Section 06. Hikertown to Kennedy Meadows
Section 06. Hikertown to Kennedy Meadows. After a relaxing time in the eccentric and slightly bizzare shambles of Hikertown I had prepared myself for the difficult, arid route ahead. It seemed the only way to do the first stretch was at night. I was lucky as it was nearly a full moon.
I set off at dusk, once the heat of the day had gone, and walked up to the South California Aqueduct. It was open and I had not seen so much water since the sea at San Diego. I followed it for two miles as it flowed quietly, but with determination, along it’s concrete canal. After two miles I crossed it and headed up a large rivetted pipe carrying yet more water to supply urban Southern California, this one being the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The moon rose at the top of this in where a small covered aquaduct fed it. It was so bright there was no need for the headtorch. I walked along this smaller aquaduct and the road beside for much night as my moon shadow moved from behind me, to beside me and fillnally in front of me as the moon passed through the night sky and set. I could not make out landscapes but marveled at the silhouettes of the plentiful Joshua Trees. There was a fragrance now and again but I could not place it.
After 17 miles there was a faucet in the covered aqueduct. I still had enough water to push on for the next in 7 miles to Tyler Horseshoe canyon. This walk was a different story. The moon had now set and it was completely dark. My headtorch cut a small beam on the narrow sandy path and the wind was gusting. To add to the other worldly theme the path went through a large windfarm. I could hear the turbines slicing through the air but could only see the flashing red hazard lights. The only thing which was natural were the jumping rodents, which were prolific and seemed to be oblivious to my light and often even ran towards it.
But the time the first glows to the east signalled dawn I cleared the windfarm and was now climbing up a barren hillside in a bit of a trance. In finally reached the creek an hour after sunrise at 7 and was tired. It was just warming up when i put up the tent under a large tree and fell asleep almost at once. I did not wake until mid afternoon.
Later that night I tried to repeat my 12 hour night hike herorics. It started well and I left at 1830 again. Shortly after i left I saw a deer, a mule deer i think on account of its ears. However I only got 8 miles and well before midnight found a place to camp beside a water cache a Trail Angel had kindly left. My overiding concern of water shortage was alleviated by this and other confirmed water caches later in this arId section so I would not have to carry 8 litres and hike at night to conserve it.
It was another short 8 mile morning past yet more wind turbines hissing in the wind as I went through a fire damaged area. I walked with Waves, a member of the Young Team and a teacher. The day was hot and we were soon parched. However as we descended to the Tehapachi Road we could see Coppertones camper. Coppertone is a Christian Trail Angel whole follows the herd spending a week in each spot. He offered us a root beer float on arrival. It was delicious end to 3 difficult and unmemorable days where wind turbines and a lack of water where the main feature.
Everyone hitch hiked into Tehapachi to resupply but I had enough food to get the 150 miles to Kennedy Meadows still. As i was leaving a group of Faster hikers arrived from Tehapachi after a days sojurn, including Neil, the Aussie. I left first for another 8 mile windfarm section.
Just as I was about to start I noticed there was a road down the pastoral Cameron Valley. It was 2 miles shorter, did not go through the windfarm turbines and would give me a chance to see a cultural landscape. I took it and was rewarded with views of old homestead type farms, mostly unkempt, but with old machinery and cars from the 60 rusting in the yards. When I met the trail again It was a short walk to cross the busy Highway 58.
I had intended to walk up the mountain north of Highway 58 with the fastgroup including Neil, but as the sun went down and the moon rose my momentum vanished and I let the others pull away while i looked for the first place to camp. Now water did not seem such a issue as previously feared I had done with night hiking, there just is not any inspiration in it.
The next morning I woke early and leaving the windfarms, Mojave, and highway behind I climbed relentlessly in the wind past Joshua Trees and scrub up endless zig-zags to the green topped summit. It seemed the promised land as I hauled my way up the windswept slopes. And indeed it was. As soon as I entered the first Pinyon Pines 3 hours later the day changed. The wind still hissed in the tree tops but it was calm on the path.
