We section-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the Angeles National Forest from Cloudburst Summit at mile 398 to the Mill Creek Fire Station at mile 419 over the course of three days. This hike happened during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we decided to “Social Distance” ourselves as much as possible by hiking all alone in the middle of nowhere. The trails in this part of the forest were all officially “Open” for use by the public, unlike the popular trails near the city. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) was asking all of the Through-Hikers to cancel their hikes for 2020, and I’m sure that many followed that advice, but we still managed to meet up with quite a few young people having a good time on the trail. In their place, I would have done the exact same thing, after all the preparation it takes to do a long-distance trek like the PCT. Life’s too short not to go hiking!
We woke up early and left San Diego at 5am, in two separate cars. We headed north to the Mill Creek Fire Station (the hike’s terminus) and left Vicki’s car in a parking area. Then we headed back toward the start of our hike at the highest point, Cloudburst Summit. Along the way, we paused to stash a couple of gallons of water behind a distinctive stump at the five-mile mark. The plan was to carry this water for an additional mile where we’d be camping the first night. It was cheating a bit, but that’s OK with us. Then we drove to the summit and parked the car. We got out our gear and got ready to hike.
It was already 10am by this point, but we didn’t care. It was a beautiful sunny day, with temperatures in the low 70’s, and we only had about six miles to hike, with most of it in the downhill direction. Just the way we liked it!
During the first five mile section, the trail basically paralleled the Angeles Crest Highway, either just above it or just below it, on one side or the other. We crossed the highway a number of times. And much of the trail was on what was obviously an old road. In fact, we even saw traces of old asphalt breaking off near the edges. We wondered if maybe this was the really old version of the Angeles Crest Highway, which was started in 1929 and completed in 1956. There were even galvanized drainage culverts along the way, which reinforced this theory. We felt like we were walking on history.
We stopped for a break at PCT Mile 400, which is one of those milestones that the Through-Hikers love to celebrate. Only 2200 more miles to go! We even met two of them resting at Camp Glenwood, where we stopped for a snack break. Vicki and I forgot the man’s PCT Trail Name, but the woman was called “Snack Size” (due to her height). We all laughed at that. She was having a bit of foot trouble, thanks to some ill-fitting shoes, and was hiking slowly. As we continued onward, the temperature increased. Vicki cooled off with her squirt bottle, and she took a nap in the shade at one point. We stopped and ate lunch there. We were in no rush, and life was good.
At the five mile mark, we arrived at the Three Points Trailhead parking area. We set down our packs and took a break in the shade. I walked over to the tree stump and brought out our cache of water. Two gallons, one in each hand, for another mile, was the plan. My pack was already close to 50 pounds, so adding another 16 pounds didn’t help me any, but at least the trail was mostly flat. It also left the highway behind for good, heading northwest toward Pacifico Mountain. This made us happy, because the curvy mountain road was frequented by loud sports cars and motorcycles, and we wanted to leave all that noise behind. What’s the point of being in the wilderness when civilization is pounding on your eardrums?
We arrived at the campsite at mile 404. It was on a small saddle, so there was plenty of flat ground for the tent. We climbed up a bit higher on the ridge to see if we could find another spot with better views, and possibly cell phone signal, but it wasn’t going to happen. So we went back and set up the tent. We ate dinner and headed to bed at sunset. It had been a long day.
We got up at dawn, ate breakfast, and packed up our gear. It took us two hours, which wasn’t too bad. We had about eight miles of hiking to accomplish that day. The first part would be downhill, but afterward we’d have to climb quite a bit more. 700 feet down and 1600 feet up. Vicki wasn’t amused by this, but what could we do? You can’t climb over a mountain without going uphill. And we would be camping part way up the side of Pacifico Mountain. That’s also where the best water source, Fountainhead Spring, was located. It wasn’t possible to stash any bottles out there where there are no roads.
The downhill section went by fast. The trail was a bit overgrown in spots, but that wasn’t unusual. And we found plenty of water along the way, which wasn’t surprising as this was only mid-May. Later on in the season most of these small creeks would be bone dry.
