Day 69: 978 to hill overlooking Return Creek canyon (955)
Day 70: 955 to the base of Donahue Pass (932)
Day 71: 932 to Red’s Meadows (bus to Mammoth Lakes) (907)
Highlights: Grinding through some serious miles on sometimes difficult terrain, and getting closer to the end of the southbound portion; Nothing was especially sketchy; Southernmost part is easy hiking with awesome views; Crossed paths with most of the people I had been around before I bailed; Hiking with my friend Marissa.
Lowlights: Northernmost part had a ton of elevation gain and loss but without ever reaching any grand vistas; Aside from the day with Marissa, haven’t been able to have more than a 5-minute conversation with anybody; mosquitos; guitar is slightly broken, making it less fun to play.
Sonora Pass to Tuolomne Meadows
I started my day at Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station, known in the PCT community as Kennedy Meadows North to distinguish it from the KM at the southern end of the Sierras.
KM North was one of my favorite places to stay on the trail, because it’s hiker-friendly but not hiker-centric. Rather, most people there tended to be on the “Pack Station” side of things, strutting around in boots, ten-gallon hats, and bushy moustaches. And this makes sense looking out back and seeing a huge array of horses and mules.
Heading out of Sonora Pass, I was a bit apprehensive about the conditions I would be facing. While I was comfortable north of there, Sonora Pass is generally considered to be the northern end of the more challenging High Sierras, and I didn’t know if this would mean that I was again out of my depth.
Fortunately, I knew this would be settled immediately, as some northbound hikers said that the descent into Sonora Pass (i.e. my ascent out of it), was one of the sketchier things they did. It was a pretty long snowy uphill, but never dangerously steep (there was a glissade path down, so I figured the worst case scenario was that I’d slide down that and have to repeat the exercise), so with some diligent step-kicking, I made it up to the top without ever feeling unsteady, which was a big confidence booster.
The remainder of the first day south of Sonora Pass was mostly high ridges, followed by a drop into a canyon, followed by a climb over Dorothy Lake Pass. As I alluded to in my previous post, I passed the 1,000 mile marker, though hadn’t yet hiked 1,000 miles (at the time of posting, I have now hiked about 1,050 miles).
The rest of these three days or so to Tuolomne Meadows were characterized by challenging and thankless hiking – the trail descended into about five canyons only to immediately ascend the other side, with the downhills much too steep to make the uphills worth it. The bottoms of these canyons were also filled with mosquitos. These three days were probably my hardest southbound so far, because I didn’t let the challenging topography slow my daily mileage.
The challenge was broken up by the occasional view of a mountain, lake, or meadow, but these were a little hard to appreciate amid the buzz of the mosquitoes.
At this stage, I also began to cross paths with people I knew who hadn’t flipped north. It was nice to catch up with all of them, but going the opposite direction, I couldn’t really talk to anyone for more than a few minutes before I had to get going again.
Tuolomne Meadows to Mammoth
Things began to improve markedly from Tuolomne Meadows (the high country of Yosemite National Park) for a few reasons.
First, my college friend Marissa joined me for a day hiking south from Tuolomne Meadows. Known to my UK friends as “Nature Marissa”, she works as an interpretive ranger at (relatively) nearby Sequoia National Park, and so was able to make it to the trail for a day out (and then back the next day without me). It was great to catch up with her and also have my only sustained social interaction in over a week.
Second, the hiking got easier and the views more rewarding. Tuolomne Meadows itself is about a 15 mile stretch of completely flat meadows surrounded by high mountains, and then over the next pass south of there (Donahue Pass) was a very gentle descent into the Middle Fork San Joaquin River with some grand views to the west.
Finally, the lighter terrain allowed me to do my biggest miles in this section, which is a big psychological boost to be now barely over 100 miles from the end of my southbound journey.
On the phone with my friend Clara yesterday, she pointed out that I hadn’t really written anything about my guitar, which I guess is because it’s been kind of a constant thing throughout my journey rather than associated with any one particular section.
Anyway, this bad boy has been on my back since the Mexican border, collecting stickers along the way:
It’s been awesome to have my other favorite activity on hand to entertain myself and others at the end of the day, and my American Pie compilation video is going to be epic (hopefully!) at the end of the journey.
For the time being, though, it’s more chore than fun because one of the tuning pegs broke, so I had to remove a string entirely in order for it not to sound super out of tune. The manufacturer is mailing me a replacement part for it, so I’m excited for it to be fully operational again soon.
I’m about to head out of Mammoth for my last 107 miles southbound. This is the highest part of the trail, and what was directly on my mind when I decided to bail. Sounds like a lot of snow has melted and the rivers have receded, so should be a lot more manageable than what it would have been a few weeks ago. If all goes well, I should be driving back north to Truckee again next Wednesday!
Day 60: Donner Pass/Sugar Bowl (1153) to backside of Squaw Valley (1140)
Day 61: 1140 to Richardson Lake (1119)
Day 62: 1119 to Echo Summit/South Lake Tahoe (1091)
Day 63: 1091 to Showers Lake (1082)
Day 64: 1082 to the side of Raymond Peak (1059)
Day 65: 1059 to the side of Arnot Peak (1038)
Day 66: 1038 to Sonora Pass (1017)
Highlights: Meeting lots of interesting people; great trail magic; Desolation Wilderness; familiar territory at first; back to knocking off 20+ miles/day.
Lowlights: More snow than I expected; Losing my hiking partner; everyone I meet is either a dayhiker or northbound, so difficult to build meaningful relationships; psychological challenges associated with now walking away from Canada.
I’m not going to write this post as a day by day account, in part because I’ve got seven days’ worth of material to cover, and also because there are several common themes that thread each of the days together.
Overall Hike Description
This section is basically the populated northern Sierras: there are roads crossing the mountains (I’ve reached Donner, Echo, Carson, Ebbetts, and Sonora Passes), ski resorts, and day hikers (as well as hikers of the 150ish mile Tahoe Rim Trail). The mountains are less dramatic than where I bailed from, but it is still a very mountainous region, and there’s not really much less snow than much further south.
There are two big differences in hiking conditions, however: (1) the snow tends to be in shaded, often flat, areas and can be difficult to predict just by looking at a map (as opposed to the High Sierra, where the snow line was above the tree line, and therefore more predictably accumulated at higher elevations and northern exposures); (2) because the snow is in wooded areas, it feels quite a lot less precarious.
Anyway, there’s enough dry trail that it’s possible to hike more than 20 miles in a day, but enough snow that it will take all day to do so, and your pace may be stymied by an unexpected snowy patch.
This heading is more ominous than it should be: Jordan is doing fine, and is simply now heading north, and will return for the Sierras after reaching Canada. With that disclaimer out of the way, there was more snow than either of us expected, and we were both surprised as to how difficult it was to do the miles we thought we should be doing.
We obviously reacted to that situation in different ways though: while Jordan is a stronger hiker than me overall, I am evidently much more comfortable on snow than me, perhaps due to being on skis not long after I could walk, or the countless winter and late spring trips into Salmon Lake. While he grew quickly frustrated at the slower pace imposed by the snowpack, I saw it as a fun challenge in my adventure. We ascended and descended several snowy slopes that he found sketchy, but that I thought were reasonable.
