Southern California Desert: Thru Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the Summer of COVID-19

  • Updated: June 19, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

May 5th to June 19th
702 miles, 46 days
Campo to Kennedy Meadows 

During the summer of 2020 while absolutely nothing was going on in the world I thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Since all I had with me was my phone I wasn't able to do my usual style of blog posts on this site and had to settle for posting pictures on my Instagram / Facebook story quasi daily (which you can still see archived by clicking on the little circles here.

That still left me wanting to better capture the experience especially since this year was so unique. I don't have the temperment for a typical vlog (which would have been a lot of "today my feet hurt and I'm tired") so I decided that I'd do a post for each major section relating some of the highlights of my adventure. This covers the first 700 miles of the trail from Campo up to Kennedy Meadows. Stay tuned for posts about the Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and of course Washington.

The Southern California section of the Pacific Crest Trail tends to get a lot of flack from hikers due to the high temperatures and lack of water. In fact it seems like so many people are so focused on rushing through it in anticipation of the Sierra they don't properly appreciate all it has to offer.  

While it is labeled as desert the trail runs through a wide variety of terrain. Desert scrub gives way to local mountains, lakes, hot springs, big grassy plains, and so much more. Tired of what you're seeing? Wait a day and it'll probably change. (Well, except for around Tehachapi where if you're anything like me you're going to get really really sick of wind farms!)

Along the way I did encounter heat waves, earthquakes, water borne illness, an achilles injury that almost ended my hike, and the occasional curfew due to civil unrest. But looking back it's the section I look back at the most fondly since it was such an iconic start to the trail.

Circumstances & Challenges

I was solo for the first 500 miles or so of this section. My girlfriend Jen is a high school teacher and our original plan was that I would start alone, she would join me for the 10 weeks of her summer break, and then I'd be on my own again when she had to go back to work. 

Once COVID-19 hit and her school went fully remote she was able to teach classes from a laptop using her cellphone as a hotspot. That allowed her flexibility to live out of her car and follow along in the general vicinity of my hike. 

This gave me the flexibility to avoid many of the early towns and just be resupplied by her on the side of the road. While towns were generally open for business (with the exception of Warner Springs which was limited to a community center on the outskirts) things were still very much up in the air and I felt a lot better starting out this way. 

An added bonus to the situation was that Jen could easily hike in and camp with me some nights and even joined me for the occasional weekend section here and there. So even though she wasn't with me full time on the trail until Hiker Town she was still able to share in much of the experience.

My start date of May 5th was relatively late and so I knew I had to keep up a reasonable pace and that I'd be dealing with high temperatures. I had to endure several multi day heatwaves where it got up to the mid 90s or low 100s and there wasn't always a lot of shade. (Ironically the people who started in March had the opposite problem with a storm dropping record amounts of snow in the local mountains)

Many hikers deal with the heat by either starting very early and taking a midday siesta or doing a lot of night hiking. While I enjoy night hikes I really didn't want to miss the scenery along the way. I preferred a reasonably early start and then I only took a long midday break when I absolutely had to since I tend to get ancy sitting still. 

Fortunately the worst of the heat waves seemed to mostly correspond with days where I was crossing under freeways and I had several nice breaks in tunnels with relatively cool air being blown at me. And if it was less than mid 90s I could generally just hike through the day like normal.

Dry sections where you have to carry more water do exist but the longest I faced was only 25 miles or so and they were often significantly shorter. Thanks to Guthooks I had a reasonable level of confidence in what sources were going to be usable and several of the roughest parts were supplemented by caches maintained by volunteers.

On the plus side the days themselves were so long that I could usually hike until 9pm or later without even having to pull out my headlamp and the warm weather made evening or night hiking really pleasant. 

Other issues I had in this section included a bout of giardia likely caught on my warmup trip along the Condor Trail which resulted in having to spend 4 days of absolute misery in Julian, an achilles issue that came the closest of anything to forcing me to quit the trail near Tehachapi, and shoe struggles exacerbated by the fact many stores were closed due to COVID-19 and mail delivery was being inconsistently delayed.
Also during my time hiking this section the killing of George Floyd triggered mass protests and curfews across the country. I had missed all of this and found out what was going on when I finally came back into reception and my phone blew up with news alerts and emergency notifications.

And there were even a few moderate earthquakes to top everything off. Fun times in the Southern California desert!

Getting Started

So here I was after 10+ years of thinking that maybe someday I'd hike the PCT. I had no job or apartment to worry about holding me back. I had a girlfriend who was fully in support of me hiking and would be hiking with me for about half of the trail during her summer break. And the Sierra had even cooperated with a low snow year making entry into that section a lot more flexible.

Everything seemed to be perfect. And then COVID-19 hit the US. 

Things were shut down. The online PCT communities went from excitement about the upcoming hiking season to debating whether it was still ok to hike or not and then descended into a whole lot of yelling. And toilet paper and hand sanitizer became sold out everywhere for some reason.

After a lot of research and soul searching I decided my hike was still on. I had a plan where I could skip towns as needed and be resupplied by my girlfriend Jen at least for the first month or so. This gave me a little more comfort with the situation but I still wasn't 100% confident that this was all going to work out.

