Section 03. Idyllwild to Cajon Pass
It was difficult to leave Idyllwild such was its charm and comforts. However I knew the day was full of promise as it went up into the forests of San Jacinto. I walked the two miles from the Inn past lane upon lane of cabins nestled in the woods until i reached Humbie Park. Here there was a good trail for another 2.5 miles up through fine forests on an easy trail called the Devils Slide to Saddle Junction on the ridge, where the PCT was. I reached it just a mile north of the extensive fire closure to the south.
I paused at the junction while some of my herd caught up. I chatted with a few of them while I savoured the surroundings. There were huge trees here mostly pines. The large cedars of Idyllwild where now supplanted with White Firs. The air was thick with the smell of dry pine needles and pollen and the forest whistling with birdsong. It was a lovely scene and all I had hoped for when I signed up to do the PCT.
As I finished my break Top O’ arrived. He was 53 and we had seen each other virtually every day since the start. He was a popular hiker, a veteran of the Appalachian Trail, and full of advice and humour. We decided to walk together. We walked a few miles up to the turnoff to San Jacinto summit which a few of the young bucks were doing. I had 9 days food in the pack and was reluctant to do this alternative route – as was Top O’.
The pines trees were remarkable. I think they were either Sugar, Ponderosa or Jeffrey Pines. They had a massive trunks which went straight up some 20-30 metres. Then suddenly this trunk erupted into a tangle of contorted boughs which almost looked like a root system.
As we walked through the woods we frequently crossed large drifts of snow which lay up to 4 foot thick beneath the trees. A month ago this would have all been snow and route finding difficult but a month of spring had made life easy for us.
We skirted round the south side of the main peak on a contouring path which offered a great view over peaceful Idyllwild nestled in the woods on a plateau far below. Sometimes the forest became meadow as we traversed across the south face but we returned to the woods at a ridge where another trail from Idyllwild came up, the Deer Park trail.
In just another 3 miles of more stunning woods we reached the returning path where the young bucks who went up San Jacinto came down from with tales of steep snow but great views. A bit further was the last water so we fill up and continued to a ridge where we found some camp spots. It was a little exposed but held the evening sun well. Top O’ used his tent while I cowboy camped under a gnarly pine. It was a cold and windy evening and cowboy camping was a bad option but I was too lazy to get out of my bag and put the tent up.
Then next morning the valley was full of mist, but it was clear and fresh where we were at around 0 centigrade and 9000 foot. We quickly packed and set off along the infamous Fuller Ridge. The path mostly went on the north side of this 3 mile 8000 foot ridge and there had been many tales of treacherous snow this winter. However when we went along it was very pleasant with easy snowfields in the huge pines trees. We passed many camps en route where members of our herd were still emerging from their tents.
At the end of Fuller Ridge, where we met Black Mountain road Top O’ strode off and I descended myself. The descent was huge with some 7000 feet in total. The nourishing pines and firs soon disappeared as I zig-zagged down the dry north face. Soon it was scrub and then cactus and massive orange granite boulders. I could seen the road rail and small hamlets east of Cabazon town far below.
The descent was somewhat frustrating. The trail zig-zagged back and forth across the mountainside for 16 miles, while the crow would only fly 4 miles. It seemed a needlessly shallow descent. When I eventually arrived at the bottom a little before sunset my feet were tired. The only redeeming feature of the descent was with each mile the huge north face of San Jacinto looked more and more impressive.
There was about 20 of us there at the bottom I filled my water bottles from a faucet and found a dry sandy creek bed to lay out my bag. After my meal in the sunset I watched the last of the songbirds fly off to their roosting places and then the first of the bats took their place. I slept well but woke once to an unblemished night sky. The Plough and Cassiopeia were glaringly obvious and from them I could figure out the faint North Star around which all the constellations revolved.
The last two days had really lifted my spirits. The pines on the mountain, camping without a tent under a full sky, the fellowship of other hikers; it was all starting to come together. This was considered living where every action was deliberate and thoughtful.
After a good sleep I woke early to cross the desert valley before the heat arrived. Sandy soils made the going slow and the wind blew tumbleweed across the valley floor. After a few mile long trains, I passed under the Interstate 10 highway and made my way up a valley lined with wind turbines. Many seemed broken and twisted and only 10% were functioning. It was a bizarre sight. A stage set for a hitchcock film perhaps. After 3 miles of it I was free of them and in the unblemished Chaparral again.