On our second night out of Donner Pass, Jordan told me that there was a good chance he’d make it to South Lake Tahoe and then head right back to Truckee and start going north where the snow would quickly cease to be a factor. I had set out with a partner back into the Sierras for safety reasons, so I had to figure out what I would do if he chose not to continue.
One advantage of hiking southbound is that you cross paths with every northbound hiker, roughly 4-5 every hour. I’d asked several what to expect, and I gleaned that the trail conditions didn’t worsen between where we were and Sonora Pass (i.e. the distance covered by this post), and that the toughest part was probably Dick’s Pass in Desolation Wilderness, which we were about to summit. Therefore, I resolved that if I were comfortable doing Dick’s Pass alone, then I would continue alone at least as far as Sonora Pass should Jordan bail.
I didn’t have to imagine what doing Dick’s Pass alone would be like. After crossing a snowy approach, we began to climb the pass in earnest. The trail up the slope was dry at first, but soon comprised several snowy traverses. I traversed most of these while Jordan climbed below them on dry, but steep, ground. The last traverse was the longest, sketchiest (but manageable in my opinion), and unavoidable. I went up it first, and turned around 10-15 meters up to tell Jordan that he should probably have his ice axe out for it. He replied that he wasn’t going to do it and was going back the way he came.
So that was that. I didn’t think the conditions necessitated bailing, so we shouted each other well wishes (while the slope was manageable, I didn’t really want to go down and back up it), and went our separate ways. If we both stick to our planned hiking itineraries, our paths won’t cross on trail, but hopefully I’ll see him somewhere in the world before long.
It’s a bit disappointing to be alone now, but ultimately we had different strengths and objectives. For me, finishing on the Canadian border with limited disruption to the south-north footpath is important, and I don’t mind dealing with snow on the way; for him, he wants to do every mile of the PCT as quickly as possible, but doesn’t care much about the order. I must also add that I commend his forthright attitude to bailing and not putting on any additional pressure on himself to continue where he wasn’t comfortable.
So now I’ve been alone for the last several days. In reality, it’s not been any more dangerous as a result, because there haven’t been any sizeable river crossings, and the steady stream of northbound hikers means I could wait for help if I needed it. I will most likely continue on this basis into the High Sierra, unless I can find some partners at Sonora Pass (Kennedy Meadows North). For the final section of the Sierra, south of Yosemite, I’ll be overlapping with John Muir Trail hikers, who mostly go southbound, so I should have company for the high passes.
Meeting Interesting People
As I’ve referred to above, I’ve crossed paths with a lot of people in the last few days, more so than at any other point of the trail. Most of these are northbound PCT hikers, which means they entered the Sierra a couple weeks earlier than I did and are therefore pretty badass. Within the next two or three days, I expect to start crossing paths with people I know from further south, which will be awesome but will also slow progress as I stop and catch up with each of them.
Some of these folks are pretty cool. Two that stand out weren’t actually PCT hikers, but rather a mother and her 12 (?) year old daughter, who have gone out on an annual backpacking trip for the last several years. They only do about 2-3 miles a day at this point, but when I asked the daughter if she was going to do the PCT one day, she nodded so quickly and forcefully that you’d think I asked if she wanted marshmallows (incidentally, they had a campfire and I had marshmallows, so that was also a question I had asked).
This section also had some awesome trail magic at the road crossings.
At Carson Pass (Highway 88, just east of Kirkwood), some volunteers were running drinks and snacks out of the ranger station. The ranger station was also open and full of the local history of Carson Pass and Kit Carson, John Frémont’s scout for whom it was named. The local ranger (sadly not present) is also apparently a Sierra history buff, and authored a book about one of my dad’s favorite Sierran heroed, John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a Norwegian immigrant in the 19th century who kept the mail going through the winter by skiing over the snow (the locals, having never seen this Norwegian concept before, called them snowshoes).
And then at Ebbetts Pass, a group of several volunteers organized a full-on barbecue, complete with side dishes and desserts. One volunteer recognized my UC Davis trucker hat (which requires some local knowledge, since the logo is a C with an A inside it). Turns out she’s from Davis and graduated DHS a year before me. For any Davisites reading this, her name is Morgan Miller, and I feel like I probably knew who she was at the time, but have since forgotten.
A big highlight of this section is Desolation Wilderness, just southwest of Lake Tahoe. Several friends have gone backpacking there, so I knew it was awesome, but had never been there myself. And it is indeed awesome. With lots of picturesque lakes and snowy slopes, it reminded me of the High Sierra I’d just left, albeit with a few more trees. What’s amazing is that it’s right next to Lake Tahoe, between Interstate 80 and Highway 50, by far the most developed part of the Sierras. And it’s a world away from all of that. If you’re planning a 2-3 day backpacking trip in northern California, allow me to put my vote in for Desolation Wilderness.
Pictures tell a thousand words (each), so here’s 5,000 words of imagery.
In addition to the physical challenge of pushing bigger miles in snow, the biggest challenge for me has been psychological. After spending nearly two months moving slowly but surely towards Canada, around a fairly consistent set of people, that has all been thrown out the window by driving north and hiking south.
It’s difficult never seeing the same person twice, but the main issue is that I feel this big discontinuity in my hike at the moment. For example, I will cross the 1,000 mile marker at some point tomorrow, which is obviously a huge milestone. Except that at that point, I won’t have done 1,000 – I’ll actually have done about 955 PCT miles. And even if I had done 1,000, it won’t have been *those* 1,000 miles, so I’ll feel weird celebrating it.
While I don’t regret flipping north, and I probably won’t remember this feeling after the hike, this pending discontinuity bothers me at the moment, and I feel like doing the Sierra now is a necessary chore to resolve it rather than an integral part of my journey.
I also find myself focusing more on the finish line of this discontinuity than is probably healthy, which makes it more difficult to focus on the beauty around me at present. And that’s a shame because this is one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of trail. As I push into the next sections, I’ll try to focus on enjoying the journey at hand and less about getting back northbound to Canada. If, looking back on it, I find that mental element fundamentally dampened my enjoyment of it, I may wish to hike the John Muir Trail one day down the line, which follows almost the exact same route but without the time pressures.
Day 56: Bishop to overlooking Bullfrog Lake (c. 8 miles hike, but still off trail mile 789)
Day 57: 789 to Woods Creek (800)
Day 58: 800 to Road’s End and hitch to Fresno
Day 59: Drive to Donner Pass (1153)
Highlights: Saw a bear; experienced some amazing human kindness.
Lowlights: Sketchy times on Glen Pass; kind of deflating to bail north, even though it was the right thing to do; four busy days and only 11 PCT miles.
Up over Glen Pass
I’ll probably keep this post more concise because I’ve procrastinated in writing it and now I need to head out on the trail shortly.
My group hitched out of Bishop after breakfast on Day 56 up to Onion Valley, for a 9 mile hike back over Kearsarge Pass to the PCT. We camped just about a mile away from the PCT, on a slope overlooking beautiful Bullfrog Lake.
The next morning, we left camp at around 5:30 am to get over Glen Pass, a bit later than we had planned, but maybe hadn’t fully communicated with the rest of the group. By the time we got to the top of the pass, it was probably 7:30, and the sun had been shining on the snow-covered north face for a couple of hours, making the snow a bit slick.