I still wasn't fully recovered from my recent 191 mile warmup jaunt along the Condor Trail. My ULA pack had broken and needed to be sent in for repairs. The Hoka boots I had planned to use on the trail started causing me so much pain I had to switch back to my old heavier approach shoes since no place was open to try on new ones. The weather showed some significantly hot days ahead and there was hiker from a previous year on Facebook telling people it wasn't worth trying to hike across the desert when it was this hot and encouraging people to skip forward. But why sweat the small -ish stuff?

Finally the day arrived! Jen and I left the AirBNB in Visalia where we'd been doing our final prep and drove towards San Diego stopping in Orange County just long enough to pick up the last of my gear from our mailbox. 

Jen's little car was a bit cluttered between the hiking gear and other supplies since we'd been living out of it between hikes and AirBNB stays. While I was sorting through hiking gear in the parking lot I had a nice women approach me thinking we were homeless trying to get us to go to a local shelter with her.

I didn't think I looked that homeless. At least not yet...

My PCT long distance permit was for starting on May 5th so I'd originally thought to camp down by the border on the 4th and start early the next morning. But now with everything locked and loaded that seemed a little silly. There had been reports of others encountering rangers and not being hassled for starting on the wrong date since there were so few people out anyway so I figured leaving the night before would be ok. 

Campo : Mile 0

The southern terminus is located near Campo an old military town just north of the Mexican border. You drive down a dirt road and there's a few open areas to park and a slightly unassuming monument marking the official start point for the 2,653+ mile trek to Canada.

(The fence in the back is the US / Mexico border wall. It was replaced with a new one featuring slats during this hiking season.)

When we arrived there was no one around except for a few border patrol vehicles that always seem to show up and watch anytime I've been near the wall. The trail register book showed a handful of people starting every day but it was a nothing compared to the usual 50 a day that get issued PCTA permits.

Books like this are positioned all along the trail and provide a great way to keep track of who is ahead or behind you. By the time I reached Washington I was catching up with people whose names I had been seeing for months. 

Also note how people were using real named at this point but most of us would soon be going by more unique trail names. Jen and I would eventually go by Tasty Taters and Masochist.

After getting the requisite starter pictures I gave Jen one last hug, waved goodbye for now, and set off northward.

I've seen videos online of people in this section whooping with joy and skipping down the trail but I was in a weird mood. I've had enough things go wrong on my various adventures that I tend to get a bit superstitious about becoming too attached to the idea of reaching the end goal since that seems to taunt the universe into having things go wrong. 

This was also by far the longest trip I'd ever attempted. I'd done a few 10-16 day hikes here and there but this was going to take me 4-6 months. 

It was also quite hot and there was almost no one around. When I passed the campground just down the trail from the terminus there were a few guys in a truck eyeing me from a distance but other than that it was completely dead as I followed the trail through town and past a private property sign that warned to stay out unless you're on the PCT.

I hiked for about 5 miles, made dinner next to a nice little flowing stream, and set up camp around dark still not having met a single person. I spent the short time before falling asleep making the first of what would be a long series of Instagram / Facebook posts sharing what I was doing and ended up with over a hundred people cheering me on and a few expressing various levels of disapproval.

The next morning I was feeling more like myself and set off with a spring to my step that even temperatures in the 90s couldn't fully suppress. 

Hauser Creek was the first proper introduction to the heat which would be a constant challenge for much of this section. 500 dusty feet down and then 1000 back up the far side all without much in the way of tree cover except for at the bottom where are least there was water. There were trucks and helicopters working on the oil pumps but no sign of other hikers. A huge difference from other years where I've heard of people camping with 10+ people down there!

In fact I didn't run into my first fellow thru hikers until I was almost to Lake Morena at mile 20. It was damned hot and I was hoofing it over a hill focused on just reaching the campground and water when I came around a corner and there were two people huddled in a small scrap of shade. I was slightly out of it due to the heat and I'm pretty sure I barely managed a coherent hello as I passed.

I'd run into Shane aka Bilbo and Missy aka LumberJill a few times over the following week and we ended up spending an afternoon waiting out the worst of the heat and chatting.

We ended up keeping in contact all the way until Northern Washington. In fact Bilbo was the first person I saw right after I finished! 

It's actually kind of amazing to look back through pictures of this section and see how many of the people I became well acquainted with in Washington were first encountered in SoCal only to have one of us pull ahead or drop behind for the interim. 

Lake Morena Campground : Mile 20

In Lake Morena the campground was officially closed but the host had unlocked the bathrooms for us and the water was on at the individual sites both of which were highly appreciated.  When I arrived there were another 3 hikers waiting out the heat of the day including the people I'd later come to know as Hulk and Plinko. 

There was a general store down the road which was reportedly open but they didn't want you waiting inside for any length of time due to COVID. I was anxious to continue anyway so I chatted for a bit, chugged as much water as I could, and off I went.

The next few days were warm but manageable and fortunately there were still plenty of flowing water sources in addition to the occasional fun sign like this.

There were generally more flowing water sources than I expected though they were often a bit stagnant or questionable like this stock tank at Sunrise Trailhead in Anza Borrego. But hey, that's why I had a filter right?

Speaking of a filter I was using a Katadyn BeFree that I'd soon come to hate with an overwhelming passion. When it's new the flow rate it spectacular and I had it paired with a 3 liter hydrapak bag that was quite convenient for filling multiple bottles. At least until I used it for a week or two and suddenly I was having to squeeze with all my might to just get a small trickle of water.

