Day 9, miles 211 to 241, Cabazon to Hart Bar Road
Distance traveled; 33.8 miles, travel time; 12:58, elevation min/max; 1749/8185, total ascent/descent; 9453/4432
Remind me not to complain about how tough a day was, the gods are listening. After the stress of Day 8, we had a long day scheduled for Day 9. We planned 34 miles from mile 211 to 245 with an elevation gain of more than a mile, over the San Gorgonio Mountains. The trail started out winding up through the Mesa Canyon Wind Turbine Farm. The employees of the Turbine Farm had constructed a sun shelter of sorts and had it well stocked with bottled water, a welcome respite for the hikers on these hot days. A few of the turbines had a bit of a squeal, sounded like seals on the rocks with the rhythm of geese headed north. Dropping down the other side we entered the White Water Preserve and San Gorgonio Wilderness. This is a heavily used area, with a 12 heartbeat party size limit and permits only issued via USPS. There must not be anyone checking though as I passed at least three parties of 30 or more, and more day hikers than you can shake a stick at.
Crossing the White River presented a bit of a challenge. As Mercedes and I approached we could see the water was running high, white water rapids. Though the river itself was not wide, maybe 30 feet, the river bed was a good 100 yards wide and totally covered with rocks, from baseball to small car sized. There was no clear crossing point, 20 to 30 hikers lined both sides trying to find a way across the roiling water which appeared to be quite deep as it crashed over and around some of the larger boulders. The hikers watched with interest as Mercedes picked her way down the bank to the water. The route I had chosen cut diagonally across water that ran a little smoother, hopefully indicating few boulders to slip or trip on. The water may have been smoother, even if it was a little deeper, oh how I love a long legged horse!
Once I crossed the White River we climbed over another ridge and dropped down into Mission Creek. For the next 16 miles I would follow and cross the creek many times. What a beautiful valley, the visual equal of anything in the Wyoming Rockies which it resembles. In this dry land it was a luxury to have water for Mercedes every mile or so. It was along Mission Creek that we passed our first PCTA work crew of our journey. They were busy clearing brush from the trail, working on the tread through washouts and cutting the few logs that were down. I stopped by a group that were eating lunch to express my appreciation for their efforts. One of the crew took a liking to Mercedes, enough that she shared her carrots much to Mercedes’ delight.
When I started the riding at 7:30 (yes, believe it or not, in the am) it was already warm and the temperature only increased as the day went on. Janis had checked with the Forest Service about the road she was to use to meet me. After a couple of days they called back to inform us Coons Creek Rd was closed. We made alternative plans to meet at the intersection where Coons Creek leaves Hart Bar Rd. That meant I would have to ride an additional 4 miles, but we really had no alternative. Just as the sun was starting to get a little uncomfortable, Janis put our new inReach satellite SOS/text/phone thingies to work, informing me that Hart Bar Rd was closed also. After texting back and forth establishing plan B to meet at Onyx Pass. Later, as I realized I was running out of horse and daylight with 12 miles to go, I caught up with Trent who happened to be spending the night with some local men, one of which showed me a short cut to the junction of Hwy 38 and Hart Bar Rd, saving 4 miles in length and uncalculated energy savings for Mercedes, gaiting down an abandoned road rather than scrambling over a mountain trail. The inReaches paid for themselves that ride as plan C was activated. A half hours rest, a belly full of green grass from around the creek, and Mercedes was a new girl. We reached the truck just as dusk was turning to dark.
At the trailer I was putting all the electronics on the chargers when I realized my inReach was missing. Not knowing where I lost it, we loaded the horses and drove to cell reception first thing in the morning so I could go online and check where the unit was. I should have known, sitting on the picnic table where we were looking at maps the day before with Trent. Leading us into Day 10
Day 10, Miles 241 to 252, Hart Bar Road to Onyx Pass
Distance traveled; 19.1 miles, travel time; 5:06, elevation min/max; 6747/8912, total ascent/descent; 3947/2252
I started out going backwards. BG and I went about 19 miles to gain 11. At least at five hours it was a short day. We back tracked the previous evening ride to Mission Spring Trail camp; though Trent was long gone I did recover the missing inReach from the picnic table where I had left it. Seventeen miles into the trip we went past what is marked on the map as the “Animal Cages”. The first thing I noticed was the rather flimsy looking chain link style fencing about 10 feet off and slightly above the trail. The posts supporting the fence were pipes leaning in all different angles, no top rail so the fence was kind of saggy. About 5 feet inside the perimeter fence were a series of good sized individual cages. I don’t know if they were or not, never the less it appeared as if these cages were built around an inner court, which had a really tall fence a good 16 feet. This court had trees, toys, and the sort of structures I associate with a made for free exercise for animals. I thought this arrangement would allow for a large exercise area on a rotational basis.
