Section C: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The PCT is like a 1,000 mile-long game of telephone (more on that later), so I heard about the dastardly Section C long before I had to decide whether to hike through it or skip ahead to the town of Big Bear.

A warning text from a much faster friend who had already finished Section C.

Even the Pacific Crest Trail Association was advising caution and that hikers should avoid the section.

Section C: no Trail and Lots of Contaminated Water

Section C is a roughly 130 mile stretch of trail that begins just after Palm Springs at mile 210. This year, the first 50 or so miles of the section are particularly problematic for two reasons.

First, Tropical Storm Hilary completely wiped out a ten-ish mile stretch of the trail in 2023. What’s left is just the creek bed of Mission Creek, which is now straddled by massive debris and steep embankments. Hikers must trek through about ten miles of that creek bed while ascending 5,000 feet of elevation. Not terrible hiking conditions, but not the best either; there is a lot of way finding and jungle gym-ing (totally a real word) and your feet are soaked all day because you cross through the creek about 75 times. I knew all this going in, and decided to go for it anyway. If the non-trail was really that bad, I could always admit defeat and turn back.

This leads us to our second problem: about 12 hours before entering Section C, I learned about a Norovirus outbreak on the trail (which isn’t rare, there’s usually a comparable outbreak every year). Hikers about 40 miles ahead were getting really, really sick. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Norovirus sucks. And Norovirus in a tent probably sucks worse. Sources were indefinite and scattered, but people seemed to agree that the likely source of the outbreak was Mission Creek itself. That is, the creek I was about to trek through and that would have been my water source for two days was contaminated, and because of the damage left by Hurricane Hilary, there was no other way through.

Therein ensued a two-day slog to somehow trek through the water without getting sick. My friend Flip Flop (he couldn’t decide on a trail name, and his indecision became his moniker) termed it the Noro Enduro Challenge. Is that a bit insensitive to our sick comrades? Yup. But hikers have thick skin (no, I don’t) and it’s funny. So, the challenge, should I choose to accept it, was to trek through a treacherous stretch of non-trail creek bed without shitting my pants. Could I do it? The answer: yes! But it wasn’t much fun.

How’d ya do it?

Well, for starters, time was on my side. I stopped in Palm Springs to visit a friend, and that proved just enough time for social media reports to start popping up about the Norovirus. I had a nice warning, so I a) knew the risks, and b) how to mitigate them. I was already carrying both a water filter and purification tablets, but I also grabbed some hand soap on the way out.

Next, I carried in way more water than usual and I changed my mileage plan. I had originally planned to camp just shy of the first Mission Creek crossing, but instead I camped at the Wildlands Conservancy nature preserve about five miles short of that. That way, I could rely on my extra clean water for as long as possible, and refill with the preserve’s potable water. If I rationed my water, I could probably get through two days without having to use the Mission Creek water.

This got me to just about five miles short of the Mission Creek headwaters. I still had about a liter of clean water left, but I really couldn’t justify going another 15 miles without at least another liter. Rather than refilling from the creek, I refilled from a few hundred feet up a feeder stream. I also treated, and then filtered, that water. And then… I didn’t drink it. I chose a bit of dehydration instead, and made it the next fifteen miles to town on that single, pure liter.

So really, I had enough time to plan accordingly, I didn’t use any of the Mission Creek water, and I was pretty thirsty for a day. I had different layers of overlapping protections, and it worked. I was also a grumpy, dirty, exhausted ball of anxiety by the end.

Was it Worth it? Meh.

The Good: Section C is actually fun to hike. The Section is wooded, and although it tops about 8,000 feet in elevation, it’s a meandering path with some nice downhill, and I saw jackrabbits playing. The nature preserve was an oasis, and I got an immense sense of accomplishment for tackling a bitchin’ section. Plus, it’s important to me to hike as much of the continuous trail as possible. Later detours and fire closures are guaranteed, but if it’s available to hike, then I want to trek it.

5:30am at the Wildlands Conservancy.

Also, the good news for future hikers is that Section C is totally doable. You should always check the notes and guidance on the Far Out app, but for some additional guidance: follow the normal trail until about mile 226. Then shamble your way through the creek bed until mile 233.8. You’ll then turn right into a small side stream, right at mile 233.8. Give it 200-ish feet, and you can scramble back onto the trail. From there, you’ll have another very short stretch where you have to descend back into the creek bed. It’s free sailing once you reach mile 239.

The Bad: thru-hiking already requires a lot of daily tasks and planning, and this stretch was stressful enough to detract from the joy of the journey. I think I like hiking a lot more when I’m not scared of everything I touch. I was afraid to touch my shoes, my water filter, or pretty much anything else I rely on in my pack, which is every single item in my pack.

There was a lot of joy in the adventure and exploration, and the little fun there was was dwarfed by the stress of the crossing. I spent all my time and energy way-finding and trying to stay safe.

The Ugly: A bunch of my friends got sick. Some were knocked out for several days. It’s hard to know your friends suffering while being afraid of the same fate.

All in all, the first chunk of Section C was a challenge and I’m glad I did it, but damn, I’m exhausted. Now I’m well past Mission Creek and the risk of Norovirus, and the rest of the Section is the holy trinity of beautiful scenery (literally, deers prancing in meadows) easy miles, and lots of safe water.

As always, books for Emma: I just finished The Anthropocene Reviewed, which is so, so good. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, and plan to start To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins, because that’s what you do on a grand adventure. I’m listening to Erik Larson’s newest book, Demon of Unrest.

Happy trails and creeks, folks.

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Comments 1

  • Ms frizzle (Lucia) : May 21st

    Me and bird brain skipped that section. Great to read an update and hope I see y’all on trail!


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