Coincidentally the French(Belgians?) and I both got up at 6:00 AM, making us the best of roommates – almost. One of them snored and had a comically loud air mattress. I once received a complaint about my Thermarest Neoair, but his mattress sounded like a thunderstorm. I have no idea what it was made of – possibly tin foil and packing peanuts.
Thinking the light would be best in the morning, my goal was to climb Mt. Ossa before noon. I left the hut first, but the French(Belgians?) soon passed me in the forest. We reunited at Pelion Gap, where the Mt. Ossa side trail begins, and while they discussed which items to carry up the mountain, I set to work constructing a daypack from a dry sack, my rain jacket and a piece of paracord. A trail maintenance worker arrived and asked what I was doing. I showed him and said ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’. He said ‘it will get you there and back’.
The Mt. Ossa trail began with a steep climb, then levelled out for awhile before changing to a mix of steep trail and scree. Trail markers with arrows offered some guidance through the scree. Near the summit I got off-course, confused by how a clear trail extended in one direction but an arrow pointed in another, and ended up scrambling up a rock shaft. I would normally have been scared, but on this occasion I was too filled with anger at Tour Guide A since he had told me the ascent was just a walk. I was just thinking ‘Screw you, Australian. Screwyouscrewyouscrewyouscrewyouetc.’. A few minutes after reaching the top of the shaft, I saw the other route. Well, whatever. Whatever forever. Continuing the slog, I encountered the French(Belgians?) descending. They told me the climb was worth it, which it definitely was! Clear, gorgeous views in all directions from the summit.
There were a few small ponds up there as well.
I stayed for about an hour before heading down, passing the Belgians, another pair who had made the same error as me with the route, and Ontario Guy. The trail wound through open and forested country to Kia Ora Hut. I saw an echidna, which aren’t one of the most well-known Australian animals but are possibly the cutest. They’re very timid and of the same order as platypuses – both lay eggs, the only mammals to do so.
I didn’t realize how knackered I was until I spent forty-five minutes pitching my tent and let my pot boil over twice while making one and a half dinners. The huts have journals where people can write random things and, as of March 2016, Kia Ora’s is the funniest. It includes a saga about possums being able to open the hut door (they steal human food if they can) and way too many entries by a guy named Jack trying to get a girlfriend on Facebook. Move it along, Jack.
At dusk yesterday I walked with the Belgians to Lake Windermere to look for platypuses, but none revealed themselves in the dim light. The night was chilly and my new sleeping bag overestimated, so I kept getting cold, waking up and adding layers. The Belgians got cold as well and moved into the hut during the night. There’s an obvious lesson here: Tasmania, be warmer at night. The stars were amazing in the clear sky though.
The weather remained good for my walk today: 16.75 km to Waterfall Valley. The trail offered nice views back to Barn Bluff and from the Forth Valley lookout, but it was absurdly rocky. I was glad to be wearing hiking boots!
The trail entered forest and descended to Frog Flats, where camping is permitted. It was a pleasant spot and I would have been tempted if not for wanting to get as close as possible to Mt. Ossa in preparation for the side trip tomorrow. Passing more streams, the trail climbed to New Pelion Hut, a huge building with many bedrooms.
I want to get an early start tomorrow, so I decided to stay in the hut. I ended up sharing a room with two men who are either French or Belgian. To elaborate, there are two new pairs of men, one pair is French and the other is Belgian, both speak French, I had spoken to the French pair in the dark by the rainwater tank and confirmed they were French but now can’t remember which pair they were. I’m going to call my roommates ‘the French(Belgians?)’ and just look around awkwardly if the other pair has to be mentioned. I learned how to play backgammon from an Australian couple who had packed in a full sized set *sympathetic stare while taking advantage of their effort*. The woman is a grade one teacher. When I mentioned that preschool teacher was on a list I had seen of the top ten jobs least likely to be taken over by robots, she told me that her son is a robotics engineer. Score!
Everyone in the hut went to bed soon after sunset yesterday, but one man started talking to his hiking partner in the dark about Europe and train fares. I laughed silently. Eventually a woman asked him to stop and he said ‘what? We’re going to sleep already?’. No, we were lying in the quiet darkness to mull over the terrible meaningless of our lives in the vast universe… oh, that was only me?
The day dawned with gorgeous weather and I left early. Not grappling with a tent saves a lot of time. The trail was mostly open with beautiful views.
I wanted to take a side trip to Lake Will, but mysteriously (since I was first to leave from our hut) ten backpacks were sitting at the junction when I arrived. Wanting some peace and quiet to enjoy Lake Will, I sat down to admire the view of Lake Holmes and wait.
