Arriving in San Diego three days early, I'd time to do some prep for my trip. I stuffed all my Sierra gear into my bear can and shipped that to Kennedy Meadows South. I bought enough food for about seven days as well as the four water bottles I needed in the desert section. The rest of the time was spent relaxing and mentally accepting what the next months would bring. On the 23rd of May I set out before 06:00 for the Mexican border!
Getting on the bus to Campo the reality of the trip started to settle in. After the majority of the passengers got off to go to Tecate there was only one other girl and me. Turns out she was also planning on doing the PCT! Mary is a chemistry teacher at a college in California, so she had a few months off to do her dream trip hiking across America. She had limited time so she was only really planning on getting near Oregon after a few months of walking.
The bus pulls up to Campo and the rain that had been falling all morning abruptly stops. With this stroke of good luck Mary and I walk 1.5 miles(2.4 km) south to reach the border and the official southern PCT terminus(aka starting point). I take pictures for her and she takes pictures for me, then we set off of the grand journey.
We are in the Californian desert with a huge variety of beautiful plants to gawk at. There are few bunnies hopping around near the trail and an abundance of small lizards darting everywhere. After a few hours we come across Ben, a garbageman from Wisconsin. His pack is HUGE. It looks like it weighs more than I do and he admits to us, "I've packed too much!". We continue forward without him since he pace is painful slow due to having to stop often and relieve his back of the heavy load. I also feel slightly fatigued as it's the first time I've carried a pack this heavy. There is an ache growing in my shoulders and my ankles feel beat. After about 15 miles(24 km) my knees are shaking, the sun is setting, and we decide to camp at Hauser Creek. The spots are nicely hidden under some large trees with the first water source on the trail beside us.
My original plan was to hike 20 miles(32 km) the first day to Lake Morena. I said goodbye to Mary so that I could pick up my pace. From Hauser Creek there is a climb to get to Morena. Going up I was glad that I decided to stop and rest the night before. Coming up to the campgrounds I turned a corner around a large shrub and came face to face with a wild turkey! I continued on, passing lots of small rabbits wandering around in the early morning.
As midday approached the temperature started to soar. Yesterday had been overcast and cool but now I was properly introduced to the desert climate. Sipping water often and hiding away in small pockets of shade occupied the majority of my day as I hiked on. I passed an Australian taking refuge from the sun in the shade while silently enjoying a healthy snack of gummy bears.
Further on I came across more hikers. The first was Damion, an American carpenter who was planning on whittling an engagement ring for his girlfriend whilst on trail. The other was Bill, an older man from Berkeley who had already hiked the PCT six times. There had been a lot of rain so many water sources that were dry in the past were flowing now, he mentioned. Giving the example of Hauser Creek which is dry almost every other year at this time. I also pass a group of young kids doing a small multi-day hike to Julian. At one point I found them all huddled off trail in bushes trying to escape a bee swarm!
In the afternoon the sun is sweltering and I use my small umbrella. With the sun not beating down directly on me I could continue hiking at a steady pace without having to stop. I continued until the evening, pausing briefly to enjoy dinner. After 24 miles(39 km) I found a campsite in a silent and open field.
I woke up to a tent damp with morning dew. I wasn't worried as the day would be hot enough to quickly dry it out during my lunch break. I meet a Aly, a girl from Iowa and hike with her for the better part of the morning. We eat lunch together at a small campground and then I take off by myself.
I continue to take many breaks in slivers of shade during the day. The biggest thing on my mind is the pain in my shoulders from my overloaded pack. I'd taken too much food and wasn't eating much as my appetite hadn't grown yet. Around PCT mile 54.9(88 km) I experienced my first trail magic! There were two containers left out, partially hidden under some bushes at a trail junction. Inside I found some chocolates and a baggie of smarties. In the other box there were buffs that were made specially for hikers, as it had printed on it various scenery we would be passing in the next section.
Continuing forward I stopped midway on a descent to have dinner before reaching camp. As I packed up to continue a hiker was running down. Emmett introduced himself and continued racing off with the promise that he'd be at the same area as I'd tonight. Eventually I got to mile 63(101 km) and he was there eating his dinner, already set up for the night. He told me he was on a tight schedule, having to get back before September for his master's degree in economics. Doing 30 miles(48 km) a day and shipping packages was his plan to accomplish the goal. I was very impressed and decided to join him tomorrow for a 30 mile day!
Waking up and leaving around 06:30, Emmett and I set out with me in front setting our pace. We get distracted in our chatting and end up taking a wrong turn down a dirt jeep road. Once realizing and correcting our route it cost us almost a mile(1.6 km). With our little detour Bill catches up to us. He tells us that some rodents had come at night to nibble on his trekking pole handles!
