Through the Desert

Newt and Gillian leaving Hikertown

On May 4th, Newt and I headed out of Hikertown to begin this next week’s worth of PCT trail sections.  It was definitely going to be an unusual bit of riding, as we wanted to “connect the dots” with some areas that I earlier skipped due to poor conditions.  Those two areas involved mountains—Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. Baden Powell—where the remaining snow made it unsafe for the horses earlier.  But after some additional time, I was confident we could get through those places now, so after this last bit through the desert, we would head south again.

I planned a two-day ride with Newt, first to Tylerhorse Canyon, where we could camp overnight with a water source, then to meet up with my mother at the PCT trailhead outside Tehachapi.  The first section was fairly long—about 24 miles—but the second one was a short 17 miles, so we could then drive to Idyllwild after I arrived, so as not to lose a day to transit.

Newt and Gillian heading into the desert

Newt and I set out in the morning into the desert, where the trail parallels the aqueduct route for most of the distance.  And since the aqueduct here is protected by a concrete cover, there wasn’t much to see for miles other than desert shrubs, dry dirt, little whorls of dust rising in the wind, and the distant hills rising on the other side of the valley which led to Tehachapi.

We followed the trail toward the hills, which were dotted with huge windmills. Just as we reached the beginning of the climb up out of the desert floor into the windmills, there was a large hiker water cache located near a bridge crossing the road.  I stopped to let Newt have a little bit of water from the cache, as we still had 6 or 7 miles before we would reach our camp area, which was the only other water source for this area. 

Afterwards, we climbed through the windmills for about 5 miles, then made a short descent into Tylerhorse Canyon. The stream there was very meager stream, barely a trickle, with a couple of shallow pools only a few inches deep; a little further on, the water disappears back into ground.  There were lots of PCT hikers gathered near the water, so I picked a flat spot a little ways apart to set up Newt’s portable electric corral.  Back at the stream I had to bail water a cup at a time into a bucket for Newt, which took a very long time to do.  Water is an extremely precious resource in the desert, and its scarcity reinforces how dependent we are on it.

The next morning, Newt was feeling his oats, bucking and running around in his corral.  Some hikers set him off as they went past him around sunrise for an early start to the day, and he had a grand time expressing himself with spins and squeals and leaps into the air.

We packed up and headed out for our short day’s ride of 17 miles.  The trail was very soft and eroded in some spots; Newt hopped over some washouts and picked his way over the unstable footing. Overall, he felt very energetic and travelled fast, so we made good time. During the last four miles before we reached the PCT trailhead at Tehachapi Willow Springs Rd., we passed through large patches of flowers blanketing the ground in swathes of purple and yellow, making for a colorful section of trail.  My mom met us at the trailhead at the road junction, and then we drove to Idyllwild to camp at McCall Equestrian Camp again.

Newt walking through a field of flowers

Revisiting Idyllwild

We got into McCall just about dark, but had time to take advantage of the showers before trying to get a decent night’s sleep.  On the morning of May 6th, I loaded Takoda into the trailer and Mom hauled us back to the trailhead where the PCT crosses Highway 74, where I had earlier stopped my ride into Idyllwild back in April during our first week on the trail.  Now I was going to ride north towards San Jacinto, but I already knew I would have to exit the trail again due to the excessive downfalls that blocked it after about mile 172.

Takoda and Gillian at Hwy. 74

I planned to ride about 16 miles total that day, including the short 2 mile access trail from the PCT to Fobes Ranch Rd., where my mother was planning to pick Takoda and me up.  This is a section of trail I haven’t been able to cover during my previous thru-rides in 2014 and 2016 due to a closure for fire damage and then because a huge boulder was blocking the trail.  The boulder finally got removed, but years worth of uncleared downfalls still make the trail impassable in certain parts. For the first several miles, it felt like we were riding through a terrain park—there were lots of boulders, gullies carved by water, slabs of sandstone, steps climbing up or down over rocks—and at some point Takoda must have stepped on his shoe as he scrambled over the rocks, because I began to hear the telltale clanking of iron with every fourth step.  We also saw lots of hikers, including one who was lounging right in the middle of the trail on his sleeping pad, scrolling on his phone!

After about 12 miles I got off to walk and saw how bad the shoe was; I also had a enough cell service to call my mother and send her some possible farrier contacts.  She called a local feed store too, and she was able to reach a farrier who lived very close to McCall and was willing to come fix Takoda’s shoe that evening.  I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to find someone on such short notice who could help us.

During the last mile before the junction of the PCT with the access trail to Fobes Ranch Rd. I began hitting downed trees, about a dozen, not huge in diameter but in a steep, rocky, brushy area so that they lay high off ground across the trail.  That’s when I was so glad to have Takoda, who jumps downed trees with ease.  The highest was well over my waist height (about 3 ½ feet) and I was preparing to cut through it since it was a fairly thin branch, but as I pulled out my saw Takoda just pushed impatiently past me a leapt over it on his own. 

When I got to Fobes Ranch Rd. I was surprised not to see my mother waiting, as I knew she had left with the trailer quite a while ago; I figured that was a bad sign about the condition of the road (which was dirt and full of ruts and rocks and water erosion), so I started walking out along it until we finally met.  She did not want to go any further down it that necessary, so we hunted out a space that was just barely wide enough to manage to turn around the trailer (in about a 12-point turn!).  It was getting dark as we returned to McCall, and we still had an appointment to meet the farrier, who was working elsewhere and had to fight Friday night traffic to get back to Idyllwild.  It was past 10 pm when he finally arrived and tacked Takoda’s shoe back on, and I was so grateful for him going to such lengths to help us.  We definitely made  his evening tedious, but he came through for us just the same, and I was so very appreciative, as we had another tough day coming up and Takoda was the best horse for the job, but he couldn’t do it if he didn’t have four good shoes.    

Over San Jacinto to Snow Creek

Takoda heading up the Devil's Slide trail

The next day would take us up the Devil’s Slide trail at Humber Park in Idyllwild, back to the PCT along Fuller Ridge, then past San Jacinto and back down the other side of the mountain all the way to Snow Creek by Interstate 10.  It was a long section of over 30 miles—28 on the PCT and 3 to access it from the trailhead. We encountered a couple snow patches on and off on highest, north-facing slopes as we skirted around Mt. San Jacinto.  These tended to be in some previously burnt areas with a remaining cover of snow for a half mile or so, and I was able to pick our way around the bad footing as it was’t on any  steep areas.  There weren’t a lot of downed trees, just a few before Fuller Ridge near Black Mountain Rd., including one especially big one that we had to go around rather than over. 

After that we dropped 7000 ft. in elevation from our high point down to the desert floor below.  Past  Fuller Ridge the pines disappear and there is more exposed rock and desert-type vegetation.  For most of the way I could gaze down at the Snow Creek area getting slowly closer. I also saw a rattlesnake at one—seeing snow and a snake on the same day is pretty unusual—which was another sign of getting into desert region.  The wind really picked up as we got lower, and became quite strong on desert floor again. The only water source once you reach the base of the mountain above Snow Creek is just a water fountain, with no spigot, and there was a long line of hikers waiting for water ahead of me.  The fountain is very inefficient watering a horse—I have to hold the bucket with one hand while turning fountain on with the other, and there’s only a very low flow.  All that made me glad that I was meeting my mom with the trailer was nearby, so I only gave Takoda a little drink to tide him over after the long, trek down the mountain.  My mom walked out and met us, and together we returned to the trailer parked on the road in what seemed like hurricane-force winds.  I gave Takoda a better drink of water at the trailer, and then it took both my mother and me working together to get the trailer door open in the wind so Takoda could get in.  We then drove to Los Compadres stables in Palm Springs, where my mom had earlier left Cricket and Newt, and where it was calmer and much less windy, so we had a nice, quiet night.

Back to Baden-Powell

Sunday, May 8th, was Mother’s Day, so my mom and I took advantage of this planned non-riding day to have a leisurely morning in Palm Springs.  We slept late, since the horses had their breakfast provided by the stable, and then we cooked ourselves pancakes for breakfast, which was a nice treat.  The only thing on the agenda today was a drive back to the Wrightwood area, in order to be prepared to ride the PCT over Baden-Powell the next day. 

