PCT Part 2, Sand to Snow (mile 77 – 180)

Before going any further, here’s a picture of my hiking group and their names for future reference.

That’s me on the right, Rocksie in the middle, Salsa on the right, and Perrie being held up in the middle. Salsa is from Germany, I’m from Texas, Perrie is from Austrailia, and Rocksie is from Nebraska.

Day 6 (mile 77 – 91)

While the stay in Julian was nice, I didn’t come out here to lounge around all day. Goodybye lodge.

Late morning we got a hitch out of town back to the trail with 6 other hikers crammed into a pickup truck. The trail up out of the desert was certainly a tough one, but undoubtedly beautiful. The stretch was notorious for being hot, exposed, and devoid of water. For us, thankfully, the heat wasn’t too bad but it was quite exposed and there was no water for 14 miles. The desert was still stunning and full of life, however.

Not long into the hike we encountered our first rattlesnake, and no small one at that. It rattled as we passed it’s shady spot on the side of the trail and we all sprang forward past it. Unfortunately I wasn’t brave enough to go back and get a picture so here’s a nice one of the trail instead.

We pushed through the desert in the heat of the day and got to our destination early afternoon, a water cache and campsite. The water was sorely needed and we all cowboy camped for the night since the forecast was clear.

Day 7 (mile 91 – 110)

I knew day 7 would be a long one since we needed to get 19 miles to the town of Warner Springs for resupply and general recovery since some of the group had injuries. I started hiking alone at 6 AM and was greeted with the most beautiful desert sunrise.

The hike to Warner Springs was one of the most incredible hikes I’d done so far. To start, I passed the 100 mile mark which felt great!

Then I got trail magic from 3 former thru hikers in the form of freshly cooked burritos and chips/soda. Thank you so much guys!

After that, the hike went through some vast and beautiful meadows full of grass and wildflowers. I had never seen anything like it. Standing up high and watching the wind move the grass in ripples across the whole meadow was mesmerizing.

Just following the thin strip of trail through the grassy expanse was such a great experience. You could see in all directions for miles and miles. If you look closely at the next picture you can see traces of the poppy superbloom on the mountains in the back.

One of my favorite experiences so far was meeting cows on the trail so here’s a video of that.

After the cows I made it to the famous Eagle Rock, which actually looks like and eagle believe it or not.

Finally, I followed a beautiful, lush creek valley into town.

All in all, this day of hiking was just outstanding and it reminded me exactly why I came out here to do this. In addition I felt great physically, but Rocksie was having knee troubles so we decided to take a zero day tomorrow (day where we hike no miles) in the town of Warner Springs. The tiny town community center welcomed us with open arms and free camping, wifi, bathrooms, bucket showers, and so much more. Thank you to the people of Warner Springs for hosting us smelly, dirty hikers.

We resupplied our food stores for the next 70 miles and set up our tents around the single large oak tree behind the community center. It was so neat seeing all of the hikers congregate in one location. Funnily enough, it was here at the community center that I felt like I had joined a part of a real community.

Day 8 (mile 110 – 110)

It felt great to take a full day off of hiking after doing 100 miles. We were making great time and knew we could afford to. We spent the day just hanging out around the little town and relaxing/recovering.One of the coolest things in town was a mobile ultralight backpacking gear store that drives up the trail following hikers so we can replace gear as needed. Warner Springs was the first stop. I popped in and got a new water filter which froze day 1 and a pillow to replace the one I left in Julian.

A trail angel came by and brought us lots of snacks and fresh fruit was was sorely needed. Her dog tagged along too.

We ended our lazy day by having a beer and soaking our feet in the cool water of the nearby creek.

Day 9 (mile 110 – 127)

We woke up to a cold and misty morning. The flowers on the hike out were still as beautiful as ever though.

The fog and mist soon lifted and we began our hot and relatively waterless 17 mile stretch to the infamous “Mike’s Place”. More on this place later. After about 13 miles we came upon a sight for sore eyes – a water sign.

You can’t really expect massive flowing rivers of water in the desert so you take what you can get. In this case we followed the sign and found a tiny little spring tucked away in a lush valley with oaks and cottonwood. It was perfect for our needs.

Salsa and I arrived at our destination before the rest of our group since Rocksie was hiking slower due to her knee. Our destination was “Mike’s Place” and it has a bit of a reputation of trail for being a truly strange place. And it certainly was.

