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. 

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