Our camp along Big Pines Hwy.

Since Highway 2 was still closed due to rock slides, we couldn’t camp at Horse Flats as I had originally intended, but the previous time we had to make the long drive around we had made note of a couple of potential campsites along Big Pines Highway that leads down the mountain towards Pear Blossom Highway, and we were confident one of them would be a suitable overnight spot.  We left Palm Springs in the early afternoon and drove over to Cajon Pass and up to Wrightwood, then headed along Big Pines to one of our sites, which ended up being perfect.  Camping alongside a highway like that isn’t ideal in terms of atmosphere, but there was almost no traffic (due to the closures) and thus it was about as peaceful a spot as we could have hoped for.

Gillian and Takoda head towards Mt. Baden-Powell

The next day Mom dropped me and Takoda at the Inspiration Point trailhead, and I started north on the PCT.  I had been monitoring PCT hiker posts about the trail, so I knew that the last half mile to the summit would be the worst part in terms of remaining snow; I was just hoping it had melted out enough since the last time we were in the area that we could now get through it.  I reached the climb up Baden-Powell in about 5 miles, and I could see snow at times along the way as I approached; it didn’t look too bad though I could glimpse large patches of it through the trees.  There are lots of switchbacks during the climb (about 40 in 4 miles) so the terrain is very steep, which would make it difficult to detour.  I was walking and leading Takoda to help him with the ascent. During that last half mile we began to encounter areas of snow, especially covering the turns on the switchbacks., but thanks to the very open forest vegetation and soft footing, so we could get around when we had to, and we continued up the mountain.

When we got to the summit, I met a nice hiker who was conditioning to hike Whitney in June and I chatted with her for a while.  Then we carried on along the trail, which followed the spine of a ridge; clouds were blowing in from west, so there was a wall of clouds on my left while it was sunny and clear on the right.  We went back and forth along the ridgeline with some snow patches on the east side; sometimes we sometimes rode up on top of the ridge to go above the snow and avoid it that way.

After a couple miles we started to descend through the Bobcat fire area. I stopped at a spring to let Takoda get some water to drink, and after the spring we passed through a forest reduced to charcoal spears in blackened earth.  It looked like the fire had burned very hot in this area, scorching everything to cinders.  We crossed Highway 2 along the way and then the temperature dropped sharply and the clouds descended; it was suddenly quite cold and damp, and I was layering on every piece of clothing I had with me to try to stay warm.  The trail tread in this section grew very steep and narrow, with some erosion due to the fire.  We faced some big climbs, then steep descents, crossing and re-crossing the road a couple of times, until we reached the Eagle’s Roost Picnic area where my mom was waiting to pick us up.  She had already moved the other horses to Horse Flats campground, where we spent the night, then drove back home to Arroyo Grande the next day, completing our first big section of the PCT from Campo to Tehachapi.

Gillian and Newt depart Silverwood Lake for the Cajon Pass

To Interstate 15

So after a “zero” day at Silverwood Lake, when I had an interview for a Fox Weather Channel segment and got caught up on some other obligations, I left on Wednesday, April 27th, for the short 18 mile segment that would take me from Silverwood to Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass, then beyond to Swartout Canyon Rd., where we planned to camp that night. It was the beginning of the third week of my current PCT thru-ride, and so far everything was going as planned.

Newt along the trail to Interstate 15

Newt was full of pep as we set out that morning, and soon we were blazing along the trail. This time, however, there were plenty of curveballs to deal with in the form of man-made obstacles. From railroad track crossings, to low-headroom underpasses, to drainage culverts beneath Interstate 15, we faced a lot of intimidating impediments that tested Newt's trust in me. But I was amazed at how well he overcame his doubts each time and forged ahead when I asked him to, even with the constant roar of traffic or the rumble of freight trains going by.

Low bridge ahead!

Once we were past the interstate, we entered a fascinating landscape filled with sculpted sandstone outcropping and dramatic views. Although I had ridden through this area before, I had not previously been so struck by the unique topography of this part of the Cajon Pass.

North of Cajon Pass

Every time we crested a ridge, the views stretched out for miles.

Nearing Swartout Canyon

And abundant wildflowers bloomed along the trail.

Flowers overlooking Swartout Canyon

My mother had driven ahead with the rig to meet us along Swartout Canyon Rd., and we camped in a turnout about a quarter mile from PCT trail junction. It wasn't glamorous, but there was good footing for the horses and a quiet place to spend the night close to the next day's starting point. I had been worried about whether we could find a suitable place close to the trailhead, but it worked out just fine.

Our camp on Swartout Canyon Rd.

Swartout to Inspiration Point

Zahra climbing toward Wrightwood

The next day was a longer 22 mile climb out of Cajon Pass and into the Angeles Forest above Wrightwood. I took Zahra for this portion of the trail, which is pretty much one big climb with almost no downhill area to break up it up. The day was cool and overcast when we began with lots of fog and no views, and it was probably the coldest morning so far on the trail, but as we gained elevation we climbed above the clouds and broke into a clear blue day.   It was late morning when we finally got some sunshine and then the day was pleasant and sunny. 

As always, finding water along the route is a concern, especially with the climbing we were doing. There is a source at Guffy Spring along the way, but it is very difficult to access, and I was excited when about a mile before then I saw a large snow melt puddle and could give Zahra a drink without having to scramble up and down a tough ravine with buckets as I would have to do at Guffy; I think people sometimes underestimate the effort riders have to go to in order to keep their horses hydrated on a trail like this.

About 5 miles before meeting my mom I rode through Mountain High ski resort, where there was a barrier erected to prevent skiers and boarders from going out of bounds. Usually they take those down at the end of the season, but this had been left in place and now a big steel cable was blocking the path. There was just barely enough slack in the cable so that I could hoist it up (and it was heavy and difficult to do) so that Zahra could squeeze under, but we were able to make it by.

Zahra on the way to Inspiration Point on Highway 2

Our destination was the Inspiration Point trailhead on Highway 2, but we faced another unexpected complication when I got there. Unbeknownst to me, Highway 2 was closed on the way toward Glendale just beyond the trailhead, which meant that there was no easy way for us to get to our planned overnight camping spot at Horse Flats campground. We had counted on making the relatively short drive along Highway 2 to get there, as I going to skip the section over Baden-Powell at this point (to return later on to complete it). The idea was to continue the next day beginning past the part of the PCT that is closed for conservation purposes (to protect the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog) as well as beyond a recovering burn area. But now we also faced a long detour down to the Pearblossom highway, through the outskirts of Palmdale to the Angeles Forest highway, then back up to Highway 2 via Upper Big Tujunga Canyon. With the camper and trailer, that added almost 2 hours to our day, so we were already going to be getting into the campground about the time it got dark.

However, we also had another surprise ahead, when we were flagged down by a stranded motorist shortly after we drove around and rejoined Highway 2 again above the junction with Upper Big Tujunga. A young man frantically waving his arms got our attention, and although we were already past the pullout on the road where he was, we found a place to turn around and came back to help. With the road being closed to thru traffic, it was almost deserted, with very few passing vehicles, and there is no cell reception there. We figured if someone was stuck, they would have no way to get help, and we owed it to them to see what we could do, especially with darkness coming and the temperatures dropping rapidly up on the mountain.

I'm not sure I ever met someone who was so happy to see us as this young man. He had a dead battery, no jumper cables, and no way to get help. My mom and I pulled our truck up to his car, unloaded the backseat so we could access the emergency equipment, and after a couple attempts, managed to get his car started for him. He was so relieved and grateful, and we felt we had done a good deed for someone in need; it was nice to give back a little, after we have received so much from others on our trips.

Of course, now it was really getting late, and we still had to get to Horse Flats and set up camp; it was well past dark when we finally pulled in and got the horses settled and could crawl into the camper to make our own dinner at last.

