September 13, 2020
Campo to Lake Morena County Park
8:55 (moving) / 11:38 (elapsed)
Max 3,470 feet (+3,160 / -2,990)
Pacific Crest Trail – Day 1
I’m really not sure what I’m getting into by undertaking a hike of the PCT. My plan is to section off and day hike each section. There will be a lot of challenges along the way but the most obvious is trying to figure out logistics in which every section is point to point.
I ordered a guide book of the PCT on June 25th so I could start learning more about the trek. I realized June/July wasn’t the ideal time of the year to start a hike in the desert as the guide book confirmed my thoughts and recommended best time of the year for this section is October thru April.
I met a new hiker friend and we did a 10 mile hike together at the Laguna Coast Wilderness. I learned about her experience as she had run her first marathon in the past year as well as did an insane hike called C2C (Cactus to Clouds). That’s not a hike you can just get up one morning and decide to hike, you have to train so she had also hiked many of S. California’s highest peaks prearing for C2C.
I suggested that I was considering hiking the southern section of the PCT and it must have peaked her interest because the following day after our hike I received a text, “When will you do the Mexico border hike?" Only two months after I picked up my PCT guide book my first section of the hike starting from the Mexico border was starting to take shape and it was decided we would embark on the first section of the PCT on September 13th.
As the weekend drew closer I could tell the temperature was going to be a concern. The first section is 20 miles long, dry, and remote. There is really no turning back once you start and the terrain is unforgiving. 20 miles in one day is an extremely long like, but then add the heat and an elevation gain of 3,160 ft I knew it was going to be a long day. The dreaded part of the hike is Hauser Canyon which is 1,000 ft gain over about 1.5 miles in a section of the trail that is completely unsheltered from the sun. Hauser Canyon also comes at the 15.4 mile mark of the day after an already long/hot day of trekking thru the desert.
Other than the heat, another issue we were dealing with were all the California wildfires which were burning out of control. One fire, the Bobcat Fire had started September 6th and 10 days later was still going strong polluting the air. Additionally San Diego had it’s own fire it was dealing with which was called the Valley Fire. The Valley fire was close to the area we ould be hiking and even evacuation orders and evacuation warnings near Lake Morena where we would stay the evening before the hike. When I made a cabin reservation I learned there was evan a chance the reservation could be cancelled if the fire headed in that direction. The fire raged in the other direction however the air quality and visibility the whole drive to San Diego so even tho the evacuation orders were lifted we still had 2nd thoughts and had considered postponing the hike.
With every marathon I’ve run all across the country, the marathon is only a small part of the over all experience. Each trip was not just about the marathon itself but experiencing new places and the whole overall journey. Similarly I think the PCT experience is going to be very similar.
The first obstacle with travel these days is just finding a place to stay. National Parks and campgrounds are always full. The obvious place to make camp for the first day is at Lake Morena County Park. Even two weeks out every single camp space was already reserved. I discovered the park has a handful of very basic cabins you can rent that have a wooden bed which you must use your sleeping matt and sleeping bag. The bathrooms were shared with all campers and not exactly super convenient. The showers were even less convenient and all away across the other side of the campground.
Mai & I decided to carpool from Los Angeles and she had to work till early afternoon and ended up working late so our afternoon departure was delayed and we were already running behind schedule. Since this was a whole new place to visit there were a lot of unanswered questions. We had to make a stop for dinner, pick up some groceries, and find the campground.
We got lucky and found an exit at San Diego State University where we could kill two birds with one stone. Next to a Trader Joe’s was a Broken Yolk Café so we could have a healthy dinner and pick up groceries. It was a quick stop and back on the road but because of the late start it was already getting dark and yet we had another 50 miles or about an hour drive to the campground.
It was also already dark so we couldn’t take in any of the beauty of the mountains as we left San Diego heading east and drove into the forest. We made our way off the exit and to Lake Morena County Park. Even though it was getting late and dark there was a park ranger and provided a key to the cabin.
While there was a lot of planning to get to this point, the one major unknown was how we were going to get to the trailhead in the morning. While the hike is 20 miles on the trail, believe it or not it’s only 7 miles by car on the road. Living in the city these days there is a Lyft or Uber a few minutes away at any given time or place. The original plan which made sense at the time was just to request a ride to the border via a ride share.
First problem, our phones didn’t have signals so that would make it extra difficult to find a ride in the morning, but the park ranger was a life saver and gave us a business card to Driver Dave, a cash only fair fares and really the only way we would be able to get to the trailhead. His number is 619-478-5209. Without a phone coverage we would have to wait for the ranger station to open the next morning at 6 a.m and use their phone.
