This post is part of a series I am writing to highlight different sections of the PCT and is designed to be a companion to my similar YouTube series. Links to those will appear here as I continue with the project. You can explore the section through the interactive GPS route I've loaded up on Gaia.
Benny the Corgi lives with my second cousin in Apple Valley, a rural residential community outside Victorville. He and I are in the backyard under the shade of an awning, which protects us from the raging sun blasting the valley to a temperature over 100 degrees. Even in the shade we’re sweating. I’m wearing a tank top, shorts, and sunglasses, soaking my feet in ice water, and drinking the same. Benny is belly down on the pavement, legs butterflied like a splacthcock chicken on the grill. His shaggy black coat begs for pets.
As I scratch the dimples behind his ears, I realize that though he’s not particularly well adapted to the heat here, he knows how to take a break. When his panting becomes more labored, signifying a need to expel some heat from his cute little burrito body, he lays down in recovery mode.
I could learn a thing or two from Benny.
Apple Valley is not a common stop for thru hikers since it requires about an hour drive from the trail from a road that’s not an easy place to grab a hitch. I’m lucky to spend some time with my second cousin here, as I need to come off trail and rest. I’m two weeks into my PCT attempt and the honeymoon period is over already. I have to figure out why my feet hurt, why new blisters form over old calluses, how to reduce my pack weight even further, and where I can get a replacement for my camera that went for a swim in the creek.
I’m splitting my time between feet elevated on the bed and feet soaking in an ice bath. No matter where my feet are, my eyes are my phone. I’ve downloaded Fixing Your Feet to the Kindle App in hope of absorbing tricks of the trade from ultra runners who know the unique pains of high mileage on trails. My legs feel good. My knees are pain free. Cardio is dialed. But my feet are bone meal and I need help.
The most obvious answer is that I need to get better at resting. Fourteen or more hours per day on foot has been a shock and my feet have responded by ballooning with inflammation and bubbling over with blisters. I’m still a bit surprised since I put in a lot of hours on foot training, running an hour or two most days, and had zero foot problems in the six months leading up to my hike. Shouldn’t that be enough repetitive stress? Turns out the answer for me is a solid NOPE. Write it with a Sharpie on my forehead or something. I need to remember this feeling if my trail aspirations are to survive.
Mistakenly believing that long trail days would be like going for a 2 hour long run, which I can recover from with a night of good sleep, I’ve not prepared my “time on feet” adequately, and I didn’t really budget for many rest days. I still don’t want to slow down too!
But here’s some good news. It turns out Section C on the PCT has some of the best places to rest on trail thus far! Why? Water and beaches. Whitewater River, Big Bear Lake, Silverwood Lake, and Deep Creek Hot Springs all offer opportunities to swim, relax, and cool off.
A bit of a hypocrite, I’m antsy to get back on trail and check out all of these spots. I call for Benny and we head inside. I grab a few more ice cubes from the refrigerator, gulp some water, and retire to the air conditioned guest room. The new socks, shoes, and camera arrived today, and I think I’m ready to try again from mile 315 at Silverwood Lake where I stepped off trail.
The First Swimming Hole at Whitewater River
Stepping out from the shade of the hiker oasis under Interstate 10, the trail immediately begins its climb through Mesa Wind Farm and the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. The views of San Jacinto behind vanish quickly as you wind up small canyons serving as tributaries to Whitewater River. There are many places where you see miles of the trail ahead of you, winding up and over canyon crests, and eventually the view ahead opens up to large earth walls with various shades of brown, orange, red, and yellow.
Coming over another canyon crest, you’ll notice white rocks in the wash below, speckled with greenery throughout. Just over 10 miles of hiking from Interstate 10, the trail drops a few hundred feet where you are treated to your first swimming hole of the trail. I made no delay dropping my pack and pulling off clothes for a much needed soak.
From here, the trail only goes up for the next 20 miles. As a result, views of San Jacinto behind you return while new vistas to the east reveal Morongo and Yucca Valley. The casino lights just a few miles away remind me that luck plays a role in every endeavor. Little did I know that the House (Mother Nature in this case) would soon reduce my pile of chips by a significant sum. She’s quite the opportunist.
The Mission Creek Climb
However, fortune remains with me for the time being, as water is easy to come by since for most of this stretch along Mission Creek. Sometimes the walking can be a bit frustrating as washouts lead you into dead end rock walls or thick shrubbery, but nothing a short backtrack or burly bush-whack can’t fix. Keep to the creek and you’ll be alright.
The trail leaves the persistent creek as it enters San Gorgonio Wilderness but still crosses at reliable intervals further up, so water planning isn’t too difficult. In fact, I don’t believe I carried more than a liter at any time through this entire section. You’ll pass through a recent burn zone before the conifers really get dense enough to offer shade, which make for some nice campgrounds popular with nearby sporting Los Angelinos.
