Trail log: Week 1 on the PCT
I started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail late March of 2023. Here I write about the ups, downs and the great people I got to meet in this amazing first week.
Day 1: A good start to a great adventure
I’ve seen the “Southern Terminus,” the monument at the border between Mexico and the United States, countless of times in photos. At first I thought the gray pillars were made out of concrete, and its twin brother near the Canadian border was made out of wood – but that’s not the case. Both are made out of wood, but the southern version is painted gray. And today is the day I get to see this monument in real life.
I am on the bus to Campo together with my husband David and my fellow hikers Angela and Alan. Campo is a small town near the Mexican border. Angela, Alan and I first met the day before, but we’ve had the same plan for years: walk from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, within 6 months. Today is our starting date. David holds my hand as I look out the window, searching for a glimpse of the Mexican border. After some time the immense iron bar wall appears on the horizon, and we reach our stop soon after.
I look at David’s back as he walks beside Alan up the hill towards where the PCT begins. Soon enough, the gray pillars of the Southern Terminus appear against the bright blue sky.
We are greeted by the Pacific Crest Trail Association at a table next to the Terminus, where I write my name in the thruhiker logbook and receive a tag with the PCT’s logo to attach to my backpack. A volunteer reminds us of the “Leave no trace” code of conduct for thru-hikers, gives us a small trash bag for the road and then we are good to go.
I feel my heart flutter as I walk up to the Terminus and place my fingers against the painted material. This monument means the beginning of this journey, but it also means it’s time to say goodbye to David. I click my hipbelt shut, tighten the shoulder straps a little, and turn around to face him. We stand there for a while in a silent embrace. “Be safe,” he whispers, and I can only nod against his shoulder. I hadn’t thought it possible to look forward to a moment so much, and dread it at the same time. “Get home safe, and see you soon,” I whisper back, and we let go.
The first steps on the PCT don’t feel real. With each step, it resounds through my head. “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” I turn to wave one last time to David in the distance, chew on the inside of my cheek and walk with Angela into the vast desert.
We get to know each other while walking, and we almost don’t notice the “1 mile” marker. Only 2,652 miles left to go. Angela tells me that she is studying biology, but is currently taking a break to hike the PCT. She has lived basically her entire life for school, and is finally doing something for herself. We connect almost immediately reinforced by the fact that we both have the unusual dream of walking an insane amount of miles and sleeping in a tent for six months.
The trail winds around hills and seems to go in all directions, until we go up in elevation. We marvel at the beautiful views and we laugh at the stones in the shape of the symbol π that someone laid down at mile 3.14.
We admire the many unfamiliar trees and plants. I ask Angela the biologist (not a plant biologist) if she knows what the smooth red trees with eucalyptus-like leaves are called, but she has no idea and we are now out of range of any internet signal to look it up.
My backpack sits comfortably on my back. With enough food for the next 4 days, it’s not too heavy, and the way the weight grounds me gives me the feeling I’m supposed to be here. At our first break of the day, we sit together with a girl who introduces herself as Madison. She is from California and wears brightly colored shorts with a melon slice print on them. We talk about this year’s record snowfall and the storm expected later this week, while enjoying the sunshine and mild temperature. We continue.
The campsite we chose for today is already completely full, but we find an empty spot a few yards back. We cook our first dinner on the PCT, watch the sunset and then quickly get into our tents. As I floss my teeth in my sleeping bag, I try to reach for the earlier feeling that I’m supposed to be here – but all that comes to mind is my husband’s face, our cat, my favorite spot on the couch at home. This is what I expected for the first night, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I frown at the moon through my tent, take a sip of water, and fall into a dreamless sleep.
Day 2 – ‘S no(w) rush
At 07:00 the sun is out and it’s time to get up. It is a beautiful day and occasionally I hear two birds with completely different voices sing to each other.
Angela is also awake and we decide to have breakfast before breaking camp. I put on water for coffee and oatmeal, and after brushing our teeth we are ready to leave.
The campsite down the road that was full yesterday is already completely empty. We don’t expect to run into them again today either, since we’re not in a hurry. The PCT is still covered in snow in many places, and the only reward for big mile days at this point is injuries and snow camping.
It is 4 miles to Hauser Creek. We hike along the edge of a hill until we reach a large valley.