Then two things happened which made this the sketchiest experience I’ve had on trail so far (and I really hope that will remain the case when I’m done):
1. Looking from the top, there were bootprints going in several directions. One member of our group, Shea, took one of them, ended up on some loose rock, and shouted back at us what appeared to be the best route down: a fairly short rock scramble to a deep boot path through the snow. Based on what he saw, that was definitely the right call, but it was definitely not the right way down. The rocks were mostly loose, so in order to avoid sliding down a steep rocky slope, I went slightly to the side to down-climb some steeper but firmer rocks. The trouble was that many of these rocks weren’t sturdy either, so I had to move very slowly to ensure that my footholds and handholds were sturdy. Keep in mind that I had a heavy backpack on the entire time. I made it down without incident, but the adrenaline was pumping pretty hard for several minutes. Jordan and Machine were ahead of me on the same route, while the rest of the group ignored the route advice and went directly down snow, which in retrospect was the right way.
2. I’m really glad I didn’t witness this because I was already shaken up by (1), but Sebastian, our German, decided to glissade down the slope, ostensibly because he felt pressured by another hiker coming up quickly behind him. He lost control of his glissade and began violently barrel-rolling down the mountain. He came to a stop short of some rocks and was lucky enough to only scrape up his face, lose a couple layers of skin on thumbs, and bruise a rib. Those who watched this happen feared for his life. Fortunately by the time I knew anything was amiss, the danger had already passed.
We sat at the bottom of Glen Pass for the next hour or so helping out Sebastian physically and emotionally and trying to move on from the situation. I was also pretty shaken up by my own experience on the loose rocks, but mostly had to deal with that internally because (1) no one watched it; and (2) nothing actually went wrong.
Some Kings Canyon Rangers were heading out south over Glen Pass. In retrospect, we really should have encouraged Sebastian to go out with them, but in his indefatigable positivity, he really wanted to continue north, so we kept hiking.
Throughout the day, these wake up calls really sat with me and Jordan, and with more difficult passes coming up that may be more challenging than Glen Pass (namely Mather Pass), neither of us felt that our hearts were in it for more challenges, especially hiking with someone who had already taken a serious fall and was lucky to escape more serious injury.
We decided to bail out on the Woods Creek trail out to the west towards Fresno, and convinced Sebastian that he should do the same.
On Day 58, the three of us packed up camp and began to head away from the PCT. We were visited by an adolescent bear as we packed up, seemingly interested in our food and uninterested in our attempts to scare it away.
It was a 15 mile hike out to Road’s End, with some nice waterfalls and canyon-type things along the way.
It took us four hitches and probably four hours to make it down to the Valley. The last woman who picked us up had done a lot of hiking and invited us to stay in her house, just outside Fresno. She wasn’t even going to be there that night but said that she trusted other hikers. That was a really touching display of faith in humanity that she would leave three strangers alone in her house overnight.
The next day, we went to the airport, rented a car, and drove north. We dropped Sebastian off in Sacramento – he got an overnight train to Dunsmuir in Shasta County, where he will hike south – while Jordan and I drove up to Truckee to return the car, and will hike south back into the high Sierras, but with a bit more of the snow melted. I think it will be safer the second time around with better information from passing northbound PCT hikers.
I’ve had my heart set on hiking from Mexico to Canada in an unbroken fashion for a long time, and it’s disappointing to deviate from that, but when I actually think it through rationally, this was absolutely the right decision. And in 3-4 weeks time, I’ll repeat the Woods Creek trail, hitch to Fresno, and drive back to Truckee/Donner and continue north as if nothing had happened, and maybe even overlap with friends who didn’t skip ahead.
Day 50: Lone Pine (745 + 2 mile side hike) to a wooded campsite (755)
Day 51: 755 to Crabtree Meadows (767 + 1 mile side hike)
Day 52: Side hike of Mt Whitney (c. 16 miles total)
Day 53: 767 (+1) to the base of Forester Pass (778)
Day 54: 778 to Onion Valley Campground, and hitch to Bishop (789 + 9 mile side hike)
Day 55: Zero day in Bishop
Highlights: Achieving two huge trail milestones; constantly beautiful views; snow is fun.
Lowlights: Afternoon snow is a huge pain to walk through; Sierra logistics and challenges increase weight and reduce daily mileage.
Lone Pine to Crabtree Meadows
After a leisurely morning in Lone Pine having breakfast and packing up, we hitched a ride back up to the Horseshoe Meadows campground where we had come from the day before. A few of us got a ride with the same guy who had driven me down (he basically shuttles hikers all day), while Snazzy and Sebastian were lucky enough to get in the bed of a pickup for the ride of their lives up the world’s craziest road (in fairness, seatbelts wouldn’t save you if something went wrong there).
We hit the trail around 1pm and climbed back up to Trail Pass and continued along the PCT. Travel was decidedly slower than usual, as we were climbing above 11,000 feet for the first time, and large sections of soft snow reduced traction. We had a late lunch about five miles in, at Chicken Spring Lake, a gorgeous little alpine lake that is probably even more beautiful when the crystal clear water is visible.
We got to our campsite in some woods around 7pm, meaning we averaged about 2 miles per hour, down from 3 mph that I’d tend to target.
The next day, we only had about 12 miles to go to get to Crabtree Meadows, at the base of Mt Whitney. We were at lower elevations than the day before (mostly around 10,000 feet), so we didn’t have to contend with a whole lot of snow. We did however have our first two stream crossings, which were fortunately both spanned by fallen trees.
We arrived to Crabtree Meadows around 3pm, and spent the rest of the day getting advice on climbing Mt Whitney from hikers who had just returned, resting up for the next day’s early start, and ogling at the beautiful views.
At 14,508 feet (4,430m or something), Mt Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States. The PCT does not actually go to Mt Whitney, but it goes near enough that it’s only an 8 mile detour (each way), and I believe a majority of PCT hikers attempt to hike it. It is also the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail, a very popular two-week trail through the high Sierra (the other terminus is in Yosemite).
From the time we were in Lone Pine to when we arrived in Crabtree Meadows, we struggled to pin down the exact hiking conditions on Mt Whitney. Some people on social media had said that it was extremely sketchy, but most of these experiences were a couple of weeks old, which is a long time during snowmelt season. More concerningly, we ran into a couple on our first day out of Lone Pine who were heading back south and out of the Sierras after an extremely harrowing experience on Whitney in which their party got lost a couple nights previous, and one member slipped down an icy slope, only to be saved from probable death by crashing into a boulder. We spoke to this couple extensively to figure out where things went wrong and were confident that we could avoid the same mistake, but still, with no internet access, this was our last news, and it sat heavily with us.
Fortunately, upon arriving in Crabtree Meadows, we were greeted by several hikers we knew, who had just climbed it that day and assured us that there were only very limited sketchy sections, and that these could be mitigated, particularly by foregoing the summit sunrise so that you could see where you were going during these sections.
Armed with this new, positive information, we set off from camp around 3am. The first two miles comprised a gradual ascent as we approached the main west face of Whitney. There was quite a lot of snow in the higher portions of this section, but it was pretty flat, so not a huge challenge.