There was an old paved road down in the valley by the Sulphur Springs Campground. Bushes were growing directly out of the pavement, so it didn’t look like anyone had used it in the past few years, probably thanks to a locked gate somewhere. Oh well.
We stopped and took a long break down there. We’d already hiked three miles, and after this it was all uphill. Vicki knew that the only way she was going to be able to climb that far was if she had a nap first. And maybe another one later on.
After that, it was time to start the climb up the side of Pacifico Mountain. But first we had to weave along a number of ridges and valleys, back and forth and back and forth in typical PCT style. The only good thing you could say about it was that it wasn’t steep at all. Just the same, it climbed steadily, and soon we had lots of views to the south and east. Cirrus clouds decorated the sky, making for good photos, and we trudged along under the hot sunshine. Vicki continued using the squirt bottle, and she did quite well. Along the way we stopped and ate lunch, and Vicki took another nap. She doesn’t enjoy either uphill or heat, but she put up with both and hung in there like a trooper.
We noticed that there were very few, if any, suitable spots to camp along this section of trail, thanks to the slope of the mountain that it was traversing. In fact, the only usable spots were already listed on the official GPS track/waypoints created by “HalfMile”. There were three that interested us. The spring we needed was at mile 411 and the two camping spots were at 410 and 412. The second one was only two miles further but it was also 500 feet higher. Not surprisingly, by the time we reached the campsite at 410 Vicki was basically toast. Even another nap might not be enough to get her to hike an additional two miles (our original plan). But, let’s be honest: Hiking plans were made to be changed, to be flexible, to allow for contingencies like fatigue and exhaustion.
So we put down our packs at the first campsite and I told Vicki to take a break while I went to get the water. I emptied out my pack and blasted up the trail. I felt so light! It was excellent. I passed some Poodle Dog bushes along the way, but they were avoidable, and soon enough I was ducking under the thick willow plants that surrounded the water source at Fountainhead Spring. I collected two gallons of clear water and headed back to camp. It was clean enough that we decided to use our Aquamira disinfectant drops to purify it rather than going to all the trouble of filtering it like we usually do. All we had to do was add the drops, shake it up, and wait a half hour for it to kill any bad microbes that probably weren’t there anyway. Better safe than sorry.
While the drops were working, we set up the tent and got out the cooking gear. We had a nice view to the north from there, looking out over the Mojave Desert and the town of Palmdale. Our cell phones had signal, so I sent out some photos to friends and family, to let them know that everything was fine. I also checked the weather report. It said that there was a 10% chance of rain the next day, peaking about noon. We didn’t really want to get wet, but at least we would be heading for our car, so we’d be OK regardless. We decided to get up early the next day so that we could pack up everything while the tent was still dry.
After that, we hung out and enjoyed our freeze-dried dinner with an excellent view. While we were eating, a lone PCT hiker arrived and set up camp a little ways up the trail from us, and then a young couple came by, but they looked quite fit and continued onward while there was still plenty of light. They looked as if another two miles would be a piece of cake. We said hello and watched them walk off. We didn’t think it likely that we’d see them again tomorrow. They were way too fast. But that’s part of life on the PCT. People come, people go, and everyone’s friendly.
It was still dark when I heard the sound of light rain spattering the tent. The sound of wind was up above in the trees, but the tent didn’t shake very much. At that point I realized that I would be carrying a soaking wet tent pretty soon, but since I was dry and warm at the moment, I burrowed down into the sleeping bag and went back to sleep. There was no longer any point in getting up early.
Eventually, of course, we had to wake up. I opened the door of the tent and discovered that we were camped inside of a cloud. A very cold, damp, and breezy cloud. Yuck. It wasn’t raining much at all, but the mist was pervasive, and we knew we’d be wet if we stayed out there for long. So we did everything we could to get packed and ready from inside the tent, where it was nice and dry.
