Southern California


April 10 / Oakland

Seventeen days from today the journey begins! At first light on the morning of April 27th I will start walking north from the Mexican border along the Pacific Crest Trail. Five months and 2650 miles later I hope to reach Canada and the northern terminus of the trail….

I’ll be flying down to San Diego on Wednesday, the 25th of April, and will spend two nights there with a friend. On Friday morning at 4:30am I will catch a ride to the southern terminus of the trail near the town of Campo on the Mexican border about an hour’s drive east of San Diego.

Needless to say I am pretty excited to get going…. Time seems to be passing more quickly as the hike draws near – which is both good and bad. There’s a lot that I need to do before I leave and it has been a real challenge to balance my various commitments while making preparations for the hike.

I have been deliberating about the gear I will carry in an attempt to reduce my pack weight as much as possible. I hope to carry a pack with a base weight (not including food and water) of between 15-18 pounds. It’s all about tradeoffs (comfort vs. weight) when deciding what to carry and what to leave behind. The process of selecting gear is made more difficult because of my height (6’9″). Most gear simply does not fit. My feet hang out of most tents, my shoulders protrude from most sleeping bags, and the sleeves on most jackets stop well short of my wrists. Unfortunately I have not yet mastered the art of sewing and have had to custom order certain items, such as my 7 ft. down sleeping bag.

Over the past month, amidst the rolling blackouts, I have toiled in the kitchen planning my menu and dehydrating various fruits and vegetables (mostly mushrooms, onions, and pasta sauce). I intend to purchase the majority of my food as I hike, in small towns near the trail. However I will supplement this by mailing in certain items (such as the mushrooms and onions) that would otherwise not be available along the route. In addition to food, I will mail in other supplies such as film and fuel.

To strengthen my legs I’ve been taking daily hikes up the fire trail near my house in Oakland. The trail is perfect for this sort of thing because it gains over a thousand feet of elevation in less than two miles. Not to mention the beautiful views out over the bay, across to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Asa, my tireless puppy, has been a good companion on these training hikes. I suspect she’s going to be a bit confused come April 25th when these hikes become far more infrequent for her….

The hike will be as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Once on the trail, Canada will become a very distant and abstract goal and I suspect that the hike will become a series of short journeys with dozens of intermediate goals and milestones. Collectively these small journeys will lead me further and further north until, on a snowy day in September, I walk across the border into Canada….

Mexico to Canada is the goal! But the impetus for this hike goes much deeper. Simply put, I hike because I enjoy being in the woods. In this setting I am able to shed familiar patterns of living which are based primarily on convenience and establish new simpler routines which are more in harmony with the natural cycles and which correspond more truly with the essential requirements of life. I have found that in the woods the essential is elevated and the superfluous diminished. Without the ubiquitous distractions of home the senses are awakened and the mind drifts toward a more contemplative state.

In large part this hike is about developing a strong sense of place. In the four years that I have been living in California I have made it my goal to become intimately familiar with the physical landscape of this area. Two summers ago I hiked 1800 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border in southern California to Crater Lake in central Oregon. I look forward to reconnecting with the trail this summer and expect that by traveling through much of the area for a second time I will be all the more sensitive to and aware of the many subtleties that exist along the route.

A defining characteristic of the Pacific Crest Trail is the diversity of environments through which it passes. The PCT ranges in elevation from just above sea level (150 ft.) along the Columbia River in Washington to 13,180 ft. atop Forester Pass in central California. Between these two extremes, between the mountains and the desert, exist countless transition zones. One of the most rewarding aspects of a long hike is to witness firsthand how a desert becomes a mountain and vise versa. To walk through the margins and see how one environment slowly morphs into another and see how the plant and animal communities changes as you gain or lose elevation.

Hiking for five months one observes not only changes in the physical landscape but also more temporal changes – the cycles of the moon and the changing of the seasons. Between April and September the length of daylight will change significantly. The sweltering heat of the Mojave Desert will give way to mosquito-infested lakes in the High Sierra and Oregon which will eventually be replaced by a cold wind, harbinger of winter, in northern Washington.

Furthermore, I am interested in breaking down the distinction of wilderness as other, as something entirely separate from, even protected from, our everyday habitat and our shortsighted habits. Among other things, this distinction tends to limit access to the wilderness to only those with the financial resources to travel to such places. It also gives greater license to neglect and abuse non-protected areas that are considered less spectacular and therefore less valuable. It is particularly disturbing that these neglected areas are often inhabited by lower income and disenfranchised individuals who lack the political clout to oppose unhealthy practices. By thinking of the environment only in terms of its economic utility we have gone a long way toward removing the wildness from the wilderness and from our more immediate surroundings as well. In the process we have parceled the land and have created separate islands of so called wilderness that are detached from the larger ecosystem and that are ultimately not sustainable. I have always sought to find elements of the wilderness at home and, conversely, elements of home in the wilderness.

Another major goal for this hike is to raise money for Bay Area Wilderness Training and, by so doing, to further their mission of getting urban youth into the woods.