The day is overcast as there is a huge storm system behind us approaching. We hike at a heightened pace hoping to avoid getting soaked. High winds blow a spitting rain on us for most of the day but we remain relatively dry and never have to resort to using rain gear. Usually this section is hot and tough as there is no water and no shade. Luckily the temperature is very mild and the sun is nowhere to be seen, so we cruise ahead. We pass three different water caches set out to help hikers on this tough section. We do not come across any natural sources of water on trail the whole day.
Crossing the highway near Julian, we head up into the hills still racing ahead of the huge storm clouds at our heels. As we get to the end of our 30 mile(48.3 km) day we are at 4400 feet(1341 m) and the clouds envelope us. Setting up camp quickly it finally begins to rain a little and we try to fall asleep in our tents.
Emmett wakes up early and leaves. It was his first night using his shelter and it didn't seem to hold up very well under the strong winds. I got out to a surprisingly dry tent, as the winds had air-dried away all the rain! Packing up I headed towards my first planned stop, the Warner Springs Community Center.
The climb down towards Warner Springs passed the 100 mile(160 km) marker for the PCT! The trail passed by a beautiful rock formation aptly named Eagle Rock. There I meet Sweetheart, a german hiker, who had previously completed the Appalachian Trail. We walked together until Warner Springs.
Arriving at the community center I spotted Emmett packing up and getting ready to continue hiking. I wished him good luck and off he went speeding along again. I went inside the building, signed my name, bought some snacks and then rushed off to the washrooms to rinse the dirt from my face and hands. There was a box of free oranges for hikers which I gladly took from. After a short rest I continued on the hike myself leaving Sweetheart behind.
The path out of Warner Springs was relatively flat with cows grazing off in the distance. Going in the opposite direction were many local day-hikers. One group was kind enough to offer me an apple. There were a few tiny creeks that I passed over on the trail and the environment slowly changed to a harsher form of desert as trail began to ascend.
I passed many PCT hikers this day. There was a brother and sister, Joey and Ashley from the Bay area hiking together. They had previously hiked the Camino De Santiago and it inspired me to ask my sister in the future to go on some long hikes with me. There was an older couple from Mongolia that were planning on hiking for just a month along the PCT. I meet an older gentleman named Hammer. He attempted to give me a trail name, Far Lake, by randomly looking out and spotting a small lake in the distance from where we had stopped to chat. Further on I met a Polish man going southbound to finish up his thru-hike from the previous year which he had quit early due to snow. Finally at the end of the day I met Twister who had set up at the camp spot I'd planned on.
I'd anticipated that the camp spot had more that one place to set up but on arrival it seemed the Twister had found the only good plot. He apologized and I began to run further down the trail to find a place as the sun began to set. After a few more miles I came across Harrison, a biologist, who was setting up for the night. Thankfully I found a flat bit of dirt near him and after being forced into another 30 mile(48 km) day I quickly went to sleep.
Waking up my feet were quite sore. It had now been two days straight of walking 30 miles(48 km). Harrison himself was actually injured, having knee problems he was walking with a limp. I stuck with him for the morning, walking at a nice deliberate pace we casually chatted about the collapse of modern civilization. Coming to a large descent he let go me forward alone as his own pace severely slowed down.
The day was brutally hot and I began to worry about how much water I'd. It was tough to battle the heat without the distraction of a companion. Along the way I passed a girl sitting in the shade fighting back a bleeding nose. Her name was Short Notice and she was from France, having decided to hike to PCT as she waited for a visa to live in Canada!
At one point I ran out of water but the promise of a nearby cache keeps me going at a steady pace. Thankfully before long and with no real suffering I come to 30 gallon-jugs of water left out for hikers! Hiking just a bit further I settle down in the early afternoon amongst some large boulders. I pull out most of my gear to let it breathe in the afternoon sun. I end my day at 16:00.
Feeling properly rested I wake up early and race off to Paradise Valley Cafe. Only 0.4 miles(0.7 km) off the PCT, it's a popular stop and I am craving a large cooked breakfast! There are a group of three hikers when I arrive and I join them. Sam and Monique are a couple from Bristol and the third hiker is from Brazil. Luckily for him the waitress speaks Spanish and he could understand a bit. After eating a glorious omelette I decide to join the British couple for the day's hike.
The day slips by as I spend hours chatting with Sam and Monique. The trail from the cafe to the next town is the first proper climbing we've had to do. There are reports of a rock slide near the top of the mountains and we decide to avoid it. This leads us to a huge detour all the way down the mountain and pushes me into a 32-ish mile(51 km) day.