From the top of the valley, we can see a car on a dirt road at a lower point. We start the descent and time flies, as it always does in the morning. Before we realize it, we walk past the car we saw earlier. It has a PCT bumper sticker and hiking gear in the back seat. But who would come to this part of the PCT by car…?
When we hear voices on the way to the bottom of the valley, we expect Hauser Creek and a few resting hikers, but instead we see about 7 people with helmets and pickaxes working on the trail. Trail maintenance! We thank them for their hard work and I ask one of the guys if he knows what the red, wax-like trees are called. He identifies them as manzanitas, but that doesn’t ring a bell. There are already so many new things to learn on this trail.
We reach Hauser Creek not long after and decide to take a break and filter water. I intend to eat a protein bar, but actually have no appetite and forget about it altogether. I do finish my bottle of water with electrolytes. It is hot today. The next few miles cover an infamous climb, and after that it will be a short stretch to Lake Morena. We both decide to put on some music, and the hike up can begin.
The sun is scorching by now, and the occasional gust of wind is the only thing that offers some relief. The view gets more and more beautiful, but the climb is tough. I’m parched despite the bottle of electrolytes but no matter how much I drink, it doesn’t do anything. My lips are chapped and I feel my neck burning. I admire but also can’t relate to the hikers who want to reach Lake Morena on the first day, 20 miles including this climb. I’m glad we’re taking it slow.
The higher we get, the better the breeze reaches us. The road ahead shimmers and where small streams touch the trail, the sand looks like watercolor with golden pigment. When I reach the top of the valley I see that Angela is no longer behind me. I am alone for the first time.
I resolve to find a spot where I can filter new water and inspect my foot for a moment, as I feel a warm spot under my toes. However, there is no shade anywhere, and nowhere do I see water.
After a while, I decide to just sit down next to a bush and take off my shoes. In between my little toes sits a big swollen blister the size of my toenail. Oof. I wonder if this is a good time to puncture it, since merely taping it over probably won’t do anything. I disinfect the skin, take a blood lancet and insert it into the side of the blister. Immediately a thick stream of fluid flows out. The blister gets smaller but doesn’t disappear, and I don’t want to put any further pressure on it. It is what it is. I disinfect everything again, tape it and continue walking.
Puncturing was a mistake. The pain is a lot stronger than before and I can’t put my foot down without standing on the blister. There’s nothing I can do at this point to make it better, so I decide not to think about it. Blisters on the second day, that’s not very thru-hiker of me. It’s really quite amusing and over time the pain subsides on its own.
The trail slowly heads down toward Lake Morena. In the distance I can already see the impressive lake, but I don’t see the campground yet. I reach a big sign explaining about the PCT and another trail that runs through here, and it tells me the PCT is on the left. When I continue I can see a trail marker with the number 8 painted on it. I’m surprised since this is mile 18, but assume it is not a mile marker. At the next pole with number 7 on it I understand we are counting down, and as I pass number 1 I walk onto the campgrounds.
I expected a few tents next to a lake, but instead I find myself in a commercial campground with asphalt roads and large trailers. I can’t see the PCT anywhere. The navigation app FarOut tells me my location is somewhere in Mexico, two miles south of the starting point. Very helpful.
I walk down the road and wave to a couple of hikers who have booked a camping spot here, but feel a little hesitant to walk over to them. Eventually I see a fence with a sign: “Canada 2640 miles.” Better than FarOut. I can continue.
The stretch that follows is dusty and tremendously hot. It is now the hottest part of the day and I haven’t seen anyone since Morena. After an hour or so I see a hidden stream to the right of the trail where I can filter water and perhaps rest for a while. FarOut has since found my location, but my hideout is not listed on the app.
Through the trees I see Madison’s recognizable melon print shorts and hope to see her later today. I continue not long after. It’s another short climb and the trail gets less dusty, and the sun isn’t so hot anymore either.
When I finally run into Madison again, she is talking with two other hikers who are on the phone. I plan to walk on after saying hi, but Madison politely involves me in the conversation. It seems the two hikers are arranging transportation to get back to San Diego because rain is expected tomorrow. They are also not too keen on going to Mount Laguna because there is already some snow there. They express some frustration about how different the comments and testimonials from other hikers online are about the next stretch, but I’ve not read up about it on purpose.