To Mill Creek Fire Station

Horse Flats campground

Temperatures dropped into the 20's overnight, so when we awoke the next morning there was ice in the water buckets for the horses. We had blanketed them overnight (which I do a lot on trail, as it helps them converse energy and be more fit for the day's exertions), but once the sun camp up and the air warmed a little, all of them decided it was time for a morning siesta. I am always happy to see the horses lying down and getting a proper rest, so we delayed leaving until they all had a chance to catch some Z's. There are four small but substantial corrals at Horse Flats, although the campsites are small and the road through the campground is narrow and tough to navigate with a truck and trailer; anything much bigger than our rig would have an especially difficult time. There is a seasonal stream that runs through the camp not far from the corrals, but no piped water source, so we relied on our water tank on the trailer.

Once the horses had their naps, we loaded Takoda into the trailer and hauled him back up Highway 2 in the direction of the closure towards Wrightwood, to the place where I planned to continue after the conservation detour and fire damage. I picked up the PCT at Cloudburst Summit and my destination for the day was the Mill Creek fire station some 20 miles away, where the PCT crossed the Angeles Forest Highway.

Takoda and Gillian at Cloudburst Summit on Hwy. 2

The trail was easy for the first few miles, before it passes the Sulphur Springs camp, and after that it got tougher.  Some trail crews had been through and cut out some big downfalls, so I was very grateful for that.  A one point they had left in place a small downed tree that had fallen across the trail at a steep angle; it would be easy for a hiker to duck under it, but it was a little too low for Takoda to fit. It was a fairly small diameter tree, so I planned to cut it, but I was only partway through when Takoda got impatient and pushed past on his own, breaking the branch I was in the process of sawing! So much for trying to make it easier for him . . .  A few miles later the trail was very overgrown for about a mile with bushes and some partially trimmed branches; it would have been very tricky with a pack horse, so I was glad I was just with a single horse, as we had to dodge obstacles that interfered with saddle and would have caught on the panniers.

Meanwhile, my mother had returned to Horse Flats, loaded the rest of the horses, and drove back down Highway 2 and Upper Big Tujunga Canyon to Angeles Forest Highway and along that to the fire station. We knew that camping there was going to be a challenge. It is a popular resting point for hikers on the PCT, and there is a day use area with a pit toilet and water faucet that hikers rely on, but camping with three horses was not going to be a good fit. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find a huge flat space about a mile up a dirt road above the fire station, and we set up a great camp there with a spectacular view and plenty of peace and quiet for us and the horses overnight.

From Mill Creek to Acton

Our campsite above Mill Creek fire station

The next day was Saturday, and I was looking forward to a chance to catch up with some old friends who planned to meet us that evening at our overnight campsite. Zahra and I would meet them in Acton, 26 miles away, at the LA RV resort (formerly a KOA) on Soledad Canyon Rd. that is very accommodating to PCT hikers. It is situated just east of where the PCT crosses Soledad Canyon Rd., so the location is great, although there would also have been space for me to set up my portable corrals at the trailhead parking at the junction as well.

Gillian and Zahra heading out of Mill Creek to Acton

It was a bright and beautiful morning, with blue skies and sun but enough coolness in the air to not feel hot or oppressive. Zahra appeared full of pep and eager to hit the trail.

Zahra taking in the view on the trail from Mill Creek

During my previous PCT rides, the portion involved a long walk along a dirt road due to the damage caused by the Mountain fire in 2011, which I didn't enjoy because it was hot and exposed and not very scenic, but this time after several years of regrowth I got to ride along a single-track trail, in good condition and recently maintained, so it was very smooth sailing. Even after we passed the North Fork ranger station, where trail used to be eroded and unstable, things were improved and the footing was better than in the past.  I had been worried about the conditions we might face, such as fallen trees and unstable trail tread, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the ride so enjoyable. 

Zahra on the way to Acton

There was only one water source along the way, as the whole section is pretty dry, so Zahra guzzled water once we arrived at the RV resort. And just as we arrived, I met a very nice family of five--mom, dad and three young kids--who are all hiking the trail. I was so impressed that the parents were willing to tackle such an expedition with such young children--about 18 months, 3 1/2, and 5. I often think taking care of my horses is hard (and I occasionally compare them to 1000 lb. toddlers who need constant care) but here were people with actual toddlers, and the patience of saints! It was really talking to them and getting to know them, and letting the kids meet the horses.

Zahra above Acton

Our space at the L. A. RV resort wasn't anything more than a wide open spot with some grass off to the side where we were out of the way of the regular crowd, but it was just perfect for what we needed. My mother drove over from Mill Creek earlier, with a stop at a feed store in Acton along the way to restock our supply of hay, and soon after I arrived our friends also pulled up to take us to dinner. We hopped in their car and drove a short distance to a Mexican restaurant called Las Cabanas, where I had what seemed like the best strawberry margarita of my life, although probably a lot of that was due to having spent 26 miles on horseback earlier in the day . . . whatever the cause, it felt life-changing to me in that moment, lol!

Bouquet Canyon

Camping at the KOA in Acton

The next day brought another interesting section of trail, which wound through the Vasquez Rocks to the town of Agua Dulce and then beyond towards Lake Hughes and Bouquet Canyon, 22 miles in total. I was riding Newt and the first 10 miles to Agua Dulce featured a nice open trail with very few tree but good views, especially the dramatic topography in the Vasquez Rocks area north of Highway 14. The passage under the 14 involved a long, dark tunnel, so that wasn't exactly Newt's cup of tea, but he handled it well. The park itself was quite crowded with hikers and dogs, as it was a beautiful bright Sunday and lots of people were out enjoying the day.  I also met the Daley family and their kids again just before leaving Vasquez Rocks; I was so impressed that they had covered those 10 miles so early in the day! The youngest one is in a carrier, but the other two walk (or run, in the middle boy); I really admire the parents and their fortitude, with the dad carrying all the supplies and the mom with the baby and the oldest daughter with her own backpack too. They are on quite an adventure.

Gillian and Newt leaving the KOA

Newt and I walked a mile along roads to Agua Dulce, where hoped to stop in a café I remembered from past trips. But it might have become a victim of pandemic shutdowns, and I had to settle for stopping at a gas station for an ice cream and soda. I then led Newt along the narrow road shoulder as he was uneasy with the traffic; he had spooked badly at one point as I was riding earlier when cars were coming toward us in both directions--from in front and behind--which gave everyone (including me) a good fright when he lunged out toward the traffic. But we all got through it, and I led him until he settled down again, and he seemed fine after that.  Crossing Sierra highway was another challenge as it was very  busy and we had to wait several minutes with semis roaring past us for a big enough space for us to get over the pavement, but at least it was the last road crossing of the day.

Newt on the trail to Bouquet Canyon

After that, we faced a big climb of about 2000 feet in elevation over the next few miles, then short descent to Bouquet Canyon. There were a few awkward gates with a barrier of raised metal bars meant to deter motorcycles and other things that are not allowed on the trail; the bars are arranged in a square that is only about four feet apart, and some are quite high, without adequate room for horse inside the middle. So it is hard for the horse to navigate--too big to jump the whole thing in one go, but too small to step into and stand before stepping back out, and too high to easily clear one foot at a time anyway. Newt ultimately settled on a "bounce" jump technique of jumping into the box and immediately out again, getting his front feet off the ground inside the box before his hind feet landed.

There wasn't an easy option for a place to stay with the horses, but we managed to make contact with a very generous homeowner in Bouquet Canyon with a property not far from where the trail crosses the road, and he kindly agreed to let us spend the night at his house. We are a bit of a travelling circus--with the truck and camper and horse trailer, a dog and three horses, so I thought he was brave to take us on. He and his daughter were super friendly and chill about all making room for our whole kit and caboodle, and they even invited us to have dinner with them and made margaritas and grilled some great steaks and chicken--we had our own little party sitting outside on the deck by their house. The horses had the run of their corral (though I felt a little bad about the donkeys and goats that were kicked out of their usual spot for the night), and I know our three enjoyed rolling in some soft sand and having space to even kick up their heels a bit.

