Scott and Rachel's Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike journal: Agua Dulce, Mile 455, May 17

As we left Wrightwood on Monday morning, it felt more like we were leaving friends than like we were leaving a couple of people that we had only met 36 hours previously. It turned out that we had a lot in common with Katie and Randy, and we had a really enjoyable stay with them.

When we woke up, Katie fixed us a gourmet scrambled egg breakfast an she filled us up on left over pie from the night before. She wanted to make sure that we were good and full, and that we had enough energy to get us up and over Mt. Baden-Powell. After breakfast, we used their phone to make a couple of quick phone calls, and connect to the internet to send off our last journal batch before heading down to the Post Office to collect our re-supply box. After everything was said and done, it was 10:30 before we were on standing at the trailhead, saying our good-byes and preparing to hike.

We had been warned about our climb over Mt. Baden-Powell. Locals had told us that it was a tough climb, up 3 or 4 thousand feet, and switchbacks the whole way. We had a warm up period of about five miles before we began our long ascent up the mountain, but we weren't sure if that served to tire us out for our climb, or to get the muscles limbered up. Nonetheless, we began climbing up Mt. Baden-Powell in the early afternoon, and with a couple of brief rest stops along the way, as well as a lunch stop (ham sandwiches, courtesy of Katie and last nights dinner), we finally made it to the summit trail turnoff. As we neared the top, Brant had come up behind us, so the three of us dropped our packs and climbed the last 150 feet to the summit.

The guidebook described the mountains that we were seeing in each direction, and claimed that on the clearest of days, one could see Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the continental US) to the north, even though it is still 2-3 weeks hike away. Some day hikers from the LA region Sierra Club had told us that on clear days one could see downtown LA from the summit. Unfortunately, the day that we climbed, it wasn't clear enough to see any of these far off sites; as a matter of fact, it wasn't very clear at all. A cynic would say that we were looking though LA smog, but there is an another possible explanation: word has it that there has been a fire in Angeles National Forest, further down the valley and that the smoke is thick in the air. Whichever explanation is the correct one, the air was contaminated enough to burn the back of Rachel's throat.

After spending ten minutes or so up at the summit, it was time to descend and move further along the trail. We donned our packs and set our sights on Little Jimmy's Campground, six miles further on. The hike into camp was not all down as one would have expected. We found ourselves running along a ridge for quite some time, dropping mildly, before climbing to round other peaks. At last we came across Little Jimmy's spring where we filled up our water bags before hiking the last two-tenths of a mile into camp.

We were pleasantly surprised with Little Jimmy's Campground, as it was clean, tidy, and quiet (there were only two other PCT thru-hikers there). We have grown a little weary of these trail camps lately, after our two consecutive nights of disrupted sleep. If there is a road (even a dirt one) leading into the camp, it means that a bunch of yahoos may show up after dark to party. At Little Jimmy's, there was no such concern.

We didn't pull into camp until about 6:30, so we were a little rushed to have our sponge baths and cook dinner before dark settled in around us. As Scott was just finishing the meal preparation, we lost the last bit of light and had to resort to using our headlamps. It was then that Rachel was walking over to the picnic table from the tent and she notice a coyote not more than 10 feet away from where Scott was sitting, slinking around under the cover of darkness. We scared him off, but then spent the rest of the evening glancing over our shoulders and wondering is we would be invaded by a pack of coyotes during the night.

Fortunately, we had a restful nights sleep, and we were undisturbed by coyotes, or partying locals. Actually, we slept so well that when Scott woke up just before dawn, he decided to roll over and doze off again, leaving Rachel thankful for the extra hours sleep. It was just after seven when we pulled out of camp and easily made our way the couple of miles back down to the Angeles Crest Highway 2. From there we began a 1300 foot, 1.6 mile ascent up and over Mt Williamson, only to descend back down to Highway 2 again within the next 1.3 miles. Next came a .9 mile segment up and along a ridgeline (fortunately only a hundred or so feet above the highway) only to drop back down to cross the road once again. By this point we were getting a little frustrated. We had been climbing up, away from the road, only to drop back down to it again. This happened one more time before the day was through, and if ever there was a time that we were tempted to take the road instead of the trail, it was in that segment. The first climb away from the road had been 1300 feet of elevation and almost three trail miles, yet the road had probably gone less than one mile and dropped a hundred or so feet.