Having worked over the years as an outdoor educator for various youth organizations I have seen firsthand the remarkable transformation that often takes place in young people as they experience the wilderness for the first time. I am committed to making this experience accessible to ALL youth, especially to those who, for whatever reason, have not had the opportunity to spend time in the wilderness.

On my long hike in ’99 I was not so much surprised as disappointed by the lack of cultural diversity that I observed among those hiking the trail. On the whole the people that I did meet were very kind, thoughtful, interesting, and unique. I met a young woman who had just graduated from high school and decided almost on a whim to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I met a 78 year old man who had previously hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and who was now chipping away at the PCT. Despite these differences one similarity persisted: everyone was white. Over four months and 1800 miles I met only three people of color. The fact that the trail so poorly represented the diversity of the state was especially conspicuous. If someone does not want to be in the woods that is fine – it is not my desire that everyone become a modern-day John Muir. But if they are not in the woods simply because they have never had the opportunity or the resources that is problematic.

Since its inception in January of 1998 Bay Area Wilderness Training has reached out to ethnically diverse and under-served urban youth in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike other well-intentioned organizations that just take kids out into the wilderness, BAWT has gone one step further by developing new outdoor leaders and role models who come from within these various communities. The train the trainer approach insures that the youth are able to experience the outdoors through a skilled peer who they have ongoing contact with, rather than having the guidance come from a group of mostly white and middle-class instructors.

One of the neat things about the wilderness as a learning environment is that there is no one lesson to be learned – every student takes home something different and almost everything can be applied in some way to their experience at home. In my opinion the greatest value of Bay Area Wilderness Training is that it enables these messages and lessons to be tailored to the specific needs of a given community thereby making the wilderness experience even more powerful and increasing the potential for personal growth and transformation. Venturing into the wilderness is as much about self as it is about place. I am honored to be working with the dedicated folks at Bay Area Wilderness Training and Earth Island Institute as they strive to make the wilderness experience more accessible and more powerful.

Thank you to everyone who has helped to make this journey a reality… Stay tuned to more!

April 26 / San Diego

As you might expect I am very anxious to actually begin walking. I have been planning this trip for many months and tomorrow morning I will take the first few steps along the trail. My excitement is tempered only by an awareness of what I am leaving behind in Oakland. I will miss the companionship of and the daily interactions with Whitney, my best friend and partner. We hiked the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail together two summers ago and so I strongly associate the trail experience with her. Although I look forward to the challenges and rewards of hiking alone this year I know that it will seem strange at first to not share my mac-n-cheese with Whitney each night. I am already looking forward to seeing her at various times throughout the summer…. I will also miss the many other good friends that I have in Oakland, such as Sam, Josh, and Meredith.

Today I am relaxing in San Diego after flying down from Oakland yesterday afternoon. I thought it appropriate that thru the window of the plane I could see the snowy crest of the Sierra. I was met at the airport and am currently staying with Bob, a very kind person who in his spare time helps out PCT hikers as they begin their journeys in southern California. He will shuttle me, along with four other hikers, to the trailhead early tomorrow morning before returning for a full day of teaching mathematics in a high school classroom. This is nothing new for Bob – by the end of May he will have hosted over 40 hikers and will have made over 20 early-morning runs to the trailhead…. One last night in a bed!

Mexican Border to Mt Laguna

April 27 / Lake Morena / 20.2 miles

After a roller-coaster ride through the hills east of San Diego we arrived at the border monument (2915 ft.) at 5:30am. Still shrouded in darkness, the austere monument, situated just a few feet from the Mexican border, marks the southern terminus of the trail. A short and rather flimsy corrugated aluminum fence delineates the actual border. Running, I assume, the length of the border is a meticulously raked dirt road that the U.S. Border Patrol routinely inspects for fresh footprints…. Not a minute passed at the monument before a Border Patrol jeep came roaring up the road to confirm that we were not engaging in illegal activities. After snapping a few photos and signing the trail register I took a deep breath, hoisted my pack and, still under surveillance, took my first steps along the dusty trail. Just over a mile up the trail I skirted the small town of Campo, which is dominated by a huge Border Patrol station.

The first twenty miles of trail to Lake Morena County Park are by no means spectacular – here the trail is essentially just a corridor cut through the ubiquitous waist-high chaparral and manzanita. Nonetheless, I was delighted to be back on the PCT and the miles passed quickly. The first real challenge came after lunch when I began the 1200 ft. climb out of Hauser Canyon on a south-facing slope (i.e. HOT) of Morena Butte, which lies just within the boundary of Hauser Wilderness. From the shoulder of Hauser Mountain I caught a glimpse of the Laguna and San Jacinto mountains to the north. About 1:30pm I rolled into Lake Morena and immediately jumped into a cold shower. Morena is one of only a few places along the trail where hikers can get a free shower – kind of ironic since it is only the first day out and I’m still relatively clean.

