PCT 1: The Green Desert

What do you do when the one thing you have been obsessing over for years chews you up and spits you out? Bike touring, It had been my focus for so long and after having hit a point where we felt the need to go home, five months into what was supposed to be a two year trip, I was struggling with how to get back into that place and become excited about adventure. Do we continue from where we left off? Do we jump somewhere else? When the whole world is accessible to you, how do you choose? I chose by remembering an old dream, to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail.

For those that may not know the specifics, the Pacific Crest Trail is a backpacking trail which follows the mountains and high points between the Mexican border in southern California to the Canadian border in Washington. The whole trail is 2,650 miles long and takes an average of 4 to 6 months to backpack. Thousands of people each year attempt to through hike it during the seasonably preferable months between late Spring and early Fall. This would be our way of reentering the long distance travel world, achieve a lifetime goal and get us excited about cycling again by doing something else inspiring and challenging. My grandfather had attempted it 40 years ago, I had backpacked small sections while on other backpacking trips with my family and now it was my chance to give the whole trail a shot.

To begin we got ourselves geared up with light weight gear, applied for a PCT permit for March 7th, 2019 and then got our way down to Southern California to begin the trail. Heidi’s father helped in driving us down to southern California while doing some bikepacking in the Mojave and we visited some friends in Palm Desert along the way. In a hectic 24 hours we then took public transit from Palm Desert to San Diego and came into contact with a wonderful couchsurfing host who was able to let us spend the night at his house and then drive us to the southern terminus so we could begin our walking adventure.

The southern terminus is a rather unassuming place, right on the border with Mexico. The border fence going off into the distance, east to west, as far as the eye can see and a wooden monument denotes the beginning. Looking north was an intense moment, knowing we would be walking that direction until we were at another international border, and everything in between we would become a little more intimate with at three miles per hour.

The southern Terminus with our Couchsurfing host

There were several other PCT hikers we met immediately and we all had our moment by the terminus getting photos, writing in the log book and getting ready to start walking. As I was having my personal moment with the terminus Heidi and several other hikers began walking, but what I didn’t realize was that they began walking directly in the wrong direction! As I turned around with one last glance at the terminus I saw the group wandering due east along the dirt road… I ran up behind them and as politely as I could, made them aware of their immediate mistake. The guy leading everyone was from Germany and after a quick joke about how he must be leading everyone back home with him we headed back and got onto the correct trail.

The German leading everyone back to Germany

It was so exciting seeing hikers wandering around behind and in front, knowing we were all starting out on this journey together and there had been people over the previous days beginning as well. In a way we were all part of this odd mobile family and were going to be around each other for many months.

This first day on trail was cloudy, wet and cold, which sums up our first couple of weeks on trail. Southern California was getting an extremely wet season. Our couch surfing host had informed us that they were getting more rain this year than they had since the 80’s. With this in mind we knew we were going to see the desert in a way that not many people got to see it, green and wet. There was talk of a super bloom with the desert flowers and we hoped we would get some amazing vistas.

The first of many signs pertaining the the PCT.

We took the first few days at a very relaxed pace, not wanting to injure ourselves and allowing Heidi’s knee to heal a bit after she had pushed too hard while bikepacking in the Mojave. Upon entering our first trail town of Lake Morena we immediately took pause due to a potential snowstorm coming in.

Looking out over the green desert

We spent two days waiting to see if the forecast would be accurate, the rangers even stated we should expect a foot of snow. There was not much to do in the town but we ran into our first trail magic in the form of two through hikers who were making burritos and offering boxed wine to people near the PCT area! They were Piney and Medicine man and we spent several hours hanging out with them and other hikers, hearing their stories from trail and waiting out the cold wet weather.

While waiting we made friends with several other hikers, three in particular, Marek, Cathy and Ben. We all got along swimmingly and on the night of the nastiest of the weather we all split a cabin to avoid camping in a rain and snowstorm. The next morning we could immediately see that it wasn’t as nasty as we were expecting and we all set out together.

This next section of trail contained an extremely windy ridgeline which was supposed to be one of the windiest sections of trail on rhe whole PCT with very little cover to put tents up in. The trail lived up to its reputation and we had several nasty nights listening to the wind blow in from every angle and smack the tent, but the stakes held, and I got creative on some desperate nights creating wind barriers with whay rocks I could find. The views looking out over the desert were beautiful and the days became rhythm and routine. We enjoyed the company of Cathy, Marek and Ben and we even gave Marek the trail name of weatherman seeing as he was the only one in that area who had cell reception to look at the weather forecasts.

Cathy and Weatherman (Marek)

Coming down out of the windy ridgeline sections we came to our next stop on the trail, the town of Julian. We immediately had more trail magic in the form of a trail angel, Ghost, who gave us a ride right into town. The local pie shop allowed us to get a free slice of pie since we were PCT hikers and the general store allowed us to sleep on the porch for free. We spent the evening chatting with the other hikers we met and even got gifted left over food by the quick mart for dinner!

