Friday, March 31, 2017

The Ecology of PCT Section A

My pet peeve is when PCT hikers refer to the first 700 miles of the trail as "desert." Some of it is desert, but some of it isn't. Within Section A, from the border to Warner Springs, most of the trail is not actually desert. This site provides an explanation of the many different plant communities within California. Some non-desert ones that you encounter in Section A are: Chaparral, Oak Woodland, Riparian, Mixed Evergreen Forest, and Coastal Sage Scrub. A desert plant community you may encounter is creosote bush scrub.

Coastal Sage Scrub
I have a hard time distinguishing between coastal sage scrub and chaparral, but as you start the trail, you are certainly in one of the two most of the time until you nearly reach the top of Mt. Laguna. The way I've been told to tell the difference is that chaparral is woodier and harder to walk through off-trail. Some call it "elfin forest" because, to a tiny elf, it would look like an enormous forest.

Common plants in Coastal Sage Scrub are: "California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp., notably E. fasciculatum), California Lilac (Ceanothus spp.), Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), Monkey flowers (Diplacus spp., the drought tolerant types), Sage (Salvia spp.), Gooseberry and Currant (Ribes spp.), Coyote Brush (Baccharis sp.)."

You certainly see these plants as you go along your first section of trail. In the early spring, the ceanothus, also known as California Lilac, is blooming everywhere. Trees are absolutely covered in white to lavender to dark blue-purple flowers. They are very hard to photograph (trust me, I've tried for years) because they are so tiny and they flutter in the wind non-stop.

Buckwheat is hard to tell apart from another plant, chamise, unless the two are blooming, but buckwheat has umbels of tiny white flowers that turn rust-colored as they dry. Even after the flowers are gone, you can see umbrella shaped umbels sticking out from the plant. Chamise also has white flowers, but they are not in umbels at all. I've seen both on the trail. The first mile or two of the PCT is covered in chamise, which should be in full bloom in May. Red and orange monkeyflowers are also common, and you''ll also see (and smell) plenty of white sage and California sagebrush.

Buckwheat flowers with tarantula hawk wasp on it on Mt. Laguna, ~ mi 48

Chamise in bloom, on the trail in the first mile

Monkeyflower at mile 3

As noted before, Chaparral is sometimes called "elfin forest." It's similar to sage scrub but it would be harder to hike cross country through it because it's woodier.

"The aspect of a hillside can make a great difference in the makeup of the chaparral. North facing slopes are a lot moister and can support Toyon (Heterromoles arbutifolia), Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), Scrub oak (Quercus spp.), Pitcher sage (Lepechinia spp.), Climbing Penstemon (Kekiella cordifolia, K. antirrhinoides), and Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). The dry arid south facing slope is dominated by Chamise (Adenostoma spp.), Black sage (Salvia melifera), Yucca (Yucca spp.), Woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) and Bush poppy, (Dendromecon rigida)."

Of these, I saw a lot of chamise, manzanita, scrub oak, poison oak, yucca, and woolly blue curls in the early part of the trail. The poison oak was mostly limited to wetter areas like creeks. You can tell the manzanitas by their gorgeous red bark. Woolly blue curls are one of my favorite flowers of all. I saw quite a few in the first mile of the trail.

Woolly Blue Curls
Woolly blue curls, in the first mile of the trail

A manzanita at mile 2

More chamise, mile 3

Poison Oak
Poison oak at mile 1. Keep an eye out for more of it at the creek at mile 4.4.

There are a few other plants I saw quite a bit in the first few miles. They include:

Basket Bush
Basket Bush, Rhus trilobata, which some confuse with Poison Oak

Ribbonwood, also known as Red Shank, in the first mile or two of the trail

Sugar Bush
Sugar Bush, Rhus ovata, at mile 2. This shows the fruit and leaves in May.

Sugar Bush flower buds in March at mile 1

This year, you'll get to see an interesting phenomenon as you hike toward Lake Morena. When you pass the several miles that burned in the Campo fire last year, you will see a lot of "crown sprouters." The crown is the part of the plant where the roots meet the top portion of the plant. A lot of chaparral plants are adapted to burn above ground in a fire, but stay alive below ground. After the fire, they re-sprout from the crown. In March I saw several miles of nearly entirely bare ground with dead shrubs poking up all over. At the base of each, the plant was resprouting. At that time, the only other plants growing tended to be wild cucumber vines (with nothing to climb on since everything had burned) and California peonies.

Wild Cucumber
Wild cucumber fruit starting to grow with its flower still intact. Note: These are NOT EDIBLE fruits

Wild Cucumber
Wild cucumber flower

California Peony
California peony

Sagebrush, Oaks, Buckwheat, Elder, and Golden Yarrow
Sagebrush, Coast Live Oaks, Buckwheat, Elder, and Golden Yarrow around mile 21

As you hike your first miles of PCT, you also pass Riparian plant communities along streams. One example of this is right as you go under the 8 freeway, just north of Boulder Oaks. Riparian plant communities are always along streams, although sometimes the water dries up in SoCal during part of the year.

You commonly see three kinds of trees here: Cottonwoods, Sycamores, and Willows. You may also see blackberries, wild grapes, yerba mansa, California wild roses, poison oak, Douglas mugwort, cattails, and Juncus.

Blackberry near the footbridge just north of the 94, ~ mile 2

California Wild Rose
California Wild Rose, mile 24

Oak Woodland
Despite the description of Oak Woodland as containing both Coast Live Oaks and Engelmann Oaks, you'll see mostly Coast Live Oaks at the lower elevation. I saw a great example of oak woodland at Lake Morena, complete with acorn woodpeckers all over the place living on the acorns. Fred Canyon at mile 32 looked like another good example.

