Week One on the PCT Thru-ride: Campo to Idyllwild (April 13-19)

by Gillian Larson | posted: April 27, 2022

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


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