Part 4: Joys and Challenges of SoCal

“I will walk five hundred miles and I will walk five hundred more” sang from tinny phone speakers. We danced around rocks arranged in the numbers five zero zero. We were 500 miles into the Pacific Crest Trail! Together with a mixed up crew of Americans and Europeans, I’ve walked through desert flats, snowy mountains, alpine ridges and fields of wildflowers. I had under estimated quite how beautiful the “desert section” would be. Like a video game, walking the PCT has so far been a mix of eclectic obstacles and characters, each appearing unexpectedly – trail magic, dodging snakes, avoiding injury, hiking away from norovirus, meeting wonderful strangers and random acts of kindness. Let me share some of these joys and challenges with you.

Hiking away from Cabazon at mile 115 with Lenette and Lifeguard 

Snow at San Jacinto (mile 151) and Mount Baden Powell (mile 378) – Joyful Challenges

From mile 60, a big snowy mountain appeared in our sights. San Jacinto. Over the next two weeks that mountain crept towards us, and the chatter about snow conditions increased. Did we need microspikes? An ice axe? Skip the whole section all together for a low road alternate? I decided to pick up my microspikes from Paradise Valley Cafe at mile 152 and texted my sister last-minute to send them out with next day delivery.

View of San Jacinto from the north side

When I arrived at Paradise Valley Cafe and (after stuffing my face with a very American breakfast and glugging some real coffee) went into their back room filled with a disorganized pile of over a hundred boxes. I searched and searched the pile of boxes and then contacted my sister – it turned out the spikes were stuck in a depot in Chicago. We needed a change of plan. We decided to take a zero day in Idyllwild, get more food and reassess.

Two days later we returned, feeling rested, microspikes found, and began the first of two days of climbing. On the first day after many hours uphill we summited the smaller Apache Peak. On the peak was an ammo can with a summit register in it. In the crazy wind I took a quick flick through to see who had recently summited when I spotted my name on an earlier page! Clive from New Zealand (in my last blog) had left a message for me and my friends. It felt like a message through time that I had impossibly managed to discover!

Spot the message!

Views as we climbed higher

When it came to the summiting day things got snowy and slow. The path splits between the PCT true trail and the alternate trail that takes you to the summit. A group of hikers were gathered at the junction resting and trying to decide which route to take. An experienced, older hiker came up to the group at a similar time to us, and started telling everyone that if they tried to summit without an ice axe they would die. Everyone was a little uneasy but we decided to head on and assess for ourselves. One of the group of hikers, a Frenchman, joined my group, while the rest kept to the PCT route. We sludged through increasingly slushy snow, regularly postholing. Postholing is where you think you are about to tread on a nice firm bit of snow and then – bam! – your foot slides in, maybe to your shin, knees, or all the way to your hip. My grubby legs were getting a nice clean each time. Pinecone, only 22 and probably weighing less than my pack, was the only one who happily seemed to run up the slope ahead of us. Looking at our GPS maps, we were far off trail, but we trusted the boot prints. The snow was incredibly beautiful, and despite the slope I was not worried that we were taking any big risks. My gut was happy to keep continuing.

Making snow tracks

The last mile took an hour, but then suddenly we climbed a ridge and were at the top, panoramic views all around of the neighbouring mountains on one side, and on the other side we could see the hot desert floor. “The fourth time I have cried because the PCT is so beautiful” said the Frenchman, wiping away tears in his eyes. We sat on the top of the world, buzzing with pride and the view and eating our lunch. After all the fear mongering, we’d done it. Then over the ridge came three more people. It was three ladies in snow shoes – one in her thirties, one in her seventies and one in her eighties. We were immediately humbled. They were not struggling at all, chatting away and asked us to get a picture of them. I asked which trail they had followed to get here – but “oh no, we just came cross country from that peak over there”. Then they merrily parted ways agreeing to meet again soon for more. I was left feeling very inspired.

My icon

Feeling the summit high

The next time we faced snow was at Mount Baden Powell, over 200 miles later. The night before we planned to summit, a storm rolled through, rain in the valleys and snow in the peaks. The day was cloudy and cold. Many people had been exhausted by the snow at San Jacinto, and this storm put them off, and they did a 18 mile road walk to avoid the peak. This time I borrowed an axe for the climb. I climbed with four others and we only met one other PCT hiker on the way up.

The colder snap had created fingers of ice over the tree branches, high mountain wind chimes. I’d never seen anything like it. Once again progress was slow but manageable and we were rewarded by the clouds clearing for a view. On the way down Sunscreen gave me a glissading lesson. Glissading is where you turn the snow into a giant slide and sit on your bum using your axe as a break. One step to being more ready for the Sierras! The biggest challenge of the day was the evening. Once it got dark my damp feet got cold and did not warm up til mid morning the next day once we had descended. I’ve now ordered some down booties for the Sierras – I’m too scared of having cold feet for endless back to back snow days.

