PCT Week 3: From the snowy San Jacintos to Big Bear
This week I got to climb San Jacinto Peak in the snow, that came down one night before. I went all the way down, back to the desert, just to climb up to the San Gorgonio mountains again, following a confusing creek, to finally reach the lovely lakeside of Big Bear.
Day 13: Summiting San Jacinto Peak in the snow
Idyllwild to mile 193
28.5km (17.7mi) / 7.5h / elevation gain of 1,527m (5,000 ft)
I took the shuttle from the Idyllwild Inn back to the trailhead. The higher we were driving the more snow appeared. To be honest, I didn’t expect so much snow at the beginning of the trail, I thought it would be just up there. It was also very cold. I put my warm clothes on and started going up the Devil’s Slide Trail, which I came down three days ago. It amazed me how much difference just one night of snow made, the trail looked totally different and was all covered by snow. But the snow was firm and easy to walk on, even without microspikes. After one hour I reached Saddle Junction again. The two zero days did me well as I was flying up there. It took me just 10 minutes more going up than going down. I was full of energy again.
How do you recognize a PCT hiker? They wear shorts in the snow. Unbelievable as I wore almost everything I had except for gloves and long underpants and so did the dayhikers.
The higher I got the warmer it became as the sun was shining up there. As I reached the junction to the San Jacinto Peak I decided to do the alternate to the summit. How often do you have the possibility to climb a 3,000m (10,000ft) high mountain as easily as this one? In the Alps, there would be glaciers involved. The snow got softer but not much more than before. It was easy to walk on, and no microspikes were needed. The way winded up for another 500m (1,640ft) but was not too steep. Just the last part after the junction to the last part to the summit got a bit steeper. I passed a little hut and then I reached the summit at 3,302m (10,834ft). What a feeling! I was enjoying the view of Palm Springs, the mountains on the opposite side, and the valley with a lake.
After a long break, I went down again. At the junction, I turned right to join the PCT again. For the way down I started to use my microspikes. During the day the snow got slushy and slippery, even with the spikes, but it felt a bit more secure. My feet got soaked by all the wet snow. The snow will quickly melt away in the next days with all the sun.
I returned to the PCT and the snow got less and firm again in the forest. Every time I took a break my wet feet got cold. I passed two water sources and took water from the latter. That would have to do for the next 30km (18.6mi). The trail continued mostly downhill and I crossed Fuller Ridge, which was leading through the forest with some large boulders. I reached a campsite, but it seemed too cold and wet with the snow, so I continued to hopefully make it out of the snow. I came back into the sunlight and had an amazing view of the valley below me, the mountains on the other side, and back to San Jacinto Peak. Shortly after that, the snow disappeared and I got to a nice campsite where I spent the night.
PCT Day 14: Long descent back to the desert
Mile 193 to Mesa Wind Farm (mi 213)
32.7km (20.3 mi) / 7.5h / elevation gain of 348m (1,141ft)
Today it was mostly just downhill. I already could see the road where I had to descend to. It appeared so close, but it was 26km (16mi) to reach it. As always I was the last who took down her tent. 7:30 am means sleeping in on the PCT. The night was warm and today the sun was strong again. It got hotter as further I went down. I had a great view back to San Jacinto Peak, which towered 2,000m (6,561ft) above me. Didn’t look like much from here.
I was slowly getting back to the country of cacti and chaparral. I met some familiar faces and a snake on the way. Suddenly I stumbled and crashed hard on the rocks which hurt a lot. Luckily, I didn’t go over the edge and just had some scratches and my knee hurt. I wriggled out of my pack to get up again. From now on my knee hurt on the descent and began to swell. I was reaching the 200 mile marker and then the valley floor with its water faucet. I took a break and cameled up, crouched in the little bit of shade a rock provided.