As I got closer the first cage held a grizzly that looked bigger than BG. He stood on all fours, not moving, though he did appear interested in our passing. The second cage held a somewhat smaller grizzly that stood on his hind legs to better see us over the top of his shelter.
At least I think they are grizzlies, pretty darned big! I guessing the top of this fellows head was a good eight feet tall. The next cage bordering the outer fence held a tiger, who grew quite agitated, dashing from one end of his enclosure around his shelter to the other end, staring intently at BG and me. I felt a bit like a mouse with a house cat though I suppose the scent of fresh horsemeat was the primary draw.
As I rode past I thought, I’ve really got to go back and get some pictures, after all BG didn’t seem upset in the least. Approaching the cages from the other direction is when BG actually saw the carnivores, turns out she was upset. I did manage to get a few pictures, quite a feat with the bad light and nervous horse.
Once we arrived at Onyx Pass Janis informed me that she had witnessed local law enforcement telling another party that they could not camp overnight there. Rather than take the chance of being evicted later on we decided to move on for the night and come back in the morning. Tonight we are camped at the Shay Horse Boarding Facility near Big Bear. Nice big outdoor runs for the horses. It is their first chance for a real roll in a few days.
Day 11 mile 0252 to 0275, Onyx Pass to Van Duesen Canyon
Distance 23.5 miles, 5:56 total time, 4 mph average, minimum elevation 6759, maximum elevation 8686, total ascent 3036, total descent 4156. Total miles traveled 267.8
I started near the day’s high point at Onyx Pass on Hwy 38. Most of the day in was spent in conifer forest and high desert the rest. At the higher elevation the trees are around 20 feet high at most, in one area the cactus was as tall as the trees. I did pass through some pretty nice Ponderosa Pine in an area of lower elevation. Overall it was pretty easy riding, no big climbs on descents. There was a lot of rock on the trail though. So much so that the trail gave the appearance of having been graveled much of the day. Small gravel, well packed made up miles of the trail with short stretches of pit run to slow us down.
There is a sub-set of humans known as trail angels. These people provide assistance to hikers out of the goodness of the hearts. Mike back at Chihuahua Rd is an example of a big time trail angel. There are people who live along the trail that invite hikers to camp on their property, people who allow hikers to water from their faucets, some go so far as to offer showers. And then there are a legion of anonymous trail angels who leave water caches along the trail. Some of these caches have been maintained so long that Halfmile lists them in his trail notes. Usually the cache is a few yards off of a road, just far enough it won’t be seen by a casual drive by. Sometimes the angel(s) pack water bottles a mile or two, though those caches are of small volume and frequently empty.
The caches are mostly very simple, anywhere from a couple of gallons to ten or more, in plastic jugs, tied to a post, tree, or bush to keep the empties from blowing away. Some are more organized, there was one near Anza in a covered kiosk, with four or five shelves each holding ten 2½ gallon water jugs. Sometimes there will be a cooler with apples, oranges or some other treat. One cache I saw today was a metal tool box with an accompanying couch. Although hikers are warned not to count on these caches some do anyway, and when one is empty they can find it hard going until the next water.
Arrastre Trail Camp is a holdover from a time when there were more equestrians on the trail. Now it has an abandoned feel, the water faucet is dry, the hitching rail falling into disrepair. An old copper bucket tarnished green with age sits on a picnic table with edges worn smooth by time. Some trail angel has packed in two gallons of water, at least a mile from the nearest road, which are the only things that give an indication of current times.
At one point I was day dreaming a bit, and wandered off trail. The off trail portion was actually kind of nice, an interesting log to go under, a bridge of dubious structural integrity, and then the trail just petered out. I back tracked to the PCT, I don’t know what I was thinking, I made a hard left turn when going straight would have kept me on track.
Out in the desert the views open up. From the ridge top I can see down to Baldwin Lake, a sister lake separated by an isthmus from Big Bear Lake. We camped on the shore of Baldwin, or what was the shore when the lake was full, now it is nearly dry after many years of drought. All the morning water spots were dry today. At the 16 mile mark we rode into another abandoned horse camp, Doble Trail Camp, where I managed, in time, to fill the collapsible bucket with the trickle of water that came from the faucet. BG was glad for the drink and acted refreshed when we moved out to do the last seven miles.
