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.
Day 5, miles 0101 to 0127, Barrel Springs to Mike Herrera’s
Distance traveled; 24.8 miles, travel time; 7:42, elevation min/max; 2905/5255, total ascent/descent; 4605/3012
What a glorious morning! Three or four miles before Barrel Springs the cactus and scrub brush gives way to knee high grasses and scattered oak trees as the hills flatten out into a pastoral plain. From this transitional area and on across the historic Warner Springs Ranch is, in my opinion, the most beautiful 15 miles of the Southern California PCT. Low hills rim the grassy savannah, which is in turn punctuated by nearly white rock outcroppings.
Photographic opportunities, frequent watering spots in clear flowing streams and stopping to nibble on the plentiful grass made for a leisurely amble in the morning sun, without much effort being expended. This valley was inhabited first by the Cupeño people who left many artifacts including a huge pestle type grind stone which is right alongside the PCT.
The most famous of the rock outcroppings is Eagle Rock. From the trail it looks like just another rock pile, but go off trail around the east side and you see a stunning landscape that one strains to accept was made by nature and not man. Eagle Rock can be visited via a mild 6 mile in and out hike from the trailhead near Warner Springs School. Easter Morning visitors to Eagle Rock created southbound traffic on the PCT. A phenomenon Mercedes wasn’t entirely sure about. Each of the oncoming hikers received a cheery “Good Morning” from me as well as a snort and a blow from Mercedes.
Shortly after leaving Eagle Rock I passed IO again. It is starting to warm up and we both have miles to make so conversation is brief, she does take a picture of Mercedes and I though, one of the many hikers request on our journey.
Leaving Warner Springs I rode up Agua Caliente Creek for another five miles. The trail crosses the creek several times staying in the welcome shade of trees. The trail then turns up yet another mountain or ridge or, as I’m starting to favor, a big pile of boulders and twelve hot, dry miles of rocky trail to our crossing of Chihuahua Valley Rd.
Janis is adamant that Road is a misnomer, as would be Jeep Track or even what they refer to here in the desert as a “Truck Trail”. The last few miles on Chihuahua Valley Rd. could not be traveled at more than 5mph; BG felt that even that speed was excessive. Our camp spot was at a recreational property owned by Mike Herrera, occupied by caretaker Josh and his assistant Scott. Legend has it Mike was a thru hiker some years ago who once having completed his hike came back and bought this remote property ¼ mile from the PCT. Whether the house and water tanks were there already or Mike had them built is unclear. What is definite is that Mike provides the only reliable water for 12 miles either direction while the seasonal creeks still flow and 25 miles in dry times.
Besides filling and maintaining the water tanks part of Josh’s caretaking duties is to provide meals for hikers. The night we were there Josh make pizza in a huge outdoor pizza oven that Scott built some years ago. After a long day on the trail the pizza was a welcome treat. Josh also served pancakes, eggs, hash browns and coffee for breakfast. Payment for the food is on a donation basis. There is also beer on ice that is on a minimum donation per can basis. Mike’s, as you can well imagine, is a popular overnight destination. We spent a very pleasant evening, socializing with Josh & Chuck as well as with some of the hikers. Being one of the rare trail riders comes with certain notoriety, or perhaps it was the size of my donation or the bottle of quality tequila, at any rate, we were extended certain amenities not offered to the hikers. Free access to the interior of the house and garage, which surprisingly, held a ’58 T-Bird and a ’67 Eldorado – both convertibles. How they got those cars up that awful road is anybody’s guess. Josh said they were there when he got there.
Random pictures from the day:
Day 6, Miles 0127 to 0152, Mike Herrera’s to Hwy 74
Distance traveled; 23.8 miles, travel time; 7:07, elevation min/max; 3331/5610, total ascent/descent; 3796/3939
I left Mike Herrera’s yesterday morning and was able to get up on a ridge that allowed for a view of Mike’s as well as the Chihuahua Valley Road in time to watch Janis make her way back towards civilization. The road didn’t look so bad from where I was.