Over the next four miles, we ascended a dozen or so switchbacks up the face, as the sky gradually lit in a pre-dawn glow. Most of the trail was free of snow, but there were a handful of potentially sketchy stretches where snow covered the switchbacks and we had to hike sideways across the snowy slope. Fortunately, enough people have hiked the trail already that there were some pretty sturdy footprints, and we didn’t actually have to hike with our feet at an angle. Still, we kept our ice axes in hand for support and in the event of a slip.
Two miles from the top, our trail met the steeper and snowier trail coming from the east, near Lone Pine, and the merged trails ascended the ridge to the high point of Mt Whitney to the north. The trail from this point was relatively easy, allowing me to soak in the views illuminated by the now-risen sun (both east and west) and to begin to revel in the feeling of finally reaching a point I’d daydreamed about for years.
A short snowy ascent up the final dome of Whitney, and we were there. Obviously as the highest thing around, the views from Whitney are astounding: Countless dramatic, jagged snow-capped peaks stretch as far as the eye can see to the west and (especially) the north; to the east lies an 11,000 foot drop down to the Owens Valley, the White Mountains behind that (including White Mountain Peak, another fourteener, to the north east), and several other parallel ranges of the Basin and Range province whose names I do not know. Staring straight down off the eastern edge of the peak (much like the rest of the range, the western approach is gradual, while the eastern side is all cliffs), I could see a few frozen lakes thousands of feet below, and probably less than a mile laterally. Only to the south were the views a bit lackluster, as the elevation drops noticeably after a couple of peaks.
We stayed at the top for an hour or so, though I stayed a bit longer to take advantage of the cellular service to send some texts and make some social media posts. I would have left with my group, but I felt comfortable enough on the ascent that it didn’t seem dangerous to descend without them.
The descent was obviously similar to the ascent, but with better lighting. Near the bottom of the switchbacks, there was a long snowy chute that flattened out at the bottom of the face. I saw a couple hikers ahead of me glissade (i.e. butt-sled) down it, which had already occurred to me as a great idea but that I didn’t want to do alone. I hustled down to the top of the chute and shouted at them to wait for me. I also shouted for any tips, and one of them simply replied “SEND IT!” That seemed like pretty sensible advice, so I sat down, point my feet down hill, held my ice axe just in case, and let it roll. I was on the edge of control most of the time, but managed to just hold it together to the bottom of the stretch. It was super exhilarating, but I should have tucked everything in, as my shirt filled with snow and I kind of scraped up my legs, back, and hands.
Below this point was probably the only low point of the day: as the large amounts of snow in the flats melted in the sun, it became very difficult to travel. With every step, my feet would slide in an unpredictable direction into a foot-deep sun cup in the snow, and sometimes my leg would punch straight through the snow (“postholing”). Additionally, the slushy consistency meant my feet were quickly wet.
On the other hand, it was warm enough that I could safely skinny-dip into this snowbound lake. Unfortunately I was alone, so sadly no pictures of my naked, refreshed bod. The rest of the group turned up shortly after, and I pressured Jordan to get in (little pressure required).
After trudging through the remaining slush, we made it back to camp around 2pm and lazed around for the rest of the day.
Up and over Forester Pass
The next day, we headed for the base of Forester Pass. Even though we only had like 12 miles to go, we got a fairly early start (maybe 7?) so that we could cross some rivers when they were a little lower and hopefully walk on some firmer snow if it presented itself. In a low snow year, we probably would have pushed over Forester Pass in a single day, but afternoon snow is terrible to walk in, and a lot less safe if it’s on a slope.
We had three river crossings that morning which required concentration: Wallace Creek was a simple knee-deep ford; Wright Creek had a slippery log, so we put on our spikes for traction; and Tyndall Creek we forded in pairs. All were pretty doable and didn’t seem excessively dangerous.
In the afternoon, we ascended out of Tyndall Creek gradually up to the base of Forester Pass, up a gigantic gentle snow field. The rest of my group trudged through slow afternoon snow, but I spotted a route connecting a bunch of rocky rises to the left, so managed to avoid too much snow.
Ultimately we camped in one such dry rise probably 800 meters from the foot of the pass, a perfect staging point for getting up and over the next day, and maybe the coolest spot I’ve camped at thus far, surrounded on three sides by seemingly impenetrable rock faces at 12,400 feet above sea level.
t 13,200 feet, Forester Pass is the highest point on the trail (Whitney is not on the trail), and is named for the forest service workers who scouted the route in 1929, one of whom was killed in a rock fall in the process. It separates the Kern River drainage, which flows south to Bakersfield, from the Kings River drainage, which flows west to Fresno, and also forms part of the boundary between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Looking at it from a distance, it defies imagination that someone could look at this huge rock face and identify the tiny notch at the top as being a viable pass, but they did and I am grateful.
We were up before dawn the next morning and hiking by 5:20 up towards the notch, only about one mile away by dry trail. The lower half ascended a sloping snowfield, shallow enough at first to walk straight up, then requiring switchbacks. Then after a few dry switchbacks, we reached the “chute”, a 10 meter traverse of a steep snowy patch just below the top. Falling here would be no fun, but the footprints were clear and the snow solid, so it never felt very dangerous.
We made it up and over the top by about 6:15 am, and hung out there for half an hour or so celebrating reaching the high point of the trail with a few other hikers.
The descent was long and snowy, but a lot of fun heading down towards the trees. I got a pretty good glissade in, which is always satisfying. Soon we crossed Bubbs Creek via log, and headed down its canyon to around 9,000 feet. Much like “pass” is kind of an understatement for Forester Pass, “creek” is rather an understatement for Bubbs Creek: this thing is a river of rage. Fortunately, the trail crosses it above where the flow becomes absurd.
Kearsarge Pass and Bishop
Around midday, we made it to the bottom, where the trail begins to ascend towards Glen Pass, another challenge not far north from Forester Pass. However, almost all hikers, ourselves included, get off the via a side trail over Kearsarge Pass, along the Sierra crest, for resupply down in the Owens Valley, or else the food carry is untenable given the slower hiking conditions this year.
The hike up to the pass was pretty gradual – it only reaches 11,700 feet, which felt like child’s play considering we were at 13,200 earlier that day.
The descent to the campground and road down the escarpment was long and snowy. It would have been very enjoyable were it not for the knowledge that we’d have to come back up it two days later loaded with food. Aside from lots of glissading, the highlight of the descent was a series of four lakes, each one almost directly below the one before and noticeably less snow bound. We were in a hurry to get to the road so I didn’t stop at any of them, but I love me some lakes and these were some lakes.
We got down to the parking lot and managed to find a ride from a trail angel down the rest of the way into the valley, and 40 miles north to Bishop, where we would spend the next day and a half.
Bishop is a charming, walkable small town sandwiched between the Sierra and the White Mountains. It has a similar vibe to Lone Pine, but feels about 3x bigger, and isn’t blessed to be right at the foot of Mt Whitney. On the plus side, it feels like a real town that doesn’t revolve around hikers or other outdoor tourists (Lone Pine very much catered to the Whitney crowd, which was nice, but made it difficult to view it as a standalone town).
On the first night we went bowling, then spent the next day wandering around, going food shopping, visiting the brewery, and going to the Paiute Palace casino just out of town. I lost a bit of money, but Jordan walked away with $800 having only placed $20 at the beginning of the night, so I think he owes everyone a new pair of shoes or something.
