The sun was rapidly sinking below the ridge as I struggled to get my bearings. As it dropped out of sight, it would be dark in 45 minutes. A bit of panic set in as I lamented over my ineptness. Headlamp shattered, my flashlight was gone. Banged up and lost, it was going to be a long night.
Coming up on three years of hiking, I’ve spent many hours learning about backcountry navigation, survival and general stories of thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. I’ve managed to put some of it into practice and have never been lost for more than a couple of hours. In southern California it seems that a hiker gets lost almost every week. What follows is a tale of something that I hope never happens to me – or you.
The day began like any other solo hike. I picked my route out ahead of time, texted my wife with my intended route and off I went. It was late March and there was plenty of daylight left. The Momyer Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, is part of the San Bernardino National Forest. This area is loaded with challenging trails, many intersecting and often leading to multiple summits over 10,000 ft.
The trail, one of the less popular in the area is peaceful and offers good solitude. It’s also one of the least maintained with many blowdowns and much erosion. Volunteers take care of these trails and it is hard work, so no complaining here. It was also early in the season and there was still snow at the higher elevations.
I had checked the weather before leaving and it was pretty standard for early spring in the mountains of southern California. Above 6,000 ft, daytime highs in the 60’s, night-time lows in the 30’s with a slight chance of flurries above 7,000 ft. after midnight.
The hike up Momyer was a good workout, mostly a single track trail that generally followed an easterly direction. By late morning, the sun was warm and the sounds of the woodpeckers echoed through the forest. I stopped every couple of miles to rest and take in the surroundings. So far, no other hikers were around. Off in the distance, the rumbling of a rock slide could be heard. The melting snow must be loosening the granite on the slopes of “Old Greyback” as San Gorgonio Mountain is affectionately known.
My goal was to hike to 9,000 ft. and turn around. Stopping in Saxton Camp, I had a snack and noticed that it was around 4:00 p.m. Thankfully, Daylight Savings Time was a couple of weeks ago, so I could reach the trailhead by nightfall. Yep, 7 miles to go, I can do that.
As I was making my way down, I came across a landslide on one of the slopes. Debris totally blocked the trail. It was a steep talus, too steep to climb. The drop-off was even more precarious and too risky to traverse. No problem, I would backtrack and find a way above the slide. With approximately 90 minutes of daylight left, this needed to be a quick detour. I have a headlamp and flashlight, so I was prepared in case of a delay. Checking my map, I estimated that I was around 7,500 ft. and in an area of steep slopes for a half mile in each direction. Going back, it was difficult to find a path up a slope that wasn’t covered in scree, those loose rocks and pebbles. After about 15 minutes, I noticed an easier route and began a climb up. Reaching a clump of trees, I could see the trail below. Holding my hand up to the sun, I noticed two fingers between the sun and the ridge. That meant 30 minutes until it dropped out of sight.
Looking around for a reference point, that’s when it happened. One second I was standing next to a Jeffrey Pine and next thing I knew I was sliding downhill. Trying to slow myself down, I attempted to dig in with my heels. That wasn’t having much of an effect so I rolled over trying to grab the scree with my hands and clawed as much as possible. Digging my knees in, it felt like I was gaining more speed and bringing the mountain down with me. Then, there was a sensation like the bottom dropped out, and I landed on a ledge. The abrupt drop knocked the wind out of me. I was gasping like a fish out of water.
Well that sucked. After what seemed like an eternity, I rolled over and sat up to assess my situation. No broken bones that I could tell, lots of cuts and abrasions and a goose-egg on the side of my head. One hiking pole was still strapped to my hand, the other nowhere in sight. Worse yet, I was disoriented and unsure of where the trail was. Covered in a light, powdery dust, I must have been quite a sight. A crow flew over me and cackled. I’ve always disliked those birds.
