Istallment No. 2 of My PCT Journey
With the beginning of the school year in late August, I wasn’t able to jump back on the trail until October. My success in August with Mt. Whitney trip left me feeling strong and grateful. I spent September looking carefully over Halfmile’s maps and weather reports, and decided that Mt. Baden-Powell in Angeles National Forest and PCT Section D would be my next victim.
This hike started with a car shuttle with a little help from my friend and personal Trail Angel, Sabrina. We left my car at Eagles Roost Picnic Area on Highway 2 and then she dropped me off in Wrightwood at the Acorn Trailhead. This was a lovely trail, but it was a steep climb with 1,500 feet gained over just 2 miles.
True to my forgetful nature, I was 30 feet up the trail when I realized I’d left my trekking pole in Sabrina’s car. Luckily, she was still at the trailhead, texting on her phone. It was a delightful suprise to see snow along the trail that morning. One of the reasons I had picked this section of the PCT to hike next is because I wanted to hike it before it became too snowy for comfortable walking. The snow I got to walk through, however, was perfect and put me in the mood for Fall!
Reaching the junction at the top of Acorn Trail was a joy, not only because I loved the idea of being back on the PCT again, but also not having to climb UP anymore! I was immediately greeted with spectacular views of Mt. San Antonio, also called Mt. Baldy. At a height of 10,068 ft, it’s the tallest peak of the San Gabriel Mountains.
This hike was my second time visiting Angeles National Forest, the first visit being only a quick drive along Hwy 2 earlier that year. To be honest, I unfairly presupposed that it wasn’t much of a forest, that the mountains were crummy and the views urban and smoggy. Turns out I was quite wrong. Yes, there was quite a bit of smog hanging in the valleys, but the drama of the San Gabriel Mountains rivaled that of the Sierras. There were plenty of trees to constitute a forest, and, to my surprise, I was particularly entranced with the views of Antelope Valley and the Mojave desert floor. Topping it off was a sweet, pine smell permeating the air which I didn’t recall smelling in the Sierras.
It didn’t take long to run into a few hunters, and it seemed they were all camped out at Guffy Campground. Guffy was car camping city! There were SUVs and sedans, blow up mattresses, grills cooking up hamburger patties, giant coolers full of beer and soda, and boom boxes blasting. I was pleased that there didn’t seem to be any hunters up past the campground and that I had the trail to myself again.
The section of PCT betwen Guffy and Hwy 2 at mile 369.5 gave me that sense of childhood adventure. The one where you feel safe because you’re just exploring your own backyard, but exciting because you don’t really know what you’re going to see around the bend. This was such a new forest to me and it was actually kinda fun to have views of cities and other areas that you could point to and identify. (“Over in that direction is Mojave; that must be Claremont, and that mountain way in the distance could be Santiago Peak in Orange County’s Saddleback formation,” etc.)
It’s funny how a little bench, a reservoir, or other man-made structures are so much more exciting on the trail than off. Halfmile’s PCT maps have the ski resorts and reservoirs marked on his map, and it gave me something to look forward to as I marched along the moutain sides. It reminded me of when I was a child (I see a theme here! :-D) on road trips and my mother would tell me to keep an eye out for funny things like Santa Claus statues, roller coaster towers, or special mountains. Any kind of landmark on the trail is always something to look forward to.
Passing Blue Ridge Campground, also a popular car camping spot, all sorts of deciduous trees lined the trail. Since we don’t see too much seasonal change in Southern California, small things like leaves changing color and bits of snow on the ground are very exciting. (In fact, shortly after this trip, I was in such a Fall mood that I bought THREE new very Fall-ish looking sweaters.) I’ve always found the natural world so fascinating. Bits of information from middle school science class trickled into my mind about chlorophyll & leaf pigment. Thinking about all the chemical reactions going on inside each plant, geological histories of each mountain, and the daily lives of the local animals entertains me to no end.
