Mexican border to
Walker Pass (650 miles)
Idyllwild to Big Bear City
8th May. After
two days of low cloud in the village of Idyllwild and a life of excess
and gross quantities of food, we were keen to get back on the trail.
A stiff 2,500ft climb with bulging rucksacks took us into snow and
then cloud to Saddle Junction at 8,000ft on the PCT itself. Deep snow
covered the ridge ahead and cloud would descend then break up to give
fleeting glimpses of the mountains ahead. The path was completely
obscured by snow and we followed footsteps backed up by compass bearings.
The footsteps were Brian Sweet's who left the village a few hours
before us and whom we hoped to catch up with. We had been waylaid
by hitchhiking a lift from the village to the road end. The driver,
John Holt, upon hearing we were Scottish, took us to see his neighbours
who were in the middle of organising a Scottish wedding. They were
a bit surprised as we were to suddenly be introduced by Mr Holt -
who then proceeded to drive off in his car (with our packs still in
his boot!!) After about an hour of embarrassment Mr Holt was tracked
down and we managed to escape to the trail.
We followed the ridge for a mile or so before the path then contoured
round the steep west flank of the mountain.
summer this must be a straightforward section, but with no visibility
and deep snowdrifts we wandered around for a couple of hours before
being able to follow traces of the path. An hour later the cloud lifted
to give us views around the mountain and we heaved sighs of relief
to see traces of the path ahead. Continuing around in deep snow we
were soon joined by Brian whom we had passed as he was sitting out
the cloudy weather. More deep snow with traces of path kept up till
Strawberry Camp (a summer campsite which we found by stumbling upon
a signpost half buried in snowdrift). From then the three of us plodded
along in even deeper snow following map and compass only, frequently
sinking deep ("post-holing" as the Americans call it) into
the snow around covered boulders, trees, bushes and streams. We were
around 8000ft and in the sun whilst below we could see a carpet of
cloud engulfing the Los Angeles valley. We later stopped, forced to
camp on snow near a spot called
It was a bitter night; cold enough to freeze the water in our bottles
and to solidify our boots such that we had to slowly thaw our gear
and ourselves the next morning before moving on. Unfortunately the
snow had also frozen to a hard concrete consistency and we slithered
around on the surface with our lightweight trail shoes. Traversing
steep slopes each of us had occasion to use their ice axes in anger
to break falls, so we soon decided to move in line with the leader
chopping out steps in the snow with their axe. This was a tiring and
slow method so we all took turns to lead the way. As the day progressed
the strong sun gradually melted the snow and we were able to kick
steps into the surface with our boots, and it was with relief we made
it to a spur of San Janquinto called Fuller Ridge. Although this was
snow-covered, too, we were able to follow the obvious feature of the
ridge and within 3 hours we hit upon a logging-road clear of snow
which we followed to regain the PCT.
We had made 9 PCT miles only that
but were none the less exhausted. As we collapsed in a lovely viewful
camp that night, cloud filled the valley, sitting at an altitude such
that we could see above the cloud to the snow-capped San Bernardino
hills and below to the lights of the freeway.
From the top of Fuller ridge, our next day involved a convoluted 20
mile descent of 9,000 feet to the San Gorgonio Pass and Interstate
10 which connects LA to the east and Palm Springs. At many times in
the course of our walk we had reason to curse the designers of the
PCT trail sections. But none more so than here. Our target Interstate
could be seen all day below us but our path did anything but go down
directly as it swept out the biggest set of zigzag’s conceivable –
each traverse being sometimes as large as 2 miles and occasionally
descending at such a mediocre angle as to seem to be going uphill.
The obvious solution would be to take ourselves off
the PCT and descend
directly but the terrain conspired against this – scrub bush, manzanita,
cactus – all meant that progress would be painful as well as slow.
By lunchtime we had made it down to the valley floor and a small water
tap built by the PCTA, we were extremely grateful for this godsend
in the dry dusty valley. A good spot for lunch and to congratulate
ourselves on completing the longest descent of the trip. Also
for a rest- Martina had hurt a shin muscle in the walk and was applying
anti-inflammatory gel as well as bandaging.
Eventually we moved on to tackle a crossing of the San Gorgonio valley.
