Day one, miles 0000 to 0026, Campo to Boulder Oaks Horse Camp
Distance traveled; 25.7 miles, travel time; 8:30, elevation min/max; 2325/3511, total ascent/descent; 4278/3771
Yesterday was Mercedes and my first day on the trail. Despite being wooly and out of shape I thought we could take our time and squeeze in the 26 miles to Boulder Oaks Campground. Leaving the campground at Campo, Mercedes had other ideas. Two days in the trailer and another one in camp eating trail food left her with energy to spare. Her hooves stomping quick time on the packed trail gave hikers plenty of warning we were coming. At that stage of the game everyone is happy, finally on the trail, cool weather, and sunny day. All the hikers were pleasant as they made way for Mercedes; in return she posed for pictures without complaint even though she would have rather been traveling down the trail. After a couple miles of steady climbing Mercedes found her trail walk steadily eating up the miles.
This is thirsty, sagebrush, rocks and dust country. Even so wild flowers are everywhere. They compete with the brush for water, they sprout from the dust, some cling to cracks in the rocks.
One of the goals of this trip is for me to get back into the Levis that were plenty big before my horse wreck a year ago last October. Nearly eighteen months of inactivity have stretched my denim to the limit and beyond. My plan is, ride five miles, and walk a mile. The plan held for the first ride and walk and the second ride but the second walk came on a relatively flat section and it felt so good I ended up walking three. Now I’m all confused, do I ride fifteen miles before walking to get back on schedule? That would have me riding clean past camp; I decided the best thing was to quit planning.
It was a good thing too; as it happens the trail tread is in poor condition. The extremely heavy use since 2010, the drought and fire caused vegetation die off, and last winter’s heavy rains washed the trail down to rock except in the levelest of sections. There are two good sized ridges to cross the first day, the portions into and out of Hauser Canyon are especially steep and littered with boulders ranging from basketballs to Smartcars. It’s not too bad scrambling up, but looked like a leg breaker on the way down. So to aid Mercedes I stumbled down those parts as well. There was a lot of slow going, no gaiting for miles. It ended up taking Mercedes and I eight hours.
Hikers abound. The trail volunteer at the terminus said he was getting around 30, of the 50 allowed to start each day. His high was 45 before his day ends at noon. Some of the hikers commented that due to transportation issues to the trailhead, they didn’t start until after Terminus Tom was gone on their day, others started up before he arrived for the day. At any rate I was well into the thirties by 11:00 when I lost count, I’ve started asking which day they started, the last ones I passed today started eight days before me.
I am amazed at the number of hikers who have chosen to bring their dogs with them. I’m thinking most of them don’t have a real good grip on how far 2600 miles is. It has been warm today, pushing 90°, not much shade, next to no trail water, not real good dog conditions. Less than five miles in we passed a guy with a Great Dane. A black, great big Great Dane. A black, great big, Great Dane that had quit, lying in the trail, not wanting to go any further. I felt sorry for the dog, not so much the hiker. I pointed out maybe he should give his water to the dog and when he had recovered walk the mile back to the highway, then the mile to the Campo store. I left it to him to figure out what to do when he got there.
Mercedes and I were feeling pretty good as we came into sight of Janis and Rose who hiked out a ways from Boulder Oaks Campground to meet us. I’m thinking all my worrying was for naught, I’m not as old as I look.
Day 2, miles 0026 to 0052, Boulder Oaks to Pioneer Mail
Distance traveled; 25.3 miles, travel time; 6:58, elevation min/max; 3146/6028, total ascent/descent; 4795/2738
Today started almost routinely, or what passes for routine on the second trail morning. Boulder Oaks is half horse camp and half people. The Cleveland National Forest Website says the camp doesn’t open until June however the gates are open, the water is turned on and there was a contractor cleaning the one restroom that is open, the one closest to where the PCT goes through. We were the only horses in camp; in fact all the other campers were PCT hikers, mostly college age young. It is early in the hikers journey and most of them are young enough they still have energy at the end of the day. There was a bit of carrying on coming from one of the camps throughout the night, however Janis’s selection of a shady camp at the far end of the campground prevented us from being much disturbed.