Before the sun went totally down, I checked the supplies in my daypack. Emergency kit, first aid kit, water, snacks, gloves, knit cap, warm jacket, extra socks – you know the ten essentials and then some. My headlamp was a casualty of my excursion down the slope, the lens busted and bulb gone. The Otter Case protected my phone from getting demolished, but no cellular signal. I cleaned my wounds, none of the cuts too deep. The lump on the side of my head concerned me a bit, but I didn’t feel dizzy or lethargic. Looking for my backup flashlight, it wasn’t in the side pocket of my pack. What else could go wrong? With the sun setting and no light I needed to find shelter for the night, out of the winds that would come in from the northeast. Searching the immediate area, I located a spot that looked ok. The patch of flat dirt was clear of widow-makers, you know the dead trees that can drop branches and crush you in the middle of the night. I collected some pine boughs to insulate the ground near a boulder about the size of my car. I had about 1.5 liters of water, a couple of snack bars and an apple. I pressed the button on my Spot GPS to alert my wife that I was ok. Hopefully, she gets the message. Unfortunately, it is a one-way transmitter.
Like many areas in the mountains, cellular coverage is sporadic. Checking my phone one more time, I was disappointed to see no signal. Wait, one bar but no 3G – would it work? I tried a call, but it failed. Tried sending a text and it failed too. Oh well, better save my battery for when I do have a signal.
The last bit of light faded from the sky. No city lights for reference. Pulling out my jacket and space blanket, I settled in and stashed my pack to the side. Hearing crickets, the sky turned darker shades of blue, some pink and then black. Stars began to emerge as the daylight faded. A waning crescent moon was my only nightlight. My eyes adjusted somewhat and I prayed for an uneventful night.
NEXT- Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains-Part 2 – “Hey, that’s my pack!”
You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Lost Creek Trail, 1E09
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.
Distance as hiked: 8.8 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,300ft., Top of trail-8,200ft.
Temps: 60-70 degrees
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Today, we would venture out farther from home and drive the 90+ miles to check out the trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW). While a day hike to San Gorgonio Mountain is possible, it would be a very long day for us and is better attempted as an overnighter. All trails in the SGW require the perfunctory wilderness permit, which can be obtained by stopping by in person at one of several ranger stations, via fax or by snail mail. Follow the swa.org link above for permit directions. I’ve become a bit of a purist and believe trail permits are government out of control, but I am a rule follower.
We stopped in after noon to obtain our permit at Mill Creek Ranger station. While inside, Mary met an old friend and insisted that I take their picture.
From Mill Creek, follow SR38 to the South Fork Campground. Parking for the trailhead is across the road from the campground and is co-located with the Santa Ana River Trail. It is fairly well-marked and breaks off at a marker in the campground. The trail wastes no time gaining elevation over switchbacks that gain 400-500 ft. The trail joins a fire road for a mile and changes to a wide creek bed laden with rocks before narrowing into a rutted single track. Evidence of recent equestrians is scattered along the trail.
This is one of the most interesting and diverse trails that we’ve been on in the San Bernardino National Forest. We traversed areas with deciduous trees, rounded a corner and saw cactus on the verge of blooming. As we crossed the top of a meadow, we saw an area of seasonal springs. There were a few blow-downs and widow-makers throughout the hike. At times, the trail became narrow with sheer drop-offs into the Santa Ana River canyon below. Overall, the climb was gradual with few switchbacks and limited scree to slip on. Pine straw does cover sections of the trail and is a bit slippery. On a side-note, the PCT skirts many of the trails in the San Bernardino Forest and is located less than 10 miles east of this trail.
For the first couple of miles, Sugarloaf Peak to the north is the prominent land mass and the perspective changes as you pass through 7,000 ft. Eventually, the path takes a 180 and you head in an easterly direction with views of snow-covered peaks to the southwest. For this area in southern California, I believe the best altitude for hiking is between 6-8,000 ft. The temps are usually mild and the sub-alpine surroundings offer respite from the sun. This trail is especially appealing due to the solitude. We would run into only one other couple all day.
We stopped at Grinnell Campground, an open area with awesome views to the south-southwest. It was peaceful and we enjoyed our hot tea. When hiking 8-10 miles, it’s a good idea to cool your jets by removing shoes and socks to allow for some air to dry out those puppies.
Our descent was quick with minimal stops for photos. Rounding a switchback, we did see this in the distance and like most hikers is one thing you don’t ever want to see. Notice the smoke was blowing in our direction.