Mike’s place is a compound of sorts owned by a trail angel named, you guessed it, Mike. And you hear all sorts of stories about this place so seeing it ourselves was something.

The vibe of the place was definitely strange, beginning with the fact that it is basically a small shanty town in the middle of the desert – miles from any civilization. The caretakers were all friendly enough, Mike included. Although he was pretty aloof and didn’t say much except when something needed to be cooked or cleaned or set up. And we were happy to help since he was opening his place for us.

A group of us banded together to get some pizzas made since Mike had a really nice wood fired oven and all the ingredients for pizza ready to go.

Soon, the resident chef and part time caretaker of Mike’s Place arrived – “Strange Bird” was his name. And he lived up to it. He wore a tail and had an energy you just can’t describe. And he channeled this energy into making some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. Truly incredible pizza. But he was definitely a character to say the least. I felt it would be rude to take his picture so just use your imagination and that’s probably a good approximation. After the incredible pizza most of us decided to go to bed except for a few other hikers and Strange Bird who stayed up hours later talking about some of the most entertaining topics you could imagine. Quantum entanglement, sacred geometry, mind control, y’know standard stuff. I probably listened for half an hour just laying there in my tent.Would I recommend staying at Mike’s Place if you’re doing the PCT at some point? Yeah, probably. Just expect some weirdness and enjoy the pizza. I would talk more about it but you really just have to experience it.

Day 10 (mile 127 – 145)

We woke up in a cloud. Seriously I think we were in some low clouds when we woke up because everything was damp, there was very little visibility, and it was very chilly.

But the cloud/fog was blown away within the hour and we were off hiking again in the warm sun. Back to the desert.

And just like that the challenge again became to find water in such a seemingly dry place. Of course our phones with the latest water report were the most helpful tools but if you know what to look for you can find water even in the desert.

Now this is an obvious example, but you can see the line of extra-green trees. These are cottonwood trees and they always grow near water. Unfortunately sometimes that water is only underground but we got lucky and had some surface flow. In general it’s pretty easy to spot creeks and other water sources in the desert due to the surrounding foliage contrast. But let’s be honest, that’s old fashioned. Everyone just uses the water report to find the next source.And if it gets too hot in the desert, you can just take a 2 hour siesta under a tree like I did.

Our next water source was a cache maintained by a trail angel named Mary. And it just so happened that today was Easter and we were treated to a very special surprise at the water cache.

It was 2:30 and I knew I needed that meal. I moved like I never had before for those 2.2 miles. I left my hiking partners in the dust – sorry guys but I’m not letting that food run out on me. Turns out I got there before Mary started cooking the meal so I didn’t actually need to rush those miles. But I’m glad I did because Mary’s place was awesome.

That’s Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau. In the box are a bunch of poems and writings by these and other environmentalist authors. Inside also was one of my favorite trail registers so far.

I spent some time reading the entries and of course left my own entry. Reading through the entries and just being in such a welcoming place left me feeling so grateful to be out here. And to top it all off, after perusing the little library and trail register our Easter meal was ready! Complete with Easter egg hunt and beer.

Unfortunately Rocksie and Perrie weren’t able to make it to Mary’s place to join in the festivities but there were a bunch of other hikers there to share the good times with.

I’d also like to point out one of my favorite puns I’ve seen yet – bravo Mary.

So thank you for everything Mary. Truly, your place was a little slice of paradise and a much needed reprieve from the desert. And not just physically, but emotionally too. Seeing all the care and effort you put into maintaining this place for so many years is inspiring. I’ll never forget reading through those poems while the sun set over our campsite.

Day 11 (mile 145 – 162)

The goal for today was to reach Paradise Valley Cafe – a restaurant which apparently has the best burgers on the trail. We would meet back up with Rocksie and Perrie and decide how we wanted to tackle the formidable mountain looming ahead of us – Mt. San Jacinto. This would be the first 10,000 footer we would encounter on trail and we wanted to do it right.

It looked so far away and yet we knew we’d be going over it in a couple days.

The trek to the cafe was easy, especially since we got a hitch for the last mile road walk. Our ride also gave us beer which was nice for sure. We were getting spoiled, no doubt about it. At the cafe, Salsa and I sat with a couple of new hikers we hadn’t talked to before. Paradise Valley Cafe was a great spot to meet new people since it was basically a mecca for PCT hikers. Of course I got a ridiculous burger and milkshake to fuel me up the mountain. Sadly I didn’t get a picture because I ate it before I even thought about it.

