DAY 1: CAMPO (0.0) TO LAKE MORENA (20.0)
A pair of doves outside of the camper trailer at Scout & Frodo's woke me up before my alarm went off at 5. It was much colder than I imagined Southern California, so I put on my new puffy jacket for the first time, packed my bag and went inside for a quick breakfast of eggs with salsa and some fruit. Still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was maybe in over my head and it was hard to force anything down but coffee.
All the hikers piled into two cars and hit the road at 5:45am. It took about an hour to get to the border and I spent most of the drive talking with an experienced AT hiker, who was giving me tips on just about everything from food resupply to pole swinging techniques. It felt a little patronizing but actually helped calm me down and I tried to absorb as much as I could while wondering if I was going to have heart palpitations from the nerves.
Close to the border we left the highway and went down a small road lined by ranches with Spanish names and border patrol cars around every corner. Upon seeing the starting monument, I was still wondering how the heck I got myself into this. We piled back out of the car and walked up a little hill to the monument. (which rather worryingly put me out of breath fuuuuuu-)
After all the planning and imagining, actually getting here didn’t feel real, and was a little underwhelming. The border was stretched out in behind a barbed fence and we stopped for group and individual pictures, and signed our names in the trail register.
After that there was nothing to do but start walking so I took my first few steps on the trail. Everyone spread out to hike their own pace and it was surprisingly isolated for how many people started at the same time. As soon as I started walking, my nerves eased up a little. The trail followed alongside a road, and the hiking was easy. Passed the mile marker for mile 1, only 2649 to go! I passed by "Crazy 71" who presumably got his name because he's actually 71 (!)... I'll be happy if I can walk myself to the fridge at 71, nevermind down a long distance trail carrying a heavy pack.
I've never been farther south than Colorado and the "desert" is very grassy and green and nothing like the old west movie set I'd been picturing (to be fair, it is an extremely high rain year and I'm catching the very late end of a superbloom). Definitely carried far too much water, but better safe than sorry.
For the most part I didn’t really see anyone else, but after 15 miles I stopped at Hauser Creek-a flowing stream complete with shady trees, just before a notoriously steep & hot climb. My feet were forming hot spots on the heel and instep but nothing too painful yet. Took a long lunch break consisting of trail mix and used my filter for the first time. Sara and Joe showed up shortly after while I was napping in the shade. Sara accidentally cut her finger open with a pocket knife (spoiler alert this is the first of many bad luck injuries) but she bandaged it up fine. Joe seems very typically Southern and was telling us all about his adventures crocodile hunting back home in Georgia while eating a sandwich of peanut butter and hot sauce in between two sheets of raw ramen.
The last 5 miles from Hauser Creek to Lake Morena included an intimidating looking climb straight up and over a mountain that had been baking all day in the sun, the switchbacks were visible from where we were sitting and it did not look fun. I was debating just staying at Hauser Creek for the night since it was the hottest part of the day but chose to make the climb and get to Morena for my first night.
Even though it was only about two miles, the climb was long and slow and very very hot. Uphill is going to be far more challenging than I anticipated and that's what I get for living in a city so flat you can see downtown from 20 miles away. I was also plagued by a chatty hiker who clearly couldn't tell I was struggling to get enough air to not fall over, and kept asking open ended questions while bounding happily up the trail just in front of me. Finally I had to pretend to get something from my pack and dropped behind while cursing myself for not doing more training.
It felt like hours but when I got to the top the high outweighed the misery of the hot climb. The view down to Lake Morena was gorgeous and there were tons of trees and wildflowers. For the first time all day I felt like maybe I can do this?
Descended down to the campsite at Lake Morena around sunset, and the park ranger directed me to the PCT section, which was a small field with a concrete pavilion. Most of the crew I met at Scout and Frodo's had made it in tonight as well. Sara and I were starving so we set up our tents, which took me way longer than I would’ve liked, and walked a half mile to the little convenience store for a burger (veggie for Sara) and a milkshake. I had been starving all afternoon but couldn’t even finish half of dinner. Sara seems typically west-coast and I'm not sure we’d be interested in each other off trail but it’s really nice to have a familiar face to talk with.
Back at the site there was a campfire and a couple hikers were sitting around chatting, but I didn't last long before crawling into my tent. I have a few blisters but my shoes fit well and I'm not limping around nearly as badly as some of the hikers tonight. Feeling pretty good for doing 20 miles on my very first day. Inflatable sleeping pad is comfortable but sounds like a bag of chips every time I make even the slightest movements. I’m using my extra clothes as a pillow. A little bit wired from the day so hopefully I can get some sleep. Tomorrow, hopefully pushing another 20 miles to get to Mt. Laguna.