A fire in the backcountry is a scary thing. Fortunately, this one was far enough away and we were only a couple of miles from the trailhead. Cal-Fire had it contained within a few days. If you hike frequently in this region, you know how much fuel is on the ground. Fires can be swift and devastating. It’s a good idea to talk about an escape plan and how you would deal with a fire when out on the trail. Trail maps and/or knowledge of the local terrain is invaluable and can make the difference between life or death in a forest fire scenario.
Well enough of the gloom and doom. We lived to see another beautiful day in southern California and have discovered an amazing array of trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area. This will serve as our practice area for our section hike of the JMT this summer. My parting advice this week:
– Take trail maps, GPS and discuss escape route options. These Tom Harrison maps are the best: San Gorgonio Wilderness Map (2015) (Tom Harrison Maps Waterproof and Tear Resistant)
– In fire situations, avoid canyons and ravines as fires often ravage these areas.
– Consider a GPS locator for emergency situations. I use a SPOT GPS Messenger. SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange While there is no guarantee that it works 100% of the time, it operates consistently if used properly. There are other higher quality GPS locators out there.
– On day hikes, take extra water and snacks – just in case. This week, several more novice hikers got lost in SoCal. Fortunately, all were found quickly. None of them had water or food for their unplanned overnighters.
Use common sense out on the trail and enjoy the outdoors wherever you are. Consider stocking up on a couple of pieces of survival gear including: Heavy-Duty Stainless Steel Camping Mirror – Personal Use, Emergency Signaling or this whistle: UST JetScream Whistle
Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark? Was it unplanned? Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late. We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes. Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark. However, there was this one backcountry trip……
The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego. While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike. Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges. This section of the trail was unforgiving. At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time. A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine. At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain. We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home. Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.
I learned many things on that trip. Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it. The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different. As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp. I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity. Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.
With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery. Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles. For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root. Navigating a trail made of roots with the 40lb pack was tough. Even with my acquired “trail legs”, the root jumping ritual gets old quickly. By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft. – during the day that is. At night, the supposedly bright blazes get absorbed by the darkness. Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi. I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought. Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky. In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night. Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.
Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber? The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps. The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas. At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety. One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck. Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable. Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators. But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far. Occasionally, I would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.
On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail. My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual. For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze. I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp. A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree. Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark? Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.
Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights. One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on. We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away. Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest. It was the largest iridescent moth ever. It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off. After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone. As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.
By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps. You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible. We even braved a river crossing at night. Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.
Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker. Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker. I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods. I think it comes from just being a city dweller. However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage. Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.
Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:
– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries
– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.
– Water crossings at night can be dangerous. Have an idea how deep the water is. Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.
– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits. No need to panic. GPS works in the dark too.
– Don’t let your imagination wander too far. You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.
– When moths attack, turn off your light
I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂 Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.
We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California. What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.
It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, there are hundreds of trails to choose from. From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union. A couple of reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.
The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs north-south. From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views. The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral. They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer. The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north. We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time. I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.
The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk. Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles. Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers. Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole. Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened. Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear. Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey. Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down. We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto. Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.
Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes. On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s. Wind is usually a factor and its effects are significant wind chills and increased dehydration. It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too. Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable. We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.
Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft. If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike. Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks. Many of the trails are comprised of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery. Trekking poles are invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble. Even more important, the poles are knee savers. They will probably make nice spears too.
The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs. Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows. They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other. The colors at sunset are beautiful.
All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego. We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout. Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.
Bloggers have various reasons they write. For some, it is to share their thoughts. For others, it is a release or an outlet for the passion that they may have for a particular activity. Many are amateur photographers and enjoy posting their work. This episode is dedicated to a recent overnight camping trip to one of my favorite places and a quirky area of photography that is fun.
Anza-Borrego State Park is about 75 miles from my home in North County San Diego. From late fall to early spring it provides a variety of activities due to the milder weather. This mid November day found us heading out to an area a few miles east of Borrego Springs to hike and camp. One of the neat things about this state park is the freedom to move about and explore, including free camping. Free? In a state park? Sure, just stay outside the park campground and you can pretty much pitch a tent or park an RV without paying a dime.