Vicki got ready first, and went outside to cook breakfast. We were sad that we didn’t bring a “cold” breakfast with us this trip. By the time she was finished, I had packed up the sleeping gear and readied the inside of the tent for eating, by laying down a sheet of plastic on the floor. We didn’t want the tent or gear to get food residue on it if we spilled anything. Normally, we never eat anything that might attract bears or critters inside our tent, but this was an exception. Vicki sat down in the plastic with the breakfast. Her raingear was wet, but at least there was no wind inside. She packed up the stove while the freeze-dried meal hydrated, then we sat and ate.
I got out the map and we looked at what was in store for us. We had about nine miles to hike, with 500 feet of uphill and 1800 feet down to the car. This was a long day even without the rain. I noticed that Pacifico Mountain Road intersected the trail not far from the summit. The road looked a bit shorter on the map. Maybe we could take the road if need be. But we still had an awfully long and wet hike ahead of us, no matter how you looked at it.
After breakfast, we packed everything else as quickly as possible. We put on rain gear, braced ourselves, and ventured outside to roll up the soggy tent. Yet another pound added to my pack. But at least most of the food was gone, so it was a “wash”. Ha ha.
Then we started hiking. Almost immediately, we were forced to push our way through the overgrown bushes along the trail, and they were heavy with water droplets, which fell off on whichever person was in the lead. Our GoreTex raingear was soaked immediately, and within five minutes we could feel our socks getting wet inside our shoes. Most unpleasant, to be sure.
You know, sometimes I wonder about GoreTex, whether it’s worth the expen$e. When it’s brand new, the raindrops bead up on the surface, and it’s amazing how great it works. Meanwhile, it is permeable to water vapor, so when you sweat underneath it, the liquid can evaporate and diffuse through the fabric. It truly makes you happy that you spent all that money. But when you backpack as often as we do, it doesn’t take long before the surface of the fabric loses its hydrophobicity. It “wets out” in the rain, and is supposedly still waterproof, if you believe the manufacturer’s claims. The reality, as we discovered, is that its permeable nature allows the soggy fabric to “wick” through to whatever is in direct contact with it. Namely: Our nice dry clothing. We were much less happy that we’d spent all that money. But we also knew that we couldn’t win: If we bought cheap plastic raingear, then our sweat would condense inside the plastic, and soon enough our nice dry clothing would be soaking wet anyway. And that’s why we continue to buy new goretex outfits every five years or so, mostly because it’s light and strong and is primarily useful as a wind-breaking outer layer. But let’s be honest: It sucks in the rain.
After taking turns getting drenched while pushing through bushes, a group of nine PCT Through-Hikers began to pass us by, in sets of one or two or three. They took the lead, so to speak, and served to dislodge the worst of the droplets, but it was already too late for us. We were drenched. And those crazy hikers were mostly wearing shorts! Their legs were bright red from the cold, and they knew that they couldn’t stop hiking, no matter what, as they would become hypothermic almost instantly. So they blasted onward, hoping to reach the dry restroom down by the Mill Creek Fire Station. Then they would be able to stop and put on warm clothing for a while. One of them said to us as he passed by: “Ten percent chance of rain, my butt!” He was not amused.
The upper section of the mountain was actually quite lovely, even in the rain. There were plenty of tall pines, and only minimal undergrowth. We wished that we were getting the great views that we’d worked so hard for, but all we saw was clouds and mist. Our only hope for getting out of this cloud was to either wait for it to blow away, or descend beneath it. And we weren’t going to wait.
We were heartily sick of pushing through wet bushes by the time we reached the dirt road, and both of us decided that it had to be better than the trail. We weren’t frozen yet, just a bit chilled, so we hiked onward as fast as we could to generate some heat. The road wasn’t steep at all, and only had a couple of spots with slippery wet clay. It turned out to be much better than the trail. Shorter, too, with no wet plants and no poodle dog. The only downside was that the road initially stayed on the west side of the mountain. The wind was much stronger over there, and we were continually being pelted by driving rain and mist. We were relieved when the road crossed over the ridge to the lee side, and then all we had to deal with was the rain.