When they ask me what I’m planning to do for myself, I briefly mention that I want to see the situation tomorrow and at Mount Laguna with my own eyes. Everyone is silent for a bit, but then they nod. I wish them safe travels and walk on. Madison walks with me and we chat cheerfully for a while about the plants on the trail. Not long after, we run into Angela as well and we decide to go to the camping spot at mile 23. Once we get there, there are no other tents yet. Angela and I have reached our goal for the day – we are planning to do 13 miles at most tomorrow and finally a “nero” (a day in which you hike less than 10 miles) to Mount Laguna. Madison wants to hike on a little longer so she can be at Mount Laguna by tomorrow.
It’s 4:30 p.m., so we can get into bed around sunset this time and hopefully be less cold tonight. We do our chores and I decide to quickly wash my underwear and socks so they can dry overnight. I wash myself in my tent and then put on my clean, dry pajamas. Lying on top of my sleeping bag for a while, I feel like a completely new person.
It is time for dinner and I make pasta with teriyaki sauce and salmon. We move to a rock at the edge of our campsite and eat our dinner overlooking Lake Morena.
We talk about our families, the people we met today and how unreal it is to really be here. We’re also a little stunned by the wonderful view. It’s a great end to a beautiful day.
Day 3 – Seeing it with my own eyes
We wake up at the empty camping spot and are surprised that no one has joined us the night before. We plan to camp around mile 37 with the intention of being in the village of Mount Laguna before Thursday night’s storm. The thick layer of wet condensation on the inside of the tent delays our start this morning. I try to fan the tent out a bit, but don’t have time to let it dry well. There is rain forecast for today.
Alan passes our site as we’re packing up. We expected him to be ahead of us, but it seems he was behind us yesterday. He wants to try to be in Mount Laguna by tonight, so he started early. We watch as he disappears from sight around a corner.
We leave the hills behind us and reach a valley in which we see a river with a car overpass. Today we have two rivers to cross. The first one has water that is knee deep and the next should be a little deeper. This must be the first one. We go over to the water to take a look, but decide to forego the wet shoes for now by walking across the overpass. The longer we can avoid wet feet, the better. The route continues through a large meadow, and the sky slowly becomes overcast.
At the second river crossing, we see two hikers on the other side. They warn us that the water is quite deep, deeper than it looks. We take off our shoes and tie them to our packs, and I begin the crossing on my sandals. The water is freezing cold. It wasn’t a warm day anyway, but I didn’t expect the water to be this bad. There is a riverbank halfway across that I can rest on for a while, but my ankles remain underwater and it’s not a nice break. I have to keep going. At the second part of the crossing the water is up to my thighs and I pick up the pace towards the shore. As soon as I’m out of the water, my legs are bright red, but I’m no longer cold. In fact, the outside air is pleasantly warm compared to the river.
As we dry ourselves off and put our trailrunners back on, we chat with the couple on the shore. They introduce themselves as Indie and Connor from Indiana. Indie hiked the PCT last year, but while doing so, she missed Connor so much that she stopped early. This year they are doing it together. I relate to how Indie must have felt last year and their story makes me smile. The four of us continue walking to Boulder Oaks, an official campground with a picnic table and a restroom. Indie and Connor tell us they’ll get off the trail here to avoid the rain, and we say goodbye to them for now.
We begin a steep climb, and the heavily overcast sky slowly starts leaking. As we walk around the edge of the mountain and enter a large valley, we can still see the highway but the fog is rolling in quickly. Everything that can still be seen is beautiful – a deep blue stream at the bottom of the valley with bright green trees everywhere.
When I turn around after a while, I’ve lost Angela and I’m not sure if she’s ahead of me or behind me. At a crossing point near a big highway, I consider waiting for her just to be sure, but standing still cools me off awfully fast and I decide after a while to get moving again. I spend the next few hours with my eyes fixed on the trail and my shoulders hunched up against the strong wind. Every time I look up I see nothing but thick, white fog. I decide to stop early at a small site at mile 34. I’m soaked to the bone and about to get so cold that I’m not sure I could get warm again in my sleeping bag.
As I squat down to push the last tent stake into the mud, a strong gust of wind pushes me into the tent. My trekking pole that holds up my tent comes loose with a snapping sound, and I fall sideways into the mud. I quickly assess the damage. The little loop that is attached to the bathtub floor through which the trekking pole sits has ripped loose, and it pulled a strip out of my bathtub floor like a bad hangnail. Well, shit. The rain is freezing cold, I’m soaked and there’s a hole in the floor of my tent.
