Befriending the Desert: Week 4 on the PCT


I’m not gonna lie, before stepping foot onto the Pacific Crest Trail, I was somewhat dreading the desert section that spans the first 700 miles of trail. I’ve never been too keen on the heat, and the thought of baking in the sun while hiking completely intimidated me. I am so happy to say that I was proved wrong by the PCT desert.

The desert, especially on this high snow year, has been abundant in every way. The wildflowers have been in super bloom (Yuccas, Grape Soda Lupine, Wild Oat, and Agave have been some of my favorites). Water has been flowing in areas that are normally dry. Temperatures have been moderate and even cold at times.  

After 430+ miles of desert, I can confidentially say that I have befriended the desert, and my eyes have opened to all it has to offer.

Day 22: Desert Heat & Pizza Deliveries

20.9 Miles: Deep Creek Hot Springs (Mile 307.9) to Silverwood Lake Backpacking Campsite (Mile 328.8)

“Ohh so THIS is the desert heat” I thought to myself as I baked in the sun at 8:30 AM. I saw a hiker with their shiny silver umbrella across the valley from me. “It’s time…” I thought to myself. I removed the sun umbrella from my backpack’s side pocket where it had been stowed for 99.99% of the desert thus far and secured it to the front strap of my backpack. “It’s like 15 degrees cooler in here!” I thought to myself. “Alright I can work with this desert heat today.”

Another hiker with their sun umbrella

I hiked through the heat of the day, taking a few breaks in the shade near streams and under bridges. Later that afternoon, I heard footsteps approaching the bridge while I was taking a nap underneath. “There’s a chance for pizza delivery at the campground tonight!!” Summer told me to motivate me to continue hiking towards camp.

When the pizza delivery car drove up to camp, over 25 hikers were drooling, ready for pizza and soda after a long hot day. Once again, we were all unified over our simple, basic human desires that made us forget about the heat of the day. 

The crew ready to eat lots of pizza and soda (this was delivery order 1 of 2)

Day 23: Apples & McDonald’s 

18.4 Miles: Silverwood Lake Backpacking Campsite (Mile 328.8) to Water Cache at Swarthout Canyon (Mile 347.2)

“We got pizza delivered to camp last night and have a 13-mile hike into McDonald’s today!” I texted my mom. “Try to find an apple or something today??” She joked back.

The tall wildflowers felt damp as they brushed against my legs as I hiked – I wondered why as it didn’t rain the night before. I turned the corner and saw a thick fog covering the mountains. “It’s from the Pacific Ocean. The Marine Layer.” Cheez-it came up behind me and said. “It’s a daily battle between the clouds and the sun.” I understood why the flowers were wet before their morning sun. Every turn was beautiful and the views changed quickly as the fog set and lifted throughout the morning.   

The Marine Layer covering the mountains on the horizon

I got down to the junction before the detour to McDonald’s – our afternoon meet up spot for the day. I smiled when I saw the bag of apples hanging on the trail board. “Mom knows best…” I laughed as I grabbed an apple “…and the trail provides!”

Apple trail magic!

Day 24: Head in the Clouds 

22.1 Miles: Water Cache at Swarthout Canyon (Mile 347.2) to Wrightwood Budpharm (Mile 369.3)

I started hiking by 4:00 AM, my headlamp illuminating the foggy clouds surrounding me. As I climbed up and up, I hiked out of the clouds. I felt like I was in a plane looking down at the clouds below me. I floated up the rest of the 15-mile climb, watching the cloud inversion view transform throughout the day.

The PCT trail just above the clouds

When I got to the trail junction, I met up with Iron Will and Taut – they were talking snow and Sierra. “It may be time to make a decision about the Sierra,” Iron Will said. I was in. While the challenges in the Sierra this year were intimidating, I felt like I owed it to myself to at least try. “Our window is now… I am game to buy mountaineering gear and push to Kennedy Meadows,” I said. We decided that the three of us would commit to the Sierra (which began about 250 miles ahead near mile marker 700), and we would ask the rest of the trail family if they wanted to commit with us when we all got to Wrightwood that afternoon. I got a nervous excitement in my stomach as I thought of what laid ahead in the snowy Sierra.

Day 25: Goodbyes & The Beginning of the Sierra Pursuit

2.7 Miles: Wrightwood Budpharm (Mile 369.3) to Jackson Flat Campground (Mile 372)

It was the moment that I had avoided thinking about all day. I looked at Shark Bait, MJ, and Pickles in their pajama loner clothes as we stood on the side of the road waiting for Taut, Iron Will, and me to hitch back to trail. “Pickles! My day one buddy! You were seriously the best person to run into on day one,” I said as I hugged him goodbye. “MJ! Shark Bait! I’m really going to miss y’all.” MJ and Shark Bait were the first two girls that I met and hiked with on the PCT. They were smart, fun, strong hikers, total bad asses, and we became fast friends. I gave hugs all around, and I could hear Iron Will and Taut also saying their heart felt goodbyes. A car drove up and offered us a ride. I got into the car and immediately felt like I was missing something.

Pickles, me (Moony), Shark Bait, MJ, Iron Will, and Taut in Wrightwood, California

We got dropped off at the trailhead at inspiration point, stood at the entrance to the trail, and didn’t move. I felt my eyes swell up before I burst into tears… “Ah I’m sorry guys, I just am really going to miss them.” I said in a broken voice.