Day 12; miles 0275 to 0298, Van Duesen Canyon Rd to Splinters Cabin
Distance 23.9 miles, 4:44 time, 5 mph average, minimum elevation 4577, maximum elevation 7865, total ascent 2072, total descent 4813. Total miles traveled 291.7
Today went pretty easy, mostly a gentle down grade following Holcomb Creek. The trail started out in the big trees following the ridge north of Big Bear Lake for the first 10 miles. Then we went through a burn area, and that is where conditions started to deteriorate. The PCT up to this far is really driven by and maintained for the hiker. The tread is fairly good however the brush is really only cleared up to about seven feet from the ground. That leaves a lot of hat catchers and face slappers for the equestrian to duck. It really hasn’t been an issue until yesterday as the timber grew thicker and there were more trees over the trail to deal with.
This is a fairly low rainfall area, pine trees and grassy meadows leaning towards high desert. It is only along the creeks that willow thickets line the shore. This year has been particularly wet though and in places the creeks are running high and are using the trail to handle their overflow. There was a good half mile today where this was the case. The trail was bordered on both sides with impenetrable willow brush forcing hiker and horse alike to slosh through fetlock deep water. BG didn’t mind so much once she got started but I doubt the hikers were as unperturbed about getting their feet wet.
Going through the burn the trail is very new and hasn’t had a chance to really pack in. Occasionally a horse will punch in for a step or two, leaving a hoof sized hole, six inches deep or so, sometimes when that happens the horse will give a little stumble. Hopefully as the trail gets more use all the footprints will pack the tread eliminating these soft spots. After the burn area and going down the creek to camp it was apparent that trail clearing hadn’t happened for a while. Chest impalers and leg rippers were added to the arsenal of vegetation hazards for riders. Lots of down trees across the trail were an issue for everyone. Some we could go over, some we went around and some we had to cut out of the way. Trent was ahead of me today and I could see much evidence of his saw use, cutting hazards out of the way, I had to cut a few more as well. One log I could get over but a stray branch pierced my Levis ripping them from pocket to knee, exposing my tender flesh to the ravages of the bush for the last six miles. I hope we don’t run into much more like that as I will have to give up on this trip, I can’t afford the clothes.
This afternoon we had gotten to a section of trail that was pretty clear with good footing and BG could smell camp, she really had her march on. I could see a hiker a ways ahead and wanted to let him know that we were approaching so I shouted out “Nice Day”. I could see this was a BIG fella, a big fella in a kilt, by now we are 50 feet or so from him and he hasn’t responded so I say “How ya doin?”. Still no response, 25 feet and we are closing fast, close enough I could see his massive arms, hairy clean up under his wife beater shirt. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I say as we get within 5 feet and I’m slamming on BG’s brakes. Still no response and I’m thinking “surely he can feel BG’s breath on the back of his neck” as she nearly knocks his rakish beret from his head. At this point, trying without much success to keep some space between his big hoop earrings and BG’s noseband, I decide to just follow until he notices us. Which he does, out of the corner of his eye while turning a tight corner on the trail. Apparently BG’s eye six inches from his is startling, judging from how far he leaped off the trail. A big, athletic fella, who can spin, jump backwards over rocks and bushes and land cattily on his feet while simultaneously pulling ear buds out. I apologize profusely for giving him a scare and he gracefully waves me off explaining he hadn’t heard me over the music, and I ride on grateful for the no harm no foul ruling.
We are camping tonight at Splinters Cabin. The original cabin was built in the 1920’s as a fishing get away, long before there was road access. All materials, concrete, pipe, lumber, furnishings, etc were brought in by pack horse. I don’t remember the builder’s name, however he named the cabin Splinters because his wife said anything he built was likely to be splinters. All that is left of the original cabin is the stone foundation walls which are about 4 feet high. The forest service built a roof supported by metal posts they call a gazebo over the walls. Put in a couple of tables and call it a picnic area. Several hikers called it home for the night.
Splinters Cabin is a popular overnight spot for hikers due to its proximity to the junction of Deep and Little Bear Creeks which is an excellent swimming hole complete with rocks to dive from. Staying in the cabin itself were six hikers; the big fella and his companions, adding Trent and I made eight, the exact number of beers in the cooler. I figured that was a sign, so we shared much to the walker’s delight. Janis and I visited for awhile but couldn’t keep pace with the youthful exuberance so we went to take care of the horses before turning in ourselves.