I spotted a man lurking in a grove of trees nearby, looking at me. At first I thought he was worried that I would steal something from his pack, but later concluded that he was probably worried about being seen peeing. Anyway, Suspicious Guy soon emerged and wanted to trade some of the fudge in his trail mix for my chips. He was careful about not touching the chip bag or fudge. I think he had his hand in the trail mix bag before the exchange though… well, let’s ignore that. He said that he’s never seen a hiker with chips before. Hey, not only are chips delicious, but apparently they can get you fudge! He introduced himself as a tour guide and the people currently at Lake Will as his group. There was another guide too, so we’ll call Suspicious Guy ‘Tour Guide A’ (sorry). When I mentioned that I don’t like scrambling and was wary about ascending Mt. Ossa, an upcoming side trip, he said that it’s basically just a walk up the mountain.
The tour group left and I continued to Lake Will, which was an easy walk from the junction: 1.5 km over flat land. Following the advice of Tour Guide A, I walked further around the lake to a second beach that was larger and had clearer water than the first.
After a lunch of sorts, I returned to the main track and maintained a strolling pace the rest of the way to large Lake Windermere.
I soaked my feet before continuing to Windermere Hut, where I decided to pitch my tent. Rather than having dirt tent pads, the OT has wooden platforms to which you need to affix your tent with metal wires (as in today’s site) or metal chains, which are easier to use. The Belgians had arrived earlier and basically set up my tent for me, so I can’t describe in detail how the metal wires are adjusted. My theory: magic. I got a great site with a view of Barn Bluff.
I’m not dead yet, therefore today was a net success! Sadly the weather was not my friend or even a casual Facebook contact. It was a continuation of the day before, windy and cold and damp.
I took the first shuttle at 8:15 AM (free) to the Ronny Creek car park, which had a trail register. The OT began across the road.
From the trailhead the track crossed a meadow before climbing to Kitchen Hut, an old hut that seemed about the size of a walnut when I arrived and 7-8 hikers were already crammed in. Crater Lake and Marion’s Lookout were on the way, but since the visibility was awful (I’m pretty sure there were mountains somewhere, but I couldn’t see them) the main thing of interest was a rock outcropping/cliff that you pull yourself up with a chain. I didn’t find it problematic but some other hikers, probably with heavier packs, told me they found it hard.
A shivering day hiker grouped in with the OT hikers in Kitchen Hut wanted to ascend Cradle Mountain – this was her first hike ever and she wanted the accomplishment. When told that it would be fricking cold up there she said ‘it’s cold down here too’, earning herself a lecture from an older woman about the time and effort of the people who would have to rescue her if she got into trouble.
Beyond Kitchen Hut was more exposed terrain, including one insanely windy ridge being battered with mist gushing up from the valley below. I was worried that my pack cover would blow off (I found out later that several hikers’ did) and held it on with one hand as I scuttled along the boardwalk.
Instead of listing distances, signage on the Overland Track lists estimated times that it will take to walk places, and I met a German hiker who noted that the most recent sign had said ‘half hour to Waterfall Hut’ and he was sure that it had already been more than a half hour. MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY. EVERYONE’S THOUGHTS.
We descended into the valley and arrived at the hut in early afternoon. I played cards with a Belgian couple who had packed them in (gods), a fellow Canadian, and a handful of other hikers. The number of OT hikers who had chosen to start today was relatively low – the ranger mentioned that there were only 18 hikers who might potentially be staying in the hut/Old Waterfall Valley hut, so there would be room for everyone. The Canadian, hereafter Ontario Guy, has a huge alcohol stove. Dinner-plate sized.
I took the McDermott shuttle from Lanceston to Cradle Mountain today. Unexpectedly the shuttle was part of a day tour, so the driver was providing information in a stream-of-consciousness type of way, including points like ‘there are some people over there, I’m not sure what they’re doing’ and ‘there’s a student with his backpack’. He also stopped at a store to buy towels since the windows had fogged up. As noted by a fellow passenger, it was an unconventional tour.
The weather at Cradle Mountain is foggy and cold. I picked up my Overland Track pass, a backpacker parks pass and a map at the visitor centre. Tasmania’s topography/trails have some great names, for example: ‘Falling Mountain’, ‘Little Sugarloaf’, ‘The Acropolis’, ‘Mountains of Jupiter’, ‘The Never Never’, ‘Gingerbread Track’.
My start date is tomorrow, so I’m spending a night in the Discovery Parks bunkhouse. My roommate is working at the Tasmanian devil sanctuary! ❤ She told me a highly questionable story about a fellow starving and dying on the Overland Track because he thought there were grocery stores along the route. I also talked to a man who said ‘You’ll probably be fine. But I don’t really think so.’ I don’t think it’s going to be that hard, guys! (Are they getting some of those sweet sweet tour company dollars under the table…)
Launceston has a good selection of hiking/camping stores, parks and signs directing you to public washrooms, so it’s basically heaven. I purchased a fuel canister and enough food to remind me of the downside of eight days in the wilderness, deciding after feeling the weight of my pack to not return to the store to buy peanut butter cookies as planned.