“Aw Moony, we’re going to miss them too.” Taut said as he gave me a hug. We stood there for a few minutes talking about how lucky we were to have such a great group of people to hike with for the first almost month of this journey. We also talked about how special it felt to be pursuing a dream of entering the snowy Sierra. “Okay, okay, we got this!” I said as we slowly walked past the PCT trail marker. As we climbed back into the trail, I looked over and saw the cloud inversion. “It’s still going!” I said half crying and half laughing. “Welcome back home.” I thought to myself.

Day 26: Mount Baden Powell

11.9 Miles: Jackson Flat Campground (Mile 372) to Little Jimmy Spring Campground (Mile 383.9)

The Mount Baden Powell Summit trail boasts forty switchbacks, but the snowy boot pack cut each one, resulting in a steep, snowy, shortcut to the top. “Maybe I really can start to love hiking in the snow…” I thought to myself. The Sierra was top of mind as I upgraded mountaineering gear, made a food carry plan, and talked with my friends about reroutes and high water detours each day during hiking breaks. 

The snowy shortcut up to Baden Powell

I got to the turn off for the Baden Powell summit trail and caught a glimpse of the snow topped mountains to the east. I walked up to the patch of dirt and saw a cloud inversion stuck below. I started to cry as I stared at the view in disbelief. “How lucky am I to live on this trail and be able to see views like these?” I thought to myself. As I wiped away the tears, I thought of the phrase that had echoed through my mind many times on my PCT journey so far. “Everything is so emotional and it is so beautiful.” Claire, a friend who I met in Denver, texted me this phrase when she began the PCT just a few weeks before me. 

I laid on the ground at the summit of Mount Baden Powell with Iron Will and Taut. We took in the view while eating our summit snacks and soda. Surrounded by snow, panoramic views, and good friends, I felt at peace and ready for whatever challenge the trail had to offer. 

Mount Baden Powell Summit naps and snacks

Day 27: Reunion in the Desert

23.7 Miles: Little Jimmy Spring Campground (Mile 383.9) to Desert Overlook Campground (Mile 407.6)

I woke up feeling ready to just get the first climb of the day over with – not exactly the most positive mindset to start off the day. The sky was glowy as I rounded the bend and took in the cloud inversion with Taut before starting the climb up Mount Williamson. My mind was racing, thinking about everything but my current step. “Slow down and enjoy the moment…” I thought to myself.

The pre dawn glow before hiking up Mount Williamson

After the decent from Mount Williamson, there was a four-mile road walk detour to cover three miles of the PCT that were closed to protect an endangered frog species. I took off on the road, ready to cruise through these road miles. The road wrapped around a campground, and as I walked along the path I heard “Rachel??” I looked over to see Claire, my friend from Denver, walking towards me. “Oh my gosh!!!” I said as I ran up to her and gave her a big hug. Claire and I met just a few weeks before she left for the PCT through a mutual friend. Since being on trail, it had comforted me to know that she was just ahead of me. We caught up on trail things like our trail name origin stories, trail families, and how we were doing mentally and physically. “I was really in my head on that road walk.” I admitted. “Well, this was a perfect time to run into each other, then! Everything happens for a reason!” Claire said.

The selfie that Claire and I took to send to the friend that introduced us pre trail!

Most of the day felt harder than it should have. I got in my head, I walked extra miles through PCT detours, and I fell face first in a river crossing shortly after seeing Claire. BUT later in the day, I hit 400 miles. And when I walked past Camp Wilson at mile 400.6, I saw my friends awaiting me to get trail magic burritos, fresh fruit, and beers. “The desert provides…” I thought to myself as I hiked with Iron Will and Taut the last few miles to camp.

Day 28: Finally Feeling at Home in the Desert

25.6 Miles: Desert Overlook Campground (Mile 407.6) to Mount Campsite with Cloud Inversion (Mile 433.2) 

I heard an alarm go off and glimpsed at my phone – 3:30 AM. I looked up and saw a sky full of stars. It felt so special to be able to wake up with a view of the stars. If you had told me pre PCT that I would gain the confidence to sleep without a tent in the middle of the desert (exposed to snakes, spiders, etc, etc), I would have been shocked. But now here I was, packing up my backpack for a 4:00 AM start to hike my first 25-mile day. I could feel the good energy as I started walking – today was already a great day. 

My iPhone’s attempt of capturing the view I woke up to

I called my mom on the last climb of the day before my intended campground. As I rounded a corner I jumped when I heard the hiss of a rattlesnake. “Rach… was that a snake?” My mom asked though the speaker of my phone. I jogged forward a few steps before replying. “Yeah, he must have heard me and sent a warning to stay away.” I defended the snake. I reflected for a moment, noticing how my point of view on the desert and snakes had changed. I started this trail thinking the snakes were out to get me, but I had learned that they were trying to coexist and avoid me just as much as I’d like to coexist and avoid them.  

I rounded a bend and saw a scraggly looking tree with giant pinecones. I lined up a row of giant pinecones and laid down in the sun to wait for the guys behind me and take a break before hiking to camp together. I felt the sun warm my skin as I closed my eyes and felt thankful for my desert home. 

A little break to soak in the sun and the giant pinecones

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

  • Jeff Greene : Jun 3rd

    The beauty of the desert is WAY underrated, but hiking in temperatures over 80 degrees totally sucks. Keep up the dream!


What Do You Think?