After crossing the road that third time in rapid succession, we were onto a longer stretch of trail. We followed an old dirt road down into a creek gully, and then traversed along a ridge, above the creek, for a couple of miles. This portion of the trail was name Rattlesnake Trail, and it was aptly so. As we were trundling along, making good time, we came around a small turn in the trail to hear some furious rattling off to the side. We stopped short in our tracks and looked frantically for where the noise was coming from. At last we saw the Mojave Green rattler coiled up under a bush, ready to strike. We surveyed the scene and determined that going around was going to be difficult, so Scott picked up a couple of pebbles and tossed them at the rattler from a safe distance. He didn't move. After a couple of minutes, and a few slightly larger rocks, we decided to inch our way around him; first Rachel, then Scott. Phew! We made it.

Another mile or so down the trail, we came across a small creek crossing. We stopped to fill our water bottles, and Scott dunked his shirt in the cool water. He had another 1500 foot climb ahead of us, (see if you can guess where we were going... yup...back to the highway!) and we were in the heat of the day. Being down in the canyon, the heat was intensified by the lack of a breeze. Sweat was just dripping off us as we steadily made our way up the trail. It was our hottest day yet, and once again we were thankful that we had started the trail earlier than most in our attempts to beat the heat.

Back at the highway again, we surveyed the map to determine what our next objective was. We had been having a hard day with the heat, climbs, and crisscrossing back and forth across the highway made us feel like we weren't making a lot of progress for our efforts, so we were ready to think about camp. After reading on in the guidebook a little ways, we decided that we would shoot for Camp Glenwood, a few miles down the road. The difficulty with setting your sights on a destination, is that if for some reason it doesn't work out, you are left disappointed and lacking an alternative plan. That was the case for us and Camp Glenwood. The guidebook had said that there was water there, so we had not bothered to load up with water at our last opportunity (nothing is worse than carrying a heavy pack, laden down with water, from one water source to the next), but when we arrived at Camp Glenwood, we found that the spigots had been sawed off, and the tanks were dry. By that point, we had already gotten it in to our minds that we were done for the day, so the prospect of hiking further did not appeal to us at all. We again looked at the map trying to determine how far the next water was, and after cross checking it with a water report that we had picked up at the Big Bear Fire Dept, we determined that the next reliable water source was 16 miles away. We hardly had enough water to camp with, let alone hike 16 miles with the next day. What to do, what to do?

At last we decided to hike the remaining half mile to our next crossing of Highway 2, and from there Rachel would hitch down the road to see if she could get water from a private residence or business. Sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong! Sure we got water, but in doing so, we lost something else even more valuable. As Rachel had climbed out of the vehicle, laden down with three bladders and a quart container full of water, she left the section of the guidebook behind, either on the seat of the vehicle, or in the foot well. Unfortunately, we were none the wiser until her ride was long since gone on his way home to Wrightwood after a long days work. Now not only did we not have the guidebook to keep us informed as to where water could be found in the upcoming dry portion of the trail, but we had been making many notes on the guidebook which were now gone.

Our moral plummeted. We were depressed. All of the notes and tidbits of information that we had been jotting down along the way; all of the time and energy that we had put into that project was now wasted. We were so blue that we even briefly entertained thoughts of quitting the trail. Making it though a dry section was do-able, we would just carry more water, but losing all the notes we had made was heartbreaking.

We fixed our dinner in silence, and then bunked down to sleep. Options were playing through our minds, like hitching the 30 miles back to Wrightwood and see if we could track "Lonnie" down, but a first name isn't much to go on. What about the upcoming portion of the trail?

When we woke up in the morning at our usual time of 5 a.m., our outlook was mildly better. We lay in bed for a while deciding what we would do, and we finally decided that Rachel would hitch back to Wrightwood and photocopy the guidebook section from the library, so that we would have an idea of where to find water, and we could continue on making notes while praying that "Lonnie" will read this journal segment, find the map in his vehicle, and contact us either by email or regular mail (our faith in humanity has been rekindled by so many other things along this trail, that we remain hopeful that this will pan out).