DAY 2: LAKE MORENA (20.0) TO MT. LAGUNA (41.5)
Woke up around 6, which I thought was early but everyone else was already up and packing when I got out of my bag. Took down the tent and put on warm layer because despite being only 20 miles from Mexico, the night got cold as heck and the morning wasn’t much warmer.
When I was heading across the field to get to trail, Brian caught up to me right away, and we walked together for a bit comparing our first day experiences. I was feeling pretty sore from yesterday and it was slow going for a while. Ankles felt pretty tight and I was getting some twinges in my left knee which is not a good start. Brian could maybe tell and stopped often to take pictures which was appreciated, intentional or not. After forcing myself to eat a couple bars, I felt a little better, definitely have to break my at-home habit of not eating breakfast.
Around midday, we made a steep descent off trail to Kitchen Creek, a clear stream at the bottom of a canyon. It was hard work getting down (and harder getting back up) but so worth it, the water was warm enough to swim in, although I settled for pouring a couple bottles over my head. We sat around in the sun for about an hour and then made the scramble climb back up to trail, calves on fiiiiiiire.
Late afternoon, the wind picked up and it got pretty chilly so I got to break out my wind shell and gloves. I lost track of Brian at some point but I like walking alone, it feels a lot less pressured to keep up a certain speed. Rolled into Burnt Rancheria campground at Mt Laguna around 5pm, another 20 mile day! The campground was a confusing network of trail and there wasn't a single other person there. Finally ran into Brian and a new hiker Aaron wandering around as lost as I was. We found the PCT spot (almost no one else here tonight) and set our tents up as fast as we could before literally running to the local restaurant before it closed. I’d been chilled all afternoon and it was great walking into the warm cozy bar (timberframe, A+). Had another burger with salad and fries and beer, again couldn't finish. No sign of hiker hunger yet.
Sat with a couple hikers I didn't know and chatted with Keith who worked at the Laguna gear store(?) and restaurant. Hit bed right after dinner, kind of looks like rain. I’m having a hard time falling asleep right away again tonight but I expect that won’t last long with how physically exhausting the days are.
Day 3: Mt Laguna Zero (Sort of)
0.4 miles and back
Woke up absolutely frozen, it definitely got down below zero last night. May have to start sleeping with my water filter, the plastic will crack if any water inside freezes. Brian was waiting for a package but the post office didn’t open until 3pm (the heck Mt Laguna?) and I decided to wait with him and hopefully have Sara catch up today. After pushing out two big days it's probably good to give my body some sort of a break.
We went to warm up at the restaurant and had coffee and frittatas for breakfast. Keith, who we met last night, was there and he talked w/ us about his own time hiking the PCT. At one point I mentioned how inexperienced I felt and my doubts about even making it to the Sierras, never mind through them in a record snow year. Keith told me that he sees tons of hikers pass through every day, and that he’s sure that Brian and I could make it the whole way if we wanted to. It was surprisingly a good confidence booster and really stuck with me for the rest of the day. (Post trail edit: sticks with you the rest of the trip too, cheers!)
While waiting for the post office to open, we went to browse the outfitters, a tiny trailer sized room jam packed with anything and everything you would need for hiking the PCT. The staff also offered pack shakedowns, I was considering it until watching a couple other hikers go through it...the staff members were absolutely ruthless and I chickened out.
Sara showed up later on in the day with two french Canadians (the first other Canadians I've met!) and Tony and Joe from Scout and Frodo's. We all started hiking out together around 4pm but the weather was terrible-windy and wet and we heard there was snow up ahead. Brian, Aaron and I opted to stay at Laguna for another night. Wasn't planning to take a zero this early in the hike but I guess sticking to plans is pretty much futile out here.
The restaurant was closed but we bought some snacks from the store and headed back to the campsite. It was too cold to sit outside and have dinner, and too windy to use the stoves to cook, so I ended up in the concrete bathroom with Brian and a few other new hikers-Ed (Smokebeard?), Aaron, Rob, and Charlie. Hanging out in the mens campsite bathroom and freezing my ass off with a bunch of strangers is not how I imagined trail but it was still pretty fun. ARE YOU PROUD OF ME MOM?
Back to trail tomorrow no matter the weather.