I try to pitch the tent without the loop, and it seems to work reasonably well. If no water flows into the vestibule tonight, the hole won’t give me any trouble. I send Angela and my family a message by satellite phone that I stopped earlier because of the rain, peel off my wet clothes and worm myself into my dry pyjamas and my sleeping bag. I eat a cold meal since I can’t cook in the rain, and it takes me a good 45 minutes of shivering before I start to warm up. After that I am comfortable and happy again.
Around sunset it suddenly stops raining. As I get out of my tent for a moment to wring out my clothes, I see rays of sunshine through the clouds. I briefly walk along the path to see if I can see any other tents, and suspect to spot Angela’s tent further on among the bushes. When I call her name, however, I can’t hear any response and I refrain from making more noise.
I quickly get back into my warm sleeping bag, record an audio diary and fall asleep in no time.
Day 4 – When the desert freezes over
When I look under my vestibule at one in the morning, I see the white moonlight on the ground outside my tent. I turn lazily on my back to look for the moon through my rain fly, until I realize there is no moon to be seen. The white outside my tent is not moonlight, but snow. About 1 inch of it. It fell earlier than predicted today, but it’s not more than the predicted amount. I put my water filter in my sleeping bag to prevent it from freezing, and peacefully fall asleep again.
At 03:00 I get woken up by a creaking noise. It’s dark and I can’t see where the sound is coming from until I realize that my tent is slowly caving in. Because of snow. There is more than 6, maybe 8 inches of snow on my tent and the vestibule is completely snowed in. I push against the inside of the tent to shove the snow off, but it is difficult to move. I open the vents to let in some fresh air when my hand lands on my wet clothes from the day before. Frozen stiff. There is nothing else I can do at this point, so I keep myself warm in my sleeping bag and try to get some more sleep.
Every 30 minutes I wake up to push more snow off the tent, but it doesn’t stop snowing. At 05:30 I sit upright in my half collapsed tent and consider my options. According to the weather report on my satellite phone, it’s still below freezing and the temperature outside feels like 10°F. It won’t stop snowing until Friday. My clothes and shoes are frozen, and I have enough food to sit out the blizzard in my tent. But is it worth it? It’s only 7 miles to Mount Laguna, where there are facilities for hikers. As I hum “Should I stay or should I go,” I fantasize about the warm fireplace in Mount Laguna’s restaurant. Tempting, but putting on my cold and wet clothes to trudge through the snow… Not so tempting.
I literally don’t have the right experience to make the best choice in this situation. This is the time to acquire that experience. I change into my wet clothes with the comforting idea that this will be the hardest part of the day, squeeze my feet into my frozen shoes and shove everything in my soggy backpack. The tent can go last.
When I unzip the rainfly, I step into a world I didn’t think was possible.
Desert plants and cacti, under a thick blanket of snow. As far as the eye can see. With some difficulty I break down my snow-covered tent. I try to remove as much snow as I can, but to no avail. I roll up the wet fly and stuff it into the large front pocket of my bag. Time to go.
Angela’s tent (or at least, the tent I thought was Angela’s) is nowhere to be seen, but it also doesn’t help that her tent is white – as is the entire area.
The hours that follow can only be summed up as slogging and misery. The landscape is beautiful but endless, and I can’t estimate how many hours I’ve been walking. It certainly feels like more than just 7 miles. Up hill, down hill, desert turns into forest turns into desert, but it is all equally white. Occasionally I eat some freshly fallen snow. My water bottle remains frozen stiff all day.
Just 2 miles from Mount Laguna I see Angela’s red backpack through the trees. When I call out to her, she turns to see me and we run through the knee-high snow to fall into each other’s arms. Like me, she hasn’t seen another human all day and she is incredibly happy to no longer be alone. Together we walk the last stretch to Mount Laguna, and suddenly time doesn’t go so slow anymore.
Not much later we stumble into the office of the Tiny House Block with red cheeks and soaked clothes. We expect an office space with desks and computers, but instead see bunk beds filled with disheveled hikers in pajamas who likely came in looking like us a few hours earlier. The young girl who runs the place says we can sit on the floor next to the stove to warm up, and she’ll be back with us in no time. We share potato chips and stories with the other hikers, and learn that the bunk beds are an emergency solution for the influx of hikers who come here to take shelter during the storms of late.
