Trail Update Number Two
This ain’t no garden party!
It’s been a minute since I’ve written an update. So what better time than while lying in a comfortable bed in Wrightwood, CA during a bit of insomnia (yes, I actually sleep better outside!). But how did I get here? And what has happened since the last update? Let me explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up (if you picked up the reference, you are my newest best friend!). My last post was written in Julian during a snowstorm, which I didn’t realize at the time, but was great foreshadowing for what was to come. I read a comment on “FarOut” a bit ago that said, “There is no PCT, only snow and rivers.” While of course there is a bit of hyperbole there, the snow situation that is 2023 has certainly changed the trail and the experience that all of us on trail are having. Here we go!
After leaving Julian, we continued our journey northward (I use “we” a lot when describing the trail. I’m not traveling with anyone per se, but everyone hiking is on the same path and it just makes sense to me.) The next town I would be coming to would be Warner Springs. My plan was to get in, pick up my box at the post office, and continue on the following day. Except that I arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Unplanned zero number three. Of course a storm was blowing in on Monday, so after a quick stop at the post office, we hiked out in the trifecta of cold, wind and rain. Fortunately, the rain let up after not too long so we were left with just cold and wind. Lots of each. Lots as in, difficult to find a place to pitch and once done, immediately jump into the sleep system with all available clothing on just to warm up enough to be able to function. But at least there was a water source nearby. The next morning was a beautiful sunny day. The wind had abated so now it was down to just cold. Really cold. Remember the water supply? Frozen. Fortunately, there was a bit of running water back up the trail so I could filter some for the next stretch, not a fun task when it’s 22 degrees, but gotta do what needs to be done. As it would happen, whilst squeezing water through the filter, the flow was lessening very quickly. One of the biggest things to watch for on trail is to make sure that your filter never freezes as it renders it useless. Generally this means keeping it in a pocket while it’s cold (including while sleeping). This was a new one though, the filter was freezing as I was using it! I quickly blew air through it and tucked it away hoping that it wouldn’t be damaged (to date it seems to be fine…). I continued down the trail, but with much less water than I had hoped. Fortunately, I made it to Mary’s Oasis where there was a water source (that she supplies), camping, picnic tables, décor and even a library! A fantastic place to stop that I would recommend to anyone. After what was a tough 36 hours, this felt like a piece of heaven! The next day would be a short run into the Paradise Valley Cafe, also adjacent to the town of Idyllwild, which would set us up for San Jacinto, the first real mountain on the trail.
Snow section number one!
The Paradise Valley Cafe is another one of those iconic stops on the trail. They are super hiker friendly and there are usually plenty of people around as everyone is gearing up for San Jacinto. After a breakfast burrito (late for me due to a minor gear snafu) I got on trail and began heading up the ridge that would take us to the mountain proper. Going into it, we knew the chances of getting through due to the snow were slim, but we at least wanted to get as far along the trail as possible and see it up close and personal. We started getting into snow around 7000’ elevation and it ranged from a novelty to deep post-holing and some steep terrain that would suck to make a mistake in. We camped at Fobes Ranch junction which would set us up for a short hike to the infamous Apache Peak. The next morning I dilly dallied getting ready as I had an amazing cowboy spot which gave me a perfect view of the sunrise. Nothing is better than coffee and a sunrise- Apache can wait a few extra minutes! As we approached the Spitler Trail junction, there was a crowd of people gathered with one in particular doing the talking. It was San Jac John, author of the SanJacinto snow report and local mountain guru. His words were basically, ‘don’t try to go through, it’s just not worth it.’ Disappointing for sure, but I’m old enough to know that I don’t know everything and when an expert on a subject is giving advice- especially when it comes to safety, it’s probably best to listen. At least the decision was out of my hands. So we hung out at the Apache saddle, ate food and enjoyed the view. We descended via the Spitler Trail and headed into Idyllwild for a small resupply and some ice cream. The plan was to get a ride to Black Mountain road as that was the recommended bypass for PCT hikers. But I’ve never been a fast learner. Looking at the map, there is a trail that junctions with the PCT a few miles sooner than Black Mountain and rather than get a ride there,the trailhead is only a half mile from town. I have to try! So the next day I got started up the Deer Spring trail. It began easy enough, climbing a lot to be sure, but it’s a mountain, of course! As I gained elevation, the snow began. First in patches, then full coverage. Soon, I was following two sets of footprints and an older set of snowshoe prints (I didn’t take the hint). After several hours and around 5000’ of gain, I reached the junction with the PCT. There was only one problem, there were zero footprints heading the direction that I needed to go. I would be breaking trail. I am no stranger to winter hiking, nor am I a stranger to “off trail” navigation, but this was a whole different level. When snowpack is in the order of scores of feet, it is impossible to tell what the topography looks like. Is the trail under there? Maybe, but it’s drifted over and it’s impossible to see where it’s benched out. That flat area might be passable now, but it’s way off course and ends up separating you from the trail with a cliff band. I was officially in beyond my skill set and had to admit defeat. I turned around and retraced my steps down the mountain. On the way down I met another hiker who had the same idea that I did. I relayed what I had seen and told him he could do whatever he wanted. Also disappointed, he reluctantly agreed and turned around. We got a ride to Black Mountain and began walking up. Again. It was late in the day by this point and as per usual, elevation gain means snow. About halfway up it went from road with patches of snow to snow with patches of dry surface. We decided to camp while there was still a dry place to do it. A few other hikers who were taking the alternate, joined us and we ended up with a bunch of us sleeping in the road. True hiker trash! 16ish miles of hiking, around 8000 total feet of gain and zero PCT miles. Technically another trail zero.
The next morning we finished the climb over Black Mountain and rejoined the PCT. Even though this was the alternate route, doesn’t mean that it was easy. There was still a lot of snow to contend with and it took several hours just to get through the first 8 miles. What is most frustrating is that many times there are several sets of tracks heading in different directions. Some try to follow the trail properly. Some take what seems to be the easiest route. And some cut corners and switchbacks in order to shorten the distance. Unless you are constantly checking your GPS, it’s difficult to know which to follow. Finally we descended out of the snow and had the pleasure of walking on an actual dirt trail. After several days of snow, it was a treat, and along with a downhill, the miles flew by. What made it better was that the view of San Jacinto was perfect and constant. And the wildflowers were really starting to pop. A great day of hiking! The next day we planned to get into the town of Cabazón for a quick resupply.
Worst day ever.
The morning began beautifully. It was a slow morning as we only had to walk four miles to the road where we could get a ride to town. The flowers down in the valley were amazing, it was like walking through a sea of yellow. We got a ride, did our chores and then got a ride back. Kind of. This is where things go south. The kind gentleman who gave us a ride misunderstood our directions and was also confused by some road construction signs. At any rate, he flew past our exit and suddenly we were en route to??? Fortunately (or unfortunately) there was a rest area a few miles down and we asked him to drop us there rather than travel who knows how far before being able to turn around. Besides, we’re hikers, we can handle a few extra miles. The only problem is that our options were hike along the freeway ditch or bushwhack to a railroad track and walk that instead. We opted for the tracks and began to make our way back to where we got our initial ride that morning. When we got there, there were several hikers there who informed us that we had just missed trail magic of sandwiches, drinks and RESUPPLY! The very reason we got off in the first place. Oh well. We hiked a couple miles to our campsite which is where things went from a day of adventure to nightmare. As I was organizing my gear for the next day, I realized that I couldn’t find my wallet. Immediately panic set in when I thought of all the places I had been- particularly the car of the gentleman who gave us the fateful ride. But it was dark and rather than make a rash decision, I decided to get some sleep and conduct a proper search through my kit in the morning. Trail nero, 6 miles.