DAY 4: MT. LAGUNA (40.5) TO CHARIOT CANYON CAMPSITE (63.6)
Got up early to make up for the lack of walking yesterday and hiked out with Brian. Tons of mist/cloud and light rain this morning, all my gear was wet and cold within minutes. Broke out the gloves and wind jacket, so far the wind jacket could be my favourite piece of gear. I enjoy walking in the cold weather and move a lot quicker than in the heat.
The morning took us through a pine forest and then a burn zone, the mist made everything feel really eerie, and at some point you couldn’t see anything past the ridge, it felt like hiking through a cloud.
Weather didn’t clear all day and it was long and cold and wet. The wind really picked up and I got blown sideways off trail a couple times. Didn’t want to stop for lunch, stopping=stiffness today, so just ate bars every few hours.
I finally had to stop for water resupply at a trough on the side of a highway at Sunrise trailhead, my gloves were soaked through and my fingers froze trying to use the filter. The sun came out briefly so I got my tent out to try and dry it but not sure how much it helped and the fly nearly got blown away twice.
Thankfully there were two unlocked cement bathrooms that I used to get a break from the wind and warm up with some ramen. Ed, Brian and Aaron caught up and we had our second bathroom party in two days. We were joking around that my trail name should be toilet soup and my journal should include a rating system for the bathrooms along trail and their suitability for cooking dinner. Potential trail name from Ed-Red Shift, due to some bursts in speed I get when feeling high energy. I kind of like Toilet Soup.
We pushed a few more miles to a low campsite that was still windy as hell but less exposed than the ridges. Joe was there too, as well as Rob and a couple girls whose names I didn’t catch. Setting my tent up made me want to light it on fire, and the guylines blowing in the wind almost took my eye out. Ed gave me some tips for setting up my tent but I’m still scared it won’t stay up with this wind+ my mediocre pitching skills. It’s going to be a long night.
DAY 5: CHARIOT CANYON (63.6) TO SCISSOR'S CROSSING/JULIAN (77.3)
13.7 miles. Still windy as heck.
Another early morning. My tent did stay up all night but there were some touch and go moments where I was pushing the wall back out against the wind. Got up twice to add rocks to keep the guylines tight and the flapping rainfly kept me up a good part of the night. As I climbed out of my tent in the morning, exhausted and a little grumpy, Ed informed me that the bush I was standing almost knee deep in was poison oak. F A N T A S T I C. Never been susceptible to poison ivy at home so I'm hoping that holds true now. No sign of irritation yet.
We had to hitch into Julian for resupply today and hitching alone is one thing I really don't want to do if I can avoid it. Planned to meet Joe and Brian at Scissor's crossing and go together.
It was windy as hell again all morning which got frustrating, although I still find I hike faster in the cooler weather, and there were great views after the mist cleared. Walked along a ridge all morning watching clouds rolling over the mountains and down across the valley floor.
Dropped way down for a long, flat, WINDY, walk to highway 78. Lots of large, weird-looking cacti down there, and although we missed the height of the superbloom by a few weeks, there were flowers all over the place.
I was hiking slanted over against the wind which was driving me nuts and the last 4 miles seemed to take forever. Reached the highway to wait for Brian and Joe and tried to get a wind break by hiding under a cactus. They showed up pretty soon and we tried our luck hitching, probably didn't help that Joe would hike his shorts up suggestively when a car came by. Waited about half an hour and got picked up by "The Professor", a trail angel who maintains the water cache at Scissor's crossing. He had a tiny old car and drove like a bat out of hell up the winding mountain road the entire way to Julian while we white knuckled the grab bars. According to the Professor, the elevation is enough that the cold weather we're getting now isn't uncommon and a week earlier the entire area got hit with a substantial snow storm, hikers cramming in with whoever would take them.
Joe, Brian and I went straight to Buffalo Bill's, a tiny diner that served half pound bison burgers. While we were there, lots of locals stopped by our table to ask us how the hike was going and educate us (with pictures) on which kinds of rattlesnakes were the most likely to be fatal. Thanks!
Julian itself is charming, very hiker-friendly and I'd love to live here. Got a free slice of pie at Mom's place (cherry, always.) and they also comped our coffees.
After lunch, we went to a restaurant run by a trail angel- Carmen-for a free hiker beer. (Julian is just killing it with generosity.) Carmen herself wasn't even there, just left the door unlocked with the expectations that hikers wouldn't trash it and use the honour system to pay for more rounds of drinks. So much of the hiker/angel community is based on trust and it's incredible how many people have big enough hearts to just let complete strangers into their homes. We could've stayed on the floor for the night, but opted to split a room with Joe and Brian at the lodge. The lodge gave us "special" towels which I guess means we're too dirty for the regular ones. Tony was staying next door and we all had pizza and beer. (Bank account is depleting way faster than I anticipated, yikes.) Washed our clothes in the bathtub, mine were absolutely filthy already. Very strange to watch the news on TV, it feels like I've been in my own little desert world for ages, even though it's only been four days. A couple hikers called it quits today at Carmen's, but I have no intention of calling it anytime soon.