Coast Live Oak
Coast Live Oak leaves at mile 2

Oak Tree
Coast Live Oak at Boulder Oaks, mile 26

I thought I might have found one Engelmann Oak around mile 22. They are not very common trees. In general, most of the time you see a tree (not a shrub) and you aren't near water, it's probably a coast live oak.

Right now, our oaks are in trouble from a bug called the Gold Spotted Oak Borer. It is invasive, probably from Arizona, and scientists believe it came to California in firewood. That is why they encourage you to "buy it where you burn it" when you buy firewood. Pests can be transported in the wood. The Gold Spotted Oak Borer lays its eggs in the bark of the trees and the larvae eat the inner bark of the trees, ultimately killing the trees. Then they boroe their way out to reproduce so the next generation can kill more trees. They only like older, larger trees, so it's the big, old trees that are in trouble.

Mixed Evergreen Forest
At last you reach Mixed Evergreen Forest on Mt. Laguna. I was surprised how far up the mountain I was before I truly reached it. I hiked to mile 36 in the dark and camped there, and then I woke up the next day and continued. I don't think it was until I was really around mile 40 or so that I felt like I had at long last reached the Jeffrey and Coulter Pines and the Black Oaks (Quercus kelloggii) I associate with Mt. Laguna. Coulter Pines have pine cones the size of pineapples so they are easy to spot. Black Oaks are deciduous so they drop their leaves in the winter. Their leaves look much different from Coast Live Oak leaves. Their acorns are different too. Coast Live Oak acorns are long, skinny, and pointy, whereas Black Oak acorns are more rounded and fatter.

Black Oak at Sunset
Black Oak leaves, mile 47

Coulter Pine
Coulter Pine on Mt. Laguna

Coulter Pine Cone
Coulter Pine with my hiking boot in the shot to show scale

It's not until you leave Mt. Laguna that other ecosystems transition into true desert. The miles before and after Scissors Crossing (mile 77-78) are truly desert. There you will see lots of different kinds of cacti, creosote bush, cat claw acacia, honey mesquite, and other desert plants.


As you climb out of the desert in the San Felipe hills, at a certain point the landscape changes and it's not truly desert anymore. I don't know at what point that is. You go up, up, up until about mile 96, and then you start going down the other side. And THAT is where you truly see a change. It's especially remarkable from about Barrel Springs (mile 101) onward, into Warner Springs. You can see this photo below, from near mile 106, is clearly no longer desert.


It's interesting that you are hiking between about 2000 and 6000 feet in elevation for all of Section A, and you are about 50 miles inland and going north the whole way through a cross-section of San Diego county. Why is it not all desert?

The answer lies in the mountains. Think about the miles you hike on Mt. Laguna from about 43 to 49. You are at about 5800 feet looking down over a vast, dry desert. Moisture comes in from the coast and it rises and cools. A lot of the rain falls on Mt. Cuyamaca, named from the Kumeyaay word for "rainy place." What's left falls on Mt. Laguna. Very little moisture remains after that, creating the desert. But without such tall mountains to cool the air and wring all of the moisture out of it, other areas of the county that are equally far inland are not equally dry.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

PCT Day 7 - Miles 105 to 109.5: Warner Springs

My last day on the trail was a short one. I had just 4.5 miles to go, and they were flat, easy miles at that.

I'd been naughty and camped near a creek the night before, and I resolved not to go to the bathroom the next day until I was well away from it so that I did not pollute the water. I packed up, ate a bar, and got going, eager for the moment when I was far enough from the creek that I could do my business.

The trail crosses the creek and then climbs above it, eventually entering a meadow. This part of the trail is beautiful. I could not get an adequate picture of it, but imagine mountains all around in the background and green, rolling meadows filled with wildflowers of all colors. There were fiddlenecks, baby blue eyes, daisies, lupines, ground pinks, red maids, cryptantha, California poppies, and a creamy white flower I did not recognize.




California Poppy




Baby Blue Eyes

Red Maid

Ground Pinks

Before long, the trail reaches Eagle Rock, which is what it sounds like... a rock that looks like an eagle. The meadow gives way to some chaparral, and then the trail reaches another meadow, one I'd camped in before. I was now firmly on familiar ground. From there, the trail enters oak woodland and goes along a creek. For much of the way, the creek is not easily accessible from the trail. But just before the trail reaches the highway, there are some good campsites near the creek, and then the creek crosses the trail and I had to step through the shallow water.

The road is Highway 79, and the trail reaches it next to a fire station. Instead of continuing on the trail, I crossed the road and went right, walking about a hundred yards to the Warner Springs Community Resource Center.

With such a short hike, my body felt fine, but my feet HURT. I thought about it and realized that my hiking boots were probably at the end of their lives.

Unfortunately, even at Highway 79, my stupid T-Mobile phone STILL had no reception. I borrowed a man's phone at the Warner Springs Community Resource Center (he had Verizon, which has service) and called my friend to come get me. Then I enjoyed all of the creature comforts they had to offer: a flush toilet, a chair, and the opportunity to take my hiking boots off and put my camp shoes on instead.

My brief little adventure on the PCT was over, although I still have 28 miles of Section A to hike (from mile 48.9 to mile 77) that I plan to do within the next year. It was so much fun, I think I'll hike Section B next!

PCT Day 7 - Miles 93 to 105: Barrel Springs

  • Started: Mile 93.2, 4052 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 105, 3370 ft
  • Miles: 11.8
  • Elevation Gain: 300 ft

I woke up on Day 7 with just eight miles to go to the next water at Barrel Springs at mile 101. This is a spring that often flows through a pipe into a cement cattle trough. When it isn't flowing, you have to just get your water out of the trough. After Barrel Springs, water would be available regularly for the 8.5 miles to the end of Section A, Warner Springs. I wanted to hike as far as I could that day, maybe even all the way to Warner Springs.