At about 5:45 a.m., Rachel moved out onto the highway to await oncoming traffic while Scott went about packing up the camp. Angeles Crest Highway 2 is a scenic highway that does not have a lot of traffic on it, especially at 5:45 in the morning She stood out there on the highway for about 15 or 20 minutes, waiting for a car to come along, but none did. Finally Rachel decided to sneak off to the washroom that was nearby at the parking lot. It was then that a car went by, but it wasn't just any car, nor was it even going up the hill towards Wrightwood, but instead, it was a small white pick-up bombing down the hill towards the Las Angeles Convention Center. Yup, that's right, it was Lonnie, and our map was probably still on the floor of the foot well.

When Rachel emerged from the restroom and found out that the one and only car to have driven by was none other than Lonnie's, she just about broke down and cried. What bad karma we were having! Perhaps it was just meant to be. Nonetheless, Rachel resumed her position on the side of the road waiting for a vehicle to head towards Wrightwood. A few vehicles came down the hill, obviously on their long commute into LA, and a couple of work truck headed up, but were stopping way short of Wrightwood. By seven o'clock, only three work trucks had passed by, and no passenger vehicles. Scott finally called down to Rachel and suggested that we forget about the map and that we just start hiking. After some more discussion, that is what we agreed to do, so at about 7:30 we started down the trail, map-less and with our blue moods.

To add insult to injury, we were not more than half a mile down the trail, on the other side of the road, when we came across water leaking out of a fire service pump station. We looked at each other in utter disbelief and dismay: the whole situation could have been avoided had we only known.

Now even more depressed, we continued down the trail. We put our heads down and hiked. As a result of our depressed mood, we traveled quickly, intent on putting as many miles between us and this segment of the trail. The conversation was sparse, but the miles were going quickly. Wee dropped down into a canyon after passing the highway, and found ourselves walking through dry, hot desert terrain. Once again we were down in a canyon that got little breeze, and the climb out the other side was a scorcher. About 800 feet into our climb, however, we finally moved into a treed area that provided us a little shade from the hot sun. We made our way past the Lower Pacifico Campground turnoff, on top of Mount Pacifico, at around 6700 feet before weaving in and out of the drainages along the crest-line before beginning our 1600 foot descent down towards Mill Creek Station.

We pulled into Mill Creek Ranger Station at about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Our feet were aching and our knees were fatigued from the descent. We had hiked 18 miles already! We walked up to the station and rapped on the door, but there was no answer. We sat on the bench in the shade and took off our shoes and socks for a while. After about forty minutes we finally filled up our water bladders, put our footwear back on, and had a quick look at the posted map to see if we could determine what was ahead. As we were unsure of where the next water would be, we were back to carrying our full water capacity (9 lifters each; approx. 18 lbs.). From looking at the map, it appeared as though there were two campsites further along the trail: Messenger Flats in about 9 miles, and then another one, Big Buck, that looked like it was about half way. We decided to try for Big Buck.

As we crossed the road and approached the trailhead, we encounter a Forestry Volunteer driving down from Messenger Flats Campground. We asked him about water and campgrounds, and he then offered us his old torn up topographic map. while it was not as good as the guidebook, it would at least give us some idea of what was ahead, so we thankfully took him up on this offer, and we proceeded along the trail with a map once again.

The climb up Mt. Gleason was a sandy one. The first mile or so we climbed up through a soft, white sand, that drained our energy and left us at only about 65% efficiency. With the mileage we had already covered, we were flagging quickly in the heat and sand, but like real troopers, we persevered. At last the trail started to ease up on it's grade a little, the surface became harder under our feet, and we were walking under the cover of scrub oaks all of which helped to ease our suffering. We only had another few miles to go, and we set our sights on getting there.

After 2.6 miles we crossed the hard-packed Mt. Gleason road and moved onto a freshly groomed part of the trail. All foot prints had been obliterated by the scraping of a rake across the trail. The trail had been widened in many places and greatly leveled. We felt like we were cruising along a highway, but once again, the ground was soft under our feet from all of the leveling that had been done. We followed the work of the trail crew for the remaining 4.5 miles to the Big Buck Trail Camp and our final resting place of the day.

The last couple of miles into Big Buck were torturous. It was not so much the terrain, but simply the cumulative mileage of the day. Scott pulled the map out of Rachel's pack a few times, pouring over it trying to determine how much further we had to go, but looking at the map didn't make camp any closer. Eventually, we had to hike those last couple of miles.