As wound up as Mercedes had been yesterday, I thought I would lead BG out of camp a ways and let her settle down. I’m thinking horse fractiousness is graded similar to the Richter scale. Every whole number represents a doubling of power from the number before. A 6.0 earthquake is twice as strong as a 5.0. A horse with four days inactivity while consuming high performance feed is twice as stupid as one of three days. A hundred yards from camp and it is still a battle of wills with BG as to who is leading who. That distance put us in front of the previously mentioned revelers, even though obviously nursing hangovers I could hear them placing bets and odds on how long the “old guy” would stay on his horse. Pride just wouldn’t let me keep walking, taking advantage of a couple of rounds from a fallen tree that was able to wedged BG between, thinking that would give me enough edge to get on, after which I was pretty sure I could stick with her, BG being known for fast traveling, not bucking or jumping. The plan would have worked too, if only I hadn’t got my pant leg hung up on my saw as I swung my leg over the stirrup. BG, bless her pointed little head, slowly walked in circles while I extricated myself from my tools. The hikers loved it, with many a Wahoo, with a doffing of my hat BG and I headed for the open countryside.
Once out on the trail BG is all business. She has one mission in life, to get you from point A to B in as short of time and with as little fuss as possible. It’s not that she doesn’t see all the horse eating boogers that other horses do, it’s more she just doesn’t care, or figures if they are going to eat her they will need to get after it because she isn’t waiting around for them, we got places to be. We did see something today that actually brought her to a complete, albeit brief, halt. It is hot here, close to 100° and the sun is merciless. Some of the hikers have fastened umbrellas to their packs for shade. Bright silver domes that glisten and sparkle as they walk. From 50 yards they look like rhinestone R2D2s scuttling towards you. Wouldn’t you know, the first one was shading a visitor from a foreign land, I’m going to guess Japan, who obviously knew very little English. I spoke to him in the hopes he would reply, thus informing BG that it was a human under there. What I got was a lovely smile, a bit of a nod creating more sparkling from the umbrella accompanying the phrase “OK”. Nod, OK, nod, OK, nod OK. Fair enough, that was a sufficient amount of reassurance for BG, who had been tentatively holding her ground, to refocus on point B and away we went. Umbrellas were no longer a thing.
Today’s trail was another twenty six miles. Only one main hill to go over, at 6500 feet it was a good 4000 feet above our starting point. Again the trail tread is in poor condition, extremely rocky. Water was plentiful, only once did we have to go more than ten miles between sources. The trail is used enough here, and there are plenty of markers so that it would be pretty hard to get off trail. The signage is much improved over when we were here in 2000.
The country side, like yesterday, is mostly sage brush hillsides. BG and I did get into some trees on the top of the ridge called Mt Laguna. Lots of summer homes, campgrounds and people in the area. There was also a lot of standing dead trees, both deciduous and conifer, victims of the drought I’m told, so much so that many of the little summer homes that had been hidden back in the trees are now clearly visible.
It was another eight hour day today and I wasn’t nearly so cocky coming into camp. The last eight miles was pretty steep downhill, which always beats me up. By the time I got to Janis it was all I could do to drag myself off the horse and hobble to the truck. Janis had met a fellow while she was waiting for me. He had Walking horses too and was much interested in meeting me, enough so that he waited an hour or so after his ride until I got to the trailers. I gave him a weak wave across the road where he was parked as I climbed and collapsed into the passenger seat of the pickup. I was too beat to walk the thirty feet to where he was sitting on the steps of his trailer and possibly he was to shy to come knocking, I don’t know, at any rate we never did talk.
There is a trail head, Sunrise Trailhead, another seven trail miles ahead that has corrals and horse water. That would take at least another hour of riding, or a 15 minute truck ride. In an effort to keep my daily mileage around 25 we had planned to trailer back and forth to Pioneer Mail which in my current condition is an excellent idea. Maybe I am getting too old for this stuff.