Overnight to Hikertown

Gillian heads out from the Bouquet Cyn. trailhead with Zahra and Takoda

The plan for the next two days was to pack overnight from Bouquet Canyon, with a planned stop at Upper Shake Campground for the night before heading on to Hikertown, where the PCT crosses Highway 138. The previous night while we were in Bouquet Canyon I made all the baggies with food for the horses and packed up the panniers, and so on Monday morning we loaded up Takoda's pack saddle while I rode Zahra, and together we hit the trail. We had a bit of a hiccup when I realized I had forgotten my saw, and my mother jogged back to the house to get it before we finally got underway. It was going to be a long day, 27.5 miles in total.

Packing on the way to Hikertown

The first 13 miles were pretty monotonous, just weaving across hills through the chaparral, with no real views because of the thick vegetation. Then we crossed San Francisquito Rd. with a chance to get some water at the fire station there, with a faucet outside; one of the firemen came out and said hi and we chatted for a bit. Once the horses had their fill we continued on, with a fairly big climb and then a road crossing. Just before the crossing we saw a rattlesnake that buzzed at us very loudly; it was quite a sassy thing! And then we were lucky enough to find some trail magic after the snake, where I got a cold soda, which I was grateful for on a hot day. 

Trail magic along the way!

After that we faced another decent climb into an old burn area. It was pretty devastating to see, as everything is gone completely wiped out, with no trees or bushes anywhere.  I had been in vegetation above my head all along the trail until here, but now it was like a moonscape, with nothing but charred skeletons of bushes and barren dirt for several miles. These were parts of the trail that had been closed during my previous two PCT rides, so it was nice to finally have access to them, although the landscape was pretty bleak. Still, you could see how nature was in the process of healing itself with new growth.

Above Lake Hughes

We were headed toward 2 places with water further along the trail, and I was going to camp at one, though I wasn't such which one might be best. They were fairly close together, so I figured I would look at the first place and then decide. I got the horses some water at a cistern in the first spot, but all the trees there were dead and I worried about one falling if we camped beneath it, so we went to the second option.  That turned out to be a good choice as it got very windy later that evening and I would have been uneasy if we had stayed. 

Takoda packing through an old fire area

The second place at Upper Shake Campground was a beautiful location and the only place that somehow had been spared in the fire. There were oak trees and a large grassy space, and it was very pretty even if a bit dilapidated; it looked like it hadn't been well-maintained even before the fire came through the area. The downside was that the water source was at the bottom of a steep descent about a quarter of a mile long, and it was very difficult to haul water back up for the horses.  Since it was getting dark when I arrived, I immediately set out to assess the water situation and left Takoda tied and Zahra loose, as I knew she wouldn't leave him. But somehow Takoda got loose and they were both walking off as I returned just in time to intercept them!  I tied them up more securely this time and unpacked, then set up the portable electric corral; it was a difficult location and I had to get creative in using bushes to secure my perimeter.

At Upper Shake campground

Then I tried to use Takoda to carry water as I had with Newt once before.  I led them both down the hill to drink, then loaded some filled buckets on Takoda's pack saddle, but I didn't have bags to line the buckers, and almost all the water splashed out as we climbed back up the hill; Takoda was drenched and the pack saddle pad was soaked and there was only a gallon left in each bucket. I had to make two more trips to the stream to carry up 10 gallons of water.  Don't let anyone try to tell you that riding horses on the trail is the "easy" way to travel! I arrived around 8pm, but it was 10:30 before I climbed into my tent, made dinner, and then discovered I had left my spoon behind, so had to resort to eating with my hands!  Then around midnight the wind picked up and started howling until dawn, shaking my tent throughout the night. It was not very restful, but at least I wasn't worried about getting crushed by a falling tree as I would have been at the first campsite area.

Wildflowers in a burn area

The next morning I got started a bit late after difficult night.  There was a rockslide blocking part of the trail on trail, so took I took a dirt road out of campground until we re-connected with trail, and we were back in a big burn area again. But this time we passed through large patches of wildflowers—all white, then all purple, big groups of one solid color--and it was quite pretty.  I also ran into some mountain bikers who aren’t supposed to be on the trail, which is off limits to wheeled conveyances; I didn’t confront them after last year’s difficult encounter that I had with a hiker who had refused to move his backpack out of the way on a narrow ledge along a drop-off so I could get past with the horses.  That confrontation had rattled me and made me wary of conflicts. I heard the bikes coming downhill head at me, and I stepped off trail so they could pass. 

I came to the first of 2 cisterns of the day about 8-10 miles into the ride; the cisterns are designed to collect rainwater and have a cover on top that makes it difficult to access the water, as I have to crawl under the shelter then lie down and reach into cistern, collecting only a gallon at a time; that might not be too bad if you only have to do it once to refill a water bottle as a hiker, but it took 8 buckets to fully water the horses.  The bikers came back past again us again, this time from behind, and we came to the second another cistern in about 3 more miles; this time the horses weren't too thirsty and only Zahra drank. There were some hikers sitting around having lunch but otherwise the water access was easier.

Nearing Hwy. 138

We travelled along 4 or 5 miles of descent after that, heading into the valley, so I walked a lot of the time as we crossed a trailhead and paved road, then traversed rolling hills, gradually dropping down to desert.  Takoda was walking fast, impatient that Zahra was not going quickly enough; we covered the 25 miles in 8 hours, so we made very good time all day.

When we finally reached Highway 138, the heavy traffic and roaring semis definitely wigged out Zahra as they zoomed past.  But it was good to finally arrive in Hikertown, where my mom had been camped with Newt since the previous day, waiting for us to arrive. Hikertown is a great resource there on the edge of the Mojave desert, with access to a shower and a maildrop for resupply boxes for hikers to get prepared before the hot, dry desert stretch ahead. When we got there is was very windy again, and all I wanted to do was climb inside our camper for shelter; I knew I should be preparing for the next couple of days, when I would be single horse packing on Newt, but I couldn’t make myself do it as I just wanted to be inside and out of wind.

Gillian arriving at Hwy. 138 at the end on the day
Zahra and Gillian at Snow Creek Trailhead

A Leap Ahead

After a day off at McCall Equestrian Park, where we had the place (and its showers, always a welcome amenity!) to ourselves, I made the first skip ahead on Wednesday, April 20, exactly a week after I started at the border.  Because of lingering snowpack on the slopes of San Jacinto, I needed to wait a bit longer before tackling that area. I was also hopeful that some trail maintenance would allow me to ride continuously from Highway 74 over to Snow Creek, where I was now headed to start the next section, but what I heard from Mary Litch and Mike Lewis regarding the Backcountry Horsemen’s group in charge of the clearing indicated that their timeline was unlikely to match mine.  Both hikers and riders are dependent on the efforts of trail crews like the Backcountry Horsemen and PCTA volunteers, whose backbreaking labor allows us to enjoy access to wilderness areas.  I hope the remaining short section that is still blocked north of Highway 74 might be cleared enough for me to complete it by the end of the year, but meanwhile I will just plan on riding whatever is open when I return in a couple weeks.

My mother had been at McCall for a full day before me, while Newt and I were still in route from Barrel Springs, so she had done most of the big chores, such as laundry and grocery shopping and re-filling the propane tanks on our camper. Thus, we got to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in Idyllwild on our day off and I caught up with some social media posts, etc.  It’s difficult to keep up with technology while traveling in remote areas without a lot of reception, so when I do get a good connection, I have to make the most of it. 

Gillian meeting Ryann and Uriah

It turned out that a nearby resident was someone who had been following my journey, and on the morning that we left for Snow Creek, she and her young son rode by to say hello. Seeing him on his pony reminded me of my first horse, Sparky, and how much learning to ride had changed my whole life. After that, we loaded all the horses into the trailer and drove down into the desert alongside Interstate 10 near Cabazon, where I was going to ride Zahra the 11 miles from the Snow Creek Trailhead to Whitewater Preserve.  The wind was howling on the desert floor and the poor truck and camper rocked in the gusts as we drove.  When we parked at the trailhead, we tried to create a sheltered place behind one side of the trailer where I could tack up Zahra, but even unloading was difficult when the wind struck the trailer door broadside and nearly knocked my mom off her feet.  I threw the saddle on Zahra and got going as quickly as possible, with sand and grit blowing into our faces as we headed out into the windstorm.

