For many people, the first day on the PCT is a hike from the border to Lake Morena, at mile 20.6. Others camp before arriving at Lake Morena, but either way, Lake Morena is the first water source since Campo. It's also your first opportunity to bail, or to buy booze, use a flush toilet, or enjoy any other creature comfort like that.
I'm doing out and back hikes, which means the distance I hike is twice the number of PCT miles I cover at one time. And I'm out of shape. I intended to hike the last 5.5 miles or so up to Lake Morena, giving me an 11 mile hike. I'd heard the last bit into Lake Morena is a climb, and I prefer to do the uphill parts of my hikes first and the downhill parts second if I have a choice in the matter.
According to the PCT guidebook, the trail crosses "SD Boundary Rd 17508" at mile 14.5. That can only be the road that Google maps calls Big Protrero Truck Trail. The trail follows the road for a bit, then leaves it, and crosses Hauser Creek Rd. and Hauser Creek itself at mile 16. I planned to drive to Big Protrero Truck Trail, park there, and hike to Lake Morena. It wouldn't be quite the hike a PCT thru-hiker does on day 1, but at least I could have the experience of hiking into Lake Morena like they do.
The map shows that the way to reach Big Protrero Truck Trail is by taking Lake Morena Dr. to Hauser Creek Rd, then taking Hauser Creek Rd. for 2.1 miles. At that point, make a sharp left onto Big Protrero Truck Trail and follow it for 1.9 miles. Or, if you'd prefer to take Hauser Creek Rd until it intersects with the PCT, follow it for another 1.2 miles.
In actuality, Hauser Creek Rd. is an unmarked one-lane dirt road with campers and RVs and the occasional house on either side of it. One of them is labeled "Rancho No Es Muy Grande." After about 2 miles, just before the turnoff to Big Protero Truck Trail, there was a gate blocking the road. It was possible to turn left, and I did, but it led to somebody's yard and seemingly nothing else. So much for that.
I turned around and drove to Lake Morena, parked, and did the hike from there. Since I was starting late, I opted to do 9 miles instead of 11, from Lake Morena at mile 20.6 to Hauser Creek at mile 16 and back. I am posting my photos from south to north (NOBO) even though it's the reverse order of how I did the hike, since that's how most thru-hikers will do it.
Up until mile 14.5 the hike from the border has been fairly gentle. It's long, and there's no water, but it's not steep. And then you look out over a canyon and see a huge drop that you will hike down, and a steep climb that you will do up the other side. My photos are from the other side, the north side of the canyon, but they give you a picture of the situation.
These two photos are the western side of the canyon. You can see the bottom of the canyon. That's where Hauser Creek is at.
It's not as wildernessy as you might like. There are still these powerlines along the road on the south side of the canyon. I believe the road in the photo below is Big Protero Truck Trail.
I reached the canyon at dusk and saw a helicopter fly overhead.
About 0.15 miles from Hauser Creek, you pass this sign. You see the back of it, but if you turn around and look at it, it marks a wilderness boundary.
And, the climb begins, from Hauser Creek at 2320 ft to a saddle at 3210. Almost 900 feet, straight up, in 1.4 miles.
I did not really take any pictures during the climb up. The vegetation there is much less picturesque and interesting than the rest of this section, because the slope is south-facing and it probably just gets cooked by the sun. There were some weed mariposa lilies and lots of chia and typical chaparral vegetation, but nothing that notable.
At mile 17.4, you reach this sign at Morena Butte:
And this sign:
At that point, the difficult climb is over. You still have a few hundred more feet in elevation before you reach Lake Morena, but nothing is as difficult as what you have just done.
In reality, it's not a very difficult climb at all. It's a very well-made trail and a relatively gradual climb, particularly given the terrain. It's only truly hard because you have already hiked 16 miles before it and you might be dehydrated. A few weeks ago, a thru-hiker posted on the PCT Facebook group that someone was dangerously dehydrated at mile 17.35 and needed to be rescued. He was almost to the top of the climb, but still more than three miles from Lake Morena, and at that point needed hospitalization. It turned out a second hiker needed an airlift the same day, from the same section. It appears that if you are going to get in trouble on Day 1, this is where it will happen.
If you reach this point and you are out of water, it appears you can take Hauser Creek Rd. east for about a mile and a half and you will reach the area I drove through with houses and campers. Going there to ask for water and help is a better option than attempting the climb and being airlifted.
At this point, the flower situation improves too. I found these Indian Pinks:
And some Owl's Clover, which is actually in the Paintbrush family (it's not a clover):
And these gorgeous larkspur:
And more Indian Pinks:
I don't appreciate the photobomb by all the bugs on this one.
If you can't tell, I was VERY excited to run into this flower.
There are lots of Woolly Blue Curls, a flower I love in the mint family.
And more of the delightful white snapdragons that look like they have bunny ears:
Just under 2 miles out, you pass two PCT sign posts that are relatively close to one another.
Then you meet another flower that got me really excited (if you hike this section in May, which is a bit late to start a thru-hike...). The flower is called Chinese Houses and the name makes sense when you see a plant with multiple rings of flowers around the stem, one on top of another, forming little pagodas.
My only comments here are: WTF is this? From a distance, it looks almost like a common flower called Blue Dicks, but it's something else. It was growing all over this stretch of trail.
As you walk along, often lined by ribbonwood on both sides of the trail, you occasionally pass Mountain Mahogany with its feathery fruits:
When I hiked back on this section at night, it smelled really nice. I don't think it had that smell in the day time. The stars shone brightly in the sky, and I could make out the Big Dipper. I also saw several bats flying around. It was a nice place to hike at night.
And, at last, about 1 mile from the end, you finally catch a view of Lake Morena itself.
I saw more Woolly Blue Curls:
And a flower I love, Parry Phacelia:
There's another flower that grows a lot along the trail. I don't usually stop to photograph it because it's so common that I don't even pay attention to it anymore. But here it is: Golden Yarrow.
For fellow plant dorks who know the flower Yarrow, this is actually a different species. They are related, but not the same. You can tell if you look at the leaves of Golden Yarrow, which look nothing like Yarrow leaves.
As you get closer, you can't see the lake anymore:
Another common flower I hadn't bothered with up til now is Parish Nightshade.
Some more Chinese Houses:
And some Wild Peas:
Lots of Caterpillar Phacelia:
And Silver Puffs:
One of the crazier things you'll see in this part of the trail are the wild cucumbers. Before you get any ideas about eating them, their Latin name, Marah macrocarpus, means "Bitter Big Fruit." Also they are toxic. But I always enjoy seeing them because they are so funny looking.
There was an itty bitty lupine:
Just before you arrive in Lake Morena, there are a few spur trails that go off from the left. On the right side of the trail, first you see this informational sign about the PCT:
Then you see a post that perhaps once had a sign but no longer does. A little later, you'll see a post with the number 11. Then, as you reach the end, you see a post with a number 12 and this sign:
And congratulations, you've hiked 20.6 miles and overcome the first hurdle of the PCT. If it were me, I would need a zero after doing that in one day - at least. But thru-hikers wake up the next morning and do it again. Fortunately, the next section brings you up into Mt. Laguna, where there is water, a resupply option, food, great weather (unless it snows) and a fantastic outdoors store with all the gear a backpacker would need. By the way, hang a right on Lake Morena Dr. when exiting the trail, you'll soon reach a store that sells food and liquor.
Follow Lake Shore Dr. to continue on the PCT, follow Lake Morena Dr for beer.
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