Section 04.Cajon Pass to Agua Dulce
Cajon Pass is very hot and the climb out of it into the Angeles National Forest was some 7000 feet with no water for 23 miles. In the heat of the day these 23 miles would be very uncomfortable and thirsty work, so the conventional wisdom was to start early evening and hike as much as possible.
I hiked 3 hours in the dusk and dropped down to cross a high valley which was the San Andreas fault line. It looked pastoral and far from a geological hotspot. After this it got dark and i switched my torch on.
I did not really enjoy the night hiking. I was in bubble of light on a dark moonless night. Vegetation encroached the path and my down hill walking pole kept slicing through fresh air on the steep ground. After 3 hours I had had enough and as the path crossed a track I found a level spot to cowboy camp.
I woke in the morning to a different world. I was camped high on a ridge surrounded by recovering fire damaged Chaparral. The Fault line was obvious below. So too was the Interstate and train lines of Cajon Pass.
I turned my back on them again and continued west walking into my shadow. Much of this ridge was scared by a recent fire and i could feel the heat building, but ahead I could see the promised land of mature conifers and knew this would bring shade, calmness and interest. I reached it after a couple of hours.
Pines and Firs replaced blackened scrub, birdsong appeared and chipmunks scurried across the forest floor, their erect tails waving from side to side. This was the start of the Angeles National Forest. Indeed if it were not for the mist in the valleys to the west i would be looking down on Los Angeles just 30 miles away.
The path kept on the more clearly defined ridge, now called the Blue Ridge, as it skirted past the snowy slopes of 10,000 foot Mt Baldy. The pines and firs continued in abundance and there were plenty of flowery glades amongst them. I past a memorial to 2 hikers who died attempting a winter through hike and then came to a steep side trail down to the small town of Wrightwood which I knew many hikers would take. A cheerful girl called Dirt arrived as i rested and we chatted before she headed down and I continued west along the ridge to find the trickle which was Guffy Spring to complete the 23 waterless miles and top up.
I continued late that evening along Blue Ridge and then dropped down onto the road, crossed it at Inspiration Point, where there was a great view, and then walked further to Grass Hollow campsite where there was a lovely picnic area, water, a composting toilet, and a few PCT hikers already in bed. I was to be spoilt for the rest of this section with great campsites provided by the US forest service.
I awoke early the next day to try and get up Mount Baden Powell before the sun got fierce. It was a 1000 foot descent and then a 3000 foot climb. I got into low ratio 4 wheel drive and slowly crawled my way up. The magnificent conifers providing some shade. I caught up with Top’O and someone he had been hiking with for a while, Dock, an ex army medic.
The climb went through all the pine trees i had seen to date. The huge coned Coulter Pines and the vanilla smelling Ponderosa down below, then the huge boled Silver firs, Jeffery Pines and the papery coned Sugar Pines. Finally at the top were the single needled Pinyon pines and a handfull of extremely gnarled and twisted Limber Pines, a close relative of the Bristlecone. Some of the gnarled Limber Pines were 1500 years old. It was a marvellous array of confers perfectly displayed.
There was a gathering of about 20 hikers on the mountain. It was good to see some old faces and meet new ones. The mountain afforded fantastic views in all directions but especially east to Mt Baldy. To the west was a smaller adjacent mountain called Mt Burnham. Burnham was Baden Powell, the scout masters right hand man. If fact Burngam was the master scout and was even offered a VC for his behind the scenes antics in the Boer war. There was a 22 mile trail, the Silver Moccasin Trail which overlapped the PCT here and it was something of a rite de passage for south Californian scouts.
Eventually people drifted off and headed down the rocky hot ridge. Patches of snow still lingered amongst the Pinyon and Limber pines here. The path went past Mount Burnham and a couple more peaks before it started the long descent to the next spring, Little Jimmy Spring, some 7 miles away. This spring emerging from a pipe driven into the rocks was reputed to be some of the best water on the PCT. I did not filter it and it tasted cool and fresh. The humidity of the soil here nourished two enormous incense cedars, both 2 metres in diameter and nearly 50 high.
Just beyond the spring was the campsite hidden beneath large trees. There were a number of tables, an outhouse and a firepit where earlier arrivals has already established a fire. In all there were about 30 campers here, including Top’O, Mayo (an English Radiographer) and a young team of 5-6 with who I would hike with for the next few days. Little Jimmy Camp was a comfortable camp.
The next day involved a detour due to the trail being closed because of a rare frog. There were two options round the 4 mile closed section. One involved a 5 mile hike half on the road and half on a good trail, while the other involved a a
15 mile hike on a rough path with spectacular views especially over the Devil’s Punchbowl, a contorted geological area in the San Andreas fault.
I took the shorter one up and over the steep Mt Williamson before a very easy 3 miles on the quieter road to Burkhorn camping. Once at the camping it was a nice hike down a stream filled valley with massive incense cedars to rejoin the PCT again.
From here I hiked with the young team for another 5 miles to Glen Camp. It was a scout hut and on the Silver Moccasin trail. I chatted with a few from the young team and the miles flew by and suddenly we were at the Camp. There was also a pickup here with music blaring and i feared the worst as it was the start of Memorial Weekend.