After replacing the filter multiple times and trying every piece of advice I could find online about cleaning it I eventually switched to the same Sawyer Squeeze on a Smartwater bottle that everyone else I was meeting seemed to be using. 

Partially due to the Katadyn struggles I was only filtering selectively at this point. I could blame that on a filter mishap I'd had a week or two ago on the Condor Trail or the fact that I was used to barely ever filtering in the Sierra and remote wildernesses where I spend most of my time but the reality was that it was just a dumb move and I was about to pay for it. But more on that in a minute...

Scissors Crossing / Julian : Mile 77

I reached Julian on May 8th after having come a total of 77 miles and it was an absolutely brutal day. It was in the mid 90s again and I had a long water carry after filling up at the quasi questionable source above. Despite dragging 6 liters of water across the 20 something mile stretch I was basically out by the time I reached Scissors Crossing. I ran into another rare pair of thru hikers under the bridge but again I was struggling to speak coherently due to the heat.

While I'd skipped the other towns so far the Julian Market had been posting on Facebook asking hikers to come in and I decided to try it as an experiment. So I pulled out my buff, plopped down on the side of the road, and tried to hitch with all the limited enthusiasm by heat addled brain could manage. 

After maybe 20 minutes a pair of trail angels whose names I really wish I'd written down came by and picked me up. They were the first of many many locals along the trail who expressed support of those of us who were still hiking and their frustration at the PCTAs stance on the issue. 

In retrospect I kick myself because they tried to offer me a place to stay for the night but in the moment I was all fired up to get in, get cold drinks, meet Jen, and then get back on the trail where she was going to hike with me for at least a day.

They dropped me off in the middle of town where I bought some cold drinks and a cookie and sat on a bench outside to wait for Jen. And that's about when I started to realize something was wrong. 

I found I could barely get down the gatorade and soda despite having fantasized about them for hours. Similarly when Jen arrived with the cold beer and pizza I could barely eat. 

My stomach was feeling a bit off and we spent a good while driving around trying to find someplace to camp with an open bathroom but everything in Anza Borrego was taped off and locked thanks to COVID. We ended up driving to where the PCT crosses Montezuma Road and finding a place to set up the tent to see how I felt in the morning.

There's a running joke about how you're going to shit your pants at least once on any major thru hike and I suppose it was better that I got it out of the way early.

After a really really rough night filled with desperate scrambles out into the bushes to dig emergency catholes we decided it was best to find a room until I started feeling better. I was fairly sure I had giardia based on past experiences and I'd come prepared with a flagyl prescription in my first aid kit. So I didn't have to waste time trying to find a doctor I just needed a place with a bathroom to survive the next few days.

Which was easier said than done as Julian can be rather touristy aka expensive at the best of times and the shutdown situation wasn't helping that. We drove out to the Apple Inn only to find they didn't even have drinkable water and eventually ended up at the Julian Inn.

We proceeded to stay for 4 miserable days each morning extending for one more day and explaining to the nice folks who run the place how I was sick but not with COVID.

I tried my damndest to leave on the 11th. Despite how bad I was feeling every part of me that wasn't attached to a toilet was screaming that I needed to get moving. But that just wasn't happening.

Finally on the 12th I was feeling sufficiently better and it was time to go. Jen drove me back to Scissors Crossing and I took off up the hill anxious to make progress. At this point I'd now had as many days off the trail as actually hiking.

Fortunately I came back strong and had a glorious 25 mile day! (Also I started filtering religiously and I'd continue to do so for the rest of the trail.)

Jen was even able to hike in at the far side and camp with me that night. Things seemed to be back on track.

Warner Springs : Mile 109.5

Warner Springs was the first time I ran across a significant number of day hikers. I skirted the town itself since I'd seen online they were asking people to stay away except for the visitors center on the outskirts which was very kindly offering limited services through the fence for small donations.

The day hikers were a mixed bag. There was a general air of nervousness coming off people though a few chatted and asked me about my hike. I even ran into one lady who had done part of the PCT the previous year and kept trying to offer me rides or any other help she could possible provide. She related how her and a friend had set up some elaborate trail magic complete with grilling hamburgers only to have just two PCTers come by the entire day. It was a weird year for anyone trying to do trail magic.

I loved the expansive meadow views through this area and the appropriately named Eagle Rock.

I had started out planning to do about 15 miles a day but usually I was managing around 20 without having to do anything to extreme like wake up early or force myself to hike fast. Usually my feet were plenty happy to be done when I pulled over at the end of the day but the trail makes for easy going relative to some of the other things I'd been doing lately.

Mike's Place : Mile 127

The water tank outside of Mike's Place is one of the few water sources in a really dry section. I didn't see anyone at the trailers below as I filtered water out of the tank and chatted with another hiker named Lost Larry who among other accomplishments had hiked the PCT way back in 1981 back when it still wasn't "complete" and involved a lot of road walks.

After that came another 20 mile dry stretch until another tank at Mary's Place. There was one option for water along the way which was a cracked cement cistern. The water inside was such a deep green that I ended up sitting in front of it for a good ten minutes having an internal debate. I'd look at it, look at my filter, and then look at the dwindling supply of water that I was carrying and would have to make last through the night. In the end I decided it was better to save my filter and just pushed on with what I had.