I’m currently about to pack up my stuff in our hotel room and head back up over Kearsarge Pass. The next week or so will continue to be challenging in terms of passes and river crossings, but I’m confident from the last few days that we’ll be just fine.
Day 47: Kennedy Meadows (702) to Monache Meadow (717)
Day 48: 717 to a mosquito-laden hilltop (740)
Day 49: 740 to Trail Pass (745) and down into Horseshoe Meadows and hitch into Lone Pine
Highlights: Done with the desert!; Some amazing views of the higher ground to come; Now hiking with a group; Lone Pine is incredible.
Lowlights: Lots of mosquitos in some places; Acclimatizing to 10,000+ elevation.
KM to Lone Pine
This is going to be a pretty short post because it only covers three days, but the next five or six days figure to be pretty adventure-laden, as my group (hopefully) tackles both the highest mountain in the continental United States (Mt Whitney, at 14,508 ft or 4,417 m) and the highest point on the PCT (Forester Pass, at 13,123 ft or 4,009 m – Whitney is not actually on the PCT). Anyway, that post is going to be pretty hefty, so wanted to cover off these three days separately.
We set off from Kennedy Meadows around noon on Day 47. It’s about 45 miles from KM to Lone Pine, which could be done in two full days, but we decided to do it in two half days and one full day, so we aimed for a large meadow 15 miles ahead on this day. In addition to the four guys I mentioned in my last post, we’ve added a fifth guy: Sebastian, who comes from near Bitburg in Germany, so we are now officially an international group.
Kennedy Meadows sits at around 6,000 feet, very much in a transition zone between a desert climate and an alpine climate: small cacti are intermixed with pine and fir trees, and the meadows are mostly sage brush rather than grasses.
Over the next 15 miles, we ascended up the South Kern drainage to about 8,000 feet, where we reached Monache Meadow, a beautiful open meadow with clear views out to the high country, and that finally felt more alpine than desert. After a month and a half of various shades of desert (with mountains interspersed), our entire group was grinning ear to ear when the trees opened up.
Snazzy was especially jazzed, and started prancing around singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music”. Usually I’d be the one doing that, so it’s awesome to get that kind of raw glee from the rest of the group.
We camped on a sandy bank along the South Kern, which was probably one of the top three most beautiful campsites of the trip.
The next day, we pushed up from 8,000 feet to 10,500 feet, back down to 9,000, and up again to 10,500. We got some sweet views down over the crest to the dry Owens Lake, many thousands of feet below.
Also awesome flowers, sequoia trees, and a marmot!
All the climbing at altitude was pretty tough, and I’m not fully acclimated to the altitude yet. Still though, we were only 4,000 feet shy of the top of Whitney, so I’m confident that I’ll get there soon.
After 23 climby miles, we camped in a flat wooded area at around 10,500 feet. It was near a marsh, so the mosquitos were pretty gnarly. All the bites, plus the altitude, meant I didn’t sleep too well that night.
The next morning, we hiked another five miles to a pass in the crest, and then down a couple miles to Horseshoe Meadows. From there we grabbed a hitch down into Lone Pine.
We got a ride down to Lone Pine from a local trail angel who spends all day shuttling hikers between town and the trail. Lone Pine is at about 3,000 feet, and the trailhead probably 9,000 feet, so the road descended about 6,000 feet of the steep eastern Sierra escarpment in around 20 miles. Probably the most incredible road I’ve been on. I didn’t actually take any pictures, but here’s one from the internet.
We spent the rest of the day in Lone Pine, which is an incredible little town at the foot of Mt Whitney. Our driver described it as the opposite of Tehachapi: it has everything a hiker needs, and all within a few blocks, whereas Tehachapi had a useless Big 5, and it was a mile from where we stayed.
I think Lone Pine may be my favorite trail town so far. Being at the foot of the high Sierras, it’s very outdoor-oriented and so is very hiker-friendly, but also doesn’t feel like it revolves around hikers, in the way that Kennedy Meadows is not a real place outside of hiker season.
The views from town are tremendous. Directly to the east are the White Mountains, which would already make this town beautiful.
Unfortunately for the notariety of the White Mountains, the Sierras lie directly to the west and are exceedingly epic.
We spent most of the day drinking beers, sitting by the hotel pool, getting tacos from a taco truck, and sussing out the conditions for the coming days. It sounds like it’s been warm lately, so there’s a lot less snow day by day. From talking to other hikers on social media, it sounds like we’ll be fine in the snow, so long as we take our time and make good decisions.
I think we’re all really really stoked to get up there and give it a go. Hopefully the next time you hear from me will be a picture from the top of Mt Whitney, which has service (though I highly doubt I’ll write a blog post while I’m up there). There’s an adventure out there, and I’m about to seize it. Skål!
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.
Day 29: Agua Dulce (455) to the top of a ridge somewhere (464)Day 30: 464 to Green Valley (Casa de Luna) (478)Day 31: 478 to a dirt road somewhere (480)Day 32: 480 to Sawmill Campground (498)Day 33: 498 to Neenach (518)Day 34: 518 to Tylerhorse Canyon (542)Day 35: 542 to Tehachapi Willow Springs Road (559)Day 36: 559 to Tehachapi (566)Day 37: Zero day in TehachapiHighlights: Stopping into three institutions of the PCT; unique situation walking along the Aqueduct; tons of wind turbines; now slowly leaving the desert. Lowlights: Sometimes pretty hot; a little tough to keep the mental momentum while killing time before the Sierras
Hiker Heaven and Casa de Luna
Really the defining feature of this post is the stops on the way. I spent quite a lot of time at two houses which owned by families which have hosted PCT hikers day in and day out for decades: Donna and Jeff Saufley in Agua Dulce (aka Hiker Heaven) and Terri and Joe Anderson in Green Valley (aka Casa de Luna), separated by about 24 miles on the trail. I think both families started hosting hikers in the 90s, before the trail blew up courtesy of Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon, and have continued to do so on an industrial level since. How they manage to do so without burning out is beyond me, and both were real highlights, if having adopted different approaches to handling large groups.I arrived into Hiker Heaven on Day 28 in the early afternoon there. Given the high heat that had beset us lately, I stayed until the evening of Day 29, before a night hike out.The Saufleys have a very professional approach to managing the numbers, without it feeling imposing on the hikers. They have a team of volunteers who brief the hikers and hand out maps, and hikers can find well-marked party tents, a yard for camping, a laundry service, well-maintained porta-potties, and a delineated tobacco-smoking area (interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, the house rules stipulate that cannabis products are welcome anywhere). The house is a mile or two out of the center of Agua Dulce (itself not more than three restaurants and a grocery store), and volunteers organize a shuttle in the bed of a pickup truck every hour and a half. These guys are business hippies – you’ll have a great time, but (and?) they’ve got a system.I headed out in the evening so that I could get to the next stop, Casa de Luna, without too much midday hiking. I hiked with this Czech dude Petr (red shirt above), who I’m trying to anoint with the trail name Soya Boya, because he bought some “extra virgin olive oil” which, upon reading the ingredients list, is only 6% extra virgin olive oil and 94% soybean oil (it would be Soy Boy, but he’s a euro, so it’s Soya Boya).We hiked around 10 miles out of 24, then camped around midnight. The next morning, we were hiking around 6, my earliest start yet, I think. Got to Green Valley around midday, and again spent the rest of the day and most of the next day there.Whereas Hiker Heaven is hippies with a system, Casa de Luna is more chaotic, but in a great way. There’s a list of house rules, the first two of which are “1. Hug Terri” and “2. Put on a Hawaiian shirt”. Terri hangs out outside chain smoking, while Joe sports long hair and a beard and listens exclusively to the Dead while flipping pancakes for daily breakfast (daily dinner of nachos).I spent most of my days there hanging out on couches in the driveway with other Hawaiian-shirted hikers (my shirt wasn’t actually Hawaiian, but that’s fine). I also went for a session of frisbee golf with Shea and Machine, who may be the start of a trail family (been hiking sort of with them for a week or two now). We’ll see.Another tradition of Casa de Luna is to paint a rock. I skipped this one because my penmanship is atrocious, but here are some I liked.We all camped in the backyard in a seemingly endless manzanita forest.
