Day 5 – April 8, 2022
Mile 63.7 (Dirt Road) to 77.3 (Scissors Crossing/Julian, CA)
13.6 trail miles | 13.9 tracked miles | 1,204 ft elevation gain | 83.2 F / 28 °C
We woke up before sunrise in an effort to hit the trail while the air was still relatively cool.
I’m not exactly a morning person, so getting up early requires a lot of focus and willpower. Incidentally, that’s not due to lack of sleep—there’s nothing to do after dark, so we tend to go to bed around 8pm—I’m just clumsy and inefficient in the morning, and I’m always the last one to be ready despite my best efforts.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who was still in a haze. We missed the turn from the campsite back to the trail, and mindlessly walked half a mile on a dirt road, before something felt off. Thirty minutes later, we were back on track—so much for getting up early and beating the heat!
We soon passed through a rusty pipe gate. These ubiquitous SoCal landmarks are sure to put a smile on any thru-hiker’s face: the FarOut hiking app, which we use for wayfinding and to locate water sources and campsites, religiously calls out every pipe gate on trail. User comments extolling the virtues and construction of these often-crumbling metal contraptions are always hilarious. I’ll never be able to see a pipe gate with a straight face again!
A long but gentle climb gave way to a vertiginous ridge overlooking the valley. Through ups and downs, we were treated to dramatic vistas of a decidedly-not-so-desolate landscape. There’s more to the desert than meets the eye—in fact, there’s an incredible variety of plants and flowers. And animals, too, I guess, though I’m not exactly eager to get acquainted with rattlesnakes.
Once again, the scarce shade dictated our schedule. The group would split up as we each hiked at our own pace, then magically regroup any time the trail offered some reprieve from the biting sun.
Naturally, the conversation turned to the rising temperature, and we all threw in our best estimates. By Joe’s account, it was 400 degrees. A Jersey native used to constant mist, Joe isn’t exactly in his natural habitat in the SoCal desert.
He didn’t know what was awaiting.
We soon descended into the inferno: the dry, rough, rugged desert floor. Over the next 8 miles, the trail lost 2,000 feet of elevation, soon hovering at just over 2,000 feet. I understand that on average, the temperature shifts by approximately 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit per 1000 feet. The math checks out: according to my watch, it was close to 100 degrees (38 C) at our lowest point–which is hot, yet nowhere near record temperatures. I can’t imagine hiking this section during a heat wave.
As we reached the desert floor, the usual twists, turns, and switchbacks gave way to a mind-numbing straight line.
It was impossible to get lost; this section of the PCT goes through the Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the trail is clearly marked. But I could feel that stepping off the trail would be immediately disorienting. On flat terrain, there just aren’t any landmarks to use as visual guides.
Looking back, I could see the mountain that we had just descended. It looked menacing in the distance.
The final stretch was somewhat punitive. Time started to bend. We were so close to our goal, and yet so far. Walking in a straight line is dizzying.
On the flip side, nature put on a fantastic show. It’s prime time for desert wild flowers, and I feel very fortunate as they usually come and go in a matter of weeks.
Soon, we found ourselves at the Scissors Crossing highway underpass, where Highway 78 and County Road S2 meet.
It’s a well-known hiker hangout, where trail angels generously maintain a water cache, a hiker box, chairs, and various odds and ends. It occurred to me that, for the first time in my life, I was hanging out at a highway underpass like a bum, and it somehow felt completely natural!
Scissors Crossing is the access point to Julian, CA, where we planned to spend the night. My concerns about transportation logistics vanished when a friendly local trail angel showed up within just a couple minutes, and offered a ride to town.
In the blink of an eye, we were off the trail, relaxing in an air conditioned car, and on our way back to civilization. The ride was much longer than I expected but incredibly scenic, and I’m stoked for the days ahead. I naively asked our driver about possible public transit options to get around, seeing that we’ll somehow have to get back to the trail tomorrow. She laughed. “I’m the bus”, she quipped. I should have known.
Julian is the quintessential all-American quaint western town: a picturesque main street full of character, surrounded by seemingly-infinite suburban sprawl.
We made a beeline for world-famous Mom’s Pie House, a PCT hiker hotspot where thru-hikers are treated to free pie and ice cream, while regular customers take in the stench. It did not disappoint. While I’m typically not a fan of ice cream, it hit the spot after walking for hours in sweltering heat.
Technically, it was lunch time, so I ordered Shepherd’s pie to rinse the palate. Because, who says social norms should apply on a thru-hike?
The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling at the bakery and outside the adjacent grocery store. Hikers seemed to be pouring in; it’s as if Julian’s entire economy revolves around the PCT. That’s ultimately not surprising—the PCTA grants 50 permits per day, and while some hikers do drop out as early as Lake Morena, I would expect most folks to make it at least to Julian.
I felt a faint sense of guilt and shame when I downed a Frappucino on top of a high-calorie meal. If there’s one time in my life I can over-indulge, it has to be now!
I took a peak at the gear store across the street and purchased a few freeze-dried backpacking meals to add a bit of variety to my diet. While the store has a fantastic selection, the staff worked at snail’s pace. In Julian, time is not of the essence.
To round up the evening, our group got together at the nearby brewery for more carbs and libations. I ordered a pizza without looking at the details, and it turned out to be enormous. I shared with a local family who was delighted.
As night started to fall, I looked up my hotel in anticipation of a hot shower and a restful night. To my dismay, it turned out that the Julian Apple Tree Inn is actually located four miles outside of town. I had no idea, and the name is certainly misleading, though in hindsight that explains while a room was available. I’ve learned my lesson: not only will I need to book early in the future, but I’ll also have to look closely at the map—Expedia can be deceiving.
Joe and I briefly stood on the side of the main road in an ill-fated attempt to hitch hike, but it was getting dark, and the chances that somebody was headed towards our hotel were slim anyway, so we decided to embrace the bonus miles, and set out on a night-time hike to the outskirts of Julian. I neglected to track this unforeseen nightcap on my watch, so my “official” mileage tally falls short of reality. To make matters worse, I believe we missed a turn and took the long way there. I wasn’t thrilled with myself, but Joe was in good spirits, and I was glad not to be alone.
Checking-in turned out to be another minor ordeal—the hotel does not have a reception desk, and we needed a code to get into our room. I was supposed to receive a text message with details, but it probably got lost while I was offline. Ultimately, I managed to look up the phone number of the management company and sort it out.
On the heels of this adventure, in a harried state, I forgot to take pictures of our modest yet perfectly functional accommodation. It’s probably for the better. The scene at the bathtub after I showered and rinsed off my clothes is probably best left to the imagination of the reader.