Soon I was crossing Hwy. 2 and anticipating my arrival at Grassy Hollow Visitor Centor, where I planned to refill water bottles, eat lunch, and roll out my legs on a little foam roller. I’ve been going to physical therapy since I had knee surgery in June, and my new favorite therapy toy was a 6-inch long foam roller. I decided to bring it along for this trip and see how well it worked for me out on the trail. Would it be a nuisance to pack? Would it be worth it’s 11 ounces of weight? Turns out, it is a bit of a nuisance, as I had packed it into my bear canister and then had to stash my food every where else in my pack. However, it was pretty awesome to roll out my legs right there on the trail. Afterwards, I felt like I’d had a quickie deep tissue massage and could easily carry the next batch of water up and over Mt. Baden-Powell.
The visitor center had nice bathrooms, a deck and benches, which I took full advantage of for my lunch break. I stuck my head inside the visitor center to ask where the camp water spigot was, but the ranger and volunteers were nice enough to just let me fill up my bottles in their kitchen sink. Whoohoo! Apparently, the water from the spigot, despite being good enough for drinking, comes out slightly orange.
The center was a charming little museum about the natural history of the forest, complete with maps, old photos, exhibits of pine cones and grasses, and an extremely large looking stuffed mountain lion. Looking into the dead cougar’s glass eyes sent shivers down my spine. No longer did I have that childhood sense of exploring my own backyard.
Next, I hiked around Jackson Flat Campground and on towards Mt. Baden-Powell. The 2 miles between Jackson Flat and Hwy 2b seemed to take forever. I was starting to get tired and, trying to determine how fast I needed to hike to summit Mt. B-P before dark, was getting a bit concerned about daylight.
I saw only hikers coming down the mountain as I headed up toward the summit. It was already 4:00 in the afternoon when I started up and the sun would be setting in about two hours. I could feel the altitude changing as I became more and more out of breath, but I was determined to reach the top before dark. I hustled up the trail, slowly making my way into deeper snow, and counting every switchback along the way.
More snow meant more opportunities for spotting animal tracks, including any surviving relative of the stuffed cougar at the visitor center. There were clearly large cat tracks in the snow that evening, but I couldn’t tell how recent they were. They didn’t look old, but it seemed unlikely a mountain lion would’ve been recently hanging around with so many hikers going up and down during the day. Either way, there was a lion living in the area, and, with the sun sinking quickly in the west, my eyes darted over the terrain and I turned to look up and behind me every few feet.
An hour up the mountain maybe around switchback number 25, I began to feel really exhausted and sore. I was sure some meat eating monster would sense I was an easy target, like I was some wounded, sick animal, and make a meal out of me. To boost my moral and, hopefully, convince carnivores I wouldn’t go down easily, I began shouting out the switch back numbers in the loudest, strongest voice I could muster. I did this all the way to number 39, when I was startled suddenly by two hikers coming down the mountainside. They must’ve thought I was either pretty weird or pretty funny. They promised me I had only a few more switchbacks to go. That was good news because the sun was just about down as I reached the summit of 9,406 ft.
I quickly unrolled my sleeping pad, bivy sack, and sleeping bag on what looked to be the only flat spot, just under an old tree. I cooked up a black bean soup with chicken using my headlamp, and then packed all my smell-ables into my bear canister. I placed the canister up the hill just a bit, but as I started back towards my bivy, I heard a loud and very distinct CRACK. [Heart attack time!] I had done a bit of mental rehearsal on lion encountars, and immediately jumped to my defensive mode. Defensive mode for me consists of the most offensive words and threats that happen to fall out of my mouth in the moment at the top of my lungs: threats of body mutilation, permanent emotional damage that will make a lion second guess ever approaching a human again, and maybe even certain death. So, all these obscenities fly out of my mouth into the stillness of the night on top of Mt. Baden-Powell, and my little Ace Hardware headlamp isn’t strong enough to illuminate my bivy site. I carefully approach my gear, listening for sounds and looking for reflective eyes or dark cat silhouettes. Turns out I’d been screaming threats at my fallen trekking pole. I climbed into my bag before anything else caught my eye, and pulled out a book. Even with a good book and a huge beautiful moon rising in the east, my imagination still got the better of me. For the rest of the evening, a dark animal-like silhouette, which I was sure I could see moving, creeped me out; and, upon morning sunlight, it turned out to only be a dead tree trunk.