Day 13, mile 0298 to 0330, Splinters Cabin to Silverwood Lake
Distance; 30.2 miles, time; 6:40, 4.5 mph average, minimum elevation 3009, maximum elevation 4640, total ascent 3398, total descent 4473. Total miles traveled 322
Today was a 32 mile day. The trail was fairly moderate, though it was extremely narrow in places, hugging rock cliffs. At the bottom of the cliff was Deep Creek. On a hot day Deep Creek is especially inviting. Periodically along its length deep pools nestle amongst the boulders. Some of the isolated pools have small campsites providing campers with the kind of wilderness experience that makes their trip satisfying.
I caught up with Trent about three miles out of camp. For the next several miles I would ride ahead to a site I thought would make a good picture then wait for him to arrive. I wanted to get to camp before too late so we said our “see you laters” and went off at our own speeds.
About 10 miles into the ride I passed the Deep Creek Hot Springs, clothing optional. The first few pools were a ways below the trail, and well occupied by the optionals. The last pool was much closer to the trail and only being used by young men who were at least partially clothed. I took this opportunity to stop and give a closer examination. Over the years pools have been built by stacking rocks around the hot water springs. The one I stopped at was about 8X10, maybe three feet deep and located 10 feet above the creek. The water was not so hot that one could get burned, yet warm enough that a dip in the cold creek would feel good after a 20 minute soak.
I saw my first trail angel in action today. She had loaded her little red wagon full with a camp stove, coolers and bags of goodies then drug is a half mile through the sandy Mojave River bed to where the trail fords Deep Creek just after where the trail goes across the face of the Mojave Dam. On the stove she was cooking burritos to order, in one cooler she had various cold drinks, the other held apples, oranges and sliced melons. She also had a supply of chips and candy bars. I don’t feel comfortable taking advantage of trail angel generosity. In a few hours I’m going to be back at a well supplied trailer. I think their efforts are better spent on the hikers who are working much harder than I and have further to go before treats such as these will be possible and undoubtedly will enjoy them more than I can possibly imagine. Mercedes on the other hand was working hard and had no compunction about accepting a cold apple, I swear I heard a little moan of pleasure as she crunched and chewed her treat.
Tonight we are staying at Silverwood Lake State park. The regular horse camp isn’t open yet. The Park has made a one horse camp on a dirt road that the trail crosses. Mercedes gets the one corral so she can have a good roll after her exertions today. Silverwood Lake Park is large enough to have quite a few campgrounds. In addition to the horse camp there are tent camps, RV camps and camps for boaters. Each camping area has at least one restroom/shower building. We tried two different shower houses; apparently the hot water isn’t turned on either. Water got warm for about one minute then went tepid. At eight quarters for four minutes of water, I’m thinking we were short changed, at least we were clean!
Day 14, mile 0330 to 0347, Silverwood to Swarthout Canyon
Distance 17 miles, time 4:15, 4 mph average, minimum elevation 2975, maximum elevation 4144, total ascent 2759, total descent 2508. Total miles traveled 339
BG and I left Silverwood and climbed nearly a thousand feet right off the bat. The brush was pretty thick, I had to stop and cut some small trees (big bushes?) so we could pass. The bushes here have very stiff branches; my shins are taking quite a beating as they always get the first contact. Inevitably my attention will be on keeping a branch from taking my head off, and another branch will sneak in and whack my shin, damn. One stick did get my hat, flipped it right off the side of the trail. It landed about 10 feet below the trail in a spot the trail was narrow and the ground down to my hat so steep I had to hold onto the bushes to keep from falling. Huffing and puffing I retrieved the hat, got back on BG, rode 100 feet and darned if another face slapper didn’t grab the hat and do it again.
At the top of the hill the trail crossed a road. I met a volunteer trail clearing team just leaving their truck headed down the way I’d just come from. They told me another group was coming up the hill from the other direction. Indeed, I did meet the other group, one man with a small pruning saw. I could see where he had trimmed the bushes back from the trail in several places. The rest of the day was fairly clear of brush, as we wound around, up and over more hills, working our way to Cajon Pass on I-15.
I had another first experience today. I was passed by a hiker, or perhaps trail runner would be a better description. We were going down a fairly steep section of trai,l about two miles from the next car park, when he passed us going in the opposite direction. Dressed only in running shorts and tennis shoes carrying a bottle of water in one hand he chugged right past us going up the hill. I don’t know how far up the hill he went but he really blazed past us as we neared where he was parked.