Zahra heading for Whitewater Preserve

Meanwhile, my mother drove the remaining two horses over to the Los Compadres Club stable in Palm Springs, where we planned to stay that night, got them settled, then headed for Whitewater to meet me.  It only took Zahra and me a couple hours to make that short trek, and we saw a desert tortoise along the way, which was really fun—the first time I have seen one out there.  We arrived at Whitewater and then trailered Zahra back to Los Compadres to join Newt and Takoda, while mom and I stayed in our camper overnight in the club parking lot.

A desert tortoise along the PCT near Whitewater Preserve

To Mission Springs . . . and Snow!

Takoda heading out of Whitewater for an overnight at Mission Creek

Before we went to bed Wednesday night, I spent a lot of time preparing for the next section of trail, which would take Takoda and me from Whitewater Preserve up to the Mission Springs trail camp, then over Onyx Summit to where the PCT crosses Highway 18 on the north side of Big Bear Lake. I knew that there was a storm forecast and we faced a 90% probability of snow overnight at Mission Springs, so I made some extra preparations for those circumstances.  Even though Takoda and I would be single-horse packing, which means I had limited space, I wanted to bring both a fleece blanket liner and a heavier waterproof blanket for him if he was going stand in the wind and snow overnight.  I never blanket my horses at home, but I almost always do so on the trail to help them conserve energy and not waste calories on keeping warm when they need that fuel for long miles of riding. I also brought extra layers of clothes for myself and insulated gloves for my hands, which can get cold when they are exposed while holding the reins all day. Once again, I would be riding with a backpack due to the big load, as I also brought plenty of food for Takoda and a tent and other equipment for me; there are corrals at Mission Creek, so at least I would have secure containment for the horse, although I carried a highline kit just in case something prevented us from getting through and we had to hunker down for the night somewhere else.

Takoda passing a pond at Whitewater Preserve

In the morning, Mom hauled Takoda and me back to Whitewater to get started. I took Takoda on this section because he is my most experienced and capable horse with obstacles, and I knew this was going to be a tough section, with lots of downed trees and overgrown areas.  It’s also the longest sustained uphill portion of the entire PCT, climbing about 6000 feet in elevation from Whitewater to Mission Springs camp, then even more after that to Onyx Summit.  I only had about 18 miles to cover today, so it was another relatively short section, but we were going to need extra time to deal with the obstacles, and I wanted my most reliable, surefooted, and agile trail partner.

Takoda climbing toward Mission Springs

My mother had a full agenda of her own for the time I was on trail; she had ordered four new wheels for the trailer (to replace the remaining ones, including the spare, to avoid further issues with wheels coming off, as we were advised that the old ones probably weren’t sitting as securely as they should and had contributed to that problem on the trip to Campo).  So she had an appointment at a tire shop for later this same morning; while there, they also discovered a nail lodged in the sidewall of one of the tires, so that was a flat waiting to happen!).  And we have been having issues with the batteries in the camper not holding a charge as they should, so she also planned on visiting an RV shop in Indio for new batteries on the next day, before meeting me in Big Bear.  In between, she did treat herself to dinner out in Palm Springs at a nice restaurant, so it wasn’t all drudgery!

Takoda looking back toward Whitewater Preserve

Meanwhile, Takoda and I were slowly climbing up out of Whitewater toward Mission Springs, and the trail was just as challenging as I thought it would be. It was probably an omen of what was to come when we nearly trod on a rattlesnake within just a short distance of starting the day's ride; it buzzed at us and I steered Takoda out of the way, so no one was harmed, but it sort of set the tone for the rest of the day.

The last time I rode this section was in 2014, when the trail criss-crossed over Mission Creek through a wooded landscape. During my 2016 PCT thru-ride, the trail was closed between Whitewater and Onyx Summit after a fire. Then in the winter of 2018 flooding further eroded the trail. Now there was more of a riparian habitat, with densely packed cottonwood saplings growing along the steep embankments on either side of the creek. I had to do a lot of bushwhacking on foot through the undergrowth, which was often too thick and low for me to ride. Despite rock cairns constructed by hikers in an attempt to mark the path, at one point we lost track of the trail altogether and got a short distance off-course, although with my trail app I was soon aware of the wrong turn and able to backtrack to get straightened out.  Navigation is so much easier with all the electronic devices available now, even though I do carry printed topographic maps as a back-up, since it is always possible that I might lose or break my phone.  I also have my InReach satellite communicator to stay in touch while I am on trail, and I have definitely been able to get help when I need it that way (thankfully I never had to use the SOS feature; just being able to reach a friend or family member has so far solved whatever crisis I was facing, but without the satellite capability, there could have been serious consequences sometimes). It was a relief when we finally came out the creek area onto clearer trail.

Takoda on the way to Mission Springs

Takoda and I arrived at the Mission Springs camp in good time, and I got us settled while there was still daylight and before the storm struck overnight.  However, my tent poles had become damaged at some point, and in the process of trying to repair them I managed to slice my knuckle badly.

Collateral damage from setting up camp

Takoda missed his companions during the night and cried out on occasion for his buddies, which could have been disturbing for the many hikers camped in the same area, but I doubt they heard it over the thunder and lightning (or their own chattering teeth when the temperatures really dropped and it began to snow!). I pitched my tent in another horse corral next to Takoda, so no one was closer than I was, and I found plenty of other things to keep me awake rather than his occasional neighs.  Several times during the night I was jolted out of slumber by clumps of heavy, wet snow falling onto my tent above my head. And in the morning, we all awoke to a fresh blanket of white.

New Friends in Big Bear

Riding out of Mission Springs camp in the snow

It was still snowing on and off throughout the morning, with gusty winds, so I was very glad to have my gloves as I was breaking camp and getting ready to ride. The other hikers camped near us overnight were already gone by the time we started (it takes much longer to pack up when there is a horse involved, even though the corrals meant I didn't have to take down a highline or portable electric corral). I was grateful to have the hikers' footprints in the snow to follow, as the trail was invisible under its white covering.

Takoda in the fresh snow

Everything looked beautiful at first, but after a few hours of slogging through it, and having more snow showers and cold wind blowing on us, with clouds blocking out the sun, the novelty wore off and Takoda and I were both just looking forward to reaching the end of the day’s ride.  We had 24 miles to cover, though, so it would take us the full day to get where we were going. And with all the snow, I had to put hoof boots on Takoda to prevent ice balls from forming in his front feet and making it difficult to walk.

Nearing the crossing at Highway 18

Later the sky cleared and the sun came out and the walking got easier. I had been offered a place to stay that night with an Instagram acquaintance (now a friend IRL), and my mom drove there Friday afternoon and then they both walked out to meet us on the PCT.  Asia’s house was just a short detour from the trail, so it couldn’t have been a better location, and I really enjoyed meeting her and her mother and the rest of her family that evening and the next day.  Her mother fixed an amazing soup and we all got a chance to chat and get to know one another (including her two cows, Cookie and Oreo!). I was really grateful for their generosity, and for a shower and a warm bed to sleep in that night.  It all made up for the cold and snow of the previous 24 hours.

Holcomb Creek

Our camp at Holcomb Creek

On Saturday I rode Newt from Asia’s house back onto the PCT, with 26 miles ahead for the day, while my mom went to a feed store and topped off the fuel in the truck and then drove out to Holcomb Creek to meet us for our overnight there.  There was only a short 4 miles to cover from where she turned off onto Rim of the World Road, then took a dirt forest service road that got steadily more rugged and challenging, before she finally reached the trailhead where the PCT crossed her track, but she told me it felt a lot longer in the truck, with the heavy camper swaying like a ship in rough seas while the trailer with the other two horses bumped along behind.  However, once she got there she found a great place to pull into a clearing under the trees and set up the portable corrals, and everything was ready when Newt and I rolled in a bit later.  She even shared some of the 805 beer that Firestone Walker had given us with the hikers who were gathered by the creek, which made their day.