I chose to start my hike today so that I could attend the weekend gathering of PCT folks at Lake Morena. The Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off Party (ADZPCTKOP for short…) began three years ago as a way for PCT hikers, past and present, to swap trail stories and share new ideas about long distance hiking. Typically it has been held the final weekend in April, just about the time most prospective thru-hikers are setting out from the Mexican border. Upon arriving at the campground I met a couple people who I had hiked with in ’99 and was introduced to others who I had heard of through the hiker grapevine. It was especially fun to meet Greg (trailname: Strider) who, as far as I know, is the only other PCT hiker who is as tall (6’9″) as I am. Greg hiked the entire trail in ’77 with a couple buddies, Jeff and Monte, who are also here at Lake Morena for this year’s gathering. Cold lemonade and good conversation made for a memorable evening.

April 28 / 12.6 miles

My plan was to spend the day relaxing at Lake Morena but by mid-morning I was already becoming restless – after all I still had 2630 miles to hike…. So, with a few others, I caught a ride up to Cibbets Flat campground, 12 trail miles to the north, and spent the afternoon hiking back to Lake Morena. On the way I encountered my first rattlesnake of the summer, a rite of passage of sorts for PCT thru-hikers. A couple of other hikers unknowingly passed the angry snake, which lay tensely coiled just a few inches off the trail. I later caught up them and inquired about whether they had seen the snake. They exclaimed in unison: “that’s what that sound was!” Makes me wonder just how many snakes I haven’t seen….

The trail switch-backed down to Interstate 8 and then leveled out alongside lazy Cottonwood Creek where it passed through a large meadow spotted with Oak trees. Soon I was back at Lake Morena where the gathering had swollen to include over 100 people, at least half of whom were planning to hike a significant portion of the trail this year. With the afternoon temperature approaching ninety degrees I was tempted to hop back in the cold shower but instead opted for a vanilla milkshake up the road at a small store.

Evening ADZ activities included a barbecue, homemade gear contest, and campfire. I developed a couple small blisters earlier in the day, which I tended to before retiring to my tent for the night. For the first few weeks blisters and aching muscles are pretty much par for the course as the body adjusts to the rigors of the trail.

April 29 / 6 miles

The collective snoring of so many hikers packed into such a small area was enough to keep me up for much of the night…. Since I hiked 12 unscheduled miles yesterday, leaving me only 9 miles short of the next resupply, I was in no hurry to leave camp. I have a food box waiting for me at the post office in Mt. Laguna, which does not open until 8am on Monday morning. I stuck around camp long enough for another tasty breakfast prepared by the organizers of ADZ. With a full stomach I packed up my gear and found a driver willing to shuttle me back up to Cibbets Flat. From there (4100 ft.) the trail gradually ascended into the Laguna Mountains. I hiked with a couple other people who I met the previous day at Lake Morena. We are camped at 5900 ft. in Lower Morris Meadow, shaded by a cluster of Jeffrey Pine and near a delicious spring.

With me tonight is an ambitious hiker named Brian who is attempting to become the first person ever to hike the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails (about 7500 total miles) in less than one year. He started out at the southern terminus of the AT on January 1st and made it nearly 1700 miles before encountering impassable snow in Vermont. He then hopped on a bus headed west and hiked 600 miles of the CDT through New Mexico before starting the PCT last Saturday. After finishing the PCT in August he plans to resume hiking on the CDT, south from Glacier National Park to the Colorado/New Mexico border. From there he will return to the AT to finish the remaining 500 miles through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. With 2300 miles already under his belt he is in much better shape than me and I don’t expect to see him again. And my friends thought I was crazy for hiking the PCT….

Mt Laguna to Warner Springs

April 30 / 19.8 miles

Saw two young rattlesnakes today – both stretched across the trail. After a quick morning resupply at Mt. Laguna, I spent a better part of the day walking along the crest of the Laguna Mountains with good views in all directions – San Jacinto Peak and the San Gorgonio Mountains to the distant north and arid Anza Borrego Desert State Park below and to the east. The Laguna Mountains are interesting in part because they cast an immense rain shadow east over the searing Colorado Desert. The 6000+ ft. mountains force moisture-laden air coming off the Pacific Ocean to rise and condense. Precipitation falls almost exclusively on the western slope of the range, which accounts for the relatively lush forests of Jeffrey Pine and Black Oak. Stripped of all its moisture the air then descends east into the parched desert landscape, which supports only small drought-tolerant plants. Walking the ridge this contrast is very striking. I am camped on a beautiful ridge overlooking barren Oriflamme Canyon and Granite Peak.

May 1 / 19.5 miles

Up at 5:30 and on the trail by 6am. After descending out of the Lagunas into Chariot Canyon and contouring around Granite Mountain, I hiked along the perimeter of Anza-Borrego State Park. By noon today the thermometer on my watch read 102 degrees – at about the same time the thermometer in my head said it was too hot to walk so I holed up for a bit under a large rock.

The desert has been unusually colorful this week. A late-season storm passed through the area last weekend dropping snow at higher elevations in the Lagunas and some rain at lower elevations in the desert. As such, the desert plants – prickly pear and beavertail cactus, teddy bear cholla, and agave – are now in full bloom.

