty of time for shorter, yet still worthy itineraries. As the wilderness slowly reopens, the season will be prime for exploration on the PCT in sections or beyond it entirely. No one knows exactly how many people become acquainted with the PCT each year. Hundreds of thousands? One million? The numbers may be reduced this year, but the PCT sees its fair share of footsteps, tent bottoms, and catholes.  More than a fair share, some might say.  And for good reason. The explosion in popularity and usage is warranted, considering the world-class scenery and infrastructure.  People love the PCT. It’s a big deal.

But what about the other stuff?

The PCT is a narrow strip of dirt and just provides a taste, a sample platter of the spectacular. Looking east or west from the trail, it is all but guaranteed that there is somewhere worth exploring for those willing to wander. Since my PCT thru-hike in 2015, I find myself returning to wander. Based out of Mojave, California, post-PCT, I’ve had the unadulterated joy of discovering some of what the California mountains have to offer beyond the PCT.  The stuff that most walk right past without ever seeing, eyes dragged by the stomach toward the next pizza or burrito.

The following is a list, configured NOBO, with four of my favorite places and hikes within sight of the PCT in California that are worthy of exploration, be it by a PCT thru-hiker or a weekend warrior well short of earning their hiker hunger.

San Gorgonio

No thrills, but views for days from the summit ridge of San Gorgonio Mountain. San Jacinto Peak on the right.

PCT connoisseurs are familiar with San Jacinto Peak. It can surprise hikers expecting desert with snow and/or altitude sickness in Southern California of all places.  While the short alternate to this summit is a popular choice for thru-hikers, few consider getting to the top of San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest in Southern California.  The wide, bald summit plainly defines the northern horizon from Jacinto’s own.

For thru-hikers, 21.5 additional miles (round trip) to climb just another mountain sounds understandably crazy, especially with a stop in Big Bear, and the burritos it promises, just a day away.  But as a standalone trip (or crazy addition for hardy thru-hikers), San Gorgonio and the surrounding wilderness provides easy access to that big-mountain feel of the Sierra while remaining within whiff of that yummy Los Angeles smog. The lumpy summit won’t give anyone a thrill once the ice melts off, but at 11,503 feet, it drags gasping hikers high above treeline to a moonscape of granite scree and stunted scrub, offering one of the most expansive panoramas in the entire state.

Getting there:

With trailheads scattered around the mountain, there are many ways to reach San Gorgonio, though none are particularly easy.  Popular options are a strenuous day hike on the Vivian Creek Trail, or as a multiday journey with stops at designated campsites from the South Fork Trailhead. PCT hikers can follow the Fish Creek Trail (mile 240) 10.7 miles to the top.  While permits for day trips are no longer required, they definitely are for camping in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association has the most up-to-date permit and trail information, but permits are issued by Mill Creek Ranger Station.

Cottonwood Lakes Basin

A sharp granite rim encloses Cottonwood Lakes Basin with Mount Langley visible on the right.

Hands down, the easiest way to access the highest portion of the Sierra is via Horseshoe Meadow and the trailheads located therein.  Though visible from the PCT, few thru-hikers take the side trail from Mulkey Pass (mile 745) or Cottonwood Pass (mile 750) to catch a ride into Lone Pine.  Instead they push farther to Kearsarge Pass to the north or Kennedy Meadows to the south.  But at 10,000 feet, Horseshoe Meadow is a great starting point for those looking to get into the alpine zone with as little effort as possible. The payoff is instant.

Sure, the PCT is only a few hours walking away at either Mulkey or Cottonwood Pass, but what all hikers beelining for the PCT miss is the magic of Cottonwood Lakes Basin.  The itinerary can be as loose or rigid as it needs to be for exploring this gem.  Endless lakes, romantically named with numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) or generic descriptors (Long Lake, High Lake), are ripe for fishing, swimming, or chilling.  They gleam sapphire among lush meadows and pine in an expansive basin, surrounded by a serrated rim of steep granite that undulates around 12,000 feet.

Do what you want:

An out-and-back, a loop, or just a wander are all in play here.  A day, a weekend, or a week.  And while it is possible to access all the lakes with less than 1,500 feet of elevation gain, if one wants to sweat, New Army Pass (12,400 feet) and Old Army Pass (12,100 feet) are happy to oblige.  When conditions allow, a loop hike connects the south and north arms of the basin.  And heck, while you’re up there, Mount Langley, the southernmost California 14er at 14,026 feet, is only 2.6 miles farther on sandy Class 1 / Class 2 trail. There is no better view of the Mount Whitney region.  This can be done as a long day hike, but the exploring is so good that it pays to take it slow.

The sunrise view of the Whitney region from the summit of Mount Langley is tough to beat.

Getting there:

Access Cottonwood Lakes from the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead near Horseshoe Meadow, reached from Lone Pine, CA by following Horseshoe Meadow Road.  Permits for overnight trips are required in the Golden Trout Wilderness area as they are in Sequoia & Kings Canyons National Park (SEKI) if hanging out on the other side of New Army Pass.  Contact the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine for permits and trail conditions.

High Sierra Trail

Eagle Scout Peak looms above Kaweah Gap where the HST crosses the Great Western Divide. Photo courtesy of Peter Cronin.

