Saturday, March 25, 2017

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Although I'd heard the water cache at Scissors Crossing is no longer maintained and cannot be relied on, recent information was that there were gallons and gallons of water cached there.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.

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