As usual, I got a late start, not waking up until 8am. I got on the trail and continued hiking along the contours of the hills in the snakelike fashion the trail winds around. It meanders gradually up until about mile 96 and then starts to go down again to Barrel Springs.

As you begin your descent, you can see roads and buildings in the distance. The last miles into Warner Springs are through meadows and cattle pasture, so I knew I was not truly near the end until the chaparral gave way to meadows. Throughout this section, wildflowers were everywhere.

I took note of the appearance of Baby Blue Eyes, a flower I first saw at Warner Springs and have never observed in the desert. Was that a sign I was getting close?

Baby Blue Eyes
Baby Blue Eyes

At last, the trail descended into Barrel Springs. The spring was running, and there was trail magic!!!!!!

Trail Magic at Barrel Springs

I excitedly rushed to it and saw it was Coors, apples, and candy. Unlike PCTers who burn 4000 calories a day and eat or drink anything, I was not doing the kind of miles to eat anything I liked. Also... I want to find a way to say this properly. I was SO grateful to the kind, kind people who left the trail magic. I wanted to write a thank you note. I felt such joy at seeing it. Not only was it so extremely generous and thoughtful, it also made me feel like a "real" PCTer to be the recipient of the kindness. And yet... Coors is disgusting. Even when hot and tired, I wasn't interested. But that did not decrease the amount of gratitude I felt. Most PCTers would probably drink anything, so it's unfair to impose my picky beer standards on beer left for them.

In any case, I went over to the spring and felt like the constant flow of water was an incredible luxury after relying on caches for several days. I refilled my water, made and ate dinner, did my laundry, bathed myself, and washed my dishes.

I sat there for two hours waiting for my clothes to dry, resting, and watching a wild turkey scratch and peck around nearby. I only washed one of my two shirts, pairs of socks, and pairs of underwear, but I washed my only pants and I was afraid hiking in them wet would lead to chafing. They dry quickly but not instantly.

Finally, impatient, I put on my damp pants and got going. I have hiked a few miles SOBO from Warner Springs before, so at some point I would join up with a part of the trail I was familiar with. I considered whether to attempt to go all the way to Warner Springs that night and decided against it. I would have to call a friend to come get me from there, and I wasn't going to call her late at night. Nor did I want to call her first thing the next morning. I decided to camp a few miles short of Warner Springs so that when I arrived and called her, it would not be too late in the day, but I wouldn't be waking her or inconveniencing her before she had a chance to have breakfast and coffee.

The trail south of the road (S-22) was not all meadows as I'd expected. It still went up into some chaparral and then back down into meadows. I might have considered camping in the meadows, which you absolutely are not supposed to do, but there was cow manure everywhere. Where the heck could I camp to avoid cow manure?

The answer presented itself at mile 105. The trail descends to San Ysidro Creek and there is a beach-like area of exposed sandy soil with room for several tents. Leave No Trace principles say no to camping near water just like it says camping in meadows - you should be 100 feet from the water - but I didn't feel like I had a whole lot of options.

So I resolved to camp near the water but behave myself... no going to the bathroom within 100 feet of the water, or bathing, or doing laundry, or anything else that should be done away from water.

There was one other camper there with me, a man from Europe on a thru-hike who I did not find very friendly. At dusk, a very loud chorus of Pacific Tree Frogs started up. "Are they going to do this all night?" he asked. "Yep. Bring earplugs?" I replied.

I love the sound of frogs. They don't keep me from sleeping at all. But I privately thought that if a couple of noisy frogs bother him, well... he's going to find bigger challenges than that on the trail.

I was surprised after the fact to do the math and realize I'd gone almost 12 miles. My feet hurt but I felt fine otherwise. I could have kept going. Maybe I felt so good because I mostly went down hill? Who knows. (I can go more than 12 miles when I'm in shape, but prior to this trip I'd done no training. I guess I was getting my trail legs back!)

In any case, having already eaten dinner and done everything that needed to be done at Barrel Springs, I changed into my clean, dry clothes, got in my cozy sleeping bag, and went to bed.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

PCT Day 6 - Miles 84-93: The Third Gate

  • Started: Mile 84.5, 3310 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 93.2, 4052 ft
  • Miles: 8.7
  • Elevation Gain: 1124 ft

I did not wake up until about 9am. I was in a cozy little campsite that was shaded by the hills around me, and despite being in a 15 degree down sleeping bag in the desert, I was comfortable until then. Once the sun hit my tent, it turned it into an oven. That's usually what gets me up in the morning when I'm camping. If I want to wake up at a reasonable hour, I need to put my tent where the sun will hit it as early as possible.

Once I got up and got going, I saw what a pretty area I was hiking in. Like the night before, I was surrounded by flowers. Maybe even more so in the section I was hiking now. Entire hillsides were covered in lupines. The trail was gorgeous.

Like the day before, the trail hugged the contour of the hills, snaking around as it went. It felt like a waste of energy in such hot weather to walk the curves of the hills, around and around, instead of going anywhere in a straight line. I repeatedly had to convince myself that I would use more energy, not less, if I left the trail and climbed down the slope of the hill and back up again where I could see the trail on the other side.





Flower with mites on it (the red specks)

I did not take as many photos as I might have done because it was so dang hot. As much as I love wildflowers and photography, my interest in both goes down when it's hot out, particularly when I am carrying a heavy pack. Especially when getting a good photo means getting down on the ground in the dirt and perhaps taking off my pack.

Again, like so much of Section A on the trail, there was almost no shade. When I did find some, I sat. Usually I just sat right down in the dirt, because there was so little shade that it seemed to never coincide with the placement of good rocks to sit on.

Two hikers passed me as I went along. One spoke to me briefly. The other one spoke too, but unintelligibly. His words made no sense, and I resolved to stop attempting any conversation with him.