Sharing stories on the general store porch in Julian

Since it was St. Patricks day we packed out bottles of Guinness, since we couldn’t find cans, and headed back the trail to climb up into the hills.

This made it relatively easy walking and we made it to our next stop of Warner Springs after camping in one of the most beautiful cow pastures I have ever seen. The famous Eagle rock, just after mile 100 on the PCT was also a great break spot.

After Scissors crossing and Julian the desert was gorgeous. Flowers bloomed, cacti were abundant and the temperatures were not to harsh. We saw our first of what would be many water caches. They were set up by volunteers and trail angels wanting to help out the hikers through sections of trail that would normally be dry.

Desert blooms coming out of Scissors Crossing and Julian
Eagle rock with Weatherman and Cathy
Cow pasture camping
Our first mile 100 marker, if only we knew how these would begin flying by once we got more into the rhythm of the trail.

In Warner Springs we stayed at the community center, which was a wonderful place full of awesome locals and hikers alike. We also received our first care package from my parents with a few gear Items we needed, and some surprise cookies cooked by my parents, which I gifted to hikers at the community center.

Upon leaving Warner springs we climbed again and were hit by several rain storms over the next several days as we made our way towards the famous Paradise valley Cafe.

At the cafe we had to say goodbye to Cathy, and her Sister who had joined for a small section. Her parents were there to meet them and they were going to visit with them for a few days. Cathy was on the trail to test it out for a month to see what she thought and after having dinner with all of them we gifted her the trail name of “Cathywampus” and her sister with “Deb from accounting” (still one of my favorite trail names).

Drying out our gear after a short bout of desert rain
Desert camping
A horny toad doing horny toad things

Upon leaving paradise cafe we hiked up towards the ridge line that would eventually become San Jacinto, a peak above Palm desert and Idyllwild over 10,000 ft in elevation. We had heard the snow up towards the peak was still challenging in areas and there was even talk of a hiker having been helicopter rescued already after getting stuck up high in a snowstorm.

Looking out over Paradise valley while drying out dewy sleeping bags
Filtering water with Weatherman and Heidi

The clouds blasted over the ridge as we climbed higher and we began to run into some intense burned areas from previous fires with downed trees and snow patches. The higher we got we began hearing from people who had turned back and Heidi and Marek decided to head down a side trail while I wanted to try and push onwards and meet them in the town of Idyllwild.

Just after we went seperate ways I ran into the notorious Apache peak traverse. There were no steps broken in and I only had some borrowed microspikes that didn’t fit properly. I met an Israeli man named Tal on the snowface and he was looking around for a pole he had lost after having fallen down the snowface. After looking at this and knowing I only had food for the day I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way in one day so I had to turn back.

I hiked down the same side trail as Heidi and Weatherman and then hitchhiked into Idyllwild to meet up with them at the local campground. The town was a nice place to wait for our snow gear to be sent out and we met many other hikers in the same position as us, waiting for snow gear, or skipping the section entirely.

While waiting we met two other hikers, Happy Feet and Town. Happy Feet had already met me at Warner Springs and wanted to head into the snowy sections with me since I had snow and back country ski experience, and Town was his friend who he had been hiking with since just Warner Springs. We all agreed to go in together and we hitch hiked back to the side trail we had come from to give the snow a second shot.

A windy camp spot just before Apache Peak

We camped in a windy spot just before the peak and Heidi accidentally popped a hole in her sleeping pad while shaking it out. After nervously patching it we continued on and did what was recommended, skip the snow face entirely and just follow the ridge line up and over. It was an easy scramble and we quickly got back to the trail and continued on with far less daunting snowfields and the beauty of clouds being blasted over the ridge like a river in the sky.

Town watching the clouds flow over the ridge line
A focused traverse

We eventually got to the base of San Jacinto and set up camp in a dry tree well after being forced out of another spot with extreme wind gusts. The following day after some good snow travel practice we arrived at the top. It had been a short day but there was a cabin at the top and how often do you get to sleep in a cabin at the summit of a mountain.

We crammed in and spent the night with temperatures outside dropping down to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. During the night I walked outside to try and get a look at the stars but was met with a view of the city glow of Southern California all around. While looking out over he city lights I felt like this was our first trail accomplishment and we had already found a trail family to boot. The PCT was beginning to feel like a way of life for us and we were only just beginning.

The summit of San Jacinto
Excited to be at our room with a view for the night

6 thoughts on “PCT 1: The Green Desert

  1. Dotty Steimke

    Daniel,

    Good to read this. You will be glad you took the time to put these memories into words. And while you are writing it, you get to relive the trip!

    Like

  2. kellyercanbrack

    My wife, two sons and I, met you guys in the middle of the Camino in October 2018, and we have been following you since. So happy to hear you are back on the trail. 🙂

    Like

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