Big Bear Lake

Meanwhile, Newt and I were cruising along the ridge on the north side of Big Bear Lake, with a great view of the snow-covered slopes on the opposite side. The storm from the previous day had left quite a dusting at the higher elevations. But on my side the trail was clear, with only a few lingering patches. It was also a relief to see how much maintenance had taken place recently; in 2016 I had faced lots of trees I had to get around, especially on the way into Holcomb Creek, but those were all gone. I also met some nice hikers, including "Mac" and "Cheese," a couple from Tacoma, WA, who have spent the past decade devoted to hiking different sections of the PCT, and "Boomerang," who got his trail name from his habit of taking wrong turns and then having to backtrack again to the trail. In fact, I ran into him when I got off-course briefly, and on my way back he was coming towards me, having taken the same wrong path, so we "boomeranged" together to return to the PCT.

Packing Overnight to Deep Creek

Heading out of Holcomb with Zahra and Takoda on the first packing section

The next day brought another planned overnight section of trail, but this time I was going to take two horses—Zahra as a riding horse and Takoda as a pack horse.  So after arriving at the Holcomb Creek camp site the night before, I spent some time getting all the gear and food prepped and loaded into the panniers. In the morning, I added a few last items, including blankets for the horses, then weighed the panniers before attaching them to Takoda’s packsaddle, adding the top pack, and securing it all with a box hitch. I had been advised that there were some serious obstacles ahead in the form of numerous fallen trees, so I carried my biggest folding saw along for this section as well.  We were heading to Deep Creek, where I would camp overnight, and then the next day we would continue on and meet my mother at Silverwood Lake, where she had already arranged to be able to stay in one of their equestrian group camps.

Packing toward Deep Creek

There were plenty of downfalls interrupting our journey that day, but thanks to the efforts of both horses we managed to make our way over or around them all.  I am always so impressed by how gracefully and easily Takoda handles fallen trees.  I can even see him making a plan and choosing what he thinks is the best approach, and I usually let him decide how or where to jump.  Knowing he had his part under control allowed me to concentrate on helping Zahra, who is not as agile or careful about her feet and balance as Takoda is.  I had been giving her some training with obstacles at home before we left for this trip, and she seemed to be getting the hang of it, but nothing I can present her with at home matches the complexity of situations on trail.  And it’s not all about practice, either (though that helps, of course); some horses just seem more naturally aware of their bodies and more cognizant of keeping themselves safe.  Takoda can size up the obstacle and assess the best angle and landing spot, and he is always deliberate and precise in his movement.  He places himself where he wants to be, rocks back slowly on his rear legs, then launches himself in a perfect arc, tucking his feet up neatly under his belly to clear everything completely.  Lots of my other horses will rush, or get their front half up and over but forget about their hind legs and let them hang and rub behind.  Even when he is carrying panniers in his job as a pack horse, Takoda is completely conscious of how wide he is and how much room he needs to fit into a space, and he always sticks his landings perfectly.

Between our camp at Holcomb Creek and the bridge at Deep Creek we faced about a dozen downed trees, but we managed to get over or around them; sometimes I sawed off a few branches to make it easier for the horse to get by. The trail was also eroded in a few spots where as it descends toward the creek, becoming very narrow at times. I got off to lead Zahra as that helps her to follows directly in my footsteps.  We had a few creek crossings that were overgrown like the area around Mission Creek. Then after the bridge the trail was in good shape, though narrow at times, with a rocky wall on the uphill side and a steep drop off on the other. Takoda's panniers would sometimes scrape on the wall, and it is hard to believe that he somehow fits--the trail doesn’t seem wide enough for pack horses. Once again, I was grateful for his surefootedness and his skill as a pack animal.

Bridge over Deep Creek

After the bridge, the rest of the trail was easy, with plenty of good maintenance even though there were still drop-offs on one side. I had a fun moment with a mother and her and 4 kids just after crossing the bridge; the kids were very excited to see the horses, and Takoda seemed fascinated by the smell of one of the children's hair, as he kept snuffling the boy's head. They were all under age 8, so I really admired the mom for wrangling all of them into the outdoors for this hike; the youngest one, who was maybe 3 and dwarfed by his backpack, excitedly told me all about the waterfall they were going to see. It was about 7 or 8 miles later that I came to the place where I planned to camp. Because of the steep slope down to the creek, I had to chose my camp site carefully in order to have water for the horses. I studied topographic maps to find a drainage area with a wider, less abrupt descent into the ravine, and I followed that off trail.  It is difficult to camp overnight with horses along this stretch of the PCT, where there isn't enough level ground for them to stand comfortably. I had to clear dead branches out of the way to make space for a corral, then used the branches as part of my support for the portable electric fence to make an enclosure.  Then I still had to navigate a remaining drop-off through poison oak to the creek and lug the water back uphill for the horses; they were thirsty after the day's ride and quickly sucked down several buckets . . . don't let anyone tell you that riding horses on the PCT is the "easy" way to do it!

Our camp by Deep Creek

Deep Creek to Silverwood Lake

Deep Creek Hot Springs is a popular spot along the PCT for hikers—and for day-trippers and other visitors as well—because of the natural hot spring pools there.  It might be a bit too “loved” for its own good, as all the visitors take a toll.  I am sure that much of the abuse comes from those who are not travelling on the PCT, who should be more aware of “Leave No Trace” principles, but it is sad to see the plain evidence of an excessive human presence . . . especially in the form of toilet paper and other debris that is left behind.  So Deep Creek is not one of my favorite places to stay.  I always try to find a spot that is away from the main traffic areas, although I do have to be within reach of the creek in order to get water for the horses. All of that explains why I stopped before I got to the hot springs on the day before, and now I passed them the next morning on my way to Silverwood Lake.

Riding north toward Hesperia and Silverwood Lake

The first few miles out of the Deep Creek camp area present some very dramatic scenery, with a steep gorge rising on both sides of the trail and the river running down below. That could create problems if we encountered downfalls because the terrain makes it impossible to skirt around a obstacle that is too big to jump, but we only had one downed tree to cut through along the way. We also had some good company on this stretch of trail. Dave was a hiker from Minnesota that we met after the hot springs and who followed us to the dam by the lake; it was amusing to see him stop whenever Takoda paused for a bite of grass, then jog behind as Takoda trotted to catch up.  Dave told me he had lived in Idaho and now worked for the forest service in Minnesota and had daughters about my age. He said the only way to survive the long Minnesota winters is to have winter sports that you look forward to, so you don't resent the snow.

Riding along the shore of Silverwood Lake

The last five miles or so take us along the shores of Silverwood Lake, which looked inviting and cool in the warm sunshine of the afternoon.  We already planned to take another “zero” day at Silverwood, as I had some media obligations (including a live interview on the Fox Weather Channel’s “Wild” segment) and would need to be in a suitable location with reception.  But after this break, we will be nonstop on the trail for the next two weeks in order to complete our itinerary, returning to fill in the skipped sections before taking a break in mid-May to allow for snowpack to melt before we head for more northern stretches of the PCT.

Rio equestrian group camp at Silverwood Lake

My mother had already arrived the day before after driving back up out of the Holcomb Creek area, and she reported that the dirt road up from the camp was the least of her issues on that return trip. There was a road closure and detour on Highway 18 between Lake Arrowhead and Crestline on the way to Silverwood, and Google had the brilliant idea to send her on alternate route that would have ended on a four-wheel-drive off-road track above the lake.  Thankfully she figured it out in time to turn around and re-trace her path and get on a better route, but it made for a very onerous and nerve-wracking couple of hours.  So she had enjoyed the chance to hang out and relax at the Rio equestrian group campground while waiting for us to arrive. 