Lenette descending along the ridge


A Mission in Mission Creek (mile 226) – a Challenge

A few miles after the descent from San Jacinto, we popped into Cabazon the truck stop and filled up on Chipotle and our phones with charge and returned to the trail to tackle Mission Creek. Mission Creek should have been a nice path alongside a creek, walking in the shade with constant ability to get to water. Instead last year a storm washed out the trail and the path was gone. We picked our way uphill through pebbles and boulders, crossing the river over 50 times (I lost track counting). I made my way by just staring at the back of my friends Hokas and letting her do all the thinking. Not out of the creek in one go we had to camp there, in the windiest camp site of the trip so far. The next day we followed dubious instructions “look for the stone arrow and the green bandana” and managed to make it up back into the PCT. Mission successful (but I felt knackered).

The wiggly line of Mission Creek in the middle at the back, as we climbed up out of the valley

Dinner post Mission Creek

About a week after we left the creek, it became a hot bed of sickness – there’s been chat that it’s norovirus or that it’s caused from algae bloom. Either way I’m glad to be away. Not my favourite section, but glad that we had done it.

Meeting Californians – a Joy

Having lived in NYC for two years I have met a certain type of East Coast Americans. Coming out to California we’ve met a whole new range of people. The kindness we’ve received along the trail has been plentiful and varied. There’s been the hot springs hippie who, while totally naked and in a perfect, even tan, offered me and Pinecone strawberries. Of course we took them. There was Susan, a friend of a hiker I had met just days earlier, who then hosted three random hikers (myself included) as well as her hiker friend. In Wrightwood, a small ski town up in the Angeles National Forest, a church group put on a breakfast for the PCT hikers at the community center. They were so excited to host us, and I was thrilled, not just seeing all the food, but seeing so many hikers I had been crossing paths with collected in one room. One hiker had his birthday and we all sang – and it felt like one big birthday party.

And I will also not forget the drivers who have picked up us when we’ve hitched hiked. I’ve enjoyed meeting these drivers and listening to their stories. There are some quotes that have stuck in my mind:

  • One driver, in reference to the Democrats in town: “There are only 6 of those blue guys down here”
  • One driver as he moved a huge knife and a Bible off the passenger seat “I was going to the AA meeting, but none of my friends were there, so I was going to church for round two. In the first service we had a visiting preacher talking about abortion” and “I’m just trying to catch Pokemon, but don’t worry I could drive these roads blindfolded”
  • One driver as he put up slats hiding us in the back of his pickup truck: “In our day we’d say, you can pay with gas, ass or grass”

I’m the back of a truck, driving back to trail

Hitching in the back of a small car to Joshua Inn

A Couple of Challenging Animals

A cool creature on trail

I hadn’t given much thought to animals in the desert before arriving. There have been many gorgeous birds, black lizards scuttling at speed over rocks, deer slinking through the alpine and frogs croaking in the night, all of which I have enjoyed. There are also other animals that you might not want to see all the time – snakes being one. I thought maybe I’d see a snake or two. However after San Jacinto, we were into the snake country. A hiker ahead of me screamed and chucked her chapstick down the path – she had trodden on a snake. After that I saw snakes more and more with one four foot long beast slithering slowly across the path ahead of me. This fellow made my stomach do a full flip. I’ve slowly become more used to the snakes, and get an excited thrill when I hear the buzz of a rattle in a bush – or even on the path in front of me.

Big angry rattle snake blocking the path

What I had not fully expected in the desert was bears. At Silverlake, there were a couple of well established campgrounds, with fancy amenities like showers and a privy – so naturally we were excited to stay there. However, the comments on Farout described that a bear had been terrorizing the campsite. The bear was turning up at 2am and bopping tents with his paw to pull out the yummy snack bags (our backpacks). Hikers were ending up hiding in the shower all night. Although I did really want to see bears, and was a little tempted to stay there overnight, we ended up planning our hike to enjoy a lovely lunch by the water in the camp area, before hiking as far away as we could get that evening. Hopefully I will see some less aggressive bears in the Sierras.

The last animal that has been playing tricks on people is the tiny tick. In the latter parts of this desert section, we have been doing lots of walking through long grass. I met a hiker who had been bitten by a tick, and ended up with the the red infected bullseye, a tell tale sign of Lyme Disease. He had got it treated and it was all fine. But this story stirred up my imagination. Taking a zero in LA with my aunt, I spotted a bite mark with a red circle around it on my ankle. Oh no! Luckily this was the only night on trail where I was actually within in reach of an Urgent Care. A little scared of US healthcare, but more scared of ticks, I spent my zero day waiting for over an hour to see a professional. After lots of looks and pokes and discussion came the verdict – I just had dry skin. Woops.

Cowboy Camping – a Joy

The night before the San Jacinto adventures, Pinecone and I camped with a cowboy-camping 67 year old woman from Palm Springs. Cowboy camping is when you sleep on the ground without a tent. It’s a mythical activity for a Brit; in the UK rain can sneak up from nowhere. But in the land of the cowboys, cowboy camping is much more common. Our new friend told us that she hikes the first 150 miles every year for the past 10 years and knew everything about the desert. I had already put up my tent in a gorgeous spot, however Pinecone was tempted. He is always a fan of any way to make things easier and was already only cold soaking food (no stove for him!). His report of the night was “exciting but cold” and he became a regular cowboy. In the past three weeks I have seen his tent only once.