With only a splash of water left in my bottle I reached the road at Scissors Crossing by 2 pm. Hidden in the shrubs next to the highway was a large water stash – over 50 gallons of water placed by volunteers. Just beyond was contaminated San Felipe Creek, the only natural water source for miles. I arrived under the bridge just in time to see a beautiful Kingsnake slither into the brush. The snake, black with white bands, was about four feet long. They are called Kingsnakes because they will eat rattlesnakes and are not affected by rattlesnake venom.

Now I had a choice. The next stretch of trail, through the San Felipe Hills, is notoriously hot and dry – 24 miles without shade or water. I could either sit under the bridge and wait for the afternoon heat to subside or hitch a ride into Julian, a town famous for its apple pie located about 12 miles up Highway 78 in the cool Volcan Mountains. I put my thumb out and was picked up by the second car….

May 2 / 9.1 miles

I spent the night at the Julian Lodge with about a dozen other hikers who had the same idea. After a lazy morning sipping lemonade and eating apple pie we hitched a ride back out to the trail at about 1:30pm. We hung out under the bridge next to San Felipe Creek for a couple hours, planning to strike out around 4-5pm, hike 9 miles, sleep for a few hours, rise early and hike the remaining 15 miles to Barrel Springs, the next water source. From there it will be a short 8 miles into Warner Springs and my next resupply.

With 8 quarts of water (16 lbs.) in my backpack, I began the steady ascent of Grapevine Mountain at 4pm and soon came across another rattler (#4) coiled up along side the trail. Despite appearing irritated, the brownish-yellow snake did not give the usual warning. The cranky serpent refused to move from the trail forcing us to cautiously detour around. About a quarter mile beyond I came across a second snake – this one was definitely not a rattler but rather looked like a giant worm. Not knowing what exactly it was, I gave it plenty of room. A steady breeze, expansive views back to Granite Peak and across to the Volcan Mountains, and hundreds of flowering barrel cacti and ocotillo made the hiking very enjoyable. The ocotillos, which appear only along this section of trail, are aptly described in the guidebook as looking like “giant green pipe cleaners”. Apparently they flower within 2-3 days after a rainstorm and then quickly wither in the scorching heat. In this manner the plant, standing 10-15 ft. tall, may grow and lose its leaves up to seven times a year.

I am camped in a dry, sandy wash about 9 miles in from Scissors Crossing. The moon is bright and the sandy ground is quite comfortable.

May 3 / 23.3 miles

Today began early – after a cold night (32 degrees) I was on the trail by 6am and kept a steady pace until I arrived at Barrel Springs, the next water source, about 15 miles from camp. Fortunately there was a good breeze throughout much of the day that kept the temperature in the upper eighties. I rested my sore knee at well-shaded Barrel Springs for a couple hours before hiking the final 8 miles to the road going in to Warner Springs. Leaving behind the arid San Felipe Hills I followed the trail through an expansive green pasture and was joined for part of the way by an inquisitive herd of cows. I am camped along a small stream about a quarter mile short of Highway 79 and Warner Springs.

May 4 / 1.4 miles

Today was a painful day, both physically and emotionally. I have been experiencing some pretty severe pain in my left knee since I began hiking from the border last week. I had decided that I would seek medical attention if the knee was still bothering me by the time I reached Warner Springs. Initially I tried to ignore the pain and was hoping that it was just the result of a sore muscle, which would improve as my body adjusted to the trail. But the pain persisted and was getting progressively more severe each day I was out. At one point I thought it would be appropriate to rename this hike: Nick’s Long Limp.

About a week before I started hiking I broke through a rickety flight of stairs outside my house in Oakland and struck my knee pretty hard on one of the boards. I did not think much of it because the pain went away by the next day. Apparently though it did some damage, which was aggravated by the long days on the trail.

I spoke with an EMT in Warner Springs who confirmed my suspicion that the injury was more acute than just a sore muscle and recommended that I have it x-rayed at a hospital. Jeff and Monte, ’77 thru-hikers who had returned to the trail this year to hike the section from Campo to Warner Springs, were driving down to LA that morning. They took me down to a friend’s house in Diamond Bar who in turn took me to the emergency room at the Kaiser hospital in Anaheim. Jeff and Greg sat patiently for five hours in ER while the doctor examined and x-rayed my knee. The diagnosis was a sprained/bruised tendon and the doctor said that I would have to rest the knee for at least two weeks. He chuckled when I asked if it would be sufficient to hike only 10, rather than 20, miles per day.

Friday night in a Los Angeles emergency room was quite a contrast to the previous night…. We got back to Greg’s house at about 1am and by that point I was too exhausted to worry about the ramifications of the injury.

May 5 / On the couch in Oakland

By mid-morning the reality of the situation had sunk in and I realized that it would be most prudent to return to Oakland to rest the knee. So I called Southwest and booked a flight for later that day. It was a short but melancholy ride – looking out the window at the still snowy crest of the Sierra, which I had seen from the same vantage just a week previous and which I had not been expecting to see again until I arrived by foot a month later. It was a bittersweet reunion with Whitney and Sam in Oakland….

So here I am stretched out on the couch resting my knee. For the most part I remain upbeat and optimistic. Obviously I am disappointed to be off the trail but I am treating the injury and this recovery period as part of the journey, albeit unexpected.