Big Buck Campground was wonderful. The camp was not much more than a grove of oaks, big-cone spruce and incense cedars, but the shade that they provided, and the soft forest-duff ground cover, was delightful. The best part about the campground, however, was that we had the whole place to ourselves. We pitched our tent and then went into our normal routine of sponge bathing and preparing our dinner (that night we feasted on our home-made Beef Stroganoff which made us feel a little better.

On Wednesday morning we got up at the usual early time, just before the sun came up over the mountains. We packed up our gear and made our way back up the spur trail to join the PCT. As we were walking along we were surprised to find a man laid out underneath a pine tree. We stopped to talk for a few minutes, and we ascertained that his name is Frank, from Berkley, and he had left Campo after the PCTDZKO (PCT Day Zero Kick Off) two full weeks after we had. While we know that this hike is by no means a race, but Frank is the second hiker that we have met in three days who has made up the two week time difference, and it is a little intimidating. These "lightweight hikers" are traveling an average of about 25 miles per day, including down days, and we are still struggling to keep our average in the mid teens. We walked away trying to reassure ourselves by asking each other just how much enjoyment he can be having is he is hiking until about 10 p.m. most nights.

We were about 3 miles further up the trail when Frank caught up to us as we rested on the side of the trail. He stopped to talk some more, and this time we got to know him a little better and even hiked with him a short ways before he buzzed off ahead of us with his long stride and light pack.

A couple of miles later we arrived at Messenger Flats Campground where we stopped to top up our water bottles for the next five mile leg (we had found out from Frank where the water sources are, which was a huge load off our minds and out of our packs as we could now carry only as much as we needed to get to the next source). We had been hoping to catch up to Brant here at Messenger Flats so that we could read ahead in his guide book, but as we pulled into the campground just after nine a.m., the place was empty.

Back on the trail again after a short break, we began a short climb up onto the ridgeline so that we could begin our descent to North Fork Ranger Station. As we were making our way down the trail we heard a chainsaw running up ahead, and when we looked we saw a group of people working on the trail. Aha, the trail crew that had cleared the trail we had been hiking on yesterday... When we got up to them, we stopped to chat for a bit and then soon realized that they weren't any ordinary trail crew, but rather, they were inmates from the nearby State Prison Camp. The guys were all very friendly, polite and curious about our quest to hike from border to border. We thanked them for their hard work and then moved along. Not more than a mile later we came across our second work gang, and we thanked them for all of their hard work as we walked on by.

We arrived at North Fork Ranger Station just before noon. We were greeted by Todd, the resident volunteer caretaker, and his dog, Dakota. Both were very friendly and Todd invited us in for a cold soft-drink and some good conversation. We chatted for about an hour or so before moving out to the picnic area to have a little lunch, write in the journal, and wait out some of the heat. Just before three p.m. we donned our packs and headed out on the trail again. While we had managed to avoid some of the heat of the day, it was still scorching hot as we began our 2000 foot, 8.7-mile descent into Soledad Canyon.

We set out thinking that the descent was over enough miles that it should be relatively gradual, and it could have been, but wasn't. As late as it was, we still found ourselves under the hot sun, with no shade to be had. The trail was bright and dusty, and extremely steep in sections that made for difficult footing. After we had dropped about 1200 feet, we found ourselves climbing 500 feet again to clear a drainage. Sweat was literally dripping off us as we shuffled ourselves up to the ridgeline. As we looked out to the west we followed the course of the trail and realized that we were about to drop back down again, only to ascend to a second ridgeline. Do these trail makers have no mercy?! While we knew that this segment of the trail was going to be the better part of 9 miles, we did not expect it to be such a tease.

At last we made it to the bottom, and we found ourselves standing on Soledad Canyon Road with cars whizzing by in either direction. Todd, at North Fork Ranger Station, had told us that there were two campgrounds here, one on either side of the highway, and one of the even had a restaurant. Of the two, we opted for the one that could offer us a burger along with a place to pitch our tent, and we were glad that we did. Rachel had a bacon cheeseburger and fries, while Scott devoured a double cheeseburger with fries. He thought that the burger was so good (not to mention good value) that as soon as he was finished he ordered a second burger, (this time a single) and the cook was very impressed. After dinner we suffered through a cold shower each and then talked to a local kind in the park (the campground doubles as an mobile home park) before heading to the tent for our nightly foot rubs and a good nights sleep.