Mary's Place : Mile 145.4

Mary's Place is a privately owned are located along the trail at the north end of that dry section and it quite literally has everything a hiker could want. It's yet another privately owned piece of property that someone maintains and allows hikers to use free of charge or for donations. In addition to a water tank that Mary keeps filled there's shade, tables, camping, a library, an outhouse, and even a shower utilizing a small jug that you fill by hand from the tank.  I was sorely tempted to take a shower but considering I was supposed to meet Jen at Paradise Cafe that morning I had to push on.

Paradise Cafe : Mile 151.8

On May 16th I arrived at Paradise Cafe. Jen had come to hike with me for the weekend and with help from our friends and former WTC students Barbara and Roland she dropped a car in Idyllwild and then came back to meet me at Montezuma Valley Road.

Being fully past the giardia issue by now I was quite ready for a nice juicy burger and all the ice filled drinks I could get down. Paradise Cafe was open and they were doing a brisk business though you had to sit outside to eat. Asking the staff about masks provoked a loud "We believe this is a free country and you can do anything you want" and there were a steady stream of bikers and tourists coming and going with only the occasional hiker.

I was feeling a bit run down but of Jen of course was completely fresh and so handled the windstorm that hit us later that day up on desert divide with a bit more aplomb. So I was nice and let her do the .25 mile walk down to get water while I set up camp and tried to hold down the tent and sleeping pads with my body.

I had heard so much fearful chatter over a rock fall in this section that I half expected to see the entire mountain had come down leaving a cliffhanger style traverse. Instead there was a boulder that you could easily step down around and someone had even rigged it with a handline. 

Incidents like this weren't uncommon and I'd have multiple experiences further north where Facebook posts or Guthook comments would claim a section was impassible only to find it was at worst mildly inconvenient. My advice would be to ignore fearmongering from other hikers and go and see things for yourself. See it with your own eyes and make a safety call based on your own comfort levels since you can always turn back at that point.

Idyllwild : Mile 179.4

On May 17th we hiked down into Idyllwild where Jen had left her car.  I originally intended to get a bite to eat with her and then hike back up to Saddle Junction to camp since I was all about not camping in town. On the way down the hill that turned into staying the night, getting food and a shower, and leaving the next day with the justification that I could shop for new shoes.

As I mentioned previously the COVID shutdown had closed all the stores right when I'd needed to replace a pair of Hoka's that had started causing me pain during one of the warmup trips. With no option to try on replacements I'd had to fall back on the Boulder X approach shoes that I use for hiking in the Sierra.

Unfortunately even after going up a size the Boulder X's were just too hot for what I was doing and too narrow for my battered feet that had continued to swell from hiking long hours day after day.

We made the best of the situation and managed to get a cabin at the Idyllwild Inn. One positive effect of the COVID shutdown was you could now get margaritas to go. Between that and the hot shower there was much happiness that night.

The next morning we had breakfast and went shopping. 

Nomad Ventures in town was open but you couldn't go inside the store. Instead there was a guy on the porch who you could ask for a thing and he'd bring it out for you to try. I ended up buying an old 2.5 model of size 14 Lone Peaks and a pair of hiking shorts.

I had been dead set against hiking in shorts not wanting the skin damage / sun exposure but I was having a hell of a time managing sweat and my hiking pants just never seemed to dry out.

The Lone Peak 2.5s ended up working just wonderfully for me. Unfortunately the issue was that they don't make 2.5s anymore and I'd managed to buy one of the last size 14s in existence. So my shoe problems were far from over. (The current model is the Lone Peak 4.5s which have other issues you'll see later.)

I felt amazing hiking back up the trail from Humber Park and I was cheered up even more when I ran into some day hikers at Saddle Junction who were super excited when they found out I was on the PCT. After years of being excited to come across people doing the PCT I was enjoying the chance to be on the other side. 

I knew I had weather coming in though it was supposed to hit late in the afternoon. The wind was already picking up significantly so when I came to a protected spot I decided it was better to stop early and I spent a pleasant enough night just slightly worried about the pinecones I could hear slamming down around me. Another group I ran into later who tried to push on had a bit of a rougher time.

After that came Fuller Ridge which I'd always heard about as one of those early season challenges due to snow. At this point I had to cross some annoying patches of snow here and there but I could always follow the trail. 

And then came the 8k descent down to Cabazon. For better or worse I had a strong bitterly cold wind providing encouragement to keep moving otherwise I might have been tempted to take some significant breaks to give my poor knees a rest. 

I made it down right before dark and set up camp at a protected spot by the water fountain provided by the company that owns the water rights to Snow Creek.

The next morning the wind was still blowing full force but now it was hot. After a short walk I reached the I-10 Oasis under the freeway.

I-10 Oasis : Mile 209.5

On a normal year this is a major hiker gathering point and there's a trail angel named Mama Bear that provides reportedly elaborate trail magic. However this is 2020 and I had the place to myself though there was water and a few random items left there.

Jen met me here to deliver another food resupply and had brought a chair, ice, and cold soda for me to enjoy while we packed. Unfortunately it was a bit early in the day and still quite cold out but it was a super sweet gesture.

I'd soon be thinking back to those drinkings with great longing as I left the I-10 and hiked through my first wind farm. By the time I reached Walker Pass I would be downright sick of them but at the time it was kind of neat walking past the massive turbines.