As we got lower (or the storm had begun weakening) there were occasional clear intervals when we were between and/or underneath the clouds. We even got a few views down to the Fire Station, and we were able to see our lonely car in the lot beside the road. There had been lots of cars there on the Saturday morning when we dropped it off, but nobody in their right mind would be up here hiking today. Every once in a while we even saw patches of sunshine, but they were always tantalizingly far away. And then the mist and wind and rain would return, just to let us know who was boss.
It was only noon when we finally arrived down at the Fire Station at the bottom of the mountain, but it sure felt as if we’d been hiking forever. But at least we’d made it back to civilization. Naturally, the rain really began to pour, right when we could have used some dry weather to get out of our wet clothing before getting into the nice dry car. It was that kind of day, I’m afraid. So we stood the wet backpacks in the back seat, then peeled off our soggy goretex raingear as fast as possible while standing next to the car as the rain continued to pelt us. Then we sat in the car in our damp clothing and closed the doors. We started the engine and waited for the heat to get going. Soon enough, we were feeling warm once again.
Now, just before we made it to the car, we met up yet again with the nine PCT Through-hikers. They were all hunkering down in a big metal CalTrans gravel shed not far from the fire station. (You can see the large shed on the left side of the photo, above, in which we viewed our car parked far below.) It turned out that the bathrooms at the trailhead were all locked due to the virus-closures, so the hikers were quite desperate to get warm. They knocked on the firehouse door and asked the firemen what they could do. Firemen are always helpful, and they directed them to the gravel shed. It had a wide open doorway and a huge pile of gravel inside, but it was dry, and that was all that really mattered. By the time we arrived (to resounding cheers at having survived the elements) they were all dressed in their warmest clothing. Two of the guys were up on top of the gravel pile, shoveling a flat area large enough for nine people to lie down in their sleeping bags. They asked us if that was our car down there (which it was) and also asked how far it was to a town. They also mentioned pizza. But I could tell that Vicki wasn’t comfortable with letting anyone into our car (thanks to the stupid virus) so we said goodbye and wished them luck.
Our plan was to head back up to the other car at Cloudburst Summit, where we were intending to spend the night before doing some more day-hiking the next day.
As we prepared to drive away, Vicki asked me how far away some pizza might be. I got out the map, and Palmdale wasn’t that far, maybe 15-20 miles. “Let’s do it!” I said with a big smile. Vicki’s ideas are almost always good ones, I’ve learned. So we headed down to Palmdale and ordered several pizzas. It was sunny and breezy down there, and I dried out while waiting for them to bake. Then we put them in the trunk under a blanket and headed back up into the rain and clouds.
We backed the car right into the gravel shed, and Vicki popped the trunk. At first, they weren’t sure what the heck was going on. A car? Here? But then I got out and shouted “Pizza Delivery!” and immediately received a huge cheer from the always-hungry PCT Hikers. We just made their entire day! And that’s what being a PCT Trail Angel is all about.
We left them to their pizza, and drove off into the mountains once again. We ate our own pizza as we drove. It was still raining and misting when we arrived at Cloudburst Summit. It was a fitting name. It was only mid-afternoon, and we didn’t really have much of anything to do. Except wait until evening to go to sleep in the back of the Rav4. It was too cold and damp to hike, and there were no views to be had. We read our books for an hour or so. We really didn’t want to head back home, but at the same time, we knew that it might rain again tomorrow. And Vicki’s down jacket had gotten wet, thanks to the useless goretex “rain” gear. In fact, most of our stuff was still wet, and it didn’t look like the sun was coming out any time soon, so that we could hang it up and dry it all out. Once we realized that even tomorrow’s hike might be in jeopardy, we pretty much gave up the whole idea of spending a cold night way up here. So we each got into our separate cars and headed back to San Diego. We’d have to come back here another time to finish this tiny section of the PCT that we’d skipped, and maybe do another multi-day hike to the north of Mill Creek. We knew that it would still be there waiting for us.
The rest of the trip’s photos and videos can be found on my Flickr Page.
For an interactive topographic map of our hike, including GPS Tracks, please see my CalTopo Page.