That part of our morning routine where Scott is nudging Rachel trying to coax her out of her sleeping bag, began at around 4:55 a.m.. It was still dark out, but Rachel eventually got moving as she knew that we would have another hot climb over the next set of ridges before we would reach Agua Dulce. We packed up our gear in the early morning twilight, stopped off at the campground office to leave $5 and a note, and then headed out onto the busy roadway to walk the half mile back to the PCT.

We were glad to have gotten out on the trail as early as we did (we left the campground at 5:45) as we had a hot climb. It wasn't even 6:30 before the sweat was dripping off of Rachel's chin and soaking through Scott's shirt. For the next nine miles we undulated up and down, in and out of drainages, the only consolation to our indirect route being in the knowledge that each step was bringing us one step closer to Agua Dulce and our next hiker haven.

At last we dropped down to Escondido Canyon and the busy, 6-lane Highway 14 that carries hurried commuters into south-west into LA. We passed underneath the highway through a culvert tunnel and then found ourselves navigating the trail through the creek-side thickets on the other side. Still traveling without a guidebook, we lost our way as we came up and over a ridge. All of a sudden the trail branched into two and we couldn't tell which way was the correct one. Rachel followed on branch briefly, while Scott followed the other. Rachel's branch steadily became more and more overgrown, while Scott's led to a dirt road, so we opted to take the road. As we climbed up the road, we soon realized that we were not on the trail (lack of footprints was an early indicator), but we kept on going hoping that we would either be able to see the trail from our higher elevation, or that we would be able to follow the road into town. Well, when we finally spotted the trail below us, it was on the other side of a ravine. Scott led the way as we attempted to bushwhack along and drop down into the ravine. The way was steep (how did those early explorers ever navigate this terrain without the benefit of trail?!) and scattered with chemise bush and yucca plants. As the going got tougher, and the sharp points of the yucca plants became more plentiful, Rachel opted to return to the road where she would backtrack and try to pick up the trail, while Scott persevered with his quest. Both of us were eventually successful, however, Scott managed to sustain numerous pin-pricks from the yucca plants that had speckled his pants with blood trickles.

Back on trail, we headed into Vasquez Rocks County Park with great sandstone and conglomerate formations that have layers and protruded from the earth's crust. We meandered our way through the maze of paths, relying heavily on the PCT guideposts to keep us on track, and then we emerged onto the pavement of Escondido Canyon Road. We followed the road for a third of a mile before turning onto Agua Dulce Canyon Road which brought us into town half a mile further. As we walked past the local hardware store, Scott asked a lady if she knew how much further Darling Road was. Immediately she asked us if we were heading to the Saufley's and then offered us a lift., but first she directed us into the store to take our pick of cold soft-drinks on the house. The town of Agua Dulce, she explained, is attempting to make itself known as the friendliest and most accommodating town along the PCT. From what we have seen so far, they are doing a great job, although some of the other towns we have been through have been pretty great too.

Agua Dulce no is no longer able to lay claim to a Post Office, which would normally leave a bunch of PCT hikers in dire straights, were it not for people like Jeff and Donna Saufley. The Saufleys are more trail angels who have done everything in their power to make hikers as comfortable as possible. The have a home in a mile off the trail which is open to any and all hikers, support people, and trail animals. They receive packages on behalf of hikers, keep them until we arrive, and then provide us with lush accommodations when we finally make it this far. Beside their house, they have a mobile home and a small RV which (along with the yard, depending on how many people are here at any given time) make up the hikers quarters. When we arrived, we were greeted by Donna, who quickly introduced us to the other hikers already here that we have not met yet. She then showed us where the clean towels are, where we can get some clean clothes to put on, and where to leave our dirty trail clothes so that she could work them through the laundry cycle. Since we arrived, just before 11, we have showered, sorted through our re-supply boxes, borrowed their Jeep (which they leave at the disposal of the hikers) to head to the next town so that we could go to the Post Office to forward on our float boxes and send a parcel home, been to the grocery store to buy the odds and ends for the next segment of our hike, relaxed and chatted with other hikers and gotten online to view the photos that we have taken (all you lucky folks got to see them way before we did!). Now that this journal entry is just about done, we will connect to the internet again and get it off to you.

Shortly we are going to head down the street to the local Mexican restaurant before getting a good nights sleep before heading off on the trail again early tomorrow. In the meantime, have a good week, and we will come at you again from our re-supply in Bakersfield (Tehachapi / Mojave) where we are visiting with friends for a day or two.