I'd looked at the map and elevation profile that morning and they hadn't looked that bad but the heat and barren terrain turned this next section into a real brutal slog with little water or shade. 

Hence why I was so happy when I reached Whitewater Preserve and saw the big glorious river. There were signs explaining that the facilities were closed and asking PCT hikers to just pass on through but that didn't seem to be stopping a number of day hikers I came across. I also ran into Stitch, Bilbo, and several other hikers I knew taking a long break right before the trail crossed and headed back into the dry hills.

And then came the section that many of my fellow PCTers really didn't like. The trail north of Whitewater drops into Mission Creek and climbs for a good six of seven thousand feet while becoming a bit lost amid all the downed trees and overgrowth.

I found it a bit annoying but I could generally follow the occasional duck or else just head up the canyon along the path of least resistance. 

After that came one of my more memorable camps at a developed group campsite which was of course closed due to COVID. I'd made a beeline for it hoping to take advantage of the pit toilet there only to find it was locked up sending me scrambling out into the trees. 

The site was based around a large cabin but since no one was around and it was late in the day I ended up spending the night inside this small structure off to the side.

Obviously the structure didn't help much for what was an unusually cold night but it made for a unique and rather cozy camp.

Big Bear : Mile 266

On May 23rd Jen joined me for another weekend as I hiked around the backside of Big Bear Lake. Big Bear had been one of those places that took the whole COVID-19 shutdown very seriously. Reportedly they had the sheriff going door to door booting people out of AirBNBs and famously there had been someone online threatening to shoot hikers along the trail. There was apparently a rather awesome trail angel named Kenny who was still open and hosting hikers but I decided to just pass the city by.

Deep Creek Hot Springs : Mile 307.9

On May 25st we reached Deep Creek Hot Springs. This place is somewhat notorious for overuse these days and depending how long it's been since volunteers have hauled away abandoned trash, clothing, and cheap tents it can be a magical experience or a complete mess.

You might think that with the stay at home order, COVID, and the closure of one of the access trails that there wouldn't be many people here jamming into small communal pools. However that would show a lack of experience with people this summer.

It was a zoo. We briefly soaked our feet in an mostly empty pool and then decided to push on as a steady stream of new arrivals made their way across the river.

After a long hot hike out to Mojave Dam where Jen had left her car we took the opportunity to get a hotel room. Nachos and a carne asada burrito in bed were my jam!

The next few days were particularly hot with temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s. Despite an early start I was soon staggering along an empty stretch of trail feeling like I was hiking inside an oven slightly regretting that mass of nachos I'd eaten the previous day.

The trail jumped over a hill and started along the shore of Silverwood Lake. Along the way there's an unofficial side trail leading down to the Chamise Boat-In-Site and I decided to head down there to ride out the heat of the day.

I didn't make it there until after 11 am and I was fried. Since I was stuck there until evening Jen hiked in some ice and cold drinks for me during her lunch break which was quite nice and helped me pass the time. We even had a brief dinner together later that evening when I crossed a road and she showed up with Subway sandwiches. Having your own personal trail angel has it's perks!

When I started the climb out of that area I was dragging badly and just wanted to get far enough up the hill to set up camp. But as the weather cooled I started feeling much better and I ended up happily hiking until well after dark and finishing the climb over to Cajon.

I-15 / Cajon : Mile 342

It was going to be quite hot again so I did another early morning sprinting for where the trail goes underneath the I-15. I set up to wait out the heat of the day under some train tracks nearby and started watching a TV show on my phone.

This spot is quite famous along the trail for having a McDonalds that hungry hikers like to visit. I'd normally go out of my way to avoid McDonalds but I felt like I should partake in the the full experience and choked down some disappointing fast food and mostly just enjoyed the cold drink.

Jen hiked in the short distance with her laptop and spent the time working and keeping me company while I struggled with just wanting to get moving. 

The next section involved a 6,000 ft climb up to the mountains south of Wrightwood and there was no water until a good ways past the top. Some people choose to slackpack this section meaning they leave most of their gear in a hotel and get a ride into Wrightwood and hike back with just food and water. But that didn't sound any fun at all!

I should have waited until at least 5 or 6 when it started to cool off but I just couldn't sit still that long. I ended up taking off around 4 pm and soon came to regret that decision as the next 4 miles or so were just brutally hot. 

Fortunately there was a water cache right before the long climb so I was able to fill up and drink enough water to at least partially recover.

Once again when the sun set and the heat died away I started to feel significantly stronger. I went from staggering along just wishing I could camp for the night to happily hiking until after 11 pm. I tend to find climbing more agreeable than downhills due to my knees and this one went particularly smoothly,

The next day hiking along the a ridge and past a number of ski areas was a bit of a struggle due to lack of sleep and the scarcity of water sources but at least the altitude gave me a break from the hear. Lunch I spent hiding inside a small structure waiting for a small trickle of water to fill my filter bad.

Towards the end of the day I was exhausted and just wanted to stop but I didn't have enough water. There was a visitors center with a water fountain which could be turned on manually but the water tasted so strongly of copper I couldn't get any of it down. So with little choice I ignored the pain in my feet and pushed on to climb the side of Mount Baden Powell.

I ended up camping just beyond the spring partway up the side of the peak and had a spectacular night.

Mount Baden Powell : Mile 378 

The next day I did a small detour to climb Mount Baden Powell itself and that morning was one of my happiest on trail. The weather was clear if a bit cold and breezy and it brought back memories of the first time I was up there when I'd just started to hike way back around 2007.

