Mission Creek: Getting Lost and Loving It

Ah, Mission Creek.

Growing up in the chaparral of Southern California, my mental image of a river is void of water. My “river” is a lowland, forested with reeds and tall overgrown plants. The ground is a fine silt. Maybe there are a few disconnected pools of stagnant water– emphasis on the maybe. The only true indicator that you are in a river is usually the weird plant bits stuck in the treetops above your head. Indicators of floods, reminders that there once was water here and hope that it may return.

And Such Is Mission Creek.

I first met Mission Creek in a conversation with a southbound section-hiker while camping at Whitewater River. “Get ready to get your feet wet!” he warned me with a grin. “And be sure to have your compass out. You’ll lose the trail more than once, but just follow the creek and you’ll find it again.” He offered me some advice to follow the cairns, not the trail posts. This past season’s rains left a devastating effect on the area and a number of sections of the trail along Mission Creek are completely washed out. Before parting, he heading south and me heading north, he said, “Have fun. Follow your instincts.”

The Pacific Crest Trail follows Mission Creek for 15 miles—about mile 225 to mile 240. This section of the trail is within the Bureau of Land Management’s San Gorgonio Wilderness. This section of trail fell victim to massive flooding in the region earlier this year. As you may imagine, the Pacific Crest Trail is well-trafficked so the issue in this area isn’t so much as a lack of trail, but an abundance of unofficial trails. Nonetheless, with the kind passerby’s advice in mind, I started down the trail towards Mission Creek.

Over the course of the day, I think I crossed the creek 26 times. To be honest, I stopped counting pretty quick.

It was a longgg, tiring day, but I sort of loved it. I was fully on the trail. In other miles, I am so immersed in a podcast or music that the sight of another hiker gives me quite the scare; my thoughts are everywhere but on the trail. That wasn’t the case with Mission Creek. I had to focus, look closely at the sandy trail for footsteps to follow, scan the horizon for cairns or arrows formed out of sticks guiding me onward. The floods earlier this year wiped this entire area clean—seemingly erasing any semblance of a trail at certain points. I was crawling in dense river reeds following the sound of the water that I knew was near. At one point, I took off my backpack, threw it over the creek and climbed along the side of a rocky slope. I balanced carefully on log bridges and rock-hopped from shore to shore. Even in the most precarious of log crossings, the creek was never more than two feet deep—if even that. The vast majority of hikers just walk straight through the creek, sacrificing their shoes and socks. But early in the day, I challenged myself to keep my feet dry. It made the day fun, something to keep my mind off the fact that this section is almost entirely uphill.

All day I leapfrogged with a pair of hikers, a couple from France I think. We didn’t exchange any words all day, but we helped each other. At times, I felt stuck at a crossing, close to giving in and charging across the water. But then I looked up and saw a hiking pole waving at me, calling me in that direction. A beacon in the fog and a reminder to keep on.

For the first time, I thought to myself: maybe I can make it to Canada.

All day and at camp later that night, there was a general frustration toward the waters of Mission Creek. There seemed to be a consensus among other hikers that Mission Creek was the hardest, least enjoyable section of trail since Campo. A twinge of pride shot through my veins—I loved that stretch of trail. That night most everyone sprawled out their shoes and socks along logs and rocks to dry and air out. Not mine. Mine hadn’t seen water all day. They were dry, nestled under the vestibule of my tent and resting up for tomorrow’s climb farther into the mountains.

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