It was a joyful walk after the rigours of the last 3 days which were devoid of much interest and vandalised by windfarms. The pinyon pines offered great sanctuary and in the glades between flowers and sage bushes thrived.
Towards the end of this tranquil rigde, at Sweet Ridge a early generation windfarm reared its ugly head and the route went through it. However, it was soon back in the Pinyon pines again as it descended rockily to Golden Oak Spring. This spring was the end of the 43 mile waterless stretch which luckily for me was dotted with water caches left by Trail Angels. Just at the spring Top’O caught me up. We cowboy camped just above the spring and caught up on each others hikes.
After the night at Golden Oak Spring we set off the 19 miles to the next Spring which was Robin Spring. This was a stunning day with the last encroachments of the windfarm over first thing. The path now climbed up the gentle shallow south ridge of Piute Mountain for the rest of the day and would descend tomorrow down to Landers Camp and Meadow. It was to be the highlight of this section so far. There was a mix of trees with plently of Pinyon pines but also many Jeffery Pines and Oaks. Some of the Oaks were in undulating meadows of amber and maroon grasses which were flowing in the breeze. Hamp Williams Pass was especially beautiful. Just after the pass was the 600 mile marker and then Robin Spring just beyond.
I like hiking on my own. I can go my own speed and can stop when I want. At Hamp Williams i had a small rest which turned into a siesta in the meadow grass. When I woke I noticed a pair of Californian Gnat Wrens were nesting in a hole at the top of a tall pine stump. It was a perfect spot. I moved closer to watch them. Each parent returned to the nest every minute with a gnat in its beak. It looked around and then entered the nest. When it emerged a short time later the other parent entered also with a gnat. The emerging wren went straight to one of the many surrounding Black Oaks to find another plentiful gnat to feed the family. A few hikers passed me but most seemed oblivious and were keen to clock up the miles.
I liked to camp with other people though and there were plenty at Robin Spring including Top’O and about 20 others, many of whom I knew. Many were cowboy camping around this essential waterhole under pines and large scrub oaks. When we went to bed the huge moon and risen, but by 2200 it had disappeared behind the clouds. Suddenly i felt a drop on my face and then an other. The mist had come in and it was condensing on the trees and dripping on us. Suddenly the whole camp was awake with people hurriedly putting up tents in torchlight.
It was still dripping heavily in the morning and the ground was wet. It seemed the scrub oaks especially were adept at getting water this way as their shiny leaves were especially good at condensing. I packed up and left early keen to go the 20 miles to the next water at Willow Spring.
As soon as I crossed over the spine of the hill to the east side it was like entering a different world. The mist did not get this far and the sun was out. It was a beautiful undulating Lodgepole Pine forest with a sandy forest floor covered in pine needles. Large biege granite boulders were scattered in the forest. There were also some small streams here. It was a lovely place to camp and just 2 miles from the dripping misery on the other side everyone woke up to.
It was a lovely walk down through the lodgepoles in the forest besides Landers Creek to Landers Camp where there was water. The path now left the lovely Piute Mountain and turned east through a fireburn area for a few miles and the serenity of the day vanished. It was now searing hot as the heat reflected off the bleached granite dust. As i rounded a corner I saw what the afternoon might bring. Before me was a huge amphitheatre of brown arid ridges and peaks rising well above me. I knew I had to climb into this high desert. The tops of the hills were all knobbly granite outcrops and the hillsides were largely bare, save clusters of Joshua Trees and a scattering of the hardiest Chaparral scrub.
Rumour had it there was a water cache on a gravel road some 4 miles before Willow Spring and another one 10 miles beyond. If so this meant it was not necessary to make the 2 mile detour down to Willow Spring. It was with a little relief when I reached the track which crossed from the Kelso Valley to the Mojave and found 6 hikers there in the arid dust amidst a sea of 5 gallon water bottles. We all filled up with enough water to last the rest of the day and all tomorrow, about a gallon each.
