Day 38: Tehachapi (567) to Golden Oaks Spring (583)
Day 39: 583 to Landers Creek (606)
Day 40: 606 to Bird Spring Pass (631)
Day 41: 631 to Walker Pass (hitch to Lake Isabella) (652)
Day 42: 652 to Joshua Tree Spring (664)
Day 43: 664 to Fox Mill Spring (683)
Day 44: 683 to Kennedy Meadows (702)
Day 45-46: Zero days in Kennedy Meadows
Highlights: Officially entering the Sierras feels like good progress; Excited to enter the high Sierras, and got a couple of good views of what’s to come; Saw my first (live) rattlesnake; Cool joshua trees; Completed my first megameter.
Lowlights: My friends on the trail are starting to fragment as they make plans to tackle (or not) the Sierras; Getting buzzed by a rattlesnake is not really the nicest way to start the morning; Desert couldn’t decide if it’s done or not; A couple of long, challenging days necessitated by limited water availability; Didn’t actually hike on International Hike Naked Day.
Tehachapi to Walker Pass
After a relaxed morning packing up from our hotel room in Tehachapi, Shea and I snagged the bus out to Tehachapi Pass, where Hwy 58 crosses the PCT, and the Sierras officially begin from a geologists’ perspective (but not from a hiker’s perspective). The Best Western in Tehachapi managed to attract all of the hikers, which was a lot of fun and a lot of partying, but ultimately I needed to get out of there, because that’s not what I’m here for.
Machine and Twinkle Toes (a girl from Edmonton, Alberta, whose hiking partner recently decided she was over the whole experience) decided to take a second day off in Tehachapi to relax the feet. My feet were also pretty sore because my shoes have just about had it. We stopped by a Big 5 Sporting Goods the previous day to try to replace them, only to find that Big 5 is actually a completely useless store if you want anything other than baseball bats, fishing poles, or sunglasses. Deep down I knew this to be true, but there aren’t other options short of going to Bakersfield, and Lord knows I’m not going to that town by choice. So I’ve got to squeeze out another 140 miles on this pair of shoes before I can replace them in Kennedy Meadows (update: at the time of writing, I’ve already done 90 of those miles, and they’re still holding together; second update: they made it to Kennedy Meadows!).
Anyway, the first two days of hiking out of Tehachapi Pass were mostly barren, with some shady sections on northern exposures and around the odd water source. Lots of wind turbines still, which I find to be a very intriguing manifestation of human society out on these unforgiving slopes. Other hikers find them ugly and intrusive, and I would too if they were everywhere, but it was a nice change of pace for a few days.
I also got two of my best fauna photographs during these first two days. On the first day I came across a jackrabbit which, unlike most I’ve seen, didn’t bolt upon my appearance.
And on the second day, just after leaving the campsite, I spotted my first live rattlesnake. As I was walking down the trail, this thing slithered across the trail about a meter in front of me. I didn’t have a chance to stop, and as I walked past where it had just been, I saw that it had a rattle that began to loudly shake. Having never heard it before, it was a higher pitch than I expected. I turned around after I was a couple of meters passed it, and it was coiled under a bush holding completely still and staring directly at me. It was no longer rattling (I think I was too far away for that), so I snapped a couple of pictures before moving on.
At the end of the second day, I was camped in a lush pine forest around a fire ring with probably a dozen other hikers. I was feeling pretty good about the situation because it felt like the desert might finally be over, even though I knew that there was about to be a 35 mile stretch with no natural water sources (this was broken up by three “water caches”, where trail angels bring dozens of five-gallon water jugs up to intersections of the trail with dirt roads). That was a mistake: the third day (day 40) was one of the hottest, driest, least shaded days I’ve had the entire trail. The only vegetation were little scrubby bushes and the occasional joshua tree, which are actually pretty neat in my opinion.