While researching camping in Anza-Borrego on the Internet, I stumbled on a blog that discussed “boondocking”. A strange word, the last I heard anything close were the boondockers – black chukka boots that we had in the Navy. However, boondocking is basically free camping in remote areas or private property – with the owner’s approval. At times, there is probably a fine line between legal camping and trespassing, but I’ll only go where it is legit.
So a boondocking we went down Rockhouse Canyon Rd. near Clark Dry Lake. It’s a nice valley located between two mountains – Coyote Mtn to the west and Villager Mtn to the east. Rockhouse Canyon is a dirt road located approximately 5 miles east of Borrego Springs on SR22. You can usually see a cluster of RV’s near the highway as most don’t venture too far down the sandy road. During the week, you can drive a mile or two and find a secluded campsite. There is one rule in the state park: you must use a metal container for fires. However, we noticed there is an abundance of homemade fire rings throughout this area. We pulled in, looked around and noticed the nearest neighbor was almost a 1/2 mile away. Yes, this will work.
We would stay in the valley and hike north toward Clark Dry Lake on the jeep road. Overall, the road was in good shape this time of year. We ended up walking out on the lake bed, passing Coyote Mtn on the left and came up on a quarry. It was a good opportunity to have fun with some levitation photos.
If you look up levitation photography, you will find some very creative shots of people seemingly flying or floating through the air. I’m not very good at it, but it is fun to try and will make for a good laugh a few years from now. The trick is having someone take the pics or to use a remote. The auto settings on the DSLR usually work, but if the light is low, you may need to play around with the the shutter speed and ISO to prevent blurring. Anyhow, this is just another offshoot from being outdoors. You see, hiking opens up all sorts of possibilities. Just use common sense and don’t try levitating in front of a busy highway or railroad track. 🙂
The real visual treat in the desert occurs after the sun sets. You just have to experience it. Tonight, it was nearly a new moon and the stars almost outnumbered the grains of sand on the beach. Next time, I must bring a telescope.
In my opinion, a campfire is an absolute necessity for a night in the desert and knocked the edge off the rapidly dropping temps. The forecast called for 43 degrees, but we came prepared with several layers of clothes and some 3 season sleeping bags. By the morning, it would drop to 33 degrees. The animals were most active around sunset and we observed many jackrabbits. Several desert foxes ventured within 20 ft. of the campsite – curious little creatures with bushy tales. The coyotes began their yelps and would call out from the east and west. Once in the tent, the silence of the desert lulled us into a gradual sleep as I dreamt of the Bighorn Sheep jumping over Coyote Mountain.
Huddled in our sleeping bags, the dawn began to faintly illuminate the tent. I scrambled out and encouraged my wife to come out to see the sunrise. The air was dry and cold, but the sky was beginning to blossom with various hues of light. After watching an amazing display, we made our hot chocolate and enjoyed a nice, hot breakfast. My wife’s first car camping experience turned out very well. I think that she might try it again. Hopefully, next time it will be a little warmer at night. I encourage you to try camping in the desert – it will be a real treat.
Dazed and losing consciousness, the shade of a scruffy manzanita tree was just ahead. My calf had doubled in size due to the swelling. Using my hiking poles as crutches, I would take a step and drag my leg. Checking my cell phone for reception, my heart sank – no signal. I tried dialing 911 anyway and the call failed. Reaching the small patch of shade, I crumpled on the dusty trail and took my pack off. I fumbled for my SPOT Messenger, an emergency beacon, flipped the cover over the SOS button and pressed it. After a minute, the light was green indicating that the message for help was transmitting. The throbbing in my leg had ceased, replaced by a numbing sensation – similar to falling asleep on your arm. I remember seeing the jagged peaks of the Ocotillos on the distant horizon and faded into a dream….
