Before starting this hike, my biggest question mark was the desert section—the first 700 miles from the Mexican border to Kennedy Meadows, where the Sierra section starts. I hadn’t done desert hiking, I hadn’t spent much time in Southern California—I imagined walking through long, flat, dry desert and crouching in the meager shade of sage brush and cacti.
There’s been some shade crouching, but mostly I’ve been astonished by the variety of these first 400 miles. Variety in vegetation, in topography, in temperature—turn a corner on a mountain and everything can change dramatically.
Day 30 started with sunshine, then we turned a corner and walked into clouds, then there was rain falling from the pine trees where clouds had condensed onto the needles, then that moisture turned into icicles in an onslaught of cold wind and the icicles fell on us, then there was sun, then there was hail, then there was hail + sun, then hail blown sideways by the wind. All while the temperatures hung out in the 30s and 40s.
We did the “endangered species detour,” a.k.a. “frog sex detour,” a.k.a. “toad walk” with a group of hikers, dashing from one side of the twisty two-lane highway to the other, wherever there was more shoulder to walk on.
That night we set up the tarp in a vicious wind, one end tied to a picnic table and the other tied to the chimney of a campground stove. Not long after crawling into our sleeping bags, we started to hear a soft patter on the tarp—not rain, no longer hail… definitely snow. It accumulated along the ridge line, and I spent a while reaching up to knock it off, watching its shadow slide down and start to pile up along the sides of the tarp, which was staked right down to the ground to keep the wind out. Eventually I gave up and tried to sleep. At some point the guy line holding the windward pole snapped, so the tarp started hitting me in the butt with every wind gust. It was a long night.
Our second month on the trail started with a frosting of snow—an inch or two had fallen during the night, with huge drifts piled up on either side of the tarp—but the tarp stayed up.
Everything was beautiful. Cold, but beautiful.
Hiking was slow—we were stopping to take so many photos. The wintry mix returned, and we had to hike fast on the uphills to stay warm.
This was our first day of snow hiking and also our first day of poodle dog bush infestation. Poodle dog bush is a weed that moves in after forest fires. It’s big and ugly and smells like low-grade pot—and if you touch it, it can cause a reaction severe enough to put you in the hospital. There’s a PCT legend that a few years ago a hiker thought poodle dog bush was marijuana and tried smoking it, and terrible, terrible things happened. The story may or may not be true, but the telling always needs to end with: “He lived… but it was bad.”
It makes for exhausting hiking. Trail crews have done a valiant and much appreciated job of clearing much of the trail that used to be so overgrown with PDB that hikers had to road walk around it—but it grows back quickly and it grows back big.
Days 31 and 32 were an obstacle course: bobbing and weaving, sliding and shimmying past that damn plant. Putrid Demon Bush. Devil Skunk Weed.
These miles were some of the most dramatic in terms of changing temperature and vegetation. Slushy snow on one hillside, falling icicles around the corner, and sand and cacti a few hundred feet further down the trail. These three trail views were taken within ten miles and 24 hours of each other:
Day 30: 17.7 miles, PCT Mile 384.4 to 401.1 via toadwalk, to Camp Glenwood
Day 31: 17.5 miles, Mile 401.1 to 418.6, Mill Creek Fire Station
Day 32: 17.7 miles, Mile 418.6 to 436.3, North Fork Ranger Station