It was another day in the desert. Though it is only mid April it is hot. By afternoon the temperatures approach 100°, the only shade is provided by brush that is not tall enough for a horse to get under. Both the horses and I are starting to get a little acclimatized to all this sun and wind though. My first day sunburn is nearly healed. I’ve taken to wearing loose cotton shirt and a kerchief under my hat to protect the top of my head and the back of my neck while riding. I haven’t come up with a solution for the discomfort of the sun burning the tops of my thighs through my Levis, heat rash is an issue. I expose my arms and legs in the afternoon after riding in hopes of building up to a little tan protection. So far there is no chance of being confused with a local.
The hikers continue to thin out. I think that after one hundred miles that the total distance of over twenty-six hundred miles becomes much sharper in focus, it is for me anyway. I mostly see them now hunkered down under the bushes waiting out the mid day sun.
Water holes and caches are popular resting spots, once in a while, near a spring, there is a tree under which the ground has been worn bare by the hundreds of bottoms of these hikers. We don’t talk much and when we do the conversation revolves around the trail, water reports, how much snow there is on Fuller Ridge. Usually they have been napping, conserving energy for their afternoon hikes can last late into the evening. Since there is no shade for the horse we continue on our way content in the knowledge that the respite of the Yurt and all that Janis provides is getting closer and our day’s journey will be done.
BG and I stopped at one such watering spot today. This one, Tule Spring, was a good half mile off and a few hundred feet below the trail. Because it was so warm and dry and we wouldn’t have another water opportunity until meeting the truck we made the extra effort to reach the spring. Tule springs has a stock tank, which was dry, fed by a large metal tank, sounded empty when I banged on it, and a seepy little spring surrounded by a mucky swamp, the kind horses sink up to their bellies in. I tried to find a way to get BG down the ravine to a pool the hikers pointed out, but with out a chain saw and a couple hours of trail clearing it was a no go. I was hot, tired and defeated as I climbed out of the ravine to the road that would lead me back to the trail where I saw a hiker casually filling his water bottles from a hose that had been laying in the weeds near the stock tank. I had erronously assumed that it was as dry as the trough and tank had been. I filled the collapsible bucket with joy in my heart, offered the water to BG who took one sniff of the water and refused to drink, stood there for awhile in case she changed her mind, she didn’t, poured the water over my head so as not to waste it, mounted up and rode off thinking “damn horses, I don’t even like horses!”
I’m not a big fan of sage brush riding, after six days I’m ready for a change of scenery. The sameness of the trail and the heat are not things I thought about while dreaming of this trip however they are proving to be part of the challenge, I guess if it were easy everyone would do it. Later in the day I spotted snow on the not to distant hills which leads me to think I’ll be riding in the trees soon. In the meantime I will enjoy the wildflowers that are blooming where I am. All the same it is slow going, rocky trail tread and the steady climbs to the tops of the ridges contribute to my average speed of less than 3½ miles an hour, a far cry from the 4 to 6 I was hoping for.
There is a fellow named Trent riding mustangs that started a few days before us. We met him one day before we started when he was being picked up at a trail crossing. Trent is a handsome and charming young man, tall, dark, slender and does the horseman’s image thing really well. He wears a well broken in Stetson hat, with a neckerchief tied around his tanned throat, has leather chaps over his wranglers, all in all he is a very photogenic as well as popular chap. Trent is riding to raise awareness and funds to fight Ataxia, a dreadful disease which felled his father much too early. His mission has led him to seek sponsors and publicity wherever he can find them and he spreads his message to all he meets.
Trent named his primary riding horse after his father, Gary Peterson. Gary is buckskin as is BG; Mercedes is a dark bay as is Trent’s pack horse, Minaret. News has spread up and down the trail, about Trent, via the hiker network. The whole name and color thing has created some confusion who is who and how many of us there are. Poor BG, she gets no respect. I have been greeted with “oh, this must be Gary” as they stroke BG’s nose. “No,” I reply “That is BG, I’m Gary.” Or “oh, this must be Mercedes” again as they stroke BG’s nose. I don’t mind so much, in fact I am more than a little flattered to be confused with Trent, but BG is positively feeling cranky about the whole situation.