Day 3, miles 0052 to 0077, Pioneer Mail to Scissors Crossing
Distance traveled; 23.4 miles, travel time; 7:31, elevation min/max; 2267/5502, total ascent/descent; 2316/5245
I felt much refreshed today. We trailered the five miles from Pioneer Mail Picnic Area to Sunrise Trailhead, where there are corrals for the horses, last night and back again this morning. While at Sunrise Janis rescued a hiker with a badly sprained ankle, providing a ride to a hotel in Julian. She had her dog with her, a large German Shepherd who was tired and now she has a sprained ankle and is a casualty of the first 100 miles of trail, her dream of thru hiking the PCT dashed, at least for this year. I’ve read that two thirds of those starting drop out. Half of the hikers quit before the 500 mile mark and half of those in the first 100 miles. We also met a fellow who had been the resident caretaker at Mike Herrara’s, where we hope to camp in a few days. Rumor has it he is the fellow who brandished a shotgun at hikers which was the basis for other rumors that Mike’s was an unsafe place to layover.
There were fewer hikers today, I passed 30 to 40 but went one stretch of over eight miles where I had the trail to myself. So far we have traversed the brush hills from Campo to Lake Moreno. I feel a little sorry for the hikers as the brush forms a nearly solid wall over head high so they only get to enjoy the vistas, which are virtually constant for the rider, on an occasional basis. Next we rode over the forested heights of Mt. Laguna. I say forested, and indeed there are some surviving pine trees, but the once predominant oaks are nearly all dead their skeletons still reaching for the rains that never came.
Today we entered the Anza Borrego Desert which we will spend the next three days crossing. Shortly after starting this morning I was riding up what I assumed, from the monster concrete guardrails and the fallen rock, to be the original Sunrise Hwy road bed. This is apparently a popular hang gliding spot and there are several permanent memorial markers for unsuccessful gliders. Not knowing the origins of the markers as I rode past, it was a little disconcerting to see them while Mercedes’ feet were literally inches from a sheer cliff drop off a couple thousand feet.
The timing of our passage couldn’t be better for the viewing of wild flowers. One flower looked very familiar despite my woeful ignorance of flowers. At one point in the day I saw a gentleman taking pictures of the flower and when queried he confirmed that indeed it was a Maricopa Lilly. The same plant that due to its endangered status is the reason the big meadow at Bandit Springs is off limits. There are literally thousands of them here, wonder if we could transplant a few to help poor Oregon out.
I’m giving up trying to take pictures to show how narrow the trail is and how far the fall could be, the trail looks so tame in the picture. One normally doesn’t think of the southern California portion of the PCT as being particularly challenging. It is the desert after all, not the mountains. As compared to the Grand Canyon, at 6,000 ft deep, or Hells Canyon, at 8,000 ft deep, 400 feet doesn’t sound like much. But when you are crossing a shale side hill where all traces to the trail slid down the hillside during last winter’s rain storms 400 nearly vertical feet can seem a darned long ways. Mercedes steps out into the slide area, sinks past her fetlocks, the ground under her hooves slides a foot down the mountain. Mercedes turns herself so she is pointed up hill so that she maintains our elevation as we step, sink, slide across the washout for 300 feet. We make the narrow trail on the other side and breathe a deep sigh of relief, ride around the corner and face another washout, sigh. I try walking, bad idea, Mercedes handles this terrain much better than I, who when on the ground pose a greater hazard than staying balanced on her back. It seemed like there were a lot more than the four washouts we crossed before reaching the valley floor and our rendezvous with Janis, BG and Rose.
Janis has booked us into the Stagecoach Trails RV resort. Nice corrals with running water and sunshades for the horses. RV hookups for us, laundry, showers, restaurant, pool, all the comforts and amenities we’ve been missing these long three days.