Living in Southern California, I became interested in the Pacific Crest Trail or (PCT) soon after becoming an avid day hiker. The 2,600 mile trail begins at the U.S. – Mexican border near Campo, California and ends at E.C. Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. The southern terminus of the trail is marked with a monument, the border fence on the other side of a dirt road. I’ve hiked sections of the PCT, usually 8-10 miles at a time. At this rate, I would hike the entire PCT in 30 years. The realities of life keep this thru-hike fantasy at bay.
Today, I would park almost 20 miles north of the trailhead near the Lake Morena Campground and have a friend drop me off at the border near Campo. He was on his way to Yuma, so it was only 12 miles out-of-the-way. Dropping me off on the dirt road, I would walk to the border, touch the PCT marker and backtrack north. I waved to my friend as he pulled away on the dirt road and headed north. Dust arose as the car faded in the distance. How strange it must be for the Mexicans who witness the hikers that walk this desolate trail. I’ve read that encounters with illegal immigrants are rare in the daytime down here. At night, the human smugglers known as coyotes herd the immigrants through this area, often abandoning them at the first sign of trouble. Human trafficking is a sad thing and I tried not to think about it. On this fall day, the sun was out early to greet me. The forecast had temps in the mid 80’s – not bad for the desert. I had 4 liters of water and enough food for a couple of days. Water is pretty scarce around here this time of year. This would be my longest single mileage day since my trek on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. I’ve worked up to the longer mileage and was fit enough to give it a go. The sky was clear with a few wispy cirrus clouds. Taking out my little camera, I had to get a shot of the beginning of this famous trail.
It was so quiet out here because the sand and chaparral absorb most of the sound. The occasional chatter of a Gambel’s Quail would break the silence. Using my map, I would pick my way around fences, up dirt roads and past some ranches. Passing through the little town of Campo, I would see a post office and a small store. Walking across Hwy 94, I saw cars in the distance, the blacktop making them seem like a mirage.
Crossing some railroad tracks and an old jeep road, I was making good time. Finding shade in the cleft of a boulder, I took a break. The screech of a red-tail hawk on the hunt pierced the tranquility. It was catching a morning updraft, conserving energy. The trail was relatively easy to follow and the elevation was around 2,800-3000 ft. Checking my GPS, it indicated my average speed was 2.8 mph. I was on track to make it to my car by sundown. While prepared to hike in the dark, it’s not something that I enjoy doing. Around the 8 mile mark, I made the crest of a ridge and noticed a descent into a canyon, followed by a 300-400 ft climb. I crossed another jeep road with a gate. Time for another snack, but I would keep moving. While unwrapping my snack bar, I remember looking up in time to avoid tripping over a rock. The Pacific Rattler struck without warning. I remember yelling and lunging forward, the adrenaline surging through my body. I must have run another 30-40 feet before stopping. Looking back, the snake was still coiled under the rock near the trail. The pain in my calf jolted me back into reality. I dropped my poles and unfastened the nylon gaiter on my right leg. Two small holes, one with blood on my calf. The serpent had bitten me through the gaiter. My initial reaction was one of panic. Within a few minutes, the area around the bite burned like fire and the skin turned red and was swollen. I got farther away from the snake and retrieved my cell phone to call for help. No signal! I was in a canyon with no reception. At this point, I wasn’t worried about dying. I knew that most rattlesnake bites were not fatal and that it was important to calm down so that I could make good decisions. I had not seen one person since the little hamlet of Campo, so I prayed to my God for calm and asked Him to get me out of here.
Looking at my map, I was 9 miles into my 20 mile hike. The campground was 10 miles to the north with a 1,200 foot climb. Campo was 8 miles to the south. Not knowing how the snake bite would affect me, I decided to head back south and prayed for a phone signal. I made a detour around the wretched snake and began to feel a bit lethargic and dizzy. Sweat was dripping as my body reacted to the situation. I drank more water and tried to stay calm. Up ahead near the ridge, I noticed some scrubby trees and hoped for some shade. My leg was swelling noticeably and I knew to leave my shoes on. I made it to some manzanitas and dropped my pack.
