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 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.
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.
Every time we crested a ridge, the views stretched out for miles.
And abundant wildflowers bloomed along the trail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.