Where: Pacific Crest Trail – Mile 183.3 to Mile 232.1
When: May 5 – May 8, 2017
Who: Marie and me
Distance: 48.8 Miles
Day 13: Mile 179.8 to 183.3 (3.5 Miles)
A bed, clean sheets, running water! Never had I felt more appreciative of basic commodities. Planning to wake up at 8am, our bodies had a different plan for us. Apparently we had become too accustomed to waking up at sunrise, and we were instead ready and restless by 6am. We took the morning slow to clean water bottles, sort gear and revel in the glorious, glorious shower.
We ate breakfast at the Red Kettle, a local cafe with the propensity to pile food high and dose it with cheddar. We lapped up the portions eagerly. Afterwards, Marie spent way too much on jerky to satisfy the meat craving. Then we toured postcards, paintings and knickknacks inside the many curio shops that littered the town center.
The checkout time of 11am loomed over us like a cloud. We made our way back to the hotel, cleaned up our belongings and gloomily checked out, again feeling homeless as we stepped out into the streets. Hoping for a mood-booster, I bought a smoothie at a nearby coffee shop before we made our way over to the library to update the blog. To reward our efforts, Marie and I bought ourselves lunch at Gastrognome, a high-end cafe with a beautiful deck for us to lounge outside and consider the days ahead. The talk of the town was the impending storm, which was predicted to cover the area in snow come Sunday.
That done, we headed to the supermarket to resupply with our backpacks in tow, awkwardly squeezing down aisles, trying not to knock over any displays. I was determined not to pack too much food as I had done in the previous stretch. We sorted our food outside the library, chatted with a couple locals who passed by and set off back to the hotel just as the sun started its descent across the sky.
Fortunately, the front desk associate had offered to give us a ride to Deer Springs Trial, a “short” 3.5 mile jaunt that reconnected us to the PCT. I put “short” in quotations because the trial took us 2,000 feet up through some grueling switchbacks that seemed to stretch into eternity.
The light had almost completely dissipated by the time we made it up to the Strawberry Junction Campground. We were greeted by a portable restroom and a boy scout troop, who had decided to share our spot. Marie and I were also surprised to see a lone PCT hiker, whom we had met within our first minutes on the trail in Campo. After chatting a bit about the impending snow storm, we tucked ourselves into our tent and went to bed.
Day 14: Mile 183.3 to 193.6 (10.3 Miles)
Here’s a crazy sight after so many miles of unbreakable heat: snow! We woke up to find our view blanketed in clouds, giving us the feeling of being entirely separate from the world below.
Shortly after, we came upon our first patches of snow. We trudged our way through thick patches, try to keep our footing as the snow piled in some places up to our hips.
A short hike took us to our water source at the raging San Jacinto River, and for the first time we were complaining about how cold it was, only days after melting under the desert sun.
The trail twisted up and down over the course of the day, climbing upwards before shooting down some icy descents.
We had made it about ten miles before we decided to take our midday break. We had considered the spot as an early campsite, hoping to escape the ever darkening sky, and as the grey spumes of cloud began to roll over the hilltop we quickly finalized that decision by setting up the tent at around 1:30pm.
Minutes after the tent went up, a wave of hail pelted us from overhead, adding a new fear that we had not anticipated. We cooked a sobering dinner underneath the rain fly, envisioning hail ripping through our tent as we slept. The hail softened into rain and the rain eventually froze into snow.
Marie and I struggled to sleep through the light of the afternoon and the howl of the wind as it whipped and shook the poles of our tent. Luckily (or unluckily), the clouds soon completely enveloped the sky, giving us enough darkness for us to pretend it was night. I slept very little, kept awake by thoughts of us losing the trail underneath a blanket of snow. Our only solaced proved to be the few other hikers whom had chosen the spot as a tenting site, as well. Whatever was to come, we’d have to face it together.
Day 15: Mile 193.6 to 213.4 (19.8 Miles)
The next day we peeked out from our tent to find the land sleeping under a blanket of snow. Battling the snowfall, we quickly packed up our things, trying to keep them as dry as possible. Most of the other campers had already set off, leaving us a trail of footprints for us to follow.
Through the filtered sunlight, we made our way down the long descent of San Jacinto, the steepest section of the PCT. The day began to warm, as did our mood from the harrowing night. We lost jackets and gloves as the trail wound ever downwards. From our vantage point, we could see the orange plains of Cabazon and the armies of turning windmills. The snow eventually stopped falling, and the patches beneath our feet began to thin. In an hours time, the snow was all but gone.
We had little time for breaks as we were chased further downwards but the billowing clouds, which rolled in overhead and spread rain over the distant plains. By the time we reached our water source, where a group of hikers had gathered for lunch, a short spurt of rain battered us for about fifteen minutes.
On the same day that we were fighting the snow, we now found ourselves marching down the an arid desert on our way to Interstate 10. Cars zoomed in the distance as we were led onward by a series of wooden posts, our only guide in the trail-less plain.
We eventually made it to the underpass, where again we were greeted by a group of hikers, along with coolers with apples and iced sodas. We contemplated making this our tent site for the evening, but the noise of the traffic and the numerous graffiti tags urged us to seek a more remote location.
Roughly three miles later, we had worked our way up through grassy fields to a wind farm within a small valley. A sign informed us of water and food within the building, but the hour was too late for anyone to be inside. We instead set up camp, making sure to cover our gear from the rain storm that the darkening clouds threatened to bring.
Day 16: Mile 213.4 to 232.1 (18.8 Miles)
We were assaulted the next morning by a steep climb out of the valley, which revealed to us a rather pleasant view of some rocky cliffs. Perched on the edge, we followed the ridge along the harrowing heights before the view opened up to a vast, rocky plain with the Whitewater River running through it.
We decided to take a half-mile detour off trail to the Whitewater Preserve. The scene melded from desert shrubs to sandy banks along a flowing river. We followed this over bridges to a shady park, complete with wading pool, picnic benches and running water. Some reading materials informed us of the newly established Sand to Snow National Monument. The day was stretching on to its peak heat, so we were prompted to get back on trail after a brief snack. We made a mental note to visit again when time wasn’t so precious.
At the last river crossing, we iced our feet in the water and let our hands carelessly sink under the bubbles. We made the effort to dry off our feet, but minutes later the trail intersected the river, and we were forced to immerse ourselves to get across.
The trail shot upwards, allowing our shoes to dry as we moved further from the river and into the heat. We hiked for what seemed like miles in one direction, only for the trail to turn around as we reached the top of the ridge and work its way backwards up another hill. At the top of the mountain, we paused to massage the pain from our feet, and we fell promptly asleep amid a patch of sun.
Awoken soon afterwards by the temperature, we embarked on the final stretch, coming to Mission Creek, a river which would snake through our trail for the next twelve miles or so. A patch of shade and lounging hikers tempted us to set up camp early, but our navigation app warned us of a fire closure, which created a long stretch of trail that we would have to get through before we could camp again. Knowing this, we instead chose to push on.
We stopped to cook dinner at a campsite, again tempted to set up for the night, but the drop in temperature had us feeling good, and we set off one final time. The trail led us upwards to a high bank, which was fortunate as we were still fearing rain and over flooding from the creek. We greeted the group of hikers that were there with tired grumbles before retiring for the night.