A strong wind channelled through the valley from the west. This was
the stuff of the spaghetti western, tumbleweed hurtled past us bounding
over the dusty valley floor. Our throats dried out with dust adhering
to the walls of our mouths. We struggled westward into the teeth
of the wind, each lost in our own world. Above the noise of the wind
we could hear the racket of the Interstate as we approached it. American
juggernauts rumbling past on a mission to supply LA and Palm Springs.
Our route used a tunnel under the road and reached a low point of
graffiti, junk, twisted metal and sun faded ‘Budweiser’ cans.
Beyond, a few shanty houses were spread out away from the road and
we made our way through them on rutted tracks. On planning the day
we had hoped to find a store here to stock up on ‘luxury’ food, but
our hopes were soon dashed after Martina stepped up to house for information
and was sternly rebuked by an unfriendly local. People liked their
privacy here as, each house was surrounded by a large fence and usually
some kind of sign indicating a large dog with a dislike of strangers
was resident. Garden displays were of the trashed car and TV-screen
variety. We pondered on why people would want to stay out here and
barricade themselves up like this- perhaps they had no choice as it
would be cheap land near to the work opportunities of Palm Springs.
It evoked thoughts of ‘gun-totin’, checked-shirt, bristly residents
driving us off their land.
no chance of buying food we headed on towards the slopes of the hills
to the north. Here we entered the San Bernardino mountains, a more
rounded set of high hills up to 10,000feet and surrounding the town
of Big Bear City where we had visited prior to starting the trail.
Our first taste of these hills though was the swooshing of wind turbines.
They filled the hillsides here in huge clusters of varied designs.
We camped next to a wind-farm – not out of choice but because we were
tired and could not go any further that day. In fact the sound of
the turbines became a background aural wallpaper, especially to our
tired bodies and we slept soundly that night.
It was a dry camp though, and we sped on quickly the next morning
towards our next water source at Whitewater River, a long 13 miles
from our last water. We found a watch on the path and carried it with
us as we had a good chance of meeting its owner. He soon appeared
ahead of us down at the river valley, it was none other than Brian
Sweet again, he had camped only one mile ahead of us last night.
all stopped for some shade under trees at the river and Martina and
I managed to bathe in its cool waters. The feeling of refreshment
was incredible and such a tonic from the hot dusty walking of the
The river formed our route for the next few miles, climbing up beside
its snaking path with many crossings from side to side to find the
best walking terrain. Our destination that night was Randy’s Hostel,
a house constructed by Randy and friends well away from any roads
in the San Bernardino mountain forests. Randy had posted adverts along
the trail so we had been well informed that, for a cost, he would
supply camping space, meals and showers – a great incentive for us
as we climbed higher in the evening. The hostel didn’t let us down,
both Randy and his friend Brad were both very welcoming and the hostel
had a lovely cool setting in amongst cedar trees. They explained that
they had been battling with the landowners for their right to remain
in the hostel and were keen to argue their case to us. I was very
sympathetic but found it a bit difficult to side with them without
hearing the other side of the case. It sounded like they had been
given a verbal agreement to build on the land but did not own any
of it themselves.
There was a fair collection of hikers staying there that night; Brian
Sweet, Mike, Lynne, Tony and ourselves. Randy was able to get a weather
forecast which predicted snow and storms for the next few days and
we each had to decide what to do next. We agreed with Brian Sweet
that we would push on hard to make big Bear City, a long 33 miles
away, rather than have to rest here for a few days so early in the
journey. The others decided to stay put for the worst of the storm.
We left Randy’s early the next morning amidst darkening skies but
helped by the fact that we were in deep forest that provide us with
much shelter. We made good speed throughout the day and had covered
20 miles before the first snow fell on us in the evening. It then
came down steadily and heavily – Brian stopped to camp but we continued
for another three miles to stop at Arrastre, a snow covered summer
campsite with a water supply. Throughout the night the snow piled
up and wind would gush up the valley, swooping against the trees causing
the snow to fall against the tent with a dull thud. It was a winterscape
scene we awoke to in the morning. Although our fingers were numb with
cold, fumbling with the stove and packing the tent, the scenery was
beautiful with snow covering the ground and all the trees around.
Brian wandered by as we were having breakfast and we walked off with
him for Big Bear City, about 9 miles away. As we cleared the forest,
we had the extraordinary sight (for us) of snow covered cactus!
Next: Big Bear City to Wrightwood