Another hiker reached me but, believe it or not, did not pass me. It's rare that I'm faster than anyone.

The goal for all of us was the Third Gate. This is a wonderful water cache at mile 92.1. Whereas every other water cache on the PCT should not be relied upon, the Third Gate cache is 100% reliable. It's 14 miles from the last water, the cache at Scissors Crossing, and 10 miles from the next water at Barrel Springs. I also knew from a PCT memoir I was listening to on audiobook that the Third Gate Cache has shade. Lots of it. You can sit there, or even lay down and nap, in the shade.

I had 6.6 miles to hike to get to the Third Gate, and I was single-mindedly heading for it all day. Not stopping to nap. Not stopping to eat. Not taking pictures. Just hiking on in the heat until I got there.

I wanted to use the liter of water I had left when I was nearly there to cool myself off, or to wash up with. But I forced myself to go all the way to the cache, to make sure I found it, and make sure it had water, before using up my last liter. And I did.

It's called the Third Gate because the section of trail between Scissors Crossing and Barrel Springs has seven pipe gates. The first one was at mile 86. The second one was at mile 88.2. And the third one was at mile 91.2.

Not long after going through it, I saw a fork in the trail. To the left, a sign marked the PCT. To the right, there was a sign that said "Water." I went right.

As promised, there were lots of shady trees! And campsites. Wonderful campsites. And even logs and rocks to sit on. But where the heck was the actual water?

I heard a few people talking and I called out to them and asked where the water was. A guy came out and pointed down the trail but said "It's quite a ways." So... just keep following the trail. Down, down, down it went. I did not look forward to coming back up this trail. But once I got to the cache, I did not plan to go anywhere fast. I was parking myself in the shade with some water and staying put until the weather cooled off.

The cache consisted of pallets of bottled water by the gallon, covered in tarps. A sign asked hikers to take only 3 liters, but I did not see that until I was leaving, after I had already taken more. I tried to use my water sparingly, to not be wasteful, but I used what I had to wash up a bit, and then I used the water from the cache to refill my five liters and to cook dinner.

Another thru-hiker, one who passed me earlier, was sitting by the cache in the shade. I joined him. His name was Joel. For the first time, I introduced myself with my new trail name, Nightcrawler. Once I cooled off a bit and felt a little better, I made dinner.

Then the weird hiker who I had resolved to avoid showed up. I'd passed him napping by the trail shortly before the cache. He came, went about his business, ignored the two of us sitting there, and left.

Last, the slow hiker arrived. He was planning a thru-hike, but this was a training trip for him. He was absolutely dying in the heat, and he had planned a 24 mile hike from Scissors Crossing to Barrel Springs that day followed by 8.5 miles the next morning to Warner Springs. He'd had a rough day, and he still had 10 miles to go. His name was Ken.

I ate Good To-Go Thai Curry, which was delicious, and he cooked Alpine Aire Pineapple Orange Chicken, which he said was so disgusting it was nearly inedible.

Joel left first, and soon Ken and I saw him on top of a nearby hill. I assumed he had done some crazy thing climbing up it for fun, and that the trail did not go quite so high. I found out later that the trail did go up there.

I left second, leaving Ken at the cache, but he said he'd catch up to hike with me. While I hiked back up to the trail, I met another man coming down. He said he'd seen four rattlesnakes in the last hour or so. Right after that, I saw this:

Third Gate Rattler

I counted, and it had 13 rattles. It was right in the trail, going nowhere, but not rattling either. Until I poked it in the tail with my trekking pole, that is. Then it coiled. I wanted it to get out of the trail so Ken wouldn't have to encounter it.

Third Gate Rattler, Coiled

After I started hiking again, I was of two minds. On one hand, I wanted to set up camp and get in my sleeping bag as soon as possible. On the other hand, I did not want another long hot day in the sun the next day. The more miles I did at night, the fewer I'd have to do when it was hot the next day. And, as Ken reasoned, it was best to get the uphill bits out of the way at night if we could. (I think his resolve to actually hike all the way to Barrel Springs that night was crumbling a bit... now he was talking about getting to mile 96 or so, to finish all of the uphill at night and go down to Barrel Springs in the morning.)

In the end, I made it two more miles and stopped at mile 93.2. If I had gone on, the next campsites, "may be hidden by brush" according to my map. Assuming I could not see them from the trail in the dark, I would have to hike to mile 95.2 or mile 95.9 for a place to camp. I didn't feel like risking it, so I said goodbye to Ken, set up my tent, and went to sleep.

PCT Day 5 - Miles 77-84: San Felipe Hills

  • Started: Mile 77, 2276 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 84.5, 3310 ft
  • Miles: 7.5
  • Elevation Gain: 1034 ft

The 24 miles from Scissors Crossing to Barrel Springs (miles 77 to 101) has no water at all. None. In fact, the waterless stretch extends beyond that for most of the year, because usually San Felipe wash at Scissors Crossing is empty as well.

The good news about this dry, desert stretch of trail is that it is extremely well supplied by water caches. The caches are maintained by trail angels specifically for PCT hikers, which is far better than other man-made water sources like taps at campgrounds that are only on when the campgrounds are open whether PCT hikers need them or not. I cannot emphasize enough the appropriateness of the term trail angel.

I was not sure if I was going to get back on the trail after I left it. At first I just wanted a shower. I wanted to shave my legs. I wanted to wear clean clothes. I got my tent, which I'd left in my friend Leslie's truck by accident, and I was thrilled to have my cozy little home away from home back. But after three days off the trail, I was itching to get back on it. I decided to pick it back up again at Scissors Crossing.

I made a somewhat rushed decision, late afternoon on March 17. I wanted to get back on the trail! And since I'd always planned to do the section starting at Scissors Crossing at night, it made sense to go immediately.

