Day 7 – April 10, 2022
Mile 83.1 to 101.1 (Barrel Spring)
18.0 trail miles | 18.2 tracked miles | 2,150 ft elevation gain | 80.6 F / 27 °C
Today’s 18-mile northwestern jaunt took us through the San Felipe area to Barrel Spring, near Ranchita, CA.
Bonus miles aside, this was my second longest day so far. While I hiked 20 miles from the Southern terminus to Lake Morena in order to avoid dry camping on the first night, my daily average has otherwise hovered around 15 miles. It’s time to ramp things up and reach “cruising altitude”—20 miles a day is a good average in the desert and should allow me to arrive at an auspicious time in Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierra Nevada.
This section is scenic, but awfully dry. Technically, there is not a single water source between mile markers 63.7 (south of Scissors Crossing) and 101.1 (Barrel Spring.) I’m not even aware of any seasonal sources. This makes Julian a natural stopping point, but it’s still a long way to Barrel Spring.
Fortunately, there is an established water cache on a spur trail at mile marker 91.2. The Third Gate Water Cache is maintained by a group of trail angels for the benefit of hikers. As luck would have it, we arrived right as a group of volunteers turned up to resupply the cache and haul empty bottles away. We were able to help them unload the trucks, empty the recycling cage, and assess how many bottles were left for planning purposes. It was fantastic to meet the folks who make the magic happen, and be able to lend a hand and thank them in person for their incredible service to the hiking community.
The generous souls who maintain and replenish the water cache are not only volunteers, but they also pay for water and gasoline out of pocket. Hikers are encouraged to Venmo a contribution or leave a few dollars, but it’s ultimately at everyone’s discretion.
This video from a volunteer who helped support the cache in 2019 offers a glimpse into the logistics, provides interesting insights into the costs, and reveals fascinating usage statistics. Spoiler: not only the number of hikers is steadily increasing every year, but they appear to become more reliant on the cache over time.
Water caches are a controversial topic in the hiking community. Some hikers argue that caches undermine self-reliance and can be a disservice to the community as they create a false sense of safety. Older hikers often point out that caches are a relatively recent phenomenon that has the potential to make the trail dangerously accessible. Others note that water caches have a substantial carbon footprint—it takes fossil fuels to manufacture plastic bottles and transport the water. Poorly managed caches can also be an eye sore and a source of pollution. In fact, water caches on public land are technically illegal, and the PCTA strongly discourages the creation of new water caches.
These arguments have merit, and I will endeavor to avoiding blind reliance on caches, using these valuable resources only within reason, and paying my fair share to support the volunteers who maintain them.
On the flip side, there’s no denying that climate change has materially impacted the thru-hiking experience since the PCT was created in 1968 and completed in 1993. Long and arduous waterless stretches are becoming more common in SoCal, and once-exceptional heat waves are becoming the norm. Water sources that used to be reliable now routinely dry up before hiking season. Meanwhile, the number of inexperienced hikers continues to increase steadily, especially on the southernmost portion of the trail. While water caches are not a solution, they do serve a purpose, and ultimately the pros probably outweigh the cons in my opinion.
With the satisfaction of a job well done, we took a quick lunch break, followed by siesta. Siesta in the desert is both a good practice (hiking around midday is difficult and potentially unsafe, and taking breaks is key to long-term success), and an art (how many hikers can you squeeze in 20 square feet of shade?)
Overall, we’re starting to find a rhythm and get into a groove. A typical day in the desert unfolds as follows: get up early, start hiking with layers because it’s a tad chilly, realize 10 minutes later that it’s not chilly after all, start sweating because we couldn’t be bothered to stop and take our packs off, keep walking another 10 minutes, finally come to our senses and take layers off, hike some more, stop for a snack, resume hiking, stop for lunch, take a nap the hottest hour, then walk some more, repeat, setup camp, eat, sleep.
I enjoy both the simplicity of the lifestyle and the tenacity that it takes to push towards a goal everyday.
In the afternoon, I hit the 100 mile marker! A hundred miles is a small milestone—there’s 2,550 to go, and I’ve backpacked longer sections. But it still represents meaningful progress, and I feel fantastic all around.
I took the obligatory picture of my foot by the (very unofficial) mile marker, mostly to show off my stylish gaiters. Because, as we all know, hiking is a fashion show.
Moments later, we arrived at Barrel Spring. The area was lush and full of wildflowers, a definitive sign that there is water in the ground. As if the thought of having water at camp wasn’t exciting enough, we were greeted by more trail magic! A cheerful local fellow was waiting at the trailhead with oranges (fresh fruit is an incredible treat on trail), then car enthusiast @mtn_cmpn and his wife treated us to beer, nibbles, and their lovely company.
I was going to make a quick detour by Montezuma Valley Market, a popular hiker hangout, for a minor resupply, but mtn_cmpn wouldn’t let me, and he generously gifted me a bunch of snacks instead. The generosity of strangers on the PCT is overwhelming.
The Barrel Springs camp site is unofficial but well established. Amenities include a piped spring with a trough, fire rings, and logs to sit on. It’s so nice to have water at camp; I was able to freshen up somewhat.
I’m off to bed to the resounding tune of a frog serenade. The little amphibians are obnoxiously loud, but their chant reminds me of my former home in the mountains.