Earlier my bed was a muss with gear and food and I kept being unable to find items, then getting suspicious that New Roommate #1 had taken them because she was cross that I was making noise at 10:30 AM. This was unjustified, of course. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person but more importantly, no one wants my dirty Nalgene. Probably no one even wants to touch it.
Today I also arranged my end-of-hike transportation from Lake St. Clair, where I’ll be camping for a few nights, to Hobart. Backpacker dorms are cheaper than tent sites at Cradle Mountain, but more expensive at the lake.
I flew from Sydney to Launceston today. The security employees were suspicious of my water filter and Steripen and rummaged through everything in my carry-on, which was a plastic bag filled with random items. A man also swabbed my boots and pockets and asked ‘are you under or over 16?’
Maybe he was thinking ‘she looks like not-a-teenager, but no one would wear such a dorky hat unless being forced to by their parents’?
I was flying with Virgin Australia, which allows you to select titles like ‘Doctor’ and ‘Master’ for your ticket. I chose ‘Lady’ for fun but then felt embarrassed in the airport. The employees were probably thinking ‘oh, another one of THOSE people’. Prove I’m not a lady, though. PROVE IT.
Traditionally I’ve used plastic motel cups for scooping water for filtering. They work great and weigh almost nothing, but since I’ve been staying in hostels in Australia, I haven’t had the opportunity to get any, and the Air Canada cups I saved on my Canada-to-Australia flight are too brittle. Virgin Australia came through with one that looks more durable! The snack though was probably the least appetizing sandwich (airplane or otherwise) that has ever existed in this world. It tasted just like the turkey sandwich I was once served on a different plane, but the filling was egg. Mmm, the flavour of preservatives and spongy white bread.
My hostel roommate is leaving tomorrow for a guided Overland Track tour that cost ~2000 AUD. The guides do the cooking, but she has to carry the supplied equipment, and her pack weighs 17 kg (37 pounds) with her own clothing, no water, some snacks for food, and only part of a tent. That’s way too heavy for not much gear! And expensive! My roommate in Batemans Bay was also doing the OT with a tour, but they were carrying most of her gear for her; I shudder to think of the price.
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.
Unsurprisingly, my shoulder was still hurting when I woke up this morning. I haven’t taken a zero for awhile, so hopefully it just needs some rest.
Temperatures were sweltering today and the trail was exposed as I walked towards the KOA. The North Fork Ranger Station had shady picnic tables, campsites and water available for hikers; another hiker told me that cold drinks and food were available inside for purchase, but I didn’t investigate the selection.
I enjoyed seeing land formations that I remembered from hiking into the KOA SOBO. Something that I’ve missed from Oregon with its big landmarks is looking back at a place and thinking ‘oh, I was there’. Due to flipping, I haven’t gotten the same well-structured image of the trail either, but it’s better than falling on the snow.
My plan was to camp at the KOA tonight and do laundry before hitchhiking out tomorrow morning to the nearby train station. I was hoping the KOA would have cheap tent stakes for sale or a little treasure trove of forgotten stakes, but there were none, so I went around furtively collecting rocks and sticks until being waylaid by a ninety-something fellow who was shouting at hikers ‘if you want to hike, join the army’. He said that he wanted to tell me a story (he went to Korea and climbed mountains). He also said that he was born in P.E.I.! Fancy meeting you here! After I got my tent set up, another hiker offered me his spare stake, but I was already set up so no need.
Back to Los Angeles tomorrow. I haven’t completed my objective for this year because of the miles I missed near Idyllwild, but because of my shoulder pain and loss of tent stakes, I’m going to return home and hike the missing miles when I finish the rest of the PCT. It would have been nice to hike more this year – as expected, the distance wasn’t enough – but the amount of snow isn’t conducive to the type of hiking I want to do. I’ve been following along with people going through the Sierra and further north, and whenever I read an account of someone crying 90% of the time from fear… nope. Imma go home, eat my ice cream and cross my fingers for hiker luck to prevent any deaths this year.
I slept a solid eight hours and when I woke up, the temperature was warm(ish, 5:00 AM warmish) and my left shoulder/upper back was killing me. I’ve been getting a nagging ache there for awhile, but was able to ignore it before, whereas now it’s hurting every time I take a breath. A few ibuprofen took the edge off, but man. This has been a tough week. I don’t think that’s bad near the end of a hike though, since it gets you thinking that you’re ready for a break rather than that you want to keep walking.
While watching the sunrise I saw two deer, my first of this hike. Apparently the deer that try to steal your stuff prefer the north.
