51 Miles on the PCT

The photo gallery for this report can be found here: PCT section hike pics.


The southern Californian outdoor equipment store chain Adventure 16 posted a challenge: Hike any three 16+ mile sections of the Pacific Crest Trail between May 8 - October 15, 2015 to win cool prizes! So Matt, Kevin and I decided to do it in one weekend. Matt looked for a reasonably "easy" section, we didn't want to add a lot of elevation gain or time in the hot desert while climbing to the already demanding ~50 miles in 2 days. He came up with the idea to start up in Big Bear east of Baldwin Lake (6800ft) and then hike "down" to Interstate 10 (1600ft). We'd have some climbing at the beginning, but otherwise mostly downhill. It looked good to me, so we went ahead. Should have looked more closely at the contour lines.... We hiked from PCT mile 262 south to mile 211.

The Hike

We met at Ziggy & Bear's Trail house around PCT mile 211 on Saturday around 7am. After signing in at the trail house we left my truck and headed up the mountain in Matt's 4Runner. We stumbled across this trail angel house. Our plan had been to just park along some dirt road. This is just one aspect of the PCT that we came across while researching the hike. The number of internet resources about hiking the trail is huge.

Cooling off
PCT trail towards Onyx pass.

With some little detours we got to our trail head (PCT mile 262) and started hiking at 9:50am. During the drive I realized that I had forgotten my hiking poles in my truck. Oh well. Matt set a brisk pace in the 3 mile per hour range, but after about 6 miles we realized that it was too hot to try to continue at that pace. So we throttled back a bit and took breaks in shady spots along the way during the hottest part of the day. We reached Onyx summit around 14:30. From there we descended for about 2 miles to our first water resupply. A previous PCT through-hiker installed a water pump on a property he manages about a quarter mile from the trail. We hung out here for about half an hour filling our water containers and drinking some of the cold water. Along the way we passed a waypoint marked on our maps as "Animal cages". We saw a very sad lion and bear in small cages. Apparently these are used in film and television.

Then it was on towards Coon Creek Cabin, an abandoned camp, but along the way I had to bag a little peak while the others enjoyed the shade under some trees. From Coon Creek Cabin the trail climbs a few hundred feet and snakes around numerous little peaks along a ridge. It became tedious and tiring. We wanted to be at camp, but had set our goal on Mission Springs Trail Camp because there is a running spring there. We got there around 8:30. The sun was gone for about 45 min by then, but the near full moon provided enough light to negotiate the very well groomed trail.

While Kevin and I got our dinner preparations started we could see Matt's head light wandering around the trees close to camp in search of the spring. He quickly found it and filled his containers. We boiled some water for our respective dinner meals and were glad we had decided to bring a stove for some warm food. Initially we thought we'd forego it to save weight. After dinner we set up our "cowboy camps" (i.e., no shelter, just a tarp, insulation mat and sleeping bag) and went to sleep.

Cowboy camping

In the morning Kevin and I filled our water containers and we had breakfast which included hot oatmeal and some tea. By around 7am we got back on the trail which quickly drops to lower elevations in Mission Creek canyon with some nice big old trees. Further down fires had taken all the nice old growth trees and it was just grass and brush, which got us into the open and heat pretty quickly. Mission creek had decent water flow so we did not have to worry too much about water for the 10+ miles for which the trail follows the creek. There are numerous crossings at which I dipped my hat into the water to get brief cooling of my head. Getting to the middle of the day now we experienced our first 90+ F temperatures in areas where the breeze stopped. The hat would dry within 15-20 minutes.

At PCT mile 226 we took a longer break because we had a few hundred feet to climb out of the canyon (this was on the "downhill only" part of the hike.... like I said, we should have studied the contour lines) and it was the last water source for the next 6-7 files. So we drank all we could and topped of our containers.

The following 650 ft climb was tough in the heat with no breeze going. Once we reached the ridge the trail followed the rolling top of the ridge with lots of little ups and downs we really did not need. It was hot, hot, hot. We took a break up there and sat on some rocks, but they were too hot for me. I think sitting on them with direct skin contact would have resulted in burns. By this time temperatures were close to 100F (as later confirmed via archives of the close by NOAA weather station). We had to descend into a canyon and then climb out on the other side. This was followed by the crossing of the very white Whitewater River wash. It was extremely hot during this section. What kept me going was the wash supposedly had very good water flow. When I reached it, the first channel was completely dry and my hopes were sinking. If it was dry indeed, we'd have to do a 1 mile detour for water. The following channels were also dry! Now this thing is over a third of a mile wide and there was just one channel left. When I reached and saw the water I dropped my pack and submerged my upper body in the creek. The water was rather warm, but refreshing never the less. A breeze picked up and I got hints of feeling cold, how nice! We hung out here for a while filling water containers, drinking and eating since we knew there was a big climb coming.

Cooling off
Cooling off in Whitewater River

On the map it looked like a 600 ft climb just looking at the lowest and highest contour line crossed. In reality the trail has a few significant ups and downs in it so that there are 1300ft to climb! This after over 20 miles of hiking for the day and the heat. Fortunately it was now late afternoon and the winds were picking up. In fact some of the gusts where strong enough to make us pause. Out of food and with cramps setting in during breaks I decided to just pick a steady pace and go. The others also had to dig in to get this thing done.

I arrived at the truck just before dark. I checked in with Ziggy and Bear, got a cold gatorade from them and chatted a bit about what it's like to run the place. I asked them about all the through-hikers we'd met because I thought it was too late in the season to hike these southern sections of the trail in the desert. They agreed and said that this year a lot of people came late, probably because they got the idea to hike the PCT from the Movie Wild.

After a short rest we piled into my truck and headed up to Big Bear to retrieve Matt's truck. We arrived there after 11pm and transferred our gear. Matt and Kevin headed back to San Diego. By this time I had decided not to take on the 2.5 h drive home to arrive around 2am, rather I went back to Onyx Summit, pulled into a dirt road and crawled into the back of the truck for some sleep. I woke up at 4:30 and headed back home. Around Temecula I got into morning traffic, but still made it home just after 7am.

Hike Stats:

  • Distance hiked: ~51 miles
  • Elevation gain: ~6500
  • Time on trail: 35h ( incl. 1 camp night)

The heat made this a much tougher hike than the stats suggest. It was also very different from our typical hikes with all the overnight hikers and information exchange with them. The trail requires a lot of patience since the gradient is kept so small for easy walking that a lot and long switchbacks are needed. It is in very good shape and easy to walk, in fact a lot of the hikers we met wore just tennis or very light low top hiking shows. It's also nice that the trail avoids dirt roads wherever possible. Even when it follows the same canyon as a road a little single track path was created as far away from the road as possible. I guess that's the 'NS' in PCNST (Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail), the trails full name.

Another great one to remember! Especially the heat. I consumed almost 12 l (>3gal) of water on Sunday alone.