Crossing a dry wild watershed I dropped down into the wide Whitewater valley where a small river twisted through braided alluvial rubble. The small river was warm and early hikers were already splashing in it. I hiked up 2 miles further and did not take the side trail for a mile to a ranger station, which everyone else did to camp among shady trees. Instead I camped on the windswept alluvial valley floor. I did however find a lovely spot to myself right beside the river under the framework of a wigwam someone had abandoned.
I bathed in the warm waters and washed all my clothes before crawling into my sleeping bag behind a makeshift windbreak I fashioned against the wigwam frame. The soothing splash of the river soon lulled me to sleep despite the wind.
The next day I woke at 0500 and walked over the ridge from the Whitewater Creek to Mission Creek as the sun rose and cast a glow over the San Gorgonio Wilderness culminating in the 11,503 foot white capped mountain. It was a joy to see the dawn unfold. By the time I dropped down into Mission Creek morning had arrived and the heat was building. A small creek ran across the alluvial debris of the valley floor and a green strip of Willows, Cottonwoods, and Californian Sycamores lined each side of it.
It took the rest of the day to walk up the creek climbing some 5000 foot. Other hikers caught me up and we chatted for a while until they went on. The heat of the day was getting intense during the afternoon and I sought shade in the strip of forest a few times before I arrived at an obvious camp spot at mile 236 under the paternal shade of a vast Live Oak. However, it soon became apparent that a large herd of about 40 hikers who had been at the Whitewater Preserve previously were also heading here and it would be crowded. I ate a meal as the first of them arrived and jostled for tent sites. So I decided to move on.
The problem was the next 5 miles had suffered an intense fire a few years ago, and camping was not allowed again until Mission Creek campsite. It was a 2-3 hour commitment. Just as I was leaving Andrew from Melbourne arrived. I had met him in the San Diego hostel 2 weeks previously. We chatted a bit before I left.
The steep walk up to Mission Creek Camp was sombre. The earlier fire had destroyed everything except a few pockets of pristine conifer and oak tucked away in ravines or deep valleys. Everywhere else the fire, a crown fire, had destroyed everything. Just blackened trunks remained of once proud 300 year old pines, firs and cedars. In many places there were small craters where even the rootball had burn away The entire understory of scrub oak, Manzanita and smaller bushes were also destroyed and the ground was loose and dusty and many rocks were shattered with the heat. It must have been a very intense fire. 500 years of a integrated forest system gone in flash.
As I reached the top of this wasteland the clouds rolled in from the west and a freezing drizzle arrived. Small speckles of snow started to drift past on the bitter wind. For the first time time this hike my hands were cold. I set up the tent a collapsed into my bag with duvet jacket on.
I waited until the sun was up and thawing out the forest before I emerged from the tent. By then some of the faster hikers were already arriving from the crowded camp below the fire. I set off and had breakfast on the trail greeting hikers as they passed me and the frost from the pines showered down in sparkling cascades.
Hiking on my own about half an hour later my eye suddenly caught a movement. It was a Bobcat, or Lynx. Quite small, yet too big to be this year’s kit and the ear tufts were well formed. We looked at each other for 15 seconds before it stealthly moved off without too much concern. Unfortunately I messed up the photo by zoomimg in and shooting the undergrowth above it. Nonetheless I was very pleased to have seen it.
Later that day Andrew caught up and we walked the rest of the day together. It was mostly through conifer forest as we descended down to the campsite as Arrastre Trail Camp. The miles flew past as we chatted. The only sight that left a bitter taste was a cluster of cages in the woods beside the trail where a lion, tiger and grizzly bear were stored ready to be used for movie scenes, where directors hired them from www.predatorsinaction.com . The conditions these animals were kept in were vastly inferior to any zoo.
The trail had been quite busy up to Arrastre but soon after the whole herd disappeared off to Big Bear Lake to resupply. I still had 5 days of food left and had always intended to skip Big Bear Lake and head straight to Cajon Pass. During the next days I only saw a hand full of hikers each day. I went from Arrastre to Caribou Creek camp that day as the route sometimes crossed over onto the north eastern slopes that flowed down to the light brown, parched hills and plains of the Mojave desert. On these slopes only the drought tolerant Pinyon Pines and Mojave Yucca’s thrived. The latter were huge castellated structures with ferocious spiked leaves.
