The theme of this hike was definitely ‘Not What I Was Expecting’. I had thought that the terrain and weather conditions would be more like what I experienced on the AZT, since this PCT section is also desert terrain in a neighbouring state (don’t @ me, Americans!!!) but it was totally different (I know that your home states are all special in their own special ways!!!).
Scenery: I found the scenery beautiful, though it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I love desert areas but met hikers who saw no appeal in them, so I can’t promise that you’ll love it. Ecosystems were varied though due to the many changes in elevation, so there must be something for everyone. Hiking this section in a high snow year was both positive and negative, since obviously the snow caused problems for me and others but the superbloom caused by the high precipitation was incredible and I consider myself lucky to have seen it.
The southern PCT does feel less wild than the northern PCT, passing through/by more towns and other human infrastructure (roads, dams, wind farms), and I never saw a starry sky because of light pollution (from LA?). Because of the big elevation gains and losses, walking this section was like a constant switch of seasons with the appearance and disappearance of snow and wildflowers, so breaking it into a multitude of smaller trips would be ideal for appreciating the scenery.
Terrain: It’s been killing me that on the first entry of this journal I mentioned ‘hard desert ground’. In keeping with the theme of PCT 2019, the ground was not hard at all. Trying to drive a stake into the ground on the AZT was like trying to penetrate cement with a toothpick, but the ground along this section of the PCT was soft and sandy most of the time. I could push in my tent stakes with my hands, and digging catholes was usually easier than it was during much of my hike from Burney to Canada last year.
The AZT was rough and rocky. The PCT was smooth and easy walking most of the time, with no particular problem spots like those I saw in the north. I felt a few twinges in my bad ankle, but I think that hikers without previous ankle injuries would be golden wearing trail runners for this section of the PCT.
Weather: I was expecting the weather to be like AZ’s, where I might have an occasional storm but the next day would be clear or at least cloudy-but-rainless. I hadn’t envisioned that I would be encountering sustained periods of rain and/or snow until I finished my hike at the end of May – the worst weather I encountered was actually in May. That being said, the weather this year was supposedly highly unusual and people were calling it ‘March in May’, so what I experienced is probably not representative of what you if a future hiker will experience. Last year I spoke to a hiker who didn’t get rained on until Washington.
I was expecting wind, but I’m inclined to say… more tentatively after just re-reading my AZT journal and seeing my mentions of ‘Churchill winds’… that the wind on this section of the PCT was… worse. Perhaps part of the problem was that most of the bad wind I received in AZ was on the Colorado Plateau, where there were generally trees for shelter, whereas the PCT was more exposed. On numerous occasions I had to brace myself on the PCT, and I think that the South Fork Trail would have been impassable in some of the winds I received elsewhere.
Campsites: Tricky, since my preference is to find my own campsites rather than using those in the app/maps, but the wind, thick vegetation and private property all reduced the number of viable campsites. In Oregon/Washington I could generally walk for however long I wanted and find a campsite soon after I stopped, but SoCal required more planning. Coon Creek Cabin = forever Disappointment Cabin.
Water: Prior to this trip I enquired as to how water sources along this section compare to water sources on the AZT, and got an ambivalent ‘they tend to be better’ answer. No, they were infinitely better! That’s not to say that I drank from every source, but I never had to drink from a cattle pond, and none of the sources tasted like cow. The trail didn’t even pass through many areas with cattle, or at least not many areas where I saw cattle/evidence of cattle.
Flip-flopping: Not my preference. Don’t get me wrong, it’s way better than falling on snow, and for those people who have only read about the trail online, the number of people who fall is much higher than you think (at least this year, what I saw online was nowhere near the number of falls I heard about while slowly meeting multitudes of people in my snailish way, so don’t assume that falling is rare and won’t happen to you). It’s just so squidgy to be on a long distance hike but not covering that distance in a satisfying orderly way. For those who are particularly interested in the social experience of the PCT or afraid to hike solo, the drawbacks of flipping are obvious since you’ll be leaving your bubble and the herd, though if you’re heading SOBO against the herd it can also be an interesting experience to meet many people for a short amount of time rather than the same people for long periods of time.