Pushing onward the trail north of the peak was a bit of a pain with some of the deepest snow drifts I had to deal so far but that just slowed me down a little. I also ran into a few interesting characters here like a guy who said his trail name was Puff who traveled around sections of the PCT giving out joints. Or the couple Boss and Hoss who had come from Europe and had to fly into Mexico and cross the border because of the COVID travel restrictions. Or the guy named Boston who appeared to be rather drunk even though it was before 10 in the morning.

After coming back down to Islip Saddle the trail proceeded to climb up most of the way to Mount Williamson only to drop right back down to the road. This is one of those parts I saw a few people skip and just walk along the road but I was determined to do every step and forced myself up and over.

After that the actual trail involved a road walk for a few miles around mile 390 due to a long term trail closure for the endangered Mountain Yellow Frog. Guthook comments showed a few people hiked through the closure but that seemed a crummy thing to do so I dutifully walked the road.

Pavement really sucks to walk on especially at the end of a long day. My feet were absolutely killing me with every single step and I was sorely tempted to just stop for the night at one of the roadside campgrounds. But I wanted to get in my miles and I really wanted to be away from the highway.

The reroute goes through Buckhorn Campground which appeared to be both closed and full of people despite the locked gates and bathroom. After that it dropped down a canyon to rejoin the PCT where I encountered the worst mosquitos I'd see until the Sierra. I was quite happy to have a tent.

A few days later I went through a section that was fairly overgrown requiring a bit of pushing through vegetation here and there. I read some loud grumbling about this section online but I could only think back to the tick infested brambles of the Condor Trail and appreciate just how easy it is walking down the PCT.

Meanwhile I'd managed to find some cell reception after being out of contact for a few days and my phone went nuts informing me there was a curfew. 

A quick check of the news showed that the police killing George Floyd had triggered protests and I had to do a double take at some of the pictures that popped up. When I posted my usual Instagram update I started getting text messages from friends back in LA saying I really didn't want to come back to town anytime soon. Once again I was really happy that I'd decided to hike this year.

Non hiking friends are always asking me if I'm afraid of bears, mountain lions, ect while out in the wilderness and I answer that while I'm respectful of wildlife I worry a lot more about humans. Because it's one thing to see a bear minding its own business in the distance and it's another to run across a random bandana wearing gentleman out walking his dog along the trail who apparently felt the need to carry a hatchet, large knife, and a pistol on his belt.

Agua Dulce : Mile 454.5

I reached Agua Dulce late in the afternoon of June 3rd. It was over 95 degrees and I probably should have been sitting in the shade instead of trying to make it through town but the curfew had me nervous. Technically I was homeless so I didn't think I could be made to go home but I had an image of a police officer rolling up and insisting on giving me a ride out of town. And I really didn't want to break my continuous footpath. 

So I pushed through the heat. In town most things were closed including the grocery store where I'd been fantasizing about buying a case of something cold and liquid. I ended up stopped at a pizza place nearby that would only let me order and eat out front. They had no beer or fountain drinks so I had to buy small $1 water bottles a few at a time and repeatedly guzzle them while waiting on a bench out front. During one of these periods I sat down and felt the entire building shake. Turns there had been a 5.5 earthquake located not far away.

I staggered through town and felt a great relief as the sun set dropping the temperature down from murderous to merely unpleasant. I ended up setting up camp after dark and awoke the next morning to high winds and raindrops hitting the mesh of my tent. 

I generally like to sleep without my rainfly which means if it does rain the drops hit the mesh and get transformed into small shotgun blasts of wetness. Which I have to saw is quite effective in triggering a fast wakeup. I didn't even bother making coffee or breakfast just threw everything in my pack and got moving.

The rain lasted for two days meaning I had the joy of setting up and pack away the tent in the rain. More than that though it was the high winds that made things cold and slightly miserable. Jen improved things one night by driving into a campground and drinking wine with me in the tent a few hours after I'd set up for the night but otherwise I was mostly just alone walking through the fog.

I hit the big 500 mile mark which felt really good and I was finally starting to feel like a legit thru hiker. Unfortunately I was also struggling with persistent achilles pain. 

For those who haven't had this particular ailment the achilles is one of those things you really can't just push through. If you do rupture or seriously injure the tendon you're talking a major recovery and that would effectively end my hike for this season.

I tried to stretch and use my poles to baby it as well as I could but that didn't seem to help. The advice I could find online mostly said to rest it which is hard when your daily plan involves waking up and walking all day with a pack. Reading PCT groups resulted in horror stories of people trying to just hike through the pain with ibuprofen and others having had their hikes ended completely. 

This section was the low point of the entire trail for me. Here I was finally doing the PCT and now I might be forced off the trail by an injury that came out of nowhere that I couldn't seem to get any improvement on. To make matters worse Jen was now done with school for the summer and June 7th was the day she was getting a ride out to Hiker Town to join me full time. 

The day before Hiker Town pain forced me to stop hours before dark and I was really depressed feeling like it just kept getting worse. Jen drove in with pizza and beer to try and cheer me up and assure me we could do whatever was needed.

The next morning I started late and ran into Bilbo and ended up chatting about geeky topics like Game of Thrones while we pounded out the 5 miles or so into Hiker Town.