At mile 240, the trail goes through Mission Springs Camp, where you’ll notice increasing human activity. As it comes closer to Highway 38 and the resort town of Big Bear, the trail intersects many dirt roads enjoyed by four wheeler types. I also crossed paths with a number of day hikers, car campers, and horseback riders as I inched closer to Highway 18 which would be my conduit into town.
You meet all sorts of people on trail, whether they are hiking the PCT or not. In the 25 miles between Mission Springs Camp and Highway 18, I got the opportunity to help folks rig up an outdoor shower, dig out a stuck jeep, jam to Latin music, and was offered delicious treats for my troubles like cold watermelon, a Coors Light, and some graham crackers. My puppy dog face wasn’t enough to score me a piece of cake from the graduation party going on at Coon Creek Cabin though.
Big Bear City and Kenny's Place
And then there’s Kenny. He’s an iconic trail angel in Big Bear who completely opens up his home to PCT hikers. I was totally surprised at how popular of a stop it is considering how his house is painted versus the expected political leaning of your average thru hiker. I guess the free pancake breakfast, multitude of air mattresses, open laundry machine, and hot shower would be enough to lure anybody inside four walls, regardless of the paint job. There were twelve hikers in total when I was there, and all vibes were correct and protected.
It’s a good sized house, but twelve hikers was enough to overwhelm the air mattress capacity, so I opted to sleep on the back deck with my camping gear. No problem. One of the hikers was there on an extended stay due to injury, so he helped with various chores, which usually meant shuttling hikers to and from trail and town. My hiking buddy for the last two days and I went for dinner to a local watering hole called Kallans. It had a great small town vibe, but I’d steer clear of the “Triple Bypass Burger” despite all of the recommendations. For $13 you receive: 1/3 lb Pastrami with Double Bacon, Triple American Cheese, Onion Rings, Fried Egg, Mayonnaise, Lettuce, Tomato, & our Homemade Whiskey Sauce. In my humble opinion, just a bit too much for a burger.
Deep Creek Hot Springs (Mile 307.9)
After a leisurely breakfast of vegan pancakes, fruit salad, and scrambled eggs, the task master dropped us back off at the trailhead on Highway 18. Deep Creek is the next major destination, another popular weekend getaway for Los Angelinos. The trail runs right past the hot springs, which are built into the side of the river bank, affording you the most excellent choice between hot and cold. These were some of the best hot springs I’ve had the chance to visit. It’s a popular spot, but didn’t feel too crowded during my visit as there is a lot of space to spread out. Definitely worth a stop here.
Mojave Dam (Mile 313)
Any feeling of cleanliness you got from a splash at Deep Creek disappears quickly as you walk away from your riverine paradise and back to the heat. You’ll hike just within sight but out of reach of the river for the rest of the walk out to Mojave Dam which is located at the confluence of Deep Creek and West Fork Mojave River. At the time of my crossing, the West Fork Mojave River was no bigger than previous creek crossings, but an unfortunate tripod placement and shifting sand resulted in my fancy camera going for a swim. That, combined with the foot troubles mentioned in the introductory paragraph spurred me to take a little time off in Apple Valley.
The trail skirts along Silverwood Lake (another Southern California Reservoir) for roughly 10 miles, dropping low enough in sections for beach swims and/or camping at Chamise Cove. As I passed by, I enjoyed watching folks fishing from the rocks and motoring around in speedboats. I also found a 20 dollar bill on the ground! It didn’t come close what I paid to replace my drowned camera, but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit lucky.
Beyond Silverwood Lake begins the hike into Cajon Junction’s Crowder Canyon, which offers stunning landscapes of the San Gabriel mountains ahead - your next challenge. Ceaseless freight slices through the canyon via Highway 15 and the Union Pacific Railroad, something to entrance you through the mild descent. And of course, where people pass, business thrives. If you’ve got a craving for a burger and ice cream, be sure to swing by the McDonald’s just a stone’s throw from where the trail passes under the interstate. It’s so popular with thru-hikers that they even put a sign up for us. You can’t miss it! I’m sure you won’t. A gas station next door provides plenty of snacks and cold beverages as well if a resupply is in order for you. If you pick up a Southbound hitch, there’s even an REI less than 20 minute drive away in Rancho Cucamonga. City Life! 🥰
Mesa Wind Farm
From going to school at UCLA and living in Westwood for five years from 2006 to 2011, I knew that Los Angeles had mountains. With a strong desire to be outside, I found excellent mountain bike single track was accessible in Topanga State Park nearly outside my dorm room. Malibu Canyon just off Highway 1 offered world-class road bike rides. I went rock climbing on the beach at Point Dume. If you were downtown on a clear day after an uncommon rain, you’d learn that all the worker bees in their high rises had beautiful views of the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos. They’re just usually hidden from view by all the smog.