Still no signal. I knew what had to be done. Six months earlier, I had purchased a GPS device that serves as an emergency beacon and allows for me to be tracked by family members on a website. At the start of my hike, I transmitted the “OK” signal to my wife which sends an email and text to her cell phone with my location. Now, I fumbled for the device and knew that I had to signal for help. I flipped off the safety cover and pressed the SOS button. After a minute, it blinked green indicating that it was transmitting. Hopefully, help would be here within the hour. Looking around, I noticed the tranquility and beauty of the land. The Ocotillos mountain range was in the distance. The last thing I remember was a slight buzz in my ears.
I remember having strange dreams. In one of my dreams, I was dressed up in a fat bunny suit and jumping through the neighbor’s yards. I still don’t understand that dream. It was bright when I woke up. In a strange room, the beep, beep of the monitor and I.V. in my arm left no doubt where I was. A nurse came in and told me that it took three vials of antivenom to treat me. My leg would be fine, albeit sore for a long time.
Later, I would be told that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received the call from the company that monitors the SPOT GPS messenger. The police chopper was on the scene within 55 minutes. Working with the Border Patrol, they would make their way up a jeep road and haul me out on a 4 wheeler with a gurney. A helicopter would land on Hwy 94 and take me to the hospital in El Cajon, 35 miles away.
Friends, fellow bloggers – at this point I must tell you that this story is a work of FICTION. This didn’t really happen to me. Have I seen rattlers on the trail? Yes, many. Normally, the rattlers are not aggressive and actually prefer to stay away from humans. Most rattlesnake bite victims are oblivious to the snake until they step on it or surprise it on the trail. I can only tell you that if you do hike alone, ensure that someone knows where you are and take a cell phone. Unfortunately, if you hike in remote areas, a cellular signal is not guaranteed. For peace of mind, I picked up an emergency beacon and hope to never use it. Be prepared for the chance rattler encounter and have a plan. If you do stumble on one, freeze and allow it to retreat. If it coils, slowly back away and give it a wide berth. The most common rattlers in Southern California are the Pacific and Diamondback. In my experience, the Pacific Rattlers tend to be more defensive and will coil when threatened. They have the ability to strike out at 40% of their length. A coiled 6 foot rattler can lunge over 2.5 ft! Most of my encounters have been in the afternoon. I actually came within two feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler this past summer; but for the grace of God was not bitten. Enjoy your hike and be alert!
Trekking poles are also great because they can put some distance between you and a snake. I highly recommend these made by Kelty: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
If you insist on walking through rattlesnake infested brush, at least consider these: Rattler Scaletech Snake Protection Gaiters (Green)
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
I admit to being a bit of an introvert. Maybe that is why hiking in the backcountry is so enjoyable to me. The solitude and peacefulness that one can experience is guaranteed to lower your blood pressure by ten points. Admit it, you don’t really enjoy crowds. With over 22 million people in Southern California, the thought of having a space pretty much to my wife and me is ok. If you make it to the backcountry, you will see what it’s all about. After a few hours are spent on the trail, you may notice certain sounds that are missing. You don’t hear cars, sirens, doors slamming and people talking loudly. You hear the wind blowing through the trees. You hear the woodpeckers, hawks, chipmunks and quail. The sounds of nature envelope you. You hear your footsteps as you walk, the clicking of the hiking poles on the granite. You see blue, open sky. The contrast between the terrain and horizon, especially at sunset is amazing. At night, the heavens reveal as many stars as the descendants of Abraham. The moon is so much brighter. The air seems much more crisp and cleaner.
If you are a believer, you may recognize that your surroundings in the wilderness are not just happenstance. I think the beauty was created by a God that loves us and provided this for our enjoyment.
Wildlife (Southern Cali)
Admittedly, in SoCal there aren’t many large animal encounters on the trail. Hikers typically aren’t stealthy because we actually want the large animals to hear us coming. Startling a bear or cougar is probably not a good idea. In our experience, we have come across more deer than anything else. I’ve found that the earlier (or later) you go in the day, the chances of viewing the critters are better. On the trail, it’s mostly birds, reptiles and small mammals. In the spring and summer, the rattlers are out and it’s not uncommon to run across a few.