I should note that in the first 700 miles, there are bypasses for the areas that can be problematic because of snow. To my knowledge, the Mt. San Jacinto bypass is shown on the Halfmile maps and involves descending the Spitler Peak Trail (just before Apache Peak) and walking on roads to Idyllwild, then taking the Black Mountain Road alternate past Fuller Ridge. The Mt. Baden-Powell bypass is a combination of the Manzanita Trail and High Desert National Recreation Trail.
Favourite trail towns: Idyllwild was fantastic. The campground is cheap and only minutes from the Village Market, restaurants and laundry. The food at Los Gorditos was amazing, but it’s now listed on Google Maps as permanently closed. What a shame! The other restaurant I tried was The Red Kettle and it was excellent too. Supposedly a restaurant across from the post office has great pancakes.
Warner Springs has camping and facilities by donation. A restaurant, gas station and post office are close enough, and the community centre also sells various resupply items. A travelling gear shop was stationed there as well during my stay.
Big Bear Lake has a wide variety of accommodation and resupply options. It’s spread out, but there may be more central accommodation options than the one I chose. The bus drivers and people in general were super friendly.
I also enjoyed Kennedy Meadows. Free camping and hiker-friendly businesses. The general store was expensive for resupply but I heard that Yogi’s place has more reasonable prices, so that’s something to investigate.
Honourable mention to Mojave just for this:
Insects: Mosquitoes were never a problem. I found two ticks on me but got rid of them before either attached. The painted lady butterfly migration was incredible.
Gear: Like last year, I’m not going to dig deeply into gear because there’s already so much advice out there, but I will note a few things.
Chafe: I got chafe for the first time on this hike. Sunscreen wasn’t great for dealing with it but will do if you have nothing else. Body Glide works amazingly well, isn’t greasy, is available in a light 0.35 oz quantity, and only needed one application per day (at least for me). There’s also a ‘For Her’ version and I read the description so you don’t have to: supposedly it’s the original formula with the addition of ‘coconut and sweet almond oils’.
Items that I was considering bringing but didn’t bring:
Sunbrella – I would have liked one in Deep Creek, which was a brutal day, but overall it wouldn’t have been worth the weight for me.
Poncho – I brought a rainjacket, but not my poncho for that ultimate layer of rain protection. Ultimately I purchased one in Aqua Dulce because of sustained wet and cold weather.
Mosquito suit – Definitely unnecessary.
Tent: Those who recall my pre-hike posts will remember that I shoddily replaced the zipper pulls on my tent just before this hike, and… they worked great! One was fading again by the end of this trip, but I’m impressed by how long they lasted after the failure of changing the zipper heads on my Fly Creek. The tent itself needs replacement. I’ve been corresponding with Zpacks customer service, and apparently the issue I’ve had with holes/runs with my Altaplex is considered a defect in the materials and would have been covered by the warranty. Too bad I didn’t know that when it was still under warranty, but it’s good info for if I buy my next tent from them.
Navigation: The trail was well-marked. I don’t remember ever losing it.
South Fork Trail/High Desert National Recreation Trail detour option around the Endangered Species closure: See my entries on May 25 and May 26 for a detailed description and photos of trail conditions. The scenery was beautiful but I wouldn’t recommend this detour option.
Poodle dog bush: Poodle dog bush is no longer a substantial problem along the PCT, but it’s still there and something to watch out for. It has a strong smell like cannabis.
Food: Adding an occasional dehydrated backpacking meal to my diet helped exponentially in my struggle to not get sick of my food. Since they’re expensive, I recommend dividing them into two portions and mixing each portion with couscous, then you get the flavour of the meal for a cheaper price. On my next hike I’m going to go wild and see whether three portions is just as flavourful. Sometimes I thrill even myself with my penchant for adventure.
PLBs: I definitely have a different perspective on PLBs after Steve’s fall. I always thought ‘if you have reception, you can call 911’, but you can read my description of Tamara’s experience with that. One note – Alba told me later that Jordie’s family wasn’t informed for a significant amount of time that he wasn’t the person injured. If you’re carrying an InReach, maybe best to warn your emergency contacts that info can be delayed.
See you next time!