The walk up to the pass which led down to Willow Spring was quite other worldly. The undulating hillsides were punctuated by granite outcrops whiose erosion covered the whole area in sand. Joshua Tree clumps covered all this. Some of the spikey eddifices were 15 foot high and as broad, composing 10 trucks. Beneath them a few hardy shrubs eeeked out a living. Yet on the dry sandy soil there was an abundance of small delicate flowers; mauve, yellow and blue ones which defied all odds and were blossoming here.
At the Pass the wind had increased to a gale. Top’O had gone on 3 miles to camp but I would call it a day here. I needed to find some shelter though and had to walk down a half mile eventually before I found a flat spot behind a Joshua Tree clump. The wind hissed through their tall spikes. If one blew over on the tent it would impale me so I chose my spot carefully.
In the morning the wind was perhaps stronger and certainly colder. My hands were cold paccking up. I returned against the gale to the pass and then continued north along the PCT. I passed 4 hikers all huddled under a Joshua Tree still in their sleeping bags. Top’O had already moved on from his planned campspot which was also windy.
The next two hours over the granite Tor of Wyley’s Knob was a fight against the wind in a deep granite sand. It was often 4 steps up and one back as I was buffeted in the loose soil. The the wind had a bitter bite to it. Yet I was in high desert and could see the furnace of the Mojave Desert spread out below me to the east. It was unfathomable to ponder on the days climate.
The second water cache was where the rumour said, and also a box of sweets. Everyone stocked up and left a donation in the tupperware box. This would fuel us up the near 2000 foot climb to Skinner’s Peak on whose craggy summt ridge I could see the sanctuary of a Pinyon Pine forest. It was a blustery climb and not the place on this steep hillside to be buffeted about. On one occasion I was blown into a bush. At the top however I crossed into the lee of the mountain and the longed-for pines enveloped me, and even in the open spaces between them the sun warmed me. This was the return of the PCT I was growing to love.
For the rest of the day the path kept high as it twisted in and out of shallow valleys and through the trees. Frequently it veered to the western edge where the wind was a strong as ever and still colder. Ominous clouds were building to the west covering the ridges there. But as often the path wove through pines and scrub oak with calm sunny glades. The last miles before McIvers Spring however were through a fireburn area atop the hill. Here there was no hiding from the bitter wind. I walked briskly passing the occasional isolated large Jeffery Pine which survived the fire but was now standing alone and straining in the gale, hissing as the wind twisted it’s branches.
Top’O greeted me as I reached the spring and cabin at McIvers. The cabin was rustic and crowded but there was a space on the floor which I took, mostly to escape the bitter wind. Once i had found a corner the floor was full and in all there were 12 people crammed it. It was dirty but it was warm. By the morning 2 more had squeezed in saying they had cowboy camped nearby but it started to snow at midnight.
I left with Top’O and we walked the 6 miles to Walker Pass together. We were quickly out of the barren fireburn area and the wind had all but ceased. It was an easy sauter through pines again as we slowly descended. The miles flew by in conversation and gossip. We rounded on ridge and there for the first time were the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Huge and foreboding they were still covered in their winter snows. It quickened the heart to see them as they were magnificent but there was also the realisation that they do exist. In a week’s time we will chest deep in icy torrents and crossing steep snowfields at dawn and the heat of the desert will long be forgiven.
The path twisted through the Pinyon Pines. The green cones we foming fast and the branches were heavy with them. Each one was coated in sticky droplets of resin and glistened in the sun like a jewel. Many littered the path having been blown off prematurely in the gale. We soon reached Walker Pass Campsite. It was open and the treeless. I had intended to spend a day here writing so was disappointed but there were picnic tables. Coppertone, the The Trail Angel, was also here in his camper with a selection of treats and his now infamous root beer floats.
I spent the rest of the day typing and chatting with hikers as they arrived. Most then hitched down to lthe town of Lake Isabella to get resupplied and a cooked meal. I still had enough food to get to Kennedy Meadows, just 50 miles away now.
It took three days to get from Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows. The first miles were extremely arid and sandy as I climbed up into the hills on the edge of the Mojave Desert again. The recent 7 year drought had taken its toll and about half of the Pinyon Pines hare had died. They were now just crisp brown trees whose root ball was slowly diminishing until a gale toppled them.