Hiker Town : Mile 517.6

Ah Hiker Town, what can I say about it. It's a large fenced compound out in the desert right before the Aqueduct walk. It has a number of small buildings some of which have beds that you can stay in for the night in exchange for a donation and a large well equipped common area in front of the main house.

It caters to hikers and other transients and apparently has something to do with shooting movies explaining the large amount of fake guns around. At least that's what I was told.

There are countless stories floating around about sketchy things happening there. For example a few weeks before someone had $2,000 in cash stolen while staying there. (Don't ask me why a hiker was carrying $2k of cash)

Bilbo and I had barely walked inside and said hello to LJ when a gentleman came out of the main house and asked if we were thru hikers. When we said yes he said we needed to come with him to check in with the sheriff due to the riots. We'd only had cell reception intermittently but we knew there were mass protests going on and we didn't seem to have much choice but to go.

So we jumped inside and spent a slightly awkward car ride where the guy tried to convince the non CA residents that they would be put on a bus to the airport and forced to leave the state. Eventually he dropped us off at the Neenach Market, said he had been kidding, and encouraged us to go inside and spend money. 

Jen soon arrived dropped off by our friend and trail angel extraidanair Bill Vanderberg super excited to be finally joining me full time.

Inside it seemed like almost every other hiker I'd encountered over the last few weeks was there. We grabbed breakfast and some surprisingly good coffee from the market and spent some time visiting. 

This was the first time I'd been in an enclosed space with a group since the start of the whole COVID situation and it felt a bit...odd. I sat in the corner and kept my distance but it was nice to be able to socialize. As the season progressed it would start to become more and more normal for hikers to be in close proximity like this and to take greater precautions when it came to non-hikers.

A short while later we got a ride back to Hiker Town. The next stretch of the trail was the aqueduct which another one of those sections that seems to inspire an outsized amount of fear in many hikers. We sat around for a bit hiding from the now high winds only to have some hikers show up that we'd rather avoid. So we decided we might as well go.

The LA Aqueduct : 523.1

I'd heard so many stories about the aqueduct I wasn't quite sure what to expect. People talk about massive water carries or sleep disrupting night hikes to get through it but that all seems like a bit of overkill considering it is a dead flat 17 mile section of paved or well graded road. 

The wind was blowing so hard the biggest challenge was just staying upright.

We ended up leaving Hiker Town around 3pm carrying 4 liters of water each. We intended to go all the way to the water faucet on the far end but after about ten miles of getting slammed by high winds combined with my achilles pain and Jen not being used to longer days yet we decided to dry camp.

Even if you don't have high winds like us it's a bad idea to camp on the aqueduct itself as vehicles often drive it even in the middle of the night. However, if you look on either side of the road on in the latter section there are countless gullies and stands of vegetation suitable for camping. We managed to find a spot inside a particularly twisty gully protected enough from the wind that I could even set up our tent.

The next morning we finished off the remaining miles to the faucet. Incidentally the reason why the section is dry is that for most of the time the aqueduct is underground.

The oddest thing we ran into was the multiple doll heads hung off signs and in nests near one of the dirt road junctions.

Despite the easier terrain and my best efforts the achilles issue just didn't seem to be improving. After a particularly painful day where we once again had to stop hours before dark I reluctantly told Jen that I thought we should take a few zeros and see if that would let it recover. This was frustrating considering she'd only just joined me but I was just afraid I might not be able to continue at all if things continued like this. 

And so we ended up spending three nights in a hotel in lovely downtown Tehachapi. 

Tehachapi : Mile 566.4

Tehachapi is far enough from the trail that you really have to hitch in. There's a well organized group of trail angels out there and normally the trailhead has a whole list of contact information.

This year things were a bit more limited and apparently frustrations had run a bit high...

Fortunately Tehachapi is home to Cheryl Johnson trail angel extraordinaire. Following the advice of a Guthook comment we called her and soon had a ride into town. When we mentioned we really wanted mexican food she gave us a ride to Domingoes and then because it was a few miles from the hotel we'd booked she insisted we call her when we were done for a ride over there.

Cold beer and mexican food will almost always make me feel better and once we checked into the hotel and had a hot shower applied myself to stretching, icing, and doing everything I could to stay off my feet.  

We stayed at the Best Western and we ran into several other hikers we knew in the lobby. The next night we walked down to a local pizza place for dinner and ended up drinking and having a grand old time with Goat, Prof, Stitch, and Deadfoot. At least until the delicious cold beer we'd been enjoying came crashing down on our dehydrated hiker asses us like a load of bricks.

Thru hiker tip for you: try to stick to low percentage beer when when you've been hiking in the heat and dehydrated for days.

While they all at least attempted to hike out the next day we planned to stay for one more night which I really appreciated because the next section of trail was hard enough without a hangover.

In addition to resting we used the time to take care of things like laundry and figuring out food for the next section. There's a Walmart within easy walking distance of the hotel that had pretty much all the trail food we could ask for. 

I did a double take when I came across the picture above and saw we hadn't been wearing masks. Then I remembered this was before the mask mandate in the period where they couldn't even find enough for healthcare workers.

We left Tehachapi on June 12th. The trail crosses two roads with a long dry section in the middle that we saw a number of people skip. But since we were doing the continuous footpath thing we dutifully loaded up with an atrocious amount of water and pounded out the miles.

