Grass Valley Creek to Hwy 18 / Big Bear Lake (51.9 PCT Miles)
On the morning of Day 113, we left the Pilot Fire burn zone behind us and were happy to do so. As we dropped back down the flats we saw the Mojave Forks Dam ahead of us, and it was surprising to see a huge dam with no water. We were a little confused as to why the dam was built in the first place, and a little internet searching (cell service is pretty much everywhere in SoCal) revealed that this is a flood control dam at the confluence of the Mojave River and Deep Creek. With that little nugget learned, we proceeded down under the spillway of the dam, forded Deep Creek and then climbed up the far side and started a long traversing climb high up on the walls of Deep Creek Canyon into the San Bernadino Mountains.
Deep Creek Canyon was a completely unexpected treat. I would have never thought that we would be walking along flowing water for almost 15 miles in the SoCal mountains! The ridges above the creek look like the surrounding desert foothills; sand and granite slopes are covered with sagebrush, mountain mahogany, yucca, and the other chaparral species. Down in the canyon along the creek there are many deciduous trees in contrast - primarily oaks, but also aspen, willows, and maples to name a few. As we ascended up the canyon a few conifers started to appear, a few Jeffrey pines down along the creek and then as we neared the end the canyon we started to see Pinyons and more Jeffrey pines but now as the dominant species. The spectacle of seeing so much flowing water in what was otherwise desert was astounding. Additionally, the deciduous trees showing their autumn colors just added to the beauty of the day.
Along the first few miles of the canyon, there were some unfortunate reminders that we were in a popular day use area. There was a lot of trash along the trail and spreading down the slopes towards the creek and a lot of spray painted graffiti on the granite walls and boulders along the trail and sometimes even in the creek itself. In some areas, the granite has been painted a khaki brown to cover up graffiti, but that also looks weird. Some of these painted areas have even been re-tagged with graffiti. To me it is both sad and mind boggling that someone would think that it is okay to tag granite in the first place.
Climbing up onto the trail that would take us into Deep Creek Canyon, Huckleberry and I were greeted by one of the locals. S/he was the largest of the 3 tarantulas that we have seen in the desert regions of SoCal. This particular spider was trucking along next to the trail and stopped as we passed. I turned around to get a few photos. Tarantulas are pretty cooperative wildlife for photos, so I left her/him to get along with the rest of day without further molestation. About a mile later, we came across a warm and lazy Western Diamondback Rattlesnake hanging out on the trail. It was slowing slithering off the trail, so we decided to let it finish getting off of the trail before we scooted quickly past and continued down the trail. Apart from several small lizards, ravens and jays, there were no other critters along the trail.
Since leaving Wrightwood, we have not seen another trail user on the PCT. In the early afternoon, we met a trail runner out for a 20 mile out-and-back loop from Splinters Cabin. The only others we saw were day users at the Deep Creek Hot Springs. About 8 miles from the dam there are several hot springs that feed into the creek. These springs have been plumbed with pipes with concrete and locally-sourced stone has been used to create pools. It is a clothing-optional location so there was quite an eclectic mix, and even on a hot sunny mid-week day in late October, there were heaps of people enjoying the area around the springs. We had many miles to go but did stop for a foot soak during our lunch break. While there we met Dr. Dre, a NOBO from last year who had to leave the trail early who returned as a completer this summer and was now heading out to hike the lowest to highest route. We shared stories about this section of trail and were struck by the strange reverse symmetry of finishing our hike through the same sections where he was still fresh on the trail for his hike. We mentioned the NOBOs from last year (Hot Mess & Iron Chef) who we met on Mt. Whitney, who had just completed the lowest-to-highest route. Although he'd never met them he had heard of them, "they're famous, aren't they?" We had to admit that we were clueless about their celebrity status - perhaps it's a NOBO thing. In any case, it was good to have some interactions with others and at the same time it was a little odd to see so many people after not seeing any at all for several days. The other reason it is weird is because we know that there are several SOBOs only a half-day to a few of days ahead of us, and even more a day or so behind us. Once again, it highlights how we are all traveling similar paces now and how difficult it can be to catch up or be caught along the trail unless somebody stops.
Reluctantly, we left Deep Creek behind us and continued our climb into the San Bernardino Mountains. Once again we were in the transition zone between chaparral and the higher elevation species. Huckleberry and I were both struck by the sense that almost everywhere in the SoCal mountains has undergone a burn at one time or another. There is evidence everywhere of burned trees and subsequent regrowth. It is a bewildering overlapping quilt of recent burn zones like the Blue Cut and Pilot fires and then areas that burned 15-25 years ago, based on the regrowth we noted. It really does highlight that this is a fire-adapted landscape. The trail followed the drainage of Holcomb Creek and we ascended this canyon, crossing the creek several times but never spending long within earshot of the running water. Some of these crossings were more straightforward than others (especially by headlamp) as many were overgrown by dense vegetation, but it all worked out in the end. We arrived at our campsite after dark and set camp on a sweet granite knoll surrounded by Coulter pines.
Day 114 started with a sky painted red and pink in the clouds and quickly transitioned to overcast grey. It was a spectacular view and we took a few moments to savor it since we could not appreciate the views from our campsite arriving after dark the previous night. It was also cooler, a welcome change as the previous day had been very hot and sunny. Over the course of a few miles the terrain shifted from open granite outcroppings and scattered trees, to more densely forested slopes. We enjoyed the persistently cooler weather and it felt good to be back in the mountains again. After a few longer hiking days, we were happy to have a relatively short 24 mile day to get into Big Bear Lake for resupply and a town night. The trail actually approaches the namesake lake from the north and does a large "C" around the lake, so we had views of the lake and town several hours before arriving at Hwy 18. Rain was predicted, so we were happy to be headed indoors for the night. While on the ridge above the lake, I called the hostel where we were staying and arranged to be picked up at the highway crossing. We spent a peaceful evening vegging in front of the fireplace in the great room at the hostel.
On this section of trail, we crossed another big milestone, the 300 mile mark. To borrow some competition-related terminology, we are in the "podium hundred miles" of our journey. We have just 300, then 200, then 100 miles remaining - bronze, silver, and gold. It seems a very long time ago, somewhere in Washington, when we had hiked our first 300 miles and the idea of hiking another 2350+ miles seemed both insurmountable and unreal. Yet here we are with fewer than that many miles remaining and it seems like we are almost at the border.
During the past few weeks we have seen a transition in what we crave. Before it was different foods such as fresh fruit or baked bread. Now our cravings are about rest and relaxation. I have thoroughly enjoyed the trail and cherished all the time that Huckleberry and I have spent together out here. Our mind and souls are recharged, but physically we are both exhausted. Oddly enough, 114 days of hiking 12-14 hours every day wears on you after a bit! When we talk about cravings on the trail, it now revolves around terms like leisure, languish, and lollygag. We dream of activities like sitting on a couch and reading the paper, doing the crossword, and above all not carrying a backpack for 12 hours a day. We are still enjoying every day on the trail, but we certainly are ready to be done. Fortunately this feeling has come about when we have only 300 miles to go, and as thru-hikers say, you can do anything for only 300 miles.