I cowboy camped at Caribou Creek which allowed me to start early and climb up onto the ridge looking south over Big Bear Lake and then the long snowy ridge of San Gorgonio mountain beyond that. It was perhaps the most tranquil view of the trip so far. I relaxed in the early morning sun here and had breakfast before the trail started a 2 day jaunt down the deep Holcomb Creek Canyon which lead into the even deeper Deep Creek Canyon. It was a ribbon of green in an otherwise harsh semi desert landscape. Occasionally the bottom of the canyon opened out a bit and beavers had built a series of dams flooding the valley and allowing willows to flourish.
On the second day I walked with another Andrew from Melbourne, this one with the trail name Crash. He was an avid and well travelled hiker who had already done the PCT 2 years previously in just 99 days. He averaged 30 miles a day and I was honoured he sacrificed 10 miles that day to walk with me. I followed in his slipstream like a member of the pelathon in a bike race. In his haste Andrew nearly stepped on a rattlesnake which fled off the trail almost between his feet.
We walked together to the Deep Creek hot springs, a somewhat mythical spot which was to prove a disappointment. Some 50 years ago this must have been an idyllic spot, but easy access meant most people could access it now. There were a few drunks and men over 60 swinging their tackle. They were easy enough to avoid and the hikers congregated in the river occasionally dipping into the hot springs which were almost too hot, especially for sunburnt legs. I spent a few hours dipping here and then headed off down the valley alone, Andrew (Crash) having sped off earlier.
I made it down in the dusk to the West Fork of the Mojave Creek and cowboy camped on a sandbank beside the river. Unbeknown to me I passed a area rich in beavers in the willow thickets just before my sandbank and found out from other hikers there were very active all night. The walk from my sandbank to the Silverwood lake was quite uneventful other than the fact it was very hot. I fantasized about reaching the lake and going for a swim for the 10 baking miles it took to reach it.
When I eventually did I was distraught to see it was full of jet skis and powerboats going round and round. All the beaches were full of fisherman so I could not swim. I decided to push on to the Cleghorn day use picnic area. Apparently the rangers here cut the PCT hikers a bit of slack and let them camp the night while chasing everybody else off. The walk round the lake was very pleasant with rich scrub, one type of which looked like a rose tree with bright yellow flowers. At one stage bees were swarming beside the path. By the time I noticed I was already abreast of them and ran through unscathed.
Cleghorn was a hikers paradise. A faucet with running water, picnic tables in the shade, a toilet block and a nearby sand beach. A few hikers had already arrived. I joined them and then after emptying my pockets walked into the water. It was sheer bliss. I removed all my clothing in the lake, except underpants, and scrubbed them, before relaxing for 10 minutes. Only now I realized I had a stinging sweat burn today where my pants had chaffed.
One hiker, Riley, organized pizza to be delivered to our campsite together with 2 beers each. As Riley was also vegetarian we shared the biggest one they did. Just as I was about to start my second beer Top O’ arrived. I had not seen him since we camped together on San Jacinto so sacrificed my second beer for him.
It was just a 14 mile day to finish this section and reach Cajon Pass. The Macdonalds there was the talk of the hikers who were craving calories. It was a dry and uninspiring walk to Cajon Pass but Top O’ and Blue caught me up and we hiked the last 5 miles together down the canyon and into the fast food cafe. I could not eat I was so thirsty and had 4 litres of coke and a litre of some sort of calorie rich melted chocolate ice cream; no wonder Americans are fat.
The others were going to hike out that evening to Guffy Spring, a drying oasis in 22 miles and up some 5000 feet. It was quite a stretch and I was not ready for it. I had already booked a room for 2 nights at the Best Western and was to zero there the next day. Guiltily I abandoned the other hikers while I took some time out from the trail. At the hotel I had a resupply box with all I needed to get to Agua Dulce in 6 days time. Two hikers from Georgia had managed to get some new insoles to me at the hotel. However Cajon Pass was just a perfunctory collection of pitstops on the Interstate 15;- it was no quaint Idyllwild.