I woke before the first rays of sun and watched the soft colors of dawn feather out on the eastern horizon. Scooping up my entire sleep set-up in my arms, I shuffled to the summit and popped myself back in bed to watch the sunrise. To the west, the sky was still a dark blue and the moon was still making its way west. It made for an enchanting morning.
Since it was chilly, I didn’t bother to change out of my pj’s or eat breakfast until further down the trail. As I tend not to like cooking in the morning, breakfast consisted of jerky and fig bars, with some True Lemon in my water. I must’ve been a bit dehydrated because I just couldn’t seem to satiate my thirst that morning. Less than 30 minutes down the trail I passed a couple who’d also hiked up the afternoon before, passing Mt. B-P and camping along the ridge, in a fairly exposed, but really beautiful spot.
I passed numerous day hikers that morning and was still lucky enough to see a couple of deer. It always amazes me how agile they are; they practically glide up and down clifs, over rocks, and through thick bushes as though they were simply skating at the roller rink. They often make me imagine that’s how so many dinosaurs must’ve moved millions of years ago. Bambi: a gentle, little creature of Angeles N.F. or a window to the ferocious and primal Jurassic world!
The next goal on the trail was Little Jimmy Spring near PCT mile 384. It was a 5.75 mile hike almost entirely on a gentle downhill. The spring was just past Windy Gap, a trail junction to Crystal Lake with a nice little bench. I met several campers coming and going from the Spring all doing quick overnights at Little Jimmy Campground. This well-flowing spring is built up with a stone wall and deck, and a simple bench.
Another 2.25 miles later, I again found myself crossing Hwy 2 at Islip Saddle. I was feeling tired and, eyeballing the height of Mt. Williamson, was extremely tempted to just road walk to Eagles Roost instead of hiking up and over the mountain.
Just a third of the way up Mt. Williamson, I panicked and thought I might be on the wrong trail. Since there’s a trail closure between Eagles Roost and mile 394 due to an endangered species of frog, many hikers take a detour called South Fork Trail. This detour trail begins at Islip Saddle along with the PCT and branches off toward South Fork Campground and Punchbowl Creek. I didn’t remember seeing the trail junction at all, and I was in no mood to backtrack down the mountain and then up again on the correct trail. It must’ve been my anxiousness to reach Eagles Roost, but I really felt like I couldn’t think straight. I stared and stared at the map and couldn’t quite determine which trail I was on. Looking at the map now and remembering the terrain, it really shouldn’t have been that hard to figure out.
At the time, I resorted to pulling out my smartphone and using, for the first time ever, Halfmile’s app to locate myself on the PCT. Once a mileage position popped up, I still struggled because I didn’t know if Halfmile called official detours the “PCT,” which would mean I was on the South Fork Trail. If I had only tested out the Halfmile app other places on the trail, none of that confusion would’ve happened. The app is actually VERY clear about whether you’re on the PCT, a detour trail, or a road-walk. It even tells you how far off trail you might been and in what direction! I decided to trust I was on the PCT and not the detour, and hiked upward hoping to come upon a very distinct switchback to confirm my location. Indeed, Halfmile had me covered and I was exactly where I should be on the PCT. [How could I have ever doubted you, Halfmile? <3]. It still bugs me, however, that I never even saw the junction for the South Fork Trail.
I was overjoyed to reach the top, round the bend and look down toward Eagles Roost at my little car. The day was hot and I was ready for a big lunch in town. I practically ran down Mt. Williamson to the Hwy 2d crossing and raced myself across the last little section between Hwy 2d & Hwy 2e. I was making spectacular time and not even a big, bushy downed tree on the trail could slow me down. With branches cracking & limbs scraping, I charged over the tree and down to towards the highway and picnic area. Lunch followed shortly at Newcombs Ranch Bar and Restaurant down Hwy 2, which was not as awesome as I was hoping.