On the Trail Again

Takoda a few miles into the PCT ride

Getting started at the border is always exciting, but after the official send off at the monument--there's a PCTA trail angel who checks permits and dates and has a sign-in book and provides some trail etiquette reminders--then the reality of long days in the saddle sets in. One thing that often surprises people is how consistently the trail follows a fairly high elevation route; they don't call it the "Pacific Crest Trail" for nothing! And the climbing begins quite soon into day one. I already knew the place where I would stay that night, which was Boulder Oaks campground because of the equestrian camping available there. I also stayed there on my two previous PCT thru-rides, so heading there was a no-brainer. Along the way the trail gets quite steep in places, and it is fairly exposed and can be hot, depending on the weather, with only one potential option to get water at Hauser Creek (but usually it is dry) before there is reliable water access at Lake Morena at the 20 mile mark. After Lake Morena, it's an easy and pleasant additional 6 miles to Boulder Oaks, where my mother was waiting at a campsite with the two other horses when Takoda and I arrived.

Our camp at Boulder Oaks equestrian campground

A Thru-ride Strategy

The choices I have to make on a thru-ride (which means to ride an entire trail in a single season) are different than those I might make under other circumstances, or that others can make if they aren't trying to cover the entire distance to Canada. Because of the tight timeframe imposed by Mother Nature, I have to make the most of each available riding day; I only have a short window of opportunity between when some trail sections become accessible after the winter snow melts and the time when it begins to snow again for the next winter season (and this happens sooner the further north we go). Because I prioritize riding all of the trail, I have to time my ride so that I get to each section as soon as possible when it becomes rideable, so I often do not ride each part in order. Generally, I first ride the hot, dry Southern California section (the first 700 miles), but even here I usually have to skip past some of the highest peaks, such as San Jacinto and Baden-Powell, and then come back to do them a bit later, before heading further north. Then I will complete Northern California next, going as far north as the Hyatt Lake area in Oregon, before coming back to ride the Sierra section. By then, we are well into the summer (usually about August), and after that I can return to Oregon and now ride continuously the rest of the way to Canada.

As a result I almost always have days that are more than 20 miles long; I don't have the luxury of taking it slower, although if I am self-supported I do allot about 2 "zero" days a week when my horses can rest and eat to their hearts' content. Those are usually not rest days for me, however; I might be doing chores like finding a place to take a shower or do laundry, or running to a feed store (for the horses) or a grocery store (for me), or caching water in collapsible containers if we are in a desert area, or arranging for farrier visits as needed. If I have the luxury of a support person who is accompanying me and helping with those logistics (which my mother is doing this time), then I can ride more consecutive days and I will rotate riding horses so they can each rest and recover while I am still making progress. So if you are reading this blog with the idea of learning how you can ride the trail yourself, remember that you may not need to make all the same choices that I am making; you might be able to ride shorter miles, or take more breaks, or camp in different locations, depending on your own goals, needs, and resources.

To Sunrise Trailhead

Zahra departing from Boulder Oaks

That thru-ride strategy explains why, on day 2, I rode Zahra 33 miles from Boulder Oaks past Mt. Laguna to Sunrise Trailhead. There are a couple of other possible places to camp overnight with a horse, such as Cibbets Flat at mile 32.6, or Morris meadow, just south of Mt. Laguna at mile 38.8, but I needed to maximize my distance for the day, and although it is a long, tough climb, it's generally a section without any obstacles that might otherwise slow us down.

Zahra on the way to Sunrise trailhead, overlooking the Anza Borrego desert below

There are some pipe corrals at Sunrise Trailhead, as well as a cistern with plenty of water for the horses (not located near the corrals, however) with a pit toilet in the large parking area. The parking area closes at sunset and is posted as a "no camping" area, even if hikers or riders can stay in the meadow. However, because I had my mother there for logistical support (and she wouldn't be able to camp at the trailhead), we made the decision to trailer down to Green Valley equestrian campground in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. This might seem like an unnecessary luxury, but it turns out for that night at least to have been a very wise option, as there was a horrific windstorm that came roaring through. Some other riders who were in the corrals when I arrived (which would have made staying there impossible anyway, as everything was occupied, so again I was glad I already had other plans) ended up evacuating out in the middle of the night due to the wind, and even some hikers staying in the nearby town of Julian had their tents destroyed by the gale force winds. But Green Valley was sheltered and calm, thus we were completely unaware of what others were facing until we heard about it later the next day.

Sunrise to Scissors Crossing

On day three I rode a new horse again--Newt this time--as I am rotating among them as I explained. For Newt's first trail day, he had a fairly easy 18 miles, most of it downhill, as we headed down into the Anza Borrego desert. Technically, Sunrise trailhead is also part of the same area, but it is higher and consists more of typical Southern California chaparral rather than desert vegetation. Because it was a short day, we took our time heading back to Sunrise from Green Valley campground, and then I saddled Newt and we hit the trail.

Newt and Gillian at Sunrise trailhead

Meanwhile, my mother drove the truck and trailer to Scissors Crossing, where there is a reliable stop for PCT hikers and regular support by trail angels who supply water in an otherwise waterless region. Hikers don't face quite the same logistical issues as riders in the desert, simply because humans require less water than horses and with good planning are able to carry a sufficient quantity to sustain them for a day or two. But at 8 lbs. a gallon, carrying the 15 to 20 gallons a horse might need for a single day is out of the question; even if I took a pack horse I couldn't carry enough (because I'd now have to carry twice the amount!). And there is a well-established network of trail angels that support hikers with water caches and even sometimes a whole buffet on special occasions (as would occur at our next stop). So as I said earlier, if I am unsupported I sometimes drive ahead to a road crossing where I will be camping and cache collapsible water containers that I can use and then pack up to carry with me, or in this case I was very glad to have my mother along as a support driver that I could count on. Once the PCT reaches the Sierra, and north from there, water stops being the main issue (which now becomes snow and other trail obstacles), but in the first 700 miles water is a constant concern.

Newt on the way to Scissors Crossing

By the time Newt and I got there, my mom had already found a spot on a large parking pad just north of the highway junction and she had set up our portable corrals for Takoda and Zahra, with a separate portable electric corral for Newt. As you can see in the photo, we have a hay rack on top of the trailer, as well as a 100 gal. water tank, and we also have some additional 5-gallon water containers tucked into cubbies on the side of the trailer. This truck with the camper is only hauling a 3-horse slant load trailer with a small tack room in the front, but when there are only 2 horses in it (as is the case right now) then we also can fit some feed in the unoccupied front stall.

Our camp at Scissors Crossing

Next Stop, Barrel Springs

For the next section, on day four, I rode Takoda again, and we covered the 24 miles up and along a ridgeline over to Barrel Springs. Once again, my mother packed up and ferried our rig and the other two horses to meet us there, setting up corrals again alongside the large parking area at the trailhead. The trailhead was crowded, as this was Easter weekend and some amazing trail angels arranged a BBQ for PCT hikers, including hamburgers and hot dogs and beer and apple pie (all the traditional holiday foods, lol!). The spring itself is a great water source for hikers, and there is even a concrete trough that the water flows into so the horses could easily drink as well, although we were camped about a quarter mile away in the trailhead parking and used our own water instead.

Barrel Springs

The ride over to Barrel Springs follows an elevated ridgeline that is exposed and hot, and once again there were fierce winds all day long, so I rode with one hand on my reins and the other on my hat for the entire distance. I did take a detour about halfway through the day (13 miles out of Scissors with about 11 still to go on the way to Barrel Springs) in order to get Takoda a drink. There's an underground cistern with a bucket that you lower into the tank in order to retrieve water, all of it located about a half mile off trail. It was a welcome break, even though it added to our total miles for the day, and Takoda gratefully downed several buckets that I scooped up for him before we continued on our way. I also saw my first rattlesnake of the trip at around mile 100 . . . just a small juvenile, but fun to see it!