The scenery was at a high level when I started out, with great views of the desert and numerous campsites.
Gradually the trees disappeared, replaced by shrubs and roads and power lines. The Mill Creek Summit picnic area was a nice place for a break with its picnic benches and outhouses.
According to eTrails, camping isn’t allowed between the Messenger Flats Campground and the KOA except at North Fork Ranger Station, so I was planning to camp at Messenger Flats. Just before arriving at the campground though, I saw a spot with a gorgeous view to the right side of the trail. I left my backpack there and went to scope out the campground, but it was in trees and the views looked worse, so I decided to camp at the initial site and set up there. Again there were plenty of sticks and rocks to use in lieu of tent stakes. Beautiful sunset!
I woke up at 4:30 AM. My tent was drooping beneath snow, so I braved the cold to brush it off before it could melt and wet my tent. Or that’s what I tried to do, but immediately discovered that oops – that’s not snow, that’s ice! Or to be more specific, a thin layer of snow embedded in ice.
I was camped low in the canyon, with no chance of a quick melt in the friendly morning sunshine. Finally I carried the tent up to a patch of sunlight beside the trail and picked off the ice with the help of the sun. Tent + ice = definitely not ultralight.
I finally got walking at 8:00 AM, soon passing Camp Glenwood. I don’t know whether PCT hikers are allowed to camp in the tent sites beside the cabin or whether they’re for private use, but they’re nice. Attached to the sign were postcards with an image of the cabin and a slot to put them in to be mailed for free. I didn’t want anyone to have to pay to mail something internationally for me, but I took a postcard. Am I getting old if I suddenly think that collecting postcards is a cute idea? By the way, shouldn’t I start raising cats?
I entered the Station Fire burn area, a section of trail once notorious for poodle dog bush. Today most of it looked dead and none was growing across the trail.
I considered trying to whittle some tent stakes, but the local sticks had the strength of a Zpacks hiking pole extender (love you Zpacks). I would also have trouble trusting something made with my own two hands, except for food. I firmly believe that I’m less likely to poison myself than someone else is to poison me.
Fiddleneck Spring was just a splotch of wet earth, but Fountainhead Spring was running strong. There were many established tentsites nearby on Pacifico Mountain. The views were so beautiful, and the many rocks and sticks were so accommodating to someone without tent stakes, that I decided to camp.
The wind has picked up, but I’ve gathered enough rocks so that I feel confident my tent won’t be going anywhere. I’ve never had a day when I’ve spent more time disassembling my tent, assembling my tent and cursing at my tent (love you tent).
Waking up early with the wind, I began the 2500 ft climb up to cloud-coated Burkhart Saddle. The trail was mostly in great condition, but just below the saddle I encountered a stretch of loose and narrow footing. I met a group of weekend backpackers conveniently placed to complain to about how the canyon felt like a wind tunnel; I was continuously having to brace myself with my poles.
On the opposite side of the saddle the wind was even worse, with the landscape completely hidden in mist. I motored down past a campsite to a tributary of Rock Creek, where I stopped to add my pack cover and rain pants to the rain jacket that I was already wearing as a warmth layer. The trail degraded alarmingly after the tributary, crossing a series of eroding hillsides and passing huge yucca blooms.
When I reached Burkhart Junction, where the detour meets the normal PCT, I took a celebratory ‘I’m alive!’ selfie/evidence for the border people. My nerves were definitely eroded after the past few days, so I was glad to be back on the friendly PCT. Would I recommend this detour option? No, because I’m afraid of being blamed for someone falling and cracking open their head.
It rained in the afternoon. Again I met Medicine Man, whose rain jacket had a huge hole. I was tired and had to drag myself up to Cloudburst Summit, passing snow plants on the way.
Wikipedia says: ‘It [the snow plant] is a parasitic plant that derives sustenance and nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi that attach to roots of trees. Lacking chlorophyll, it is unable to photosynthesize. Ectomycorrhizal (EM) symbioses involve a mutualism between a plant root and a fungus; the plant provides fixed carbon to the fungus and in return, the fungus provides mineral nutrients, water and protection from pathogens to the plant. The snow plant takes advantage of this mutualism by tapping into the network and stealing sugars from the photosynthetic partner by way of the fungus.’ Interesting.
At Cloudburst Summit, the trail finally began descending into Cloudburst Canyon. Finding a nice campsite there, I decided to set up and save the miles for nicer weather. I pulled out my bag of stakes and discovered… one stake. I had left the others at my last campsite. I was crushed. I’ve never forgotten something at a campsite before, I always look around closely, but I must have missed seeing the stakes against the pale rock I placed them on. Knowing that more rain/snow was likely to fall in the evening or overnight, my first thought was that I would have to return to the highway and hitch out, but can not human ingenuity produce a more favourable result? I mean, obviously I have no ingenuity since I left behind my tent stakes, but maybe I can absorb some airborne ingenuity of others (on second thought, that sounds disgusting)? I asked myself, would the guy in The Martian have given up? Yes, he probably would have if confronted with a dire issue like missing tent stakes, but we’re not here to judge the guy from The Martian, so stop it. There were plenty of sticks and stones lying around and it turned out to be an easy albeit finicky matter to secure the sticks to my guylines and weigh down the sticks with rocks.