The prognosis is encouraging. However, I do want to be sure that the injury is fully healed before I return to the trail. As I see it I have a few options: if the knee heals within two weeks as the doctor suggested I will return to the trail at Warner Springs and continue hiking north. If it takes three or four weeks to heal I will probably skip ahead a couple hundred miles (to Agua Dulce or Tehachapi), continue north to Canada, and then return to southern California in September to complete the remaining section. If it takes longer than four weeks to heal I will most likely cruise up to the Canadian border and hike south to Mexico. Either way, it is still my intention to hike the entire trail this summer.

I was only on the trail for one week but even in that short amount of time I was the beneficiary of an unsolicited kindness known in the thru-hiking community as “trail magic”. I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge those who stepped forward to help out a fellow hiker. Thanks to Bob, Greg, Jeff, Monte, and the many volunteers who helped organize this year’s ADZ gathering at Lake Morena and who have placed and maintained water stashes along the trail.

I plan to add photos from the first section to the website by the end of the week. And I will keep you updated on the progress of my knee. Thanks.

Warner Springs to Idyllwild

Idyllwild to Big Bear City

Big Bear City to Wrightwood

Wrightwood to Agua Dulce

Agua Dulce to Tehachapi

Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows

June 5 / Oakland

One month and one day after leaving the trail at Warner Springs I am headed back… I leave tonight at 7pm for Tehachapi and will begin hiking tomorrow morning (6/6) from Cameron Overpass at Highway 58. I expect to reach Kennedy Meadows, 133 trail miles north of Tehachapi, on Wednesday the 13th of June and will send the first journal entries at that time. Beyond Kennedy Meadows the trail quickly ascends into the spectacular High Sierra, where it remains for over 200 roadless miles. I plan to take a day “off” around the 17th to climb Mt Whitney (14,495 ft), the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

I had intended to return to the trail last weekend but, as luck would have it, I caught a nasty flu from my girlfriend and had to spend the better part of the week in bed. Before getting sick I went on a series of 10 mile pain-free hikes in the East Bay Regional Parks. My knee is feeling good and the extra week of rest can only help. I am cautiously optimistic as I set off for a second time. I recognize that knee injuries are very tricky and although I am confident that my knee has healed I really won’t know for sure until I get a week or two under my belt. I plan to take it easy for the first couple days and give my body a chance to readjust to the trail. Essentially I am starting over – as such I will unfortunately have to go through the requisite break-in (i.e. blisters) for a second time….

I have decided to jump ahead from where I left the trail at Warner Springs to Tehachapi so that I can more closely follow my original itinerary. If all goes well, I plan to return to southern California after reaching the Canadian border and complete the remaining section (453 miles). Starting from Warner Springs this late in the year would not only be very hot but would also decrease my chances of getting through northern Washington before the onset of winter storms.

June 6 / 16.1 miles / Golden Oak Spring

Left Oakland last night at 8pm and, after a long drive south through the Central Valley, arrived at the trail outside of Tehachapi at 2am. I slept poorly for a couple hours – anxious to begin walking. With me is Doug, a friend from San Francisco and a fellow Carleton graduate, who recently decided to thru-hike the PCT. If all goes well, we will return to Tehachapi in September and hike south to Warner Springs (or Campo). Although the Sierra Nevada mountains technically begin just outside of Tehachapi, this hot section feels more like the desert to the south. Spent much of the day walking among the tall windmills of Sky River Ranch. Apparently these windmills generate enough electricity each year to meet the needs of 300,000 residential consumers. The constant wind is caused by cool air rushing in from the west to replace the hot air, which rises above the Mojave Desert. Once on the ridge we had expansive views back across the Mojave – Edwards Air Force Base, the San Bernadinos and San Gabriels. I am camped near a small spring and under a bright moon. Exhausted and sore but no pain in my knee.

June 7 / 18.2 miles / Robin Bird Spring

A tough day. After resting in Oakland for an entire month my body feels weak. The flu, which is still lingering, has further diminished my strength. Complicating the situation is the fact that I am carrying 7.5 days of food (20 pounds) and 4-6 quarts of water (8-12 pounds). A cool Jeffrey Pine forest in the Piute Mountains offered some relief from the afternoon sun. And a large rattlesnake on the trail momentarily took my mind off the aching muscles.

June 8 / 18.4 miles / Point 5402

Slept for nearly twelve hours last night and felt refreshed in the morning. Before leaving Robin Bird Spring I met two British thru-hikers, Tony and Ian, who started from Campo on the same day as me. An afternoon siesta lifted my spirits and seemed to restore some strength to my body. Dropped out of the Piutes and into barren Kelso Valley. A well placed water stash broke up an otherwise long (35 mile) waterless stretch. I am camped on a windy saddle next to a cluster of Joshua Trees.

