I hiked the PCT today. Well, I hiked 2.3 miles of it. I'm in the area so it was just a quick local hike, as strange as that sounds. The PCT is so epic, it's kind of weird that I can just drive to it. It's sort of how I felt when I first moved to California about driving to Disneyland. The thought that you could just get in your car and drive there blew my mind.
The road to the PCT must be strange for an someone starting a thru-hike. You begin in urban San Diego and then take the 94 east. First, the freeway ends and you start hitting a few traffic lights. Then you pass your last strip malls and big box stores. You go up and down through the mountains, but mostly up. You go around curves along the side of the mountain and a few times there are signs warning you of curving roads for the next 4 miles, which is a lie, because the curves really last for more like 40 miles. You pass tiny towns with names like Dulzura and Potrero. The radio signal goes. At last you reach Campo.
I looked up directions to the Southern Terminus, and carefully noted that you turn right from the 94 on Forrest Gate Rd. I did not have to check so carefully. There aren't any other roads around that you could turn on if you wanted to.
You take Forrest Gate Rd until the pavement ends and it becomes a gravel road. Then the gravel ends and it becomes a dirt road. You pass a juvenile detention facility. The PCT crosses the road a few times. Border guards are everywhere, in vehicles. At last, you can see the border wall.
When you get to the end, if you look left (east) you will see the Southern Terminus of the PCT. I'd seen photos so I knew what I was looking for. I parked my car and went over to it, to officially begin at the beginning. But then - where the hell was the trail?
The PCT Southern Terminus from the road.
The PCT's Southern Terminus
I found this out much later, but here is the answer. Go back to Forrest Gate Rd. A few feet up the road, you'll see this sign on the east side of the road:
Exactly across the street, on the west side of the road, is a large oak tree. The trail starts in between two traffic cones next to it:
The start of the PCT
But I did not figure that out just then. I walked around a bit near the Southern Terminus looking for a trail, and then gave up and decided to just walk up Forrest Gate Rd until the trail crossed it. It crosses it several times, so I wasn't worried.
I was squatting down to photograph a monkeyflower when a border agent stopped me.
"Out taking nature photographs?" he asked.
"I'm trying to hike a bit of the PCT," I answered.
"You aren't on it," he said.
"I know," I told him. "I saw it crosses the road so I figured I'd catch it when it did."
"That your Prius?" he asked.
"Yeah," I told him.
He said it did not cross the road for quite a ways, but it started back at the oak tree and went along to the west of the road. I decided to just keep going, and I hit the trail very soon.
One thing about the start of the PCT is that, aside from certain not-so-pretty attributes, it's pretty.
Not-so-scenic power lines
Not-so-scenic Border Control
Right as you walk under power lines and you can hear their audible buzz, the PCT crosses the road, from west to east. If you aren't on the trail already, just take the trail on the east side of the road and go from there. That's what I did. It felt good to see this logo on the sign marking the trail.
The trail is extremely rich in San Diego plant life. You begin in sage scrub, filled with buckwheat, and invasive black mustard. Right now, a lot of golden yarrow is blooming. But you might see a splash of red, where Scarlet Bugler are blooming:
And if you are lucky, you will spot one of my favorite plants, Woolly Blue Curls.
I was having trouble getting a good shot of Woolly Blue Curls because of the wind, and when this happened I decided it was artistic and I like it.
The cholla are blooming right now too:
This is something in the aster family that I don't recognize. It was large like a big thistle, but yellow. And, obviously, not thistle-like.
Shortly after I caught the trail, the buckwheat vegetation gives way to chamise. The two often grow together, but for some reason this area was just chamise as far as the eye can see.
And then, some large thistles:
Of course, there is dodder, an orange plant parasite in the Morning Glory family, often on buckwheat but here on some Chamise:
The PCT crosses a dirt road. I took a photo of the sign on the south side of the road:
The trail is well-marked as you cross the road.
Shortly thereafter, you cross Forrest Gate Rd again, this time to the west. As you do, you can see Castle Rock Ranch's cheesy sign:
And, fortunately, the PCT is well-marked.