We also inquired about the Valley Fire with the ranger to double check our section of the PCT if we would be safe from any fire danger in the morning. He said the Valley Fire was too far away an not a threat but shared with us there was a small fire a day earlier directly above the campground. Yikes.
After getting directions to the cabin which was near the rear area of the campground we drove off and circled until we located it. It was small, clean, and very basic. We had electricity and a ceiling fan and two hard wooden bed frames. In our own corners of the cabin, we unpacked rolled out our sleeping bags and prepared our packs for a quick departure in the morning. The bathroom was far enough away and under near complete darkness we decided to drive, freshened up quickly and returned for a good night’s rest.
Alarm was set for 5 a.m. with plans to be first in line at the ranger station in the morning. A banana crepe with Nutella left over from dinner the night before was the perfect top to the usual energy packed breakfast. We were first in line as cars continued to roll in even this early. I was able to borrow the ranger’s phone and make a call to the taxi driver. Voice mail. I was beginning to doubt my plan and concerned how we would get to the Southern Terminus this early in the morning while more people were still asleep. A 2nd attempt and sure enough Dave answered. Obviously waking him up and he wondered why someone was calling him so early in the morning but agreed to pick us up in 15 minutes. Excellent!
We got a parking pass from the ranger so we could leave our car in the day hike parking area next to the ranger station. Dave showed up as promised and let us throw our packs in the back of his vehicle. He was an older man that had grown up in the area and was full of stories all the way there. The most shocking story was we were the first hikers all summer. I thought the first section of the hike might be lightly traveled, but not a single hiker in months!
We could see the new U.S. / Mexico border wall in the distance. He had probably been there 100’s of times and didn’t even recognize it, he said it’s all new, and obviously still undergoing construction. It made the morning all the more exciting seeing the wall for the first time in person. We broke out the camera for a couple quick photos of the towers commemorating either the begging or end of the PCT hike. For us, it was the beginning and 20 miles seemed so far away.
On our way to the start of the trail we were passed by several border patrol agents cruising around and probably checking us out since they too probably hadn’t seen any hikers all summer. Dave said his farewell and it was just us there with our packs. Our original goal was to be on the trail by 7 a.m. so things so far were working like clockwork as 2e started our hike at 6:55 a.m. The trail is not clearly defined in the first mile so we broke out the guide and tried to follow it’s instructions and appeared that we were on the right track as we eventually saw our first sign.
One question that I kept wondering about was how long would it take to hike 20 miles. My pace when I walk Juno is 17-18 minutes per mile, so maybe allow for 30 minutes per mile or 10 hours or be off the trail by 5pm. I didn’t plan on being on the trail any longer than that, but with a sunset between 6-7 pm there wasn’t a lot of time for dawdling around.
The obvious challenge is not just the distance but the fact that there is no water along the trail. I thought 6 liters of water would be enough which equated to 13.2 lbs to drag along from the first mile of the trail. The second challenge is that summer had not broken yet and we knew it was going to get hot and the reason to get a start as near to sunrise as possible.
The beginning of the hike the temperature was already at 70 degrees. In the first hour it would dip a little into the 60’s but 3 hours into our planned 10 hour hike it was already 90 degrees which pretty much meant that the next 7 hours would also be in the 90’s. Yes the desert is a dry heat, but also the desert doesn’t give much protection of shade to get out of the sun.
Our goal was to hike for a mile and then take a short break to rest/refuel/re-hydrate and we tried to stick this plan as long as possible. At mile 8.5 we got lost for the first time when the trail took a hard left hand turn that we missed and we followed some trampled down paths where apparently others had been lost before.
I had packed an old Garmin 60CSx handheld GPS for added protection from getting lost. First rookie mistake was not properly loading the base maps or the trail track data. I didn’t have the base map and I only had way point markers for every 1 mile. The problem with not have the track data if you are lost there is no real easy way to find the trail, you only know the approximate direction you need to head to find the next waypoint. So pretty much the gps proved to be mostly worthless for the day. We did have paper maps and pretty good trail directions so we did the best we could to stay on track.
The cool thing already noticeable that I was sure to enjoy the trails never ending scenery. Most of my S. California hikes were in the San Gabriels which all kind of look the same and are typically steep up and down. The first 15 miles of the trail were just rolling hills through mostly baron desert. There was a constant elevation change of 1,000 ft throughout the day so just when the vegetation seemed to have changed you would fall back into another area that was similar to what you had seen miles behind.
About mile 5 we began a 10 mile slow accent starting about 2,300 ft up to a ridge that was close to highest elevation of the day of 3,300 ft. By mile 12 it had reached 95 degrees and I could tell Mai was beginning to slow down. I continued to make sure that she was drinking and eating as we continued our stops every 1 mile. We knew the hardest part of the day was yet to come of the infamous Hauser Canyon. As early as mile 13 we were high on the opposite side of the canyon and could see the trails switchbacks going up the opposite side which even far away we knew would be tough.
