October 25, 2020
Desert View Picnic Site to Sunrise Trailhead
5:33 (moving) / 6:46 (total)
Max 6,076 feet (+2,610 / -3,560)
When taking on the notion of hiking the Southern section of the PCT I looked at it as something fun to do. I would get to see new places and hike all new trails I’d never seen. It never occurred to me that these day hikes would bring such adversity. Day 1 in September was 20 miles under extreme heat. Day 2 in October was just a long 22.6 mile uphill hike that lasted from sunrise even past sunset and still quite warm. I was thinking Day 3 was going to be the easiest so far, only 16.9 miles and while a few rolling hills mostly downhill but the weather again had it’s own idea for the day.
Planning Day 3 came with fewer surprises than the first two trips mainly for the fact I was beginning know the area therefore there were fewer surpises. Last time the hike finished near the highest elevation of the trail near Mt. Laguna (6,014ft), so this would be our starting point for Day 3.
Most of the planning takes place about two weeks prior to the actual travel date and I’m learning the one factor I have no control is the weather which pretty much means take it as it comes. Just a month ago I was dealing with 95 degree and direct exposure to the sun all day while this week the weather would take 180 turn. My PCT guidebook had another warning, “There’s a widespread notion that the southern section of the PCT is just hot, dry, flat desert. Hikers ascend to the pine-studded heights of the Laguna Mountains within the first 40-ish miles of the trail, which may be coated in frost – or more. The first significant winter snowfall usually comes in early November”.
Well October 25th wasn’t quite November but it was sure to be much colder than just two weeks prior. Checking the weather report on Monday the 19th it was already calling for temperatures as low as 26 degrees at night with the possibility of rain/snow. Yikes. By Friday the 23rd it started to look as if it was only going to be cloudy, no rain, yet still cold. A little cold I can come prepared. Cold and rainy would just make for a miserable day. With rain now out of the forecast the green light was was given for not postponing the hike.
Since the trailhead is so far from home so far it has made the most sense to drive down the night before and camp near the trailhead. The first two nights were at Lake Morena campground but once again it seemed as all camp sites in the area were all booked. It was looking it could drop down into the 20-30’s near Mt. Laguna so finding a room seem to be preferred and ended up finding a run down lodge not far from the trailhead in a little village called Pine Valley.
The plan was to have dinner in a little mountain town call Julian, famous for their apple pies. I’d been to Julian twice before. Once I was doing a S. California cycling trip and one of the days we spent the night in Julian. My second trip was actually just 3 years ago when a motorcycle group of friends planned to drive down for lunch and back in the same day. I remember liking Julian and was looking forward to going back.
Again because of the point to point hiking two cars would be necessary so both my friend Mai and I drove separately. We actually drove from Los Angeles via the I-15 vs the I-5 so came in a completely different way so we ended up driving through Temecula, Pala, and around Palomar Mountain. Palomar brought back memories because I twice have cycled to the summit and we drove right down Rt 76 which passes by the two roads that ascend to Mt. Palomar. We eventually arrived in Julian and there were long lines to every pie place and restaurant in town and even finding parking was hard.
We decided to go to dinner at Rongbranch Restaurant which is the same place I went with my motorcycle buddies. We had great service and delicious food last time. This was the first restaurant I’d visited since Covid-19 that allowed indoor dining. The wait was horrible, it took about 1.5 hours to get a table and even after ordering the food took another 45 minutes. By the time dinner was over it was already dark and all the lines and people were gone. On main street we found The Julian Café & Bakery still open and a whole batch of pies just fresh out of the oven so grabbed 3 to go.
Two more stops on the way to the lodge. First we had to drop off Mai’s car the trailhead at the end of the hike. We continued on rt79 outside the other end of Julian and turned onto Sunrise Hwy that twists it’s way up to Mt. Laguna. Already the wind was howling and the clouds were blowing across the ridge in front of the car which made for an erie drive. We found Sunrise trailhead and it was plastered with No Overnight Parking signs but didn’t have any better option so we dropped off her car and continued up the road.
One more stop as again for the 16.9 mile hike there was no water available, but there was one intersection with the highway to another trailhead at the 10 mile mark called Pioneer Mail Picnic area where we stashed a few bottles of water, a Gatorade, and a Mountain Dew. Again the sky and clouds were ominous so we jumped back in the car and continued over the top of Mt. Laguna then all the way down the other side to Pine Valley for the evening.
Sunday morning the alarm goes off early and first order of busines is to check the weather and sure enough it’s misting. It was very cloudy and windy so I wasn’t exactly sure if the moisture was from the clouds or if it was actually lightly raining. Either way we headed up the mountain to the trailhead at the top of Mt. Laguna, the highest elevation of the day as well as probably the coldest point of the day. The wind was howling, the clouds were blowing but it wasn’t actually raining and while it was cool it wasn’t as cold as I was expecting. Without much hesitation the last bit of fluids were tossed down and we were off.