Trent’s goal is a little different than mine. His plan is to ride from Mexico to Canada in a continuous track. As he says “I’m not married to the PCT” so where necessary he will leave the trail to bypass trail closures and ride at lower elevations where snow is still blocking the trail. My goal has been to ride the PCT in one season, I would prefer to do a linear route, but am willing to hop scotch around a bit as snow permits.
Today is what the hikers refer to as a “zero” day for Janis and I. Zero in that no trail miles are being passed. Instead we are riding in the truck to confirm meeting spots that we are having to change due to a portion of the PCT being closed as a result of a fire since we were here scouting a few years ago. The hikers are walking around the closure via Hwy 74, a narrow road with little to no shoulder and a 55 mph speed limit. We saw Trent doing the same. I have decided my version of riding the PCT doesn’t include riding blacktop and putting the horses at risk. I have no problem trailering around the closed portion of trail. Including the miles riding to and from the PCT to where I can meet the truck makes the mileage about the same as doing the trail straight through. My conscience is clear.
Meanwhile the horses are hanging out at Ribbonwood Equestrian Camp. This afternoon two friends, Rick Malone and Kent Salisbury, are coming out to meet us at camp. They plan on riding out for at least part of the next day with me. They’ve promised to bring dinner, so we mustn’t be late…
Day 7, Miles 0152 to 0166, Hwy 74 to Fobes Ranch Road
Distance traveled; 19.2 miles, travel time; 6:42, elevation min/max; 4488/7120, total ascent/descent; 3326/3765
Rick and Kent came up yesterday and cooked us a nice steak dinner then Kent made us breakfast as well. After breakfast we all trailered back to the PCT crossing of Hwy 74 where I had left off the day before to pick up the trail again. This is also the point where my ill fated 2000 trip ended, from here on it’s new trail for me. What I had been told was a nasty, rocky piece of trail turned out to be some of the best riding I’ve had on this trip. We rode up an oak covered ridge overlooking some picturesque ranchettes. As we climbed higher we started picking our way through a huge boulder field. Some of the boulders appear to be precariously perched above the trail. Delicately balanced and/or gravity defying, some the size of a house, certainly all of them weighing many tons, they remind us of how insignificant we really are. I hold my breath as we pass; less they come crashing down at any minute.
It was nice to have the company of Rick and Kent; Mercedes appreciated the moral support from Candy and Scout. We started at about 5000 feet in elevations and climbed to over 6000 to the intersection of Live Oak Springs trail where we parted ways. Kent and Rick returning to their trucks, Mercedes, not so happily as before, carrying me ever northward.
After we parted ways the trail deteriorated quickly, turning into the rocky steep track I had been warned of. The trail continued to climb following the top of the ridge, to my right, the east, views of the desert and I-10 corridor. To my left the dark greens and blues of Lake Hemet and the San Bernadino Forest. We eventually topped out at over 7000 feet after which the trail dropped steeply for a mile reaching at time a 39% grade until we reached the point after which the PCT is closed due to landslides. Many of the hikers skip this portion, from Hwy 74, due to the closure. It is a pretty gentle grade through the Fobes Ranch, though due possibly to lack of use at times it became difficult to determine which of the branching trails would lead us to where Janis, BG and Rose waited. We managed to make the right guesses at the trail intersections and reached the Fobes Ranch Rd in due course. A little over 3 miles down the road brought us nearly to Hwy 74 and to the night’s camp.
Hiker Count; Hikers passed has steadily dropped since we started. Over 50 the first couple of days, then gradually and steadily dropping down to nineteen on Day 6. Today there were ten total. I suppose some of that can be accounted for by people hitch hiking from Hwy 74 around today’s section and the closed portion to Idyllwild, where they rejoin the trail.