June 9 / 25.1 miles / beyond McIvers Spring

Woke at 5am and began hiking at 5:30am. For countless miles the sandy trail undulated like a minature roller-coaster. Like much the surrounding landscape, the rutted trail has been subject to years of abuse by off-road vehicles. It is frustrating that people choose to ride on the PCT given the abundance of other legal routes. After an exposed and unusually hot 1600 ft climb we were rewarded with good views north to Mt. Langley and Mt. Whitney and south to the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountains – a vast area connected by over 500 miles of trail. Shortly after lunch we saw a giant rattlesnake (#6) just off the trail. As we climbed into the Scodie Mountains we entered the Kiavah Wilderness, the begining of a continuous stretch of federally proteted lands that extend north of Lake Tahoe and Donner Summit. Much of Kiavah Wilderness burned a few years ago. Coming into McIvers Spring we walked through the skeleton forest – blackened and dead trees as far as the eye can see. We saw a couple groups of deer and numerous bear tracks, indication that the forest is indeed recovering. Near the old cabin at McIvers Spring we found a plastic swimming pool filled with cold spring water. So before dinner, in the fading light, Doug and I took turns splashing around in the pool. We are camped under a large Jeffrey Pine, a half mile up the trail from the spring. My knee has felt great.

June 10 / 12.1 miles / Jenkins-Morris Saddle

Descended 7 miles to Highway 178 at Walker Pass. Tempted by the thought of ice cream for breakfast, I put out my thumb and was picked up by the second car. We were dropped off at the Onyx Emporium, a delapidated gas station and store, 17 miles down the road. We passed the day on a log in front of the store, eating and talking with the locals. Every thirty minutes or so I would wander back into the store to refill my drink and grab another bag of chips. Kind of impressive that we managed to spend seven hours at the kind of place that prides itself on being able to get you in and out in less than seven minutes. At 5pm we moved down to the road and began hitching. Despite heavy traffic, it took more than an hour and a half before someone stopped to give us a ride. Back on the trail and full of vigor, we hiked 5 miles and 1300 ft up into Owens Peak Wilderness. We stopped after dark at a windy saddle between Mt Jenkins and Morris Peak. Glimmering lights from Inyokern and Ridgecrest are visible far below and to the east.

June 11 / 24.3 miles / Chimney Creek Campground

Even with earplugs the gusty wind made for a restless night on the saddle. After a morning traverse around Mount Jenkins and Owens Peak, the trail dropped back down into the desert and, much to my consternation, meandered in and out of every gully, seemingly unsure of its own direction. We followed large (and fresh) bear tracks all the way from Joshua Tree Springs to the saddle near Lamont Point, nearly twelve miles. Arrived at empty Chimney Creek campground around 4pm and spent some time talking with the campground host, affectionately known as “Griz”. He eventually offered to take us to Burger King for dinner, 20 miles down the dirt road. For some reason we passed on the offer, opting instead for another trail dinner (bean & cheese burritos) and a relaxing evening at the campground. Near the campground and among some large boulders I discovered a few well preserved mortars – circular stone pits used by Native Americans to ground Pinyon pine nuts into flour. Thirsty mosquitos forced me to set up the tent.

June 12 / 22.5 miles / Kennedy Meadows Road

Got an early start today in hopes of making it to Kennedy Meadows before the general store closed. A gradual 2500 ft. climb took us into Chimney Peak Wilderness and past the remains of an old mining claim near Fox Mill Spring. Again we followed fresh bear tracks. Shortly after the spring we entered the area decimated by last summer’s Mather Fire. Unlike the previous burn zone in the Kiavah Wilderness, this was obviously more fresh – the smell of charred wood pervaded, rocks were blackened, and only the smallest of plants had managed to re-establish themselves. From the ridge we had excellent views north to Olancha Peak, the Great Western Divide, Mt. Whitney, and Mt. Langley (the southermost 14,000 ft. peak in California). By midday we entered Dome Lands Wilderness and dropped down into Rockhouse Basin along the South Fork of the Kern River. The fire burned almost all the way to Kennedy Meadows, a “town” consisting of a couple dozen small homes scattered about the dry meadow. Hot and thirsty, we arrived at the rustic general store at 2pm, a full three hours before closing. There were a dozen or so other hikers lounging at store, some of whom had been there for days…. We spent the next three hours drinking lemonade on the deck outside store and sorting through our resupply boxes. In addition to food, I had mailed in a bear canister and ice axe. In the evening we were ferried a few miles down the road to Grumpy Bear’s Tavern in the back of the proprietor’s cattle truck. There we feasted on burgers and apple pie and admired the eclectic collection of old western memoribilia and stuffed animals. After the long dinner we were shuttled back to the store and, with a full belly, I sauntered a half mile back down to the Kern River where I am now camped.

June 13 / 15.3 / South Fork Kern River in Monache Meadow

Slept in until 9am and then made my way back up to the store, which had just opened. I stayed on the deck until 1pm, eating and talking with other hikers. Eventually we shouldered our packs and headed up river toward the South Sierra Wilderness and Monache Meadow, the largest meadow in the Sierra. We ascended 2500 ft., crossing the Kern River a couple times en route. The Kern, famous for it’s Golden Trout, was designated by Congress as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1987. We are camped near a steel bridge which spans the Kern about 14 miles north of Kennedy Meadows. Hundreds of cliff swallows have nested under the bridge – whenever we venture down to the river to collect water we cause great commotion among the birds.