After sitting there for about an hour just letting things digest, the rest of our hiking group showed up! Rocksie and Perrie strolled in around 12:30 and since we hadn’t seen them since Mike’s Place we were thrilled to be together again.

Unfortunately Rocksie’s knee was still giving her trouble so Salsa and I would have to press on ahead while the other two took some time to recover some more. It was still good to be a whole group again for a little bit. At around 1:30 we left the cafe to head up the mountain. Our hitch to the trailhead kept warning us how dangerous the mountain was and that we wouldn’t make it without microspikes (mine were in the next town). But we had done our research and obsessively checked conditions and things were looking completely passable without spikes. There would be snow, sure, but nothing so sketchy that extra gear was needed. So we began our climb.

The whole way up to our campsite we had excellent views of the desert below which we were climbing out of. Interestingly enough, this whole section of trail had been closed for 6 years because of a massive fire which had swept through and destroyed much of the area. We were the first class of thru hikers allowed through and the devastation was evident at every turn. It was beautiful in a haunting way to see so much of the mountain burned.

After hiking 10 miles out of the cafe, we got to our campsite around 6:30 which is quite late for us. But it was an amazing campsite left relatively untouched by the fires.

We went to bed early since the next day was going to be our hardest day of hiking yet – 20 miles of mostly uphill and our first encounter with snow.

Day 12 (mile 162 – 180)

The climb began immediately after waking up. We needed to do 3500 feet of elevation gain and the trail did not ease into it. After climbing for several miles we were given awesome views of Palm Springs thousands of feet below us. Way off in the distance is Joshua Tree as well.

The day pretty much consisted of climb after climb with a few descents sprinkled in as well. All the while we had some of the best views on the trail so far. It’s nearly impossible to describe the magnitude of the environment we were hiking in.

All along the way we had to deal with the lingering effects of the fire. Since we were the first class through, very little trail maintenance had been done and we had to contend with fallen logs and alternate routes everywhere. This slowed our progress a lot. The fallen tree below was particularly difficult to get past.

When we crested one of the smaller peaks we saw the full scale devastation of the fire on one side of the mountain. Everything was burned where there should have been sprawling green pine forests.

The trail itself was very impressive in places, often carved right into the side of the mountain which made for some treacherous bit exhilarating hiking. One wrong step off the 3 foot wide path and you’d be down the mountain.

We climbed and climbed some more until we finally got to around 7500 feet and encountered our first snow. It wasn’t much but we had to be very careful crossing since the snow was slushy and slippery. And a fall would mean sliding down the snow chute for thousands of feet.

It was great getting to have our first snow experience so early on in the hike. We knew the Sierras were going to be incredibly difficult this year with the high snow levels so this was great practice. As we climbed more we only saw more and more snow. When we got to our last 4 miles, the entire trail was covered in a thick blanket of snow.

The snow made for some very tough but fun hiking. The trail was completely buried so we had to follow footprints of past hikers which didn’t always lead in the right direction. Regardless, it was my first real snow hiking experience and it opened my eyes to how challenging and fun the Sierras would be. I was sliding around more than I’d like but there were no more steep sections so microspikes were not actually needed.

It was crazy just being 180 miles from the Mexican border and seeing so much snow. It was beautiful, challenging, and exhilarating all at the same time. And it was definitely exhausting, more exhausting than I would have expected. So we headed down off the mountain to the town of Idyllwild where we would take a few days off to recover. Unfortunately this involved walking an extra mile on the road before getting a hitch but we soon made it into town and had some pizza – which was good because I had completely run out of food.

The day was the hardest one since beginning but also the most rewarding. Now to relax and enjoy my time in town for a few days.

8 thoughts on “PCT Part 2, Sand to Snow (mile 77 – 180)

  1. I didn’t realize how much “civilization” you would encounter on the trail. The variety of landscapes within a relatively short distance is amazing. What an incredible once in a lifetime experience you are experiencing. Enjoy!

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  2. Adam, we all enjoy reading about your adventures and living vicariously through your posts. Keep on keeping on. PS. I loved the stare down that cow gave you.

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