I also got a couple of bites from fire ants, and my right thigh is still a bit swollen and painful three days later.In order to make it to a water cache for dinner on Day 40, I had to do 25 miles through the heat. I’ve done that distance before, but it’s not fun when it’s hot and you’re rationing your water intake. The campsite at the end of the day was awesome though, situation right in the saddle point of Bird Spring Pass, with great views out to the Mojave Desert in the east and to the western slope to the west (obviously).
On Day 41, I got one of my earliest starts yet, and was hiking by 6:20. I wanted to do the 21 miles into Walker Pass with plenty of afternoon left, and also to do the climb out of Bird Spring Pass before it was hot. Day 41 had more northern exposures, so was largely shaded until the very end of the descent into Walker Pass, which is the last highway crossing of the Sierras south of Yosemite. I made it there by probably 2, but I had trouble finding a hitch into town, and waited around until nearly 4 until the Kern Transit bus arrived.I don’t know how clear the picture is, but I finally got my first views of the High Sierras, snowcapped and looming on the northern horizon.
I spent the afternoon of Day 41 and the morning of Day 42 in Lake Isabella, a slightly run-down town east of Bakersfield. It’s probably 40 miles from the crest, so it’s definitely not a cute little mountain town, but everyone wad very friendly and a few people have asked if I was hiking the PCT and expressed their admiration. So, not a town I would choose to visit, but for what it is, I must say I appreciated it.
Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows
I headed back out to the trail in the afternoon of Day 42 after a pretty long time waiting for a hitch and a long drive back, so I wasn’t hiking until about 4:30 pm. It’s 50 miles between Walker Pass and Kennedy Meadows, so my plan was to do 10 miles in the afternoon, followed by two 20-mile days. I happened to hit the trail at around the same time as Swiss Cheese and Cheese Wow!, a hippie couple who met working for the forest service and who I’ve been leapfrogging since basically the beginning of the trail, and Tommy and Toddy, two buddies from rural Victoria Australia who share a tent and are a real comedy duo. They had all stayed in a town in the other direction from the pass. I hadn’t really seen people I knew in a day, so it was nice to have company again. We made it 12 miles that evening, so only needed to do 19 in each of the next two days.Those next two days were a slow transition from desert to mountains, mostly dependent on elevation, which undulated between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. Below about 6,500 feels deserty, and above that feels alpine.
On the last day into Kennedy Meadows, the trail joined the South Fork Kern River for the final 10 miles or so, finally putting to rest the long water carries, and giving my group an opportunity to go for a swim for the first time in a long time.
I made it into Kennedy Meadows around 4 pm and headed to the general store, where dozens of hikers were congregated on the deck applauding each new hiker who has just completed the desert section.
Relaxing in Kennedy Meadows
I’ve now been in Kennedy Meadows for two full days, mostly socializing with other hikers on the deck of the general store and getting my mountain gear all sorted out.Some highlights: watching Airplane! on a big outdoor projector screen; applauding new hikers coming in; getting a couple of pickup bed rides to the other place in town; chatted a bunch with this photographer from Outside magazine who was assigned to document International Hike Naked Day. Unfortunately I didn’t hike on that day, so remained fully clothed.With the treacherous Sierra Nevada looming in the horizon, I will now actually hike in a group, rather than alone but crossing paths with the same people. It looks like my group is going to be Machine and Shea, who I’ve been loosely hiking with for the last couple of weeks; Jordan, who I hiked with in the first couple of weeks, and had since caught back up with me (his girlfriend Chelsea has been on and off the trail recently, and my join up with us later); and Snazzy, a really solid, generous guy from Florida who I only recently met. The other guys are all 30-35 years old, I think, so young enough to be physically fit, but old enough to bring some maturity to the situation. Jordan has also hiked the Appalachian Trail already, so he’s got a lot of backpacking experience, if not specific to the upcoming high alpine conditions.We head out tomorrow morning. It’ll be at least 3 days until we’re in significant amounts of snow, at which point we’ll begin to assess whether we’re capable of continuing the crossing, or whether we need to skip to another section and return when the snow and rivers are lower.