From Scissors Crossing (mile 77), one ascends into the San Felipe Hills. It is desert. It is hot. There is no water. The next water cache is at mile 91.2 (the "third gate" cache). One needs far more water hiking when it's hot and sunny than when it's cool and dark. I figured it was both safer and easier to do this bit in the late afternoon and evening. The more of those 14 miles I could hike at night, the better. I planned to hike until midnight and then camp. And I took water bladders capable of carrying five liters.

Although I'd heard the water cache at Scissors Crossing is no longer maintained and cannot be relied on, recent information was that there were gallons and gallons of water cached there. I still filled up as much as I could before heading over there, but I decided to pack up and go in such a rush that I did not have even my five liters of bladder capacity filled up. Fortunately the cache was there, and I filled up the rest of my five liters before leaving the road.

The desert near Scissors Crossing was busting out in flowers. There were lupines and phacelia and a flower I assumed was a four o'clock of some sort and cryptantha, and much more.

Four O'Clock?

By the way, a pet peeve of mine is when people refer to the first 700 miles of the PCT as "desert." Those 700 miles go through plenty of desert, but most of Section A really is not desert at all. There is chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, riparian areas, and so on. But this part of the trail, before and after Scissors Crossing, THIS is desert:


I saw a few hikers ahead of me when I crossed the road, starting the section. They were faster than me, and soon they were long gone. I was alone as I hiked up, up, up into the hills. The trail snakes around following the contours of the hills, which have almost no flat areas whatsoever. Before long, you can look down and see the highway running toward Warner Springs, the same place the trail is going. Those cars have it easy compared to us hikers. Their route is straight and flat.

The sun set, and when it was just too dark to see well but I had not yet taken out my headlamp, I was startled by a rattle.

Crabbiest Rattlesnake I've Ever Seen

That's the first snake I've seen in several years. Not only that, but it seemed uncommonly grumpy. Most of the snakes I see are either sunning themselves or slithering off to get somewhere. Very few rattle, and fewer coil. The two I can remember that coiled were both provoked. This one rattled and coiled. And it's true, I was walking along and not looking at the trail as I should have been, so you could say it was provoked. But I was still five feet from it when it rattled at me and I stopped. It remained coiled in the trail while I waited for it to leave, and then started considering my options of either throwing rocks near it or walking around it.

I had just started to walk around it when the snake decided to leave. So after another moment, I was able to continue on the trail. I took out my headlamp at that point, and was much more careful for the rest of that evening and each night thereafter.

After about five miles, I came upon two men camping at mile 82.4. They introduced themselves, and we established that they were the two I'd seen back at the road. I told them how much further I'd hoped to get that night, and they hesitated for a moment, as if I had no idea how long that would take me. I realized they assumed that, like a normal hiker, I was on the brink of setting up camp and going to bed soon. So I added, "Well, I plan to hike until midnight."

With that, they gave me my trail name: Nightcrawler, because I am slow, and I hike at night. I took it. While I do not always hike at night, I certainly do so more than other hikers it seems. And I'm definitely slow.

Campsites are infrequent in the San Felipe Hills, and they are often just enough room for one tent in a wash, with a half mile or more before you reach another spot flat enough to camp. The only true downside to night hiking, in my view, besides missing whatever scenery and photography opportunities you would have during the day, is that it is hard to find campsites. Headlamps are great for reading, and good enough for seeing the trail right in front of your face. But campsites can be off the trail quite a ways - in the Sierras, the rule is 100 feet from the trail - and your headlamp cannot help you see that far.

Fortunately, in this hilly area, most of the campsites were directly next to the trail, making them easier to find in the dark. But finding a campsite was a source of anxiety nonetheless. If I opt to hike past one, how far will it be to the next one? And will I even see it at all? (In a period when there are more hikers on the trail, another question would be "And will the next campsite be available?")

Thus, at 11:20pm, after hiking 7.5 miles, I pitched my tent at mile 84.5, leaving myself about six and a half miles to go in the hot sun of the next day to reach the Third Gate Cache at mile 91.2. That was more hiking that I'd like to do in 90 degree desert, but at least I felt I would be safe, if uncomfortable. I had enough water, with most of my five liters remaining. I chose not to cook dinner that night, and instead I ate a few Babybel cheeses. Then I went to bed.

PCT Day 4 - Miles 36-42: To Mt Laguna Resupply

  • Started: Mile 36.1, 5282 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 42.6, 5942 ft
  • Miles: 6.5 plus a mile of road walking, plus the amount by which I got lost
  • Net Elevation Gain: 660 ft

I woke up late on Day 4, March 14, 2017. I was snuggled into my sleeping bag, wet with dew because I had cowboy camped again. It was to be a short day. I did not mind sleeping in until 9am to let the sun dry my sleeping bag, since I did not think it would take me long to hike a mere 6 miles. And I would prefer to never pack my gear while it is wet.

The day before I did most of the elevation gain to reach the top of Mt. Laguna, hiking from 3170 feet at Boulder Oaks to about 5282 feet, by my estimate. Today I would go down a little bit to Long Canyon creek at 5230 feet, up to a maximum of 6005 feet, and down very slightly to the Mt. Laguna resupply.

There are two possible places you can send your resupply on Mt. Laguna. One is the lodge, which charges a $5 fee for the service, and the other is the post office, which charges no fee other than the price of mailing your package. I'd opted for the lodge, because they have better hours. I did not want to risk getting to the top of Mt. Laguna only to find the post office closed.

Leslie was waiting for me at the lodge, and I did not want to keep her waiting long. Unfortunately, my little six-mile hike with minimal elevation gain seemed to take me forever.

Like the day before, it was hot. Probably in the 80s but by my standards that's too hot. I had some shade early in the morning, but by mid-day there was none. The views between miles 36 and 37, at least, were nice.