Into and Across the Desert
I got out of there for a couple of miles on Day 31 for a couple miles. My friend Rachel and her pooch Bapu joined me for that night and the next day from Pasadena. Got 18 miles the next day, but Rachel and Bapu had to turn back after 12 because he’s an old fellow and wasn’t necessarily up to the big miles. Spent the night at a lovely campground in a weirdly wooded section and had a nice campfire.Hiking was pretty boring in this stretch: a fair amount of up and down, but not many big views and a lot of bushes rather than trees. Still a view good shots and nice wildflowers, which I post below (not all belong here chronologically, but I don’t really care).On Day 33, I did 20 miles finally down out of the hills and into the Mojave Desert, to the town of Neenach. In theory, the trail should be able to skirt around the desert floor entirely, but private property issues say otherwise at the moment (I understand that the PCTA has obtained an easement from said property holders and is working on rerouting the trail around the desert, but that’s still a year or two out).A local market in Neenach called Wee Vill Market has recently discovered the whole through hiking scene and has begun hosting hikers in the yard next door. They were all super friendly, and ran regular shuttles between the trail and the market (probably 10 miles apart), while letting us use their facilities for toilets, showers, and bucket laundry. Also, the food they served was delicious.It’s now mid June at relatively lower altitudes, so heat and water are becoming a factor. As such, the strategy has shifted to avoid hiking the middle of the day. The stretch across the floor of the Mojave Desert is around 20 miles (depending on how you define the beginning and end).Myself, Shea, and Machine headed out onto the Aqueduct stretch around 8:20 pm, and hiked 24 miles by sunrise the next morning, and made it to shady oak tree by a small stream. It was a huge mental and physical struggle, and I think we probably all almost fell asleep while walking, but it was better than walking the straight shadeless section in the heat.We arrived at our shade tree at around 6:30 am and spent the entire day napping in the sun. Shade and water is far between here, so many other hikers (maybe two dozen) joined us throughout the day.
Tehachapi Mountains and Tehachapi
After napping all day under the tree, I set off in the evening into the Tehachapi Mountains, the last range before the Sierras. This is a pretty low, dry range, so not hugely more pleasant than the desert floor.It was either 17 or 25 miles to Tehachapi, depending on the road you use to hitch into town. For a few reasons, I wanted to get the longer distance in before town, which means that I’m now ahead of many other hikers who took their first chance to get to town. I hiked to the first road on Day 35, then did the last 8 miles to Hwy 58 in the morning of the Day 36. Hiking wasn’t particularly exciting, and many people are skipping these 8 miles altogether (this would mean failing to get to Canada unassisted, so I couldn’t countenance it for myself, but to each their own). There were literally thousands of wind turbines throughout the Tehachapi Pass region down into the Mojave Desert, the scale of which I found to be unfathomable. On and on in all directions.After these eight miles, I got a bus into Tehachapi, an annoyingly pedestrian-unfriendly town on Hwy 58 between Bakersfield and Mojave. Definitely the least hiker-centric town I’ve encountered thus far. Many many hikers are staying at the Best Western in town, and we had a big party in the hot tub and pool area, which was good fun, if a bit rowdy.I’ve spent all of Day 37 in Tehachapi as well, as my third full zero day of the trail. I’m feeling a bit restless being here, given that I’ve already spent a lot of time hanging out at houses lately, but Shea and Machine both wanted a day off and I don’t want to lose them with the snowy Sierras just on the horizon, and an extra day to let snow melt can’t hurt.Over the next few days, we’ll be hiking through the southernmost reaches of the Sierras, at least according to geologists’ definition of that range. The elevation remains low-ish here (below 6,000 feet mostly) and it is hot and dry, so practically speaking we are still in the desert. Still, there’s something satisfying about starting the gradual ascent out of the desert and into the high peaks which I anticipate will be the highlight of the entire trip.
Highlights: Great views from Mt Baden-Powell; partied with the staff of REI in Burbank; saw a snake eat a rat.
Lowlights: Lower mileage than previously; the desert heat has finally arrived.
Chilling in Wrightwood
I took a full day off in Wrightwood, my second zero day of the trail so far. Mostly my body was bit wrecked from doing bigger miles in the days previous, so I sort of spontaneously decided it was best to take the whole day off, especially given the huge snow in the Sierras that could use some time to melt.
Wrightwood is a cute, small mountain town with a few bars/restaurants and lodges. I ran a few errands and napped a bit, then headed to Reverend’s 30th birthday at a local bar. We had a bunch of hikers out on the patio and then went inside when it got too cold, and watched the national spelling bee championship, with the whole bar choosing their favorite competitors and chanting out the letters as they read them.
Up to Mt Baden-Powell
I got a semi-reasonable start on Day 24, and hitched out to the road junction where I’d hitched into Wrightwood two nights previous. The main agenda for Day 24 was to hike up to the top of Mt Baden-Powell, at 9,407 feet the highest point of the trail in Southern California.
Much of the trail was covered in snow which had been tempered with a freeze-thaw cycle, so it was pretty slick. I didn’t have any additional traction on my feet (i.e. micro spikes), so I had to kick steps pretty aggressively. The slope was never too precipitous though so taking a ride wouldn’t have been disastrous.
The views from the top were pretty epic, with very clear views out to the Mojave Desert, and a smogged view of LA.
Baden-Powell to Agua Dulce
Not a whole lot to report over the next few days. There was a lot of up-and-down, with some snow on the ground, and I’m not in a huge hurry to greet the Sierra snow pack, so I mostly stuck to below 20 miles per day.
Most of the trail was following the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains, gradually descending to the west. This seems to be the main mountain escape area for the LA area, so there were a lot of campgrounds and day hikers on the weekends.
At the end of day 25, a bunch of folks from REI Burbank were up at a cabin owned by a non-profit that one of their managers volunteers for, giving out hotdogs and beers. I spent the night there, and hung out for the evening chatting around a fire pit with a bunch of those folks. It was pretty fun to hang out with REI folks, as they are all very knowledgeable and understanding about what we’re doing, while still having some connection to the real world.
Later in this stretch, we dropped out below the pine forests into mostly hot, sunny areas, and shady stretches became in high demand.