Since I set up, it’s been raining and sleeting. Glad to have my tent!
I was sluggish in the morning and didn’t start walking until 7:30 AM. Little Jimmy Spring was closer than I had thought – the data points in eTrails are funny here – and flowing strong below the trail.
15-20 tents were still pitched in the campground when I arrived. My sluggish peers! The campground was nice enough, but both of the locks were broken on the outhouse I went into. I can’t perform under these conditions…
On my way to Islip Saddle, a group of hikers told me that someone fell off the ridge yesterday and was getting evacuated today. I saw the helicopter as I started down the South Fork Trail. Is witnessing two helicopter rescues during one hike above average? IT SHOULD BE.
The South Fork Trail starts behind the picnic benches at Islip Saddle. The PCT passes above and two hikers shouted down to me ‘the PCT is up here!’. Ah, the SFT detour is so unpopular that people don’t even know where it begins… The first section of the trail was in good condition, a pleasant stroll through the forest. After ten or fifteen minutes, I met two day hikers who gave me a detailed description of trail conditions ahead, also mentioning that they were walking the trail in both directions. I concluded that okay, this trail can be hiked and won’t inflict trauma. Necessarily.
Here’s a photo of one of the first sketchy bits I encountered, and a good representation of the average degree of sketchiness on the SFT:
There were three deadfall obstacles. Here’s the first. I climbed above, but looking at the obstacle from the other side, it may have been easier to go below.
Soft and narrow trail after the first obstacle:
Deadfall obstacle 2/3 was easy to slip beneath:
Between the second and third obstacles, I encountered the first place where the trail was essentially gone.
Getting scared? Here are some random flower photos:
Here’s the third obstacle. I tried to climb over. Don’t try to climb over! I was swarmed by tiny biting ants. I ended up climbing the slope above the trail.
After the third obstacle I hit another place where the trail had basically eroded away:
The walk through the upper canyon was pleasant, but the lower canyon was gorgeous, with high rugged cliffs.
More scary trail. The second picture sort of looks like a nightmare, but it’s actually the trail.
The couple that I had met earlier passed me near the bottom of the canyon, still in good spirits. My nerves were frayed and I was glad to step onto the friendly canyon floor. Unfortunately there was graffiti on the rocks around the creek, the ne’er-do-wells of this region apparently having gotten bored with vandalizing Deep Creek.
Today is Saturday, and South Fork Campground was crammed with car campers. Its location is nice, but there was broken glass and such around. I saw people standing in the creek with an inflatable boat. The creek… it’s not big enough…
Like I mentioned in my last entry, the PCTA describes the trail from Islip Saddle to South Fork Campground as the part of the detour in worst condition, so I was hoping that things would improve once I forded the creek and started along the High Desert National Recreation Trail. I did so, finding a deer tick on my ankle during my next break. Gross! Continuing along, I found three men with beer cans sliding on their butts down an eroding slope between two switchbacks. That’s possibly the worst behaviour I’ve ever witnessed on a trail, but I didn’t want to confront them myself. If I’d had some young PCT bucks with me I would have complained, then made my escape while the young PCT bucks were getting beat up.
Overall, the trail between South Fork Campground and the Devil’s Punchbowl was in much better condition than the SFT. Holcomb Canyon Creek had lovely established campsites, a good alternative to South Fork Campground (don’t camp between the Devil’s Punchbowl and Devil’s Punchbowl County Park, the trail is filled with tourists). I would have liked to camp at the creek, but the weather is supposed to be bad tomorrow – yes, again – so I wanted to see as much as possible today.
The Devil’s Punchbowl was highly impressive. I would recommend visiting the Devil’s Chair, because it’s there. To continue along the detour, take the unmarked trail at the junction.
Finally PCT signage, at the Devil’s Punchbowl County Park junction.
Past the junction, I met two older day hikers. The man exclaimed ‘Oh, a PCT hiker actually hiking the PCT!’ and at first I thought that he was referring to this being the ‘official’ detour, but it turned out that he thought the normal PCT route uses the Manzanita and High Desert National Recreation Trails from Vincent Gap to Burkhart Junction and doesn’t go over Mt. Baden-Powell at all. You would think that he would believe someone currently hiking the PCT about where it goes, but when I corrected him, he refused to believe that he was incorrect. Okay, whatever.