From here it was just 6km (3.7mi) to the underpass at the Interstate 10, but it was very hot, just sand and bushes, no shade at all. I got to the deepest point at 364m (1,194ft) from where I went a little bit up again. No wonder it was that hot down here, as I was almost 3,000m (9,842ft) lower than yesterday. At the bridge I finally found shade, and Trail Magic – sodas, donuts, and bananas. I stayed there for a while, relaxed, and cooled my knee, which really helped with the swelling. I was thinking about going to Cabazon and the In’n’Out Burger there, but it didn’t look like an easy hitch.
So I stayed and went to the Mesa Wind Farm for another 6km (3.7mi) in the cooler air of the late afternoon. Nobody was here at late Sunday, but there was still WiFi. I pitched my tent as the only one but slowly other people came as well to sleep there.
PCT Day 15: Going astray at Mission Creek
Mesa Wind Farm (mi 213) to mile 231.1
29km / 7h / elevation gain of 1,348m
Again I spent a warm night. In the morning I went to the Wind Farm, where there were snacks, water, Gatorade mix, and a place to charge. Somehow I always have power anxiety as my phone battery isn’t that good. So, I use every opportunity to charge. While I was doing that I had a burrito for breakfast and mixed myself a Gatorade for the trail. I always have something with taste with me as I’m not much of a water drinker. The guys from the Wind Farm are extremely nice and I can just recommend a visit here. I started later than usual and it already got quite warm.
The trail led steeply up the hill to a saddle. A beautiful mountain landscape spread out in front of me with snow-covered San Jacinto in the background. Hard to imagine that I was trudging through the snow not long ago. On the other side, it went steep down the hill and my knee hurt quite a lot. When it was going flat or uphill I couldn’t feel anything, but going downhill was painful. I was hoping that this would stop soon.
The trail went up again along the mountainside, but not steep anymore. I walked through a beautiful but barren landscape with scorched hills. Soon I could see a big river bed in the valley where the trail went down. When I reached the floor I got lost a bit, but then got to the water source after 10km (6.2mi). The river had a strong flow and cut through the sparse landscape. A lot of people gathered here already. Unfortunately, there was no shade. I filled up my water and cooled my knee.
The trail went uphill again. As it was hot today this was a sweaty affair. From the top, I had amazing views of the surrounding mountains. It went just a little bit up and down along the ridge until the trail descended to another riverbed which I reached after another 10km (6.2mi). I didn’t take any break during this 10km, so it was about time. And the place at the riverside was like a little oasis. Finally, there was shade and I refueled my energy. Fortunately, there was no long water carry that day anymore, because the trail went right along Mission Creek.
A new ascent started that took me uphill for another 32km (20mi) and would bring me back to 2,600m (8,530ft). But not today anymore. The ascent was gentle and followed the creek. With every minute it got cooler and soon I got back to my evening flow with a good pace. But the trail was quite confusing, as it was not easy to find. I got lost several times, one time a bit more as I turned off to the wrong river valley. I was first thinking about going over the hill to the other valley but it was very steep and who knew how it would be on the other side. So I gave up the idea after a first try and went back where I lost the way. This detour did cost me some time.
I didn’t make any more big mistakes after that, but the trail required full concentration and looking at the GPS track. Footsteps were somewhat useless as I was just following other hikers who got lost. There were cairns now and then but those were misleading too sometimes. After another 8km (5mi) I pitched my tent close to the river.
PCT Day 16: A lot of Ups and Downs
Mile 231 to mile 253
35.5km (22mi) / 8h / elevation gain of 1,700m (5,577ft)
The trail led further uphill and was not always easy to find. There was some bushwhacking involved and I was crossing the river back and forth. At one point I lost the way again and had to scramble up an edge to get back to the trail. All this took time because I was always puzzled about where the trail was going. Once more I asked myself how horses are supposed to do that trail.
It got steeper as it turned away from the river and winded into the mountains, but pathfinding was clear again. While I was huffing and puffing up the mountain I met a snake again. Normally they move out of the way very quickly, but this one couldn’t care less about me. I made a courageously big step over it and it was just relaxing in the sun as if nothing happened. At the top, I was catching my breath until the trail went downhill again. My knee didn’t hurt anymore, which was very relieving for me. Together with the zero, I was about to take in Big Bear I was positive that the problem would go away.