The View Hiking Up Mt Laguna

The seasonal creek at mile 37.1 was no more than a puddle. But the "Long Canyon Creek Ford" at mile 37.7, while not a "creek ford" (I hopped over it on some rocks) was flowing well enough to fill up my water in.

Water ~ PCT Mi 37
"Stream" at mile 37.1

Granary Tree
Granary tree of an acorn woodpecker. They drill holes and shove acorns in them for storage.

Around mile 40, I ran into what I first thought were two day hikers having a snack, seated on a log. "Where are you hiking?" I asked.

"Canada!" was the reply.

Leslie and I had met one thru-hiker before, a man named Mike with a 52-lb pack who was cheerfully hiking along at mile 12, on his way to Lake Morena despite his heavy load. Aside from him, these were the first ones I'd met. Their trail names were Raven and Freebird. Raven is an artist and she wore a hiking skirt with a beautiful design of a raven and the sun.

Freebird was on his fourth thru-hike of the trail. He's done heavy snow years before. Raven did part of the trail last year too. They are taking it slowly and enjoying it, but planning to reach the Sierras in May. Freebird prefers to go over the snow before it melts, before there are nasty water crossings and swarms of mosquitoes. I must say, I see his point. So long as there is not an increased danger of avalanches, at least, but no doubt he is mindful of that too since he's already done it so many times.

We hiked along together for a little bit, but then they passed me because I am so slow and could not keep up.

I just kept going, feeling like these short six miles would last forever.

I did not take the first turn-off from the trail that pointed to the road and the lodge. Leslie had mentioned she might hike to meet me and I did not want to miss her. I continued going to Burnt Rancheria campground, to the drinking fountain, which is now off. Raven and Freebird were there cooling off in some water in a trough near the drinking fountain.

I made a dumb move. Instead of hiking on a ways to the next turn-off from the trail to the road, I decided to cut through the campground. Only once I entered the campground, I could not figure out which way led to the road. I decided to just go straight in the direction of the road, off trail, and not following the roads of the campground. My short cut was a long cut instead. I bypassed the post office and lodge, exhausted myself, and felt very foolish too.

When I got to the road, I could not tell which way I needed to go to the lodge. But a building to the south looked like it was the right one. I turned left and walked along the road to it. Thankfully, I was right. There was Leslie, waiting for me. I could only think of a cold beer.

I had planned for us to spend the night at mile 48.9, at the Penny Pines Noble Canyon Trailhead. There is water there, although it is off now. But there is a spring I know of nearby. And, in any case, I had no intention of going anywhere on foot for the rest of the day. The heat had just done me in, and I wanted to take off my boots and sit.

Leslie, on the other hand, had spent the day waiting for me, and she was eager to go hike. She suggested we camp at the El Prado/Laguna Campground, the only nearby campground that was open. It was a few miles up the road, or about 5.5 miles by trail. She would hike there, and I'd hitch a ride later.

I sat a while, and ate, and drank, and checked the trail water reports posted at the lodge, and I got my resupply box and packed it. I went to the bathroom in a real toilet. And I went over to the gear store to get sunblock, aloe, and a hat that gave my poor burnt neck more coverage. I looked to see if they had anything to cover my burnt calves too but they didn't. Well, they had pants, but I didn't want pants. I like hiking in my capris.

At the gear store, I met a few more thru-hikers, Dr. J and Inchworm. They said they'd share a campsite with Leslie and me, since it was $24 per night for a site at the campground.

Later, back at the lodge, I could no longer resist temptation to buy a Julian pie. They only sell entire pies, not slices. But between so many thru-hikers, Leslie, and myself, we could eat a whole one. Right? So I got an apple-cherry.

(By the way, there is a restaurant on Mt. Laguna but we were there on a Tuesday and it was closed.)

Then I did the last thing I intended to do before heading to the campground. I refilled my water at the Laguna visitor's center. I heard voices nearby and I looked around. There were Raven, Freebird, Dr. J, and Inchworm. They had all decided to camp there, for free, instead of going several miles further to the campground where one had to pay. They urged me to stay, but I could not leave Leslie.

I gave them all pie and had some myself. Then I tried to hitch a ride to the campground. And I had no luck.

It was getting to the time when I had promised Leslie I'd meet her there. I really needed to get there. After a few minutes standing by the road, I started walking. Whenever I heard a car, I'd stop and stick my thumb out. Nobody stopped.

I'd gone a mile before finally a car did stop. The man said, "I bet you're going to meet your friend. We just saw her. It's a long way to get to her." There was a woman in the car too, and a dog. They'd met Leslie over at the campground, or maybe on her hike, and they knew she was waiting for me. They kindly brought me to her.

We got a campsite and got set up for the night. Leslie had looked for a place to pay without success. The campground had some faucets working, we were told, but the showers were off. We found out the next day they were actually broken.

Leslie loved her short hike that afternoon, but her feet were now giving her bad enough problems that she thought it wise to stop hiking altogether. She had a trip coming up that she is looking forward to, and she did not want to jeopardize it. It was going to be her daughter's first backpacking trip, and she wanted to be there with her daughter of course. Plus, it required a hard-to-get permit, whereas the section we were hiking does not. She can come do this trail any time, but not the other one. And she has only one chance to be there for her daughter's first trip. So she was done.

Leslie offered to trail angel me, but at that point I got cold feet. I'd met a ranger on the trail that day and he told me what I already knew, that Pioneer Mall had no water, and then scared me by saying he thought Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail had no water either. To get down Mt. Laguna to the desert without running out of water, we needed several places to have water, and we needed to know in advance which ones did. The water report said that Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail had water. I did not feel good about the conflicting information.

What's more, Leslie's phone can get internet from the trail to check the water report, whereas mine doesn't, and Leslie's phone can often make phone calls too. Mine can't. And she has a DeLorme InReach, and I don't. She has the means to get information and get help if an emergency strikes. I don't. And I still didn't have my tent, and now we were getting a forecast for rain the second to last day of our hike.

