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.

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