The search begins
The next morning, rather than hike out with my friends, I completely emptied out my pack onto my ground sheet to see if perhaps in my haste the day before I had put it somewhere different. I went through every pocket, including the clothing I was wearing or had worn. No luck. I would have to retrace my steps. But what if it’s in dude’s car? We’ll think about that if we need to. I hiked backwards along the trail, but this time, rather than admiring the scenery, I was scanning the ground for a blue rectangle. Good thing I was looking at the ground, I saw my first rattlesnake! Though this was a little guy and rather than assuming the stereotypical “don’t mess with me” position and the accompanying rattle, he looked like a frat boy who didn’t quite make it to his house and spent the evening stretched out in the yard as he was straight across the trail and not moving. I paused for a moment, took a quick photo of the pathetic reptile, hopped over him and continued my search. Eventually, I made it back to the train tracks and knew that I had less than two miles in which to find my wallet before implementing ’plan C’ (cancelling credit cards, trying to replace ID from across the country…). I continued walking, scanning the ground, trying to remember where I walked high up on the rails and where I was further down. We had stopped in a couple places for shade. Was it there? Did I take something out of my pocket in this spot? I was running out of real estate and really starting to organize my thoughts on what my next steps would look like. I could see the access road where we met the tracks which meant about two hundred feet remained of my search- and my sanity, when suddenly, in a glance to the right, a blue rectangle! It was right next to the rails! I had taken my phone out to take a picture and my wallet had unknowingly come out with it! The sense of relief was overwhelming! I could continue on my hike and not have to navigate logistical hell! I hiked back up the trail and after eight miles of travel, was at net zero PCT miles for the day. I continued on and hit the start of section C. The first few miles were hot and steep with no notable scenery other than a construction site at a wind farm. As I crested the ridge though, I was treated to an amazing view that was like looking at a different world. The mountainsides were green and covered with wildflowers. Great swaths of orange, yellow, purple and white were coated in patches that looked like someone spray painted them on to the hillside. My pace slowed to a crawl and it was everything I could do to stay on trail. The stress of the morning was gone and I felt like I was back where I belonged. I camped at the Whitewater Preserve, a nice little oasis that was super hiker friendly. The next day I would begin my walk up Mission Creek into the San Gabriel Mountains and my inevitable contact with snow.
I split the trip into the mountains into two legs. The first day super easy as I was a bit tired from the stress and extra miles from the previous day, with the following a bit longer that took me into the higher elevations. The snow began around 6500’ and got deeper as I continued up. As per usual, there were multiple tracks and the actual PCT was difficult at best to follow. I made it to the Coon Creek Cabin where I encountered a few of my friends that I had left when the wallet debacle happened. We spent the afternoon relaxing and planning for a zero day in Big Bear. Which would give us a temporary reprieve from the snow.
After a day off mixed with resupply chores, laundry and relaxing, it was time to get back on trail. Even though it’s nice to take a break, I begin to get antsy and look forward to the rhythm of the day to day trail life. As we hiked out, and up, we encountered more snow. But it was to be the last of this stretch- 10 miles of “snow hell” said one commenter on FarOut. But by this point it was common place: take your time, keep your wits about you, be smart. By late morning, the snow was behind us and it was smooth desert hiking. The next major landmark was the Deep Creek hot springs- a must stop on the trail. Rather than camp there, I elected to make it a lunch stop. I spent a bit of time soaking in the water, had lunch and was out by noon- exactly as I planned (no vortex for me!). There were several creek crossings to contend with, but by this point it had become the norm as all the snow was melting which made every large creek at least knee deep and every small stream a guaranteed water source (a big benefit of a high snow year). My plan was to take two days to get to Cajón Pass and the iconic McDonalds! I set up for the night and went to sleep. Until 1 a.m. A mouse decided to visit my campsite and was very interested in my food bag. I shoed the rodent away, peed (completely unrelated) and went back to sleep. Almost. My little friend was back and more persistent than ever. I had a couple choices: stay awake and guard my food, fight to the death or start hiking. Since the mouse was clearly smarter than me, I decided that hiking was my best option. So I packed up, put on my