The girl at the office tells us that they are completely booked today (down to the bunk beds), but she still has room for us on the floor of the women’s bathrooms. She assures us that they are very nice, that she can put a heater there, and that there should be enough room for our sleeping pads next to the showers. For $10 per person.
If you think it was a tough decision, know that anything is better than sleeping in a wet tent on the snow. We book the women’s bathroom floor (and book a real bed for tomorrow night), shower way too long in our lovely accommodations, and hang every available inch with our wet stuff. As we cook our dinner on the floor of the showers, we laugh together about how bizarre this day has been. We have no trouble falling asleep as the snow outside continues to fall.
Day 5 – A zero on the bathroom floor
The next morning we wake with a bright blue sky and sunshine through the window. Our stuff has not dried overnight as expected, but we have all day to let everything dry out properly. Today we have a “zero,” a day in which you walk zero miles to recover. We’re not that worn out from the past few days, but it’s a good strategy to avoid going back into the snow with wet gear. Plus, we can take the time to resupply for the next stretch and stop by the Mount Laguna post office.
We wait before opening time at the Pine House Cafe, excited to eat a real breakfast instead of oatmeal from a cup. We enjoy a delicious meal with eggs and fresh juice. Before we leave the restaurant we see Alan sitting by the fireplace. It feels like a week since we last saw him! He tells us that he arrived late last night and was able to sleep on the floor of the restaurant, along with some other hikers.
We do our shopping at the General Store and then I buy the post office’s entire supply of international stamps (2 in total). Then we spend the rest of the day getting our gear in order, bringing family up to speed and sorting out our food bags. Then, after a small supper, we sleep like logs in our comfy bunk beds.
Day 6 – Blue skies and a good forecast
Because there is still quite a lot of snow on Mount Laguna, we leave before sunrise. Snow is a lot easier to traverse when it’s still frozen, and we hope to be out before it gets soft and wet in the afternoon.
The first part of the route from Mount Laguna goes through a snowy patch of forest, and we have breakfast on a few tree stumps that we clear of snow. We chat about anything and everything in the sunshine when two guys pass our lunch spot for a chat.
They introduce themselves as Jonathan and Yomyom. Jonathan is from the Bay Area in California and is studying computer science. Yomyom is a videogame developer from France. He’s not really called Yomyom, but actually Guillaume – a name so difficult for foreigners to pronounce that on day 1 he was given the trail name Yomyom by an American woman.
We continue walking together to the top of a large hill, where we can see San Jacinto from an open plain. The first big mountain range on our route, covered in a thick layer of snow. We all fall silent for a moment to admire the beautiful view, and then we talk enthusiastically about the road ahead as we continue. In just over a week, we will be there. It’s currently still closed but we hope it will be open by then.
We pass the 50 miles together, and for the rest of the day we walk through a varying landscape with big rocks and beautiful views. The wind is strong at lower elevations, and it takes a while to find a suitable place to pitch our tents. I eat dinner with Angela and fall asleep while the wind bullies my rain fly. Today was a long day.
Day 7 – The great desert race
Just before I finish getting ready, the strong wind rips two of my tent stakes out of the ground. I watch as my little tent slowly collapses with me in it. Fortunately I had already finished changing clothes. While packing up my tent I watch how everyone else is also struggling with the high winds. It can be quite strong in the desert and no place is safe.
When I arrive at Angela’s site, she enthusiastically tells me that there is a sheltered camping spot in 14 miles according to FarOut. That will be our goal for today. But perhaps for many others as well…. We keep up the pace to get there as soon as possible, and coincidentally have lunch with Jonathan and Yomyom who hint that they have the same goal for today as us.
The four of us walk together the rest of the day and get to know each other a bit. The boys want to hitchhike to Julian the next day, but Angela and I planned to skip that stop to go to Montezuma Valley. We arrive at the sheltered camping spot at the same time and are happy to see that no one is there yet. We set up our tents with a quiet night ahead…
…or so we thought. The wind picks up in the evening and is louder than before. The flapping of the tents is so loud that we lose sleep over it.
Angela comes to my tent very early the next morning with the news that one of her tent poles has broken. The broken pole has torn through her rain fly, which is now unusable. There is no way around it. We have to go to Julian to get a new tent for Angela. I vow to go with her, and we are happy that we can hitchhike with the boys. This is the beginning of our trail family, and our first adventure together.
To be continued…
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