The High Sierra Trail (HST) will appeal many styles of backpacker.  It is a thru-hike, but at 72 miles, it’s also accessible to hikers with no long trail ambitions.  It shares tread with the JMT and PCT (mile 770) on the final approach to the summit of Mount Whitney, but cuts east-west across the crest of the Sierra rather than meandering along it.

Typically hiked west to east, the HST starts at Crescent Meadow, among towering giant sequoia, then climbs across the Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap, dropping from there to the Kern River, before another big climb to the Sierra Crest. Officially, the HST covers the 49 miles from Crescent Meadow to Wallace Creek Junction where it joins the JMT.  However, most hikers will follow that trail about 13 miles further to the summit of Mount Whitney.  There, they can celebrate their achievement on the highest point in the contiguous U.S.  Tremendous views extend west far back along their route and east to the Inyo Mountains across the Owens Valley 10,000 feet below.

Getting down:

From there, a few exit options exist, but the most direct is down the main Whitney trail to Whitney Portal.  Although this route passes through the tightly quotaed Whitney Zone, an itinerary beginning in SEKI allows for its use without further endorsement.  This puts the total mileage at just above 72 miles from Crescent Meadow to Whitney Portal. A longer exit to Horseshoe Meadow over New Army or Cottonwood Pass via the PCT is the next shortest option.  Better, save the brutal shuttle between trailheads and yo-yo the whole thing.

Valhalla and Hamilton Lake are two of many reasons to hike the HST. Photo courtesy of ceigenbrot.

Why should you hike the HST?

To say that the number of reasons is plethoric is no hyperbole.  Anyone who has ever felt at home in the mountains will find it again on this Sierra traverse.  The Kern Hot Springs located near the halfway point beg the hiker to stay for one more soak, one more day.  A better fisherman than I dubbed Big Arroyo his favorite place to cast in the entire state. Peakbaggers will be overwhelmed with choices among the silver granite of the Great Western Divide, the crumbling colors of the Kaweahs, and the hulking giants of the Whitney group. Throw in the aptly named Valhalla cliff formations soaring above Hamilton Lake, the humbling majesty of giant sequoias, and even a short tunnel for good measure.  The HST has no shortage of reasons to visit.

Getting there:

Getting between trailheads isn’t much easier by car than it is on foot.  Not really, but it does takes 5-6 hours to drive from Crescent Meadow to Whitney Portal.  Paid shuttle services exist if hitchhiking or having a friend pick you up is out of the question.  Permits for the HST are managed by SEKI and can be reserved in advance starting March 1 or by walk-in depending on availability.  Contact the Lodgepole Visitor Center for more information.

Pioneer Basin

Tremendous views of the Mono Divide are hard to miss no matter where you camp in Pioneer Basin.

Hike one mile north from the spur trail to the Vermilion Valley Resort ferry on the PCT and one encounters an inconspicuous trail junction (mile 880).  One no different from so many others.  Ignored like so many others.  This sign points toward Mono Pass and will reward the curious hiker with ample opportunity to disappear, on or off trail, among the high peaks of the Mono Divide.  Deep, glacier-carved valleys branch from the main trail along Mono Creek all the way to the pass, 11.5 miles from the PCT.  Second, Third, and Fourth Recesses host stunning lakes to the south, each worth checking out.  A trail north to Hopkins Lakes includes the same.

However, it is Pioneer Basin, where Mono Creek is born, that sets this highlight of the High Sierra apart from so many others.  No fewer than six pristine lakes populate a lumpy bench of boulder-strewn meadows stubbled with stunted pine.  The basin is surrounded on three sides by four crumbling summits over 12,300 feet (Hopkins, Crocker, Stanford, Huntington) that promise no less than the sky.  The intimidating fins of the Mono Divide scrape even higher across the valley and long safeguard the fire of sunset against the gathering darkness.

An invitation to explore:

Although the maintained trail disappears at basin’s edge, social trails are abundant and cross-country travel is at its brain-dead best.  Copious opportunity for dispersed camping and durable surfaces make respecting Leave No Trace principles easy.  And while the beauty is undeniable, it is the spirit of the basin that feels unique here.  Wide open terrain begs visitors to pick a point and go, whether it’s a summit, saddle, or lake.  There is no more trail, no more miles to crush.  Instead the land invites a slower pace.  Meander, poke around, think and be curious, stay a while.

Pioneer Basin as seen from above with Mono Pass, Fourth Recess, and Third Recess visible across the valley.

Getting there:

Pioneer Basin is just nine miles from the PCT, but the easiest access is from the east via the Mono Pass Trail starting from the terminus of Rock Creek Road at Mosquito Flat.  From there it is 8.7 miles over Mono Pass to the first of Pioneer Basin Lakes.  This trail is disappointingly worn by horse packers supporting groups along Mono Creek, but the traffic disappears quickly upon turning toward the basin.  Permits are handled by Inyo National Forest and can be reserved online or claimed as a walk-in at any of the four issuing stations along Highway 395.

Wrapping Up

My list doesn’t end there and it is continually growing. Zoom out just a little bit from the PCT corridor and there are many lifetimes worth of corners to explore that come into focus.  All it takes is a question: “What’s over there?”  Maybe the pandemic prevented your thru-hike, or maybe you’re looking for what’s next.  All you need to do is keep asking that question.  Soon, you’ll have your own list.  I can’t wait to read it.

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