The only thing is: What you are going down you have to go up again sooner or later. I reached a water source where I refilled my water and took a break before I went uphill again. Meanwhile, I reached a forest with some burned trees and fallen trees had to be overcome, but it was not a big problem here. After a while, I reached a picnic table with a water source close by. Quite a few hikers had gathered here. Somehow I lost my bubble. I saw them at the first water source yesterday for the last time. I suddenly met a lot of people that I have never seen before. Was I too fast or too slow?
I took a lunch break and refilled my water once more for the next 27km (16.7mi) to the next source. It was more of a trickle on a rock wall and it took ages to fill the bottles and filter them, but it did the job. I took off for the ascent up to 2,500m (8,202ft). After that, it went down again just to go up to 2,600m (8,530ft) again. A lot of up and down today. I walked through a light and fragrant forest. The snow-covered San Gorgonio Peak came into view. I took a break and while I was sitting there the sun hid behind the clouds and it got much colder. It’s strange what difference it makes if the sun is shining or not. The trail went down again to go up again to 2,665m (8,743ft). Small patches of snow were found in shaded corners.
Once again, the trail went downhill. It was getting late but I wanted to make it as far as possible that day to have fewer miles on the way to Big Bear tomorrow. As I’m always performing best in the evening that’s not a big deal. I could walk on forever in the evening, but I don’t like hiking in the dark, so as soon as the sun begins to go down I pitch my tent. I climbed up for the last time today. The sun came back and the last rays of the golden hour were warming me. I pitched my tent a little bit lower than the highest point at 2,632m (8,635ft). I haven’t camped that high up on the PCT so far and I was completely on my own here.
For the last 15km (9.3mi) I didn’t meet anyone anymore. I was watching the last sunbeams from my nice little spot and munching on my dinner, satisfied with the day. Tomorrow there would be just 21km (13mi) left to Big Bear. I made it one day earlier than planned, so I hoped that I could change my booking with the hostel in Big Bear Lake. What annoys me about the trail is that you need to book ahead to get availability at the cheaper places and Big Bear has one of the few hostels on the PCT, which is perfect for solo hikers like me.
PCT day 17: Short day into town
Mile 253 to Big Bear Lake (mile 266)
21km (13mi)/ 4,5h / elevation gain of 331m (1,085ft)
Camping alone always feels weird, especially when you are close to a place called “Big Bear”. However, just the wind visited me at night, which ripped one of my tent stakes out of the ground. I was not sleeping very well and it was cold too. I somehow dislocated my back that night, so that it hurt the next morning. When I got up it was still cold, but I got warm fast while walking. I was happy about every patch of sun I could find. The trail went easy on me today. It was just downhill first and then a little bit uphill. I arrived at a couple of water sources and took a break at the last one. I didn’t need any water though as I had enough from yesterday.
I’m still not good at determining my exact water consumption, but it depends a lot on the temperature. I came out of the forest into the open area and had some nice views of the valley and the gentle hills around me. After an easy 21km (13mi) I arrived at the road and got a hitch to Big Bear Lake in just three minutes. My driver explained a lot about the area, what you could do here and where the best restaurants are. He also told me that there are quite a lot of bears in the area, hence the name of it.
To see some bears I took the safest way and went to the Alpine Zoo on my zero day, which was awesome. I saw three grizzlies and three black bears as well as raccoons, bobcats, a snow leopard, wolves, coyotes, and many more. It’s well worth a visit although it’s a hassle to get there. There is a free trolley in Big Bear, there are even three lines. But it’s not quite clear when and where they are going. Google Maps is not of any help in that matter as it’s not correct. So it took me a while to do my errands in town. I went to a massage to get rid of my back pain, went to the post office, and shopping in the supermarket, which is quite a few miles away and you need to take advantage of the weird bus system or hitch.
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.
What Do You Think?