Warner Springs / Hwy 79 to Mt. Laguna / Laguna Mountain Lodge (66.8 PCT & alt miles)
The map described our Day 121 campsite as large and "beach-like." Huckleberry and I joked as we left our dinner locale at Warner Springs, wondering aloud if our campsite would have ocean waves, beach chairs, or even a tiki bar. Alas, the description was not all that accurate. What we found when we arrived was a wide area of somewhat sandy decomposed granite surrounded by dry grass and mature oaks. It was perfectly suitable for two tired thru-hikers, but nothing like a beach to these two west-coasters. We left in the predawn light and I hoped that the climb out of Cañada Verde into the rolling hills of the wide valley above would warm me up. The morning had a damp chill to it and as much as I felt cold now, I also knew that within a few short hours I'd probably wish for that coldness instead of the desert heat.
The low rolling terrain of Valle del San Jose was covered in dried grasses, beautiful in the early sunlight against the taller hills ringing the valley. On a rise to our left we saw some granite outcroppings and getting closer, recognized the formations from pictures we've seen and realized that we had arrived at Eagle Rock. Much like eating at the bakery in Stehekin, peering over the rim of Crater Lake, walking the knife-edge of Goat Rocks, or reaching the terminus marker, seeing this rock formation is one of the most anticipated moments of the entire PCT. The granite takes the shape of an eagle ready for flight, head to the left and wings open. When we reached her, she was basking in the golden hour sunlight and it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves. Huckleberry scampered up on the wings, we took some photos, then we basked in the sunlight before heading back to the trail. We continued through dry grassy meadows and then dropped into a small idyllic canyon that holds San Ysidro Creek. The canyon around the currently dry creek sheltered several campsites and I could imagine that it would be an oasis for NOBOs with a ready water source nearby. For us it still held a lingering coolness that was greatly appreciated as the day was warming up. Beyond the canyon the trail climbed through chaparral and brought us the base of the San Felipe Hills. At Barrel Spring located at the base of the Hills, an unopened package of Pop Tarts sat in the trough, so we took this trail magic to eat at our campsite as a treat. This is a rugged and waterless region traversed by 22 miles of the trail. We had sufficient water to get us to a well-maintained cache about 9 miles into these hills, where we planned to have 'hot lunch' and resupply with water that would take us through the end of the day tomorrow.
Climbing up into the San Felipes was a gradual but long ascending traverse and we appreciated every little shady portion of the climb (generally provided by the embankment, as there are very few trees or brush sufficient to produce shade). We had not gone very far when we were startled to hear three very loud gunshots just ahead of us. A few curves ahead we caught the blaze orange caps of hunters and, not sure if they saw us, I pulled out my Silver Shade umbrella to make us more visible. A few curves later, we came across the hunters. They had been aiming for a stag far across the valley and had not been successful. Relieved to know their direction of firing, we were still glad to leave them and their guns behind us as we continued our ascent into the hills. A little further down the trail, Huckleberry exclaimed "Look, another Horny Toad." This little one had scurried across the trail in front of her and settled into the sand just off trail. His darker coloration a perfect camouflage for these hills. We left him unmolested and continued on. In the early afternoon of day 122, deep in the San Felipe Hills, we came across a small cave ~2' across and maybe 5-6' deep. It is named for a long-time PCT hiker, Billy Goat and it's presumably his favorite hideout from the desert sun in this exposed stretch of trail. Basically it was the only substantial shade we had seen for miles. Past the cave we crossed back and forth over the spine of the hills and finally arrived at the renowned Third Gate water cache, on the dirt road leading to the third pipe gate north of Hwy 78. There were 3 gallons of water right at the trail and another 60-80 gallons 0.3 miles down the road, and we couldn't have been more grateful to whoever stocks this cache. We found a modicum of shade, and Huckleberry prepared Drunken Noodles and Idahoans for us while I worked to refill our water reservoirs and bottles.
After leaving the cache, the normal cool-down we expect in the late afternoon did not materialize, and both of us pulled out our Silver Shadows to fight off the heat. These are our mutipurpose rain/sun trekking umbrellas that we have carried since southern Washington to fend off the elements. We have not used them often during our trip, and so far have pulled them out primarily for rain. However, in the desert, they have proved their worth. A long-time hiker we met in Oregon hypothesized that these silver umbrellas help thru-hikers to levitate and that is why we cover so many miles daily. Well, Bill, I'm not convinced about the levitation, but it sure makes a hot desert day much more bearable. The sun finally dropped below the mountains to our west and we stashed our Silver Shadows, but even as dusk turned to twilight the heat of the day lingered. We continued on our way through the steep hills and made slow progress by headlamp towards our intended campsite under a dry waterfall. Far below us was a random paved road that had carried heavy traffic all day despite no other visible signs of civilization, and to distract ourselves we guessed where it might lead. Our ultimate decision was a huge swimming pool filled with ice water. I mean, what else would you want in the desert?