headlamp and started walking. I had said when I started the trail that I didn’t want to night hike except for the L.A. aqueduct. But there was something meditative about moving into a small circle of light, only to have the circle move ahead of you. The landscape is reduced to silhouettes so while you know generally what is around you, there are no details to distract you. By sunrise, I had 10 miles in and now I was going to be able to get to McDonalds by early afternoon! Lots of time to eat! After gorging myself and “loving it”, I hiked out and camped a couple miles out. The next day we started heading towards Wrightwood, Mt. Baden Powell and our final snow of the desert section. The first three miles were rolling and beautiful and the miles came easy. After a brief stop at a water cache, I began the climb of the day. 15 miles, at a constant grade, no reprieve. The view was perfect the whole time and while the miles were moving (albeit slowly) under our feet, it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere as we could see our previous night’s campsite the entire time. Maybe just a few miles as the crow flies. This was also the first time on the trail that I was faced with a water shortage. Up until this point, it has been plentiful. However, on this climb it was completely dry. It was interesting to get a taste of the water management that will be required further up the trail. We finally reached the top and the snow line around 8000’. We set up camp with tomorrow’s plan to be a short 7ish mile trip to the junction with US2 which would take us into the town of Wrightwood. And we found water! The sun was melting the snow and there was a small rivulet in the trail, just enough to collect for filtering- no need to melt snow!
So here we are, in Wrightwood, enjoying all the things that this super hiker friendly town has to offer. Tomorrow we will be taking the US2 alternate around Baden Powell rather than contending with the snow in the mountains. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, skipping mountain top sections, but for me at my age, makes the most sense as I have to play the long game in terms of effort in order to complete the hike. Are there others who have taken more risk and made it through the tougher sections? Yes there are, and their efforts are rewarded and celebrated. But each of us has to decide what will work best for them in terms of risk tolerance in conjunction with experience and skill set. I am tending to err on the side of caution even if it means missing out on a few trail features.
The walk down US2 started easy enough. We left early as we wanted to take advantage of the crusty morning snow. The first few miles were completely clear and I started to regret my decision to not go up the mountain. As we rounded the northern slopes though, the world changed. The road transitioned from patchy snow, to full snow coverage. Lots of it. At times, the flat area of the road was completely covered to the point that the slope of the mountain was continuous. In addition, there were numerous rock falls and fresh avalanche debris that really made it clear that the mountain was in charge. As the day went on, the sun warmed the snow and rather than a walkable crust became a slushy mess. It’s an interesting mix of sensations, super hard effort without the commensurate forward progress, baking in the sun and at the same time having soaking wet and freezing cold feet. A precursor to the Sierra? Probably. We spent the rest of the day in this manner as we wanted to once and for all put the snow behind us. After around 12 miles and eight hours, we finally got to a section where road crews had plowed and we could walk in a normal manner. Sort of. For the first few minutes, our frozen feet actually hurt to walk on a normal surface and we waddled like ducks until the blood began flowing again. We found a place to camp that was snow free, exhausted from the long day but content with the fact that the next few weeks would be spent in relative ease as we wouldn’t see snow again for several hundred miles.
So what have I learned in this section? The biggest one is that sometimes things are going to go sideways on you! It makes sense, after all, we wouldn’t expect things to run perfectly smooth in our normal lives for four to six months, so we shouldn’t expect anything different on trail. The difference is that on trail we are functioning in a land of unknowns and extremes, with less available resources, so the margin for error is much less and the effects of them are much greater. The trail has a lot to offer: freedom, beauty, magical moments… But it can also be a cruel mistress and turn on you in a second, making you wonder why you decided to come out in the first place. At the end of the day, it’s how you deal with the adverse situations that will define your overall experience on the trail. The great moments are easy- and they are plentiful, but there are many things that are less than stellar as well and it all combines into one fantastic experience.
See you down the trail.
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