I can't come up with the right word to describe the trail other than desolate. That is I haven't done too many 20 miles hikes where I didn't see another hiker on the entire trail. As each mile passed we wondered if we would see another hiker coming from the other direction or anyone anywhere on the trail, but nope. Not one soul all day long.
Our biggest mistake of the day was the 2nd time getting lost at about mile 14.85 where we thought we were on the trail to drop into the bottom of the canyon and descended nearly 500 feet pretty rapidly before reaching a dead end. We had turned on a road for powerline access and not on the trail itself which was another half of mile future down an old fire road. This meant we had to retreat 500 feet back up in the brutal heat which wiped both of us out.
There really wasn’t a good place to stop for shade until we reached the very bottom of the canyon. The trail was lightly used all summer so especially in this area the trail was heavily overgrown and we found an area where some hikers choose to camp and spend the night before ascending the 1000 or more feet up the to the top of the other side of Hauser Canyon. Mai had had it and she needed a break, practically collapsing and not wanting to move. Fortunately there were some large trees at the bottom of the canyon that are probably fed by a stream in the non-dry season which provided a break from the sun for nearly the first time all day. This was around mile 16 that we took the longest break.
Still not sure where we lost the trail while Mai took a nap I searched to find the way back on to our trail. I could see the trail rising out of the canyon on the other side, but the vegetation was so thick there was no real easy way to bushwhack a path thru. We weren’t far off track and once she had enough energy to start moving again we would begin our slow ascent.
The sun was relentless and by this time we had already been on the trail for 9 hours. I had hoped to be done in 10 hours but had the last 4-5 miles of the hardest part of the trail to go. Rookie mistake #2 was not packing head lamps in case we were out after dark. Not knowing the area I was really concerned about getting lost once the sun went down. At the same time I was concerned with Mai’s safety of getting up the steep climb out of Hauser Canyon.
It would take us nearly 3 hours to make it the last 4 miles of the hike. I decided to carry both packs to lighten her load and tried keep constant motion but even without a pack breaks were neccessary every few minutes. On the climb there were three separate times where she just passed out in the middle of the trail and laid down on the rocks. Later I would re-read in the guide book "The climb out of Hauser Canyon is serious business - you face over 1000 feet of elevation gain in about 1.5 miles. Dehydrated, overheared, and underprepared hikers are reescured near here every single year".
I was tossed up between waiting for it to cool down and risk getting lost in the dark or just to keep moving slowly. I forced her to keep drinking until she eventually finished every drop of fluid she brought. I had one spare 20oz bottle I kept in my pack all day just for times like these and donated to her even though I new I was also getting very low on my own water supply. We finally made it to the top of the ridge of Hauser Canyon in 11 hours in the hot sun and 19 miles on the trail
Our barren trail of not seeing another hiker was ruined about 1.5 miles from Lake Morena County Park. Ruined is probalby a bad word choice because we were both so happy to see another human which was a sign we were nearing the end of our long day. Neither the other hiker or us broke stride as we each headed in opposite directions but he did reassure us we were almost to the campground. After 19 miles and 11 hours in the hot sun those were the most joyous words to hear.
The last mile or so was rolling hills with a final descent back into Lake Morena County Park. There were two large lakes that were beautiful down below. What was very interesting is that the fire the park ranger told us about last evening end’s up was right dead smack on the PCT. We found the charred trees, could see the trees that were chopped down by the crew fighting the fire. Also there were lots of ribbons they tied off that appeared to have something to do with the perimeter they tried to create around the fire. Lastly the most exciting thing we came across is that they actually hit the fire with the red/pink fire retardant from a plane and we hiked directly across the ground where the retardant still clung to everything it landed on. I'd never been that close to a newly burned area so it probably added to the excitment of the days challenging hike.
Finally we could see the lights of the campground below and found the path from the PCT that lead to the campground. We made our way to our vehicle and completely exhausted by this point and celebrated with some ice cold coconut water. We did it! Day 1 wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but we made it back safely.
We knew there were pay showers somewhere in the campground and circled a couple times in the dark until we found them. After 57 marathons nothing feels quite as nice as a hot tub or long shower after a race, however, after 11 hours and 38 minutes after stepping foot on the trail earlier that day and spending most of the day in 90 degree heat I would have to say that shower was amongst the best in my lifetime.
After getting cleaned up it was nearly 9pm and a long drive ahead of us. Food was the next thing on the agenda and I’m sad to say late night the best thing we could come up with is a McDonalds drive thru. Those were probably the best French fries I’d ever had in my life. It was a fun drive home reliving the trials and tribulations of the day.