Day 4, miles 0077 to 0101, Scissors Crossing to Barrel Springs
Distance traveled; 23.1 miles, travel time; 6:34, elevation min/max; 2238/4402, total ascent/descent; 3379/2158
For some reason when someone talks about a desert to me, I visualize relatively flat ground, very little vegetation, and maybe even some big ol’ sand dunes. What we have here in the Anza Borrego is mountains, not real big mountains, but still they stick up a thousand feet or more above their bases. I guess mountain is a deceptive term, more like ridges, maybe even long narrow hills. The one I rode over today is surrounded by valleys in the two thousand foot elevation range, we left the road and climbed to almost four thousand feet, then circled around and over and back and forth never getting over 4400 feet or under 3800 for 24 miles until we dropped back down to the road on the valley floor.
I’m sure there are more varieties of cacti than I saw today, though I am well satisfied with what was on hand. I think the ones we saw the most of today were the jumping spine kind, a distant relative of the tail slapping porcupine. Janis spent considerable time this afternoon pulling thorns out of BG’s legs while I pulled them out of mine. They shoot right though Levis and penetrate to the bone.
The last couple of days have seen an improvement in the quality and grade of the trail. Mountains are mountains and there is bound to be some rock but by and large the trail was mostly miles and miles of packed sand and dirt. The grade was very gentle also, made for very comfortable walking both up and down the hills. There were also many miles of side hill trail today, the kind where there is a steep bank on the uphill side and a 2000 foot drop on the downhill side. I find it is better if I don’t look down, using all my energies projecting thoughts of the trail to BG, who doesn’t seem to mind one way or the other.
The only water on the trail today was .6 miles off trail down a pretty steep jeep track and then another .1 of mile up a trail to get to the cistern. I met a hiker from Portland going by the name IO. She was nearly invisible sitting in the shade of trailside bushes, waiting out the mid day heat at the intersection of the PCT and the jeep track. Local trail angels had left a water cache that IO was partaking of.
Trail Angels are people that are usually locals and anonymous. They assist the hikers in various ways, the most common is bottled water left in locations where natural water is scarce. Sometimes they leave individual use sized bottles, sometimes in larger jugs. Halfmile’s maps show many of the locations as does the PCT Water Report, both caution not to rely on them as the water may be all gone by the time a hiker arrives. I do not intend to utilize these caches as, with some care, a horse can go the 25 miles I plan for without drinking, it isn’t an ideal situation but it can be done. Also a thirsty horse could drink up all the stash leaving none for a desperate hiker who could be in dire straits without it.
I visited a bit with IO as I signed a trail register that is stored in an old ammo box alongside the trail. IO said she’d heard the cistern was too low to gather water from, which confirmed the PCT Water Report. Knowing water was going to be sketchy I had packed a couple gallons for BG, not enough to slake her thirst, but at least enough to wet her whistle a bit. This was our first try at packing water; it is a fine line at eight pounds a gallon whether you have enough for a good drink or too much extra weight to pack. We’ll try for three gallons next time.
Tonight’s camp is at Barrel Springs. The only facilities other than the spring are the ones we brought with us. Still it’s a beautiful little oasis of Oak trees, with a big cement water trough fed by a pipe pouring clear cool water into the tank. After being out in the sun for so many hours it was a real treat to walk into the first real shade all day. There were several hikers gathered about the spring talking quietly among themselves. Reserved, or maybe just tired from the heat and from having walked 100 miles the past few days, I felt a little bad having to ask them to move their packs so that BG could get at the water. BG likes to bury her nostrils deep in the water then snort and blow bubbles, splashing water over the edge of the trough. I’ve seen it many times, it has ceased to astound me, however, judging from the looks on their faces, it was a new experience for the hikers. The ones closest to us, within splash range, the ones that had barely moved when I asked for access to the water, hurriedly moved their packs and bodies to a safer spot. The grass within the grove of oaks that contained the spring was knee high and lush. Janis and I brought both horses back to the spring for water and to let them hand graze a bit. BG’s reputation must have proceeded her, when we approached the spring, those closest moved back giving us plenty of maneuvering room.