Day 11 – April 14, 2022
Mile 158.4 (Live Oak Spring) to 176.4 (Mt. San Jacinto)
18.0 trail miles | 18.3 tracked miles | 5,062 ft elevation gain | 66 F / 19 °C
Today’s stretch through the San Jacinto mountain range was extremely challenging—both physically and mentally—but also extraordinarily rewarding.
We woke up at sunrise and left camp around 6:30am, in line with our goal to pick up our pace and fully utilize daylight. I wasn’t especially looking forward to the one-mile bonus climb back from Live Oak Spring, but it turned out to be smooth and uneventful, and we quickly found ourselves back at the junction with the PCT.
The auspicious views of the sun rising over the horizon certainly didn’t hurt.
As it turned out, this short early morning jaunt was merely a warm up. The climb up to Fobes Saddle was the pièce de résistance.
Officially, the PCT is both a hiking and equestrian trail, and thus is typically built with modest grades (<15%) suitable for horses. However, some sections of the trail in mountainous areas have grades exceeding 20%, which are widely considered as strenuous. Equestrians can typically bypass these sections and choose from various alternates.
I couldn’t possibly estimate the grade of the trail just by looking at it, but my legs weren’t particularly happy. It didn’t help that I carried winter gear (ice axe and spikes) and picked up a few extra snacks yesterday at Paradise Valley Cafe.
Back in 1894, John Muir proclaimed “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” in his book “The Mountains of California.”
I could relate to his feeling of elation as the trail gained elevation, offering commanding views of the valley.
Unfortunately, though, I will never get to experience the pristine scenery that John Muir gazed upon. Wildfires have taken their toll on the San Jacinto range, leaving a trail of charred trees behind them.
Nevertheless, the views were incredibly inspiring. We could see as far as the Palm Desert/Palm Springs area. The contrast between the dry, sun-scorched flatlands ahead of us and the rugged crest that we were standing upon was striking.
As we approached an altitude of 8,000 feet, I found out that the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway whisks tourists from Palm Springs to a terminal station perched at 8,516 feet of elevation inside the Mt. San Jacinto State Park, in just ten minutes. I knew there was a better way!
Physical challenge aside, the views were simply grandiose. If you look at the 3D rendering below, you’ll note that the trail literally follows the crest, offering stunning 360 degree vistas of the desert and Palm Springs looking east, Idyllwild and the valley looking west, and San Jacinto Peak straight up north. My pictures cannot possibly do justice to such incredible beauty.
Soon we arrived near Apache Peak at the junction with Spitler Peak Trail, which marks the beginning of the infamous section of the trail where hiker Trevor Laher tragically lost his life in 2020. The PCT traverses high-altitude unforgiving terrain, while the Spitler Peak Trail offers a safer alternative through the Idyllwild valley.
The PCT is only truly hazardous in winter conditions. This year, as luck would have it, the trail is free of snow. Yet, the path is not for the faint of heart—it’s a narrow strip by a vertical drop, and a misstep would have consequences.
Leaving South Peak behind us, we found ourselves at the local jungle gym. The trail was littered with blowdowns of epic dimensions.
This obstacle course was mildly entertaining at first (climbing with a heavy pack is a good balancing exercise!) but progress soon became tedious. At some point we briefly lost the trail: we missed a switchback which was literally obliterated by branches and debris.
Then again, we were constantly rewarded by dramatic views.
We finally found snow, though it was easily passable, and I never felt that I needed to wear my microspikes. We are lucky—the snow melted in earnest just a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine how terrifying this stretch must have been early March.
There aren’t many safe places to camp in a burn zone. We ended up stopping for the night at mile 176.4, which is free of widow makers (dead trees and branches that could fall anytime.)
It’s a dry site, so I had to make a roundtrip to the next water source at mile 177.2, earning 1.6 bonus miles in the process. At over 8,300 feet of elevation, the wind is howling and biting. It’s going to be a cold night, but I’m cozy and toasty in my glorious Katabatic quilt!