I think some part of me also just wanted a shower and a flush toilet. And I felt it was probably safest to let my sunburn heal before going out in the sun all day again. (Despite buying sunblock, I did not want to use it. It was some awful chemical mess that I did not want on my body, I did not want getting on my sleeping bag, and I did not want washing into the environment.)

One last part of my decision had to do with the flowers. At the lowest elevations of the desert, a superbloom was taking place. The trail goes through the desert's higher elevations. Thus far, there were very few flowers on the trail. If I got off the trail, I could day hike around in the desert, shower regularly, eat real food, not risk my life, and go each day to the places with the best wildflower blooms.

The next day, the two of us found the camp host and paid for our site, and then we got a ride back to the Lodge, where Leslie had cell reception and where we had a better chance at getting a ride. We ended up calling a shuttle and paying them to take us back to Leslie's truck in Warner Springs. The shuttle was expensive but they misquoted us the price and accidentally gave us a 50% discount, making the cost very reasonable.

As we drove down Mt. Laguna to Scissors Crossing, I immediately felt I'd made a mistake. There was water everywhere. The landscape was green.

Also, the low elevations of the desert (where all the flowers were) was forecasted to be in the 90s for several more days and then cool down to 70. Wouldn't it be better to wait until the weather cooled to go down there? And in that case, what was I going to do for several days? I might as well hike the PCT.

I ended up skipping the section of the trail between Mt. Laguna and Scissors Crossing. I've day hiked the flat stretch on Mt. Laguna to mile 48.9 before, so I basically skipped 28 miles of Section A overall. I hope to hike that bit later this year, or early next. A few days later, freshly showered and with clean laundry, I started up again at Scissors Crossing and finished the hike to Warner Springs.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

PCT Day 3 - Miles 26-36: The Climb Up Mt. Laguna

  • Started: Mile 26, 3153 ft
  • Stopped: Mile 36.1, 5282 ft
  • Miles: 10.1
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2129 ft

Leslie and I awoke to her alarm at Lake Morena. Both of our tents were in the shade, and we were cold. There was some frost on my gear. Neither of us got up. I practically need the sun to bake me out of my tent in the morning on the trail. I'm not an early riser, with or without an alarm. I usually hear the alarm, but I have all kinds of bad judgment in the mornings. Common sense tells me "Get up or else the trail will be hot in the midday sun," and I find a way to justify why actually it's a wiser decision to stay in bed, nevermind the consequences. (Leslie, on the other hand, had already proved her ability to get up early and hike several miles in the coolness of the morning the day before.)

We had left our plan as follows: We were 6 miles behind our itinerary. Maybe we would get a ride to skip some of the trail, or maybe we would just extend our hike an extra day. We would go to breakfast at the deli near Lake Morena and see if we could find a ride. If we could, we'd take it to Boulder Oaks, mile 26. If not, we'd hike, probably to Kitchen Creek Falls at mile 28.6 or Kitchen Creek Rd at mile 30.2.

My sleeping bag was wet with dew, since I had cowboy camped, and her tent was wet. We had planned to get up early and head to the deli with all of our stuff packed, in case we found a ride there. Instead, we lingered before getting up, and then dragged our gear into the sun to dry. We left for the deli, hoping it might be dry when we returned.

At the deli, we each got breakfast. I was so grateful for a coffee (I brought instant coffee but I hate the stuff and had not drank it despite my caffeine addiction - I considered it an emergency supply in case I literally could not hike at all without caffeine). There, we got to chatting with a large man dressed like a motorcyclist, who introduced himself as Tiny. He was a Trail Angel who regularly gave hikers rides as far as Mt. Laguna. We told him about our hiking plans, still up in the air, contingent on finding a ride. He offered to give us one and agreed to meet us by our campsite in half an hour.

Our gear was dry enough when we returned to it, so we packed up and headed out with Tiny. It was already hot out, and it was about 11am before we got on the trail. I had done the next four miles (Boulder Oaks to Kitchen Creek Rd) in the dark last summer, so I remembered it as a pleasant, mild incline and an easy bit of trail. At some point, I assumed, the trail must get steep or strenuous, to reach 6000 foot Mt. Laguna from the 2000-3000 foot chaparral the trail meanders through in its first 26 miles.

Once at Boulder Oaks, we filled up our water. We had meant to do so at the deli, because Lake Morena had signs posted all over that its water was contaminated with E. coli (which is a kind way to say that it is contaminated with shit, because that is where E. coli comes from) so it had to be filtered. We looked forward to filling up with water that was already potable to save us some work. The deli had clean drinking water, but so did Boulder Oaks.

Then we each used the restroom (a pit latrine) and we headed off. Before we went, I snapped this photo of a strange looking thing on a sagebrush plant. I'd never seen it before, even though I've seen lots of sage brush all over the West.

Funny Looking Thing on a Sagebrush

Already, it was hot and there was no shade. Even though I remembered this part of the trail as easy, I remembered the first bit of incline as the trail climbs above the 8 freeway after passing underneath it is steep. And it is. Leslie stopped to talk to some SOBO section hikers, while I slowly made my way up it. Then she called to me to wait for her, which was odd. Usually we hiked at our own paces, often alone, and leapfrogged one another all day.

I waited, and she caught up. She did not feel right about the hike. She did not like hiking in this unseasonable heat (neither did I for that matter) and she preferred to do shorter miles each day. My plan had us ending near mile 38 that night - almost 12 miles all up hill in the heat. It wasn't that she couldn't do longer miles. She can. She has. No problem. But when there is no necessity for it, she enjoys backpacking more when she does about 8 miles.