Cistern on the way to Barrel Springs

First Overnight on Trail

And now, on day 5 and 6, I finally rode my first overnight camping section of the trail, when I would not be meeting the trailer at a road crossing. I chose Newt for this , and we loaded up all things we would need into the saddle bags Newt carried and a backpack that I wore. Besides a tent and sleeping pad and quilt, clothes, and food for me, I mainly carried equipment for Newt: a portable electric corral for containment; bags of processed feed for his dinner and breakfast, as well as 2 bricks of compressed hydration hay; a fleece blanket (because the nights have been very chilly, with frost every morning, and I don't like the horses wasting energy just trying to stay warm); and collapsible water pails with trashbag liners. The trash bags were an unusual item, but I was planning to have to ferry water from a source about 1/3 of a mile away back to the site where I hoped to camp.

Newt departing Barrel Springs trailhead

The first several miles of trail leads to the town of Warner Springs and is quite open, crossing rolling, grassy rangelands. On the other side of Warner Springs the PCT follows a stream and there are pleasant camping spots, with trees and grass and water, if it wasn't such a short distance and not sufficient mileage for a day of riding for my purposes. I did stop there to give Newt a break, as after this the trail becomes steep and it was a hot day, so I wanted Newt to be rested and hydrated before the climb. I even took off all his tack and bathed him with water and let him graze, trying to optimize his fitness for what was ahead. We had 26 miles in total that day and I wanted to support him any way that I could.

Starting the climb after our rest was just as challenging as I anticipated it would be, so I was glad I had taken the time to prepare. Most of the trail is hot, although not too rocky, but some was also quite overgrown as we passed through shrub oak growth; I had to get off and lead Newt through this part, as there was too much dense brush for me to ride. I do spend a large portion of most days walking, although generally I mainly walk on the downhill portions, partly because it is easier for me, of course, but also because riding downhill puts a lot of pressure on my horse's wither area and if I walk I can lessen the potential for causing soreness and muscle fatigue there.

Finding a spot that is sufficiently large, flat, and clear to allow for overnight camping with a horse can be a challenge; finding those same qualities with water is like striking gold; and finding all that when you might also have to compete with scores of hikers is a million-to-one bet that I wasn't willing to take. So I opted to camp further from the water, on a turnout along Lost Valley Rd., and to let Newt carry back to our camp the water that we retrieved from the trail angel who runs "Mike's Place"; the trash bags were so that I wouldn't lose all that precious water to splashing out along the way. I am happy to report that it worked great and we had very happy and successful overnight experience.

Newt retrieving water from Mike's Place

On to Highway 74

The next morning I packed up our camp and got Newt ready for the last leg of this first week on trail, which would take us 25 miles to Highway 74 a bit south and east of Idyllwild. Along the way I stopped to meet PCT trail angel Mary Litch, who is an amazingly helpful and welcoming presence on the trail. Her place is at mile 145, and she provides a water source and a shady place to rest (and often food to eat) to all the PCT hikers passing by. She had actually reached out to me earlier with some news about trail conditions heading up toward San Jacinto, which I really appreciated. I was already making plans to skip that area and come back later, and she had information about some planned trail maintenance that is urgently needed along a section that was first closed due to fire damage, then inaccessible for stock after a large boulder blocked the trail. The boulder has been been removed, but now numerous fallen trees continue to obstruct the path. In fact, I have not been able to ride that one portion of the PCT in my earlier trips, and I may not be able to this time either, although I am considering hiking it on foot if it is still impassable for stock when I return. Here's a view of what Newt and I saw on trail today:

Newt on the way to Highway 74

One of the highlights this day was spotting a little sidewinder rattlesnake propped up against a rock, soaking up some morning sun . . . .

Sidewinder against a rock

My mother had driven ahead to McCall equestrian camp with Takoda and Zahra, and now she met Newt and me at the trailhead along Highway 74. We took along a hiker who needed a hitch into Idyllwild, and then Newt was reunited with his buddies at McCall, where we planned to take a "zero" day to let the horses rest (and so we could enjoy Idyllwild!), before heading down to the Cabazon area to start the next part of my thru-ride at Snow Creek.

Sunset at McCall equestrian camp

Gillian and Takoda at the monument marking the southern terminus of the PCT, April 13, 2022, for the start of her third PCT thru-ride

Another Beginning

So, here I am in Campo, CA, again at the southern terminus of the PCT, about to begin another attempt at a Mexico-to-Canada journey. It all feels so familiar, and yet brand new. I can't believe that it's been six years since my last PCT thru-ride adventure, and all the things that have changed since then. I have a whole new team of horses, with the exception of Takoda, who was with me the last time around. But then he was relying on my amazing mare Shyla to take the lead, and now he is the seasoned pro, and all my other horses will hopefully be learning from him. I am definitely counting on him to tackle some of the biggest challenges that I know lie ahead, especially when we get to the northern Cascades in Washington (assuming we get that far). Nothing is ever a given on a trip like this, and anything can happen to derail "the best laid plans of mice and men" (or riders and horses!)

A Rough Start

And speaking of things that can go wrong . . . we almost didn't make to this point at all, or at least not on schedule, as we were just over an hour from home when we lost a wheel from our trailer! My mom was driving the truck with the camper on it, while we had a three horse trailer behind, loaded with gear and hay and water, on our way to Camp Lockett in Campo, where we were going to spend the night before heading to the monument in the morning to start our ride. We had taken the trailer in for some needed repairs the week before, which included some electrical wiring fixes, new wheel studs on one wheel, and new equalizers for the suspension. But something obviously wasn't done right, as the wheel with the new studs loosened and came off, completely shearing off those studs and damaging a U-bolt connected to the leaf springs in the process.

My disabled trailer after the wheel came off

We were totally immobilized on the side of the road, with no way to attach a spare tire since the studs were gone, and I wasn't even sure it was safe to off-load the horses if we managed to get another rig to come get us. It was definitely a moment of panic, when I was grateful that nothing worse had happened and that we were all safe, but when all the months of planning and preparation seemed about to go up in smoke.

Help on the Way

But my mother called the repair shop, and to their credit they launched into overdrive rescue mode to get us back in operation. They sent a guy with a floor jack, a new hub with studs, a new wheel and tire, and a U-bolt kit to reattach the suspension, and right there on the side of the highway, with the horses in the trailer, he got to work.

My highway hero, rescuing the PCT mission that hadn't even started yet!

Back in Action

We were back on the road after about a 4-hour delay, but considering everything that could have happened--but didn't--it felt like a win in the long run. I am just incredibly grateful that the shop stepped up and took responsibility for this and managed to fix the problem, which looked pretty grim when it first happened. Also glad that it happened when and where it did--while we could get the help we needed.

The rest of the drive to Camp Lockett was long (especially as we took a slower inland route to avoid driving through afternoon traffic in L.A.) but uneventful; we didn't arrive until about 10 p.m., but the facilities were great and we got the horses settled quickly and everyone had a peaceful night before we headed for the monument in the morning. Here's what things looked like in the light of day:

Where we stayed at Camp Lockett

A 26-mile Day

After dropping Takoda and me at the start of the trail, my mom went back to pick up Newt and Zahra, then drove to our planned camp for that night, at Boulder Oaks equestrian campground, about 26 trail miles ahead, where I would join her after today's ride. It ended up being a good start, despite the very scary events that almost ended it before it began!

And a Trip Down Memory Lane

Of course, the whole day took me back to my previous PCT thru-ride journeys, and I couldn't help but compare today to past thru-ride adventures. The very first time I attempted this trail was in 2014, when I didn't have a clue about what lay ahead. But thanks to my two incredible horses, Shyla and Takoda, somehow we made it, despite all the challenges and the mistakes I made along the way. It feels so much better this time to know that I am more prepared and aware of what my equine partners will need in order to cope with all the difficulties that lie ahead. I am able to anticipate their nutritional requirements and to be sure they have the right hoof protection for the wear and tear of long miles and rocky terrain. I know how to choose my camp sites and where to cache water or take a rest day to let them recover. When I look back at how naive I was on my first thru-ride, it is hard to believe that we actually made it. I have learned so much since then, but I am certain the trail still has much to teach me . . .

Gillian and Takoda at the start of their first PCT thru-ride in 2014
Gillian and her horses arrive at the Canadian border

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