By the time we crossed the northern road (the 58) the wind had picked up to the point it was blowing my headphones out of my ears. Not that I could really hear anything over the sound of the wind howling across us. We staggered up the hill until we could find a reasonably sheltered campsite and gratefully huddled behind some trees.

My achilles was feeling a little better after the rest though it still bothered me once I was hiking again. Fortunately another hiker named Snow White showed me a trick of rolling my calf out with my hiking pole which I started doing religiously. Between that and being smart on how far we went every day I managed to keep moving and eventually work through the issue.

The next section was day after day of walking through wind farms. At first they were rather impressive in scale but we soon grew tired of both the sight and the sound of distance planes that you hear anytime you're close.

We were mostly hiking alone but by now it wasn't uncommon to come across other thru hikers here and there especially at the increasingly sparse water sources. That was always a treat for me since I was getting a bit starved for people to talk to compared with my pre trail existence. Also the connections I was making with others on Facebook would become really useful later on for keeping up with conditions.

Some sections through here would have been multiday water carries if not for the water caches maintained by dedicated volunteers. They mostly consisted of big 5 gallon jugs you could use to refill your bottles and were provided for free with the occasional pitch for donations to offset the cost.

It was at one of these that we had what was possibly the greatest occurrence of trail magic outside of that lady in Oregon that felt bad she didn't have a candy bar to give me like her friend and flashed me.

We were sitting at a cache filling our bottles in the morning heat when a guy drove up in a pickup truck. He hopped out, asked if we were PCT hikers, and then said he had a watermelon in his ice chest that we were welcome to.

It was pretty much the most refreshing thing ever.

Shade was at a premium out here so we had to make due with what we could find for our lunch breaks. Jen was carrying a sun umbrella (I'd sent mine back hundreds of miles back) but often she couldn't use it due to the wind.

Speaking of wind some evenings were very pleasant and some like where I took the picture above were so windy I couldn't even get our tent up without risking breaking the poles.

Walker Pass : Mile 652 

At Walker Pass a guy named Larry Pond who knew me from one of the classes I volunteer with back in LA offered to come out and meet us. Larry was waiting for us when we arrived at the Walker Pass campground with cold beer, gatorade, and lots of fruit which was just downright amazing after 43 days on the trail. He also went above and beyond and helped us get a replacement water filter after our Katadyn BeFree was so stopped up it was barely usable.

The timing even worked so that Jen was able to give him our next food resupply before she joined me at Hiker Town which saved us the need to hitch out to Ridgecrest. Because we were now at mile 650 and just about within spitting distance of the Sierra!

From there it was a few easy -ish days and 50 miles into Kennedy Meadows.

Kennedy Meadows : Mile 702.2

Kennedy Meadows is a glorious place for wrapping up the first major section. While there are limited facilities provided at the general store we and everyone else who was there at the time took the complimentary shuttle over to Grumpy Bear's / Triple Crown Outfitters where there was free showers, laundry, and of course food!

This beauty would be the Triple Crown Burger and manages to beat the old classic Grumpy's Burger for hiker appropriate calorie bombs. Yes, I ate it all and I even had room for nachos a few hours later. Here's to hiker hunger!

I was quite content to sit out on the deck and visit with friends over a beer or 5 but we did have some actual work to get done. After showers and laundry over at Grumpy's we hit Triple Crown Outfitters run by PCT legend / triple crown hiker Jackie McDonnell aka Yogi. She has her store in a shipping container across the street for Grumpy's and it's stocked with an amazing amount of stuff for the size. We bought some extra food to supplement what Jen had left when she dropped off the bear cans a few weeks ago since we planned to hike straight through 10 days to Vermillion Valley Resort without exiting to Lone Pine or Bishop.

By now the Altra Lone Peak 2.5's I'd been wearing since Idyllwild were getting pretty worn down. They'd worked amazingly well for me but unfortunately Altra had replaced that model several times over with newer versions that had other drawbacks. Despite heroic efforts by friends scouring around online we couldn't find another pair of size 14s anywhere.

Even without the unpredictable delays we'd had ordering from REI or Amazon lately I didn't want to order a different shoe without being able to try it on first. I knew TCO was a fully stocked outfitter and assumed I could find something there.

You know what they say about assumptions. Sadly while they did have a good selection of shoes they didn't have anything over a size 13 which was just too tight for swollen hiker feet. Considering how long of a drive it was from Kennedy Meadows to any other stores I was going to have to make due with my current pair until at least Mammoth. Doh!

Bilbo and company were there along with a few other random thru hikers making this the biggest gathering I'd seen so far. In addition our friends Barbara and Roland had driven out to visit again and we all sat out on the deck behind Grumpy's and chatted while watching the sunset.

Everyone else was turning in for the night when another former WTC student arrived and took me on a tour of some land he'd bought out there. It was after 11pm by the time I made it back and found Jen cowboy camping in the land between Grumpy's and TCO. It was so quiet out there you could clearly hear the various levels of snoring coming from other hikers scattered around. 

And with that we were done with the SoCal desert! The next morning we planned to set off into the Sierra after breakfast. And we had a bit of a haul planned because neither of us really wanted to waste a day exiting to the east side so our plan was to carry 10 days of food and haul ass for Vermillion Valley Resort.

Next up: The Sierra! And more shoe issues.

You Might Also Like