June 14 / 21.9 / near Ash Meadow

Fittingly I awoke, after my first night in the Sierra, to find the water in my bottles frozen – my watch read 21 degrees at 5am. As such, I stayed in my warm sleeping bag until 5:30am. We soon entered Golden Trout Wilderness and climbed above 10,000 ft. on the shoulder on Olancha Peak. Along the way we passed three groups of hikers still shivering in their bags…. Greeting us at the higher elevations were marmots, mosquitos, and inspiring views of Mt. Whitney, now just a couple days to the north. The afternoon brought us to narrow Gomez Meadow and not-so-ominious Death Canyon. From there we faced a long 2000 ft. climb out of the canyon, through a forest of gnarled Juniper and twisted Foxtail pine. Once on the crest we looked out over the precipitous eastern slope to the Inyo Mountains and the alkali Owens Lake bed far below. We topped out at 10,700 ft near a couple patches of snow. Camped near Ash Meadow. I built a small campfire to keep the mosquitos at bay.

June 15 / 6.2 miles / Lone Pine

Hiked around to Trail Pass and dropped off the PCT to Horseshoe Meadow Road where we flagged down the only car in sight – rode 20 miles down to the town of Lone Pine in Owens Valley. Got a room at the historic Dow Villa Hotel, where John Wayne used to stay. Time to relax for a night…. Tomorrow we will head back up to Horseshoe Meadow and will continue into the High Sierra (Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park). Plan to climb Mt. Whitney on Monday and will next resupply in Mammoth on the 27th.

June 16 / 9.5 miles / 2 miles beyond Chicken Spring Lake

Always nice to sleep in a bed, even a short one. I spent the morning writing postcards and listening to people talk about the damn Lakers. For the second morning I had breakfast at the Mt. Whitney Cafe. A resupply box which I forwarded from Kennedy Meadows still had not arrived so I had to go shopping for food at the small market in town. Doug and I of course had to eat lunch at the Whitney Cafe before hitching back to the trail. Good blueberry pie. Fortunately it did not take long to find a ride up to Horseshoe Meadow, a popular weekend destination. The view from the back of the pickup was excellent. Resumed hiking at 4:30pm, climbing 2 miles back to the PCT at Trail Peak Pass. On familiar tread we hiked until just before dark, another 7 miles or so. Good views of Horseshoe Meadow from Cottonwood Pass and of Big Whitney Meadow. Passed Chicken Spring Lake, nestled in cirque below 12,900 ft. Cirque Peak. I am camped on a nice ledge at 11,300 ft – the mosquitos are swarming.

June 17 / 18.5 miles / above Guitar Lake

Beautiful stars last night – took me a long time to fall asleep, perhaps due to elevation. Slept in until 7am. Entered Sequoia National Park near Siberian Pass. Excellent views of the Great Western Divide. Descended to Rock Creek before a tough, though relatively short, climb to a saddle on Mount Guyot, and traversed around to Lower Crabtree Meadow. Left the PCT and headed up Whitney Creek to Upper Crabtree Meadow where we rested for a couple hours and soaked our feet in a frigid stream. Eventually we climbed another 3 miles to a small tarn above Guitar Lake, elevation 11,600 ft. The tarn is nestled in a deep cirque directly below (nearly 3000 ft. below) the summit of Mt Whitney and is surrounded on all sides by 13,000+ ft. peaks (Mt. Muir, Mt. Hitchcock). A curious marmot watches intently as I prepare dinner, one of at least a couple dozen that we have seen around Guitar Lake. Tomorrow morning I will climb Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak (14,495 ft) in the contiguous United States. It’s not actually on the Pacific Crest Trail – but it’s close enough that many hikers choose to climb it.

June 18 / 21.3 miles / Tyndall Creek

Frosty at 5am when my alarm sounded. A series of tight switchbacks slowly lifted us toward the summit. The morning sun reflected in still water of Hitchcock Lake far below. I had the summit of Whitney to myself when I arrived at 8am. Spent more than an hour admiring the unobstructed views. Examined the Smithsonian Hut, a stone shelter built as an observatory in the 1909, and the infamous pit toilet, supposedly the most expensive to maintain in the entire park systen – the recepticle, when full, has to be flown out by helicopter…. On the way down from Whitney we scrambled up Mt. Muir (14,015 ft). It was an exhilerating climb up to the small summit block. Back at Guitar Lake, we packed up camp and observed the playful marmots for a bit before continuing down to Crabtree Meadow, just beyond which we regained the PCT. We saw a bunch of deer as we passed over Bighorn Plateau on our way to Tyndall Creek. Water and snow levels are down from two years ago, when I last passed through this area. Military jets, screaming overhead, are still abundant. Camped under the stars in a grassy meadow. Two deer nibble on grass not more than 20 ft away.