The last day into Agua Dulce was suddenly super hot, but also really cool. I saw a gopher snake devour a rat or a gopher in the middle of the trail, which was pretty neat to see in the wild. I watched that for a while, but it looked like it might take another two hours for it to finish getting it down, so kept going along.
The last bit into Agua Dulce got to be very Hollywood-Southwest-y, and looked like it was out of a movie set for a western. Incidentally, a bunch of the “planet” scenes in Star Trek were filmed here.
Agua Dulce (Hiker Heaven)
Made it into Agua Dulce on Day 28 around noon, following some oppressive heat, then immediately went to the Mexican restaurant for as much horchata as I could manage, which is exactly what one needs in the heat.
Soon after, the group I was with headed over to Hiker Heaven, a house in Agua Dulce whose owners host hikers daily in their yard.
It’s an incredibly well-oiled machine, run on donations and staffed by volunteers, with shuttles into central Agua Dulce in the back of a pickup every hour and a half, outdoor showers, and a guest house for hikers. I don’t know how the owners, Jeff and Donna Saufley, have managed to keep this up over the last 20-something years, but I am very much in awe of them.
I hung out there the rest of the day, socializing with a bunch of other hikers, then headed to REI in Burbank to run an errand the next morning (didn’t see any friends from the campfire sadly).
Now that the desert has arrived, I’m going to do more evening/night hiking, so heading out of here later this evening.
Day 18: Big Bear (266) to Little Bear Springs Camp (286)
Day 19: 286 to Deep Creek Hot Springs (308)
Day 20: 308 to Silverwood Lake (329)
Day 21: 329 to Swarthout Canyon (347)
Day 22: 347 to Wrightwood (369)
Highlights: Hiking with my brother; awesome hot springs; Week 3 pace firmly on track for 5-month completion; I think I’ve outlasted the cold, wet weather.
Lowlights: Gradual descent out of San Bernardino mountains a bit monotonous.
Big Bear to Deep Creek
We started off from Big Bear in the morning of Day 18. We grabbed breakfast in town with a few other hikers, then in the parking lot of the restaurant, this couple offered to drive us out to the PCT (they were starting a 3-4 day hike, I think). Naturally we accepted, but it turns out that there are several PCT trailheads near Big Bear, and they were going to a different one. It didn’t seem appropriate to ever say anything, so we arrived at the wrong trailhead, thanked them, waited for them to leave, then went back to the road to get a hitch to the correct trailhead.We were picked up without too much difficulty, and were soon on our way on the trail. Hiking on Day 18 was fairly unremarkable – some nice views of Big Bear Lake, though it’s not the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen (which, for the record, is in Andorra), and some nice views over the canyons we were hiking in. Lots of day hikers around because it was Memorial Day weekend and close to lots of trailheads.
By the end of the day, we made it down to Little Bear Creek camp, a campsite at the end of a dirt road which was a weird mix of hikers camping, Jeeps roaring up the road, people firing guns, and some weird dance music far in the distance.
The next morning was predicted to be snowy, so we got a decently early start in the hopes of being low enough in elevation and far enough from the mountain crest so as to avoid the worst weather. Either our theory was correct or the forecast was wrong, because we only got light rain that day. Now, with no rain in the immediate forecast, I may have successfully dodged all of the inclement weather that has really hindered the progress of a lot of other folks.Midway through the day, we crossed over into the Mojave River canyon (also known as Deep Creek where we were? Unclear as to the correct nomenclature). This was a stunningly beautiful desert-y canyon.
We spent the rest of the day (and the next morning) working our way down it, eventually ending up at the natural hot springs.
Unclear what the story is with these hot springs, but there are pools off to the side of river with hot water. There’s also apparently a group of regulars who hike in and are naked basically as long as the air is warm enough, so I’ve only got a couple pictures of the hot springs.
Deep Creek to Cajon Junction
We stayed the night at the hot springs, took a morning dip, and headed out in the morning of Day 20. For the first half of the day, we continued to follow the Mojave River canyon as it dropped and began to open up. It culminated at the Mojave Dam, which appears to serve no purpose, as there’s no reservoir on either side of it. It almost looks like the lead engineer accidentally built it sideways.
Also around here was a proper, more-than-knee-deep river crossing.
Shortly thereafter, Torsten got off the trail and hitched ahead to where I was planning to make it that night, Silverwood Lake (apparently the southernmost reservoir in the California Water Project). He had to fly back to SF the next morning, had already made 100 miles on the trail, and his Achilles was bothering him, so there was no sense pushing it. Therefore, for most of the day I was alone, and it wasn’t particularly interesting hiking.
Eventually I came beneath the dam that holds back Silverwood Lake, and went up and over to the banks of the lake. A bit weird to hike up to a lake rather than down, but I guess that’s reservoirs for you. (Overall comment on Southern California hiking: I’ve been blown away by a lot of the expansive views, the rock formations, and the canyons, but the lakes have all been underwhelming. I guess that’s because the topography doesn’t support natural lakes, so I think all of them have been artificial and developed.)
Eventually made it to the campground and met Torsten there.
The next morning, Torsten headed off to the airport and I was alone once again. I hiked out of the Silverwood Lake basin and over towards Cajon Pass, where I-15 cuts between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains. The views heading into I-15 were surprisingly epic.
After a steady descent, I ended up at Cajon Junction, where the PCT meets I-15. There’s a McDonald’s, Del Taco, and Subway there, so I headed to McDonald’s and dropped $18 on a large bacon quarter pounder (“Royale”, for my metric-system friends) meal, ten chicken nuggets, and a flurry (I refuse to put “Mc” in front of anything other than McDouble), while hanging out with hikers consuming a similar amount of food. We hung out there for a couple hours.
Cajon Junction to Wrightwood
A group of four of us left McDonald’s to go another five miles to camp. Aside from when Torsten was with me, and at the beginning before we lost Chris to the sarlacc pit, I’ve mostly been walking alone, and chatting to people at water stops. This was a refreshing change of pace, though I doubt it will become a regular thing until the Sierras. I was with Alex aka Sunshine, who is from suburbs east of Sacramento (Cameron Park or Shingle Springs); Trevor aka Machine, who is from Seattle but lives in Nashville; and Shea (no trail name yet), who is from Chicago. All of us seem to be between the ages of 25 and 35 (Sunshine may be a bit younger) and had a lot to talk about, so it made for some easy time passing.
Also, the trail went annoyingly under some train tracks, and I had to crawl because the neck of my guitar sticks up about a foot above my head.
Five miles later, we made camp at a water cache. In the evening, just as we were going to bed, two women appeared to refill the water, and also brought a bunch of Del Taco food. I had three burritos and two tacos. Yum!
On Day 22, the first day of my fourth week on the trail, the program was to ascend all day out of the Cajon Pass area into the San Gabriel mountains, with about 5,000 feet of ascent over 15 miles or so.
The first half of this was pretty monotonous, with no shade and a constant gradual climb. Nice views to the rear though.
After a few hours, some pine trees began to appear. They looked really funky though, like they had been burned in a fire and were sprouting new pine trees from the branches of the old one. Never seen anything like that before.
Finally I reached the crest of the San Gabriels, near Mt San Antonio, the highest mountain in the range and in Los Angeles County, as well as the namesake for Mt San Antonio College (Mt SAC), where a huge high school cross country running event takes place every year.