I purchased my first car during my junior year. It was a 1990 Red Honda Civic with no power steering or air conditioning and those automatic seatbelt that retract as soon as you shut the door. And it opened up Southern California beyond biking distance. All of a sudden, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Tahquitz were just one uncomfortable but economic weekend car trip away.
These trips taught me just how mountainous Southern California is. Getting on the PCT provided me with a wonderful reminder. Every time the trail descends down one mountain to a low point and back up more on the other side you will find evidence of travel and freight. These passes provide not only convenient places for cars and trains to move, but also wind. The strong gusts coming from the Pacific Ocean seem to blow relentlessly here. If blistering heat isn’t on the forefront of your mind at this point in the hike, it’s probably the wind then.
Hiking out of Highway 10, you’ll pass through a wind farm that was built in 1983 called Mesa Wind Farm. In September 2020, an energy conglomerate named Brookfield Renewable Partners (BEP) received approval to “repower” this old 30 Megawatt wind farm by replacing some of the aging turbines. During my walk through, there was plenty of wind, but few of the windmills were actually turning. There was, however, plenty of evidence of construction.
One of the books I listened to while hiking was Bill Gates's How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. I really enjoyed his ability to break down numbers in a way that educates the reader how to read climate-related news. For example, here provides a list of how to think about different orders of magnitudes of Wattage:
- The world: 5,000 gigawatts
- The United States: 1,000 gigawatts
- Mid-size city: 1 gigawatt
- Small town: 1 megawatt
- Average American household: 1 kilowatt
Having this thumb rule in the back of my head throughout the hike helped me to appreciate the scale of the wind farm more, especially when I compared it to other energy production methods. As you walk the windmills, contrast the 30 Megawatt capacity number to that of the nearby hydroelectric Hoover Dam, which is 2,080 Megawatts. Compare those to a S6G nuclear submarine, the kind I served on for 3 years, which has a rated capacity reactor of 165 MW. Each production method has pros and cons to consider, and I believe will be needed to build a sustainable future with zero greenhouse gas emission.
The PCT really isn’t just about untouched nature. It also provides a close up perspective on the many methods we employ to harness the natural power of our earth to create the conveniences of life we enjoy today.
Deep Creek Hot Springs
The hot springs are a paradise of the Southern California section, and everyone knows it too. A manageable dayhike for Los Angelinos, this place can get crowded, though my visit was pleasant despite that. There is a large beach, multiple hot pools, and a wide lazy river.
The hot springs are apparently managed by a group called Deep Creek Volunteers. While their website suggests the group may not be active any more, the area itself was very clean and tastefully developed, so somebody keeps the place up. It’s decidedly not pristine wilderness, but I think that’s probably the wrong expectation to have for this paradise bubbling forth right outside a metropolitan area of 18 Million people - closer than Disneyland for many.
Some things to note:
- Clothing is optional. Chances of seeing wrinkly old man balls are high.
- The river is home to the endangered Arroyo Toad. This toad spends most of the day buried in the sand but you may catch a glimpse when it’s out in the evenings to feed.
- The river may also be home to the brain-eating amoeba called Naegleria Fowleri which causes a disease known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis. This disease is incredibly rare, but nearly always fatal. Thousands of people visit natural hot springs every year, and only 24 cases were reported in the USA between 1989 and 2000. Nagleri Fowleri enters the body via the nose so consider keeping your head above water.
- The hot spring water has the highest fecal coliform counts of any body of water in the San Bernardinos. Another good reason to keep your head dry.
- There’s no camping within one mile of the river, but folks still do.
- People may be partying. I was offered a beer, but nobody was being rowdy or boisterous when I visited.
Mojave Dam was built in 1974 by the Army Corps of Engineers to control flooding at the confluence of West Forks Mojave River and Deep Creek. Usually the reservoir is dry, but during a heavy rain, flash floods can occur and fill the reservoir. The dam has no gates, so water level is only controlled by the concrete spillway located on the east side, which is the first section that a northbound PCT hiker will cross coming out of Deep Creek. Of interest to this very hiker may be the fantastic echo reverb discovered when standing in the middle of the spillway and letting out a fine YEEEEEEEE or WHOOOOOOOP! I highly encourage you to try it or check out my video to see and hear it in action. Don’t say you didn’t learn anything from me. Of all the natural echo chambers I found in lakes, cirques, couloirs, drainage pipes, and basins, this one stole the show.