I must confess, I wasn't looking forward to the first 700 miles of the PCT. While I'm certainly a desert enthusiast, I've never been particularly taken with the arid landscapes that the PCT visits in southern California. To be blunt, if you're looking for a desert hike, you can do a lot better than hiking the southern PCT. Sure, it has its nice parts, but the PCT still doesn't hold a candle to desert classics like the Arizona Trail, Hayduke, or Desert Winter Thru-Hike.
Despite the meh scenery, the first 700 miles of the PCT made for a delightful hiking experience. The trail was smooth and cruisey, the water carries were a snap in this very wet year, and logistics were easy. The trail was rarely resplendent, but I still relished it.
Adding to the interest this year were the extended sections of snow. San Jacinto was a snowy wonderland with great views and challenging snow conditions. The San Gabriels too were absolutely buried. I carried an ice axe for the majority (400 miles) of the so-called 'desert'. I truly enjoyed the snow miles, as a beautiful and interesting change-of-pace.
Funny enough, the weather really did not cooperate in the desert. It seemed like whenever I was at high elevation, we had unseasonable cold weather, including rain and snow. Every time I'd drop down to the desert floor, a heat wave would hit southern California. The mercury reached 105 degrees on one occasion. Thankfully, I crossed Mission Creek 31 times that day, constantly wetting my shirt in order to stay cool.
When I came to the infamous LA Aqueduct section, another heat wave arrived. Nearly everyone opted to hike this section at night, and I was no exception. I teamed up with pals Cruise and Shine to do 19 miles starting at 5pm, following the aqueduct across the Mojave desert floor as the sun set. Around 12:30am, I crawled into a ditch and instantly fell fast asleep. But I was hiking by 5am the next day in order to beat the heat. We did 23 miles by 4pm, having hiked 42 miles in 24 hot and exhausting hours. We caught a great ride into town and made a beeline for the swimming pool. Needless to say, the next day was a well-earned zero day.
More so than on other trails, I've been pretty aggressive about taking a siesta on the PCT. I generally get up when it's still dark and am hiking shortly after first light. But I take several hours' lunch in the shade, and hike deep into the evening. I figure that I've got 14 hours of daylight to use however I want, and I'd much rather avoid the heat of the day, even if it means getting up earlier and hiking later. It's no wonder why many hot-weather Hispanic cultures embrace the siesta - it's a survival strategy.
The Human Factor
When I mentioned to some experienced hiker friends that I was hiking the PCT, they looked at me askance. After all, I typically hike trails that see few (if any) other hikers. Even on more popular trails, I typically roll solo. So it was natural to assume I'd be a fish-out-of-water on the popular PCT.
To some extent, that's true. Sometimes when I get into town and a large 'trail family' has taken over a laundromat, it's a bit off-putting. But mostly, I've been able to find a surprisingly amount of solitude on the PCT. Most hikers camp exclusively in campsites that are shown on the Guthook PCT . By keeping my eye on the terrain and choosing a site that's not on the map, I'm virtually assured of solitude, not only at night but also during the day, since I'm 'off-schedule', so to speak.
I've also met my fair share of great people on the PCT. First and foremost are my friends Cruise and Shine, who I met at the border and hiked with on-and-off until mile 650. I was able to congratulate them as they finished their PCT hike there - an accomplishment 13 years and three sections in the making.
I also ran into my pal Fenway for the third time on three different trails. I didn't even know he was on the PCT until I came around a corner and heard that distinctive northeast accent. The long-distance hiking community is truly unique in that you're never more than two degrees of separation removed from anyone. I constantly ran into friends of friends from other trails. Turns out that ten years of inadvertent 'networking' pays off!