We finally arrived at our campsite and found that it was occupied! A fellow SOBO, Autumn Leaves, was in the space under the dry waterfall, so we found a second spot in the wash below the trail. We hadn't yet met but we have heard his name many times. In the trail register at Paradise Valley Cafe, we'd seen that he was only a half-day ahead of us and was planning to slow down, so we wondered where we might see him. We learned that he started quite early, nearly a month before we did. His significant other is flying out to meet him in Campo to hike the final mile with him, so he can't arrive a few days early. Instead, he's limiting himself to 15-mile days and exploring side trails, etc. We exchanged news on all the hikers we knew in common, and he asked which others were still behind us that he might see. By this time our tent was set up, and we all settled in to embrace sleep under the watchful gaze of a Cheshire Cat moon. The next day we chatted some more as we shared several miles before he branched off to an off-trail spring since he'd covered his allotted miles for the day and we continued on, not needing additional water. He filled us in on some of the flora of the desert that he'd been reading about on his Kindle, and we traded hiking and life stories.
By the time my alarm sounded, it had finally cooled off to just about pleasant. It was still warm enough that we had our morning cereal cold (instead of hot) and hoped to get some of the desert miles completed before the heat ratcheted back up. Day 123 was going to be a hard day, having both the last major climb of our journey and no on-trail water sources until our campsite 28 miles away. We had enough to get us there, but knew that we would have to conserve. On our short descent out of the San Felipe Hills, we had a stunning array of different desert flora all around us. As an added bonus, it was all basking in golden hour light. There were our newish friends the cholla, a slightly plumper and differently-branched Teddy Bear Cholla, and barrel cactus of various lengths. We passed tall and gangly ocotillo, that were just setting leaves, hopefully some SOBOs a few days behind us will see them in bloom. Yucca, agave, and some low dry wildflowers rounded out the slopes. We dropped down to the valley floor, crossed the highway, and headed across the sloping plain towards Granite Mountain through yucca mixed with rat bastard, fortunately growth was sparse and it rarely reached over the wide trail. We climbed steadily from the base of Granite Mountain at its northern slope and the traversed over the western slope before reaching a saddle at Rodriguez Canyon. From there we started a long meandering climb over the shoulder of Chariot Mountain and then up onto the ridges of Garnet Mountain. For the most part after we left the desert floor the vegetation was a mix of mazanita and the other mid elevation chaparral plants that we have grown accustomed to seeing since the San Bernadino Mountains.
We reached our water destination by headlamp, and set up camp nearby. While we had started the day with sufficient water to get here, it turns out that on the 123rd day of our hike we came across more trail magic than we have seen in a single day over the previous 122. The first was at Scissors Crossing, where we walked under the highway just beyond the San Felipe Hills. In the past this was the site of a huge and popular water cache complete with couches... imagine a "man cave" under the underpass. Due to trash, graffiti, and difficulty in maintenance it has been discontinued and cleaned up. The water report confirms that there is no cache, and not to expect to find water here. As we neared the underpass we saw a small sign that read H2O, and sure enough found 4 gallons of water there. We took advantage and drank 1 liter of GU Brew, then refilled that bottle. As the day continued to warm up, we were glad for that little bonus. Later in the heat of the afternoon, after the steep climbed out of Chariot Canyon, we found another surprise water cache with a few gallons near Mason Truck Trail (apparently in SoCal a Truck Trail is what we in NorCal call a fire road). Again we made a liter of GU Brew and refilled. As an extra treat, while we sat in the shade a Swainson's Hawk flew right over us as it rode the thermals above the canyon. Approaching Garnet Mountain there were two more bits of trail magic. First there was a strong cool breeze on the ridge that helped mitigate the heat, then near the Sunrise trailhead there was a small shopping bag labeled "Hope this helps a little. :) " Inside were bottles of Gatorade, a bag of Cheez-it's and some Starbucks Via instant coffee. We took one Gatorade to share and the Cheeze-Its, leaving the rest for another hiker. Gatorade and Cheez-Its have never tasted so good. Trail Angel, whoever you are, thank you! It helped a lot. Just after dark we were descending towards Kwaaymii Point, with less than a mile left to hike for the day. We saw a bunch of headlamps and car lights and thought people were camping at our water source. It turns out we weren't quite there and had come across a popular stargazing spot. We met a couple of guys and 6-year old Avery who had set out blanket, chairs, and telescope cameras for the evening. They offered us Halloween candy, drinks, and even an entire submarine sandwich, insisting they didn't need it. Since we were close to camp and dinner, and we only took them up on the Halloween candy. While we noshed, we all traded hiking and stargazing stories. They were all super cool and I asked Avery whose trick-or-treat candy we were eating, what his costume had been. He proudly replied, that _we_ (pointing to his dad) were the Blues Brothers. We gave him a high five for an awesome costume and his dad seemed relieved that we didn't mind that his 6-year-old knew about 80s cult classics. All in all, it was the best day for trail magic.