Also from the crest were some great views out to the Mojave Desert, and what would be awesome views of Los Angeles were it not filled with smog 24/7.
Eventually, 22 miles after the start of the day, I descended a bit to the Angeles Crest Highway (Hwy 2), and hitched a ride into Wrightwood for the night. After seeing one other person the entire day, I ran into three other hikers at the road (including Trevor), who had just managed to flag down a big van. The guy who drove us is a cameraman working for a Democrat challenging Republican congressman Paul Cook (one of only seven in California), so he’s got to shoot footage across the district, which is huge and runs all the way from north LA county up to Mono Lake. Had a nice chat with him about politics.
After dinner, I split a room with three different hikers, where I am currently still lying. I think I’m going to spend the rest of the day in Wrightwood, as I haven’t taken a full day off in a week and a half (I took half a day in Big Bear), and I think my body needs a little recovery time. I’ll report more on the town of Wrightwood in my next post. Ciao!
Day 13: Idyllwild (179 + 3 miles off-trail) to somewhere on the north face of San Jacinto Peak (193)Day 14: 193 to Whitewater Creek (219)Day 15: 219 to Mission Creek (232)Day 16: 232 to Arrastre Trail Camp (256)Day 17: 256 to Big Bear (266)Highlights: Walking alone through the snowy forests on San Jacinto is probably my favorite experience so far; My brother has joined for a week or so; Fun adventures route finding around Mission Creek.Lowlights: It wasn’t in the cards to make it to the summit of San Jacinto; Incessant heavy winds throughout Day 14 were really demoralizing; It’s still really cold.
Idyllwild into the San Jacintos
I got a late start on the morning of Day 13, as I had to wait for the post office to open and do a load of laundry (unrelated to the post office’s opening hours). After a hitch to the trailhead around 10:30, I was heading up the 2.5 mile/ 2,500 foot elevation gain Devil’s Slide trail to get back up to the PCT.There was fresh snow all the way down to the trailhead around 6,000 feet, so I knew it would be slow-going the whole way. Some very beautiful views of the two rock faces which make Idyllwild a hotbed for climbers: Tahquitz Rock and Suicide Rock. The former (and pictured first below) is where the Yosemite Decimal System for rating climbing difficulty (e.g. 5.10) was developed (though presumably it was popularized in Yosemite).I had wanted to do the side trail up to the top of San Jacinto Peak (around 11,000 feet), but decided against it because: (1) I was alone; (2) I knew there would be a lot of snow up there which could mean slow going and possibly danger; and (3) I thought another storm was coming the next day, so wanted to make sure I made it below snow level that day. The next day I spoke to two young women who had done it without any supplemental equipment, and in retrospect it would have been nice to do it with them, but they left before the post office opened. Anyway, it was a bit disappointing not to be able to do it, since that would have been the highest point of hiking in Southern California, but ultimately I think I made a good decision to skip it.Aside from the ascent to the PCT, during which I was walking and chatting with a couple from Denver (yes, I reminded them to vote), I was alone for most of the day and only crossed paths with a handful of people. There was no wind, and the layer of snow meant there was no ambient noise behind my footsteps except the occasional bird chirping and flowing creek. That wintery sense of tranquility and solitude was incredible and possibly the highlight of the trip so far. And also super unexpected, considering I’m supposedly in the desert.The going was quite slow though, and I needed to do 15 miles or so before I would crest and start the long descent out of the mountains to the valley below. Fortunately, because of the snow cover I was able to cut straight across the switchbacks and had good fun glissading (i.e. boot-skiing) down some slopes which otherwise would have been a bit of a slog.I made it over the top (c. 8,500 feet) down to around 6,000 feet by about 9 pm, and set up my tent in preparation for a windy, rainy night. The precipitation never came, but my god it was windy, which made it pretty stressful to pack things up the next morning without a tent flying away.
Out of the San Jacintos and into the Wind Tunnel
It’s a brutal descent out of the San Jacintos, dropping about 7,000 feet descent over 20 miles. The whole way you can see Interstate 10, the end of the descent, in the distance and never getting any closer.While it was kind of infuriating how slow the downhill progress was (trail could have been twice as steep and half as long), it was nonetheless cool to see so many changing ecosystems in a single day. I started in pine forests, and was soon back into desert scrublands.At the bottom, however, things got really windy and unpleasant. I had to walk roughly 3 miles across the flat from the base of the mountain to the crossing with I-10, which seems like it would be easy, but the winds were so strong that it was difficult to keep balance, let alone walk quickly. By the end, I was walking in sand, which made walking even more difficult and also meant that I was getting blasted with sand every couple of minutes. Now I know what a sandstorm feels like.I believe Southern California topography means that this area is always very windy, as cool ocean air rushes through the low passes into the inland deserts. Presumably that’s also why there are a bunch of wind farms there.
Wind Tunnel to Whitewater
I got to the interstate around 4 on Day 14, where my brother Torsten was waiting for me to join for a week or so. Several other hikers around me were discouraged by all the wind and unfavorable weather forecast, and so went to go split a motel room in a highway town nearby. That seemed like a boring way to introduce Torsten to the trail, plus I theorized that the wind would be much better over the next hill (away from the low pass), so we pressed on for another 9 miles or so that evening.While those 9 miles were pretty miserable (I was tired, lots of wind and rain, big climb), my theory was correct, and when we dropped over the top of the hill, we were in this oasis of nice weather beside a really cool braided river called Whitewater (River or Creek?). The river flowed through various random little channels over a rocky plain of maybe a mile across, with a large sandstone feature in the background more reminiscent of the Colorado River Plateau than a mountain range. We camped there for the night.
Rising into the San Bernadinos
I was pretty exhausted from a 26 mile day and Torsten wasn’t quite into the hiking rhythm on his first morning, so we got quite a late start on Day 15, and were hiking by around 10:30.After crossing the Whitewater River and climbing a small hill, we soon descended into Mission Creek, another braided stream flowing south out of the San Bernadinos. The trail then follows this creek 14 miles up to its source, gaining around 5,000 feet in the process. Given prospects of poor weather the next morning, we decided to tackle only the first six miles of the ascent on Day 15, so that we wouldn’t be above 8,000 feet when the bad weather was supposed to hit.The ascent up the river, split better an afternoon and a morning, was full of adventure and slow going. I think heavy rains over the winter washed out much of the trail, so we had to do a lot of route finding and river crossings/fordings to navigate our way up the canyon.In the upper reaches of the canyon, the weather got foggy and misty, and the flora less desert-like.We crossed out of that drainage in the morning of Day 16, and continued through the San Bernadinos. While visibility was highly limited for most of the day, we were mostly in pine forests on the tops of ridges for the rest of the day, all between 8,000 and 9,000 feet.We decided to push for a 24 mile day so that we could camp below 8,000 and so we could make it to Big Bear by lunch the next day, so we had a few long stretches of intense, head-down hiking.By the late afternoon, the clouds lifted, and I could finally get some decent pictures.We ended the day on a long downhill into Arrastre Trail Camp, about 10 miles before the road to hitch into Big Bear.10 easy miles later we were in Big Bear. Awesome views over the northern escarpment of the San Bernadinos into the Mojave Desert.