I caught up with Harvest, a bright Canadian girl, and we walked together for the rest of the afternoon. As we climbed and headed west of the Mojave the vegetation greened up and the hills became more spectacular. They were now composed of a hard, erosion resistant metamorphic rock and the path became lumpy. We went over a couple of small passes and then dropped down to a Joshua Tree Spring, where cool water emerged from a pipe in an algae filled concrete trough.
Harvest’s bubble of friends were already there. I knew most of them already. It was perhaps the nicest bubble on the hike. The Kiwis, Joe and Holly, Crimson, Widler, English Ed, and a few more. We had a campfire that night which we sat around as we ate. There was lots of sharp banter and leg pulling, and one of the best nights of the trip so far.
The second day was quite rugged with a steep climb to a saddle where there was a a descent into the wild, remote Spanish Needle Creek. It felt something of a lost world in here with and amphitheatre of craggy ridges and deep ravines filled with ribbons of deep vegetation where small creeks flowed. Unfortunately on the rocky hillsides at least half of the Pinyon Pines had perished in the drought.
There was yet another 2 more ridges to climb and wild amphitheatres to contour round before the final descent to the campsite. I hiked alone today and had a snooze just before the final descent to Chimney Meadow and Creek where there was a campsite. The meadows here were not grassy pastures but more flat areas covered in the fragrant Sage Bush shrub.
At Chimney Creek the was more trail magic. A hiker called Saunters had acquired an injury, heel spurs, and had to give up his hike. He had based himself here dispensing cold sodas and hotdogs to passing hikers. Saunters was a 40 mile a day man he repeatedly stressed to his visitors. There was none of Coppertones’s calm modesty here.
I slept in the deserted campground keen to get an early start tomorrow and push all the 22 miles to Kennedy Meadows. The alarm went at 4 and as I was cowboy camping I was soon away climbing up the 2500 foot hillside before the sun got fierce. The last portion and most of the descent were in a burnt area, but despite this there was a magnificent view from the top. 3 or 4 large snow capped ranges of the Sierras lay just to the north including Mt Whitney. From this distance they did not look as foreboding as peoples fear-mongering alluded to.
At the bottom of the descent was the Rockhouse Basin. On the far side was a series of steep granite towers and spires whose smooth walls were exfoliating slabs. It looked like a mini Yosemite Valley. On the floor of this Basin was the Kern River, which was keeping a wide strip of willows thriving on each side in the otherwise aird valley floor. There was a creek nearby with some campspots, but a male Black Bear had been reportedly wandering through this camp a few times this year looking for hikers food.
The last 8 miles to Kennedy Meadows were hot but I wanted to get to the store before it closed so marched under the midday sun. It seemed to take a while but the Kern River swiftly flowing and the return of the pines after the burnt area soon alleviated it. I passed the 700 mile marker, which essentially marked the end of the Desert Section and the start of the Sierras.
Kennedy Meadows is a small community with 200 inhabitants and at this time of year 200 hikers. The hikers all congregate around the Genral Store, a small shop with everything a hiker needs, a place to recieve and store packages, toilets and showers and a campsite. It also has a large sunny terrace and many hikers were here reminiscing over the just completed desert and sharing their worries about the Sierras. As hikers arrived at the store there were cheers and clapping from the tables and chairs, and applause rang out as I walked across the yard from the 100 or so hikers at the tables.
Kennedy Meadows was a place nearly every hiker had a day off, often two. It was a place to catch up, clean up, resupply and prepare for the next 300 miles of the High Sierras which this year would be extra challenging due to the heavy snowfalls. Mayo, the English Radiographer and Zman were here and it was great to see them. Top’O was a day or 2 behind.
There were also a few faces I just see at stops, but never on the trail. A group who are either injured and hoping to recover or groupies who just liked the scene and spent a lot of time smoking joints and making small talk. Neither lot would be going through the Sierras and they seem to be bottle-necking here.