June 19 / 20.0 miles / Rae Lakes

I awoke in the middle of the night to find one of those deer licking my sleeping bag – the animal appeared even more startled than me when I sat up in my bag. Left Tyndall Creek at 6am and began a long steady ascent toward Forester Pass. At 13,180 ft. Forester Pass is the highest point along the PCT. It is the first in a series of high passes, all over 11,900 ft, which we will cross over the next few days. Forester also marks the boundry between Sequoia and King Canyon National Park. The guidebook jokingly states: “…you will enjoy the well-earned, sweeping views from this pass before you start the (net) descent of 9000 feet to Canada.” Near mosquito-infested Vidette Meadow we met a friend, Will, who gracioiusly hiked in over Kearsarge Pass to resupply us. This enabled us to carry only three days of food out of Lone Pine and broke up an otherwise long stretch between towns. Thanks again Will! With heavier packs we began the exhausting climb out of Bubbs Creek Canyon and over Glen Pass (11,978 ft). As we descended into popular Rae Lakes we saw three bighorn sheep. Most nights I sleep out under the stars but the mosquitos at Rae Lakes are terrible – never have I been so excited to crawl in my tent.

June 20 / 21.3 miles / below Mather Pass

Mosquitos waiting outside my tent at 6am. Quickly broke camp, among the clouds of swarming bugs. Long descent from Rae Lakes (10,500 ft), past Arrowhead and Dollar Lakes, to Woods Creek (8492 ft), across which stretched a well engineered but wobbly suspension bridge. Much of the afternoon was spent climbing back up Woods Creek and over Pinchot Pass (12,130 ft). From the pass we dropped into an amazing valley and skirted a couple emerald lakes before crossing the south fork of the Kings River. Two summers ago this was an extremely scary ford, but below normal snow levels this past winter made this year’s crossing relatively easy. Gradually ascended into Upper Basin in the direction of Mather Pass. Camped next to a small lake below Mather Pass, surrounded by mountains on all sides. And no mosquitos!

June 21 / 22 miles / Muir Pass

Early morning climb over Mather Pass (12,100 ft). Dropped into a deep valley flanked by 14,000+ ft peaks of the Palisade group. Beyond Upper and Lower Palisade Lake a series of tight switchbacks, known as the Golden Staircase, descend nearly 2000 ft in under two knee-pounding miles. I saw a bunch of blue-bellied lizards and a few pikas while hiking along Palisade Creek. We spent a couple hours at the confluence of the Middle Fork Kings River and Palisade Creek, swimming in the icey water and sunning on the smooth rocks. Refreshed, we began the long climb up Le Conte Canyon, through tranquil Grouse Meadow, toward barren Muir Pass. Doug and I found a down sleeping bag lying in the middle of the trail about 3 miles below the pass. We decided to carry it up to the pass in hopes of finding the owner. The circular stone hut atop Muir Pass was built by the Sierra Club and the USFS in 1931. Inside the cozy hut we met Geri and Dave, two recent retirees thru-hiking the PCT. When I asked if either of them had lost a sleeping bag they both said no, without really considering the implication. Inspecting his pack more closely Dave suddenly realized that he was indeed missing his sleeping bag. With the sun setting and the temperature quickly dropping Dave appeared stunned by the thought of what might have been had his bag not so fortuitously reappeared…. Summer solstice at the Muir Hut on Muir Pass (11,955 ft) on the John Muir Trail. Who the heck is this Muir guy? Muir was the most challenging of the five high passes. I will sleep well tonight. Beautiful sunset.

June 22 / 23.6 miles / near Sally Keyes Lakes

Incredible stars – snowy mountains dimly glow against the dark sky. Early morning sun on the high pass. Down past Wanda Lake, one of two lakes on either side of the pass named for Muir’s two daughters, Helen and Wanda. High peaks of the Goddard Divide reflect in the calm waters. Pesky mosquitos kept our stay short at Evolution Lake. Two summers ago when I was descending out of Evolution Valley I met two fishermen headed in the opposite direction. When I asked where they were going, they responded, without pause, “creation valley”…. Hiked past McClure Meadow to a surprisingly easy crossing of Evolution Creek. Beautiful flowers throughout the day. Had lunch at a bridge spanning the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Left King Canyon National Park at Piute River crossing and entered John Muir Wilderness. Late afternoon climb up toward Sally Keyes Lakes and Selden Pass. Another small campfire…

June 23 / 17.4 miles / Vermillion Valley Resort

Up over Selden Pass (10,900 ft), swatting mosquitos from Marie Lakes to Bear Creek. The final hurdle was a dusty climb up Bear Ridge and a jarring decent (53 switchbacks) to Mono Creek. Doug and I arrived at the Lake Edison Ferry landing nearly three hours before the afternoon ferry was scheduled to depart. Nap time. The ferry, a small pontoon, carried us five miles to Vermillion Valley Resort at the far end of the resevoir. The resort, a favorite of PCT hikers, is famous for Peggy’s fresh fruit pies. A small chalkboard above the counter tracks her progress – pies to date 4104, pies this year 108. A Wedding reception, Naval retirement party, helicopter landing on the beach, cold beer and boysenberry pie, and a soft mattress, all make for a surreal evening….