We started the hike exactly where we left off two weeks ago. We had finished in the dark but it was pretty easy to find the short path that lead back to the PCT. The air felt “crisp” or “fresh” and while on one hand wondering what the hell were we doing there on the other hand we were both excited for the adventure. When it's sunny and dry nearly every day of the year in S. California is kind of ashamed to have to start a hike when the conditions are not only cold but rainy. While heading mostly downhill all day our pace per mile was a constant 4 minutes faster than either of the first two days so we made pretty good time all day.
The wind howled and the clouds passed by but spirts were good. One of the topics of discussion would be how many people we would see on the trail today. Since the trail was damp we could see 1 set of foot prints so my guess is that we would see one 1 person all day. We blasted through the first 5.5 miles before seeing the first two hikers. We were fortunate that the wind was either at our back or from the side most of the day, but these hikers were heading uphill into the wind so they had to really be getting blasted by the wind. Another two hikers we passed again going opposite directions at 8.5 miles and that would be our last human interaction the rest of the hike.
The trail most of the time provided natural protection from the wind blasting over the ridge tho there were other areas where there was no protection and we were pummeled by wind and rain. My rain jacket kept me dry most of the day and for the most part my hood was always on. Unfortunately my pants were not waterproof, so throughout the day my bottom half was soaked. It was so windy that when we it wasn’t raining my pants actually would begin to dry out, but then the it seemed each corner we turned was back into the rain and I would get soaked again. The coldest part of my body were my hands. I thought I had warm gloves, but all the water from my sleeves ran down to my gloves so they were also soaked all day. I constantly would ring them out. Even though they were wet the acted liked a wetsuit by warming up the moisture close to the skin as well as blocking the wind. Taking them off and exposing my hands to the wind and rain seemed the coldest. Every time I wanted to take a picture I would have to shed a glove to try to get a shot and fumbled to pull the wet glove back on.
This was the first day we actually didn’t take any wrong turns or get lost. The signage is hit or miss, some sections there are signs left and right and then there are other sections when you go for miles and miles and don’t see any. Twice I broke out the Garmin handheld GPS to make sure we were on the right path. Our first real stop for a lunch break was going to be at mile 6-7 however we were trucking and I think two more miles passed until we finally took a break around mile 9. When you stop moving you cool down fast so from my pack I broke out an extra layer and put in on under my rain jacket. Once we were ready to start moving again I tucked the extra layer back in my pack.
We stashed water for the 2nd half of the hike at mile 10, so it wasn’t long before we reached the Pioneer Mail Stop. In the dark the night before when we stashed the water we were hoping we could find the next day. I didn’t recognize the stop immediately but after we got our bearings straight I figured out where to look. After 10 miles a little caffeine never tasted any better. I was a little cold so this stop after I added an extra layer I decided to leave it on for the remained of the hike.
The next section of our hike was supposed to offer beautiful views however with the wind and rain visibility was limited. The first section after picking up our water took us through a section of the trail that was blasted into the side of a cliff. A memorial with some name plates we passed but didn’t spend much time to figure out what they were. The next attraction was Kwaaymiii Point which you can also access from a short road off of Sunrise Hwy which probably has a great view, but again we not only couldn’t see anything, I think we nearly got blown over and could barely walk a straight line through this section of the trail.
The rest of the day the cold starting wearing us down. Breaks were all limited to brief stops to have drink of Gatorade or to get a new snack out of the backpack. A small bag of pretzels seemed to hit the spot more than anything else all day. Once again we marked where we parked the car with the phone’s GPS and knew we were getting close. The trailhead to exit the PCT had a ¼ mile connector trail which we welcomed as the car was only a few minutes away. Although there were No Overnight Parking signs Mai’s car was safe and didn’t get either towed or a ticket.
I immediate fired up the engine and tried to start warming up the car as we were both frozen to the bone. I think with windchill the of 40-50 degree weather probably felt more like 30’s-40’s so being soaked to the bone we couldn’t wait to change into some dry clothes stashed in the truck. We made our way back up the mountain, probably our last trip to Mt. Laguna, to retrieve my car.
Mai was craving some warm tea and soup. The area doesn’t have hardly anything to chose from but we had driven by the Blue Jay Lodge a half dozen times and had seen cars parked out front so we thought we would give it a shot as it’s was only a minute down the road from where my car was parked. There were cars but all the doors were locked. We were lucky and a customer saw us out in the cold and unlocked the door and let us in. I think the kitchen was already closed at 3pm but they agreed to serve us a couple bowls of soup. I’m not a big soup person but had to admit it hit the spot! I still had a couple pies in the car which also was the perfect desert to top the afternoon off.
So Day 3 is in the bag and certainly looking forward to the next trip starting where we left off which will include another chance to see more of Julian.