Cross the road and you're now hiking through Ribbonwood, also known as Red Shank.
There were these little button-like flowers in the Aster family:
You pass an elder tree in bloom:
And, that's the first mile of the PCT.
The next note-worthy flower I saw was this monkeyflower, Mimulus brevipes. They are common on this stretch of the trail.
And these lovely white snapdragons:
Clematis, I think:
There was Basket Bush, the stuff that looks like poison oak but isn't:
The second mile stays entirely to the west of Forrest Gate Rd as it goes toward Highway 94, at mile 2.3. However, the PCT goes back up to the road without crossing it, and now you've walked far enough up it that it's paved:
But then it just goes along the road. Past houses. With nothing that really looks like a trail, and no PCT signs. See this dirt along the side of the road? Yeah, that's the PCT. Really.
... And then things get normal again:
That section doesn't last for long. But it had me a bit worried.
I saw this beautiful prickly pear in bloom:
And I can't even explain what the heck this is about:
The water was just squirting out of the ground. Too early in the trail to really be useful, especially because there's a faucet nearby for hikers to refill at if they actually ran out of water in the first mile. Or, more likely, decided to fill up before going on to the long water-less stretch to Lake Morena.
I ran into one of my favorites, the perfectly named Showy Penstemon. I saw this a few times on the trail. Not too frequently, but more than once. It stands out when you see it. I don't like the photo I took, but the plant itself is gorgeous.
Then I was somewhat surprised to see Yerba Santa:
There are two species of Yerba Santa in San Diego, and I'd only ever seen the other one. This one, however, is medicinally useful - so much so that it earned the name "Holy Herb" from the Spanish. It's very common along this part of the trail, and I'd never hiked in this part of the county before, so I suppose I should not be that surprised to see it. It was exciting to find out it was here!
There are two very similar looking red penstemons in San Diego. The first, Scarlet Bugler, is pictured above. The second, Beaked Penstemon, is below.
The trail already passed the plant that looks like poison oak but isn't. Then it passes the plant that looks like poison oak and IS.
There's plenty of this along the trail in the first section, so keep an eye out for it.
Then I found a real treat: Larkspur!
At about mile 1.5, I heard voices. I did not understand. I'm out of shape and I was going slowly. If anyone started before me, I would not catch up. If they started after me, they would pass me, and nobody had passed me. How was someone ahead of me?
I reached them and saw three people with a large tent that probably weighed 8 lbs. They were thru-hikers, and they started 2 hours before I did. They said they were out of shape and they decided to stop after 1.5 miles for the day. One already had bad blister problems. I asked if they had enough water to reach Lake Morena. They said they had 2 gallons each (good) but asked how far to the next water (Mile 20.6). I suggested they refill when they reached Hwy 94 first thing tomorrow morning. Then I went on to finish my short segment, knowing I'd see them again when I doubled back. When I passed them again, one was smoking a cigarette.
As I left them, I spotted a Golden Bowl Mariposa Lily:
Then I passed one of my favorite flowers and said it's name out loud: "Chia!" I wondered if they heard me. (I realized later that there is TONS of chia on the trail... very exciting.)
Chia. Salvia columbariae.
Then some Keckiella. This one is also common on this part of the trail.
Around this point you kind of re-emerge into civilization before you hit the highway. The first sign is this red barn.
Then, just before the road, you see the back of a sign. Here is what the front of it says:
You reach the road at a gravel driveway. The PCT is only marked with this little post:
However, I took pictures of two other signs at that point, to remember the spot, since I plan to go back there to hike the next segment. Here is the address next to the trail:
And if you look just east of the trail, you see this sign:
I turned around and headed back for my car. I passed the three with their huge tent again, and ran into one more thru-hiker, at the section where the trail runs along the road. He seemed a bit more prepared.
Before reaching my car, I saw this Scrub Jay, who stayed still just long enough for me to snap a pic:
For all of my posts on the PCT, click here