I was briefly on the historic Route 66. It was at this point on the trail you can stop at a McDonalds and a Best Western, many hikers do. There were separate tunnels to go under I-15 and the mainline railroad tracks. The tunnel under the freeway was rather long and continuously curved; in the center you couldn’t see either end. There was enough light to see, it never got pitch black; the break from the sun was welcoming. BG and I continued a few more yards to the underpass for the railroad, this was a more standard concrete structure just a little more than head high and two sets of tracks wide. Just as we cleared the tracks a freight train came a honking and rushing past. I thought BG might be nervous but she took it in stride.
The last five miles climbed up and over the south side of the San Andreas Fault. I like riding through areas with interesting rock formations, this portion of the trail fits that bill. On the other hand when the trail is narrow, on a steep side hill and you have to cross areas of solid slabs of rock tilting towards the abyss, I get a little nervous. People talk of the Goat Rocks and North Cascades in Washington as being especially challenging it this regard. I am coming to the conclusion the northern trail has nothing on these southern California trails. I think 80% of the trail so far has been, as the endurance folk say, technical.
Tonight’s camp is little more than a dirt parking spot on the side of the gravel Swarthout Canyon Road near Lone Pine Canyon Road. At least we are off the road and near the trail. We are only a couple miles from an I-15 interchange and will celebrate the short day with a meal in a restaurant.
Day 15, mile 0347 to 0374, Swarthout Canyon to Mt BadenPowell,
Distance 25.1 miles, time 5:35, 4.5 mph average, minimum elevation 3574, maximum elevation 8461, total ascent 7878, total descent 4970. Total miles traveled 364
Today Mercedes and I traveled up hill, our biggest climb so far, we gained just short of a vertical mile. For the most part the grade was fairly gentle, 2.2% average, but steady. Starting in the desert the trail started climbing immediately. In the early morning sun the wild flowers made the hillside a carpet of color. The long shadows threw the folds of the earth into highlight, a truly lovely time of day.
As the mid-day heat drove the flowers under cover, the folds of the earth turned into just another hill to cross on a skinny trail. We crossed a big burn area for several miles; the vegetation is just starting to return. Without the vegetation landslides are numerous and wide, eliminating significant portions of the trail. Where the hillside is sand to larger gravel Mercedes had no problem crossing, much less than hikers who sometimes needed to use their hands to maintain elevation and balance. Mercedes and I would aim a little higher than where one would think the tread should be, each hoof sinking in until the surface under foot compressed enough to hold our weight, making a narrow track across the slide. Where the surface is made up of baseball sized rocks and larger it is not so easy. Rocks want to roll out from under the hooves, clattering down the mountainside, a sound that makes me tense.
I stopped at about the 15 mile mark at a spot where some scrub pines would give Mercedes a little shade to rest in. At this point the trail is on an old dirt jeep road, labeled Acorn Drive on the maps. As we were resting a hiker, a day hiker judging from his lack of a pack, came staggering down Acorn Drive.
I thought he was going to pass on by but he saw us at the last moment and stopped. He was obviously in some distress, which he confirmed. He had misjudged how much water he was going to need for the day and was now out and had been for a while. I carry two 32 ounce Gatorade bottles mixed 50/50 with water and had consumed half of one so I offered him the other. He drank that down without coming up for air and then inquired about getting more. He was a little miffed because I wasn’t inclined to give him the half bottle I had left, as I still had a long day ahead of me. I did point out the road that would take him down to a residential area that was less than three miles away, all down hill.
Up over 7500 feet we got back into some trees on the northern exposures. With the trees came unmelted snow drifts. Crossing one patch, that was a couple of pick-up lengths wide, Mercedes punched through the ice crust, sinking nearly to her belly. On the next bit of snow she broke through again. When we came to yet more snow, longer and deeper than what we had crossed up to that point, I opted to use a dirt road positioned out in the sun that paralleled the trail. It was a hot, dry day for Mercedes as well, some snow melt on the road formed a good sized puddle that provided the only water she had all day. Near the end of the day we passed a couple of full reservoirs that are maintained to fight wildfires but they are completely surrounded with tall chain link fencing liberally labeled with No Trespassing and Video Monitored signs. Both Mercedes and I were glad to reach the truck today.
I have made the decision not to ride Mt. Baden-Powell where the trail reaching 9000+ feet is still snowed in for miles. Riding the road around Baden-Powell gets you to the beginning of a long term PCT closure for the protection of yellow legged frog. Riding the road around that equals a total of 19 miles of blacktop on the busy, narrow, twisty, two lane Angeles Highway with no shoulder. The alternate is a two and a half hour trailer ride. Trailer ride wins.