I camped less than a mile before Cruthers Creek. I’m so happy to have had a day of gorgeous weather!
Happy Mt. Baden-Powell Day! Unfortunately rain was forecast for the afternoon, since there’s no perfect weather window in the Year of March in May, but I hoped to be up and over the summit by then. Quickly reaching the Vincent Gap trailhead, I began the ascent. For ~2.2 miles the trail was clear, then small patches of snow popped up, then by ~2.4 miles most of the trail was snow-covered and I put on my microspikes. Snow that was initially icy transitioned directly into slush at 9:30 AM. The footsteps were shallow throughout and I could see where people without spikes had been slipping.
Due to my flip SOBO, I had heard many descriptions of Baden-Powell and how the trail was straight up through the snow without switchbacks. I was pleased to find that enough of the snow had melted for most of the regular switchbacks to be followed, with makeshift switchbacks for the ~400 feet directly below the summit.
What I saw from the summit was gorgeous, but unfortunately low-hanging clouds had begun marring a beautiful pristine sky during the ascent, and they blocked my summit views first partially and then completely. That’s pretty much what I had expected with the feelings of someone who expects to one day be eaten by rats, but I was still disappointed.
I began the descent along the ridge. Again because of my SOBO flip, I had gotten the advice to forego the PCT here for a snow-free user trail that runs along the top of the ridge, but the recent snow had covered much of the trail at higher elevations. I took that route anyway since the snow was shallow and non-problematic. A few footprints showed where other hikers had gone the same way.
Generally, sticking to the path on top of the ridge was a good policy. To climb over the various peaks in the clouds and have no views from them was frustrating, but on those occasions when I did try to follow the PCT on the north side of the ridge, I would often reach a big snow drift with no tracks and have to climb back up the ridge anyway.
The snow was slushy with shallow and ill-formed footprints from people slipping. I felt comfortable with my microspikes but wouldn’t have done this hike without.
Starting on the ridge, rain made the conditions pretty miserable for awhile, particularly when I got off-trail and ended up in a sea of wet vegetation.
Not long before Little Jimmy Campground, where I had been planning to camp, the mist thinned and I saw a gorgeous campsite where I decided to stop instead. The rain ended while I was pitching my tent, and the sky cleared – very painstakingly due to a lack of wind – over the course of about four hours. I kept the doors of my tent rolled up to admire the beautiful sunset. Half of me wishes that I had camped up on the ridge since the weather should be better tomorrow, but it is what it is. At least I got to Mt. Baden-Powell finally!
The hotel wouldn’t hold my backpack after I checked out in the morning, so I carried it around as I completed my remaining chores: mailing the remnants of my bounce box to the Acton KOA, leaving extra food in the hiker box and picking up a forgotten item at the grocery store. The clerk at the checkout pointed out a rack of free items available for hikers, most of which were travel-sized toiletries. It’s like a subtle ‘don’t disgust the other tourists, k?’.
Outside I met Medicine Man, who had previously lived in Wrightwood and was able to provide some info on the South Fork Trail/High Desert National Recreation Trail alternate for the PCT Endangered Species Closure north of Eagles Roost. The closure has been in place for many years with no end in sight (the original PCT signage has been removed, so hold no hope in your heart). The SFT/HDNRT alternate is the ‘official’ detour, but much longer than the alternate that most people take, which is walking on Highway 2 from Eagles Roost to Buckhorn Campground and then on to Burkhart Junction. And when I say ‘most’, every hiker who I asked this year had either done or was planning to do the highway walk. I wouldn’t highway walk to save miles, but the PCTA also calls the SFT/HDNRT alternate ‘exposed and treacherous’ and I definitely would highway walk for safety purposes. More specifically, the PCTA says ‘This scenic detour is not up to normal PCT standards, especially the first 5.3 miles from Islip Saddle to the South Fork Campground. Parts of the first 5.3 miles have moderate exposure and a trail that sometimes crosses steep eroding hillsides with difficult footing.’ Medicine Man hiked the South Fork Trail six years ago and said that it was in bad shape even then, so while still planning to take the SFT/HDNRT alternate, I’ll be mentally prepared for turning around.
Standing across from the gas station, I quickly got a ride back to the trailhead. Unfortunately, the partially sunny weather in Wrightwood did not reflect the wet cloudiness up at Inspiration Point, which was less than inspiring with its views hidden. The PCT was sopping wet and lined with soft snow.
Walking farther than planned because camping was unappealing in the wet, I made camp a short distance before Vincent Gap and the beginning of the slog up Mt. Baden-Powell. The location is a mixed bag for sure. There’s no wind, but the trees are gathering moisture from low-hanging clouds and releasing an endless rain.