My fears were soon allayed when they said they were the custodians of the hut and there would be “Trail Magic”. Trail Magic can take various forms but usually it involves ex-hikers or outdoor people providing treats. In this case it was burgers. I said I was a vegetarian and she made up a huge coleslaw for me. The other hikers tucked into their surprise burgers and looked enviously at my kilo of fresh vegetables and mayonnaise.
After yet another night of cowboy camping beside the Glenn Camp scout hut I walked down into the Chaparral and the first stop of the day at Sulphur Springs accompanied by some of the young team. Just after the springs was another tent dispensing trail magic. This time it was an ex triple crown crown hiker called Barrel Roll who had set up a tent. There was a lot of trail magic at the moment because it was Memorial Weekend. I chatted with Barrel Roll about Norway and it transpired he had been and used my www.scandinavianmountains.com website. After some cool drinks and pancakes it was time to move on. A few hundred metres from his tent i saw my first adult rattlesnake. It was only 2 foot long and much smaller that i imagined. It slithered off under a bush and then curled up rattling its tail until i passed by a good distance away.
I walked nearly 20 miles that day to Mill Creek Fire Station which was something of a disappointment as it lay in the U bed of a minor road and under some powerlines. However it was the last water for 17 miles so i was forced to stay or carry water. From Mill Creek Fire station I spent a day crossing a recent fire burn area. Not all the forest was burnt and there were pockets of conifers still standing but it was mostly razed. There was little of interest with no birdsong or even insects and critters like chipmunks. It was only when the path climbed up Mount Gleeson was there some sustained forests. They were lush with green swathes of grass between the trees and scrub oak. As one stage I had to walk through a cloud of ladybirds which were flowing down the mountain in a swarm. At one stage i had about 100 settled on me. From the top of the Gleeson i quickly descended to a copse where there was a camp at Messenger Flats
During these two days I saw the infamous poodle dog bush for the first time. Up to now I thought it was a mythical plant but in the sandy soils of the recovering fire burn areas it was prevalent. Even growing on the trail and certainly encroaching onto to it. It had a pungent smell like a marijuana bush. Apparently the leaves contained olls which caused the skin to itch and then blister. Apparently it had put people off the trail for a few days while they recovered. My attention which was solely occupied with rare rattlesnakes now had to include poodle dog bush.
Had it not been for lack of water I would have camped here. But I needed to carry on for a further 6 miles down the arid undulating ridge to North Fork Ranger Station where there was a water cache maintained by the rangers. The place was already busy with hikers cooking and before long Top’O and Dock arrived. There was a bit of a festive spirit as we cooked at the picnic tables.
There was a solid day left to get to Agua Dulce. However given the near record snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada in 250 miles there was no need to hurry so i decided to split it at a commercial campsite with a swimming pool and small shop. The plan spread and there was soon a posse who fantasized about spending the hot afternoon in a cool pool eating icecream.
It was a quick jaunt down to Acton Campground through a mixture of Chaparral scrub and burn. These burn areas were a result of the 7 years of drought which California suffered and which was just broken this winter. The hillsides to the north still looked parched through as much vegetation had died. There was a strip of green in the valley where a tiny stream nurtured a ribbon of cottonwoods. Amongst this was the oasis of a campsite.
As we neared this promised land there was more trail magic. An ex thru hiker called Coppertone had parked his camper and was treating hikers to fruit and root beer floats under a shaded awning. There were up to 10 of us there chatting for half an hour before moving on.
At the camp Top’O, Dock and myself commandeered a large hexagonal pavilion and soon the young team arrived, as well as Fish and Snoopy. The latter had soldiered on with an infected blister for days which now burst so Dock arranged a hospital visit. As we all cowboy camped in the pavilion i got a bond of togetherness with the others. A relaxed easy going enlightened group of hikers all determined to get through the Sierras and reach Canada.
We all woke early at around 04, keen to get to Agua Dulce before the sun was intense.. it was a quick climb up the hill for 5 miles and then down to the Vasquez Rocks, an outcropped area once the hideout of bandits and more recently the backdrop to various films. The small stream through it allowed willows to grow and it was a peaceful canyon now
Soon after was the town of Agua Dulce. Here a couple, the Saufley’s, hosted all the hikers on their garden plot in a slick operation. Some 50-60 people were camped here. Showers, portaloos, internet tents and even a sewing tent serviced all the hikers needs. It was a bit claustrophobic for me but it was good to see old faces from 3 and 4 weeks ago. There was a stench of marijuana in the air but by 2100 all the groups of quietly chatting people drifted to their tents and were soon asleep.
One got the impression the Saufley’s were pillars of the community in Agua Dulce and their altruistic benevolence was admired by their neighbours for the 2 months when PCT hikers passed through.
This Section 04 through the Angeles National Forest was a remarkably surprising section. Although never far from the urban Los Angeles to the south and the inhospitable Mojave Desert to the north it was a beautiful mountain ridge which apart from some unfortunate fires was still pristine conifer forest. The next section to Hikertown was only some 70 miles and i imagine it will be largely Chaparral.