Fun Fact: For nearly all of SoCal's Sections B & A, the PCT is within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This park is 916 square miles in area, making it the largest state park in California and the second largest park in the lower 48 states. It has been wonderful to see this much public land so close to major urban areas. Each night, as we hike on ridges by headlamp and see city lights below us, I am so glad that this land has been set aside and preserved.
Day 124 started at our usual "time" according to the sun, though it was an hour earlier according to the clock as daylight savings ended as we slept. We follow the rhythm of the sunrise and sunset and already maximize our use of daylight hours. We wanted to keep that flow going for our last few days regardless of what the clock says. I did set double alarms since I keep my phone in airplane mode and was not sure if it would still make the time change (it did). We had no trouble getting up at our usual time although the clock read an ungodly hour. As we hiked into dawn we noticed a lot of orange tape along the trail with fresh flour dots at each corner. We were wondering if there had been a trail race yesterday or even today. Sure enough, not an hour later, a race photographer came running towards us. It turns out that we were about to cross paths with the Mt. Laguna Trail Marathon. We cheered the runners on as they passed and many of them cheered us on for being almost done with our thru-hike. With only 10 miles to hike and our "early" start (by the new clock time), we arrived in Mt. Laguna mid-morning. John, the innkeeper/shopkeeper at Laguna Mountain Lodge, welcomed us gruffly at first with an invitation to leave our packs outside, but warmed up quickly. He clearly has tons of experience with thru-hikers, though he said he's only seen 10-15 SOBOs this year. In contrast, he sees thousands of NOBOs. We told him a significant portion had dropped out by the time we saw them in OR, and he assured us that he has personally taken at least 12-15 "down the mountain" each year who decide by Mt. Laguna (~40 miles in) that thru-hiking isn't for them. This is another big difference between NOBOs and SOBOs, because Rainy Pass, the first road crossing where you could conceivably bail, is over 100 miles in and has nothing but a trail head parking lot. We asked if he had a room available and as he checked us in he gave us two "magic buckets" and some laundry soap. Gruff on the outside, but clearly a teddy bear, he said they were for the hiker laundry, "so you guys don't mess up the plumbing," but could also be used to soak feet, carry stuff, etc. He clearly knows hikers. He joked with us that as SOBOs we had it made since it was all downhill from here and we were already in shape, unlike the NOBOs he sees who still have the entire trail ahead of them. However, he thought that we were all crazy. With a shared laugh, we headed to our room, looking forward to showers, hiker laundry (with buckets!), and lunch at the nearby Pine House.
More milestones came tumbling down in this section. We reached the final podium stage, the 100 mile mark, just before we saw the hunters. It really feels surreal to realize that we have hiked 2550 miles and have so little distance to go. Also surreal that we think 100 miles is a short distance.... The morning of Day 124 also marks the beginning of the podium days, 3 days left until we reach the southern terminus, Mile 0, and the end of this journey. It's a day that I am looking forward to and have no regrets.
We continue to reminisce as we hike and have been talking a lot about wildlife. Today's top ten list is our favorite "fauna" seen along the PCT.
10.) Trout, various Sierra Lakes and Creeks, CA
9.) Juvenile Black Bear who walked just in front of us in LeConte Canyon, Sierra Nevada, CA
8.) Albino Banana Slugs, Suiattle River watershed, WA
7.) Marmots, North Cascades, WA (We were shocked not to see any in the Sierra!)
6.) Porcupine, Palisade Creek, Sierra Nevada, CA
5.) Pacific Tree (Chorus) Frogs, Cascades, WA
4.) Tarantulas, Southern CA
3.) Sandhill Crane, Three Sisters Wilderness, OR
2.) Mountain Goats, Lake Basin near Scout Pass, WA
1.) Horny Toads, Southern CA