I got an early start today to complete the nine miles to Inspiration Point/Wrightwood before the snow began this afternoon. Despite my hatred for low-hanging clouds, I was charmed to see a cloudbow:
Great views continued in the cold.
I started hitting patchy snow around Blue Ridge, none of it problematic. The Acorn Trail down to Wrightwood looked icy still.
I had been planning to collect water at Guffy Spring, but with the cold weather I didn’t need to. Near the junction, I encountered trees with the most amazing… I don’t know. Is this advection frost? ‘Frost Facts for Kids – Kiddie Encyclopedia’ says that advection frost involves ‘tiny ice spikes’, but I could have impaled someone with these. I’ll concede my ignorance, but it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen so far this year. Also, these trees have a hard life.
I reached Inspiration Point before the snow began.
As I was walking around, looking for informational signage (there is none – apparently you’re just supposed to look and feel inspired), a car pulled up. The driver and passenger were friendly Wrightwood locals and offered me a ride to town. My main fear for this road was that I would get picked up in the snow by tourists who had never driven in snow before, but danger averted.
I arrived at the hotel too early to check in, but the employee stored my backpack and I went to the grocery store. An unfamiliar hiker checking out at another register came over and asked whether I had ID; I was puzzled until he revealed that he was trying to buy beer and the clerk had asked him to show ID. The clerk at my register asked how old he was and he said ‘almost forty’ and she told the other clerk to let him buy it. I had a laugh at that one. Ah, pointless bureaucracy… I also had a laugh at the fact that California can make even ramen posh and expensive.
After I left the store, hail and snow began to fall. I went to the library and read until I could check in at the hotel. The weather tomorrow is supposed to be bleh but nicer weather is forecast for the next few days, so hopefully I’ll be able to actually see my surroundings on Mt. Baden-Powell.
Even around 3000 ft, low-hanging clouds were making themselves a nuisance this morning.
The temperature was cold until the sun began peeking out, then warmed to hot during the steady ~4800 ft grind uphill. I took a dirt road alternate for better views of Mt. Baldy and companions and to avoid what eTrails calls a poodle dog bush infestation.
In the afternoon, I was able to check the weather forecast. A winter storm warning is out for Wrightwood tomorrow, with the majority of the snow due to compile in the afternoon and a daytime high of five degrees Celsius (may I remind the weather that today is May 21st?). Grudgingly I decided to get a hotel room in Wrightwood even though they’re all expensive. Hopefully I’ll still be able to get a ride down from Inspiration Point in bad weather. This business of Mt. Baden-Powell and repeatedly bad weather has felt like trying to find a weather window for climbing Everest – in the future I’ll tell people that I’ve climbed Everest and then if they ask for details I’ll clarify ‘no, I meant metaphorically, but with all the smugness of a non-metaphor’.
I found a pretty campsite below the trail with views of the mountains and low-hanging clouds from above, the only context in which low-hanging clouds are acceptable. The air is freezing and I quickly retreated to my sleeping bag.
I found an earwig in my tent when I woke up this morning. DIE. Frost was there too, and I waited for the friendly sun before walking to the store, which serves breakfast from 8-10 AM: all-you-can-eat pancakes with eggs, hashbrowns, sausage/bacon and orange juice (or possibly the more ambiguous ‘orange drink’). I only managed the initial number of pancakes but several of the guys managed to stuff more in. Important information: you can choose different fillings with subsequent helpings. Eventually I became aware that one of the women at the table was not a hiker, but rather a trail angel who had car camped at the store last night after driving another hiker up to Kennedy Meadows. Due to the total absence of traffic on the road I was ready to pay for a trail angel ride and asked whether I could get a ride down to the highway. She offered to drive me all the way to Cajon Junction, so I was set!
I had the notion to eat lunch at the Subway at Cajon Junction and bushwhack to the trail from there, since I had walked the beginning of the section when trying to hitch north. I had lunch and began bushwhacking, but quickly encountered poodle dog bush and decided to use the trail instead like a rational human being. Seeing all the unfamiliar hikers at the McDonalds made me feel depressed about switching bubbles yet again. I liked the group at KM! Give my KM people back! Suddenly being in a hot area again also feels strange, but I know that I’ll be complaining about the cold in a few days, so I should probably just stop mentioning the temperature even though it goes against all my instincts as a Toontowner not to whine about ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’ (there is no perfect temperature since then we wouldn’t be able to whine).
The prickly pears are blooming now with large beautiful rosy blossoms that the bees burrow into. I saw a bee upside down inside one. Bee heaven.
I also saw a blooming poodle dog bush and lots of non-blooming poodle dog bush. It doesn’t seem to smell as strongly here.
The trail was surprisingly scenic even near the intersection, with interesting rock formations.
Passing the Sullivan’s Curve vista just before a train approached, I ran back to take a photo (true dedication to being derivative).