The first cowboy camping spot

I was curious about cowboy camping, but did not brave a night without a tent until I was forced, the night after summiting San Jacinto. That all the campsites were mostly covered by snow. We searched and searched until we found a few small patches of ground that were bare from snow. They were not big enough for a tent. So begun my first night of cowboy camping. The spot was extremely slanted and the whole night I clung onto my sleep pad, like I was Rose in Titanic hanging to the door. I did see one shooting star! To stop myself sliding off the sleeping pad, I stacked my backpack, food bag, and tent bag to my side. This was also a night where my pad kept slowly deflating. A slightly mixed start to cowboy camping, but certainly no fault of the lack of tent.

Since then I have had cowboy camped numerous times without a slanted spot and safe to say I love it. A huge plus is that it becomes so much easier to wake up and get up in the morning – and I can use the tent to cuddle at night. Ideal.

Cowboy camping outside of Wrightwood

Crossing the Mojave Desert (mile 517) – One Portion of Challenge with a Side of Joy

Most of the SoCal section is in foot hills or mountains, with a view down to the flat flat desert floor. But at mile 517 you have to go into this flat bleak desert and follow the LA Aqueduct over to a wind farm, before climbing back up into the mountains. This section of true desert is intensely hot, and so hikers usually tackle it as a night hike.

We started the day up in the hills on the south side, before hiking the 20 miles down to a place at the start of the aqueduct, called Hikertown. Hikertown is so strange and hard to understand from everything I had read about it before arriving. There are a collection of small one room huts all painted to look like buildings from a western, a school, a sheriff’s office, a jail, where you can stay. All are a little old. The owner is eccentric, firing off strange jokes. There is an offbeat vibe which is hard to put a finger on. All this to say, that we didn’t fancy staying a night and waiting around the whole next day. So at 7:30pm, just a few hours after finishing a 20 mile day, we put our bags back on and set off walking again.

Flowers at sunset

The sun was setting at the end of the valley, lighting up all the little flowers into tiny torches. The air had cooled, but the wind was still warm. Despite being next to the aqueduct we couldn’t drink the water, so we had to carry all the water we needed for 17 miles. We followed a dirt road along the aqueduct, which meant we could walk side by side in pairs or threes, glow sticks around our necks, in high spirits, chatting and singing. I was ignoring my already tired legs, but as the night wore on it felt like I was walking on a skeleton. I distracted myself by looking at the stars and chatting to the others.

Eventually three of us, Jonathan, myself and Pinecone grew too tired. Just after midnight we found a flat spot behind a bush and put down our mats and slept. I got right into my bag in my gross day clothes. At 4:30 am, we needed to wake up again. We had to get to the water before it got too hot. We walked as the sun came up through he Joshua trees. It was beautiful, but by 7 we were starting to get baked and I was hiding under my sun umbrella. At 8am we made it to the water at the creek, and to our delight saw that there was shade under the bridge and a trail angel with ice creams. From that bridge there were only 7 more miles back up to the mountains to where we hoped the rest of the group had ended up. Jonathan and I hid in the moving shade all day, while Pinecone got restless and at noon decided crazily to walk in the dead heat and do the climb. We followed at sunset, a beautiful walk, and we reunited with our friends who had been hiding under a huge oak tree all day, after just two hours of sleep the night before. We had made it across the Mojave Desert! But this was the start of hot days and siestas – more of which is to come in the last 150 desert miles.

Joshua trees at sunrise

Looking forward 

Finally two updates from my last blog: the deflating pad and instant mash potatoes. For the deflating pad – I finally got around to testing out the bath method. I sloshed around with my feet pushing down the pad as it rose up. I was about to give up hope when I finally spotted a small stream of bubbles from one corner! To then patch the hole I needed to hold my finger over it while drying it and then pop on a glue patch. Somehow I managed to get the patch on the right spot. And I am proud to say I am now sleeping soundly through the night without bobbing around. Many less sea related dreams. For the mash potatoes – instant rice, instant pasta and instant noodles should all hide their faces in shame! Nothing compares to how instant the instant of the Idahoan mash is. I am truly converted.

We are inching towards the Sierras and should be at Kennedy Meadows South, the gateway, in just over a week. At this point, the trail will level up – less towns, more snow, hikers split into groups and spread out. I’m excited but nervous, checking for any snow reports from the first hikers to start crossing into the mountains. More to come. Happy Trails!

Wildflowers outside of Tehachapi


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Comments 2

  • Yam : May 17th

    What an excellent write up! Looking forward to more, when you have time to post. Thank you so much. Well done . . . so glad I got to read.

  • Jeff Greene : May 25th

    Great review of this section. I’m a SoCal day hiker, car camper, and occasional weekend backpacker, so I know just about every piece of this section, and enjoy living vicariously through journals like yours!


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