I understood that completely. I like short days too. When I plan, I like planning long days, thinking of the delicious accomplishment of looking back on how many miles I've completed. And after I've done a long day, I am so proud of what I have done, and so glad I have done it. But in the moment, it is far more pleasant to hike 8 miles and then stop mid-afternoon to enjoy your campsite, maybe bathing, or doing laundry, or relaxing with your feet in a stream.

I suggested we just do as many miles as she wished then. I did not want to cut her trip short due to selfishness. And, truth be told, I'd be plenty happy myself doing fewer miles. We could stop after 4 miles if she liked, at Kitchen Creek Rd. Or after six miles, at Fred Canyon. Or one more mile to Cibbet Flats campground. Or we could go 10 miles to a campsite at mile 36. We could play it by ear and do what felt right to her.

For a moment, we both set off to continue hiking. Then she noticed her back was wet. She checked, and found her water bladder was leaking. There was no fix for it, and no way for her to continue hiking in a way she felt was safe and healthy, even if I shared some of my water or gear with her. There is an excellent gear store on Mt. Laguna, about 16 miles up the trail. Leslie, wise enough to stop backpacking before catastrophe strikes, told me she'd get a ride up the mountain and meet me there the next day.

I continued on. What I remembered as an easy hike in the cool night air was not easy at all in the mid day heat. There was no shade whatsoever. After passing Kitchen Creek Falls, accessible from a side trail I did not take, I saw how much water there was from above:

Kitchen Creek Falls

I had enough water to go for a little bit longer, and I expected to find some water around mile 30. Sure enough, I did not even have to leave the trail to seek it out like my map instructed. A little stream crossed the trail and I filled up there.

I tried to get a decent photo of a butterfly. I'd seen these butterflies all over the trail but they never stayed still long enough to get a decent photo. This was the best I could do.


The trail went on, crossing the south face of the mountain, with absolutely no shade. Then it curved around to the east, but still there was no shade. At one point, I came upon a swarm of bees, and thought about how my friend Crystal was stung by bees on her first day hiking the PCT the year before. It took several minutes for the bees to move up the trail and then off of it so I could pass without being stung.

I hardly took any pictures. I was just hot and uncomfortable and worried about sunburn. Two days before, I'd put on my sunsleeves to protect my arms, which were already burning, but a half-inch of skin in between my sunsleeves and my T-shirt sleeves still burned. The day before I'd put a patch of the Omnifix tape I bring for blisters on part of that skin to protect it. It had worked, but I hadn't used enough to protect that area on both arms. Two days before, the back of my neck also burned, despite the hat I wore that was supposed to cover it.

I had put my bandana around my neck, facing the back, attempting to cover that skin. But the next day, the backs of my calves and the area on the front of my neck above my collar burned. I got heat rash on the bottom of my calves, because I hadn't worn my gaiters the day before, and the area they had previously covered burned badly. I bought a second, bigger bandana at Lake Morena, and now I wore two bandanas around my neck, one facing back, and one facing front. Then I put on my gaiters and covered up the backs of my burnt calves and the tops of my arms with Omnifix. I hoped this would keep my skin safe.

I bought sunscreen at Lake Morena too, but it was some chemical concoction, and I preferred not to put it on if I could cover myself up enough. I did not want that on my skin, and I also did not want it getting on my down sleeping bag, nor did I want to wash it off into the environment around me. I should have bought some zinc-based sunscreen before I set out for the trail, or maybe just clothing that covered me more.

When I could find a tiny patch of shade, I sat down to eat a bar for lunch, or to go to the bathroom, or to just rest. Those patches were rare, and they never coincided with nice rocks to sit on. I just sat in the dirt and was glad for the shade.

At long last the trail dropped down into a canyon, Fred Canyon. It was like an entirely different trail all of a sudden. Instead of going along a dry, hot, exposed mountain ridge, it was now in a canyon with a stream shaded by oak trees. It was a perfect campsite and I wished I could stay. But I hike slowly and I wake up late, and I did not want Leslie to have to wait for me the next day on Mt. Laguna. The original itinerary said I should get to Long Canyon at mile 37.7 today, not stop at Fred Canyon at mile 32. I told myself I would hike as far as I could, at least to a campsite at mile 36.

The trail rose out of the canyon and again went along an exposed part of the mountain, now facing the west. I thought about how many times I'd driven up Sunrise Highway, which was down below, never considering the part of the mountain where I hiked now.

It was after 5pm before the trail had any real shade. I hiked until after dark, and at last found a nice campsite at mile 36.1. It was close enough to my goal of Long Canyon (Mile 37.7) to make me happy. It had no water, but I had enough water. It's hard to find campsites in the dark, and if I passed this one, I risked having to hike several more miles to find another. So I laid out Leslie's poncho, which I was using as a ground cover, placed my sleeping bag on it, and slipped my legs into my sleeping bag. Then I put on my wool hoodie and rain jacket, even though there was no rain, because I preferred to use my down jacket as a pillow if I could, and I cooked dinner on the ground next to the poncho. Once I had eaten it and washed my dishes, I went to bed.

This was the first time in my life I have ever been afraid while camping. I was alone after spending all day trekking around a part of the wilderness that gets little human traffic, aside from PCTers. And there had not been very many PCTers for months, since the thru-hike season is just now starting. This was the remotest place I felt I had ever camped. I thought I'd seen mountain lion scat on the trail. I'd heard of hikers who had mountain lions prowl around them in their tents. As flimsy as a tent is, it is thought to keep campers safer from grizzlies than if they cowboy camped, from what I read. What about mountain lions? A few times, I heard a rustle around me, and I filled with more intense fear than I'd ever felt. I felt myself becoming paralyzed with fear, and forced myself to sit up and look around with my headlamp on.

Ultimately, I was able to fall asleep, and sleep all night until morning. And I was not eaten by any mountain lions.