Coming off from the detour we are in the middle of nowhere with 14 miles(23 km) of road walking until town. We sit down and plan to eat dinner before the trek. Less than a minute later a single car is driving by and I stick out my thumb for a hitch...and it stops! It just so happens to be the only person living in this area driving a Hummer they don't even own and they are willing to take us at least to the main highway. Getting dropped off at the highway we are still about 8 miles(12 km) from town. As the first car I see comes towards us I stick out my thumb again and it stops for us! It's a local from town who just finished having dinner at the cafe we were at earlier this morning. She tells us that she stopped because she passed another hiker and felt bad. With this turn of events Monique gives me my trail name Lucky Hat.
We get dropped off in the town of Idyllwild and stay at the campground. We all agree that tomorrow will be a zero day, where we will do no hiking but instead enjoy a well deserved full day of rest.
Our clothes get laundered. Our bodies get showered. We fill our packs with food for the next stretch. Our stomaches get beers and food. Everything goes great as we our stay in this small town who's mayor is a dog.
We leave early as the day's schedule would have us climbing up and over Mount San Jacinto. The reports said that most of the peak would be snow covered. My friends had spikes and trekking poles but I didn't. I figured it couldn't be too bad and I'd be able to summit regardless.
Coming out of Idyllwild we had to road walk 2.5 miles(4 km) to get to the side trail which included 2.5 more miles before we got back on the PCT. Again the day passed quickly with the good company. As promised there was quite a bit of snow. It was very soft and our pace became sluggish but it was still doable. At the top we ate lunch, enjoying the view of the desert floor 9000 feet(2743 km) below and the looming snow capped range in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
The descent from the peak was slowed down as we went through Fuller's Ridge, on which people have perished in the past. Without much ceremony we got down and below the snow to a large campsite. The mileage for the day was not what I hoped for and I was planning to head on and leave the couple behind. As we sat down to say our goodbyes a truck pulled up with some guys and they promptly offered us beers, sausages and a seat at their campfire. I decided of course to stick around for the night!
Taken straight from cold and snowy climb the day before into blistering hot and exposed descending for the whole day, we went down the other side of San Jacinto. Bill managed to catch up to us and we chatted quite a bit as he imparted his vast knowledge of the trail on to me. The descent was uneventful as the sun beat us down and the lizards scurried away from us every few steps.
The motivation to get all the way to the desert floor was a water spigot waiting for us. Clear and clean water flowed straight out as we looked backwards at San Jacinto looming over and we felt proud of what we accomplished. At the bottom of the mountain we passed a gated community and a full blown search and rescue operation for two hikers back in the mountains who had fallen down an icy waterfall.
After the little community it was a long walk across the bed of a long since dry river. The wind roared and the footing was very loose sand. Our destination was underneath a bridge on the nearby interstate. Upon reaching it we found six or seven hikers hiding in the bridge's shade as cars roared over head. There were water coolers with drinks left behind that we could take. On the suggestion of the other hikers we decided to make our way quickly to nearby Cabazon so that I could try In N Out burgers. It was cheap and decent but nothing to shout home about.
After returning, the large group was still there and we all joined up to hike out in the evening. With the sun lowering, we left the comfort of the bridge out back into the exposed desert. I came across my first rattlesnake who was just patiently laying down right in the middle of the trail. Arriving at a large wind farm we settled in for the night.
At 07:00 the maintenance building for the wind farm welcomed in hikers. They offered toilets, showers, and snacks. I was able to get a bunch of free donuts and chimichangas from the dude who worked there! It was a nice morale booster as the day set ahead for Sam, Monique and I'd be tough.
We came across some creeks during the hot morning and I took a moment to just sit down right in the middle of one to cool down. Mission Creek was the name of the next section and the only way to describe it was as an untamed jungle. On paper it's a relatively short walk through a valley/canyon. In reality it was a series of small intersecting creeks through wild bush, with the trail washed out for 80% of the way. Continually checking GPS and straining our necks to find the path we managed to make progress at a snail's pace. Following precariously placed cairns we zigzagged every which way and often looped back on ourselves in confusion.
It was not physically tough but instead a mentally exhausting stretch. We finally escaped Mission Creek's labyrinth in the evening to quickly settle into the first camp spot we could find.
Questions? Comments? Contact me directly!
Want to keep up with projects I'm working on and adventures I'm sneaking off to?
At most one newsletter per month with love from Lucky Hat/Packmule/Alessandro.