I love to take pics on the trail; it’s a way to share my experience with others. Up until last year, I used a point and click camera. It was ok for landscapes, but not for wildlife. After getting a DSLR, my desire to take better photos increased. Now photography is another part of my hiking experience. I still don’t know much about it, but found if you take enough pics, some will turn out just fine. Just get the basics down like composition and lighting.
Most of the hiking that I do with my wife are day hikes. We tend to walk an average of 7-10 miles and try to include some decent elevation changes. We stay on the trail, but there are often side trips to check out the scenery or just to explore. Sometimes, we lose the path and bushwhack for a bit. For me, the experience of hiking is better enjoyed when you can share it with someone. My wife of over 30 years is a great partner on the trail. While we’ve had some close calls, lots of tumbles and have been a little lost, she trusts that I will get her back to the car eventually. Our time on the trail has forged a special bond within our marriage. Now, if I can just get her out on a multi-day backcountry trip. …. For now, I’ll just have to do that with the guys.
I tend to bring more stuff (proportionally) on a day hike than on a backcountry trip. Plenty of water, 1st aid kit, survival, GPS, maps, extra snacks and clothing. Sometimes the temperature varies 25-30 deg. on a day hike. We’ve hiked when it was as cold as 18 in Yosemite and as high as 98 in the Borrego Desert. In our experience, hiking in the cold was more comfortable. The heat just saps your energy.
Occasionally, I will hike solo and always let family members know my destination. A text to a family member or friend is invaluable. This year, I purchased a SPOT Messenger, a GPS locator that can send my location to friends, family members. It also functions as an emergency beacon if needed. While I don’t take risks while hiking solo, it provides some peace of mind. I used it on a hike this past summer on the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness (part of the Appalachian Trail) and our family members could track us on a daily basis. Even a couple of my coworkers followed our trip as it plots your location on Google Maps.
I’ve learned and experienced many things on the trail. After 3 years of hiking, mostly in California, I’m still quite the novice. I’ve learned to be aware of my surroundings, and have not taken a serious tumble yet. Oh, I’ve fallen in streams and came within a couple of feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler, but am convinced that I must have a guardian angel with me.
Most trails that we hike are not easy, that would be boring. Do the research, find some with hills and varied terrain. I’ve sought out guidebooks for my area like: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Diego: Including North, South and East Counties and Afoot and Afield: San Diego County: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide Seek the obscure trails and you may be rewarded with killer views of sunsets or lush alpine meadows. Find the websites that lists the hikes. They don’t always turn out as advertised. On a couple of occasions, we’ve had to turn back due to overgrown brush. Oh, and if you tend venture off trail, take a trail map-they are invaluable. You can’t worry about bugs out here-ticks, arachnids and once a tarantula. No scorpions yet, thank goodness.
The bottom line is just get out my friends. This doesn’t only apply in SoCal, there are trails all over this great country. I guarantee after you spend a few Saturdays off the beaten path, you will be hooked.
I now use a Nikon 3300 series DSLR, a great camera for the trail: Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)
PART I: The Anza-Borrego Desert is an amazing place. I know, to think of the desert as amazing is weird. However, this desert in southeastern California is one of the most serene and beautiful places ever. Anza-Borrego is well-known to southern Californians for its’ desert flower blooms in the early spring. It’s also known for the miles of jeep/RV trails and horseback riding paths. Last year, we walked 7 miles down a jeep trail with the stiff desert wind filling our nostrils with the aroma of desert lavender. This time, we were hoping to go higher and find some elusive Desert Bighorn Sheep.
The intensity of the desert flower blooms in Anza-Borrego depends mainly on the amount of rain. This past winter was one of less than average rainfall, so research on the Internet indicated that it would be a less than spectacular display. Today’s goal was the Alcoholic Pass Trail, a path that would hopefully take us higher into the Coyote Mts for some views of the desert floor and Santa Rosa Mountains to the north. Arriving just in time for lunch, we spread out the blanket in the sand behind the car. It was almost like the beach except there was no water and lots of desert flora.