Day 8, Miles 0191 to 0211, Black Mountain Rd to Cabazon
Distance traveled; 27.2 miles, travel time; 6:51, elevation min/max; 1238/7633, total ascent/descent; 3129/6802
It was a tough day today. We trailered around the trail closure and unloaded BG alongside the highway at the base of Black Mountain Road. Initially we thought to trailer up to where the PCT crosses Black Mountain Rd. The road proved to have too much run-off damage. The truck could have made it, indeed a couple of cars passed me on my way up. The horses though would have been tossed about even though top speed would have been four or five mph. Seven miles up, seven miles down, we thought I could ride it faster with less stress on the horses. BG made the 2500 ft in seven miles climb in less than two hours. Despite the fact we were riding up a hard packed dirt road this part of our day was pretty pleasant. We had lots of shade in the mixed hardwood and pine forest and even a trickle of water for BG a little over half way up.
I saw two hikers that had huge packs on. I mean huge, they extended down to the backs of their knees, a foot over their heads and at least a foot out on either side of them, as well as being a good foot thick. I had to find out what that was about, turned out they were boulder hoppers and the packs were foam pads. They climb, jump and in general scamper about the big boulders in the area; if they slip and fall they try to land on the thick pads. And people say I’m nuts.
Once we connected with the trail our path took a decided down turn, losing 6000 feet in the next 15 miles. For the most part I could see the evening camp about five miles away as we zig zagged our way down. The first few miles were still in the timber, where I saw my first Sequoia of the trip. This side of the mountain was mostly pine and fir. Some of them had pretty substantial size. The first Sequoia was at least five feet through and several of the fir and pine were pushing 36 inches. None of them were over 50 feet tall though due to the tops being broken out, whether from snow, wind or lightning I couldn’t guess.
I got to noticing overhanging boulders without apparent means of support again today. Then I got to noticing how many boulders had fallen in such a way the trail had to be rerouted around them. Then I got to imagining how many ways a falling boulder could create a catastrophe. In the picture, the trail is on the right side passing under the rock that has broken away from the larger boulder. I was able to ride under the broken piece without ducking. Then I got to thinking about all the boulders we were going over that had no visible means of support. Then I saw boulders I was about to ride over that fit the previous criteria. Then I decided, “Not much I can do about it anyway”. There is an old Norse saying, “The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.”
The next 10 miles of downhill seemed more like 25. Out in the open sun, hot, thirsty, plod, plod, plod. After an interminable amount of time we reached a water source, a drinking fountain, about 5 miles from camp. The valve and nozzle were about four feet in the air at the end of a half inch water pipe. Holding the spring loaded valve handle open created a stream of water that arced about eight inches over the nozzle and that much again to the side. Trying to hold the valve open, hold a collapsible bucket open and catch a stream of water that is being blown to and fro by the wind was a challenge. In addition, at water fountain speed trying to get enough water in the bucket for a thirsty horse is a slow process at best. Add to that, BG can smell the water and keeps trying to get her nose into the action, spilling what little water I have gathered, only makes things worse. At this point I’m thinking a hitch rail would be a good addition, but there is absolutely no where to tie BG out of the way. Trying to get BG to drink straight from the fountain was a miserable failure. For a horse that will shove her head eye deep in a water trough and blow bubble, a horse that will lay down in a mountain lake, roll over on her back with her neck and head extended on the bottom, she is remarkably averse to getting and water on her nose from the pathetic trickle of a water fountain. There was a bowl there for people to water their dogs, I tried filling it then dumping it into BG’s buckets, and again her head in the way wasted more water than we saved. The bowl was barely big enough for BG to get her nose in, but get it in she did, which forced about half the water out of the bowl and onto the ground, leaving maybe a cup or two for her. It took a while to get five gallons into her.
The last five miles was down a sandy wash, still 90 degrees plus, still in the direct sun, so now poor BG would sink to her fetlocks in loose sand with every step. I thought BG might be unnerved by the wind mills we rode by, but we didn’t get to them until late in the day and by then she just didn’t care. We were both very happy to reach the truck. Camp itself was located in an abandoned housing development. It was a little bit creepy, wide avenues and cul de sacs carved out of the desert floor. The heat and wind were inescapable, but by moving our chairs around under the nose of the trailer we were able to hide in the shade from the burning rays of the sun. A cold beer pulled from an ice filled cooler is a little bit of heaven.