In an actual bed and struggling to stay awake right now...the boys are both Southern gentlemen and insisted I take the queen sized bed to myself which seemed a little ridiculous, but I am not complaining. About to be out like a light.
DAY 6: SCISSOR'S CROSSING (77.3) TO BARREL SPRING (101.1)
Woke up in the hotel room a little bit disoriented after dreaming about being in my bed at home. Packed out the leftover pizza, finished off the beer and hit the road.
First challenge of the day was finding a ride 14 miles back to the trailhead, and there were a lot of hikers on the road doing the same thing. Not much luck, tons of parents driving their kids to school, which must put a damper on picking up dirty strangers. I might've had a better time without the guys, but still not feeling comfortable with hitching alone. Finally a van stopped for us, when we got in, Sara was in the backseat w/ another new hiker named Eris-she's only 18. Can't imagine trying to tackle this at 18.
Back at Scissor's crossing ran into the two french Canadians again-Francis and Yves. I'm not brave enough to try conversing with them in french just yet. Hiking started with a hot switchback up, and it only got hotter. Had to stop often to reapply sunscreen that would just get sweat off minutes later. I forgot about the back of my neck and it fried, very sore and tender tonight so it's going to be bad tomorrow. Lots of succulents that look like the ones I have in pots at home, but ten times bigger. Haven’t seen any snakes but there are quick little lizards that go darting across trail or up rocks. Their skittering often startles me on trail, the first thing my brain jumps to at sudden movement is "rattlesnake!"
We had one of the longest stretches so far without water and I ran low for the first time and had to start thinking about rationing. I knew there was a water cache coming up but still saved carried water to get through without it...just in case. Thankfully the cache was well maintained and even though the water was hot as hell, I still knocked back two litres in one go. Joe, Tony and Brian were there and we had a two hour break to escape the heat of day and eat our leftover pizza from last night (A+). As a group, we're getting more comfortable with each other and I'm happy to have found people that I get along with so well.
It was still pretty early in the day when we got moving again, so we decided to do 10 more miles to the next reliable water source and avoid dry camping. It's a good group to hike with-we push each other to do more miles than I would likely do if I was alone, and we hike around the same speed, and I'm surprised by how well I'm able to keep up.
Beautiful sunset coming down through the San Felipe hills and we reached the 100 mile marker together, although it didn't really feel like anything special. Only have to do the same thing 26 more times!
When we got to Barrel Spring, Charlie and Aaron were there w/two girls they've started hiking with, Lani (Larry?) and Kim. Tomorrow we hit Warner Springs and my first box from home.
DAY 7: BARREL SPRING (101.1) TO WARNER SPRING (109.5)
Great day. This morning, the trail took me through Warner Spring meadows- a gorgeous open section of pasture fields that reminded me of home. Blisters on my left foot made things a little slower but the terrain was easy.
Around 10am I got to Eagle rock-an aptly named rock formation that looks astoundingly like an eagle with it’s wings spread. Met up with Brian and Joe there for a photo shoot and snacks. Relaxed in the rocks while Joe told us more ridiculous Georgia wildlife hunting stories. It’s funny that I’ve known them for only a week but it feels like we’ve been friends for a lot longer than that.
Rolled into Warner Springs pretty early, hikers camp out at the community centre, which has an area out back for showers and setting up tents. They also have laundry, hiker clothes and enough outlets to support a small city. The town itself is only a few houses and gas stations, a resort golf course and a high school. Was absolutely starving so ditched my stuff and went to the fancy golf course restaurant with Brian, Joe and Aaron for a burger and amazing potato salad. Scared they wouldn’t let us in since we were so dirty but they seemed used to hikers. Francis and Yves were there, along with Ramsay and Tony, it's fun to keep running into familiar faces.
After lunch, picked up first resupply box from the post office, I packed way too much food. Received birthday pack from the fam but I’m waiting until tomorrow to open it. Grabbed a couple Coors banquets from convenience store and had them under a tree with Brian and Joe. I need to be a careful- it’s easy to get tipsy off a couple beers now, to sure if that’s due to a change in metabolism or just after walking all day.
Back at Warner springs, the campsite is packed and loud right now with lots of hikers.