I made camp at a site only 1.7 miles along the trail. It’s pretty, not windy and there’s no poodle dog bush. I’ll have a long climb tomorrow, but its grade looks reasonable in the elevation profile.
My tent was dry and the sky was blue when I woke up at 6:00 AM. That’s… not what I was promised… I had been planning to wait out the bad weather in my tent, but when no precipitation materialized except for a sprinkle of rain during breakfast, I decided to pack up and start walking.
Rockhouse Basin was beautiful. The mountains to the north were dusted with snow from overnight precipitation.
A cloud bank behind the mountains was releasing mist down a valley (hereafter Precipitation Valley) to disappear into the basin.
The trail passed the south fork of the Kern River.
I was tired from yesterday and rested near the river for awhile before continuing on to Kennedy Meadows. I’m not sure what I had imagined would be here – a store on a grassy field with other, less relevant buildings in the vicinity – but also lots of tourists. There was no grass and the streets were deserted. A sign listed the population as 200. Immediately I started to suspect that I was going to be stranded here. Boston Chris had mentioned that hitching out of Kennedy Meadows was ‘more difficult’ than hitching out of Walker Pass, but the hitch looked actually impossible. Zero traffic. Nightmare.
At any rate, I arrived at the Kennedy Meadows store, where I received the standard applause (unwarranted since I have yet to hike 100+/702 miles) and met several hikers who I had seen but only said hi to over the last few days. I also encountered Kata and Fly, who were camping at Grumpy Bear’s rather than the store. I quizzed people about which was better to camp at. It sounded like the amenities were fairly similar, though no one mentioned that the shower at Grumpy Bear’s was indoors – I would have gone there if I had known, but it seemed easier to just stay at the store, which has a forested camping area out back. The store itself has fewer goods than I had expected, and it’s expensive, but luckily I was only resupplying for a few days from Cajon Pass to Wrightwood. Later I heard that Yogi’s place has more selection and better prices.
In the afternoon, snow began falling and we all clustered into the store. I ordered a hamburger, which was decent.
After playing country music all day, the store switched to rap while I was charging my phone on the deck in the evening. But then I heard the lyrics ‘sittin’ on my tractor’. I’m so confused. All I know is that I didn’t need this music in my life.
The weather forecast is predicting a dump of precipitation for tonight and tomorrow, so my goal for today was to get past the high elevation section around Bear Mountain and camp in Rockhouse Basin. Unfortunately that meant walking ~21 miles, which I estimated would take me around fourteen hours. I had thought to skip my granola and milk in the morning in favour of a quicker breakfast, but ended up waking up in the dark at 4:00 AM and feeling wide awake (I’m old now, I’m calling it) so I didn’t rush and got walking around 5:30 AM when the sun was rising. The sky was clear and the air was crisp and the views were beautiful in the early morning light.
After about a mile, I came to a saddle with much cleaner and more scenic camping than Lamont-Spanish Needle Saddle. I could have made it there yesterday, but oh well.
I completed the eight miles to Canebrake Road quickly, but they were mostly downhill. Day hikers had told me about a trail angel there, but she or he was along the road a short distance and I was able to slip past without feeling rude.
From Canebrake Road, the trail began an ascent with ~2600 feet of elevation gain and ~220 feet of elevation loss. I did my best to channel Washington. After 1000 feet I reached Fox Mill Spring, which was a useless drip from a pipe.
A creek nearby was running strong and clear though, so collecting water from the sludgy trough wasn’t necessary.
Trudging up the remaining distance, I was rewarded with a glimpse of the High Sierras. They sure looked snowy compared to the photo in eTrails.
I was almost dead after sixteen miles, then dead after seventeen miles. I started thinking about how nice it would be to be pulled along the trail in a coffin by a team of horses (apparently my corpse would be absurdly heavy). During the climb, the trail had entered a tedious burn area. Not all burn areas are unattractive, but this one was hideous, just barren slopes with a scattering of shrubs and stick-like trees.
With no fuel from scenery, I ate a snack and automatoned onwards, completing a 2000+ ft descent into Rockhouse Basin. I collected water from Manter Creek, which was scummy and gross, then followed the PCT until it entered a more sheltered area with pine trees. Leaving the trail, I quickly found somewhere to stealth camp. The total distance took me around eleven hours, so it was quicker than expected, but I didn’t get much lounging/staring time either. I did see a bird taking a birdbath, which was cute. Perhaps not the type of thing you want to see in your water source, but cute.
The rain started around 7:00 PM. The soil is sandy here so I’m hoping for no strong wind. During the day I felt some chafing, but didn’t bother stopping to apply Body Glide. When I removed my pants in my tent, I saw that the chafing is much worse than before and extends all the way to my knees. Poor legs!!