The weather in the desert is a bit unpredictable. In the early spring, it is fairly mild with few thunderstorms and constant winds. It was a mild 76 degrees. We hit the trail and the incline was steady with plenty of switchbacks and a lot of lizards. The perspective of the desert floor changed constantly as we went up. The barrel and fishhook cacti was colorful today.
We broke out into an opening where we signed the trail register. It was cool to write our thoughts and place them back inside a Vietnam era 7.62mm ammo can which kept the trail register out of the elements. Up ahead, we could see the Santa Rosa Mountains as we did some light bouldering and dropped down into the canyon. The vastness and beauty of the surrounding desert was awesome.
The trail ended at this point in a desert wash. I suggested that we climb an adjacent hill, and we picked our way to the top around various sized rocks and boulders. The terrain was so rugged that we had only walked 2 miles in a couple of hours. Normally, we hike twice as far. As we looked around, we decided to head back west toward a high ridge. Going off trail is usually an adventure and is where this blog gets interesting.
As we looked to the west, we picked out a reference and started making our way. The scrambling over rocks was challenging, but the grade was not too steep. Making our way through a few ravines, I commented about not seeing any footprints or horseshoe tracks. Mary casually mentioned that there weren’t any footprints because we were on rock. Sometimes, I just say goofy things. The late afternoon heat was apparent, but we each had 3 liters of water and were well hydrated. We stopped frequently to catch our breath as climbing over the boulders on this summit really helped us burn some calories.
We finally made our way to a high ridge and the terrain flattened out. I showed Mary a beavertail cactus and mentioned how soft the pads were – kinda like leather. I had touched one earlier in the day, and thought that it was weird that a cactus didn’t have needles. Mary, who trusts me almost implicitly, gently stroked the cactus and agreed that it was “velvety”. We continued up the ridge. I was in the lead and within a few minutes, she said, “Oww, I have something in my fingers”. Looking at her hand, I was surprised to see about a dozen or more tiny cactus spines lodged in her fingers. I tried to get out as many as possible, but the plastic tweezers in the 1st aid kit, were too big. I felt bad for her and learned a valuable lesson – don’t pet the cactus. Actually, Mary probably learned a valuable lesson too-don’t believe everything John says.
After reaching the ridge, we started to pick our way down the mountain. No trail here, just an escarpment of boulders and scree (talus) that moved beneath our feet. 900 feet below, the desert floor teased us. There was no path here, and the grade varied between 30-100%. A 100% grade is equivalent to about a 45deg angle. Covered with loose rock, it was not fun or safe, so I tried to avoid the extreme grades on the way down. So, the off trail adventure turned into a “hiking down the talus slope” adventure. My wife, who I am now convinced is one of the toughest girls you will ever meet, extended her hiking poles and followed me down the mountain.
We were doing fairly well, and the altimeter on my GPS indicated we had dropped down about 500 ft. but picking the path down was difficult. Oh, we did see evidence of the Bighorn Sheep. Lots of “sheep dip” on cliffs and under boulders, but no sheep. I remember our conversation going down as we joked about how crazy it was for two fifty+ year olds to be doing this and how the sheep were probably laughing at the bipeds slowly making their way down. Then it happened. I remember hearing rocks and gravel tumbling down behind me and by the time I turned around, she was on the ground with a dazed look on her face. Mary had slipped and rolled down the hill about 10 feet. Her hat and poles were behind her and she asked if her head was bleeding. She told me that other than bumping her head, she felt a bit lightheaded. I did a quick assessment to ensure she wasn’t seriously injured and then she told me something that we will laugh about for years to come. In a calm and monotone voice, she said “There’s a rock on my arm”. I glanced over and yes, there was a 5 lb. slab of granite on her forearm. Hoping that it wasn’t attached to her arm, I lifted it off and tossed it aside. We spent the next 10 minutes or so ensuring that she was ok, prayed together and asked the Lord to give us a safe journey and we continued down. Other than taking it a bit slower, she never complained or whined about anything. She was a bit upset about the tear in her pants, but I assured her that REI would take anything back.
NEXT: Hummingbird, stars and Hedwig.
- Anza-Borrego Wildflower Update 3/11/12 (naturalhistorywanderings.com)